New Movie Glamorizes CIA in Iran

The Right often demonizes Hollywood as “liberal” and surely there are some TV shows and movies with liberal themes but most of what the U.S. entertainment industry produces is either apolitical or super-patriotic. “Argo,” a new movie on Iran, fits the latter category, says Danny Schechter.

By Danny Schechter

Earlier this year, I was in Tehran for a conference on Hollywood’s power and impact. It was called “Hollywoodism,” featuring many scholars and critics of the values and political ideologies featured in many major movies with a focus on the way Israel (a.k.a., “the Zionists”) are continually portrayed as if they do no wrong.

What we didn’t know then while we were debating these issues was that some of Hollywood’s biggest stars were at that very moment making a movie that will certainly be perceived as hostile to Iran, if not part of the undeclared war that Israel and the United States are waging with crippling economic sanctions and malicious cyber viruses.

The movie is “Argo,” and the hype for it has already begun. In a business driven by formula, a “hostage thriller” must have been irresistible to an industry always more consumed by itself and its own frames of reference than anything happening in the real world.

An NBC entertainment site explains: “At the height of the Iran Hostage Crisis, the CIA smuggled six Americans out of Tehran in a plot that was a movie maker’s dream. So naturally, Hollywood’s gonna make a movie out of it.

“Superstar Ben Affleck directed ‘Argo,’ a film being produced by George Clooney, about former CIA Master of Disguise Tony Mendez and his most daring operation. Mendez smuggled six American’s out of Tehran in 1979 by concocting a fake movie production, called ‘Argo.’”

Predictably, the background and context of these events is conspicuous by its absence, as are the reasons for the Iranian revolution and the role played by the United States in working with the British in the overthrow of the Mossadegh government and support for the despotic Shah.

“It’s not political,” a movie industry insider told me. A film set in the Iranian revolution, that most political of events of an era, “not political?” That’s Hollywood for you!

Hollywood movies want to be seen only as exercises in dramatic storytelling, so their focus is always on characters and action. As Wired Magazine described what happened in a 2007 story based on the book that led to the film:

November 4, 1979, began like any other day at the US embassy in Tehran. The staff filtered in under gray skies, the marines manned their posts, and the daily crush of anti-American protestors massed outside the gate chanting, ‘Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!’

“Mark and Cora Lijek, a young couple serving in their first foreign service post, knew the slogans, ‘God is great! Death to America!’, and had learned to ignore the din as they went about their duties. But today, the protest sounded louder than usual. And when some of the local employees came in and said there was ‘a problem at the gate,’ they knew this morning would be different”

The larger confrontation also served as the basis for a long-running TV news series, ABC’s “America Held Hostage,” treating those Americans as victims of a crime, but never Iran as the scene of a larger crime, a country held hostage for years by a U.S.-backed secret police and military that crushed freedom of expression, repressed religion, and enabled the CIA to manipulate Iran’s politics while U.S. companies plundered Iran’s resources.

One-sided news programming was far more effective than Hollywood movie making as a tool for mobilizing Americans against Iran. The coverage was always unbalanced. I called it “A.A.U.” — All About Us!

Now, this new movie will likely add to the propaganda even as many Americans are speaking out against a war on Iran while Washington is clearly planning one. It will bring back all the old anti-Iranian feelings and stereotypes while progressive U.S. actors glamorize a CIA agent, even though the actual movie makes the events seem absurd and at times reportedly even makes fun of the U.S. government in 1970s’ movie-making style.

I haven’t seen the film but judging from the slick trailer I saw in my neighborhood theater, it’s about clever Americans outsmarting Iranians who look robotic.

Here’s the context as Wired reports: “The Iran hostage crisis, which would go on for 444 days, shaking America’s confidence and sinking President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, had begun.   Everyone remembers the 52 Americans trapped at the embassy and the failed rescue attempt a few months later that ended with a disastrous Army helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. But not many know the long- classified details of the CIA’s involvement in the escape of the other group, thrust into a hostile city in the throes of revolution.”

In the “not many know” department, there is no reference here either about how the Reagan campaign secretly negotiated to hold back the hostages until Carter was out of office, or the illegal Iran-Contra arms deals that followed.

This tale of escape also is not a “new” story it was told years ago in books and magazines but “Argo” is retelling as if it is new. It is, as you would expect, all about our brilliance and their stupidity, our good guys against their bad guys all classic “Made in the USA” commercial movie formula.

Will this thriller contribute to a deeper understanding between our two countries? Will it help us find a way of resolving our differences? I doubt it.

As it happens, when I was in Tehran, I visited the former U.S. Embassy and wrote about my impressions in a new book, Blogothon  (Cosimo.) The embassy is now a museum with a well-preserved group of offices, safeguarding the equipment used by the CIA for surveillance and espionage.

The Iranians had denounced the building as a “spy nest” well before the students took it over but even they didn’t know how right they were or its real covert action focus until they saw it for themselves.

U.S. Embassy security tried to destroy all its secret documents by shredding them, but the students, over months, patiently sewed the bits and pieces together and published them, exposing their nefarious tactics in books that U.S. Customs would not allow Americans to see. (Friends of mine had their copies seized when they returned from a reporting trip to Iran in that period.)

There is a reference to the recovery of some of this information in “Argo,” but not much about what was in those documents. This was all before the age of WikiLeaks,

But never mind the facts or their selective retelling: in Hollywood, only story matters. You can just hear the actors telling their agents “how cool this film is”, especially because movie-making is the movie’s sub-plot, the glory of the story, so to speak, at the core of what is, in the end, sanitized drama.

Once again, mindlessness leads to malice in a search not for truth but box office revenues. Of course, I will see it when it’s out in the fall.

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at newsdissector.net. His two latest books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He also hosts a program on Progressive Radio Network.com. This article first appeared on Press TV in Iran. Comments to dissector@mediachanel.org




Poland Probes CIA ‘Black Site’ Prison

Even as the Obama administration continues to ignore the worst crimes of George W. Bush’s presidency including torture and aggressive war authorities in Poland are investigating its alleged hosting of a CIA “black site” prison. An inquiry that may be the best hope for some measure of truth, writes Nat Parry.

By Nat Parry

A probe by Polish prosecutors into the CIA’s use of a secret prison in Poland offers a grim reminder of one of the Global War on Terror’s darkest chapters America’s use of Eastern European allies to assist in illegal extraordinary renditions and torture of suspected terrorists.

But the fact that the probe is being carried out by Polish authorities, with no comparable investigation by the U.S. government, offers perhaps an even starker reminder that democratic accountability is in some ways stronger in the former Soviet Bloc than it is in the United States of America.

Despite some feeble attempts from Congress to ensure greater oversight of the CIA’s program of clandestine prisons, there have been no investigations of possible violations of anti-torture laws.

An amendment to require reports on clandestine detention facilities was attached to the 2006 supplemental military spending bill, but as this amendment only required that classified reports be submitted to relevant congressional committees, it did little to raise general public awareness of the issue.

A 2009 Senate review of the program promised to “assess lessons learned” but assured the CIA that employees who participated in the program would not be held to account. Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta vowed to block “an inquiry designed to punish those who acted in accord with guidance from the Department of Justice.”

First revealed in November 2005 by the Washington Post, the clandestine network of CIA prisons was acknowledged by President George W. Bush in September 2006. At the time, Bush claimed that torture was not part of the program. Investigations by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, however, revealed that torture had been used extensively in the prisons.

While deploring “the concepts of state secrecy or national security” invoked by the United States to obstruct the investigation into “grave allegations of human rights violations,” the Council of Europe nevertheless ascertained that detainees in the prisons “were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, sometimes protracted.”

“Certain ‘enhanced’ interrogation methods used fulfill the definition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture,” said the report. A subsequent investigation by the European Parliament further confirmed the use of torture in the secret prisons.

Following its investigation, the EP adopted a strongly worded resolution condemning the U.S. policies and the European governments that participated in the program.

“Extraordinary rendition and secret detention involve numerous violations of human rights in particular violations of the right to liberty and security, the freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to an effective remedy, and, in extreme cases, the right to life; whereas, in some cases, where rendition leads to secret detention, it constitutes enforced disappearance,” the resolution stated.

The EP reminded its member states that “the prohibition of torture is a peremptory norm of international law (jus cogens) from which no derogation is possible,” and criticized “European countries [that] may have received, knowingly or unknowingly, information obtained under torture.”

First Derided

In Poland, the notion that the former Communist country would tolerate a secret CIA prison in which torture was being used was for years derided by the country’s politicians, journalists and the public as a crackpot conspiracy theory. Polish officials consistently denied the existence of any such prison.

But a string of recent revelations and political statements by Polish leaders appear to acknowledge for the first time that the United States did indeed run a secret interrogation facility for terror suspects in 2002 and 2003 in a remote region of the country.

As the AP reports, the debate within Poland is marked by a streak of disappointment that Washington had led the young democracy astray both ethically and legally, and then abandoned the Polish government to deal with the fallout.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on March 29 that Poland has been the “political victim” of leaks from U.S. officials that brought to light aspects of the secret rendition program. He said that an ongoing investigation into the case demonstrates Poland’s democratic credentials and that Poland will not be used in the future for such clandestine enterprises.

“Poland will no longer be a country where politicians, even if they are working arm-in-arm with the world’s greatest superpower, could make some deal somewhere under the table and then it would never see daylight,” said Tusk, who took office four years after the prison was shuttered.

The Polish frustration with the United States follows a long-established feeling of disillusionment that first emerged in 2004 during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and the height of the Iraqi insurgency. As David Ost reported in The Nation magazine on Sept. 16, 2004,

“George W. Bush has managed to do what forty-five years of Communist rule could not: puncture the image of essential American goodness that has always been the United States’ key selling point. Polish journalists now ask questions like, ‘How can we explain America’s transformation from a country that introduced international law to one that intervenes militarily wherever it likes?’ Or, more plaintively: ‘Does it really pay to be America’s friend?’ It is an astonishing turnabout: In more than twenty-five years of traveling to Poland I have never heard these kinds of criticisms.”

Poland committed 2,400 troops to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but Polish supporters of the war, such as Marek Beylin, chief of the editorial section of Gazeta Wyborcza, began wondering whether they were duped into cooperating with the United States.

“It seems we were naive,” Beylin said in 2004. “It turns out they had no idea what to do with the Shiites, the Kurds, the resistance, the infrastructure. A superpower should be able to do this! That it can’t do it this changes all our calculations.”

It appears now that Poland is following through on the recalculations it began making eight years ago,  and choosing the rule of law over its alliance with the world’s lawless superpower.

“Poland is a democracy where national and international law must be observed,” Tusk said on March 29. “This issue must be explained. Let there be no doubt about it either in Poland or on the other side of the ocean.”

Tusk also pledged that Polish official involvement in activities by the CIA would be thoroughly scrutinized and prosecuted. He indirectly confirmed that his country’s former spy chief, Zbigniew SiemiÄ…tkowski, is facing criminal charges in connection with a probe by state prosecutors into the Polish role in CIA’s secret prison.

Poland’s prime minister at the time of the prison’s operation, Leszek Miller, has denied any knowledge of the CIA program in Poland.

Although many sordid details of the program have been public for years, the U.S. continues to not only fail to investigate those responsible, but also stonewall investigations by others, including Poland. The future of the investigation of SiemiÄ…tkowski is in some doubt, with the U.S. authorities refusing to cooperate with the investigation, reports the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

The refusal to cooperate with the investigation follows a well-established pattern by the administration of Barack Obama. As President-elect in January 2009, Obama said there should be prosecutions if “somebody has blatantly broken the law” but that CIA employees who participated in questionable policies of “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” should not be overly concerned.

“Part of my job,” he said, “is to make sure that, for example, at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.”

Upon taking office, Obama promised to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” regarding crimes committed by the previous administration.

Upside-Down Accountability

In the three-plus years since then, it has become abundantly clear that those who may have engaged in unlawful interrogation or extrajudicial detention during the Bush years have nothing to worry about. In fact, the only CIA employees who have been prosecuted under the Obama administration are those who have attempted to blow the whistle on abuses at the agency.

The most recent example is that of John C. Kiriakou, a CIA agent made famous by his public opposition to waterboarding. He was indicted by a grand jury for leaking government secrets to reporters. Kiriakou is accused of giving journalists the name of another CIA operative and his role in the capture of al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah shortly after 9/11.

Abu Zubaydah is said to have been tortured in the CIA’s secret prison in Poland and is one of two individuals granted “victim status” by prosecutors in Warsaw. This will allow their lawyers to review evidence and question witnesses as part of the prosecutors’ investigation.

The indictment of Kiriakou is part of an aggressive Justice Department crackdown on leakers and is one of a half-dozen such cases opened during the Obama administration. Coupled with the administration’s refusal to cooperate with the Polish authorities in its investigation of secret CIA prisons, it appears to be part of a concerted effort to prevent any more details about this program from seeing the light of day.

Still, human rights activists and lawyers are coming to view Poland and its courts as one of the best chances to uncover the truth about U.S. rendition and torture in Eastern Europe.

“In Poland, the democratic system has turned out to be much more mature than in other countries,” said Adam Bodnar of the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “There’s a group of people, judges, prosecutors, journalists, some politicians, who take the constitution seriously.”

Considering the lack of any such seriousness on the other side of the Atlantic, the Polish investigation may also be Americans’ best hope for learning the truth about the CIA’s secret prisons, as well as its broader rendition and torture program.

Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [Reposted from Compliancecampaignwith author’s permission.]




The Warning in Gary Webb’s Death

Special Report: Modern American history is more complete because journalist Gary Webb had the courage to revive the dark story of the Reagan administration’s protection of Nicaraguan Contra cocaine traffickers in the 1980s. However, Webb ultimately paid a terrible price, as Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

Every year since investigative journalist Gary Webb took his own life in 2004, I have marked the anniversary of that sad event by recalling the debt that American history owes to Webb for his brave reporting, which revived the Contra-cocaine scandal in 1996 and forced important admissions out of the Central Intelligence Agency two years later.

But Webb’s suicide on the evening of Dec. 9, 2004, was also a tragic end for one man whose livelihood and reputation were destroyed by a phalanx of major newspapers the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times serving as protectors of a corrupt power structure rather than as sources of honest information.

In reviewing the story again this year, I was struck by how Webb’s Contra-cocaine experience was, in many ways, a precursor to the subsequent tragedy of the Iraq War.

In the 1980s, the CIA’s analytical division was already showing signs of politicization, especially regarding President Ronald Reagan’s beloved Contras and their war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and the U.S. press corps was already bending to the propaganda pressures of a right-wing Republican administration.

Looking back at CIA cables from the early-to-mid-1980s, you can already see the bias dripping from the analytical reports. Any drug accusation against the leftist Sandinistas was accepted without skepticism and usually with strong exaggeration, while the opposite occurred with evidence of Contra cocaine smuggling; then there was endless quibbling and smearing of sources.

So, to put these reports in anything close to an accurate focus, you would need special lenses to correct for all the politicized distortions. Yet, the U.S. news media, which itself was under intense pressure not to appear “liberal,” worsened the Reagan administration’s fun-house reflection of reality and attacked any dissident journalist who wouldn’t go along.

Thus, Americans heard a lot about how the evil Sandinistas were trying to “poison” America’s youth with cocaine, although there was not a single interception of a drug shipment from Nicaragua during the Sandinista reign, except for one planeload of cocaine that the United States flew into and out of Nicaraguan in a clumsy “sting” operation.

On the other hand, substantial evidence of Contra-related cocaine shipments out of Costa Rica and Honduras was kept from the American people with Reagan’s Justice Department and CIA intervening to head off investigations and thus prevent embarrassing disclosures. The chief role of the big newspapers in this upside-down world was to heap ridicule on anyone who told the truth.

