Reagan-Bush Ties to Iran-Hostage Crisis

Exclusive: The Senate wants to block Iran’s new UN ambassador because he was linked to the Iran hostage crisis 35 years ago, but that standard would strip honors from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, implicated in extending the hostage crisis to win the 1980 election, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

U.S. government officials are in high dudgeon again this time over Iran’s audacity in naming an ambassador to the United Nations who allegedly played a minor role in the 1979-81 crisis in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days in Iran. But the same U.S. officials ignore the now overwhelming evidence that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush helped extend the hostages’ suffering to gain an edge in the 1980 election.

The double standard getting worked up over the allegations about Iranian Ambassador Hamid Aboutalebi and going silent over the evidence implicating Reagan and Bush is just the latest in a long series of examples of the U.S. government’s hypocrisy.

Indeed, one might think that the near treasonous behavior of Reagan and Bush was more objectionable than whatever Aboutalebi did as a young man in Tehran. He has denied direct participation in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 though he apparently provided some assistance with translations and negotiations. Aboutalebi is now a close adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and has served as Iranian ambassador to Belgium, Italy, Australia and the European Union.

It is rare for the United States to block an ambassador to the United Nations, which is located in New York City, but Aboutalebi’s selection has become the latest excuse for congressional hardliners to throw a wrench into negotiations aimed at limiting but not eliminating Iran’s nuclear program. On Monday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to deny Aboutalebi a visa for entering the United States. Following the Senate’s lead, the Obama administration also has criticized the nomination.

The irony, however, is that Cruz and pretty much every leading Republican model themselves after President Reagan whose election in 1980 now appears to have been aided by his campaign’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering to frustrate President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to gain the hostages’ freedom. Those talks broke down in October 1980 and the hostages were only freed after Reagan was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981.

Reagan’s purported “October Surprise” operation to torpedo Carter’s hoped-for success in getting the hostages out before the Nov. 4, 1980, election would have made the Republican icon a much bigger villain in the hostages’ ordeal than Aboutalebi. George H.W. Bush, who was Reagan’s running mate in 1980, was also implicated in the sabotage operation.

Mounting Evidence

The evidence of this Republican skullduggery has been building for more than three decades, with the 1980 contacts between the Reagan team and radical Iranians appearing to be the opening chapter of the Iran-Contra saga of 1985-86, which also involved secret contacts and the trading of arms for hostages.

Both operations also were shielded by aggressive Republican cover-ups that extended from 1986 to 1993, although congressional and government investigators did a much better job in excavating the Iran-Contra secrets than they did with the October Surprise case. It wasn’t until last June that Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, who headed both congressional inquiries, admitted that he had been misled about key October Surprise evidence.

In a phone interview, the retired Indiana Democrat responded to a document that I had e-mailed him revealing that in 1991 a deputy White House counsel working for then-President George H.W. Bush was notified by the State Department that Reagan’s campaign director William Casey had taken a trip to Madrid in relation to the so-called October Surprise issue.

Casey’s alleged trip to Madrid in 1980 had been at the center of Hamilton’s investigation in 1991-92 into whether Reagan’s campaign went behind Carter’s back to frustrate his hostage negotiations. In early 1993, Hamilton’s task force dismissed the allegations after concluding that Casey had not traveled to Madrid.

“We found no evidence to confirm Casey’s trip to Madrid,” Hamilton told me. “We couldn’t show that. The [Bush-41] White House did not notify us that he did make the trip. Should they have passed that on to us? They should have because they knew we were interested in that.”

Asked if knowledge that Casey had traveled to Madrid might have changed the task force’s dismissive October Surprise conclusion, Hamilton said yes, because the question of the Madrid trip was key to the task force’s investigation. “If the White House knew that Casey was there, they certainly should have shared it with us,” Hamilton said, adding that “you have to rely on people” in authority to comply with information requests.

The document revealing White House knowledge of Casey’s Madrid trip was among records released to me by the archivists at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Texas. The U.S. Embassy’s confirmation of Casey’s trip was passed along by State Department legal adviser Edwin D. Williamson to Associate White House Counsel Chester Paul Beach Jr. in early November 1991, just as the October Surprise inquiry was taking shape.

Williamson said that among the State Department “material potentially relevant to the October Surprise allegations [was] a cable from the Madrid embassy indicating that Bill Casey was in town, for purposes unknown,” Beach noted in a “memorandum for record” dated Nov. 4, 1991.

Organizing the Cover-up

Two days later, on Nov. 6, Beach’s boss, White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, arranged an inter-agency strategy session and explained the need to contain the congressional investigation into the October Surprise case. The explicit goal was to ensure the scandal would not hurt President Bush’s reelection hopes in 1992.

At the meeting, Gray laid out how to thwart the October Surprise inquiry, which was seen as a dangerous expansion of the Iran-Contra investigation, which Rep. Hamilton had co-chaired when the scandal was reviewed by Congress in 1987. A parallel criminal investigation by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was continuing in 1991 and some of his investigators were coming to suspect that the origins of Iran-Contra contacts with Iran traced back to Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

Up to that point, Iran-Contra had focused on illicit arms-for-hostage sales to Iran that President Reagan authorized in 1985-86. However, some October Surprise witnesses were claiming that the framework for Reagan’s secret arms shipments to Iran, usually through Israel, took shape during the 1980 campaign.

The prospect that the two sets of allegations would merge into a single narrative represented a grave threat to George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign. As assistant White House counsel Ronald vonLembke, put it, the White House goal in 1991 was to “kill/spike this story.” To achieve that result, the Republicans coordinated the counter-offensive through Gray’s office under the supervision of associate counsel Janet Rehnquist, the daughter of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Gray explained the stakes at the White House strategy session. “Whatever form they ultimately take, the House and Senate ‘October Surprise’ investigations, like Iran-Contra, will involve interagency concerns and be of special interest to the President,” Gray declared, according to minutes. [Emphasis in original.]

Among “touchstones” cited by Gray were “No Surprises to the White House, and Maintain Ability to Respond to Leaks in Real Time. This is Partisan.” White House “talking points” on the October Surprise investigation urged restricting the inquiry to 1979-80 and imposing strict time limits for issuing any findings, according to the document said.

But the key to understanding the October Surprise case was that it appeared to be a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal, part of the same storyline beginning with the 1980 crisis over 52 American hostages held in Iran, continuing through their release immediately after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, then followed by mysterious U.S. government approval of secret arms shipments to Iran via Israel in 1981, and ultimately morphing into the Iran-Contra Affair of more arms-for-hostage deals with Iran until that scandal exploded in 1986. [For more on the scandal and cover-up, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Getting Some Help

Though Beach’s memo in November 1991 revealed the Bush-41 administration’s knowledge of the Casey trip to Madrid in 1980, the Republican cover-up was aided immensely that month by Newsweek and The New Republic, which published matching stories on their covers claiming to have debunked the October Surprise allegations by proving that Casey could not have made the trip to Madrid.

Despite knowing the falsity of those magazine articles, Bush’s White House made no effort to correct the record or to inform congressional investigators. Yet, even without Beach’s memo, there was solid evidence at the time disproving the Newsweek/New Republic debunking articles. Both magazines had sloppily misread attendance records at a London historical conference that Casey had attended on July 28, 1980, the time frame when Iranian businessman (and CIA agent) Jamshid Hashemi had placed Casey in Madrid for a secret meeting with Iranian emissary Mehdi Karrubi.

The two magazines insisted that the attendance records showed Casey in London for a morning session of the conference, thus negating the possibility that he could have made a side trip to Madrid. But the magazines had failed to do the necessary follow-up interviews, which would have revealed that Casey was not at the morning session on July 28. He didn’t arrive until that afternoon, leaving the “window” open for Hashemi’s account.

At PBS “Frontline,” where I was involved in the October Surprise investigation, we talked to Americans and others who had participated in the London conference. Most significantly, we interviewed historian Robert Dallek who gave that morning’s presentation to a small gathering of attendees sitting in a conference room at the British Imperial War Museum.

Dallek said he had been excited to learn that Casey, who was running Reagan’s presidential campaign, would be there. So, Dallek looked for Casey, only to be disappointed that Casey was a no-show. Other Americans also recalled Casey arriving later and the records actually indicate Casey showing up for the afternoon session.

In other words, the high-profile Newsweek-New Republic debunking of the October Surprise story had itself been debunked. However, typical of the arrogance of those publications and our inability to draw attention to their major screw-up the magazines never acknowledged their gross error.

Worse Than a Mistake

I later learned that the journalistic malfeasance at Newsweek was even worse than sloppiness. Journalist Craig Unger, who had been hired by Newsweek to work on the October Surprise story, told me that he had spotted the misreading of the attendance records before Newsweek published its article. Unger said he alerted the investigative team, which was personally headed by executive editor Maynard Parker.

“They told me, essentially, to fuck off,” Unger said.

During my years at Newsweek, from 1987-90, Parker had been my chief nemesis. He was considered close to prominent neocons, including Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams, and to Establishment Republicans, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Parker also was a member of banker David Rockefeller’s Council on Foreign Relations, and viewed the Iran-Contra scandal as something best shut down quickly. Jumping to a false conclusion that would protect his influential friends would fit perfectly with what I knew of Parker.

The false articles in Newsweek and The New Republic gave the White House cover-up a key advantage: Washington’s conventional wisdom crowd now assumed that the October Surprise allegations were bogus. All that was necessary was to make sure no hard evidence to the contrary, such as the U.S. Embassy’s confirmation of a mysterious Casey trip to Madrid, reached the congressional investigation.

A big part of the Bush-41 cover-up was to run out the clock on Hamilton’s inquiry, which was only authorized through the end of the congressional session in early January 1993. Delays of document production and evasion of a subpoena would prove crucial.

For instance, on May 14, 1992, a CIA official ran proposed language past associate White House counsel Janet Rehnquist from then-CIA Director Robert Gates regarding the agency’s level of cooperation with Congress. By that point, the CIA, under Gates, was already months into a pattern of foot-dragging on congressional document requests.

Bush had put Gates, who was also implicated in the October Surprise case, at the CIA’s helm in fall 1991, meaning that Gates was well-positioned to stymie congressional requests for sensitive information about secret initiatives involving Bush, Gates and Donald Gregg, another CIA veteran who was linked to the scandal.

The records at the Bush library revealed that Gates and Gregg, indeed, were targets of the congressional October Surprise probe. On May 26, 1992, Rep. Hamilton wrote to the CIA asking for records regarding the whereabouts of Gregg and Gates from Jan. 1, 1980, through Jan. 31, 1981, including travel plans and leaves of absence.

The persistent document-production delays finally drew a complaint from Lawrence Barcella, chief counsel to the House task force who wrote to the CIA on June 9, 1992, that the agency had not been responsive to three requests on Sept. 20, 1991; April 20, 1992; and May 26, 1992.

A History of Lies

Gregg and Gates also were implicated in the broader the Iran-Contra scandal. Both were suspected of lying about their knowledge of secret sales of military hardware to Iran and clandestine delivery of weapons to Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

An ex-CIA director himself, Bush also had been caught lying in the Iran-Contra scandal when he insisted that a plane shot down over Nicaragua in 1986 while dropping weapons to the Contras had no connection to the U.S. government (when the weapons delivery had been organized by operatives close to Bush’s vice presidential office where Gregg served as national security adviser).

And, Bush falsely claimed that he was out of the “loop” on Iran-Contra decisions when later evidence showed that he was a major participant in the discussions. From the Bush library documents, it was apparent that the October Surprise cover-up was essentially an extension of the broader Republican effort to contain the Iran-Contra scandal, with Bush personally involved in orchestrating both efforts.

For instance, Iran-Contra special prosecutor Walsh discovered in December 1992 that Bush’s White House counsel’s office, under Boyden Gray, had delayed production of Bush’s personal notes about the arms shipments to Iran in the 1985-86 time frame. Though Gray’s office insisted that the delay was unintentional, Walsh didn’t buy it.

Beyond dragging its heels on producing documents, the Bush administration maneuvered to keep key witnesses out of timely reach of the investigators. For instance, Gregg used his stationing as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea in 1992 to evade a congressional subpoena.

Like Gates and Bush, Gregg had been linked to secret meetings with Iranians during the 1980 campaign. When asked about those allegations by FBI polygraph operators working for Iran-Contra prosecutor Walsh, Gregg was judged to be deceptive in his denials. [See Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I, p. 501]

Dodging a Subpoena

And, when it came to answering questions from Congress about the October Surprise matter, Gregg found excuses not to accept service of a subpoena.

In a June 18, 1992, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to the State Department in Washington, Gregg wrote that he had learned that Senate investigators had “attempted to subpoena me to appear on 24 June in connection with their so-called ‘October Surprise’ investigation. The subpoena was sent to my lawyer, Judah Best, who returned it to the committee since he had no authority to accept service of a subpoena.

“If the October Surprise investigation contacts the [State] Department, I request that you tell them of my intention to cooperate fully when I return to the States, probably in September. Any other inquiries should be referred to my lawyer, Judah Best. Mr. Best asks that I specifically request you not to accept service of a subpoena if the committee attempts to deliver one to you.”

That way Gregg ensured that he was not legally compelled to testify while running out the clock on the Senate inquiry and leaving little time for the House task force. His strategy of delay was endorsed by Janet Rehnquist after a meeting with Best and a State Department lawyer. In a June 24, 1992, letter to Gray, Rehnquist wrote that “at your direction, I have looked into whether Don Gregg should return to Washington to testify before the Senate Subcommittee hearings next week. I believe we should NOT request that Gregg testify next week.”

The failure to effect service of the subpoena gave the Bush team an advantage, Rehnquist noted, because the Senate investigators then relented and merely “submitted written questions to Gregg, through counsel, in lieu of an appearance. . This development provides us an opportunity to manage Gregg’s participation in October Surprise long distance.” Rehnquist added hopefully that by the end of September 1992 “the issue may, by that time, even be dead for all practical purposes.”

Asked about this strategy of delay, Hamilton told me that “running out the clock is a very familiar tactic in any congressional investigation” since the Bush-41 administration would have known that the task force’s authorization expired at the end of the session. That deadline came into play when the floodgates on evidence of Republican guilt opened in December 1992.

In 2010, shortly before his death to cancer, the task force’s former chief counsel Barcella told me that so much incriminating evidence against the Reagan campaign poured in during December 1992 that he asked Hamilton for a three-month extension, but was rebuffed. Hamilton said he had no recollection of such a specific request from Barcella, but added that he might have explained the problem of the task force’s authorization running out at end of the session.

“All I could have done is go before the next Congress and request reauthorization,” Hamilton told me. However, with key evidence withheld and facing fierce Republican resistance to extending the inquiry Hamilton chose to simply wrap up the task force’s report with a judgment clearing Reagan, Bush, Casey and other alleged participants.

Now, realizing that the White House was sitting on knowledge about a mysterious Casey trip to Madrid, Lee Hamilton is no longer so sure. [For a fuller account of the October Surprise evidence implicating Reagan’s 1980 campaign, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and America’s Stolen Narrative, which also contains evidence of a precursor “October Surprise” case, Richard Nixon’s sabotage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks in 1968.]

Yet, in April 2014, even as the U.S. government endlessly honors Ronald Reagan with his name attached to Washington’s National Airport and dozens of other government facilities and as warm nostalgia envelopes the aging George H.W. Bush there is outrage across Official Washington that Hamid Aboutalebi, who was 22 when the U.S. hostages were taken, has been named Iran’s ambassador to the UN.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Firewall: Inside the Iran-Contra Cover-up

From the Archive: The death of Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh on Wednesday at the age of 102 marked the passing of what is now rare in the American Establishment, a person who courageously fought for a truthful historical record, as Robert Parry explained in this 1997 review of Walsh’s memoir, Firewall.

By Robert Parry (First published in 1997)

In crucial ways, Watergate, the signature scandal of the 1970s, and Iran-Contra, the signature scandal of the 1980s, were opposites. Watergate showed how the constitutional institutions of American democracy — the Congress, the courts and the press — could check a gross abuse of power by the Executive, albeit imperfectly. A short dozen years later, the Iran-Contra scandal demonstrated how those same institutions had ceased to protect the nation from serious White House wrongdoing.

Watergate had been part of a brief national awakening which exposed Cold War abuses — presidential crimes, lies about the Vietnam War and assassination plots hatched at the CIA. The Iran-Contra cover-up marked the restoration of a Cold War status quo in which crimes, both domestic and international, could be committed by the Executive while the Congress and the press looked the other way.

That Iran-Contra reality, however, is still little understood for what it actually was: a victory of weakness and deceit over integrity and courage. On one front, the Washington media wants to perpetuate the myth that it remains the heroic Watergate press corps of All the President’s Men. On another, the national Democratic establishment wants to forget how it crumbled in the face of pressures from the Reagan-Bush administrations. And, of course, the Republicans want to protect the legacy of their last two presidents.

Those combined interests led to very few favorable reviews of a memoir by a man who put himself in the way of that cover-up — Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. In Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up, Walsh details his six-year battle to break through the “firewall” that White House officials built around President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush after the Iran-Contra scandal exploded in November 1986.

For Walsh, a lifelong Republican who shared the foreign policy views of the Reagan administration, the Iran-Contra experience was a life-changing one, as his investigation penetrated one wall of lies only to be confronted with another and another — and not just lies from White House aide Oliver North and his lower-level cohorts but lies from nearly every senior administration official who spoke with investigators.

According to Firewall, the cover-up conspiracy took formal shape at a meeting of Reagan and his top advisers in the Situation Room at the White House on Nov. 24, 1986. The meeting’s principal point of concern was how to handle the troublesome fact that Reagan had approved illegal arms sales to Iran in fall 1985, before any covert-action finding had been signed. The act was a clear felony — a violation of the Arms Export Control Act — and possibly an impeachable offense.

