The Consortium

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- When I went to work at Newsweek in February of 1987, there was still a chance that important elements of the Reagan-Bush era's history might be told truthfully. The Iran-contra scandal had "broken" just a few months earlier. Long-denied secrets were spilling out of the White House and the CIA. The elite Washington press corps was embarrassed about missing the biggest story of the decade.

At The Associated Press -- more of a workingman's news agency-we had been nearly alone since June 1985 writing about Oliver North's secret support for the Nicaraguan contras, about President Reagan's secret approval of those actions, about the contras' secret involvement in cocaine trafficking, and about a host of other unsavory secrets from the operation.

Without doubt, AP management had not always been thrilled with these stories, many of which I co-wrote with Brian Barger (now at CNN). There were often angry denials from Reagan administration officials and attacks on us personally in the conservative media, particularly by The Washington Times and Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media. The AP was also in a bind because its Beirut bureau chief, Terry Anderson, had been kidnapped by Lebanese terrorists. Ironically, Oliver North was the point man in negotiations to gain Anderson's freedom.

Still, when a young Nicaraguan soldier shot down one of North's supply planes on Oct. 5, 1986, and one crewman survived, the truth began to overpower the lies. The plane crash was followed a month later by disclosures in a Beirut newspaper about President Reagan's arms-for-hostage dealings with Iran. When investigators then learned that profits from the Iran deals had gone to the contras, the Iran-contra scandal was born -- and the White House scrambled to compose new cover stories.

In the heat of that moment, Newsweek's bureau chief Evan Thomas offered me a job at the magazine and I accepted. I had grown tired of the AP battles over publishing the earlier North stories and I judged that it was time to move on. I also thought that Newsweek seemed serious about wanting these important stories advanced.

Pursuing Truth

Up to that point, Newsweek had done poorly on the Oliver North stories. Its reporters had studied the issue in 1986, but bought the prevailing conventional wisdom that the North stories were some bizarre "conspiracy theory." The magazine had been wrong then, and I thought it might want to recover from its sorry performance.

Evan Thomas, the tall preppyish bureau chief, seemed genuinely excited about the prospects of a big story. But back in New York, Newsweek's editor Maynard Parker, a tall outspoken admirer of Henry Kissinger, was stand-offish, even unfriendly toward my appearance on the scene.

Some of those early frictions appeared my first week, when my reporting prompted a lead story which traced the developing Iran-contra cover-up into Ronald Reagan's Oval Office and fingered then-chief of staff Donald Regan as a chief culprit. I also wrote a side-bar describing how the CIA had finagled its way back into the contra operation despite congressional restrictions.

Those stories were accompanied, however, by a contradictory article penned by national security writer John Barry. That piece swallowed whole the White House cover story that almost nobody there knew what North had been doing.

By March 1987, Reagan's special investigative commission -- the Tower Board -- reached a similar conclusion: that the President's disengaged management style had allowed the scandal to occur. The Tower Board also found no evidence that national security adviser John Poindexter had informed Reagan about the Iran-contra "diversion." A few modest reforms would straighten everything out.

A Deceitful Dinner

That was the prevailing view on March 10, 1987, when I was asked to attend a dinner at Evan Thomas's home in Northwest Washington. The invited guests of honor were retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who had been one of three members of the Tower Board, and Rep. Dick Cheney, who was the ranking Republican on the House Iran-contra panel which was just beginning its work. Newsweek held these dinners so executives from New York and reporters in Washington could get to know key news figures in casual surroundings.

The catered dinner was going well as a tuxedoed waiter delivered food servings and filled wine glasses. Across from me, the soft-spoken Scowcroft volunteered his thoughts. "I probably shouldn't say this," he mused, "but if I were advising Admiral Poindexter and he had told the President about the diversion, I would advise him to say that he hadn't."

I was startled. Here was a Tower Board member suggesting to a group of journalists that he really wasn't interested in the truth after all. Not familiar with the etiquette of these Newsweek affairs, I stopped eating and asked Scowcroft if he understood the implication of his remark. "General," I said, "you're not suggesting that the admiral should commit perjury, are you?"

There was a brief silence around the table as if I had committed some social faux pas. Then, Parker who was sitting next to me boomed out, "Sometimes, you have to do what's good for the country."

Parker's riposte was greeted with some guffaws and the uncomfortable moment quickly passed. But I was shaken by the exchange and the notion that an editor of a major publication would make light about proposed high-level perjury.