During that time frame of the early-to-mid-1980s, the patterns were set for CIA analysts to advance their careers (by giving the president what he wanted) and mainstream journalists to protect theirs (by accepting propaganda). By 2002-2003, these patterns had become deeply engrained, leaving almost no one to protect the American people from a new round of falsehoods aimed at Iraq.

Though I was not in touch with Webb in the last months of his life in 2004, I have always wondered if he saw this connection between his own valiant efforts to correct the historical record about Contra-cocaine trafficking in 1996 and the victory of lies over truth regarding Iraq’s WMD in 2002-2003.

In the weeks before Webb’s suicide, there also was the intervening fact of George W. Bush’s reelection and with it, the dashed expectation that the CIA analysts and the mainstream journalists who played along with the Iraq-WMD fabrications might face some serious accountability. At the moment when Webb picked up his father’s pistol and put it to his head, there must have appeared little hope that anything would change.

Indeed, we are now seeing yet another replay of this systematic distortion of information, this time regarding Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program. Any tidbit of information against Iran is exaggerated, while exculpatory data is downplayed or ignored.

So, it may be timely again to recount what happened to Gary Webb and to reflect on the dangers of allowing this corrupt disinformation system to press ahead unchecked.

Dark Alliance

For me, the tragic story of Gary Webb began in 1996 when he was working on his “Dark Alliance” series for the San Jose Mercury News. He called me at my home in Arlington, Virginia, because, in 1985, I and my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger had been the first journalists to reveal the scandal of Reagan’s Nicaraguan Contras funding themselves in part by collaborating with drug traffickers.

Webb explained that he had come across evidence that one Contra-connected drug conduit had funneled cocaine into Los Angeles, where it helped fuel the early crack epidemic. Unlike our AP stories a decade earlier, which focused on the Contras helping to ship cocaine from Central America into the United States, Webb said his series would examine what happened to the Contra cocaine after it reached the streets of Los Angeles and other cities.

Besides asking about my recollections of the Contras and their cocaine smuggling, Webb wanted to know why the scandal never gained any real traction in the U.S. national news media. I explained that the ugly facts of the drug trafficking ran up against a determined U.S government campaign to protect the Contras’ image. In the face of that resistance, I said, the major publications, the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post , had chosen to attack the revelations and those behind them rather than to dig up more evidence.

Webb sounded confused by my account, as if I were telling him something that was foreign to his personal experience, something that just didn’t compute. I had a sense of his unstated questions: Why would the prestige newspapers of American journalism behave that way? Why wouldn’t they jump all over a story that important and that sexy, about the CIA working with drug traffickers?

I took a deep breath, sensing that he had no idea of the personal danger he was about to confront. Well, he would have to learn that for himself, I thought. It surely wasn’t my place to warn a journalist away from a significant story just because it carried risks.

So, I simply asked Webb if he had the strong support of his editors. He assured me that he did. I said their backing would be crucial once his story was out. He sounded perplexed, again, as if he didn’t know what to make of my cautionary tone. I wished him the best of luck, thinking that he would need it.

The Safe Route

When I hung up, I wasn’t sure that the Mercury News would really press ahead with the story, considering how the big national news outlets had dismissed and ridiculed the notion that President Reagan’s beloved Contras had included a large number of drug traffickers.

It never seemed to matter how much evidence there was. It was much easier, and safer, career-wise, for Washington journalists to reject incriminating testimony against the Contras, especially when it came from other drug traffickers and from disgruntled Contras. Even U.S. law-enforcement officials who discovered evidence were disparaged as overzealous and congressional investigators were painted as partisan.

In 1985, as we were preparing our first AP story on this topic, Barger and I knew that the evidence of Contra-cocaine involvement was overwhelming. We had a broad range of sources both inside the Contra movement and within the U.S. government, people with no apparent ax to grind who had described the cocaine-smuggling problem.

One source was a field agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); another was a senior official on Reagan’s National Security Council (NSC) who told me that he had read a CIA report about how a Contra unit based in Costa Rica had used cocaine profits to buy a helicopter.

However, after our AP story was published in December 1985, we came under attack from the right-wing Washington Times. That was followed by dismissive stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The notion that the Contras, whom President Reagan had likened to America’s Founding Fathers, could be implicated in the drug trade was simply unthinkable.

Yet, it was always odd to me that many of the same newspapers had no problem accepting the fact that the CIA-backed Afghan mujahedeen were involved in the heroin trade, but bristled at the thought that the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras might be cut from the same cloth.

A key difference, which I learned both from personal experience and from documents that surfaced during the Iran-Contra scandal, was that Reagan had assigned a young group of ambitious intellectuals such as Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan to oversee the Contra war.

These neoconservatives worked with old-line anticommunists from the Cuban-American community, such as Otto Reich, and CIA propagandists, such as Walter Raymond Jr., to aggressively protect the Contras’ image. And the Contras were always on the edge between getting congressional funding or having it cut off.

So, that combination, the propaganda skills of Reagan’s Contra-support team and the fragile consensus for continuing Reagan’s pet Contra war, meant that any negative publicity about the Contras would be met with a fierce counterattack.

Going to Editors

The neoconservatives were also bright, well-schooled, and skilled in their manipulation of language and information, a process they privately called “perception management.” They proved adept, too, at ingratiating themselves with senior editors at major news outlets.

By the mid-1980s, these patterns had become well-worn in Washington. If a journalist dug up a story that put the Contras in a negative light, he or she could expect the Reagan administration’s propaganda team to make contact with a senior editor or bureau chief and lodge a complaint, apply some pressure, and often offer up some dirt about the offending journalist.

Also, many news executives in that time frame were sympathetic toward Reagan’s hard-line foreign policy, especially after the humiliations of the Vietnam War and the Iranian revolution. Supporting U.S. initiatives abroad, or at least not allowing your reporters to undercut those policies, was seen as patriotic.

At the New York Times, executive editor Abe Rosenthal was one of the news media’s most influential neoconservatives, declaring that he was determined to steer the newspaper back to “the center,” by which he meant to the right.

At AP, general manager Keith Fuller was known to be a strong Reagan supporter and his preferences were sometimes expressed forcefully to AP’s Washington bureau where I worked. At the Washington Post and Newsweek (where I went to work in 1987), there was also a strong sense that Reagan-era scandals should not reach the president, that it would not be “good for the country.”

In other words, on the issue of Contra drug trafficking, there was a confluence of interests between the Reagan administration, which was determined to protect the Contras’ public image, and senior news executives, who wanted to adopt a “patriotic” posture after convincing themselves that the country shouldn’t endure another wrenching battle over wrongdoing by a Republican president.

The popular image of courageous editors standing up for their reporters in the face of government pressure was not the reality, especially not where the Contras were concerned.

Reverse Rewards

So, instead of a process that outsiders might imagine, where journalists who dug out tough stories got rewarded, the actual system worked in the opposite way. The careerists in the news business quickly grasped that the smart play when it came to the Contras was either to be a booster or at least to pooh-pooh evidence of the Contras’ brutality or drug traffickers.

The same rules applied to congressional investigators. Anyone who pried into the dark corners of the Nicaraguan Contra war faced ridicule, as happened to Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts when he followed up the early AP stories with a courageous investigation that discovered more ties between cocaine traffickers and the Contras.

When his Contra-cocaine report was released in 1989, its findings were greeted with yawns and smirks. News articles were buried deep inside the major newspapers and the stories focused more on alleged flaws in his investigation than on his revelations.

For his hard work, Newsweek summed up the prevailing “conventional wisdom” on Kerry by calling him a “randy conspiracy buff.” Being associated with breaking the Contra-cocaine story was also regarded as a black mark on my own career.

To function in this upside-down world, where reality and perception often clashed and perception usually won the big news outlets developed a kind of cognitive dissonance that could accept two contradictory positions.

On one level, the news outlets did accept the undeniable reality that some of the Contras and their backers, including the likes of Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, were implicated in the drug trade, but then simultaneously treated this reality as a conspiracy theory.

Squaring the Circle

Only occasionally did a major news outlet seek to square this circle, such as during Noriega’s drug-trafficking trial in 1991 when U.S. prosecutors called as a witness Colombian Medellín cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder, who, along with implicating Noriega, testified that the cartel had given $10 million to the Contras, an allegation first unearthed by Sen. Kerry.

“The Kerry hearings didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time,” a Washington Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991, acknowledged. “The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention.”

However, the Post offered its readers no explanation for why Kerry’s hearings had been largely ignored, with the Post itself a leading culprit in this journalistic misfeasance. Nor did the Post and the other leading newspapers use the opening created by the Noriega trial to do anything to rectify their past neglect.

And, everything quickly returned to the status quo in which the desired perception of the noble Contras trumped the clear reality of their criminal activities.

So, from 1991 until 1996, the Contra-cocaine scandal remained a disturbing story not just about the skewed moral compass of the Reagan administration but also about how the U.S. news media had lost its way.

The scandal was a dirty secret that was best kept out of public view and away from a thorough discussion. After all, the journalistic careerists who had played along with the U.S. government’s Contra defenders had advanced inside their media corporations. As good team players, they had moved up to be bureau chiefs and other news executives. They had no interest in revisiting one of the big stories that they had downplayed as a prerequisite for their success.

Pariahs

Meanwhile, those journalists who had exposed these national security crimes mostly saw their careers sink or at best slide sideways. We were regarded as “pariahs” in our profession. We were “conspiracy theorists,” even though our journalism had proven to be correct again and again.

The Post’s admission that the Contra-cocaine scandal “didn’t get the attention it deserved” didn’t lead to any soul-searching inside the U.S. news media, nor did it result in any rehabilitation of the careers of the reporters who had tried to put a spotlight on this especially vile secret.

As for me, after losing battle after battle with my Newsweek editors (who despised the Iran-Contra scandal that I had worked so hard to expose), I departed the magazine in June 1990 to write a book (called Fooling America) about the decline of the Washington press corps and the parallel rise of the new generation of government propagandists.

I was also hired by PBS Frontline to investigate whether there had been a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal, whether those arms-for-hostage deals in the mid-1980s had been preceded by contacts between Reagan’s 1980 campaign staff and Iran, which was then holding 52 Americans hostage and essentially destroying Jimmy Carter’s reelection hopes. [For more on that topic, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Then, in 1995, frustrated by the pervasive triviality that had come to define American journalism, and acting on the advice of and with the assistance of my oldest son Sam, I turned to a new medium and launched the Internet’s first investigative news magazine, known as Consortiumnews.com. The Web site became a way for me to put out well-reported stories that my former mainstream colleagues seemed determined to ignore or mock.

So, when Gary Webb called me that day in 1996, I knew that he was charging into some dangerous journalistic terrain, though he thought he was simply pursuing a great story. After his call, it struck me that perhaps the only way for the Contra-cocaine story to ever get the attention that it deserved was for someone outside the Washington media culture to do the work.

When Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series finally appeared in late August 1996, it initially drew little attention. The major national news outlets applied their usual studied indifference to a topic that they had already judged unworthy of serious attention.

It was also clear that the media careerists who had climbed up their corporate ladders by accepting the conventional wisdom that the Contra-cocaine story was a conspiracy theory weren’t about to look back down and admit that they had contributed to a major journalistic failure to inform and protect the American public.

Hard to Ignore

But Webb’s story proved hard to ignore. First, unlike the work that Barger and I did for AP in the mid-1980s, Webb’s series wasn’t just a story about drug traffickers in Central America and their protectors in Washington. It was about the on-the-ground consequences, inside the United States, of that drug trafficking, how the lives of Americans were blighted and destroyed as the collateral damage of a U.S. foreign policy initiative.

In other words, there were real-life American victims, and they were concentrated in African-American communities. That meant the ever-sensitive issue of race had been injected into the controversy. Anger from black communities spread quickly to the Congressional Black Caucus, which started demanding answers.

Secondly, the San Jose Mercury News, which was the local newspaper for Silicon Valley, had posted documents and audio on its state-of-the-art Internet site. That way, readers could examine much of the documentary support for the series.

It also meant that the traditional “gatekeeper” role of the major newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times , was under assault. If a regional paper like the Mercury News could finance a major journalistic investigation like this one, and circumvent the judgments of the editorial boards at the Big Three, then there might be a tectonic shift in the power relations of the U.S. news media. There could be a breakdown of the established order.

This combination of factors led to the next phase of the Contra-cocaine battle: the “get-Gary-Webb” counterattack. The first major shot against Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series did not come from the Big Three but from the rapidly expanding right-wing news media, which was in no mood to accept the notion that some of President Reagan’s beloved Contras were drug traffickers. That would have cast a shadow over the Reagan Legacy, which the Right was elevating to mythic status.

It fell to Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Washington Times to begin the anti-Webb vendetta. Moon, a South Korean theocrat who fancied himself the new Messiah, had founded his newspaper in 1982 partly to protect Ronald Reagan’s political flanks and partly to ensure that he had powerful friends in high places. In the mid-1980s, the Washington Times went so far as to raise money to assist Reagan’s Contra “freedom fighters.”

Self-Interested Testimony

To refute Webb’s three-part series, the Washington Times turned to some ex-CIA officials, who had participated in the Contra war, and quoted them denying the story. Soon, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times were lining up behind the Washington Times to trash Webb and his story.

On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s series, although acknowledging that some Contra operatives did help the cocaine cartels.

The Post’s approach was twofold, fitting with the national media’s cognitive dissonance on the topic of Contra cocaine: first, the Post presented the Contra-cocaine allegations as old news, “even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,” the Post sniffed, and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one Contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted in his series, saying that it had not “played a major role in the emergence of crack.”

A Post sidebar story dismissed African-Americans as prone to “conspiracy fears.”

Next, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighed in with lengthy articles castigating Webb and “Dark Alliance.” The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s internal reviews in 1987 and 1988, almost a decade earlier, that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of any role in Contra-cocaine smuggling.

But the CIA’s cover-up began to weaken on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only12 days, and the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.

Mocking Webb

Webb, however, had already crossed over from being a serious journalist to a target of ridicule. Influential Post media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the Contra war was primarily a business to its participants. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz chortled.

However, Webb’s suspicion was no conspiracy theory. Indeed, White House aide Oliver North’s chief Contra emissary, Robert Owen, had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message about the Contras leadership. “Few of the so-called leaders of the movement . . . really care about the boys in the field,” Owen wrote. “THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Emphasis in original.]

In other words, Webb was right and Kurtz was wrong, even Oliver North’s emissary had reported that many Contra leaders treated the conflict as “a business.” But accuracy had ceased to be relevant in the media’s hazing of Gary Webb.

In another double standard, while Webb was held to the strictest standards of journalism, it was entirely all right for Kurtz, the supposed arbiter of journalistic integrity who was also featured on CNN’s Reliable Sources , to make judgments based on ignorance. Kurtz would face no repercussions for mocking a fellow journalist who was factually correct.

The Big Three’s assault, combined with their disparaging tone, had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury News. As it turned out, Webb’s confidence in his editors had been misplaced. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had his own corporate career to worry about, was in retreat.

On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page column saying the series “fell short of my standards.” He criticized the stories because they “strongly implied CIA knowledge” of Contra connections to U.S. drug dealers who were manufacturing crack cocaine. “We did not have enough proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship,” Ceppos wrote.

Ceppos was wrong about the proof, of course. At AP, before we published our first Contra-cocaine article in 1985, Barger and I had known that the CIA and Reagan’s White House were aware of the Contra-cocaine problem.

However, Ceppos had recognized that he and his newspaper were facing a credibility crisis brought on by the harsh consensus delivered by the Big Three, a judgment that had quickly solidified into conventional wisdom throughout the major news media and inside Knight-Ridder, Inc., which owned the Mercury News. The only career-saving move career-saving for Ceppos even if career-destroying for Webb was to jettison Webb and his journalism.