Though virtually everyone at the meeting knew that Reagan had approved those shipments through Israel, Attorney General Edwin Meese announced what would become the cover story. According to Walsh’s narrative, Meese “told the group that although [NSC adviser Robert] McFarlane had informed [Secretary of State George] Shultz of the planned shipment, McFarlane had not informed the president. …

“[White House chief of staff Don] Regan, who had heard McFarlane inform the president and who had heard the president admit to Shultz that he knew of the shipment of Hawk [anti-aircraft] missiles, said nothing. Shultz and [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger, who had protested the shipment before it took place, said nothing. [Vice President George] Bush, who had been told of the shipment in advance by McFarlane, said nothing. Casey, who [had] requested that the president sign the retroactive finding to authorize the CIA-facilitated delivery, said nothing. [NSC adviser John] Poindexter, who had torn up the finding, said nothing. Meese asked whether anyone knew anything else that hadn’t been revealed. No one spoke.”

When Shultz returned to the State Department, he dictated a note to his aide, Charles Hill, who wrote down that Reagan’s men were “rearranging the record.” They were trying to protect the president through a “carefully thought out strategy” that would “blame it on Bud” McFarlane.

‘Fall Guy’

As part of that strategy, virtually all of Reagan’s top advisers, including Shultz, gave false and misleading testimony to Congress and prosecutors. Their accounts essentially blamed the illegalities on Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and his bosses at the National Security Council, McFarlane and Poindexter. Pretty much everyone else — at the CIA, Defense Department, the Vice President’s Office and the White House — claimed ignorance.

Even though Oliver North correctly testified in 1987 that he was the “fall guy” in this implausible scenario, the Democrats and much of the press corps still fell for it. There was a clicking of wine glasses around Official Washington as the “men of zeal” cover story was enshrined as the official history of the Iran-Contra affair. A painful Watergate-style impeachment battle had been averted.

The story might have stopped there but for the work of Walsh and his small team of lawyers. Yet Walsh’s investigation was hampered from the start by congressional haste and from hostility among key elements of the media. Congress was so ready to accept the theory of a rogue operation that it rushed ahead with televised hearings designed to make North and his NSC superiors, McFarlane and Poindexter, the primary culprits. Without even questioning North ahead of time, the Iran-Contra committee granted the charismatic Marine officer and his pipe-smoking boss, Poindexter, limited immunity.

Three years later, that immunity came back to haunt Walsh’s hard-won convictions of North and Poindexter. Conservative judges on the federal appeals court, particularly Reagan loyalists Laurence Silberman and David Sentelle, exploited the immunity opening to reverse North’s conviction. Sentelle, a protege of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., also joined in the decision to wipe out Poindexter’s conviction. [After that, Sentelle took over the three-judge panel, which oversaw independent counsels, including Walsh.]

In Firewall, Walsh described the GOP majority on the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia as “a powerful band of Republican appointees [who] waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army, … a force cloaked in the black robes of those dedicated to defining and preserving the rule of law.”

Still, despite the legal and political obstacles, Walsh’s investigation broke through the White House cover-up in 1991-92. Almost by accident, as Walsh’s staff was double-checking some long-standing document requests, the lawyers discovered hidden notes belonging to Weinberger and other senior officials. The notes made clear that there was widespread knowledge of the 1985 illegal shipments to Iran and that a major cover-up had been orchestrated by the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The Pounding Begins

The belated discovery led to indictments against senior CIA officials and Weinberger. Congressional Republicans, led by Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, reacted by angrily denouncing Walsh and calling for an end to his investigation. The Washington press corps also had grown hostile, complaining that Walsh’s probe had taken too long and had cost too much.

The conservative Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page fired near-daily barrages at Walsh often over trivial matters, such as first-class air fare and room-service meals. Key columnists and editorial writers for The Washington Post and The New York Times — along with television pundits David Brinkley and Christopher Matthews — joined in the Walsh bashings. Walsh was mocked as a modern-day Captain Ahab.

In his book, however, Walsh compared his trying experience to another maritime classic, Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. In that story, an aging fisherman hooks a giant marlin and, after a long battle, secures the fish to the side of his boat. On the way back to port, the marlin is attacked by sharks that devour its flesh and deny the fisherman his prize. “As the independent counsel, I sometimes felt like the old man,” Walsh wrote, “more often, I felt like the marlin.”

More seriously, the congressional and media attacks effectively limited Walsh’s ability to pursue what appeared to be other false statements by senior administration officials. Those perjury inquiries could have unraveled other major national-security mysteries of the 1980s and helped correct the history of the era. But Walsh could not overcome the pack-like hostility of Official Washington.

For instance, the Walsh team had strong suspicions that Bush’s national security adviser, ex-CIA officer Donald Gregg, had lied when he testified that he was unaware of North’s Contra resupply operation, although Gregg’s close friend, Felix Rodriguez, was working with North in Central America and called Gregg after each Contra delivery.

There already had been problems with Gregg’s story, including the discovery of a vice presidential office memo describing a planned meeting with Rodriguez about “resupply of the contras.” Gregg bizarrely explained the memo away as a typo that should have read, “resupply of the copters.”

More Cracks

In Firewall, Walsh disclosed that Gregg’s stonewall experienced another crack when Col. James Steele, U.S. military adviser to El Salvador, flunked a polygraph test when he denied his own role in shipping weapons to the Contras. Confronted with those results and incriminating notes from North’s diaries, “Steele admitted not only his participation in the arms deliveries but also his early discussion of these activities with Donald Gregg,” Walsh wrote.

Gregg failed his own polygraph when he denied knowledge of the Contra supply operation. Gregg also flunked when he denied participating in the so-called October Surprise operation in 1980, an alleged secret CIA-GOP operation to undermine President Jimmy Carter’s Iran hostage negotiations and secure Reagan’s election. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and America’s Stolen Narrative for more details on Gregg’s alleged October Surprise role.]

Despite the doubts about Gregg’s veracity, Walsh felt compelled to set aside those allegations as he struggled to finish several pending perjury cases against Weinberger and CIA officials, Clair George and Duane Clarridge. As those cases moved haltingly forward, anti-Walsh attacks multiplied in Congress and in the Washington media.

The Republican independent counsel also infuriated the GOP when he submitted a second indictment of Weinberger on the Friday before the 1992 elections. The indictment contained documents revealing that President Bush had been lying for years with his claim that he was “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra decisions. The ensuing furor dominated the last several days of the campaign and sealed Bush’s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton.

Walsh had discovered, too, that Bush had withheld his own notes about the Iran-Contra Affair, a discovery that elevated the President to a possible criminal subject of the investigation. But Bush had one more weapon in his arsenal. On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush destroyed the Iran-Contra probe once and for all by pardoning Weinberger and five other convicted or indicted defendants.

“George Bush’s misuse of the pardon power made the cover-up complete,” Walsh wrote. “What set Iran-contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”

But the cover-up likely could not have worked if the other institutions of Washington — Congress, the courts and the press — had not helped. Those institutions aided and abetted the White House both directly, through decisions that undermined the cases or reversed convictions, or indirectly, through incessant heckling of Walsh’s investigators over trivial complaints.

Like the cover-up that bedeviled Lawrence Walsh, the historic reversal for America — from the constitutional protections of Watergate to the flouting of law in Iran-Contra — was complete.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Robert Strauss’s Watergate Secret

Special Report: Robert Strauss, who died Wednesday, was a Democratic powerbroker who thrived in the age of Nixon, Reagan and Bush-41. But an enduring Watergate mystery is whether Strauss earned his GOP spurs by secretly helping the Republicans in the spy scandal, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Longtime Washington powerbroker Robert Strauss, who died Wednesday at the age of 95, took to the grave the answer to one of the most provocative Watergate mysteries, whether he was, in effect, a Republican mole serving in the highest ranks of the Democratic Party.

In his later years, Strauss rebuffed my requests for an interview on this topic, but it never seemed likely that he would tell the full truth anyway, answering questions about whether his close collaboration with senior Republicans in the early 1970s was just personal or whether he was privately helping them undermine Democratic election prospects in 1972 and then trying to shut down the Watergate investigation in 1973-74.

The mystery surrounding Strauss relates to whether his political allegiance to former Texas Gov. John Connally, who deserted the Democratic Party to work for President Richard Nixon, compromised Strauss’s own Democratic loyalty, even as he served as party treasurer and then party chairman after Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972.

There is even suspicion that Strauss may have played an active role in the Watergate scandal by, perhaps unwittingly, helping the Republicans make use of secrets gleaned from a wiretap that the Watergate burglars had placed on the phone of Democratic operative R. Spencer Oliver in late May 1972.

It has never been fully explained exactly what the Republicans got from their wiretap on Oliver’s phone, but Oliver told me in an interview in 2004 that he and other Democrats were using that phone to keep track of the delegate count as the Democratic presidential race reached its conclusion in June 1972.

Oliver and other mainstream Democrats operating out of his Watergate office were looking for ways to block the nomination of Sen. George McGovern for fear that the staunchly anti-war candidate would lead the party to catastrophe in November, just the result that President Nixon was hoping for.

So, while Oliver and his allies were strategizing about a possible compromise candidate who would fare better against Nixon, the Republicans were listening in on those plans, which involved the necessity of shutting McGovern out of delegates in the Texas convention in June.

Though the details of the so-called Gemstone wiretaps have never been revealed, one of the Nixon operatives, Alfred Baldwin, said he transcribed about 200 calls, including some dealing with “political strategy,” and passed the transcripts on to James McCord, a former CIA officer and security chief for the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP). McCord gave the transcripts to G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who had devised the spying plan.

The intercepts then went to Jeb Stuart Magruder, CREEP’s deputy chairman who said he gave the material to former Attorney General John Mitchell, who had left the Justice Department to run CREEP.

Oliver, who was working for the Democratic state chairmen, told me that they commissioned a hard count of delegates to see whether McGovern’s nomination could be stopped.

Though knocked from contention in the early primaries, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine still had a bloc of delegates in early June as did former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Oliver said. Scores of other delegates were uncommitted or tied to favorite sons. Oliver hoped that his personal favorite, Duke University President Terry Sanford, might emerge from a deadlocked convention as a unity candidate.

“McGovern was having a hard time getting a majority,” Oliver said. “The state chairmen wanted to know whether or not, if he won the California primary, he would have the nomination wrapped up or whether there was still a chance he could be stopped.

“We called every state chairman or party executive director to find out where their uncommitted delegates would go. We were doing a real hard count. We knew better than anybody else how many delegates could be influenced, who were really anti-McGovern. We had the best count in the country and it was all coordinated through my telephone.”

So, while Nixon’s political espionage team listened in from their room at the Howard Johnson’s hotel across from the Watergate, Oliver and his little team canvassed state party leaders to figure out how the Democratic delegates planned to vote. “We determined on that phone that McGovern could still be stopped even if he won the California primary,” Oliver said. “It would be very close whether he could ever get a majority.”

The Texas Showdown

After McGovern did win the California primary, the stop-McGovern battle focused on Texas and its Democratic convention, scheduled for June 13, 1972. “The one place he could be stopped was at the Texas State Democratic Convention,” Oliver said.

A Texan himself, Oliver knew the Democratic Party there to be a bitterly divided organization, with many conservative Democrats sympathetic to Nixon and hostile to McGovern and his anti-Vietnam War positions. One of the best known Texas Democrats, former Gov. John Connally, had joined the Nixon administration in 1970 as Treasury Secretary and was helping the Nixon campaign in 1972.

In The Haldeman Diaries, Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman describes Connally providing valuable insights about the inner workings of the Democratic Party. Nixon’s team even broached the idea with Connally that he might replace Spiro Agnew as Nixon’s vice presidential running mate, an offer Connally declined.

Many other Texas Democrats were loyal to former President Lyndon Johnson who had battled anti-war activists before deciding against a reelection bid in 1968. “There had been a major fight in Texas between the Left and the Right, between the liberals and the conservatives,” Oliver said. “They hated each other. It was one of these lifetime things.”

Between the strength of the conservative Democratic machine and the history of hardball Texas politics, the Texas convention looked to Oliver like the perfect place to push through a solid anti-McGovern slate, even though nearly one-third of the state delegates listed McGovern as their first choice. Since there was no requirement for proportional representation, whoever controlled a majority at the state convention could take all the presidential delegates or divide them up among other candidates, Oliver said.

At Sanford’s suggestion, Oliver decided to fly to Texas. When he reached the Texas convention in San Antonio, Oliver said he was stunned by what he found. The Johnson-Connally wing of the party appeared uncharacteristically generous to the McGovern campaign. Also arriving from Washington was one of Connally’s Democratic protégés, the party’s national treasurer Bob Strauss.

“I’m in the hotel and I’m standing in the lobby the day before the convention,” Oliver said. “The elevator opens and there’s Bob Strauss. I was really surprised to see him and he makes a bee-line straight for me. He says, ‘Spencer, how you doing?’ I say, ‘Bob, what are you doing here?’ He says, ‘I’m a Texan, you’re a Texan. Here we are. Who would miss one of these state conventions? Maybe we ought to have lunch.’ He was never that friendly to me before.”

Oliver was curious about Strauss’s sudden appearance because Strauss had never been a major figure in Texas Democratic politics. “He was a Connally guy and had no background in politics except his personal ties to Connally,” Oliver said. “He hadn’t been active in state politics except as Connally’s fund-raiser. He wasn’t a delegate to the state convention.”

Plus, Strauss’s chief mentor, Connally, was a member of Nixon’s Cabinet and was planning to head up “Democrats for Nixon” in the fall campaign. Known as a smooth-talking lawyer, Strauss had made his first major foray into politics as a principal fund-raiser for Connally’s first gubernatorial race in 1962. Connally then put Strauss on the Democratic National Committee in 1968. Two years later, Connally agreed to join the Nixon administration

“I wouldn’t say that Connally and Strauss are close,” one critic famously told The New York Times, “but when Connally eats watermelon, Strauss spits seeds.”

Other Connally guys held other key positions at the state convention, including state chairman Will Davis. So, presumably the liberal, anti-war McGovern would have looked to be in a tight spot, opposed not only by Davis but also by much of the conservative state Democratic leadership and organized labor.

“It was clear that 70 percent of the delegates were anti-McGovern, so they very easily could have coalesced, struck a deal and blocked McGovern,” Oliver said. “That probably would have blocked him from the nomination.”

Oliver told some political allies at the convention, including party activists R.C. “Bob” Slagle III and Dwayne Holman, about the plan that had been hatched in Washington to shut McGovern out of Texas delegates.

“They thought it might work and agreed to promote it with the state Democratic leadership,” Oliver said. “Bob went to lay out this plan to stop McGovern and I waited for him. (After he emerged from the meeting,) we went around the corner, and he said, ‘It’s not going to work.’ He said, ‘Will Davis thinks we ought to give McGovern his share of the delegates.’

“I said, ‘What? Will Davis, John Connally’s guy? Does he know that this will give McGovern the nomination?’ He [Davis] said, ‘We shouldn’t have a big fight. We should all agree that everyone gets the percentage they had in the preference. We’ll just let it go.’”

Oliver said, “That was the most astonishing thing I had heard in all my years of Texas politics. There’s never been any quarter given or any asked in this sort of thing. Seventy percent of the delegates were against McGovern. Why did those die-hard conservatives and organized labor want to give him 30 percent of the votes? I was stunned.”

After a 17-hour final session, the convention gave 42 national delegates to Alabama Gov. George Wallace and 34 to McGovern, with Hubert Humphrey getting 21 and 33 listed as uncommitted. According to The New York Times, the Texas results put McGovern about two-thirds of the way toward 1,509 needed for a first-round nomination.

Although failing at his Texas mission, Oliver continued to pursue his strategy of promoting Terry Sanford as a compromise Democratic nominee. He proceeded to Mississippi where Hodding Carter, a rising star among moderate Mississippi Democrats, agreed to nominate Sanford at the national convention. Oliver then returned to Washington, where he discussed the delegate situation by telephone with Fowler and other state chairmen before traveling to his father’s summer home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Watergate Burglars Caught

On June 14, back in Washington, the Gemstone team began planning a return to the DNC’s Watergate office to install new eavesdropping equipment. Liddy, famous for his tough-guy reputation, was under pressure from higher-ups to get more information, E. Howard Hunt, another ex-CIA officer and a key Watergate figure, said later.

When Hunt suggested to Liddy that targeting the Miami hotels to be used during the upcoming Democratic National Convention made more sense, Liddy checked with his “principals” and reported that they were adamant about sending the team back into the Watergate.

One person in the White House who was demanding continued vigilance over the Democrats was Richard Nixon. Though it’s never been established that Nixon had prior knowledge about the Watergate break-in itself, the President was continuing to demand that his political operatives keep collecting whatever information they could about the Democrats.

“That business of the McGovern watch, it just has to be it has to be now around the clock,” Nixon told presidential aide Charles Colson on June 13, according to a White House taped conversation. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

Facing demands from the “principals,” Hunt contacted the Cuban-Americans in Miami on June 14. The burglars reassembled in Washington two days later. For this entry, James McCord taped six or eight doors between the corridors and the stairwells on the upper floors and three more in the sub-basement. But McCord applied the tape horizontally instead of vertically, leaving pieces of tape showing when the doors were closed.

Around midnight, security guard Frank Wills came on duty. An African-American high school dropout, Wills was new to the job. About 45 minutes after starting work, he began his first round of checking the building. He discovered a piece of tape over a door latch at the garage level. Thinking that the tape was probably left behind by a building engineer earlier in the day, Wills removed it and went about his business.

A few minutes after Wills passed by, Gonzalez, one of the Cuban-American burglars, reached the now-locked door. He managed to open it by picking the lock. He then re-taped the latch so others could follow him in. The team then moved to the sixth floor, entered the DNC offices and got to work installing additional equipment.

Shortly before 2 a.m., Wills was making his second round of checks at the building when he spotted the re-taped door. His suspicions aroused, the security man called the Washington Metropolitan Police. A dispatcher reached a nearby plainclothes unit, which pulled up in front of the Watergate.

After telling Wills to wait in the lobby, the police officers began a search of the building, starting with the eighth floor and working their way down to the sixth. The hapless burglars tried to hide behind desks in the DNC’s office, but the police officers spotted them and called out, “Hold it!” McCord and four other burglars surrendered. Hunt, Liddy and other members of the Gemstone crew still across the street at the Howard Johnson’s hurriedly stashed their equipment and papers into suitcases and fled.

