George Shultz's Counterfeit 'Coin'
Official Washington’s favorite quote from the Iran-Contra scandal was from Secretary of State George Shultz who famously assured congressional investigators that “trust is the coin of the realm.” What is never acknowledged is that Shultz's coin was counterfeit, that he then lied through his teeth.
At the time, in 1987, to protect the myth that Shultz was the principled opponent of the secret Iran-Contra arms deals who was then cut out of the project, Shultz and his senior aide, Charles Hill, withheld key documents about Shultz’s actual role and knowledge.
However, in 1992, after Iran-Contra prosecutors discovered the hidden notes that undercut Shultz’s testimony, they altered Shultz’s status in the criminal investigation from “witness” to “subject” – one step short of becoming a “target.” At that point, Shultz agreed to some closed-door interviews.
“Over the course of the interviews, Shultz’s attitudes evolved from combative to contrite,” the final Iran-Contra report stated. “In the end, after confronting the evidence contained in contemporaneous notes created by his closest aides, he repeatedly admitted that significant parts of his testimony to Congress had been completely wrong.” [See Iran-Contra Report, Chapter 24.]
I was reminded of this long-forgotten history by an e-mail that I received from an editor at FAIR, the media watchdog group which has criticized PBS for producing a three-part documentary hailing Shultz as a great public servant and a man of unquestioned integrity.
FAIR noted that the “hagiography” of Shultz, which was largely funded by his friends and associates, presented his Iran-Contra role in line with his false testimony to Congress and ignored the later revelations from the Iran-Contra criminal investigation.
Back in July 1987, Shultz’s false testimony to Congress also created problems for me as a Newsweek correspondent who had been aggressively covering the unfolding scandal. It was at that point that I was informed that the magazine’s senior editors had concluded that Shultz’s testimony represented the end of the story as far as they were concerned; that Shultz's account showed that “the adults were back in charge.”
I protested what I considered a rush to judgment based on what I regarded as Shultz’s dubious testimony, but I was overruled. From that point forward, Newsweek’s top editors were determined to close the door on Iran-Contra, and my resistance opened me to intensifying internal criticism.
When the congressional Iran-Contra report was released in fall 1987, Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas told me that the orders from on high were that I was not even to read it, that Newsweek planned no story.
When I protested and insisted that the magazine needed to do something about what had been the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration, he retreated a bit, saying I could write something on the topic if it wasn’t in the report. I noted the difficulty of doing that if I hadn’t read the report first.
Newsweek’s editors grew increasingly annoyed at my insistence that a high-level cover-up of Iran-Contra was underway. They were so sure that the story was over that when ex-White House aide Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Thomas said the top brass didn’t want us to cover the trial, although virtually every other major news organization was doing so.
Knowing that I would get blamed either way – whether I sat back and let us get scooped or disobeyed the order – I arranged to get trial transcripts sent to my home at night so I could review the day’s proceedings. Ironically, the approach led to us getting some scoops because the transcripts included bench conferences that the reporters in the courtroom couldn’t hear.
Thomas assured me that my initiative would count in my favor with the senior editors in New York, but I knew that it wouldn't.
Newsweek’s animosity toward the story continued. I faced – and resisted – pressure to join the Washington media herd in ridiculing Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh for continuing to dig into the old scandal, which Newsweek’s editors had concluded ended with Shultz’s 1987 testimony.
By 1990, it had become clear that my position at Newsweek was untenable and I agreed to leave.
So I wasn’t there in 1991 when the Iran-Contra prosecutors “determined, after reviewing a full set of [Charles] Hill’s notes regarding Iran that they were inconsistent with Shultz’s testimony about his own lack of knowledge, that many of these notes had not been produced in response to earlier document requests.”
In another irony, after leaving Newsweek, I took a job with PBS Frontline to work on some documentary programs and saw there, too, the strategy of Republicans and neocons to pressure news organizations and to shape the historical record.
I was at Frontline’s offices in Boston one day when executive producer David Fanning returned from a PBS conference where Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan had been the keynote speaker. She had trashed Frontline, zeroing in on programs that she considered too critical of the Reagan administration.
I was told that Fanning was shaken by the absence of any vigorous defense from other PBS executives, making it clear that the only safe approach in the future would be to order up more programming that the Republicans and the neocons would like.
That dynamic soon began dominating PBS decision-making. It also was soon clear that my critical reporting on that era was not much welcome again.
Over the years, I even stopped watching PBS documentaries although occasionally I would tune in ones that were produced by journalists whom I respected. However, more often than not, I found PBS fare to toe the government’s propaganda lines.
For instance, in 2007, PBS presented what amounted to a neoconservative propaganda series, entitled “America at a Crossroads,” that included a full hour info-mercial for President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, written and narrated by neocon Richard Perle, one of the war’s architects.