A ‘Vindication’

The big newspapers and the Contras’ defenders celebrated Ceppos’s retreat as vindication of their own dismissal of the Contra-cocaine stories. In particular, Kurtz seemed proud that his demeaning of Webb now had the endorsement of Webb’s editor.

Ceppos next pulled the plug on the Mercury News’ continuing Contra-cocaine investigation and reassigned Webb to a small office in Cupertino, California, far from his family. Webb resigned from the paper in disgrace.

For undercutting Webb and other Mercury News reporters working on the Contra-cocaine investigation, Ceppos was lauded by the American Journalism Review and was given the 1997 national Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.

While Ceppos won raves, Webb watched his career collapse and his marriage break up. Still, Gary Webb had set in motion internal government investigations that would bring to the surface long-hidden facts about how the Reagan administration had conducted the Contra war.

The CIA published the first part of Inspector General Hitz’s findings on Jan. 29, 1998. Though the CIA’s press release for the report criticized Webb and defended the CIA, Hitz’s Volume One admitted that not only were many of Webb’s allegations true but that he actually understated the seriousness of the Contra-drug crimes and the CIA’s knowledge of them.

Hitz conceded that cocaine smugglers played a significant early role in the Contra movement and that the CIA intervened to block an image-threatening 1984 federal investigation into a San Franciscobased drug ring with suspected ties to the Contras, the so-called “Frogman Case.”

After Volume One was released, I called Webb (whom I had met personally since his series was published). I chided him for indeed getting the story “wrong.” He had understated how serious the problem of Contra-cocaine trafficking had been.

It was a form of gallows humor for the two of us, since nothing had changed in the way the major newspapers treated the Contra-cocaine issue. They focused only on the press release that continued to attack Webb, while ignoring the incriminating information that could be found in the body of the report. All I could do was highlight those admissions at Consortiumnews.com, which sadly had a much, much smaller readership than the Big Three.

Looking the Other Way

The major U.S. news media also looked the other way on other startling disclosures.

On May 7, 1998, for instance, Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, introduced into the Congressional Record a Feb. 11, 1982, letter of understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department. The letter, which had been requested by CIA Director William Casey, freed the CIA from legal requirements that it must report drug smuggling by CIA assets, a provision that covered both the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan mujahedeen.

In other words, early in those two covert wars, the CIA leadership wanted to make sure that its geopolitical objectives would not be complicated by a legal requirement to turn in its client forces for drug trafficking.

The next break in the long-running Contra-cocaine cover-up was a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Bromwich.

Given the hostile climate surrounding Webb’s series, Bromwich’s report also opened with criticism of Webb. But, like the CIA’s Volume One, the contents revealed new details about government wrongdoing. According to evidence cited by Bromwich, the Reagan administration knew almost from the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the paramilitary operation. The administration also did next to nothing to expose or stop the crimes.

Bromwich’s report revealed example after example of leads not followed, corroborated witnesses disparaged, official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged, and even the CIA facilitating the work of drug traffickers.

The report showed that the Contras and their supporters ran several parallel drug-smuggling operations, not just the one at the center of Webb’s series. The report also found that the CIA shared little of its information about Contra drugs with law-enforcement agencies and on three occasions disrupted cocaine-trafficking investigations that threatened the Contras.

As well as depicting a more widespread Contra-drug operation than Webb had understood, the Justice Department report provided some important corroboration about a Nicaraguan drug smuggler, Norwin Meneses, who was a key figure in Webb’s series.

Bromwich cited U.S. government informants who supplied detailed information about Meneses’s drug operation and his financial assistance to the Contras. For instance, Renato Pena, a money-and-drug courier for Meneses, said that in the early 1980s the CIA allowed the Contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them, and keep the proceeds.

Pena, who was the northern California representative for the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) Contra army, said the drug trafficking was forced on the Contras by the inadequate levels of U.S. government assistance.

DEA Troubles

The Justice Department report also disclosed repeated examples of the CIA and U.S. embassies in Central America discouraging DEA investigations, including one into Contra-cocaine shipments moving through the international airport in El Salvador.

Inspector General Bromwich said secrecy trumped all. “We have no doubt that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy were not anxious for the DEA to pursue its investigation at the airport,” he wrote.

Bromwich also described the curious case of how a DEA pilot helped a CIA asset escape from Costa Rican authorities in 1989 after the man, American farmer John Hull, had been charged in connection with Contra-cocaine trafficking.

Hull’s ranch in northern Costa Rica had been the site of Contra camps for attacking Nicaragua from the south. For years, Contra-connected witnesses also said Hull’s property was used for the transshipment of cocaine en route to the United States, but those accounts were brushed aside by the Reagan administration and disparaged in major U.S. newspapers.

Yet, according to Bromwich’s report, the DEA took the accounts seriously enough to prepare a research report on the evidence in November 1986. In it, one informant described Colombian cocaine off-loaded at an airstrip on Hull’s ranch. The drugs were then concealed in a shipment of frozen shrimp and transported to the United States.

The alleged Costa Rican shipper was Frigorificos de Puntarenas, a firm controlled by Cuban-American Luis Rodriguez. Like Hull, however, Frigorificos had friends in high places. In 1985-86, the State Department had selected the shrimp company to handle $261,937 in non-lethal assistance earmarked for the Contras.

Hull also remained a man with powerful protectors. Even after Costa Rican authorities brought drug charges against him, influential Americans, including Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, demanded that Hull be let out of jail pending trial. Then, in July 1989 with the help of a DEA pilot and possibly a DEA agent Hull managed to fly out of Costa Rica to Haiti and then to the United States. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “John Hull’s Great Escape.”]

Despite these new disclosures, the big newspapers still showed no inclination to read beyond the criticism of Webb in the press release and the executive summary.

Major Disclosures

By fall 1998, Washington was obsessed with President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which made it easier to ignore even more stunning Contra-cocaine disclosures in the CIA’s Volume Two, published on Oct. 8, 1998.

In the report, CIA Inspector General Hitz identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.

According to Volume Two, the CIA knew the criminal nature of its Contra clients from the start of the war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. The earliest Contra force, called the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) or the 15th of September Legion, had chosen “to stoop to criminal activities in order to feed and clothe their cadre,” according to a June 1981 draft of a CIA field report.

According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, two ADREN members made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981. ADREN’s leaders included Enrique Bermúdez and other early Contras who would later direct the major Contra army, the CIA-organized FDN which was based in Honduras, along Nicaragua’s northern border.

Throughout the war, Bermúdez remained the top Contra military commander. The CIA later corroborated the allegations about ADREN’s cocaine trafficking, but insisted that Bermúdez had opposed the drug shipments to the United States that went ahead nonetheless.

The truth about Bermúdez’s supposed objections to drug trafficking, however, was less clear. According to Hitz’s Volume One, Bermúdez enlisted Norwin Meneses, a large-scale Nicaraguan cocaine smuggler and a key figure in Webb’s series, to raise money and buy supplies for the Contras.

Volume One had quoted a Meneses associate, another Nicaraguan trafficker named Danilo Blandón, who told Hitz’s investigators that he and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet with Bermúdez in 1982. At the time, Meneses’s criminal activities were well-known in the Nicaraguan exile community. But Bermúdez told the cocaine smugglers that “the ends justify the means” in raising money for the Contras.

After the Bermúdez meeting, Contra soldiers helped Meneses and Blandón get past Honduran police who briefly arrested them on drug-trafficking suspicions. After their release, Blandón and Meneses traveled on to Bolivia to complete a cocaine transaction.

There were other indications of Bermúdez’s drug-smuggling tolerance. In February 1988, another Nicaraguan exile linked to the drug trade accused Bermúdez of participation in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitz’s report. After the Contra war ended, Bermúdez returned to Managua, Nicaragua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder has never been solved.

The Southern Front

Along the Southern Front, the Contras’ military operations in Costa Rica on Nicaragua’s southern border, the CIA’s drug evidence centered on the forces of Edén Pastora, another top Contra commander. But Hitz discovered that the U.S. government may have made the drug situation worse, not better.

Hitz revealed that the CIA put an admitted drug operative, known by his CIA pseudonym “Ivan Gomez”, in a supervisory position over Pastora. Hitz reported that the CIA discovered Gomez’s drug history in 1987 when Gomez failed a security review on drug-trafficking questions.

In internal CIA interviews, Gomez admitted that in March or April 1982, he helped family members who were engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. In one case, Gomez said he assisted his brother and brother-in-law in transporting cash from New York City to Miami. He admitted that he “knew this act was illegal.”

Later, Gomez expanded on his admission, describing how his family members had fallen $2 million into debt and had gone to Miami to run a money-laundering center for drug traffickers. Gomez said “his brother had many visitors whom [Gomez] assumed to be in the drug trafficking business.” Gomez’s brother was arrested on drug charges in June 1982. Three months later, in September 1982, Gomez started his CIA assignment in Costa Rica.

Years later, convicted drug trafficker Carlos Cabezas alleged that in the early 1980s, Ivan Gomez was the CIA agent in Costa Rica who was overseeing drug-money donations to the Contras. Gomez “was to make sure the money was given to the right people [the Contras] and nobody was taking  . . .  profit they weren’t supposed to,” Cabezas stated publicly.

But the CIA sought to discredit Cabezas at the time because he had trouble identifying Gomez’s picture and put Gomez at one meeting in early 1982 before Gomez started his CIA assignment.

While the CIA was able to fend off Cabezas’s allegations by pointing to these discrepancies, Hitz’s report revealed that the CIA was nevertheless aware of Gomez’s direct role in drug-money laundering, a fact the agency hid from Sen. Kerry in his 1987 investigation.

Cocaine Coup

There was also more to know about Gomez. In November 1985, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) learned from an informant that Gomez’s two brothers had been large-scale cocaine importers, with one brother arranging shipments from Bolivia’s infamous drug kingpin Roberto Suarez.

Suarez already was known as a financier of right-wing causes. In 1980, with the support of Argentina’s hard-line anticommunist military regime, Suarez bankrolled a coup in Bolivia that ousted the elected left-of-center government. The violent putsch became known as the Cocaine Coup because it made Bolivia the region’s first narco-state.

By protecting cocaine shipments headed north, Bolivia’s government helped transform Colombia’s Medellín cartel from a struggling local operation into a giant corporate-style business for delivering cocaine to the U.S. market.

Flush with cash in the early 1980s, Suarez invested more than $30 million in various right-wing paramilitary operations, including the Contra forces in Central America, according to U.S. Senate testimony by an Argentine intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse.

In 1987, Sanchez-Reisse said the Suarez drug money was laundered through front companies in Miami before going to Central America. There, other Argentine intelligence officers, veterans of the Bolivian coup, trained the Contras in the early 1980s, even before the CIA arrived to first assist with the training and later take over the Contra operation from the Argentines.

Inspector General Hitz added another piece to the mystery of the Bolivian-Contra connection. One Contra fund-raiser, Jose Orlando Bolanos, boasted that the Argentine government was supporting his Contra activities, according to a May 1982 cable to CIA headquarters. Bolanos made the statement during a meeting with undercover DEA agents in Florida. He even offered to introduce them to his Bolivian cocaine supplier.

Despite all this suspicious drug activity centered around Ivan Gomez and the Contras, the CIA insisted that it did not unmask Gomez until 1987, when he failed a security check and confessed his role in his family’s drug business. The CIA official who interviewed Gomez concluded that “Gomez directly participated in illegal drug transactions, concealed participation in illegal drug transactions, and concealed information about involvement in illegal drug activity,” Hitz wrote.

Protecting Gomez

But senior CIA officials still protected Gomez. They refused to refer the Gomez case to the Justice Department, citing the 1982 agreement that spared the CIA from a legal obligation to report narcotics crimes by people collaborating with the CIA who were not formal agency employees.

Gomez was an independent contractor who worked for the CIA but was not officially on staff. The CIA eased Gomez out of the agency in February 1988, without alerting law enforcement or the congressional oversight committees.

When questioned about the case nearly a decade later, one senior CIA official who had supported the gentle treatment of Gomez had second thoughts. “It is a striking commentary on me and everyone that this guy’s involvement in narcotics didn’t weigh more heavily on me or the system,” the official acknowledged to Hitz’s investigators.

A Medellín drug connection arose in another section of Hitz’s report, when he revealed evidence suggesting that some Contra trafficking may have been sanctioned by Reagan’s NSC. The protagonist for this part of the Contra-cocaine mystery was Moises Nunez, a Cuban-American who worked for Oliver North’s NSC Contra-support operation and for two drug-connected seafood importers, Ocean Hunter in Miami and Frigorificos De Puntarenas in Costa Rica.

Frigorificos De Puntarenas was created in the early 1980s as a cover for drug-money laundering, according to sworn testimony by two of the firm’s principals, Carlos Soto and Medellín cartel accountant Ramon Milian Rodriguez. (It was also the company implicated by a DEA informant in moving cocaine from John Hull’s ranch to the United States.)

Drug allegations were swirling around Moises Nunez by the mid-1980s. Indeed, his operation was one of the targets of my and Barger’s AP investigation in 1985. Finally reacting to these suspicions, the CIA questioned Nunez about his alleged cocaine trafficking on March 25, 1987. He responded by pointing the finger at his NSC superiors.

“Nunez revealed that since 1985, he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National Security Council,” Hitz reported, adding: “Nunez refused to elaborate on the nature of these actions, but indicated it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC. Nunez refused to identify the NSC officials with whom he had been involved.”

After this first round of questioning, CIA headquarters authorized an additional session, but then senior CIA officials reversed the decision. There would be no further efforts at “debriefing Nunez.”

Hitz noted that “the cable [from headquarters] offered no explanation for the decision” to stop the Nunez interrogation. But the CIA’s Central American Task Force chief Alan Fiers Jr. said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued “because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [the Contra money handled by North] a decision was made not to pursue this matter.”

Joseph Fernandez, who had been the CIA’s station chief in Costa Rica, confirmed to congressional Iran-Contra investigators that Nunez “was involved in a very sensitive operation” for North’s “Enterprise.” The exact nature of that NSC-authorized activity has never been divulged.

At the time of the Nunez-NSC drug admissions and his truncated interrogation, the CIA’s acting director was Robert Gates, who nearly two decades later became President George W. Bush’s second secretary of defense, a position he retained under President Barack Obama.

Drug Record

The CIA also worked directly with other drug-connected Cuban-Americans on the Contra project, Hitz found. One of Nunez’s Cuban-American associates, Felipe Vidal, had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s. But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics coordinator for the Contras, Hitz reported.

The CIA also learned that Vidal’s drug connections were not only in the past. A December 1984 cable to CIA headquarters revealed Vidal’s ties to Rene Corvo, another Cuban-American suspected of drug trafficking. Corvo was working with Cuban anticommunist Frank Castro, who was viewed as a Medellín cartel representative within the Contra movement.

There were other narcotics links to Vidal. In January 1986, the DEA in Miami seized 414 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipment of yucca that was going from a Contra operative in Costa Rica to Ocean Hunter, the company where Vidal (and Moises Nunez) worked. Despite the evidence, Vidal remained a CIA employee as he collaborated with Frank Castro’s assistant, Rene Corvo, in raising money for the Contras, according to a CIA memo in June 1986.

By fall 1986, Sen. Kerry had heard enough rumors about Vidal to demand information about him as part of his congressional inquiry into Contra drugs. But the CIA withheld the derogatory information in its files. On Oct. 15, 1986, Kerry received a briefing from the CIA’s Alan Fiers Jr., who didn’t mention Vidal’s drug arrests and conviction in the 1970s.