Hearing the News

Oliver was at his father’s cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks when the news broke that five burglars had been caught inside the Democratic national headquarters in Washington.

“I heard about it on the television news,” Oliver said. “I thought that was strange, why would anybody break into the Democratic National Committee? I mean we don’t have any money; the convention’s coming up and everybody’s moved to Miami; the delegates have been picked and the primaries are over. So why would anybody be in there? I didn’t think anything of it.”

After returning to Washington, Oliver  like other Democratic staffers was asked some routine questions by the police and the FBI, but the whole episode remained a mystery. “People were buzzing about it, talking about it, but people thought it was just crazy that anyone would have gone in there,” Oliver recalled.

In July 1972, along with other Democratic officials, Oliver went to the national convention in Miami, where McGovern barely managed to secure a majority of delegates to win the nomination. After the victory, McGovern loyalists were installed at the DNC in the Watergate offices. Jean Westwood replaced Larry O’Brien as national chairman and focused on unifying the party, which remained deeply divided between the McGovernites and party regulars.

“One of the problems we had was how do you get the state party people to work with the McGovern people,” said Oliver, who was one of the officials trying to mend the schism. At a meeting of the Democratic executive committee in early September at the Watergate, Oliver was to give a report about cooperation on voter registration between the McGovern campaign and state party organizations.

“Someone brought me a note that Larry O’Brien called and wants you to call him,” Oliver said. “I put the note in my pocket. The meeting went on. They brought a second note and said, ‘Larry O’Brien wants you to call.’ At the lunch break, I went upstairs to call O’Brien a little after 12 o’clock.

“I asked to speak to Larry. Stan Gregg, his deputy, came on the line: ‘Spencer, Larry’s at lunch, but he wanted me to tell you that he’s going to have a press conference at 2 o’clock and he’s going to announce that the burglars that they caught in the Watergate were not in there for the first time. They had been in there before, in May.’

“I was saying to myself, ‘Why’s he telling me all this?’ He said, ‘and they put taps on at least two phones. One of the phones was Larry’s and one was yours.’ I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘the tap on Larry’s didn’t work. He’s going to announce all this at 2 o’clock.’”

After digesting the news of the May break-in, Oliver called Gregg back, telling him, “‘Stan, take my name out of that press release. I don’t know why they tapped my phone, but I don’t want my name involved in it. Let Larry say, there were two taps involved and one was on his. But I don’t want to become embroiled in this.’ He said, ‘it’s too late. The press releases have already gone out.’”

Oliver suddenly found himself at the center of a political maelstrom as the DNC moved to file a civil lawsuit accusing the Republicans of violating the federal wiretap statute.

“Immediately, I became the object of all sorts of speculation,” Oliver recalled. “The worst thing about it was that other people on the national committee were jealous that my phone was tapped, not theirs. One of the worst was Strauss, who was reportedly saying things like ‘I don’t know why they tapped his phone. He didn’t mean anything. He was an unimportant guy.’ Everybody wanted to be the celebrity victim.”

Smearing the Victim

The wording of the wiretap statute, however, made Oliver a legally significant player, since only the bug on his phone worked and his conversations were the ones intercepted. “If somebody put a tap on your phone and if nobody listened to it, then you have no cause of action,” said Oliver, a lawyer by profession. “You have to be able to prove interception and use. So I was crucial to the lawsuit.”

The statute also created legal dangers for anyone who got information, even indirectly, from the wiretaps. “I realized that anybody who received the contents of the intercepted telephone conversation and passed them on, in other words, the fruits of the criminal act, was also guilty of a felony,” Oliver said.

“So that meant that if someone listened to my phone, wrote a memo like McCord had done and sent it to the White House or to CREEP, everybody who got those memos and either read them or passed them on was a felon. It was a strict statute. Wherever the chain led, anybody who got them, used them, discussed them, sent them on to someone else was guilty of a felony and subject to criminal as well as civil penalties.”

After the Democratic lawsuit was filed, lawyers for CREEP immediately took Oliver’s deposition. Some of the questions were trolling for any derogatory information that might be used against him, Oliver recalled. “CREEP asked if I was a member of the Communist Party, Weather Underground, ‘were you ever arrested?’” But some questions reflected facts that would have been contained in Gemstone memos, Oliver said, such as “Who is Terry Sanford?”

The FBI also launched a full field investigation of Oliver. “They tried to tie me to radical groups and asked questions of my neighbors and my friends about whether I had ever done anything wrong, whether I drank too much, whether I was an alcoholic, whether I had a broken marriage, whether I had had any affairs,” Oliver said. “It was a very intrusive and obnoxious assault on my private life.”

Initially, Nixon’s Justice Department denied that the bug on Oliver’s phone had been installed by the Watergate burglars, implying that the Democrats may have tampered with the crime scene by installing the wiretap themselves to create a bigger scandal. In a television interview, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst said the device on Oliver’s phone must have been put on after June 17 because FBI agents had found nothing during “a thorough sweep” of the office.

Also, in September 1972 around the time the Democrats learned about the initial break-in and the bug on Oliver’s phone John Connally joined Nixon’s inner circle in discussing what to do about the growing Watergate scandal.

Haldeman diary entry for Sept. 13 noted that Nixon “had [former Attorney General John] Mitchell, [CREEP chairman Clark] MacGregor, and Connally up for dinner and a general political planning session. Spent quite a little time on Watergate.”

Soon, Democrats were encountering solid stonewalls when they tried to crack the Watergate mystery through discovery in the wiretap case. “Our guys couldn’t get anybody’s deposition; everybody was stalling,” Oliver said. “It was clear to me that what’s going on was that the Justice Department was fixed, the FBI was fixed, and the only way we were going to get to the bottom of this was to have an independent investigation.”

In October 1972, Oliver wrote a memo to Sen. Sam Ervin, a moderate Democrat from North Carolina, recommending an independent congressional investigation as the only way to get to the bottom of Watergate, a task Ervin couldn’t undertake until the next year.

In the meantime, Nixon’s Watergate cover-up held. The White House successfully tagged the incident as a “third-rate burglary” that didn’t implicate the President or his top aides. On Election Day, Nixon rolled to a record victory over his preferred Democratic opponent, George McGovern, who only won one state, Massachusetts.

Covering Up Watergate

The McGovern debacle had immediate repercussions inside the Democratic National Committee, where the party regulars moved to purge McGovern’s people in early December.

“Labor, conservatives, party establishment and others wanted to get rid of the McGovernites and they wanted Jean Westwood to resign,” Oliver said. “We had a bruising battle for the chairmanship. It ended up being between George Mitchell [of Maine] and Bob Strauss.”

The Strauss candidacy was strange to some Democrats, given his close ties to John Connally, who had led Nixon’s drive to get Democrats to cross party lines and vote Republican. Two Texas labor leaders, Roy Evans and Roy Bullock, urged the DNC to reject Strauss because “his most consistent use of his talents has been to advance the political fortune and career of his life-long friend, John B. Connally.”

Another Texan, former Senator Ralph Yarborough, said anyone who thinks Strauss could act independently of Connally “ought to be bored for the hollow horn,” a farm hand’s expression for being crazy.

For his part, Connally offered to do what he could to help his best friend Strauss. Connally said he would “endorse him or denounce him,” whichever would help more. Strauss “displays in my judgment the reasonableness that the [Democratic] party has to have,” Connally said.

Behind the scenes at the White House, Nixon was already touting Connally as the next President, or as Haldeman noted, “he is the only one that any of us would want to see succeed the P. He’s got to run as a Republican and he’s got to make the move now” to formally switch parties.

“After a terribly hard-fought battle, Strauss won,” Oliver recalled. “Strauss came to the national committee the next week.”

Though supposedly on opposite sides of the political fence, Connally and Strauss stayed in touch, with Connally even upbraiding his former protégé for comments that Strauss made in December 1972 about the value of Democratic loyalty. Connally “had called [Strauss] and told him his remarks were ill-advised,” Haldeman recounted in his diary. Connally “said he was pretty tough and that Strauss was quite disturbed.”

Soon, it became clear that Strauss’s chief priority was to give the Democratic Party new direction as it tried to traverse a political landscape reshaped by the Nixon landslide. Strauss’s strategy called for putting the Watergate scandal into the past both by moving the DNC out of the Watergate complex and by trying to settle the Watergate civil lawsuit.

“Within a few days of his being there, I was called and told he wanted to see me,” Oliver said. “He said, ‘Spencer, you know I want to work with the state party chairs, but now that I’m here there’s something I want you to do. I want to get rid of this Watergate thing. I want you to drop that lawsuit.’

“I said, ‘What?’ I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about. I said, ‘But, Bob, you know that’s the only avenue we have for discovery. Why would we want to get out of the lawsuit?’

“He replied, ‘I don’t want that Watergate stuff anymore. I want you to drop that lawsuit.’ I said, ‘Bob, without me, there is no lawsuit under the law.’ He said, ‘I’m the chairman and I want you to do it.’ I said, ‘Bob, I work for the state chairmen’s association and I see no reason to do that.’ It was very unpleasant at the end.”

Oliver soon found himself cut adrift by the DNC lawyers who said they had to follow Strauss’s orders and back off the Watergate case, though privately they expressed hope that Oliver would find another lawyer and continue pursuing the case, Oliver recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t afford that.’”

Oliver was then studying for the bar, supporting three children and working two jobs (for the state chairmen and for the American Council of Young Political Leaders). Plus, his marriage was on the rocks.

Oliver began a search for a new attorney willing to take on the powerful White House. He faced a string of rejections from other lawyers partly because so many Watergate figures had already hired attorneys at major firms that it created conflicts of interests for other law partners. Finally, at a dinner party in Potomac, Maryland, a personal injury lawyer named Joe Koonz offered to take the case on a contingency basis.

“They can’t do anything to me,” Koonz said, according to Oliver. “I’m a plaintiff’s lawyer, a personal injury lawyer. You won’t have to pay a thing. If we win, I’ll get one-third and you’ll get two-thirds, and I guarantee you if I get this thing before a jury, we’ll win.”

Oliver’s success in keeping the civil suit alive represented a direct challenge to Strauss, who continued to seek an end to the DNC’s legal challenge to the Republicans over Watergate. While Oliver didn’t directly work for Strauss, the national chairman could force Oliver off the payroll.

“He couldn’t fire me as executive director of the state chairmen’s association, but he could cut off my pay, which he did after a big, nasty, ugly fight,” Oliver said. “The state chairmen then paid my salary out of their own funds.”

Strauss also moved the DNC out of Watergate, despite the favorable terms on the rent and the building’s usefulness as a reminder of Republican wrongdoing. “Strauss said, ‘I don’t care what it costs to move. I want to get this Watergate thing behind us,’” Oliver said. “It was ridiculous. They moved the office across the city to a worse location for less space at more cost. Plus, they lost the symbol of Watergate.”

A Rising Bush

While Democratic leaders were debating whether to fold their hand on Watergate, Nixon was reshuffling his personnel deck for a second term. George H.W. Bush’s credentials as a Nixon loyalist made him a top candidate for several senior administration jobs.

“A total Nixon man first,” Nixon said in a discussion of Bush’s future. “Doubt if you can do better than Bush.” In one denigrating compliment, Nixon told Bush that he was high on the job lists because the administration needed “not brains but loyalty.” Nixon concluded that Bush would fit best as chairman of the Republican National Committee, replacing Sen. Bob Dole, whom Nixon considered too independent and acerbic.

“Bush was perfect for the RNC,” wrote Bush’s biographer Herbert S. Parmet, “whistle-clean, a tonic for the GOP’s public image, a nice guy to everyone, but tough. How else could he have built a career in oil and politics? A great combination: respectability and strength, able to firm up the administration’s lines of control. He could be handy at the money-raising, too.”

With more Watergate troubles looming in federal criminal court (over the five burglars) and in Congress (with Ervin’s plans for public hearings), Nixon told Bush, “The place I really need you is over at the National Committee running things.” Bush accepted though he was less than thrilled with the new job.

Bush’s genial demeanor helped in negotiations with Strauss, a fellow Texan whom Bush also counted as a friend. By mid-April 1973, Strauss appeared on the verge of achieving his goal of putting the Watergate civil lawsuit into the past.

“I’m driving into work one day and I hear that Strauss and George Bush were holding a press conference at the National Press Club to announce that they were settling the Watergate case, putting it behind them,” Oliver said. “I said he can’t settle that suit without me. The Republicans were holding out $1 million to settle that suit, but they couldn’t settle it without me.”

On April 17, 1973, Strauss disclosed that CREEP had offered $525,000 to settle the case. “There has been some serious discussion for many months” between Democratic and CREEP lawyers, Strauss said. “It has become intense in the past several weeks.” Strauss explained his interest in a settlement partly because the Democratic Party was saddled with a $3.5 million debt and could not afford to devote enough legal resources to the case.

But two days later, Strauss backed off the settlement talks because Oliver and Common Cause, another organization involved in the civil case, balked. “We haven’t the slightest intention of settling short of what we set out to get,” said Common Cause chairman John Gardner. “I think that the Democratic National Committee suit and ours are the two that are least susceptible to control.”

At a press conference, Oliver declared, “I am appalled at the idea of ending the civil suit in the Watergate case through a secretly negotiated settlement and thereby destroying what may be an important forum through which the truth about those responsible may become known. I do not know what motivated Robert Strauss to even contemplate such a step.”

For his part, Strauss said he had discussed a settlement with former Attorney General Mitchell “with the knowledge and approval of the Democratic leadership on the Hill after talking to a number of Democratic governors and with eight or 10 members of the Democratic National Committee.” Asked if he was compromising the interests of the Democratic Party, Strauss responded, “If I was doing so, I was doing so with a lot of company.”

After the public flare-up over the aborted Watergate settlement, the strained relationship between Oliver and Strauss grew even worse. Oliver said, “Strauss started calling around to state chairs, saying ‘Did you see what that little SOB said about me? He’s accusing me of being a crook.’ He really launched a campaign against me.”

Meanwhile, inside the Nixon administration, Connally took a more active role on Watergate, meeting with RNC chief Bush and urging the President to take some forceful action to get ahead of the expanding scandal. “Bush says that Connally wants something done drastically, that someone has to walk the plank and some heads have to roll,” Haldeman recounted in his diary.

Haldeman discussed Watergate directly with Connally, who urged the White House to go on the offensive against the Senate committee. “We should be outraged at their demagoguery,” Connally advised Haldeman, according to the diary entry. “Take them head-on in open session and grandstand it.”

Haldeman wrote that Connally wanted senior White House officials to “go up and really put on an act, take the Committee on, try to nail them, that they’d been on a witch-hunt. You need some phrases. You need to be coached and rehearsed, each one of you. You might, by that, screw the Committee in people’s minds and destroy it, or at least pull its teeth.”

As the scandal continued to grow and the cover-up created new legal dangers Nixon even considered appointing Connally as Attorney General. Haldeman doubted Connally would take the job, drawing a response from Nixon that “Connally says he’ll do anything he has to do.”

Putting the Pieces Together

Oliver said it was not until spring 1973 that he began putting the pieces of the Watergate mystery together, leading him to believe that the events around the Texas convention were not simply coincidental but rather the consequence of Republican eavesdropping on his telephone.

If that were true, Oliver suspected, Strauss may have been collaborating with his old mentor Connally both in arranging a Texas outcome that would ensure McGovern’s nomination and later in trying to head off the Watergate civil lawsuit. That would not mean that Connally and Strauss necessarily knew about the bugging of the DNC, only that they had been used by Republicans who had access to the information from the Gemstone wiretappers, Oliver said.

“In my opinion, they were listening to me on that phone do a vote count and they’re listening to us start a project to block McGovern’s nomination,” Oliver said. “They were scared to death that it would be Scoop Jackson or Terry Sanford” emerging as the Democratic nominee.

“This strategy is about to work and we’re about to stop McGovern. Now, how do you block that? Well, the man who Nixon admired the most in the world, who he wanted to be his Vice President was John Connally. And who could block it in Texas? John Connally. Who was the state party chairman? Who controlled the machinery? John Connally’s people. No Republican could have done it. Only Connally. They had to go directly to him because he’s the only one who could fix it.

“But Connally wasn’t somebody who could be called by just anybody. So I believe what happened was that they went to Connally  Haldeman or Nixon, maybe Mitchell or [Charles] Colson but it had to be one of them. They must have briefed him on what they knew, and what they knew is what they got off the interception of my telephone.

“Nixon wanted Connally to be his successor, but this is in jeopardy if Nixon doesn’t get reelected. So Connally may have contacted Will Davis and may have sent Strauss to Texas.”

McGovern got his share of the Texas delegates after a marathon session that ended at 3:31 a.m. on June 14, 1972. That same day, according to Hunt, Liddy was told by his “principals” that the burglars needed to return to the Democratic offices at the Watergate to install more eavesdropping equipment. Three days later, the Watergate burglars were arrested.

“Once they were caught, they [Nixon and his men] had to cut off our avenue of discovery, which of course was the civil suit,” Oliver said. “I think Strauss may have run for national chairman for that purpose. Strauss wanted to kill the Watergate thing because he may have been part of this conspiracy to help nominate McGovern, part of the conspiracy to cover up the Watergate matter and put it behind us.

“In desperate fear of exposure later on, he tried to crush me. Somebody told me about a conversation with Strauss when someone said, ‘Spencer’s never going to give in on the Watergate thing,’ and Strauss said, ‘When he doesn’t have any more income, he’ll be a lot more reasonable.’”

In retrospect, the idea of leading Democrats shying away from the Watergate scandal in 1973 may seem odd, but the major breaks in the cover-up had yet to occur. At the time, the prospect that the scandal might lead to Nixon’s removal from office appeared remote. As late as April 1974, Strauss chastised Democratic governors for calling for Nixon’s resignation.

Over the next quarter century, Strauss would come to epitomize the national Democratic leader who cultivated friendly relations with Republicans. His friendship with Bush confidante James Baker III was cemented when Strauss headed President Jimmy Carter’s failed reelection bid in 1980, while Baker, also a Texan, held a top job in the Reagan-Bush campaign.