The Perle segment, entitled “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom,” treated anti-war Americans as deranged individuals. Perle expressed deep regret that “conspiracy theories” and hatred of Bush had blinded so many people to the rightness of the Iraq War.
To show examples of these pathetic anti-war lunatics, the PBS program included short clips of actors Martin Sheen and Tim Robbins while Perle did a voice-over that talked about them like a psychiatrist who sadly saw no choice but to sign commitment papers.
The implication of the PBS program was that there was only one reasonable and moral conclusion, which was to support President Bush wholeheartedly in his invasion of Iraq and his conduct of the “war on terror.”
No Equal Time
PBS officials also declared they saw no reason to give a similar length of time to opponents of the Iraq War. Indeed, Jeff Bieber, an executive producer at PBS’s Washington affiliate WETA, endorsed the right-wing bias of “The Case for War” as an opportunity for PBS to “showcase a conservative viewpoint.”
Beyond the journalistic violation represented in such an acknowledged bias, the history of the series revealed a willingness of PBS to transform itself into a compliant propaganda organ for the Bush administration and the congressional Republicans.
PBS’s parent, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, commissioned the neoconservative series a couple of years earlier when the Republicans controlled all branches of the U.S. government and the Bush administration dominated the information reaching the American people, from Fox News to the New York Times.
So, instead of offering an outlet for the widely ignored Americans who questioned Bush’s Iraq invasion, PBS chose to go with the flow and join with the powers-that-be in taking cheap shots at war critics. “America at a Crossroads” was financed directly by CPB, a quasi-public institution which allocates both tax dollars and contributions from “viewers like you.”
As I wrote in 2007, “PBS has been sinking into this pattern of corrupt behavior for years, especially after the Right took aim at public broadcasting in the 1980s and early 1990s. CPB was intended to insulate PBS from political pressure, but the Reagan administration began a systematic process of salting the board with partisan Republicans and neocon ideologues.
“By reshaping the CPB board, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush turned CPB from its original purpose as a shield to defend professionalism at PBS into a weapon for breaking down the network’s editorial independence. Simultaneously well-funded right-wing pressure groups went after individual PBS journalists and programs. …
“After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 and targeted PBS funding, the network twisted itself more to the Right, hoping to appease the angry Republicans by adding more and more conservative content while taking for granted the bedrock support of the Democrats and liberals.
“This PBS dynamic had become second nature by the second Bush administration – and grew more entrenched after 2002 when Republicans gained control of all branches of the federal government. …
“Even when the invasion of Iraq turned sour and more prominent Americans began to speak up, CPB and PBS knew to rush to Bush’s defense. To correct for supposed ‘liberal bias,’ CPB ordered up and funded the ‘America at a Crossroads’ series.
A Pravda Feel
“In that sense, ‘America at a Crossroads’ – and especially Perle’s ‘The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom’ segment – has the look of Pravda during the Soviet era when the Russian people could learn what dissidents had to say mostly by reading between the lines of Pravda denouncing them.
“The Perle-narrated program – and PBS’s disdain for the idea of giving equal time to the other side – had that kind of feel to it. …
“Perle also offered an uncontested neocon narrative of recent American history. In Perle’s narrative, liberals and other weak-minded people believed that the Soviet Union was invincible until Ronald Reagan told Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down that wall’ and the Soviet empire collapsed.
“After the program aired on April 17, [2007,] I got a call from a former CIA analyst who was stunned by both the sophomoric quality of Perle’s narrative and PBS’s willingness to put such nonsense on its network. The ex-analyst noted that Perle was one of the hardliners who had opposed Reagan’s arms-control talks with Gorbachev near the end of Reagan’s term.
“Beyond that, a true historical narrative would have shown that CIA analysts were aware of the disintegrating Soviet empire by the early-to-mid-1970s, but they were challenged and bureaucratically defeated by the neocons who argued that the Soviet Union was on the rise both economically and militarily, thus justifying bigger U.S. military budgets.
“The neocon-led politicization of the CIA during the Reagan years resulted in the purging of the CIA’s top Soviet specialists and thus the silencing of dissent against the neocon alarmist view of expanding Soviet power.
“The politicization caused the CIA to ‘miss’ the Soviet collapse in the late 1980s. Ironically, the neocons then ridiculed the CIA’s analytical division and claimed credit for the ‘unexpected’ demise of the Soviet Union. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]”
The fact that PBS is continuing to move in that same direction – helping to establish a bogus, neocon version of the history of the Cold War – is demonstrated by its readiness to air a fawning and flawed three-part series on George Shultz, paid for by his admirers.
And the Shultz series can be expected to be just a warm-up for more hagiography that PBS is preparing in honor of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday next February. All the better to appease Republican congressional appropriators who are likely to have a lot more say over the federal budget after November’s elections.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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