But Vidal was not yet in the clear. In 1987, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami began investigating Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and other Contra-connected entities. This prosecutorial attention worried the CIA. The CIA’s Latin American division felt it was time for a security review of Vidal. But on Aug. 5, 1987, the CIA’s security office blocked the review for fear that the Vidal drug information “could be exposed during any future litigation.”

As expected, the U.S. Attorney’s Office did request documents about “Contra-related activities” by Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and 16 other entities. The CIA advised the prosecutor that “no information had been found regarding Ocean Hunter,” a statement that was clearly false. The CIA continued Vidal’s employment as an adviser to the Contra movement until 1990, virtually the end of the Contra war.

FDN Connections

Hitz also revealed that drugs tainted the highest levels of the Honduran-based FDN, the largest Contra army. Hitz found that Juan Rivas, a Contra commander who rose to be chief of staff, admitted that he had been a cocaine trafficker in Colombia before the war.

The CIA asked Rivas, known as El Quiche, about his background after the DEA began suspecting that Rivas might be an escaped convict from a Colombian prison. In interviews with CIA officers, Rivas acknowledged that he had been arrested and convicted of packaging and transporting cocaine for the drug trade in Barranquilla, Colombia. After several months in prison, Rivas said, he escaped and moved to Central America, where he joined the Contras.

Defending Rivas, CIA officials insisted that there was no evidence that Rivas engaged in trafficking while with the Contras. But one CIA cable noted that he lived an expensive lifestyle, even keeping a $100,000 Thoroughbred horse at the Contra camp. Contra military commander Bermúdez later attributed Rivas’s wealth to his ex-girlfriend’s rich family. But a CIA cable in March 1989 added that “some in the FDN may have suspected at the time that the father-in-law was engaged in drug trafficking.”

Still, the CIA moved quickly to protect Rivas from exposure and possible extradition to Colombia. In February 1989, CIA headquarters asked that the DEA take no action “in view of the serious political damage to the U.S. Government that could occur should the information about Rivas become public.” Rivas was eased out of the Contra leadership with an explanation of poor health. With U.S. government help, he was allowed to resettle in Miami. Colombia was not informed about his fugitive status.

Another senior FDN official implicated in the drug trade was its chief spokesman in Honduras, Arnoldo Jose “Frank” Arana.

The drug allegations against Arana dated back to 1983 when a federal narcotics task force put him under criminal investigation because of plans “to smuggle 100 kilograms of cocaine into the United States from South America.” On Jan. 23, 1986, the FBI reported that Arana and his brothers were involved in a drug-smuggling enterprise, although Arana was not charged.

Arana sought to clear up another set of drug suspicions in 1989 by visiting the DEA in Honduras with a business associate, Jose Perez. Arana’s association with Perez, however, only raised new alarms. If “Arana is mixed up with the Perez brothers, he is probably dirty,” the DEA said.

Drug Airlines

Through their ownership of an air services company called SETCO, the Perez brothers were associated with Juan Matta-Ballesteros, a major cocaine kingpin connected to the murder of a DEA agent, according to reports by the DEA and U.S. Customs. Hitz reported that someone at the CIA scribbled a note on a DEA cable about Arana stating: “Arnold Arana . . . still active and working, we [CIA] may have a problem.”

Despite its drug ties to Matta-Ballesteros, SETCO emerged as the principal company for ferrying supplies to the Contras in Honduras. During congressional Iran-Contra hearings, FDN political leader Adolfo Calero testified that SETCO was paid from bank accounts controlled by Oliver North. SETCO also received $185,924 from the State Department for ferrying supplies to the Contras in 1986. Furthermore, Hitz found that other air transport companies used by the Contras were implicated in the cocaine trade as well.

Even FDN leaders suspected that they were shipping supplies to Central America aboard planes that might be returning with drugs. Mario Calero, the chief of Contra logistics, grew so uneasy about one air freight company that he notified U.S. law enforcement that the FDN only chartered the planes for the flights south, not the return flights north.

Hitz found that some drug pilots simply rotated from one sector of the Contra operation to another. Donaldo Frixone, who had a drug record in the Dominican Republic, was hired by the CIA to fly Contra missions from 1983 to 1985. In September 1986, however, Frixone was implicated in smuggling 19,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. In late 1986 or early 1987, he went to work for Vortex, another U.S.-paid Contra supply company linked to the drug trade.

By the time that Hitz’s Volume Two was published in fall 1998, the CIA’s defense against Webb’s series had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the Contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking. But Hitz made clear that the Contra war took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the Justice Department, Congress, and even the CIA’s own analytical division.

Besides tracing the evidence of Contra-drug trafficking through the decade-long Contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the Contra-drug problem but didn’t want its exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.

According to Hitz, the CIA had “one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government. . . . [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the Contra program.” One CIA field officer explained, “The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.”

Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations officers handling the Contras hid evidence of Contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA’s analysts.

Because of the withheld evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that “only a handful of Contras might have been involved in drug trafficking.” That false assessment was passed on to Congress and to major news organizations, serving as an important basis for denouncing Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series in 1996.

CIA Admission

Although Hitz’s report was an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it went almost unnoticed by the big American newspapers.

On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitz’s Volume Two was posted on the CIA’s Web site, the New York Times published a brief article that continued to deride Webb but acknowledged the Contra-drug problem may have been worse than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles Times never published a story on the release of Hitz’s Volume Two.

In 2000, the House Intelligence Committee grudgingly acknowledged that the stories about Reagan’s CIA protecting Contra drug traffickers were true. The committee released a report citing classified testimony from CIA Inspector General Britt Snider (Hitz’s successor) admitting that the spy agency had turned a blind eye to evidence of Contra-drug smuggling and generally treated drug smuggling through Central America as a low priority.

“In the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas appears to have taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations against those with whom the agency was working,” Snider said, adding that the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in “a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner.”

The House committee, then controlled by Republicans, still downplayed the significance of the Contra-cocaine scandal, but the panel acknowledged, deep inside its report, that in some cases, “CIA employees did nothing to verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the opportunity to do so. In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual.”

Like the release of Hitz’s report in 1998, the admissions by Snider and the House committee drew virtually no media attention in 2000, except for a few articles on the Internet, including one at Consortiumnews.com.

Unrepentant Press

Because of this misuse of power by the Big Three newspapers, choosing to conceal their own journalistic failings regarding the Contra-cocaine scandal and to protect the Reagan administration’s image, Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated.

After his original “Dark Alliance” series was published in 1996, Webb had been inundated with attractive book offers from major publishing houses, but once the vilification began, the interest evaporated. Webb’s agent contacted an independent publishing house, Seven Stories Press, which had a reputation for publishing books that had been censored, and it took on the project.

After Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion was published in 1998, I joined Webb in a few speaking appearances on the West Coast, including one packed book talk at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, California. For a time, Webb was treated as a celebrity on the American Left, but that gradually faded.

In our interactions during these joint appearances, I found Webb to be a regular guy who seemed to be holding up fairly well under the terrible pressure. He had landed an investigative job with a California state legislative committee. He also felt some measure of vindication when CIA Inspector General Hitz’s reports came out.

However, Webb never could overcome the pain caused by his betrayal at the hands of his journalistic colleagues, his peers. In the years that followed, Webb was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession, the conventional wisdom remained that he had somehow been exposed as a journalistic fraud. His state job ended; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a move out of a modest rental house near Sacramento, California.

On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation; and taped a note on the door telling movers, who were coming the next morning, to instead call 911. Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.

Even with Webb’s death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction couldn’t bring themselves to show Webb any mercy. After Webb’s body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work.

I told the reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the Los Angeles Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents of Hitz’s final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.

To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The Los Angeles Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb, nor the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The obituary was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.

In effect, Webb’s suicide enabled senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little easier, one of the few people who understood the ugly story of the Reagan administration’s cover-up of the Contra-cocaine scandal and the U.S. media’s complicity was now silenced.

To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has paid a price for their actions. None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. None had to experience that special pain of standing up for what is best in the profession of journalism, taking on a difficult story that seeks to hold powerful people accountable for serious crimes, and then being vilified by your own colleagues, the people that you expected to understand and appreciate what you had done.

On the contrary, many were rewarded with professional advancement and lucrative careers. For instance, Howard Kurtz still hosts the CNN program, “Reliable Sources,” which lectures journalists on professional standards.

 [For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

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.




Petraeus’s New ‘Killing Machine’

The CIA is now “one hell of a killing machine,” said one CIA insider, as lethal drones hunt down “bad guys” selected for death by a ramped-up force of CIA target analysts. This shift in emphasis has transformed the spy agency that new director, retired Gen. David Petraeus, inherits, writes Gareth Porter.

 By Gareth Porter

When David Petraeus settles into his new office at the Central Intelligence Agency, he will be taking over an organization whose chief mission has changed in recent years from gathering and analyzing intelligence to waging military campaigns through drone strikes in Pakistan, as well as in Yemen and Somalia.

But the transformation of the CIA did not simply follow the expansion of the drone war in Pakistan to its present level. CIA Director Michael Hayden lobbied hard for that expansion at a time when drone strikes seemed like a failed experiment.

The reason Hayden pushed for a much bigger drone war, it now appears, is that it had already created a whole bureaucracy in the anticipation of such a war.

During 2010, the CIA “drone war” in Pakistan killed as many as 1,000 people a year, compared with the roughly 2,000 a year officially estimated to have been killed by the Special Forces “night raids” in Afghanistan, according to a report in the Sept. 1 Washington Post.

A CIA official was quoted by the Post as saying that the CIA had become “one hell of a killing machine,” before quickly revising the phrase to “one hell of an operational tool”.

The shift in the CIA mission’s has been reflected in the spectacular growth of its Counter-terrorism Center (CTC) from 300 employees in September 2001 to about 2,000 people today 10 percent of the agency’s entire workforce, according to the Post report.

The agency’s analytical branch, which had been previously devoted entirely to providing intelligence assessments for policymakers, has been profoundly affected.

More than one-third of the personnel in the agency’s analytical branch are now engaged wholly or primarily in providing support to CIA operations, according to senior agency officials cited by the Post. And nearly two-thirds of those are analyzing data used by the CTC drone war staff to make decisions on targeting.

Some of that shift of internal staffing to support of the drone has followed the rise in the number of drone strikes in Pakistan since mid-2008, but the CIA began to lay the institutional basis for a bigger drone campaign well before that.

Crucial to understanding the role of internal dynamics in CIA decisions on the issue is the fact that the drone campaign in Pakistan started off very badly. During the four years from 2004 through 2007, the CIA carried out a total of only 12 drone strikes in Pakistan, all supposedly aimed at identifiable high-value targets of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

The George W. Bush administration’s policy on use of drones was cautious in large part because the President of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was considered such a reliable ally that the administration was reluctant to take actions that would risk destabilizing his regime.

Thus relatively tight constraints were imposed on the CIA in choosing targets for drone strikes. They were only to be used against known “high-value” officials of Al-Qaeda and their affiliates in Pakistan, and the CIA had to have evidence that no civilians would be killed as a result of the strike.

Those first 12 strikes killed only three identifiable Al-Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban figures, But despite the prohibition against strikes that would incur “collateral damage,” the same strikes killed a total of 121 civilians, as revealed by a thorough analysis of news media reports.

A single strike against a madrassa on Oct. 26, 2006, that killed 80 local students accounted for two-thirds of the total of civilian casualties.

Despite that disastrous start, however, the CIA had quickly become deeply committed internally to building a major program around the drone war. In 2005, the agency had created a career track in targeting for the drone program for analysts in the intelligence directorate, the Sept. 2 Post article revealed.

That decision meant that analysts who chose to specialize in targeting for CIA drone operations were promised that they could stay within that specialty and get promotions throughout their careers. Thus the agency had made far-reaching commitments to its own staff in the expectation that the drone war would grow far beyond the three strikes a year and that it would continue indefinitely.

By 2007, the agency realized that, in order to keep those commitments, it had to get the White House to change the rules by relaxing existing restrictions on drone strikes.

That’s when Hayden began lobbying President George W. Bush to dispense with the constraints limiting the targeting for drone attacks, according to the account in New York Times reporter David Sanger’s book The Inheritance. Hayden asked for permission to carry out strikes against houses or cars merely on the basis of behavior that matched a “pattern of life” associated with Al-Qaeda or other groups.

In January 2008, Bush took an unidentified first step toward the loosening of the requirements that Hayden sought, but most of the restrictions on drone strikes remained in place. In the first six months of 2008, only four strikes were carried out.

In mid-2008, however, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell returned from a May 2008 trip to Pakistan determined to prove that the Pakistani military was covertly supporting Taliban insurgents – especially the Haqqani network – who were gaining momentum in Afghanistan.

A formal assessment by McConnell’s staff making that case was produced in June and sent to the White House and other top officials, according to Sanger. That forced Bush, who had been praising Musharraf as an ally against the Taliban, to do something to show that he was being tough on the Pakistani military as well as on the Afghan insurgents who enjoyed safe havens in northwest Pakistan.

Bush wanted the drone strikes to focus primarily on the Afghan Taliban targets rather than Al-Qaeda and its Pakistani Taliban allies. And according to Sanger’s account, Bush quickly removed all of the previous requirements for accurate intelligence on specific high-value targets and for assurances against civilian casualties.

Released from the original constraints on the drone program, the CIA immediately increased the level of drone strikes in the second half of 2008 to between four and five per month on average.

As Bob Woodward’s account in Obama Wars of internal discussions in the early weeks of the Barack Obama White House shows, there were serious doubts from the beginning that it could actually defeat Al- Qaeda.

But Leon Panetta, Obama’s new CIA director, was firmly committed to the drone war. He continued to present it to the public as a strategy to destroy Al-Qaeda, even though he knew the CIA was now striking mainly Afghan Taliban and their allies, not Al-Qaeda.

In his first press conference on Feb. 25, 2009, Panetta, in an indirect but obvious reference to the drone strikes, said that the effort to destabilize Al-Qaeda and destroy its leadership “have been successful.”

Under Panetta, the rate of drone strikes continued throughout 2009 at the same accelerated pace as in the second half of 2008. And in 2010 the number of strikes more than doubled from 53 in 2009 to 118.

The CIA finally had the major drone campaign it had originally anticipated.

Two years ago, Petraeus appeared to take a somewhat skeptical view of drone strikes in Pakistan. In a secret assessment as CENTCOM commander on May 27, 2009, which was leaked to the Washington Post, Petraeus warned that drone strikes were fueling anti-U.S. sentiments in Pakistan.

Now, however, Petraeus’s personal view of the drone war may no longer be relevant. The CIA’s institutional interests in continuing the drone war may have become so commanding that no director could afford to override those interests on the basis of his own analysis of how the drone strikes affect U.S. interests.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006. (This article originally appeared at Inter Press Service.)




Ray McGovern on Cheney’s Memoir

Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern discusses former Vice President Dick Cheney’s memoir and the larger question of how information is twisted in modern America. Watch the Video.




Rise of Another CIA Yes Man

Exclusive: The gross manipulation of CIA analysis under George W. Bush pushed a new generation of “yes men” into the agency’s top ranks. Now one of those aspiring bureaucrats will be Gen. David Petraeus’s right-hand man, writes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern. (Also, at end of article, see special comments from several CIA insiders.)

By Ray McGovern

As Gen. David Petraeus prepares to take the helm at CIA in September, he can expect unswerving loyalty from his likely deputy, Michael Morell, who has been acting director since July when Leon Panetta left to become Secretary of Defense. 

Like many senior CIA officials in recent years, Morell’s record is checkered, at best. He held key jobs in intelligence analysis over the past decade as the CIA often served as a handmaiden to the war propagandists.