After Carter’s loss in 1980, the defeated Democratic President joked to his staff that “Bob is a very loyal friend he waited a whole week after the election before he had dinner with Ronald Reagan.”

Strauss also counted himself one of George H.W. Bush’s closest friends, accepting an appointment as Bush’s ambassador to Moscow in 1991. A senior Bush administration official explained the appointment to The New York Times by saying, “The President wants to send one of his best friends” to Moscow.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Hillary Clinton’s Unlearned Lessons

Exclusive: The Democrats sound self-satisfied that there is so little internal opposition to Hillary Clinton for President, but this rush to a coronation is ignoring questions about her judgment as a New York Senator and Secretary of State — and whether she is prone to war, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

As President Barack Obama tries to pick his way through a minefield of complex foreign policy issues from Iran’s nuclear program to the Syrian civil war to Israeli-Palestinian peace to unrest in Ukraine he is beset by incessant criticism from much of Official Washington which still retains the neocon influences of the last two decades.

Indeed, the failure to impose any meaningful accountability on Republicans, Democrats, senior editors and think-tank analysts who cheered on the Iraq War disaster makes it hard to envision how President Obama can navigate this maze of difficult negotiations and trade-offs needed to resolve conflicts in the world’s hot spots.

Successful negotiations require both an objective assessment of ground truth, i.e. a cold-eyed view of the actual power relationships between the disputing parties, and flexibility, i.e. the readiness to make concessions that accommodate the realistic needs of the two sides.

Yet, Official Washington has become a place of “tough-guy/gal” bluster where the only purpose of negotiations is for the “anti-U.S.” side to come in and surrender. That is why the likes of Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt are always calling for the U.S. to issue military ultimatums to disfavored foreign leaders, giving them the choice of doing what they’re told or facing U.S. attack.

We saw the same attitude before President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003: Bush’s escalating demands that Saddam Hussein surrender his stockpiles of WMD, American outrage when the Iraqi government insisted that the WMD no longer existed, and then the need to respond to Iraq’s arrogance and intransigence by going to war to protect U.S. “credibility.”

The fact that Iraq was telling the truth about its lack of WMD did not lead to mass firings of Official Washington’s opinion leaders, nor serious consequences for politicians who collaborated in this war crime. Bush won reelection; most of the war hawks kept their seats in Congress; and Hiatt and the other neocon media personalities remained employed.

Odds-on Favorite

Perhaps most interestingly, a top Democratic war hawk, Hillary Clinton, is now considered the odds-on favorite to get the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her defenders even cite bipartisan Republican praise for her foreign policy attitudes from the likes of former Vice President Dick Cheney and neocon Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain.

As for buying into Bush’s bogus case for invading Iraq, Clinton’s backers insist that she learned from this “mistake.” But there is new information in Robert Gates’s memoir, Duty, that shows how little Clinton and other Democrats did learn from the Iraq War deception, even when it came to later chapters of the Iraq War.

Sen. Clinton was among the leading Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee who were completely fooled by the significance of Gates’s nomination in November 2006 to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary. They again followed blindly the conventional wisdom, which at the time held that President Bush picked Gates to wind down the war and that he was essentially ceding control of U.S. foreign policy to the wiser national security team of his father’s administration.

There were clear warnings to the contrary, including some published at, that Sen. Clinton and other senators were again getting the narrative wrong, that Gates’s nomination foreshadowed an escalation of the war and that Rumsfeld was getting the boot because he backed the field generals who favored shrinking the U.S. footprint in Iraq.

Writing on the Wall

This reality was even spelled out by right-wing pundit Fred Barnes in the neocon Weekly Standard, writing that Gates “is not the point man for a boarding party of former national security officials from the elder President Bush’s administration taking over defense and foreign policy in his son’s administration.” Barnes wrote that “rarely has the press gotten a story so wrong.”

Barnes reported that the younger George Bush didn’t consult his father and only picked ex-CIA Director Gates after a two-hour face-to-face meeting at which the younger Bush got assurances that Gates was onboard with the neocon notion of “democracy promotion” in the Middle East and shared Bush’s goal of victory in Iraq. [The Weekly Standard, Nov. 27, 2006]

But the mainstream press was enamored with its new storyline. A Newsweek cover pictured a large George H.W. Bush towering over a small George W. Bush. Then, embracing this conventional wisdom, Clinton and other Senate Armed Services Committee members brushed aside the warnings about Gates, both his troubling history at the CIA and his likely support for a war escalation.

Facing no probing questions, Gates offered up some bromides about his “fresh eyes” and his determination not to be “a bump on a log,” while Clinton and other Democratic senators praised his “candor” before joining in a 21-0 vote to endorse his nomination, which went on to a 95-2 confirmation by the full Senate.

However, once installed at the Pentagon, Gates became a central figure in the Iraq War “surge,” which dispatched 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007. The “surge” saw casualty figures spike. Nearly 1,000 additional American died along with an untold number of Iraqis. And despite another conventional wisdom about the “successful surge” it failed to achieve its central goal of getting the Iraqis to achieve compromises on their sectarian divisions.

In the end, all the Iraq War “surge” did was buy President Bush and his neocon advisers time to get out of office before the failure of the Iraq War became obvious to the American public. Its other primary consequence was to encourage Defense Secretary Gates, who was kept on by President Obama as a sign of bipartisanship, to conjure up another “surge” for Afghanistan.

Gates’s Recollections

So, it was enlightening to read in Duty, Gates’s recollection of his 2006 nomination and his insights into how completely clueless Official Washington was. Regarding the conventional wisdom about Bush-41 taking the reins from Bush-43, Gates wrote about his recruitment by the younger Bush: “It was clear he had not consulted his father about this possible appointment and that, contrary to later speculation, Bush 41 had no role in it.”

Though Gates doesn’t single out Hillary Clinton for misreading the significance of his nomination, Gates wrote: “The Democrats were even more enthusiastic, believing my appointment would somehow hasten the end of the war. If I had any doubt before the calls [with Democrats] that nearly everyone in Washington believed I would have a one-item agenda as secretary, it was dispelled in those calls.

“They professed to be enormously pleased with my nomination and offered their support, I think mainly because they thought that I, as a member of the Iraq Study Group [which had called for winding down the war], would embrace their desire to begin withdrawing from Iraq.”

In Duty, Gates also acknowledges that he was always a supporter of the Iraq invasion, writing that in 2003, “I supported Bush 43’s decision to invade and bring Saddam down.” The failure of Clinton and other Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee to fully vet Gates’s attitudes on the Iraq War was a stunning failure of their own duty.

Regarding the mainstream news media’s wrongheaded take on his nomination, Gates wrote: “There was a lot of hilarious commentary about a return to ‘41’s’ team, the president’s father coming to the rescue, former secretary of state Jim Baker pulling all the strings behind the scenes, and how I was going to purge the Pentagon of Rumsfeld’s appointees, ‘clean out the E-Ring’ (the outer corridor of the Pentagon where most senior Defense civilians have their offices). It was all complete nonsense.”

Cheering on the ‘Surge’

Yet, the mainstream press didn’t get any closer to the mark in 2008 when it began cheering the “surge” as a great success, getting spun by the neocons who noted a gradual drop in the casualty levels. The media honchos, many of whom supported the invasion in 2003, ignored that Bush had laid out specific policy goals for the “surge,” none of which were achieved.

In Duty, Gates reminds us of those original targets, writing: “Prior to the deployment, clear benchmarks should be established for the Iraqi government to meet during the time of the augmentation, from national reconciliation to revenue sharing, etc. It should be made quite clear to the Iraqi government that the augmentation period is of specific length and that success in meeting the benchmarks will determine the timetable for withdrawal of the base force subsequent to the temporary augmentation.”

Those benchmarks were set for the Iraqi government to meet, but “national reconciliation to revenue sharing, etc.” were never achieved, either during the “surge” or since then. To this day, Iraq remains a society bitterly divided along sectarian lines with the out-of-power Sunnis again sidling up to al-Qaeda-connected extremists.

Playing Politics

In possibly the most shocking disclosure in Duty, Gates recounts a 2009 White House meeting regarding the Afghan War “surge.” He wrote: “The exchange that followed was remarkable. In strongly supporting the surge in Afghanistan, Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary [in 2008]. She went on to say, ‘The Iraq surge worked.’

“The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.” Obama’s aides have since disputed Gates’s suggestion that the President indicated that his opposition to the Iraq “surge” was political, noting that he had always opposed the Iraq War. The Clinton team has not challenged Gates’s account.

Of course, Official Washington’s misreading of Gates’s nomination in 2006 and its mistaken belief in the “successful surge” may pale in comparison to the fundamental crime of invading Iraq under false pretenses in 2003. But this benighted behavior continues to show how the lack of individual accountability for one failure ensures another and another.

It also adds to the complications facing President Obama as he tries to find solutions on Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestine and Ukraine. Though he opposed the Iraq War and has sidestepped demands for U.S. military attacks on Iran and Syria, his maneuvering room is tightly constrained by the many hawks in his own administration and the neocons who still dominate the major U.S. op-ed pages and think tanks.

Beyond the fact that many of these old Iraq War cheerleaders still hold down seats at influential media outlets, inside Congress and even in the Executive Branch, Democratic leaders are moving toward nominating one of the party’s staunchest war supporters to be the next President of the United States.

One has to wonder whether rank-and-file Democrats will insist on grilling Hillary Clinton about what she has and hasn’t learned from the Iraq War disaster and other aggressive use of U.S. military force before she wraps up the party’s nomination. [For more on this topic, see’s “Is Hillary Clinton a Neocon-lite?”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

No Tears for the Real Robert Gates

Exclusive: In Official Washington, the gap between image and reality can be wide, but there is a virtual canyon separating the mainstream’s awestruck regard for Robert Gates as a “wise man” and his record as a deceitful opportunist known to his former colleagues, like ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

In the early 1970s, I was chief of the CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch in which Robert M. Gates worked as a young CIA analyst. While it may be true that I was too inexperienced at the time to handle all the management challenges of such a high-powered office, one of the things I did get right was my assessment of Gates in his Efficiency Report.

I wrote that if his overweening ambition were not reined in, young Bobby was sure to become an even more dangerous problem. Who could have known, then, how huge a problem? As it turned out, I was not nearly as skilled as Gates at schmoozing senior managers who thus paid no heed to my warning. Gates was a master at ingratiating himself to his superiors.gates-duty

The supreme irony came a short decade later when we ALL of us, managers, analysts, senior and junior alike ended up working under Gates. Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director William Casey had found in Gates just the person to do his bidding, someone who earned the title “windsock Bobby” because he was clever enough to position himself in whatever direction the powerful winds were blowing.

To justify the expensive military buildup of the 1980s and the proxy wars that Reagan wanted fought required judging the Soviet Union to be ascendant and marching toward world domination. In that cause, Gates was just the man to shatter the CIA’s commitment to providing presidents with objective analysis. He replaced that proud legacy with whatever “information” would serve the White House’s political needs.

As Casey’s choice to head the CIA analytical division and then serve as deputy CIA director, Gates showed himself to be super-successful at weeding out competent analysts, especially those like Melvin A. Goodman who knew the Soviet Union cold and recognized its new President Mikhail Gorbachev for the reformer he was.

Those analysts who refused to toe Gates’s line which required judging Gorbachev to be a phony and ignoring signs of the coming Soviet collapse lost their jobs to more malleable managers who saw things the Gates way. Goodman was one senior analyst who quit in disgust.

Yet, those CIA bureaucrats, who were more interested in personal promotion than promoting the truth, thrived under the Casey-Gates regime. The likes of John McLaughlin and Douglas MacEachin, whom Gates put in charge of Soviet analysis, wormed their way to the top of the agency. However, since the CIA had blinded itself to signs of the change that Gorbachev represented, the agency missed the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

Despite that stunning embarrassment, Gates’s acolytes suffered no career damage. After all, they were simply regurgitating the “wisdom” of Gates, who  after he moved over to President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff had kept insisting to the very end that the Soviet Communist Party would NEVER lose power.

So, it should have come as no surprise two decades later that many of those same CIA bureaucrats who had been promoted under Gates would be part of the malleable managerial ménage that did President George W. Bush’s bidding in conjuring up fraudulent intelligence to “justify” the disastrous war on Iraq in 2003.

Then, Gates, who says in his new memoir Duty that he supported the invasion of Iraq, was brought back into government in 2006 as Defense Secretary to oversee the war’s escalation, the much-touted “surge,” which led to the deaths of another 1,000 U.S. soldiers and countless more Iraqis but failed to achieve the political and economic reconciliation that Bush had set as its top goal.

I wrote about Gates back then as well as when he was reappointed as Defense Secretary by President Barack Obama in 2009 so I decided that there were more useful things for me to do than, once again, expose Gates. More useful things like exposing other mendacious miscreants, like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander.

The mainstream U.S. news media was again falling short (surprise, surprise) in exposing these current operators, and Gates, after all, left the Official Washington scene in 2011. I also didn’t want to risk nausea by reading Gates’s latest Apologia pro Vita Sua.

I thought that anyone following the copious reporting on regarding Gates would greet with appropriate skepticism his latest self-serving set of excuses. [See, for instance, “Robert Gates Double-Crosses Obama.”] Plus, the un-malleable Mel Goodman, the only CIA division chief to quit rather than bend to Gates’s dishonesty, had just given us an excellent piece titled “Bob Gates’s Mean, Misguided Memoir.

Veterans Deserve the Truth

So, my personal thinking was to give Gates a pass this time around. But then I began reflecting on my experiences over the past three months spending time with U.S. military veterans, including in Gates’s new home state of Washington and in North Carolina and Florida, on speaking tours hosted largely by my fellow Veterans For Peace. Most of my hosts are survivors of the Vietnam War, the Gulf War of 1991, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Most of them still grapple with serious wounds of one kind or another.

Then, when I got home this past weekend from my latest speaking tour, I read Dan Zak’s sympathetic-to-Gates feature story in the Washington Post, describing how Gates wells up with tears when he thinks of the 11,000 troops (Gates’s own count) killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan on his watch as Defense Secretary.

That got me to thinking about my hosts and their families and all such survivors of unnecessary warfare. They surely deserve the truth about Gates’s self-serving role in prolonging the agony, the killing, and the maiming in both Iraq and Afghanistan the unconscionable waste of life, the trauma and the missing limbs for which Gates bears huge responsibility.

And it occurred to me that Gates’s rapidly written memoir represents a holding action. His hurry to publish, even while the administration that he most recently served is still in office, betokens an unseemly rush to get his turgid version of events on the record, creating a decent interval before Afghanistan implodes, as Iraq is now doing (with 70 killed on Sunday alone).

Eventually the inescapable truth will out at least for those who can “handle the truth.” Namely, that what happened during the celebrated “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan amounted to little more than a sacrifice of thousands of U.S. troops on the altar of the unbridled ambition that I observed in the first Efficiency Report that I wrote on Gates.

The many pages of his memoir devoted to how much he loved those troops and how he has asked to be buried among them at Arlington National Cemetery amounted to an attempt to anticipate and deflect accusations that he, in actuality, betrayed those young men and women by sending more of them to die just to buy time for President Bush and other politicians to slip out of Washington before the ultimate defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Americans also deserve to know how presidents from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush through George W. Bush and Barack Obama cynically used Gates’s skills and ambitions to give them political cover for their own dirty work, from the waste of countless billions in taxpayer dollars on excessive military spending to the justification and prosecution of misguided and feckless wars.

That’s why I feel I must break my promise to myself that I would not devote one additional minute to exposing this Teflon-coated charlatan, Robert Gates. Why? Because nowhere has the Fawning Corporate Media been quite so fawning as in their misbegotten adulation of “wise man” Gates.

Five years ago, for example, the late “dean of the Washington press corps,” Washington Post columnist David Broder, hailed Gates as “incapable of dissembling.” It is too late to disabuse Broder of his fantasy on Gates. But it may not be too late to inform those still interested in the real Bobby Gates that it would be much closer to the truth to say that Gates was “incapable of not dissembling.”

Toward that end, I have dug out just three articles that I have authored in recent years in an attempt to put Robert M. Gates in some honest context. They are: “Gates and the Urge to Surge”; “Afghan Lessons from the Iraq War”; and “How to Read Gates’s Shift on the Wars.”

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He came to Washington over 50 years ago and worked as a CIA analyst under seven Presidents, one less than Gates. Ray now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Robert Gates’s Narcissistic ‘Duty’

The Inside-the-Beltway acclaim bestowed on Robert Gates is perhaps the clearest evidence of the failure of Washington’s media/political elite to recognize reality and impose accountability on incompetent or corrupt government officials, a point addressed by ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman.

By Melvin A. Goodman

Unlike the New York Times and the Washington Post, which received room service on the delivery of Duty, the controversial memoir of former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, I will have to wait for Amazon to deliver my copy next week.

In the meantime, since I have known Bob Gates for nearly 50 years, working with him for more than a decade; working for him for five years; and testifying against him before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1991, I believe that I have some warnings about the author as well as the leading lights of the mainstream media, such as David Brooks of the Times and Walter Pincus of the Post, who believe that Gates made major contributions to the national security policy of the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth.gates-duty

There are several things that need to be understood regarding Gates’s career at the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the Department of Defense. First of all, Gates has been a sycophant in all of his leadership positions, catering to the policy interests of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft at the NSC; William Casey at the CIA; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

Gates catered to the right-wing ideology of Bill Casey in the 1980s, playing a major role in the politicization of intelligence and dangerous crossing the line of policy advocacy in private memoranda to the CIA director. For the most part, Gates has been a windsock when it came to policy decisions and typically supported his masters.

Second, Gates has never demonstrated the integrity that his important positions have demanded. As a result, when he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 to be CIA director, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren, D-Oklahoma, told him that the committee did not believe his denials of knowledge of Iran-Contra.

Before Gates removed his name from the nomination process, there was considerable laughter in the hearing room when Gates referred to Casey as a model CIA director and stated that he would have resigned from the CIA if had known about the “off-the-shelf” capability to run the Iran-Contra operation out of the NSC.