In the following months, it also became clear that Parker wasn't simply joking. The opportunity inside Newsweek to pursue the truth about the Iran-contra scandal quickly ended. The deceptive testimony of senior officials, such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz, was accepted with the same lack of skepticism as the pre-scandal denials had been.

No Story Here

In fall 1987, when the congressional report was issued, Evan Thomas told me that Newsweek's New York headquarters didn't want a story at all and that I was not even to read the report. I read it anyway and wheedled a one-page story despite New York's opposition.

In 1988, my efforts to explode George Bush's bald assertion that he was "out of the loop" on Iran-contra met similar editorial hostility. So, too, did my discovery that CIA director William Casey had mounted a large-scale domestic propaganda operation aimed at the American public, despite legal prohibitions on CIA domestic operations.

One day, Thomas pulled me aside and whispered that Parker was furious with me after he had attended a dinner at Richard Holbrooke's house where Bush's national security aide Donald Gregg had spent the evening denouncing my work.

When Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Thomas passed on word from New York that Newsweek had decided that North's trial was not a news story and that we would not cover it. I protested the absurdity of this wishful thinking on Maynard Parker's part. I argued that virtually every other news organization considered North's trial a news story, even if Newsweek didn't.

Though barred from covering the trial, I arranged daily transcripts, which were dropped off at my house by a messenger who arrived at about 11 p.m. each night. From the transcripts, I was able to break several significant stories showing higher-level administration involvement. But my enterprise only deepened my hole at Newsweek.

By early 1990, Thomas told me that Parker would begin shouting whenever my name was mentioned and that my presence had become disruptive to the magazine. Realizing that there was no way to win this battle, I agreed to leave. It was also clear by then that the hope for uncovering an honest history of the Reagan-Bush era -- at least within the mainstream media -- was over. To a disturbing degree, the Washington news media had become an adversary to truth.

A Weapon Against Truth

In the following years, Parker and Thomas would continue using Newsweek to attack those who challenged the conventional wisdom. In fall 1991, for instance, there was a chance for a serious examination of the long-standing October Surprise allegations -- suspicions that Casey had disrupted President Carter's Iran-hostage talks in 1980 to help Reagan win the White House.

But Newsweek along with another elite publication, The New Republic, wrote matching cover stories, denouncing the October Surprise allegations as a "myth." Both magazines relied on identical misreadings of documents in London to construct an alibi for Casey on a key weekend in late July when he allegedly met with an Iranian emissary in Madrid. Newsweek and The New Republic insisted the Madrid meeting could not have happened because Casey had arrived in London for a historical conference.

Inside Newsweek, reporter Craig Unger objected to the magazine's construction of the alibi. "It was the most dishonest thing that I've been through in my life in journalism," said Unger, who had been a reporter for 20 years and is now editor of Boston magazine. But Unger's protest was overridden by Thomas and Parker. Newsweek's nasty October Surprise debunking derailed plans for a thorough Senate inquiry and destroyed chances for a fair writing of that history.

It would pass almost unnoticed in 1992 that the London alibi collapsed when Americans who had attended the London historical conference testified that Casey had arrived a day late, leaving time for the Madrid meeting. Newsweek never acknowledged its error -- and the October Surprise story remained categorized as a "myth."

Getting a Life

Like any hypocritical institution, however, Newsweek suddenly can turn principled with a vengeance. In May 1996, the magazine planned to expose Adm. Jeremy Boorda for having worn a "V" on a Vietnam War service ribbon when there was some question as to whether he was entitled. As Evan Thomas and another Newsweek journalist headed to Boorda's house for the confrontation, the admiral committed suicide. After the tragedy, Newsweek defended its news judgment and its journalistic duty to the truth.

Truth, however, was less important, again, when columnist Joe Klein was reaping millions of dollars from the mystery over who was the "anonymous" author of the anti-Clinton novel Primary Colors. After confiding his secret authorship to Maynard Parker, Klein publicly and emphatically denied writing the book. When Newsweek joined in the speculation about the book's author, Parker knowingly allowed false stories to be published in the magazine.

When Klein's authorship was finally exposed, neither Klein nor Parker were apologetic about their deception. Klein compared his lucrative lie to a journalist protecting a source and Parker urged those offended by a news organization willfully publishing falsehoods to "get a life."

Klein's only meaningful punishment was meted out by CBS News, which forced him to resign as a commentator. Newsweek told Klein to apologize to his colleagues and take some extra time for vacation. There is no indication that Maynard Parker suffered any punishment at all.

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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