As for Michael Morell, as with many other successful CIA careerists, his strongest suit seemed to be pleasing his boss and not antagonizing the White House. If past is precedent, his loyalty will be to Petraeus, not necessarily to the truth. 

Forgive me if my thinking about loyalty to the facts seems “obsolete” or “quaint” or if it seems unfair to expect CIA analysts to put their careers on the line when politicians and ideologues are misleading the nation to war but those were the principles that analysts of my generation tried to uphold.

The recent tendency at CIA to give politicians what they want to hear rather than the hard truth is not healthy for the Republic that we were all sworn to serve.

And, if Petraeus’s own past is precedent, loyalty to the four-star general will not always be synonymous with loyalty to the truth.

Burnishing an Image 

However, you will get no indication of this troubling reality from the flattering, but thin, feature about Michael Morell, “Mr. Insider Will Guide Petraeus at the CIA,” by Siobhan Gorman in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 26.

Gorman is normally a solid reporter; but either she did not perform due diligence and let herself be snookered, or her editors stepped in to ensure her story was consonant with the image Petraeus and the Establishment wish to create for Morell.

Before her “rare” interview with Morell, Gorman should have taken a close look at former CIA Director George Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm, to learn what Tenet says about Morell’s record during the last decade’s dark days of misleading and dishonest intelligence.

In Tenet’s personal account of the CIA’s failures around 9/11 and the Iraq War, Morell Tenet’s former executive assistant is generally treated kindly, but Tenet puts Morell at the center of two key fiascoes: he “coordinated the CIA review” of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous Feb. 5, 2003 address to the United Nations and he served as the regular CIA briefer to President George W. Bush.

Putting Access Before Honesty

So, Morell was there as Bush blew off early CIA warnings about the possibility of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden being “determined to strike in the US” and while Bush and his neoconservative inner circle were concocting intelligence to justify invading Iraq.

Tenet credits Morell with suggesting to analysts that they prepare a report on the terrorist threat, which became the President’s Daily Brief that was handed to Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Bush brushed aside the warning with a reported comment to the CIA briefer, “all right, you’ve covered your ass,” and went off fishing.

Though Tenet said Morell got along well with Bush, it appears the President didn’t pay much heed to any CIA information coming from Morell, at least not anything that went against what Bush wanted to hear nor did Morell seem to risk offending the President by pushing these contrary points.

After the Aug. 6 PDB was delivered, Tenet wrote that he needed to follow it up, and did so with a trip to Crawford 11 days later, when Tenet remembers Bush driving him around in a pickup truck as Tenet made “small talk about the flora and fauna.”

Morell also was the CIA briefer with Bush in Florida on the morning of 9/11 when news arrived about the attacks on New York City’s Twin Towers. Later, Bush told Morell “that if we [the CIA] learned anything definitive about the attack, he wanted to be the first to know,” Tenet wrote, adding:

“Wiry, youthful looking, and extremely bright, Mike speaks in staccato-like bursts that get to the bottom line very quickly. He and George Bush had hit it off almost immediately. In a crisis like this, Mike was the perfect guy for us to have by the commander-in-chief’s side.”

However, it appears Morell was not willing to risk his rapport with Bush by challenging the President’s desire to pivot from retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan to a full-scale invasion of Iraq based on false and misleading intelligence.

Tenet also described Morell’s role in organizing the review of the “intelligence” that went into Powell’s speech, which let slip the dogs of war by presenting a thoroughly deceptive account of the Iraqi threat, what Powell later called a “blot” on his record.

Though the CIA embraced many of Powell’s misleading assertions, Tenet recounted one exchange in which Morell stood up to John Hannah, an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, regarding Iraq’s alleged efforts to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger.

“Hannah asked Mike Morell, who was coordinating the review of the speech for CIA, why the Niger uranium story wasn’t in the latest draft,” Tenet wrote. “‘Because we don’t believe it,’ Mike told him. ‘I thought you did,’ Hannah said. After much wrangling and precious time lost in explaining our doubts, Hannah understood why we believed it was inappropriate for Colin to use the Niger material in his speech.”

Despite that one pushback, the CIA analysts mostly bent to pressures coming from the White House for an alarmist treatment of allegations about the “weapons of mass destruction,” which turned out not to be in Iraq.

Of the CIA’s finished intelligence product, it was reportedly the PDB delivered by Morell that most exaggerated the danger.

Not Mistaken, Dishonest

It is sad to have to recall that this was not “erroneous,” but rather fraudulent intelligence.  Announcing on June 5, 2008, the bipartisan conclusions from a five-year study by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller described the intelligence conjured up to “justify” war on Iraq as “uncorroborated, contradicted, or even non-existent.”

Rockefeller’s comments call to mind what Tenet told his British counterpart, Sir Richard Dearlove, on July 20, 2002, after former Prime Minister Tony Blair sent Dearlove to the CIA to get the latest scoop on how the U.S. planned to “justify” the attack on Iraq. 

According to the official British minutes of a cabinet-level planning session chaired by Blair on July 23, 2002, at 10 Downing Street, Tenet made clear to Dearlove that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” to bring “regime change” to Iraq.

Could it be that Tenet would let the British in on this dirty little secret and keep George W. Bush’s personal briefer, Michael Morell, in the dark? Seems unlikely.

But even if Morell were not fully informed about the high-level scheme for war, would he have been with his prized relationship with the President the most appropriate senior official to “coordinate the CIA review” of Powell’s speech?

The ‘Sinister Nexus’

In the Wall Street Journal feature, reporter Gorman was assured of something else about Morell’s role in preparing the intelligence on Iraq. According to Gorman, “His [Morell’s] team didn’t handle the analysis that erroneously concluded the Iraqi government had weapons of mass destruction.” I guess that depends on your definition of “team.”

But what about alleged ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, the second bogus issue used to “justify” attacking Iraq? There Morell seemed to be on better ground, telling Gorman that his “team” had concluded that there had been earlier contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaeda, but there were no links to al-Qaeda operations at the time.

Still, Morell didn’t seem to have pressed this point very hard while coordinating the CIA’s review of Powell’s UN speech. If Morell had, one has to wonder why Powell was fed, and swallowed, the line about a “sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network?”

ABC’s Brian Ross shot down that canard just hours after Powell spoke. Citing a BBC report from London, Ross noted that British intelligence had concluded there was no evidence to support the theory that al-Qaeda and Iraq were working together.

Virtually all intelligence analysts with no axes to grind, after sifting through thousands of reports, had long since come to that same conclusion.

Did Secretary Powell have to learn about the Iraq/al-Qaeda disconnect from the BBC? Later, Powell was livid at having been led down the garden path by the likes of Tenet, Tenet’s pandering deputy John McLaughlin, and Morell, a Tenet protégé.

Tenet and McLaughlin were also co-liars-in-chief regarding those mobile biological weapons factories, a yarn spun by the infamous source called “Curveball.” In his memoir, Tenet doesn’t describe Morell’s role in promoting, or at least acquiescing in depicting, the charlatan “Curveball” as a reliable intelligence source for a key portion of Powell’s speech. 

And, if you think it’s unfair to expect CIA bureaucrats to risk their careers by challenging the political desires of the White  House, it’s worth noting the one major exception to the CIA’s sorry record during George W. Bush’s presidency and how honest CIA analysts helped prevent another unnecessary war.

After former chief of State Department intelligence Tom Fingar was put in charge of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), a thoroughly professional NIE in late 2007 concluded unanimously and “with high confidence” that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in mid-2003.

President Bush’s own memoir leaves no doubt that this Estimate played a huge role in spiking White House plans for war on Iran. It’s a pity that the Estimate on Iran should be an exception to the rule.

Much to Be Humble About

Yet, in the Wall Street Journal feature, Michael Morell lectures Gorman on the basics and the limits of intelligence analysis. 

“We end up having bits of information that have a multitude of possible explanations,” said Morell. “You’ve got to be really humble about the business we’re in.”

Well, yes indeed. The WSJ also ran a sidebar with a list of the following CIA failures and Morell’s facile potions for cures:

–2001, Sept. 11 attacks: A failure of both intelligence collection and analysis. Lesson: A need to better penetrate U.S. adversaries.

–2003, Iraq weapons of mass destruction: Analysts erroneously concluded Iraq had WMDs. Lesson: Analysts must describe confidence levels in conclusions, consider alternate explanations.

–2009, Bombing of CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan: Doubts about the asset-turned-suicide-bomber didn’t get to the right people. Lesson: Share information with the people who most need it.

Is this Morell fellow on the ball, or what?

Let’s address these one by one:

–9/11 need not have happened if Tenet and his protégés simply shared the information needed by the FBI and others. See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Did Tenet Hide Key 9/11 Info?” Or, Tenet and Morell might have risked their cozy relationship with Bush by challenging his casual dismissal of the existing multiple warnings.

–The WMD not in Iraq? How about promoting and rewarding honest analysts; no “fixing” allowed. Face down White House pressure. We used to do it all the time. We used to have career protection for doing it. 

–On the tragedy at Khost? Well, how about some basic training in tradecraft, including rudimentary security precautions.

And speaking of rudimentary security precautions: Morell bragged to Gorman that he had recently flown to Kabul to brief Petraeus, carrying a blue briefing book emblazoned with the CIA seal and detailing the CIA’s every critical program, organization and operation.

“It was the most highly classified guide that I’ve ever seen in my life” was Petraeus’s wow-response.

The appropriate reaction, in my professional view, would have been to fire Morell on the spot for recklessness. He should know better. They down aircraft, blow up motorcades and shoot people in Afghanistan, you know. Is it really such a great idea to carry a briefing book with the CIA’s most sensitive secrets into that environment?

Moreover, bragging about this cavalier approach to protecting sensitive documents sends shivers down the backs of foreign intelligence officers, adding to their reluctance to share delicate information with us.

Loosening Leashes on Dogs of War

There is ironic serendipity in the fact that the WSJ feature on Morell appeared on Aug. 26, exactly nine years after the fraudulent speech given by Vice President Dick Cheney before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville.

And just four days before the nation’s bookstores host In My Time, Cheney’s apologia pro vita sua. (The advance promotion includes his personal warning that the book will have “heads exploding” all over Washington.)

There are huge lessons in what happened and what did not happen immediately after Cheney’s Aug. 26, 2002, thinly disguised call for an attack on Iraq, and how those who recognized the lies could not summon enough courage to try to stop the juggernaut toward war. 

The Fawning Corporate Media and the cowering careerists at CIA were among the main culprits. But there were others who, if they have a conscience and are honest with themselves, may still be finding it difficult to look in the mirror nine years later.

In his August 2002 speech, Cheney launched the virulent propaganda campaign for an aggressive war against Iraq, telling the audience in Nashville:

“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

This was no innocent mistake by the Vice President; it was a bald-faced lie, a falsehood that opened the gates to a hellish conflict that has ripped apart Iraq, bringing untold death and destruction.

Nine years later it is well worth recalling this lie on behalf of the 4,500 U.S. troops killed in Iraq, the many more wounded, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, and the five million displaced from their homes. 

Let it be widely understood that on Aug. 26, 2002, Dick Cheney set the meretricious terms of reference for war.

 Hear No Evil, Speak No Truth

Sitting on the same stage that evening was former CENTCOM commander Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was being honored at the VFW convention. Zinni later said he was shocked to hear Cheney’s depiction of intelligence (Iraq has WMD and is amassing them to use against us) that did not square with what he knew.

Although Zinni had retired two years before, his role as consultant had enabled him to stay up to date on key intelligence findings.

“There was no solid proof that Saddam had WMD. … I heard a case being made to go to war,” Zinni told Meet the Press three and a half years later.

Zinni is normally a straight shooter with a good bit of courage. And so, the question lingers: why did he not go public when he first heard Cheney’s lie?

What seems operative here, I fear, is an all-too-familiar conundrum at senior levels where people have been conditioned not to rock the boat, not to risk their standing within the Washington Establishment.

Almost always, the results are bad. I would bet a tidy sum that Zinni regrets having let his reaction be shaped, as it apparently was, by a misguided kind of professional courtesy and/or slavish adherence to classification restrictions. 

After all, he was one of the very few credible senior officials who might have prevented a war of aggression, which the Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II branded the “supreme international crime.”

Zinni was not the only one taken aback by Cheney’s words. Then-CIA Director George Tenet said Cheney’s speech took him completely by surprise.

In his memoir, Tenet wrote, “I had the impression that the president wasn’t any more aware than we were of what his number-two was going to say to the VFW until he said it.” But like Br’er Fox, Tenet didn’t say nothing.

Tenet claims he didn’t even check it all out with either Cheney or Bush after Cheney’s speech. Yet, could Cheney’s twisting of the data not have been anticipated? Indeed, weren’t Tenet and his CIA in on the determination to make a case for war?

In a way, that conclusion is a no-brainer. As mentioned above, just five weeks before Cheney’s speech, Tenet himself had explained to his British counterpart that the President had decided to make war on Iraq for regime change and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” 

Cheney simply was unveiling the war rationale to the public. Several weeks later, when Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Bob Graham insisted on a National Intelligence Estimate before any vote in Congress, Tenet told his folks to prepare one that dovetailed with Cheney’s unsupported rhetoric.

Sadly, my former colleagues did. And where was Michael Morell in this process? Clearly, he did nothing to destroy his career or put himself too much on the outs at the White House.

The Sales Job

When Bush’s senior advisers came back to town after Labor Day 2002, the next five weeks were devoted to selling the war, a major “new product” that, as then-White House chief of staff Andy Card explained, one shouldn’t introduce in the month of August.

Card, too, apparently had no idea that Cheney would jump the gun as “fixer-in-chief.” At that point, the Tenets, McLaughlins and Morells of this world fell right into line.

After assuring themselves that Tenet was a reliable salesman, Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld allowed him to play a supporting role in advertising bogus claims about aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment and mobile trailers for manufacturing biological warfare agents.

The hyped and bogus intelligence succeeded in scaring Congress into voting for war on Oct. 10 and 11, 2002.

In my view, it strains credulity to think that Michael Morell was unaware of the fraudulent nature of this campaign. Yet, like all too many others, he mostly kept quiet, and he got promoted. That’s how it works in Washington these days.

This kind of malleability regarding twisting facts to support war has worked well for Petraeus, too. 

Today, there is little chance Petraeus can be unaware of Morell’s pedigree. Given Petraeus’s own experience in climbing the career ladder, the general may even harbor an admiration for Morell’s extraordinary willingness to please.

The two will make a fine pair for Official Washington, though not for those “quaint” folks who put a high premium on integrity.

As for Dick Cheney who was once given the well-deserved sobriquet “Vice President for Torture” in a Washington Post editorial, I just wish he would disappear so he would stop bringing out the worst in everyone.

I found my own feelings mirrored in a plaintive comment from a good friend who prays a lot. She said, “I keep praying for Dick Cheney, especially when he goes into the hospital.  But he always comes out again.”

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was a PDB briefer of Vice President George H.W. Bush and the Secretaries of State and Defense during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, and earlier in his career chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Note: I sent a draft of the above article to former colleagues, intelligence officers who served in CIA more recently than I and left after clocking many years at very senior levels. The comments I received from them turned out to be so germane and incisive that I include them below for those wanting a better feel for what really goes on.

The first is from a recently retired Senior Intelligence Service officer.

Ray:

You make a good case that Morell isn’t going to be the objective, unpoliticized deputy that Petraeus is going to need.  He may be what Petraeus wants, but not what he needs to do a good job.

You make the case that, like McLaughlin, he’s going to give the veneer of an analyst’s integrity to decision making without any of the burdens (integrity, nonpoliticization, tradecraft, etc.) that make the analyst imprimatur meaningful. Like McLaughlin, he seems eager to play handmaiden to a predetermined agenda.