Gates was nominated a second time by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and attracted more negative votes from the Senate (31) that all directors of central intelligence in the history of the CIA. I testified against his confirmation at that time (and I lobbied against his appointment as Secretary of Defense in 2006 to replace Donald Rumsfeld).

The day after the Senate Intelligence Committee approved Gates’s appointment to run the CIA in 1991, the Post’s legendary cartoonist, Herblock, pictured the CIA headquarters building with a big banner proclaiming, “Now under old management.”

Regarding Gates’s selection in 2006 to head the Defense Department, I encountered many key Senate staffers who opposed his appointment but believed that it was important to abort the stewardship of Rumsfeld. At that time, I labeled Gates the “morning after” pill.

Third, it is astounding that Gates, who had been a senior CIA Kremlinologist, could be so wrong about the central issues of his day and yet make it to the top of the intelligence ladder.

For example, in the late 1980s, there were these key questions facing CIA analysts on the Soviet Union: Who was Gorbachev? Was he serious? Would he make a difference? Was he serious about detente and arms control?

As late as 1989, Gates told various congressional committees that a “long, competitive struggle with the Soviet Union still lies before us” and that the “dictatorship of the Communist Party remains untouched and untouchable.”

In many ways, the most stunning aspect of Gates’s national security stewardship was his reappointment at the Defense Department by President Barack Obama in 2009. Indeed, the appointment of Hillary Clinton and the reappointment of Bob Gates were rather cynical gestures, naming Clinton to keep the Clinton Foundation (Bill and Hillary) inside the White House tent pissing out instead of outside the tent pissing in.

Gates was left in place so that the President could signal to the uniformed military that there would be no significant changes at the Pentagon. Gates’s Cold War ideology (which caused him to miss the end of the Cold War) and his politicization of intelligence were completely forgotten.

By the time that Gates’s decided to retire in 2011, President Obama was no longer following the Secretary of Defense’s advice on Afghanistan; the raid against Osama bin Laden; the handling of the insubordination of General Stanley McChrystal; and Gates’s heel-dragging on ending the cynical policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Gates decided to retire because he would not support a smaller military that would do fewer things and go to fewer places, but that is exactly what the President had finally endorsed.

President Obama would have saved himself a great deal of aggravation if he had consulted with former Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, whose memoirs record their difficulties with the efforts of Gates to weaken their policies and their diplomacy.

Shultz charged Gates with “manipulating” him, and reminded Gates that his CIA was “usually wrong” about Moscow. Gates was wrong about the biggest intelligence issues of the Cold War and he made sure that the CIA was wrong as well.

I can hardly wait for Amazon to deliver my copy of the memoir.

[For more on Gates’s curious history, see’s “Robert Gates Double-Crosses Obama.”]

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  His latest book is National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers, 2013). [A version of this story appeared at Counterpunch. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.]   

Robert Gates Double-Crosses Obama

Special Report: Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is slamming President Obama in a new memoir, accusing him of lacking enthusiasm for the Afghan War. But perhaps Obama’s bigger mistake was trusting Gates, a Bush Family operative with a history of dirty dealing, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

As Barack Obama is staggered by a back-stabbing memoir from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the President can’t say that some people didn’t warn him about the risk of bringing a political opportunist like Gates into his inner circle on national security.

Those warnings date back to just days after Obama’s election in 2008 when word began to spread that some of his advisers were urging Obama to keep Gates on as Defense Secretary as part of a “Team of Rivals” and a show of bipartisanship. On Nov. 13, 2008, I posted a story at entitled “The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates,” which said:

“If Obama does keep Gates on, the new President will be employing someone who embodies many of the worst elements of U.S. national security policy over the past three decades, including responsibility for what Obama himself has fingered as a chief concern, ‘politicized intelligence.’ it was Gates as a senior CIA official in the 1980s who broke the back of the CIA analytical division’s commitment to objective intelligence.”

I cited a book by former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, which identified Gates as the chief action officer for the Reagan administration’s drive to tailor intelligence reporting to fit White House political desires.

But Gates’s nefarious roles in national security scandals went much deeper than that, despite his undeniable PR skills in shaping his image as a dedicated public servant who has earned Official Washington’s near-universal regard as a modern-day Wise Man.

In reality, Gates has been more a careerist who had a chameleon-like skill to adapt to the ideological hues of the powerful people around him. But at his core he seemed most comfortable in a Cold War setting of tough-talking belligerence which led him to repeated policy miscalculations, including dismissing Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 as a phony and missing the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.

But it’s how Gates began his meteoric rise in the U.S. intelligence community during the Reagan years that has remained most cloaked in mystery. As a young CIA official in 1980, Gates was implicated in secret maneuvers to sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free 52 U.S. hostages then held in Iran, a failure by Carter that doomed his reelection.

Gates was identified as one of the participants in a key October 1980 meeting in Paris allegedly also involving William Casey, who was then Reagan’s campaign director; George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director and then-Reagan’s vice presidential running mate; Iranian emissary Mehdi Karrubi; and Israeli intelligence officers, including Ari Ben-Menashe who later testified under oath about what he witnessed.

The Paris meeting and Gates’s alleged involvement was also cited by a Russian government report given to U.S. congressional investigators in early 1993. The Russian Report prepared by a national security committee of the Russian Duma stated that “William Casey, in 1980, met three times with representatives of the Iranian leadership in Madrid and Paris.”

At the Paris meeting in October 1980, “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,” the Russian Report said. “In Madrid and Paris, the representatives of Ronald Reagan and the Iranian leadership discussed the question of possibly delaying the release of 52 hostages from the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran.”

According to the Russian Report, the Republicans succeeded in wooing the Iranians who rebuffed Carter’s appeals. “After the victory of R. Reagan in the election, in early 1981, a secret agreement was reached in London in accord with which Iran released the American hostages, and the U.S. continued to supply arms, spares and military supplies for the Iranian army,” the Russian Report said.

The Iranians only released the hostages after Reagan was sworn in as President on Jan. 20, 1981. U.S.-approved arms deliveries followed, carried out by Israel, the Russian Report said. As a young Israeli intelligence officer, Ben-Menashe testified that he took part in the weapons shipments, sometimes coordinating his work with Gates at the CIA. Gates has denied the allegations but he has been less than forthcoming with investigators.

The Russian Report came in response to an Oct. 21, 1992, query from Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, who was then heading a task force examining this so-called October Surprise case. But Hamilton later told me that the Russian Report never reached him, ending up in a box of unpublished files that I discovered a couple of years later. [For the text of the Russian report, click here. To view the U.S. embassy cable that contains the Russian report, click here.]

Hamilton’s investigation also faced frustrations when it tried to secure information about the 1980 whereabouts of Gates and Donald Gregg, another CIA officer linked to the October Surprise allegations. Documents released by the National Archives have revealed that the CIA in 1991 and 1992 dragged its heels on complying with Hamilton’s information requests on Gates and Gregg, both of whom were close to then-President George H.W. Bush.

As Hamilton’s investigation was starting in fall 1991, President Bush went to extraordinary lengths to install Gates as CIA director, facing down stiff congressional resistance because of suspicions that Gates had lied about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, which also involved secret Reagan-approved arms shipment to Iran.

So it was Gates’s agency in 1991-92 that stonewalled the congressional investigators seeking information on Gates’s possible collaboration with enemies of the United States in 1980. [For more details on this October Surprise mystery, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and America’s Stolen Narrative. For Hamilton’s latest assessment of the case, see’s “Second Thoughts on October Surprise.”]

Evading Accountability

In the end, Gates was able to skate away from the October Surprise suspicions just as he had evaded concerns about his role in other CIA-related scandals. Gates had been implicated, too, in misleading Congress about the Iran-Contra scandal and Iraq-gate, a parallel program of secretly aiding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Though Gates also denied any wrongdoing in those scandals and disparaged Ben-Menashe and another witness who linked him to the Iraqi arms deals the allegations about Gates and Iraq were bolstered by a January 1995 affidavit from Howard Teicher, who had been a staffer on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council.

“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 declared.

So, it appears that Robert Gates made his bones in George H.W. Bush’s covert world by undertaking secretive projects that skirted American law, such as evading arms export controls against shipments to Iran and Iraq, and even may have engaged in actions bordering on treason if the October Surprise allegations are true.

If Gates did indeed perform these sensitive missions, his swift rise in the early 1980s from a relatively obscure analyst to chief of the analytical division and then to deputy CIA director would make more sense. As he climbed the bureaucratic ladder, he further enhanced his standing with the Reagan administration by whipping the CIA analysts into line behind President Reagan’s apocalyptic view of the Soviet Union.

Corrupting Intelligence

Before Gates’s ascent in the 1980s, the CIA’s analytical division had a proud tradition of objectivity and scholarship regarding the agency’s intelligence product. However, during the Reagan administration with Gates playing a key role, that ethos collapsed.

At Gates’s confirmation hearings in 1991, former CIA analysts, including senior Soviet specialist Melvin Goodman, took the extraordinary step of coming out of the shadows to accuse Gates of politicizing the intelligence while he was chief of the analytical division and then deputy director.

These former intelligence officers said the ambitious Gates pressured the CIA’s analytical division to hype the Soviet menace to fit Reagan’s ideological perspective. Analysts who took a more nuanced view of Soviet power and behavior faced pressure and career reprisals.

In 1981, Carolyn McGiffert Ekedahl of the CIA’s Soviet office was the unfortunate analyst who was handed the assignment to prepare an analysis on the Soviet Union’s alleged support and direction of international terrorism. Contrary to the desired White House take on Soviet-backed terrorism, Ekedahl said the consensus of the intelligence community was that the Soviets discouraged acts of terrorism by groups getting support from Moscow for practical, not moral, reasons.

“We agreed that the Soviets consistently stated, publicly and privately, that they considered international terrorist activities counterproductive and advised groups they supported not to use such tactics,” Ekedahl testified. “We had hard evidence to support this conclusion.”

But Gates took the analysts to task, accusing them of trying to “stick our finger in the policy maker’s eye,” Ekedahl said. Gates, dissatisfied with the terrorism assessment, joined in rewriting the draft “to suggest greater Soviet support for terrorism and the text was altered by pulling up from the annex reports that overstated Soviet involvement,” Ekedahl said.

Soon, the hammer fell on the analysts who had prepared the more nuanced Soviet-terrorism report. Ekedahl said many analysts were “replaced by people new to the subject who insisted on language emphasizing Soviet control of international terrorist activities.”

A donnybrook ensued inside the U.S. intelligence community. Some senior officials responsible for analysis pushed back against the dictates of Gates and CIA Director Casey, warning that acts of politicization would undermine the integrity of the process and risk policy disasters in the future.

In his first memoir, From the Shadows, Gates denied politicizing the CIA’s intelligence product, though acknowledging that he was aware of Casey’s hostile reaction to the analysts’ disagreement with right-wing theories about Soviet-directed terrorism.

But the evidence is clear that Gates used top-down management techniques to get his way. CIA analysts sensitive to their career paths intuitively grasped that they could rarely go wrong by backing the “company line” and presenting the worst-case scenario about Soviet capabilities and intentions, Ekedahl and other CIA analysts said.

The CIA’s proud Soviet analytical office underwent a purge of its top people. “Nearly every senior analyst on Soviet foreign policy eventually left the Office of Soviet Analysis,” Goodman said. “The politicization that took place during the Casey-Gates era is directly responsible for the CIA’s loss of its ethical compass and the erosion of its credibility.

“The fact that the CIA missed the most important historical development in its history the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union itself is due in large measure to the culture and process that Gates established in his directorate.”

The Afghan Folly

But Gates’s legacy at the CIA had other even more lethal consequences. Because of his insistence on overstating Soviet strength, Gates misread the opportunity presented by the emergence of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. From Gates’s perch near the top of the U.S. national security establishment, he kept calling Gorbachev a phony who would never withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

When Gorbachev did withdraw Soviet troops in February 1989, Gates then serving as President George H.W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser  joined in the decision to rebuff Gorbachev’s proposal for a cease-fire and a coalition government between the Soviet-backed regime of President Najibullah in Kabul and the CIA-supported mujahedeen. Instead, Gates and his colleagues set their sights on a decisive victory for the CIA- and Saudi-backed forces, which included Osama bin Laden and other Islamist extremists.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom of Official Washington that America’s “big mistake” in Afghanistan was to abandon the mujahedeen after the Soviets left in early 1989 a myth pushed by Gates himself the reality was that the Bush-41 administration continued funneling money and weapons to the rebels for nearly three more years as the fractious mujahedeen failed to take Kabul but busied themselves slaughtering civilians and each other.

Najibullah’s regime actually outlasted the Soviet Union, which fell apart in late 1991. Ironically, after failing to detect cracks in the Soviet empire dating back at least to the 1970s, Gates and his cohorts claimed credit for its “sudden” collapse. But the chaos in Afghanistan, which might have been avoided if Gates had cooperated with Gorbachev, soon set the stage for new national security threats to the United States.

By fall 1991, President George H.W. Bush had reinstalled Gates at the CIA as director all the better to frustrate investigations into October Surprise, Iran-Contra and Iraq-gate.

After Bush’s defeat in 1992, Gates had hoped to stay on, but was removed by President Bill Clinton. Gates retreated to Washington State, where he worked on his first memoir, From the Shadows. Afterwards, ex-President Bush arranged to get Gates a job at Texas A&M, where Gates, the ever-skillful bureaucrat, soon rose to become the school’s president.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s, the fundamentalist Taliban emerged from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and successfully marched on Kabul. One of the Taliban’s first victims was Najibullah who was tortured, castrated and hung from a light post. Thankful for the help from Saudi-backed jihadists, the Taliban also granted refuge to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda band which had shifted its terror war from the Soviets to the Americans.

After George W. Bush’s disputed election victory in 2000, many of Gates’s neocon allies returned to power in Washington and after al-Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks U.S. forces were dispatched to Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and root out al-Qaeda, whose surviving leaders mostly fled to Pakistan.

Rather than fully stabilize Afghanistan, Bush-43 and the neocons quickly pivoted toward Iraq with an invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein. Soon, U.S. forces found themselves bogged down in two inconclusive wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. By 2006, Iraq was descending into a sectarian civil war and Bush faced the prospect of a humiliating military defeat. He and his neocon advisers began thinking about a U.S. military escalation, to be called a “surge.”

But Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, the Iraq field commanders, felt they had already begun tamping down the violence through a mix of alliances with Sunni tribes, reducing the American “footprint,” separating Shiite and Sunni communities, and targeted killings of al-Qaeda militants. Abizaid and Casey were supported in their strategy by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

So, as President Bush settled on the “surge” a plan to dispatch 30,000 more soldiers he also decided to replace his military command, recalling Abizaid and Casey and cashiering Rumsfeld. Bush turned to Gen. David Petraeus to implement the “surge” and recruited Gates to sell it as the new Defense Secretary.

The Democrats and the Washington press corps were easily fooled. They misinterpreted the personnel changes as a sign that Bush had decided to wind down the war. Gates was hailed as an “adult” who would lead the impetuous “war president” out of the Iraq quagmire. But the reality was the opposite. Gates became Bush’s guide for going in deeper.

Gates also proved invaluable in selling the “surge” as a great “success,” although nearly 1,000 additional U.S. soldiers died (along with countless Iraqis) and the strategic arc toward a U.S. defeat wasn’t changed. The primary “success” from the “surge” was to enable Bush and his neocon advisers to exit the scene without a clear-cut defeat wrapped around their necks.

The Gates Legend

But the legend of Robert Gates and the myth of the “successful surge” shielded him from the damaged reputations that the bloody debacle in Iraq inflicted on Bush and many neocons.

After Obama was elected in 2008, his advisers persuaded the President-elect to keep Gates on as Defense Secretary, along with the media’s beloved Gen. Petraeus as a top commander. Obama ignored contrary advice from former CIA analysts who had worked with Gates and from the few journalists who understood Gates’s real history.

Obama’s decision to go with the “Team of Rivals” theme in assembling his national security team guaranteed that he surrounded himself with people like Gates who had no loyalty to the new administration, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who usually sided with Gates and Petraeus as they pushed for an Iraq-style “surge” in Afghanistan.

In 2009, as Obama insisted on a steady withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq along the lines of an agreement that the Iraqi government had forced on Bush the new President wanted another withdrawal plan for Afghanistan, where Bush’s neglect had allowed the Taliban to make a comeback.

But Gates and Petraeus were set on guiding the inexperienced Obama into an Afghan “surge,” essentially by employing the old bureaucratic trick of presenting their desired outcome as the only realistic option. Mouse-trapped by this maneuver and realizing the political damage that he would face if he spurned the recommendations of Gates-Petraeus-Clinton Obama accepted a counterinsurgency “surge” of 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan but he pushed back by trying to limit the mission and insisting on withdrawal by the end of 2014.

Gates continued to undercut the President by briefing reporters during a flight to Afghanistan that “we are in this thing to win” and presenting the war as essentially open-ended. Gates offered these credulous reporters a history lesson on Afghanistan that Gates knew to be false. He declared “that we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989″ when the United States supposedly abandoned Afghanistan once the Soviet troops left.

Even Gates’s much-ballyhooed Pentagon budget trimming while winning rave reviews from the news media was more P.R. than reality. As noted by military affairs expert Lawrence J. Korb, Gates’s high-profile savings were mostly weapons projects, like the F-22, that were already slated for the scrap heap. Plus, Gates rejected any substantial cuts in future military spending despite having personally overseen a rise in the baseline Pentagon budget from $450 billion in 2006 to $550 billion when he departed in 2011.

Gates’s petty vindictiveness, which had wielded against his CIA colleagues, also was apparent in his final days as Defense Secretary in 2011 when he blocked the appointment of Marine Gen. James Cartwright as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of anger over Cartwright’s willingness to give President Obama’s alternative options to the Afghan “surge” in 2009.

The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock reported that Cartwright’s expected elevation from JCS deputy chairman to JCS chairman was nixed, in part, by Gates who “had long mistrusted Cartwright because of his independent relationship with the president and for opposing [Gates’s] plan to expand the war in Afghanistan.”