In fact, the case you make, correctly, is that Morell is the quintessential intelligence community bureaucrat who has survived and prospered by subscribing to a particular worldview and steering clear of the alternatives declared off-limits by the U.S. right wing.

A couple of more specific comments:

–Your use of the word “loyalty”: Morell will be loyal to his boss i.e., he will not upset him the way McLaughlin was loyal to Tenet. That ignores, of course, that the deputy’s job is to protect his boss from himself and from his own biases.

McLaughlin’s “loyalty” to Tenet wound up screwing Tenet, and Morell’s “loyalty” to Petraeus is going to do the same. A man like Petraeus shows up with HUGE blind spots, and Morell rather than help him see into those blind spots almost certainly will reinforce them. 

Your use of the word “loyalty” conveys that it’s a virus that will harm Petraeus. And that’s what it is.

The “winds blowing from the White House” requires a little elaboration. Just as Panetta was captured, so has this White House been via the person of CIA veteran John Brennan on site. Brennan, of course, is the fellow who could not get confirmed as director because of his well known past history, so he’s running things from the White House.

The number of Obama flip-flops on intelligence issues has been stunning. The “winds,” you might say, have been blowing from CIA’s own Tenet protégé Brennan.

I personally would say Morell, like McLaughlin, knows and accepts that the operations people and their rightwing allies in the Admin, at the Pentagon, and in the Congress (and there are many!) set the direction the wind blows; Morell will always urge his boss to tack accordingly. 

In fact, the parallels with McLaughlin are strong, an analysis directorate fellow of modest capabilities, desperate for acceptance by the operations people and the rightwing downtown, jettisoning tradecraft and going with the flow.

The Gorman piece in the WSJ was disgraceful cooptation in action. The fact that she could list his many failures as “lessons learned” was amazing. It’s as if the rightwing were signaling to Petreaus not to judge Morell by his repeated failures and repeated inaction; judge him by our right-wing love for him. 

On the many failures, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of Morell’s role in the historic intelligence cook-job of WMD and the fateful State of the Union lies about yellow cake; all I know is that Alan Foley was the designated representative in that coordination. 

But your sourcing of Tenet on that is compelling, and I think your sanity-check on Morell’s performance is fair.

 –Words like “wow-response” are also fair, and effective. The “wow” factor is used to shock and awe people to squeeze them into the tiny space in which conformity is expected and challenges rejected. 

For me, particularly with a weak Administration with no policy bearings like this one, the problem is that operations are done for operations’ sake sans policy, sans review. 

I’m reading Joby Warrick’s book, and his worship of targeters is somewhat jarring when there’s no discussion of the number of innocent people killed and no discussion of why this is an “intelligence” vice military mission. We know why, but his readers don’t making such worship rather cynical.

You’re probably right that it “strains credulity” that Morell didn’t know how fraudulent the whole National Intelligence Estimate on WMD in Iraq was. I just don’t know, however, whether he was able intellectually to see what was going on. 

He was so close to power and so close to their mindset and so eager to stay in their good graces that he may have believed all the horse manure.

Wrapped up as he was, he may not have fully appreciated the thing was especially because key elements of the intelligence community funneling info to him were also true-believers, as were those in charge of community analysis. 

Who could ever have been giving Morell an alternative view? The most senior people were all true-believers. It was very much frowned upon to ask real questions.

So how could a man of Morell’s background and capabilities ask them? If you preferred not to say outright that Morell was guilty of fraud, you could be somewhat more charitable and put it this way: He was surrounded by true-believers and didn’t have the fortitude or candlepower, or even perceived space, to question the bogus intelligence he was involved in validating.

Not a good harbinger for the future.

The second comment (on the remarks above) is from Larry C Johnson, former CIA intelligence officer.

Your observations provide important context. The lies that paved the road to war in Iraq are being revived this week as part of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. 

We have not learned a damned thing. Meanwhile, Iraq remains a deadly place for the various Iraq factions and our actions have completely disrupted the balance of power in the Middle East. Of course, neither the media nor the majority of the pundits want to focus on that.

And a brief but important point made by first commenter in reaction:

And cranking up for Iran?

Comment from Mary McCarthy, former Senior Intelligence Service officer and White House official.

You asked if I knew Morell and what he is like. I do; you nailed it.

The only moment of discomfort is when you use Tenet as a compass point for the actual truth. Because, of course, Tenet often has his own version of the facts.




Pakistan Demands Veto on Drone Strikes

The U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 aroused anger in Pakistan over unilateral American military actions. But bilateral tensions have been growing for years over U.S. drone strikes against Pakistani targets and have now reached a crisis stage, reports Gareth Porter for Inter Press Service.

 By Gareth Porter

Pakistani civilian and military leaders are insisting on an effective veto over which targets U.S. drone strikes hit, according to well-informed Pakistani military sources.

The sources, who met with IPS on condition that they not be identified, said that such veto power over the conduct of the drone war is a central element in a new Pakistani demand for a formal government-to-government agreement on the terms under which the United States and Pakistan will cooperate against insurgents in Pakistan.

The basic government-to-government agreement now being demanded would be followed, the sources said, by more detailed agreements between U.S. and Pakistani military leaders and intelligence agencies.

The new Pakistani demand for equal say over drone strikes marks the culmination of a long evolution in the Pakistani military’s attitude toward the drone war.

Initially supportive of strikes that were targeting Al-Qaeda leaders, senior Pakistani military leaders soon came to realize that the drone war carried serious risks for Pakistan’s war against the Pakistani Taliban.

A key turning point in the attitude of the military was the unilateral U.S. decision to focus the drone war on those Pakistani insurgents who had already decided to make peace with the Pakistani government and who opposed the war being waged by Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban against the Pakistani military.

The Central Intelligence Agency was allowed to run the drone war almost completely unilaterally for years, according to former Pakistani military leaders and diplomats, and the Pakistani military has only mustered the political will to challenge the U.S. power to carry out drone strikes unilaterally in recent months.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf allowed the drone strikes from 2004 to 2007 in order to ensure political support from the George W. Bush administration, something Musharraf had been denied during the Bill Clinton administration, according to Shamshad Ahmad, who was Pakistan’s foreign secretary and then ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.

“Those were the days when we felt that we had to work with the Americans on Al-Qaeda,” recalled Gen. Asad Durrani, a former director general of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), in an interview with IPS.

The choice of targets “usually was done by the U.S. unilaterally,” said Durrani. Two Pakistani generals confirmed that point in a separate interview with IPS.

The Musharraf regime even went so far as to provide cover for the drone strikes, repeatedly asserting after strikes that the explosions had been caused by the victims themselves making home-made bombs.

But that effort at transparent deception by the U.S. and Musharraf quickly fell apart when drone strikes were based on faulty intelligence and killed large numbers of civilians rather than Al- Qaeda leaders.

The worst such strike was an Oct. 30, 2006, drone attack on a madrassa in Chenagai village in Bajauer agency, which killed 82 people. Musharraf, who was primarily concerned with avoiding the charge of complicity in U.S. attacks on Pakistani targets, ordered the Pakistani military to take complete responsibility for the incident.

The spokesman for the Pakistani military claimed “confirmed intelligence reports that 70 to 80 militants were hiding in a madrassa used as a terrorist training facility” and said the Pakistani military had fired missiles at the madrassa.

But eyewitnesses in the village identified U.S. drones as the source of the attack and said all the victims were simply local students of the madrassa. Local people compiled a complete list of the names and ages of all 80 victims, showing that 25 of the dead had been aged seven to 15, which was published in the Lahore daily The News International.

Senior military officers believed the CIA had other reasons for launching the strike in Bajaur. The day before the drone attack, tribal elders in Bajaur had held a public meeting to pledge their willingness to abide by a peace accord with the government, and the government had released nine tribesmen, including some militants.

Former ISI chief Durrani recalled that the strike “effectively sabotaged the chances for an agreement” in Bejaur. That was “a very clear message” from the CIA not to enter into any more such peace agreements, Durrani told IPS.

The Bejaur madrassa strike was a turning point for many officers. “So many of us went in and said this is stupid,” Durrani recalled.

When Musharraf was pressured to step down as Army chief of staff, and was replaced by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in November 2007, the unilateral character of the CIA’s drone war “pretty much continued,” according to Gen. Jehanger Karamat, who was ambassador to the United States from 2004 to 2006 after having retired as Army chief of staff in 1998.

The CIA’s drone war became more contentious in 2008, as the Bush administration concentrated the strikes on those who had made peace with the Pakistani government. Two-thirds of the drone strikes that year were on targets associated with Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Nazeer, both of whom were involved in supporting Taliban forces in Afghanistan, but who opposed attacks on the Pakistani government.

Targeting the Haqqani network and his allies posed serious risks for Pakistan. When the Pakistani Army was fighting in South Waziristan, it had its logistic base in an area that was controlled by the Haqqani group, and it had been able to count on the security of that base.

Meanwhile, ISI had given the CIA accurate information on anti-Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud’s location on four occasions, but the U.S. had failed to target him, according to a May 2009 column by retired Pakistani Gen. Shaukat Qadir.

In 2009, more of the drone strikes – almost 40 percent of the total – focused on the Taliban under Mehsud, and Mehsud himself was killed, which tended to mollify the Pakistani military.

But that effect did not last long. In 2010, only three strikes were aimed at Mehsud’s anti-Pakistan Taliban organization, while well over half the strikes were against Hafiz Gul Bahadur, an ally of Haqqani who had signed an agreement with the Pakistani government in September 2006 that he would not shelter any anti-Pakistani militants.

The Barack Obama administration had made a deliberate decision around mid-2010 that it didn’t care if targeting the Haqqani network and other pro-Pakistani Taliban groups upset the Pakistanis, as the Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 23, 2010.

But two events caused Pakistani army chief Kayani to demand a fundamental change in U.S. policy toward the drone war.

The first was the arrest of CIA operative Raymond Davis on the charge of killing two Pakistanis in cold blood in January, which was followed by intense U.S. pressure for his release.

The second was a drone strike on March 17, just one day after Davis was released, which was initially reported to have been an attack on a gathering of Haqqani network officials.

It turned out that the drone attack had killed dozens of tribal and sub-tribal elders who had gathered from all over North Waziristan to discuss an economic issue.

A former U.S. official admitted that the strike was carried out because the CIA was “angry” over the fact that Davis had been kept in prison for seven weeks. “It was retaliation for Davis,” the official said, according to an Aug. 2 Associated Press story.

That strike helped galvanize the Pakistani military leadership. ISI chief Shuja Pasha took it as a slap in the face, because he had personally intervened to get Davis out of jail. Kayani shocked the Americans by issuing the first denunciation of drone strikes by an Army chief.

When Pasha went to Washington in April, he took with him the first official Pakistani demand for an equal say in drone strike decisions.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.




Murdering Iranian Scientists

U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies have basked in their apparent success using a computer virus to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. But a darker side of this disruptive operation may be the assassinations of the scientists themselves, reports Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

On July 23, it was announced that Dariush Rezai-Nejad was shot to death in Tehran by two men on motorbikes. The shooters also chased after his wife and shot her, too.

According to Al Jazeera, Rezai-Nejad was doing research in the field of electronics and had connections to the Iranian Department of Defense. It is not known if he was associated with Iran’s nuclear program.

This is not the first such attack. In November 2010, the cars of two other Iranian scientists who had definite links to the country’s nuclear program were rigged with bombs. One of them, Majid Shahriari, was killed outright and the other, Fereydoun Abbasi, again along with his wife, were injured.
 
There is a lot of speculation as to who is responsible for these attacks. One favorite Western theory is that the Iranian government is killing its own scientists because they are threatening to defect.

The only publicly identified Iranian scientist who may or may not have defected is Shahram Amiri. He claims to have been kidnapped by Saudi agents while on pilgrimage to Mecca in June 2009, and then forcibly taken to the United States. He later made his way back to Iran.

The notion that the Iranian government is now murdering some of their own scientists to assure the loyalty of the others seems farfetched. There are any number of less drastic ways to achieve this end.

Just about every independent source of analysis on this question agrees that the real perpetrators of these serial murders and attempted murders are the United States and Israel, perhaps with an assist from the UK.

These sources include Israel’s own senior military correspondent, Yossi Melman, who once told the British paper The Independent that there are “endless efforts of the Israeli intelligence establishment along with its Western counterparts, Britain’s MI6 and the CIA, to sabotage, delay and if possible stop Iran from reaching … its first nuclear bomb.” This effort includes the murder of Iranian scientists.

Similar reports have come from France’s Le Figaro, China’s Xinhua news agency and the Jerusalem Post.
 
To most Americans it might sound wrong that Washington, classically described to them from birth to death as God’s gift to good government, should be involved in campaigns of “official” murder. However, a brief look at recent history suggests that such practice is actually the norm.

For instance, during the Vietnam war the CIA initiated the Phoenix Program which managed to assassinate 26,369 suspected members of the Viet Cong. The program lasted from 1967 to 1972 when it was closed down due to negative publicity. Almost immediately it was replaced by a new secret, yet similar, operation code named “F-6.”

During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the CIA carried out or assisted in the assassination of thousands of individuals in Central and South America. The Agency reportedly tried to murder Fidel Castro hundreds of times.

Under George W. Bush’s administration, kidnapping, torture and murder were standard operating procedures. And, finally, it appears that a sloppy form of assassination is still today’s preferred tactic in the ongoing “war on terror.” The U.S. now uses drones which not only “take out” the target but also everyone else who happens to be in the vicinity at the time of the attack.

This brief history should make it clear that the repeated reports of U.S. involvement in the attacks on Iranian scientists is quite consistent with past practice. More generally, one will find no “moral squeamishness” when it comes to Washington’s use of murder as an element of foreign policy.
 
Contradiction
 
Now we come to the really amazing part of this story.

Readers may remember my analysis on June 10 regarding Iran and nuclear weapons. It laid out strong evidence that Iran’s nuclear program was not aimed at the development of atomic weapons. It will be recalled that this was and still is the conclusion of no less than 16 U.S. intelligence agencies (including the CIA) as put forth in two National Intelligence Estimates.

In other words, one part of the United States government appears involved in an effort to kill Iranian scientists because of their alleged work on a program that another part of the United States government has reported does not to exist.

We can reduce this even further. It appears the one part of the CIA is involved in the attacks on these scientists because of nuclear weapons research another part of the CIA tells us is not taking place.
What sort of schizophrenic game is being played out here?
 
First, complicity in the program of assassinations is a part of a policy that flows from a certain worldview. That worldview is anti-Iranian (this goes back to the 1978-79 Iranian revolution and the holding of American hostages), anti-Muslim (assuming a “clash of civilizations”), and pro-Israel (solidified by the power of the Zionist lobby).

The decision to pursue this policy is a political one made by a men and women in key foreign policy positions within the Congress and Executive Branch of government who share or at least acquiesce in this worldview.

In addition, all of these individuals adhere to or acquiesce in assumptions about Iran that are compatible with the worldview. Thus, it is assumed that present-day Iran is aggressive, ambitious and instinctively hostile to both American and Israeli interests.

Therefore, no matter how benign the Iranian quest for nuclear energy is demonstrated to be, it is metamorphosed into something malignant by the demands of the prevailing worldview and its standing assumptions. This, in turn, justifies the attacks on those involved in Iran’s nuclear energy research.
 
Second, those who perform the professional intelligence analyses, such as those carried out by National Intelligence Estimates, are not motivated by this worldview and make no assumptions. The ability to approach the intelligence data with an open mind is part of what makes these people professionals.

So, they look at the intelligence intelligently, determine what it means in an objective fashion, and report accordingly. Obviously this sort of procedure is going to give a more honest and accurate assessment than one largely pre-determined by myriad assumptions.
  
Unfortunately, honesty and accuracy are not the priorities of policymakers captured by ideologically shaped worldviews and their accompanying assumptions.

Be it the Cold War or the War against Terror, it is ideology that defines reality. Intelligence estimates that give a different picture are most often found to be politically unacceptable.

Therefore, making clear the contradiction between policy driven by skewed assumptions, and that based on objective investigation is like putting a spotlight on all that is wrong with American foreign policy. Yet this is a message our policymakers cannot hear. That worldview also clogs up their ears.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




Bob Gates’s ‘Business’ of Lying

A Special Report: As Defense Secretary Robert Gates prepares to retire in late June, he is routinely lauded as a “wise man” committed to telling it like it is, even making a frank comment this week about how “most governments lie to each other.” But Gates’s own record for honesty is a deeply checkered one, Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

June 17, 2011

On Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy asked departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates about future U.S. relations with Pakistan and other “governments that lie to us.” Gates responded, in his flat Kansas twang, that “most governments lie to each other. That’s the way business gets done.”

Gates’s Realpolitik answer before the Senate Appropriations Committee drew appreciative laughter from the audience and the usual press kudos for his “refreshing candor,” but Gates’s response could also be a reminder about his own dubious honesty regarding his role in major government scandals.

After all, if “most governments lie to each other,” it follows that government officials do the lying and the U.S. government is not immune from the practice. So, if Gates felt that his work for past presidents while he was at the CIA or the White House needed to be protected by lying, would he lie?

Despite his current reputation for candor, Gates’s honesty or lack thereof was a key issue during his earlier incarnation as a young, ambitious national security bureaucrat elbowing his way through the corridors of Washington power in the 1980s and early 1990s.

For various reasons, from his personal charm to his powerful patrons, Gates evaded serious investigations of his questionable activities in those years. Both in official testimony then and in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows, Gates provided only sweeping denials of accusations coming from both U.S. government co-workers and international intelligence operatives.

Gates relied on his influential allies in the Executive Branch, Congress and the Washington press corps to shut down any full-scale examination of what he actually did. Thus, Gates emerged from several scandals mostly relating to secret dealings with Iran, Iraq and Israel relatively unscathed.

However, two decades ago, U.S. history could have taken a very different course if Gates and his cohorts had faced real accountability and their secrets had been exposed. That more contentious route was opened in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated Gates, then Bush’s deputy national security adviser, to become CIA director.

Indeed, Bush’s selection of Gates represented its own mystery: Why would Bush risk adding fuel to still-smoldering investigative fires, especially since Gates’s first nomination to head the CIA had been rebuffed by the Senate in 1987 because of doubts about his honesty regarding the Iran-Contra scandal?

Did Bush’s stratospheric poll numbers after the Persian Gulf War create a sense of hubris, or was the President desperate, needing a co-conspirator at the CIA’s helm to stop dangerous disclosures of incriminating information?

A Crossroads

In 1991, Gates’s nomination stood at a crossroads of several intersecting scandals including:

–The Iran-Contra investigation led by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who had just penetrated a long-running White House cover-up of the secret arms deals from 1985-86 and who had revealed the hidden role of the CIA where Gates had lurked in the background as the agency’s deputy director.

–The October Surprise case, an Iran-Contra prequel of secret dealings with Iran dating back to the 1980 presidential campaign, an inquiry which finally had reached a critical mass of congressional interest amid belated mainstream press attention (with Gates and Bush linked to those allegations as well).

–Iraq-gate, suspicions that President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush had covertly aided and armed Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, which represented an embarrassment given the just-completed Persian Gulf War against Hussein (with Gates again implicated in those secret dealings on behalf of Reagan and Bush).

–Politicization of U.S. intelligence, a behind-the-scenes dispute at the CIA which was brought into the daylight by veteran CIA analysts who accused Gates of waging bureaucratic war on their independent judgment and giving the Reagan administration pre-cooked conclusions to support desired policies.

Besides his high poll numbers in 1991, President Bush had other reasons to feel confident about making his protégé, Gates, head of the CIA.

Though Democrats controlled Congress, they had little stomach for a pitched battle over national security issues. They had already retreated on the Iran-Contra Affair and the related Contra-cocaine scandal. By contrast, emboldened congressional Republicans were ready to fight any new investigative threat to their party’s hold on the White House.

Also, after more than a decade of Reagan-Bush rule, the Washington press corps had gone from standing upright in the 1970s to being “on bended knee” before Reagan in the 1980s as author Mark Hertsgaard put it to nearly prostrate under Bush-41.

The smart play for an ambitious national journalist was to take the Reagan-Bush side on almost any topic and mock anyone who gave credence to allegations of serious government wrongdoing.

Indeed, the media Zeitgeist of 1991 was a preview of the behavior of Washington journalists a dozen years later when they fell in line behind President George W. Bush’s progression toward war with Iraq and marched in lock step behind his false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, in 1991 and 2003, staying obedient was the smart career play.

In 1991, part of the media’s role in running interference for Gates involved rejecting the testimony of witnesses who implicated Gates in various scandals starting with the alleged back-channel negotiations with Iran in 1980, through the arming of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the mid-1980s, to the Iran-Contra scandal which broke open in late 1986.

Two Witnesses

Responsible for Gates’s CIA confirmation in 1991, Sen. David Boren, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, brushed aside two witnesses who connected Gates to those illicit schemes, former Israeli intelligence official Ari Ben-Menashe and Iranian businessman Richard Babayan. Both offered detailed accounts about Gates’s alleged links to the arms transfers.

In an interview with PBS “Frontline,” Boren promised to question Babayan about his claims of secret U.S. support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, but Boren reneged when Gates issued a denial of the Iraq-gate charges.

But who was lying, Babayan or Gates? The shoddiness of Boren’s investigation became apparent four years later in January 1995 when Howard Teicher, one of Reagan’s National Security Council officials, added more details about Gates’s role in the Iraq shipments.

In a sworn affidavit submitted in a Florida criminal case, Teicher stated that the covert arming of Iraq dated back to spring 1982 when Iran had gained the upper hand in the war, leading President Reagan to authorize a U.S. tilt toward Saddam Hussein.

The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by CIA Director William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates, according to Teicher’s affidavit. “The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.

That same pro-Iraq initiative involved Donald Rumsfeld, then Reagan’s special emissary to the Middle East. An infamous photograph from 1983 showed a smiling Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. But Teicher described Gates’s role as far more substantive than Rumsfeld’s.

“Under CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, the CIA authorized, approved and assisted [Chilean arms dealer Carlos] Cardoen in the manufacture and sale of cluster bombs and other munitions to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.

Even in 1995, during the Clinton administration (when Teicher’s affidavit was submitted), the Iraq-gate allegations were not seriously examined.

After Teicher provided the affidavit to a federal court in Miami, it was classified a state secret and Teicher’s credibility was attacked. Prosecutors saw the affidavit as disruptive to their case against a private company, Teledyne Industries, and one of its salesmen, Ed Johnson, for selling explosives to Cardoen, who then fashioned them into cluster bombs for Iraq. (With Teicher’s affidavit kept from the jury, Johnson was convicted and sent to prison.)

An Israeli’s Testimony

In 1991, Boren and his committee staff also swatted away Ben-Menashe’s accounts of Gates as the point man for the CIA’s covert supplying of Iraq in the 1980s.

In interviews with me, Ben-Menashe described a personal relationship with Gates dating back to the 1970s when both men were aspiring intelligence officers working for their respective governments. Ben-Menashe claimed that his mother even made meals for Gates when he was visiting Israel.

When Ben-Menashe began talking to the press in 1990 after he was arrested in the United States on charges of selling planes to Iran, Israeli authorities deemed him as an impostor who never worked for the government, but had to back track when I obtained documentary evidence showing that Ben-Menashe had served as an operations officer for a unit of Israeli military intelligence from 1977 to 1987.

Though Israel had to recant its initial lie — and Ben-Menashe won acquittal on the plane-sale charges in late 1990 — his credibility continued to be assailed, especially by neoconservatives in the U.S. press apparently upset that Ben-Menashe was exposing closely guarded secrets, including speaking with investigative reporter Seymour Hersh about Israel’s nuclear-weapons program. [See Hersh’s The Sampson Option.]

U.S. journalists with close ties to the Israeli Right, such as Steven Emerson, began parroting Israel’s fallback position on Ben-Menashe, that he was only a “low-level translator.” That talking point gained currency even though well-placed Israeli officials privately dismissed it as just another cover story.

But Ben-Menashe’s claimed relationship with Gates represented a real test of his credibility. Some well-respected journalists, including Hersh, doubted Ben-Menashe’s story about knowing Gates because Gates had been a Soviet analyst during his early career at the CIA and thus, presumably, would have no reason to become operationally involved with an Israeli intelligence officer.

I, too, was skeptical of Ben-Menashe’s claims about Gates. But I later learned from Gates’s CIA co-workers that his duties as a Soviet analyst involved Moscow’s policies toward the Middle East, offering a plausible reason for Gates to have spent time meeting intelligence officials in Israel.

It also struck me as odd that Ben-Menashe would have dredged up Gates’s name during interviews with me and other journalists in 1990 because by then Gates had slipped back into relative obscurity as a deputy director at Bush-41’s National Security Council staff. If the Israeli had wanted to puff himself up about knowing someone important in the U.S. government, why pick Gates?

Tripping Up a Source

My trying to disprove Ben-Menashe’s claims about Gates and thus punch a major hole in the Israeli’s credibility became a regular feature in my periodic contacts with Ben-Menashe.

Once when I met Ben-Menashe’s aging mother during a visit to the United States, I popped a question about whether she recalled making meals for Robert Gates. Her eyes immediately brightened and she responded in the affirmative. “Yes, Bobby Gates,” she said.

I thought I had Ben-Menashe tripped up another time after he insisted he had met with Gates in April 1989 during a trip to Paramus, New Jersey. I even pinned the time down, to the afternoon of April 20, 1989 because Ben-Menashe had been under Customs surveillance that morning.

Since Gates denied knowing Ben-Menashe at all, it was a perfect test for determining which one was lying.

It was before Gates’s CIA confirmation, so I brought the information about the alleged New Jersey meeting to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. They checked on Gates’s whereabouts and came back to me, laughing. They said Gates had a perfect alibi for that day. They said Gates had been with Sen. Boren at a speech in Oklahoma.

But when I cross-checked that claim, it turned out that Gates’s Oklahoma speech had been on April 19, a day earlier, and that Boren had not been present. I also discovered that Gates had returned to Washington by that evening.

So where was Gates the next day? Could he have taken a quick trip to northern New Jersey?

Since senior White House national security officials keep detailed daily calendars, it should have been easy for Boren’s investigators to check Gates’s scheduled meetings and corroborate his alibi with a few interviews. 

After I pointed out their screw-up on the Oklahoma speech, the committee staffers agreed to check again on the right date. They later called me back saying that Gates’s personal White House calendar showed no trip to New Jersey and that Gates had denied taking such a trip. That was good enough for the committee, they said.

But the investigators couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me where Gates was that afternoon or with whom. They also acknowledged that they interviewed no alibi witnesses. And they rebuffed my later request to review their copy of Gates’s calendar, which they claimed to have returned to him.

For his part, Gates wrote in his memoir that “the allegations of meetings with me around the world were easily disproved for the committee by my travel records, calendars, and countless witnesses.” But none of Gates’s supportive evidence was made public by Gates, by the Intelligence Committee, or by later inquiries into the Iran-hostage allegations or the Iraq-gate scandal.

Not one of Gates’s “countless witnesses who could vouch for Gates’s whereabouts was identified. Perhaps most galling for those of us who were trying to assess Ben-Menashe’s credibility was the committee’s failure in 1991 to fully test Ben-Menashe’s claim about the April 20, 1989, meeting.

Calendar Revealed

It wasn’t until 2007 after Gates had become George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary (replacing Donald Rumsfeld) that I finally secured a copy of Gates’s calendar from the National Archives, via a Freedom of Information Act request.

I quickly leafed through the FOIA packet and pulled out the April 20, 1989, page. I finally thought I had the proof to confront Ben-Menashe with a clear-cut lie.

The calendar showed Gates with a full slate of White House meetings through the afternoon, including a public signing ceremony for the Space Council at 1:05 p.m., an Oval Office meeting with Belize’s Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel at 3 p.m., and a session with two journalists John Cochran and Sandy Gilmore at 4 p.m.

However, before I challenged Ben-Menashe to his face, I thought I should check out the calendar as best I could, given the lapse of 18 years and the likelihood that memories of Gates’s routine meetings with White House staff might be especially hazy.

Still, I could ask the archivists at the George H.W. Bush Library to check for photos of the public signing event. A picture of Gates would surely nail down that part of the time window. There also are sign-in sheets for Oval Office meetings like the one with the prime minister, so that would cover mid-afternoon. And the reporters might recall a White House sit-down with Gates.

It didn’t seem likely that Ben-Menashe could slip away from such conclusive proof.

So, at my request, the archivists located both still photos and video footage of the Space Council event. The images covered pretty much the entire room, but to my surprise, Gates was nowhere to be seen. I then got the sign-in sheet for the Oval Office meeting. Gates’s name was missing.

When I tracked down the two reporters, neither had any recollection of the interview with Gates.

In other words, there were still holes in Gates’s alibi for the time frame that Ben-Menashe had indicated for their meeting in northern New Jersey. Although these lapses do not prove that Gates did sneak off for a quick trip, the gaps did kill my plan of confronting the Israeli with hard evidence that he had lied.

The flawed alibi also represents another indictment of the Senate Intelligence Committee under Boren and his then-chief of staff George Tenet. In 1991, it would have been simple to check with Gates’s alibi witnesses whose memories would have been much fresher and who could have easily checked their notes.

Instead, Boren and Tenet essentially accepted Gates’s word and the reliability of his calendar entries, which at least in several instances appeared to be false.

In his 1996 memoir, Gates thanked his friend, David Boren, for pushing through his CIA nomination. “David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed,” Gates wrote.

Fouling Investigations

The dismissal of Ben-Menashe’s claim that he met with Gates in April 1989 had consequences for other related investigations, since Ben-Menashe also had placed Gates, along with George H.W. Bush, at a secret meeting between Republicans and Iranians in Paris in October 1980. That was when Jimmy Carter was still president and 52 Americans were being held hostage in Iran.

According to Ben-Menashe, Israeli intelligence officers were in Paris to coordinate arms shipments to Iran that the Republicans would approve once Ronald Reagan entered the White House in January 1981. In October 1980, Bush was Reagan’s vice presidential running mate, and Carter was desperate to gain freedom for the hostages before the November 1980 election.

As part of the alleged Paris deal, the Iranians were to release the hostages only after Carter lost reelection. (As it turned out, Iran let the hostages go immediately after Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.)

The repudiation of Ben-Menashe’s credibility helped shut the door on a 1992 congressional inquiry into the so-called October Surprise case, despite a good deal of corroborating evidence of a Republican-Iranian deal in Paris.

The House October Surprise Task Force was wrapping in December 1992 with a finding of Reagan-Bush innocence when a flood of evidence incriminating the Republicans arrived late (enough to prompt chief counsel Lawrence Barcella to unsuccessfully request an extention of the inquiry).

Instead, the task force leaders Reps. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, and Henry Hyde, R-Illinois chose to press ahead with the previous conclusion, that there was no credible evidence implicating Reagan, Bush, Gates or Casey, who had been Reagan’s campaign chief in 1980.

But there was still one more twist for the task force. In January 1993, just days before the task force findings were due for release, an extraordinary report was delivered from the Russian government, responding to an earlier request for information from Hamilton.