Slamming Obama

Gates’s nasty side resurfaces in his new memoir, Duty, according to press accounts before its release on Jan. 14. Gates reportedly lashes out at Vice President Joe Biden and other Obama administration officials who dared to express doubts about the wisdom of the counterinsurgency “surge” in Afghanistan.

Even more damaging, Gates offers a negative depiction of President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton, portraying them as shallow political opportunists who supposedly had opposed the Iraq War “surge” only because of cheap politics. Gates further lambastes Obama for sending troops to fight and die in Afghanistan without believing in the mission.

According to Bob Woodward’s account of Duty, Gates concluded by early 2010 that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Woodward wrote that Gates was “leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat [by asserting] that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was ‘skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.’”

Obama must now deal with the fallout of Gates having been allowed a front-row seat on national security policy and predictably turning on Obama and other Democrats who didn’t favor the wars that Bush-43 had started and that Gates had helped prosecute. It was a predictable problem and indeed it had been predicted.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War

From the Archive: As al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists gain ground in Iraq and Syria, U.S. neocons are eager to focus attention on President Obama’s “failure” to militarily dominate the Mideast; otherwise, Americans might recall how this mess got started, as Robert Parry wrote on the Iraq War’s tenth anniversary.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on March 20, 2013)

A decade after President George W. Bush ordered the unprovoked invasion of Iraq, one of the enduring mysteries has been why. There was the rationale sold to a frightened American people in 2002-2003 that Saddam Hussein was plotting to attack them with WMDs but no one in power really believed that.

There have been other more plausible explanations: George Bush the Younger wanted to avenge a perceived slight to George Bush the Elder, while also outdoing his father as a “war president”; Vice President Dick Cheney had his eye on Iraq’s oil wealth; and the Republican Party saw an opportunity to create its “permanent majority” behind a glorious victory in the Middle East.

Though George W. Bush’s defenders vigorously denied being motivated by such crass thinking, those rationales do seem closer to the truth. However, there was another driving force behind the desire to conquer Iraq: the neoconservative belief that the conquest would be a first step toward installing compliant pro-U.S. regimes throughout the Middle East and letting Israel dictate final peace terms to its neighbors.

That rationale has often been dressed up as “democratizing” the Middle East, but the idea was more a form of “neocolonialism,” in which American proconsuls would make sure that a favored leader, like the Iraqi National Congress’ Ahmed Chalabi, would control each country and align the nations’ positions with the interests of the United States and Israel.

Some analysts have traced this idea back to the neocon Project for the New American Century in the late 1990s, which advocated for “regime change” in Iraq. But the idea’s origins go back to the early 1990s and to two seminal events.

The first game-changing moment came in 1990-91 when President George H.W. Bush showed off the unprecedented advancements in U.S. military technology. Almost from the moment that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Iraqi dictator began signaling his willingness to withdraw after having taught the arrogant al-Sabah ruling family in Kuwait a lesson in power politics.

But the Bush-41 administration wasn’t willing to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Kuwait invasion. Instead of letting Hussein arrange an orderly withdrawal, Bush-41 began baiting him with insults and blocking any face-saving way for a retreat.

Peace feelers from Hussein and later from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev were rebuffed as Bush-41 waited his chance to demonstrate the stunning military realities of his New World Order. Even the U.S. field commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, favored Gorbachev’s plan for letting Iraqi forces pull back, but Bush-41 was determined to have a ground war.

So, Gorbachev’s plan was bypassed and the ground war commenced with the slaughter of Iraqi troops, many of them draftees who were mowed down and incinerated as they fled back toward Iraq. After 100 hours, Bush-41 ordered a halt to the massacre. He then revealed a key part of his motivation by declaring: “We’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Neocons Celebrate

Official Washington took note of the new realities and the renewed public enthusiasm for war. In a post-war edition, Newsweek devoted a full page to up-and-down arrows in its “Conventional Wisdom Watch.” Bush got a big up arrow with the snappy comment: “Master of all he surveys. Look at my polls, ye Democrats, and despair.”

For his last-minute stab at a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal, Gorbachev got a down arrow: “Give back your Nobel, Comrade Backstabber. P.S. Your tanks stink.” Vietnam also got a down arrow: “Where’s that? You mean there was a war there too? Who cares?”

Neocon pundits, already dominating Washington’s chattering class, could barely contain their glee with the only caveat that Bush-41 had ended the Iraqi turkey shoot too soon and should have taken the carnage all the way to Baghdad.

The American people also rallied to the lopsided victory, celebrating with ticker-tape parades and cheering fireworks in honor of the conquering heroes. The victory-parade extravaganza stretched on for months, as hundreds of thousands jammed Washington for what was called “the mother of all parades.”

Americans bought Desert Storm T-shirts by the caseloads; kids were allowed to climb on tanks and other military hardware; the celebration concluded with what was called “the mother of all fireworks displays.” The next day, the Washington Post captured the mood with a headline: “Love Affair on the Mall: People and War Machines.”

The national bonding extended to the Washington press corps, which happily shed its professional burden of objectivity to join the national celebration. At the annual Gridiron Club dinner, where senior government officials and top journalists get to rub shoulders in a fun-filled evening, the men and women of the news media applauded wildly everything military.

The highlight of the evening was a special tribute to “the troops,” with a reading of a soldier’s letter home and then a violinist playing the haunting strains of Jay Ungar’s “Ashoken Farewell.” Special lyrics honoring Desert Storm were put to the music and the journalists in the Gridiron singers joined in the chorus: “Through the fog of distant war/Shines the strength of their devotion/To honor, to duty,/To sweet liberty.”

Among the celebrants at the dinner was Defense Secretary Cheney, who took note of how the Washington press corps was genuflecting before a popular war. Referring to the tribute, Cheney noted in some amazement, “You would not ordinarily expect that kind of unrestrained comment by the press.”

A month later at the White House Correspondents Dinner, the U.S. news media and celebrity guests cheered lustily when General Schwarzkopf was introduced. “It was like a Hollywood opening,” commented one journalist referring to the spotlights swirling around the field commander.

Neocon pundit Charles Krauthammer lectured the few dissidents who found the press corps’ groveling before the President and the military unsettling. “Loosen up, guys,” Krauthammer wrote. “Raise a glass, tip a hat, wave a pom-pom to the heroes of Desert Storm. If that makes you feel you’re living in Sparta, have another glass.”

American Hegemony

Like other observers, the neocons had seen how advanced U.S. technology had changed the nature of warfare. “Smart bombs” zeroed in on helpless targets; electronic sabotage disrupted enemy command and control; exquisitely equipped American troops outclassed the Iraqi military chugging around in Soviet-built tanks. War was made to look easy and fun with very light U.S. casualties.

The collapse of the Soviet Union later in 1991 represented the removal of the last obstacle to U.S. hegemony. The remaining question for the neocons was how to get and keep control of the levers of American power. However, those levers slipped out of their grasp with Bush-41’s favoritism toward his “realist” foreign policy advisers and then Bill Clinton’s election in 1992.

But the neocons still held many cards in the early 1990s, having gained credentials from their work in the Reagan administration and having built alliances with other hard-liners such as Bush-41’s Defense Secretary Cheney. The neocons also had grabbed important space on the opinion pages of key newspapers, like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and influential chairs inside major foreign-policy think tanks.

The second game-changing event took place amid the neocon infatuation with Israel’s Likud leaders. In the mid-1990s, prominent American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for the campaign of Benjamin Netanyahu and tossed aside old ideas about a negotiated peace settlement with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Rather than suffer the frustrations of negotiating a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem or dealing with the annoyance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the neocons on Netanyahu’s team decided it was time for a bold new direction, which they outlined in a 1996 strategy paper, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.”

The paper advanced the idea that only “regime change” in hostile Muslim countries could achieve the necessary “clean break” from the diplomatic standoffs that had followed inconclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Under this “clean break,” Israel would no longer seek peace through compromise, but rather through confrontation, including the violent removal of leaders such as Saddam Hussein who were supportive of Israel’s close-in enemies.

The plan called Hussein’s ouster “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right,” but also one that would destabilize the Assad dynasty in Syria and thus topple the power dominoes into Lebanon, where Hezbollah might soon find itself without its key Syrian ally. Iran also could find itself in the cross-hairs of “regime change.”

American Assistance

But what the “clean break” needed was the military might of the United States, since some of the targets like Iraq were too far away and too powerful to be defeated even by Israel’s highly efficient military. The cost in Israeli lives and to Israel’s economy from such overreach would have been staggering.

In 1998, the U.S. neocon brain trust pushed the “clean break” plan another step forward with the creation of the Project for the New American Century, which lobbied President Clinton to undertake the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

However, Clinton would only go so far, maintaining a harsh embargo on Iraq and enforcing a “no-fly zone” which involved U.S. aircraft conducting periodic bombing raids. Still, with Clinton or his heir apparent, Al Gore, in the White House, a full-scale invasion of Iraq appeared out of the question.

The first key political obstacle was removed when the neocons helped engineer George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency in Election 2000. However, the path was not fully cleared until al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving behind a political climate across America favoring war and revenge.

Of course, Bush-43 had to first attack Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda maintained its principal base, but he then quickly pivoted to the neocons’ desired target, Iraq. Besides being home to the already demonized Saddam Hussein, Iraq had other strategic advantages. It was not as heavily populated as some of its neighbors yet it was positioned squarely between Iran and Syria, two other top targets.

In those heady days of 2002-2003, a neocon joke posed the question of what to do after ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq whether to next go east to Iran or west to Syria. The punch-line was: “Real men go to Tehran.”

But first Iraq had to be vanquished, and this other agenda  restructuring the Middle East to make it safe for U.S. and Israeli interests had to be played down, partly because average Americans might be skeptical and because expert Americans might have warned about the dangers from U.S. imperial overreach.

So, Bush-43, Vice President Cheney and their neocon advisers pushed the “hot button” of the American people, still frightened by the horrors of 9/11. The bogus case was made that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of WMD that he was ready to give to al-Qaeda so the terrorists could inflict even greater devastation on the U.S. homeland.

Stampeding America

The neocons, some of whom grew up in families of left-wing Trotskyites, viewed themselves as a kind of a “vanguard” party using “agit-prop” to maneuver the American “proletariat.” The WMD scare was seen as the best way to stampede the American herd. Then, the neocon thinking went, the military victory in Iraq would consolidate war support and permit implementation of the next phases toward “regime change” in Iran and Syria.

The plan seemed to be working early, as the U.S. military overwhelmed the beleaguered Iraqi army and captured Baghdad in three weeks. Bush-43 celebrated by landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit and delivering a speech beneath a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”

However, the plan began to go awry when neocon pro-consul Paul Bremer in pursuit of a neocon model regime got rid of Iraq’s governing infrastructure, dismantled much of the social safety net and disbanded the army. Then, the neocon-favored leader, exile Ahmed Chalabi, turned out to be a non-starter with the Iraqi people.

An armed resistance emerged, using low-tech weapons such as “improvised explosive devices.” Soon, not only were thousands of American soldiers dying but ancient sectarian rivalries between Shiites and Sunnis began tearing Iraq apart. The scenes of chaotic violence were horrific.

Rather than gaining in popularity with the American people, the war began to lose support, leading to Democratic gains in 2006. The neocons salvaged some of their status in 2007 by pushing the fiction of the “successful surge,” which supposedly had turned impending defeat into victory, but the truth was that the “surge” only delayed the inevitable failure of the U.S. enterprise.

With George W. Bush’s departure in 2009 and the arrival of Barack Obama, the neocons retreated, too. Neocon influence waned within the Executive Branch, though neocons still maintained strongholds at Washington think tanks and on editorial pages of national news outlets like the Washington Post.

New developments in the region also created new neocon hopes for their old agenda. The Arab Spring of 2011 led to civil unrest in Syria where the Assad dynasty based in non-Sunni religious sects was challenged by a Sunni-led insurgency which included some democratic reformers as well as radical jihadists.

Meanwhile, in Iran, international opposition to its nuclear program prompted harsh economic sanctions. Though President Obama viewed the sanctions as leverage to compel Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program, some neocons were salivating over how to hijack the sanctions on behalf of “regime change.”

However, in November 2012, Obama’s defeat of neocon favorite Mitt Romney and the departure of neocon ally, CIA Director David Petraeus, were sharp blows to the neocon plans of reclaiming the reins of U.S. foreign policy.

The neocons were left to see how they could leverage their continued influence over Washington’s opinion circles and hope for advantageous developments abroad to steer Obama toward more confrontational approaches with Iran and Syria.

For the neocons, it also remains crucial that average Americans don’t think too much about the why behind the disastrous Iraq War.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Unjust Aftermath: Post-Noriega Panama

Special Report: Twenty-four years ago, the United States invaded Panama to capture Gen. Manuel Noriega on drug charges. Operation Just Cause promised the country a new day free of dictatorship and drug-tainted corruption, but it didn’t work out that way, as Jonathan Marshall describes.

By Jonathan Marshall

Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama in December 1989, marked a critical turning point in U.S. foreign and military policy. As the first large commitment of U.S. armed forces after the Vietnam debacle, it set the stage for the massive intervention in the Persian Gulf region a year later.[i] It also represented a dramatic escalation in Washington’s “war on drugs,” turning a mostly rhetorical metaphor into bloody reality.[ii]

Many accounts have chronicled the war of nerves leading up to the invasion. Only a handful, on the other hand, have covered the aftermath, particularly with respect to drugs.[iii] Reporters who came to Panama with the troops soon returned home when the brief excitement was over. Attention turned to Noriega’s historic trial and conviction in Miami for conspiring to aid the Medellín Cartel and its criminal allies. For much of the media, and even for most scholars, Panama without Noriega was just another Central American backwater.[iv]


But a close look at the evolution of Panama’s connection to the drug trade in the immediate years after Noriega sheds light on several important questions. Does the public rationale for the invasion hold up to historical scrutiny? Did the Bush administration’s policies in the aftermath of Noriega’s ouster comport any better than earlier U.S. support for Noriega with its expressed commitment to fighting drugs by any and all means necessary? Finally, does the militant strategy of neutralizing drug “kingpins” appreciably affect the flow of narcotics to the United States?

It will surprise few students of the drug trade that Noriega’s downfall, like that of many bigger traffickers before and after, did nothing to hold back the rising tide of cocaine that flowed north from the Andean nations. What may be more surprising was Washington’s willingness to replace Noriega with civilian leaders who had an unambiguous (if not technically criminal) record of serving Colombia’s biggest drug lords by protecting their secret financial assets in Panamanian banks.

Key members of the new government had in the 1980s worked for dirty banks that Noriega, in a remarkable display of cooperation with U.S. law enforcement, actually closed down or put at risk. Some evidence suggests, in fact, that Washington’s new allies had opposed Noriega as much for his crackdown on drug money laundering as for his violations of democratic and human rights.

Needless to say, this framing is entirely at odds with the official version of events, which served to justify Washington’s reversal of policy toward Noriega. This article suggests that the war on drugs was a secondary policy priority even in the one theater where the United States resorted to a major show of force in its name.

The Noriega Legacy

To better understand the stance of Panama’s post-invasion government toward drug-related crimes, it pays to reexamine some of the widely ignored or forgotten clashes between the Noriega regime and the major Colombian “cartels.”[v] So great was their animosity that some notorious drug traffickers were actually pleased to see Noriega ousted, and likely also pleased by Washington’s choice of his successors.

Noriega played a double game, apparently protecting some favored smugglers while earning Washington’s gratitude for helping the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) target the vital financial infrastructure of the major drug cartels.[vi] This was a matter of the highest importance to U.S. law enforcement.

As the House Committee on Foreign Affairs noted in 1985, “With more than one hundred banks, the U.S. dollar as the national currency, and strict bank secrecy laws, Panama is an ideal haven for laundering narcotics money. Unlimited amounts of money may be brought into and out of the country with no reporting requirements, and money laundering is not a crime.”[vii] A study by the U.S. Treasury estimated that nearly a billion dollars a year in drug cash flowed each year between Miami and Panama.[viii]

In a landmark case in 1985, Noriega permitted the closure of First Interamericas Bank, owned by one of the leaders of the Cali Cartel who was fighting extradition from Spain on drug charges in the United States. The bank laundered tens of millions of dollars for the Medellín Cartel as well.[ix] As we will see, several leading members of the post-Noriega government sat on the bank’s board of directors.

One of the high points of Noriega’s cooperation was Operation Pisces, a three-year undercover probe that Attorney General Edwin Meese called “the largest and most successful undercover investigation in federal drug law enforcement history.” Among those indicted were Medellín Cartel kingpins Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa.[x] Panama contributed 40 arrests and seized $12 million from accounts in 18 local banks.[xi]

These money laundering cases garnered Noriega numerous friends in the DEA, but cost him important allies at home. Indeed, these local antagonists played a critical role in fomenting domestic opposition to Noriega’s rule. The reason was simple: Panama’s financial services sector accounted for about a tenth of the country’s gross domestic product and employed more than 8,000 people. They formed what the Wall Street Journal called “the nucleus of a thriving middle class.”[xii]

Noriega threatened this politically powerful sector when he opened negotiations with Washington in 1984 over a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that would make it easier for U.S. authorities to request privileged financial information in criminal cases.

“The negotiations, and the publication of the draft treaty in early 1985, caused squeals of indignant protest from the opposition, many of whose most prominent members were bankers,” noted John Dinges, one of Noriega’s biographers. “La Prensa, in banner headlines, said the proposed law put ‘at grave risk’ the secrecy ‘that is considered the pillar on which the International Financial Center of Panama rests.’”[xiii]

The opposition protested even louder when Panama’s legislative assembly finally passed a law to crack down on money laundering in December 1986.[xiv] A few months later Panama’s attorney general ordered the seizure of 52 accounts at 18 Panamanian banks as part of Operation Pisces, and threatened uncooperative bank managers with arrest.[xv] One local banker warned, “this could end the Panamanian banking system, because people will no longer believe they can count on bank secrecy.”[xvi]

Within two months, spooked investors withdrew as much as $4 billion of the country’s $39 billion in bank deposits. Newsday reported that Panama’s cooperation with the DEA in Operation Pisces had “sparked the most serious banking crisis in Panama’s history,” creating the greatest single “threat to military strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega.”