According to this Russian report, Soviet-era intelligence records revealed that Bush, Gates and Casey participated in secret contacts with Iranian officials to delay release of the U.S. hostages in Iran.

“R[obert] Gates, at that time a staffer of the National Security Council in the administration of Jimmy Carter, and former CIA Director George Bush also took part” in a meeting in Paris in October 1980, according to the Russian report.

Despite its explosive information, the Russian Report was kept hidden by the House October Surprise Task Force, which went ahead with its exculpatory findings. Later, I discovered the report when I gained access to some of the task force’s unpublished files.

Years later, Hamilton told me that he had never seen the report, although it was addressed to him. Barcella acknowledged that he might never have forwarded the report to Hamilton. [For the text of the Russian report, click here. To view the actual U.S. embassy cable that includes the Russian report, click here.]

Weapons Shipments

Despite lingering uncertainties about the details of the October Surprise case, what is beyond dispute is that once in office, President Reagan did permit weapons to flow to Iran via Israel. One of the Israeli planes carrying an arms shipment was shot down over the Soviet Union on July 18, 1981, after straying off course, but the incident drew little attention at the time.

The secret arms flow continued, on and off, until late 1986 when the Iran-Contra scandal another case of arms-for-hostages dealing with Iran broke into public view. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Regarding the Iran-Contra scandal which might be viewed as the sequel to the October Surprise case independent counsel Walsh chose not to indict Gates, though Walsh’s final report didn’t endorse Gates’s credibility either. After recounting discrepancies between Gates’s Iran-Contra recollections and those of other CIA officials, Walsh wrote:

“The statements of Gates often seemed scripted and less than candid. Nevertheless, given the complex nature of the activities and Gates’s apparent lack of direct participation, a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies.”

For his part, Gates also denied any wrongdoing in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage deal and expressed only one significant regret that he acquiesced to the decision to withhold from Congress the Jan. 17, 1986, presidential intelligence “finding” that gave some legal cover to the Iran arms shipments.

Besides the questions about whether Gates lied to protect himself and his superiors in these scandals involving Iran, Iraq and Israel, Gates also faced charges from senior colleagues inside the CIA’s analytical division that he corrupted their standards for providing honest assessments to U.S. policymakers.

Once Casey became Reagan’s CIA director in 1981, Gates was put on the fast track for career success. Shoving aside more senior officials, Gates rose quickly to head the CIA’s analytical division, where he reversed decades of CIA traditions regarding objective analysis.

In that job and later as Casey’s deputy director Gates oversaw an analytical division that began exaggerating dangers abroad to justify Reagan’s massive military buildup. Instead of seeing the signs of a coming Soviet collapse, Gates’s analytical product conjured up a Soviet empire gaining on all fronts.

To fit with Reagan’s geopolitical needs, Gates’s CIA also downplayed real dangers that ironically would emerge as greater threats today. For instance, analysts who warned about Pakistan’s secret work on a nuclear bomb were ignored and even punished, apparently because the Reagan administration needed Pakistan’s help in supporting anti-Soviet mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan.

At Gates’s confirmation hearings in 1991, former CIA analysts, including renowned Kremlinologist Melvin A. Goodman, took the extraordinary step of coming out of the shadows to accuse Gates of politicizing intelligence. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Robert Gates.”]

‘Wise Man’

Despite this checkered record for wisdom and truth-telling, Gates today is renowned across Washington as a modern “wise man.” In 2009, Washington Post columnist David Broder, the late “dean of the Washington press corps,” hailed Gates as “incapable of dissembling.”

Now, as Gates prepares to retire as Defense Secretary in late June, he is being showered with rose petals of official praise. His insights like the one about governments lying to one another are greeted with appreciative chuckles and appreciation for his “candor.”

At Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, which was billed as his last congressional appearance as Defense Secretary, Gates was depicted in the media as a straight talker who had run out of patience with America’s erstwhile allies and the political posturing of Congress.

Despite his curt responses to questions from Leahy and others, the New York Times reported that “Wednesday’s hearing … was in fact mostly a lovefest as members of the committee lavished praise on Mr. Gates. On June 30 he is to walk out of the Pentagon and into a life of writing books lakeside near Seattle.

“‘Secretary Gates, I look forward to you coming home to our home state,’ Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, said at one point in the hearing. ‘I know you must be looking forward to that.’

“‘Fifteen days,’ Mr. Gates replied, to laughter.”

It is probably not likely that Gates will use his book writing to tell the full truth and nothing but the truth about what he did as a government official. After all, as Gates has made clear, lying is “the way business gets done.”

[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]

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.




Making the US Economy ‘Scream’

Exclusive: Over the past several decades, Republican methods for winning national power have come to resemble CIA techniques for destabilizing an enemy country — through the use of black propaganda, political skullduggery and economic disruptions. Now, heading toward Election 2012, the Republicans appear poised to make the U.S. economy “scream,” observes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

June 3, 2011

Modern Republicans have a simple approach to politics when they are not in the White House: Make America as ungovernable as possible by using almost any means available, from challenging the legitimacy of opponents to spreading lies and disinformation to sabotaging the economy.

Over the past four decades or so, the Republicans have simply not played by the old give-and-take rules of politics. Indeed, if one were to step back and assess this Republican approach, what you would see is something akin to how the CIA has destabilized target countries, especially those that seek to organize themselves in defiance of capitalist orthodoxy.

To stop this spread of “socialism,” nearly anything goes. Take, for example, Chile in the early 1970s when socialist President Salvador Allende won an election and took steps aimed at improving the conditions of the country’s poor.

Under the direction of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the CIA was dispatched to engage in psychological warfare against Allende’s government and to make the Chilean economy “scream.”

U.S. intelligence agencies secretly sponsored Chilean news outlets, like the influential newspaper El Mercurio, and supported “populist” uprisings of truckers and housewives. On the economic front, the CIA coordinated efforts to starve the Chilean government of funds and to drive unemployment higher.

Worsening joblessness could then be spun by the CIA-financed news outlets as proof that Allende’s policies didn’t work and that the only choice for Chile was to scrap its social programs. When Allende compromised with the Right, that had the additional benefit of causing friction between him and some of his supporters who wanted even more radical change.

As Chile became increasingly ungovernable, the stage was set for the violent overthrow of Allende, the installation of a rightist dictatorship, and the imposition of “free-market” economics that directed more wealth and power to Chile’s rich and their American corporate backers.

Though the Allende case in Chile is perhaps the best known example of this intelligence strategy (because it was investigated by a Senate committee in the mid-1970s), the CIA has employed this approach frequently around the world. Sometimes the target government is removed without violence, although other times a bloody coup d’etat has been part of the mix.

Home to Roost

So, it is perhaps fitting that a comparable approach to politics would eventually come home to roost in the United States, even to the point that some of the propaganda funding comes from outside sources (think of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.)

Obviously, given the wealth of the American elites, the relative proportion of the propaganda funding is derived more domestically in the United States than it would be in a place like Chile (or some other unfortunate Third World country that has gotten on Washington’s bad side).

But the concept remains the same: Control as much as possible what the population gets to see and hear; create chaos for your opponent’s government, economically and politically; blame if for the mess; and establish in the minds of the voters that their only way out is to submit, that the pain will stop once your side is back in power.

Today’s Republicans have fully embraced this concept of political warfare, whereas the Democrats generally have tried to play by the old rules, acquiescing when Republicans are in office with the goal of “making government work,” even if the Republicans are setting the agenda.

Unlike the Democrats and the Left, the Republicans and the Right have prepared themselves for this battle, almost as if they are following a CIA training manual. They have invested tens of billions of dollars in a propaganda infrastructure that operates 24/7, year-round, to spot and exploit missteps by political enemies.

This vertically integrated media machine allows useful information to move quickly from a right-wing blog to talk radio to Fox News to the Wall Street Journal to conservative magazines and book publishing. Right-wing propagandists are well-trained and well-funded so they can be deployed to all manner of public outlets to hammer home the talking points.

When a Democrat somehow does manage to get into the White House, Republicans in Congress (and even in the Courts) are ready to do their part in the destabilization campaign. Rather than grant traditional “honeymoon” periods of cooperation with the president’s early policies, the battle lines are drawn immediately.

In late 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton complained that his “honeymoon” didn’t even last through the transition, the two-plus months before a new president takes office. He found himself facing especially harsh hazing from the Washington press corps, as the mainstream media seeking to shed its “liberal” label and goaded by the right-wing media tried to demonstrate that it would be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.

The mainstream press hyped minor “scandals” about Clinton’s Whitewater real estate investment and Travel-gate, a flap about some routine firings at the White House travel office. Meanwhile, the Right’s rapidly growing media was spreading false stories implicating Clinton in the death of White House aide Vince Foster and other “mysterious deaths.”

Republicans in Congress did all they could to feed the press hysteria,  holding hearings and demanding that special prosecutors be appointed. When the Clinton administration relented, the choice of prosecutors was handed over to right-wing Republican Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, who consciously picked political enemies of Clinton to oversee zealous investigations.

Finally Winning

The use of scandal-mongering to destabilize the Clinton administration finally peaked in late 1998 and early 1999 when the Republican-controlled House voted impeachment and Clinton had to endure (but survive) a humiliating trial in the Senate.

The Republican strategy, however, continued into Campaign 2000 with Vice President Al Gore facing attacks on his character and integrity. Gore was falsely painted as a delusional braggart, as both right-wing and mainstream media outlets freely misquoted him and subjected him to ridicule (while simultaneously bowing and scraping before Republican candidate George W. Bush).

When Gore managed to win the national popular vote anyway and would have carried the key state of Florida if all legally cast ballots were counted the Republicans and the Right rose up in fury demanding that the Florida count be stopped before Bush’s tiny lead completely disappeared. Starting a minor riot in Miami, the Republicans showed how far they would go to claim the White House again.

Five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court wanting to ensure that the new president would keep their side in control of the courts and recognizing that their party was prepared to spread disorder if Gore prevailed stopped the counting of votes and made Bush the “winner.” [For details, see the book, Neck Deep.]

Despite this partisan ruling, Gore and the Democrats stepped back from the political confrontation. The right-wing press cheered and gloated, while the mainstream news media urged the people to accept Bush as “legitimate” for the good of the country.

For most of Bush’s disastrous presidency, this dynamic remained the same. Though barely able to complete a coherent sentence, Bush was treated with great deference, even when he failed to protect the country from the 9/11 attacks and led the nation into an unprovoked war with Iraq. There were no combative investigations of Bush like those that surrounded Clinton.

Even at the end of Bush’s presidency when his policies of deregulation, tax cuts for the rich and massive budget deficits combined to create the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression the prevailing message from the Establishment was that it was unfair to lay too much blame on Bush.

Shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, a Republican/right-wing talking point was to complain when anyone took note of the mess that Bush had left behind: “There you go again, blaming Bush.”

Getting Obama

Immediately, too, the Republicans and the Right set to work demonizing and destroying Obama’s presidency. Instead of allowing the Democrats to enact legislation aimed at addressing the financial and economic crisis, the Senate Republicans launched filibuster after filibuster.

When Obama and the Democrats did push through emergency legislation, such as the $787 billion stimulus package, they had to water it down to reach the 60-vote super-majority. The Republicans and the Right then quickly laid the blame for high unemployment on the “failed” stimulus.

There also were waves of propaganda pounding Obama’s legitimacy. The Right’s news media pressed bogus accusations that Obama had been born in Kenya and thus was not constitutionally eligible to be president.  He was denounced as a socialist, a Muslim, a fascist, an enemy of Israel, and pretty much any other charge that might hit some American hot button.

When Obama welcomed American students back to school in 2009, the Right organized against his simple message urging young people to work hard as if it were some form of totalitarian mind control. His attempt to address the growing crisis in American health care was denounced as taking away freedoms and imposing “death panels.”

Soon, billionaires like oil man David Koch and media mogul Murdoch, were promoting a “grassroots” rebellion against Obama called the Tea Party. Activists were showing up at presidential speeches with guns and brandishing weapons at rallies near Washington.

The high-decibel disruptions and the “screaming” economy created the impression of political chaos. Largely ignoring the role of the Republicans, the press faulted Obama for failing to live up to his campaign promise to bring greater bipartisanship to Washington.

Hearing the discord framed that way, many average Americans also blamed Obama; many of the President’s supporters grew demoralized; and, as happened with Allende in Chile, some on the Left turned against Obama for not doing more, faster.

By November 2010, the stage was set for a big Republican comeback. The party swept to victory in the House and fell just short in the Senate. But Congress was not the Republicans’ true goal. What they really want is the White House with all its executive powers.

However, following Obama’s success in killing Osama bin Laden on May 2 and with what is widely regarded as a weak Republican presidential field, the Right’s best hope for regaining complete control of the U.S. government in 2012 is to sink the U.S. economy.

Already, the Republican success in limiting the scope of the stimulus package and then labeling it a failure combined with deep cuts in local, state and federal government spending have helped push the economy back to the brink where a double-dip recession is now a serious concern.

Despite these worries and a warning from Moody’s about a possible downgrade on U.S. debt if Congress delays action on raising the debt limit the Republicans are vowing more brinksmanship over the debt-limit vote. Before acting, they are demanding major reductions in government spending (while refusing to raise taxes on the rich).

A Conundrum

So, Obama and the Democrats face another conundrum. If they slash spending too much, they will further stall the recovery. However, if they refuse to submit to this latest round of Republican blackmail, they risk a debt crisis that could have devastating consequences for the U.S. economy for years even decades to come.

Either way, the right-wing media and much of the mainstream press will put the blame on Obama and the Democrats. They will be held accountable for failing to govern.

The Republican propaganda machine will tell the American people that they must throw Obama and the Democrats out of office for stability to return. There will be assurances about how the “magic of the market” will bring back the bright days of prosperity.

Of course, the reality of a new Republican administration, especially with a GOP Congress, would be the return of the old right-wing nostrums: more tax cuts for the rich, less regulation of corporations, more military spending, and more privatization of social programs.

Any budget balancing will come at the expense of labor rights for union employees and shifting the costs for health care onto the backs of the elderly. Yet, all this will be surrounded by intense propaganda explaining the public pain as a hangover from misguided government “social engineering.”

There is, of course, the possibility that the American people will see through today’s Republican CIA-style strategy of “making the economy scream.” Americans might come to recognize the role of the pseudo-populist propagandists on Fox News and talk radio.

Or Republicans might have second thoughts about playing chicken on the debt limit and running the risk of a global depression. Such a gamble could redound against them. And, it’s hard to believe that even their most ardent billionaire-backers would find destruction of their stock portfolios that appealing.

But there can be a momentum to madness. We have seen throughout history that events can get out of hand, that thoroughly propagandized true believers can truly believe. Sometimes, they don’t understand they are simply being manipulated for a lesser goal. Once the chaos starts, it is hard to restore order.

That has been another bloody lesson from the CIA’s operations in countries around the world. These covert actions can have excessive or unintended consequences.

Ousting Allende turned Chile into a fascist dictatorship that sent assassins far and wide, including Washington, D.C. Ousting Mossadegh in Iran led to the tyranny of the Shah and ultimately to an extreme Islamist backlash. Ousting Arbenz in Guatemala led to the butchery of some 200,000 people and the rise of a narco-state. Such examples can go on and on.

However, these CIA-type techniques can be very seductive, both to U.S. presidents looking for a quick fix to some international problem and to a political party trying to gain a decisive edge for winning. These methods can be especially dangerous when the other side doesn’t organize effectively to counter them.

The hard reality in the United States today is that the Republicans and the Right are now fully organized, armed with a potent propaganda machine and possessing an extraordinary political will. They are well-positioned to roll the U.S. economy off the cliff and blame the catastrophe on Obama.

Indeed, that may be their best hope for winning Election 2012.

[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]

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