A Western diplomat said of Noriega, “The bankers can bring him down. They are complaining in Washington and they’ve got a lot of clout.” Opposition leader Ricardo Arias Calderón (the country’s future vice president) spoke for that powerful lobby when he declared, “I believe the continuation in power of General Noriega is a danger to the Panamanian economy.”[xvii]

The demonstrations organized that summer by Panama’s business elite, with wide popular support and reflecting many grievances beyond financial secrecy issues, began his long slide from power.[xviii]

Major cartel leaders also wanted Noriega ousted, viewing him as an “obstacle to the functioning” of their money laundering operations in Panama.[xix] A lawyer for the bosses of the Cali Cartel complained that his clients were “frustrated by the problems” Noriega created for them in Panama.[xx]

Cali leaders later got their revenge when they provided $1.25 million to bribe a trafficker associated with the Medellín cartel to become a key witness against Noriega in his Miami trial.[xxi]

Noriega might have survived for many more years had he not been caught up in the anti-crack hysteria stoked by the U.S. media in mid-1980s.[xxii] This public alarm was channeled against Noriega by an unlikely pair of allies on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: the right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms, who deplored Noriega’s cozy relations with Cuba and plans to take control of the canal, and the liberal Sen. John Kerry, who relished exposing the hypocrisy of the Reagan administration’s war on drugs.[xxiii]

Testimony against Noriega before that committee convinced reporters and the general public of his guilt. With each juicy revelation, Noriega turned increasingly from an administration asset into a liability. His 1988 indictments in Miami and Tampa sealed Noriega’s fate. They silenced most of his remaining allies in the Pentagon and CIA and all but forced presidential candidate George Bush, who had been Noriega’s paymaster while director of the CIA, to demand that Noriega leave power.[xxiv]

The Latin strongman’s cocky and bombastic refusal posed an intolerable challenge to the administration’s authority and credibility, a miscalculation that cost both his career and his freedom.

The Endara Government

On Jan. 3, 1990, with the surrender of Noriega to armed DEA agents, President George H. W. Bush declared that his mission to safeguard American lives, restore democracy, protect the canal, and “bring Noriega to justice” had been fully accomplished.

Although many governments in Latin America and abroad decried the violation of Panama’s sovereignty, Bush asserted that Noriega’s “apprehension and return to the United States should send a clear signal that the United States is serious in its determination that those charged with promoting the distribution of drugs cannot escape the scrutiny of justice.”[xxv] U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton bluntly called the invasion “the biggest drug bust in history.”[xxvi]

Two weeks earlier, as U.S. troops were just beginning their assault, the Bush administration swore in the new government of Panama at Fort Clayton.[xxvii] Its pro-U.S. leaders, President Guillermo Endara and Vice Presidents Ricardo Arias Calderón and Guillermo Ford, had won a popular vote the previous May as heads of the Democratic Opposition Civic Alliance, which enjoyed strong backing from Panama’s financial sector.

However, Noriega’s electoral commission annulled their victory, based in part on public disclosure that the Bush administration had covertly earmarked more than $10 million to bankroll Endara’s ticket.[xxviii] Compounding that embarrassment was the  arrest in Georgia, on cocaine conspiracy and money laundering charges, of the CIA’s bagman, a wealthy Panamanian businessman and close friend of Endara, just one month before the election.[xxix] A pro-Noriega newspaper trumpeted the headline, “Cocaine Cash Pays for the Opposition Campaign.”[xxx]

Operation Just Cause finally gave Endara and his running mates, who had been physically attacked by Noriega’s paramilitary “Dignity Battalions” after the May election, their long awaited revenge. But the sweet taste quickly vanished. With Noriega gone, they faced a host of overwhelming challenges, including restarting an economy shattered by economic sanctions, capital flight, war damage, and a more than a billion dollars’ worth of damage from post-conflict looting.[xxxi] To rebuild, Endara needed Washington to provide generous financial assistance.

The Bush administration lost no time trying to help. As part of its overall public relations campaign to justify the war, the administration praised Panama’s new civilian government as a clean break from the past. With the war barely over, Justice Department officials lauded “attempts” by Panamanian officials to freeze hundreds of bank accounts suspected of links to drug trafficking.[xxxii]

American officials said they “hoped” Panama would now rescind some of its strict bank secrecy measures, but carefully disclaimed any intent to “impose a bunch of stuff” on the occupied country.

The Panamanian side did remarkably little to encourage those hopes, however. A senior aide to President Endara said cagily, “it’s too early to say what we’re going to do,” and Vice President and Minister of Justice Ricardo Arías Calderón privately bristled at Washington’s proposals.[xxxiii]

The president of the country’s banking association insisted, “Anything we do to affect confidentiality of the system would destroy the banking center. They want us to simply open our books and we cannot let them do that. We think we have enough safeguards now to prevent money laundering.”[xxxiv]

Vice President Ford also maintained that Panama had sufficient controls on money laundering in place.[xxxv] He was understandably touchy. The pro-Noriega press had previously trumpeted the fact that Ford was a co-founder, with Carlos Rodriguez Fernandez-Miranda, who became Endara’s ambassador to the United States, of Miami’s Dadeland Bank, which was part-owned by a Panamanian who laundered tens of millions of dollars for a leading Cuban-American marijuana smuggler.[xxxvi]

Ford’s younger brother, Henry, had provided personal protection services in Panama for Ramón Milian Rodríguez, an infamous courier of drug cash arrested by U.S. authorities in 1983 based on investigative leads from Noriega’s detectives. Ford said he never questioned the source of Milian’s cash.[xxxvii]

Still, President Bush continued to endorse Panama’s anti-drug efforts, citing them as one justification for his request to Congress for $1 billion in aid to rebuild the shattered country. Vice President Dan Quayle held a joint press conference with President Endara to announce plans for anti-drug cooperation, declaring that the new government’s attitude toward the drug war had undergone a “tremendous change” since Noriega’s ouster.[xxxviii]

But their fine spirit of cooperation faded quickly when President Endara opined that his country’s banking laws needed only “minor changes.” Panama’s Controller General, Ruben Carles, chimed in, “We don’t have to change our whole legal system because of drugs.”

One frustrated U.S. official warned that Panama’s failure to cooperate “will lead to a very difficult situation.” He explained: “If Congress says the Panamanians aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, there isn’t going to be any more aid.”[xxxix]

Having paid little attention to postwar planning, the Bush administration was unprepared after Operation Just Cause to help sincere Panamanians fight money laundering. “We weren’t entirely blameless ourselves,” admitted Greg Passic, former head of financial operations for the DEA.

No one in the administration had bothered to decide which of several competing agencies would take charge of investigating money laundering in Panama after the invasion. Eventually, DEA and CIA got the nod. “It took six months before we got a team down there to deal with the problem,” Passic said. “We were slow to respond when Panamanians were willing to help us out.”[xl]

With the money laundering controversy bubbling into public view, a few U.S. reporters began taking note of the curious background of Panama’s new leaders.[xli] Of particular note was the remarkable rise to power of individuals linked to First Interamericas Bank, a major repository of Cali and Medellín cash until the Noriega regime shut it down in 1985.

As the Boston Globe reported, the bank’s former directors included the country’s new attorney general, Rogelio Cruz; the new Treasury Minister, Mario Galindo; and the new president of the Supreme Court, Carlos Lucas Lopez. All of them denied wrongdoing.

“These damn fools got hooked in these transactions innocently,” said Controller General Carles. Former finance minister Ernesto Perez Balladares was less reassuring: “There is not a bank or a banker in Panama who hasn’t accepted deposits from a dubious source. Everybody does it.” Or as Vice President Ford put it, “If you want a perfect government, you’ve come to the wrong country.”[xlii]

The next day the New York Times cited concerns by DEA and the Justice Department that “the business connections and friendships” of Panama’s leaders “make it difficult to believe that any real crackdown against money laundering is likely,” adding:

“Many senior leaders in the Government, while never accused of money laundering, have had strong ties to corrupt banks. Several of the banks have been indicted for money laundering or been shut because of pressure from the United States. President Endara has for years been a director of Banco Interocenico de Panama, one of the two dozen Panamanian banks named in a case based on a Federal Bureau of Investigation case code-named Cashweb/Expressway.

“F.B.I. agents posing as money launderers were given large amounts of cash in that case by Colombians in the United States who instructed them to transfer the funds to these 24 banks.”[xliii]

The White House, for its part, said nothing to embarrass its protégés, or tarnish the myth of Operation Just Cause. President Bush on March 1 again certified that Panama was “taking adequate steps” to fight the twin evils of drug trafficking and money laundering, making it possible to lift trade sanctions.[xliv] Bush invited Endara a few months later to the White House to sign drug enforcement agreements permitting U.S. military personnel, including Coast Guard, to board Panamanian ships and enter the country’s territorial waters on anti-drug missions.

A third agreement concerned the regulation of precursor chemicals. In a plea for Congress to lift aid restrictions, Bush said, “We must help ensure that unfulfilled expectations do not weaken foundations of democracy so recently restored.”[xlv] In early July, Congress finally came through with about $200 million in aid,mainly earmarked for foreign debt repayment rather than reconstruction.[xlvi]

Ironically, Panama’s economic misery and the government’s severely limited resources were stimulating a resurgence of drug trafficking in the country. The New York Times reported that “illegal drug shipments through the rough Panamanian hinterlands and through the capital are, if anything, more open and abundant than before.”

Said one foreign diplomat, “The Government is just outmanned, outgunned and outmaneuvered.”[xlvii] The demoralized head of Panama’s drug police lamented, “There are hundreds of isolated beaches, farms and uninhabited islands being used by traffickers as safehouses for drugs, and we have only a 40-man force to fight them.”[xlviii]

Panama’s meager forces still managed to seize four tons of cocaine in just the first nine months of 1990, a third more than in the previous year. U.S. officials were more alarmed than impressed, however.

“If you are seizing this much with a . . . small, untrained narcotics force, the conclusion’s got to be there’s probably a lot that nobody’s getting,” said Ambassador Hinton. The chief of Panama’s anti-narcotics police said traffickers were flocking to his country because “they think it’s safer to put (drugs) in Panama, where they know there’s a reorganization process, than in Colombia where there’s a fight against drug trafficking.”[xlix]

Serious disarray in Panama’s law enforcement ranks made matters worse. Attorney General Rogelio Cruz fired one special prosecutor who accused the head of the corrupt Judicial Technical Police of involvement in a kidnap-murder plot involving millions of dollars in drug profits. (The same prosecutor also accused Cruz himself of improper dealings with the violent Medellín kingpin José Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha.)[l]

Then a dozen major drug traffickers, including a Calí-based smuggler arrested with 800 pounds of cocaine, managed to escape from Panama’s jails, evidently with official help.[li] Later that summer, in a span of just two weeks, the government fired two successive heads of the National Police.[lii]

The Endara government also embarrassed when Panama’s El Siglo newspaper published a long article, from DEA sources, on President Endara’s close ties to Banco Interoceánico de Panama, an institution implicated in money laundering. (The bank issued a vigorous rebuttal in La Prensa and filed a libel suit claiming that it was the victim of attempted extortion by El Siglo.)[liii]

North Americans subsequently learned from the Baltimore Sun that Endara effectively owned two percent of the bank’s stock through a family trust. According to the paper, Attorney General Rogelio Cruz had dismissed warnings by the DEA back in January 1990 that Medellín drug lord Rodriguez Gacha had deposited more than $12 million in the bank shortly before the invasion.

Said Mayin Correa, a popular journalist and mayor of Panama City, “It is a pity that we fought so hard to get rid of a corrupt, narco dictatorship and now we find the same things are happening again.”[liv]

How much did Endara know, and when did he know it? His claims of ignorance did not convince one U.S. reporter writing in 1991: “At the time of the alleged money laundering, Endara served in the sensitive post of secretary of the board of directors. With enormous fiduciary responsibilities, it was his job to attend, participate in, and record all high-level management meetings. When most Panamanian banks had stopped making any large cash loans, Interbanco showered several million dollars in loans on its preferred customer, Celso Fernandez Espina, to buy a Panamanian hotel.

“Spanish drug investigators have directly linked Espina to both the Cali and Medellin cartels. Endara has publicly claimed that he had no knowledge of the activities of the bank’s individuals clients. ‘How can he not know where [. . . ] the bank’s money is going when he’s secretary of the board,’ asks one midlevel bank manager. ‘Especially considering the bank’s total declared capital was only $10 million.’

“U.S. ambassador Deane Hinton says, ‘I’m personally convinced Endara is an honest man.’ . . . But even Hinton’s own staff is incredulous, creating a deep rift inside the embassy. ‘Just how long can Endara play dumb?’ asks a dissident U.S. official. ‘Evidence is sufficiently strong so that a broad sector of the business elite no longer believes his denials.’”[lv]

Endara’s defenders and even impartial observers accused the Bush administration of leaking damaging stories to pressure Panama’s leaders into signing a legal assistance treaty.

As one Panamanian academic told a reporter, “Just as your government knew about Noriega’s drug dealing and kept quiet so long as he was politically useful, Washington also knew about the new government’s connections for years but supported them anyway. And now when it needs to turn up the pressure to get [the banking agreement] signed, the embassy starts to let the cat out of the bag. As you can understand, this tends to make us Panamanians just a little bit cynical about your intentions here.”[lvi]

Relations between the two countries had sunk remarkably far only a few short months after their celebration of a victory for democracy and the rule of law. The United States now demanded that its interests trump democracy in Panama, while Panama’s leaders refused to become enforcers of North American laws.

One U.S. Senate staffer said bluntly, “It’s time for our Panamanian friends to realize that we did not remove Noriega so that the same conditions could prevail.” Witnesses in Panama reported public shouting matches between Ambassador Hinton and Foreign Minister Linares.”[lvii]

Hinton responded that “some Panamanians are very emotional people” who ignore the facts and “have an emotional reaction that the big gringos are imposing this.” He added, “If these people had been smart, they would have settled this a long time ago” and collected “a lot of money” in the form of U.S. aid.[lviii]

Endara lashed back at his critics. He filed a slander complaint against a local newspaper columnist who had dared to write about the president’s ties to Banco Interoceánico. Attorney General Cruz then ordered the journalist’s arrest for “crimes of calumny and insult.” This provocation triggered demonstrations and protests against Endara by many Panamanian journalists, including the prominent anti-Noriega publisher of La Prensa.[lix]

In an attempt at damage limitation, Panama’s national banking commission appointed a trustee to take over management of Interbanco at the end of October 1990. The commission said the bank suffered “some liquidity deficiencies” but claimed the institution was untainted by money laundering. The intervention was the first by the commission since 1985, when it shut down First Interamericas Bank.[lx]

Meanwhile, the war of words continued, with President Endara telling the Wall Street Journal in December 1990, “We are not going to plunge a knife into our banking system even if the U.S. stands on its head and jumps up and down.”[lxi] U.S. officials, in turn, said off the record they believed their counterparts in Panama were covering up for dirty banks they had been associated with as lawyers or directors.[lxii] Privately they advised President Endara that one of Panama’s main treaty negotiators was implicated in a $1 million money-laundering investigation.[lxiii]

The State Department’s narcotics bureau reported early in 1991 that Panama was still awash in cocaine. While praising the Endara government for taking “a strong and vocal stance against the illegal drug trade,” the report also noted Washington’s “concern” over reports of official corruption in Panama and its “great concern” over the failure to conclude a mutual legal assistance agreement.

“The Endara government has a mixed record on combatting money laundering,” the report observed. “. . . Despite the removal of the Noriega regime, the money laundering infrastructure remains largely in place, and credible reports indicate that some banks in Panama and the Colon Free Zone continue to accept large cash deposits and launder drug money.”

It cited evidence that Colombian traffickers were moving tens of millions of dollars a year through Panama’s banks.[lxiv] A Justice Department official lamented that Panama was now “less able to deal with narcotics trafficking than it was under Noriega.”[lxv] A gram of top-quality cocaine in Panama cost only $2 on the street, down from $35 under Noriega.[lxvi]

At the beginning of April 1991, the head of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, a center-left party associated with Noriega, cited a DEA court affidavit in a Miami cocaine smuggling case against Cuban exiles Augusto Guillermo Falcón and Salvador Magluta, said to be the largest in U.S. history, to accuse President Endara’s law firm of associating with money launderers.

The affidavit named six shell companies used by Falcón and Magluta to launder their drug profits through Panamanian banks and buy property in the Miami area; all employed Endara as treasurer and his other two law partners as director-president and secretary. Endara said he was unaware of the true owners of those corporations, and handled all their business through a Miami-based friend (who had the misfortune to be murdered by Colombian assassins in 1989).

Diplomats speaking off the record said they did not suspect Endara of “direct involvement” in crimes, but acknowledged that “the revelations do not shed good light on his legal judgment or his choice of friends.” However, the attorney for the two indicted drug smugglers charged that Endara and his law partner Hernán Delgado met directly with his clients and “knew they were dealing with traffickers.”[lxvii]

Endara soon came under attack from his former allies in the Christian Democratic Party as well. Vowing to respond to them “blow by blow,” he provoked a political crisis by firing all five party members from his cabinet. The party’s leaders in turn promised “to bring out in the open the truth” about Endara’s connections to the accused Florida traffickers.[lxviii] Death threats soon forced the DEA agent who swore the affidavit to leave the country.[lxix]

On April 11, 1991, Panama and the United States finally settled on a legal assistance treaty targeting money laundering in drug cases. Although superficially a victory for Washington, the treaty left banks relatively untouched in cases involving tax evasion and other non-drug-related crimes. The agreement also did nothing to lift the veil on shell companies that hid their true owners behind nominees, typically corporate lawyers like Endara and his partners. Nor did the treaty cover deposits via wire and computer transfers.[lxx]

Still, Vice President Ford told reporters the treaty would “send a loud and clear message to the world that in Panama we are not condoning the crime of money laundering and the drugs problem.”[lxxi]

The announcement boosted the reputation of Panama’s government only briefly. The next month, as the head of the Bush administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy was in Panama to praise the new spirit of collaboration, Panama’s director of Customs came under fire for alleged embezzlement, extortion and tax evasion. He in turn accused his accuser, the agency’s chief of investigations, of trying to block a probe of departmental corruption that had already implicated the chief of the drug squad at Tocumen International Airport for possessing more than a pound of cocaine.

An informant claimed the airport official was merely one of a large number of agents from Customs, Treasury and the Technical Judicial Police who were running hundreds of pounds of cocaine through the facility to the United States on behalf of the Medellín and Calí cartels.[lxxii]

Meanwhile, Panama’s bankers did not let the new legal assistance treaty stand in the way of their profits from the burgeoning cocaine market. “Fueled by returning domestic flight capital and drug money, bank deposits are now close to $21 billion, compared with their 1989 low of $8.5 billion,” reported James Henry in July 1991. “The demand for shell companies, used as ‘fronts’ for dubious activities all over the world, fell from 1,500 a month in 1986 to only 800 a month in late 1989, but it is now back to more than 1,300 a month.”[lxxiii]

Panama’s money laundering now surfaced as a big issue in Europe as well as the United States. Spanish police complained that senior Panamanian government officials had been guilty for months of “covering up the personal assets and business activities” of major Spanish cocaine traffickers who had long been “using Panama as a haven and cover for their activities.”

Attorney General Cruz was said to be notably unresponsive to Spanish requests to examine their local bank accounts. It also emerged that Panama’s chief Interpol liaison had tipped off a notorious Spanish drug lord about the arrival of police from his country, giving him time to hide evidence of his money laundering.[lxxiv]

Panamanian reformers gave vent to frustration and disillusionment over the growth of corruption. Miguel Antonio Bernal, a law professor and activist for human rights and democracy in Panama, charged that in the 18 months since the U.S. invasion, “my country has not taken a single meaningful step toward democracy or order. Under the American-installed government of President Guillermo Endara, Panama is reeling backwards so fast that it is on the verge of disintegrating. Street crime has quadrupled. Murders are up 50 percent. Drugs are more plentiful than ever. . . . Inside government, corruption and nepotism rule.”[lxxv]

As the year ended, one observer of the drug trade reported, “U.S. officials believe as much as half a ton of cocaine still flows daily through Panama, mainly en route to the U.S.”[lxxvi] Spinning the facts, a State Department press release at the end of 1991 nonetheless claimed that “a country which was once our adversary in the war on drugs has now begun helping us defeat this menace.”[lxxvii] Or as Vice President Arias put it, though Panama undoubtedly still had its share of corrupt officials, “nobody can now say that the government is a willing accomplice.”[lxxviii]

That boast must have seemed feeble when several of Panama’s senior drug enforcement officials brought criminal charges against Attorney General Cruz in the fall of 1992 for unfreezing $38 million in bank accounts allegedly used by the Cali cartel to launder drug profits. Panama’s Supreme Court eventually found Cruz guilty of abuse of authority but handed him a mere one-year suspended sentence. He later turned up as legal counsel for the Cali Cartel’s top trafficker in Panama, who smuggled tons of cocaine north to the United States in the post-Noriega era under cover of a fishing fleet.[lxxix]

After all this, even Vice President Arias was too disgusted to defend the regime. “The filthy, polluting waters of drug trafficking and money laundering are still flowing through the country,” he said in early 1993. “This is an enormous pitfall on our road to democracy.” A report by the Panamanian Committee for Human Rights echoed his statement, charging that Panamanian society was now “immersed in a culture of corruption that reaches into the government sector as well as civil society itself.”[lxxx]


Popular depictions of Operation Just Cause at the time resembled some 1950s Westerns, with their depictions of virtuous lawmen bringing murderous villains to justice (usually at the end of a noose, not in an air conditioned jail cell). Just as that era’s audiences left theaters comforted that law and order had been restored to Dodge City, so most North Americans in 1990 likely assumed that President Bush’s timely intervention had saved Panama from the grip of evil drug lords.

But even as the United States was congratulating itself on winning the war on drugs in Panama, cocaine continued pouring through the country toward North America. In retrospect, Just Cause was a hollow victory for law enforcement.

A year and a half after Noriega’s arrest, unnamed “U.S. experts” told Time magazine that “the unexpected result . . . is that the rival Cali cartel established a base in Panama and has since inundated the country, along with Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean, with vast quantities of cocaine destined for the U.S. and Europe.”[lxxxi]

The signing of a mutual legal assistance treaty in 1991 solved nothing, either. Nine years later, the G-7 Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering declared Panama non-cooperative in the fight against money laundering, and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement condemned “serious deficiencies” in Panama’s enforcement commitment.[lxxxii]

Panama passed new legislation to avoid being further blacklisted, but to this day it remains a “transshipment crossroads for illicit trafficking,” whose official record is marred by “a weak regulatory framework, the existence of bearer share corporations, a lack of collaboration among government agencies, inconsistent enforcement of laws and regulations, and a weak judicial system susceptible to corruption and favoritism,” in the words of the State Department.[lxxxiii]

This dismal record puts the lie, once again, to the “kingpin” theory of drug crime, popularized by some politicians, law enforcement officials and reporters seeking headlines. Serious law enforcement professionals and students of drug policy know that the arrest of “kingpins” like Noriega creates high drama but never has any lasting effect on the supply of drugs.[lxxxiv]

The world drug market is far too pluralistic to be shut down in the face of strong market demand. To its credit, the DEA itself warned within days of Operation Just Cause against any unrealistic expectation that the change of regime would noticeably curb the drug traffic.

“No single event, no matter how significant it is, will result in the immediate impact on availability of drugs in the United States,”’ said Frank Shults, a spokesman for the agency. “There are numerous financial centers throughout the world. Drug traffickers are very flexible in their ability to move their money. They will no doubt exploit whatever markets they are able to.”[lxxxv]

Events in post-Noriega Panama also cast further doubt on the sincerity of the U.S. “war on drugs.” As many critics charged in the late 1980s, Washington’s longstanding support for Noriega exposed the hypocrisy of its anti-drug rhetoric. The yawning gap between words and reality affirmed that drug issues rarely trump other strategic and political interests when it comes to foreign policy.

For the Reagan administration, the future of the Panama Canal and U.S. military bases, the specter of leftist insurgencies in Central America, and regional intelligence operations involving Cuban and other targets were all national security considerations that dominated drug matters until the late 1980s, when a well-organized anti-Noriega lobby took advantage of popular alarm over the crack epidemic to push the drug issue onto center stage.

The Bush administration succeeded in disarming domestic criticism by handcuffing the alleged mastermind of Panama’s drug traffic as the culmination of Operation Just Cause. But as we have seen, once the spotlight receded, the Bush White House embraced the new pro-American government, drug ties and all, as readily as previous administrations had accommodated themselves to Noriega.

Without the glare of political and media attention that forced action against Noriega, the White House shifted its primary focus away from drugs to dramatic events in the former Soviet bloc and the Persian Gulf that strategists deemed far more important to national security.

The steady campaign to pressure the Endara government to sign a mutual legal assistance treaty, fueled in part by Congress, shows that Washington had some genuine interest in Panama’s drug issues. But its interest was ambivalent at best.

Indeed, the Bush administration’s sponsorship of the Endara government was deeply cynical, given how many of its members had long-standing ties to money-laundering banks. These connections were no secret; the administration simply chose to ignore them. Trumping that issue, apparently, was the reliably pro-U.S. cast of the new government, which Washington had every hope would be more pliant than Noriega on a range of issues.

“Did America oust one alleged crony of drug dealers and replace him with another?” An American news magazine finally raised that question two years after Noriega’s ouster. It revealed that the same question had arisen much earlier in Washington: “Before Operation Just Cause in December 1989, a senior U.S. official expressed concern to Endara that some of his business dealings may have involved drugs and that ‘the appearance of any association with drugs would be damaging.’ But this official was satisfied with Endara’s explanations and only in early 1990 did the DEA raise the Falcon-Magluta matter.”[lxxxvi]

U.S support for the Endara government compounded the very cynicism created by Washington’s earlier support for Noriega. Richard Gregorie, the former assistant U.S. attorney who brought the Miami indictment against Noriega, said “Endara might have known, along with half a dozen others” about the true purpose of the Falcon-Magluta shell companies. “But we won’t pursue it because it’s against the dictates of the State Department.”[lxxxvii]

Once installed in power by Washington, Panama’s tainted leaders could not be discredited without discrediting the military operation waged by the Bush administration in the name of justice and democracy.

More haunting than such reactions in the United States, however, was the sense of betrayal felt by many opponents of the Noriega regime who had risked their livelihoods and even their lives for the cause of democracy and the rule of law. As the new government’s shady ties were unveiled, and as it attacked journalists who dared to expose the truth, some of those critics wondered if their righteous cause had been hijacked.

A bitter new joke began making the rounds in Panama, recited by journalists and academics. It said of the Americans, “They took Ali Baba and left us with the 40 thieves.”[lxxxviii]

Jonathan Marshall, an independent scholar, is the author of many articles and books on the international drug traffic, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012) and, with Peter Dale Scott, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991 and 1998). [Marshall thanks John Dinges, William O. Walker III, Peter Dale Scott, and Matthew Pembleton for commenting on an earlier draft of this article.]

[i] As former Secretary of State James Baker observed, “In breaking the mindset of the American people about the use of force in the post-Vietnam era, Panama established an emotional predicate that permitted us to build the public support so essential for the success of Operation Desert Storm some thirteen months later.” James Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 194; cf. William O. Walker III, National Security and Core Values in American History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 219. The Panama invasion force totaled almost 28,000 U.S. troops, four times the number deployed in Grenada in 1983.

[ii] The “war on drugs” was anchored in the Reagan administration’s National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 221, issued in April 1986, which declared drugs a threat to U.S. national security and authorized the U.S. military to provide counter-narcotics training, assistance, and intelligence (, accessed May 27, 2013). It was accompanied by militant pronouncements by President Reagan; see William N. Ellwood, Rhetoric in the War on Drugs: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Public Relations (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994), 26-32. In August 1989 President Bush approved NSDD 18, which authorized additional military aid and limited counterinsurgency-type operations, and gave the U.S. miliary more legal authority to operate abroad in a law enforcement capacity. See William L. Marcy, The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010), 136-140.

[iii] Accounts mentioning drug issues in post-Noriega Panama include Luis E. Murillo, The Noriega Mess: The Drugs, the Canal, and Why America Invaded  (Berkeley: Video*Books, 1995), 838-841; Christina Jacqueline Johns and P. Ward Johnson, State Crime, the Media, and the Invasion of Panama (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), 98-102; The Independent Commission of Inquiry on the U.S. Invasion of Panama, The U.S. Invasion of Panama: The Truth Behind Operation “Just Cause” (Boston: South End Press, 1991), 57-59; and Tom Barry, et al., Inside Panama (Albuquerque: Resource Center Press, 1995), 22. Most histories say little or nothing about these issues, including Robert C. Harding, The History of Panama (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2006); Michael Conniff, Panama and the United States: The Forced Alliance (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2001); Orlando J. Pérez, ed., Post-Invasion Panama: The Challenges of Democratization in the New World Order (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000); Eva Loser, ed., Conflict Resolution and Democratization in Panama; Implications for US Policy (Washington, D.C.: The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1992); and Richard L. Millett, “The Aftermath of Intervention: Panama 1990,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 32 (Spring 1990), 1-15.

[iv] John Lindsay Poland makes much the same point about the media in Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Duke University Press, 2003), 122. That said, there were many important exceptions, and I am grateful to the diligent reporters whose work I cite.

[v] I use the term “cartel” loosely, as it has been by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the media, to refer to close associates of Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa family, and José Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha (Medellín Cartel), and of Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela and José Santacruz Londoño (Calí Cartel). The global drug trade has never resembled a true economic cartel.

[vi] Steve Albert, The Case Against the General (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 348. Copies of official letters from the Reagan administration thanking Noriega for his cooperation were published by his regime in Panama: 16 Years of Struggle Against Drug Traffic (Panama: Editora Renovacion, 1988).

[vii] Feb. 1985 staff report, quoted in Albert, The Case Against the General, 13.

[viii] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, hearing, U.S. Foreign Policy and International Narcotics Control–Part II (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), 11, 31.

[ix] Miami Herald, 13 March 1985; Robert E. Powis, The Money Launderers: Lessons From the Drug Wars How Billions of Illegal Dollars Are Washed Through Banks & Businesses (Chicago: Probus, 1992), 121; Reuters, 11 Feb. 1992; Albert, The Case Against the General, 368; Ron Chepesiuk, The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia’s Cali Drug Cartel (Westport: Greenwood, 2003), 104.

[x] “Drugs: Hooking Some Big Fish,” Time, 18 May 1987; Sun-Sentinel (South Florida), 7 May 1987; Houston Chronicle, 7 May 1987; Los Angeles Times, 7 May 1987 and 1 Oct. 1987.

[xi] Los Angeles Times, 2 April 1988; House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee, hearings, Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations for 1989, Part 6, 20. For more on Panama’s cooperation, see Los Angeles Times, 7 May 1987, and John Dinges, Our Man in Panama (New York: Random House, 1990), 257.

[xii] Wall Street Journal, 7 Aug. 1987.

[xiii] Dinges, Our Man in Panama, 203.

[xiv] Latin America Weekly Report, 8 Jan. 1987; Inforpress Centroamericana, 21 May 1987.

[xv] Latin America Regional Report, 11 June 1987.

[xvi] Inforpress Centroamericana, 21 May 1987.

[xvii] Los Angeles Times, 1 July 1987 (reprinting Newsday); Wall Street Journal, 7 Aug. 1987; New York Times, 10 Aug. 1987; Bogota Intravision Television, 31 July 1987.

[xviii] Buckley, Panama, 78-101; Frederick Kempe, Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair With Noriega (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990), 213-26; Dinges, Our Man in Panama, 262-270. The protests were motivated by a variety of genuine concerns, from Noriega’s rigging of elections to his suspected role in the murder of political opponent Hugo Spadafora. Drawing support for various sectors of society, they were organized by leaders of the business and financial community under the umbrella of the National Civic Crusade, which was headquartered at the Chamber of Commerce. See ACAN-EFE, 15 June 1987; Central America Report, 19 June 1987. Noriega reacted by declaring a state of emergency, suspending portions of the constitution, imposing press censorship, and using force against rioters. See Miami Herald, 21 June 1987; Insight, 13 July 1987.

[xix] Rensellaer Lee, The White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1989), 183.

[xx] Kempe, Divorcing the Dictator, 3-4.

[xxi] In exchange for the testimony, eager U.S. prosecutors even agreed to cut nine years off the sentence of an unrelated Cali trafficker,brother of one of that cartel’s senior leaders. See Washington Post, 4 and 48 Nov. 1995, and 5 March 1996; St. Petersburg Times, 10 March 1996; Associated Press, 27 March 1996; “Too Good a Deal? The Noriega Case,” Economist, 9 March 1996; William C. Rempel, At The Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel (New York: Random House, 2011), 67-70. Although a federal appeals court declined to order a new trial for Noriega, it criticized the government for appearing “to have treaded close to the line of willful blindness” in its eagerness to win a conviction. See United States of America v. Manuel Antonio Noriega, cases 92-4687 and 96-4471, U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, 7 July 1997. For other doubts about the testimony of Ricardo Bilonick, see Newsday, 14 Feb. 1992.

As for the Medellín cartel, a pilot for one of its bigger smugglers, Carlos Lehder, recalled, “Carlos never liked Noriega. He never trusted this guy.” The same witness described Pablo Escobar’s reaction after Noriega approved the raid on a cocaine lab in May 1984: “He was just really out of whack with Noriega. He was like, ‘This guy is dead. No matter what, he is dead.’” See Frontline interview with Fernando Arenas (2000), in (accessed 3 March 2012).

[xxii] Jonathan Easley, “The Day the Drug War Really Started,”, 19 June 2011 at (accessed 4 March 2012); Marcy, The Politics of Cocaine, 84-6. Within two years, almost half of Americans surveyed in a New York Times/CBS News poll ranked drug trafficking as the most important international problem (Reuters, 10 April 1988). By late 1989, Americans surveyed by Gallup cited drugs as “the most important problem facing this country today” by a full ten-percentage-point margin. See Michael R. Hathaway, “The Role of Drugs in the U.S. Panamanian Relationship,” in Bruce W. Watson and Peter G. Tsouras, eds., Operation Just Cause: The U.S. Intervention in Panama (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1991), 36.

[xxiii] Kempe, Divorcing the Dictator, 176-177.

[xxiv] On Bush’s domestic political calculus, see Steve C. Ropp, “The Bush Administration and the Invasion of Panama: Explaining the Choice and Timing of the Military Option,” in John D. Martz, ed., United States Policy in Latin America (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 92; Richard L. Millett, “Panama and Haiti,” in Jeremy R. Azrael and Emil A. Payin, eds., U.S. and Russian Policymaking With Respect to the Use of Force (Santa Monica: RAND, 1996), 158-159; and Frederick Kempe, “The Panama Debacle,” in Loser, ed., Conflict Resolution and Democratization in Panama, 2-3, 14.

[xxv] New York Times, 4 Jan. 1990. The United Nations General Assembly voted 75 to 20 to condemn the invasion. The Mexican government stated, “The fight against international crimes cannot be a motive for intervention in a sovereign nation.” See Alan R. Goldman and E. Maria Biggers, “The International Implications,” in Watson and Tsouras, eds., Operation Just Cause, 182; cf. Margaret Scranton, The Noriega Years: U.S.-Panamanian Relations, 1981-1990 (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 1991), 207-208.

[xxvi] San Francisco Chronicle, 16 July 1991.

[xxvii] U.S.-Panama statement, AP, 20 Dec. 1989.

[xxviii] AP, 23 April 1989 and 11 May 1989; Charles D. Ameringer, Political Parties of the Americas, 1980s to 1990s: Canada, Latin America, and the West Indies (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992), 478. Based on Panama’s estimated population of 2.4 million in 1989, proportionate campaign funding in the United States would have exceeded $1 billion.

[xxix] On the arrest of Carlos Eleta Almaran as part of a $300 million conspiracy to import cocaine, see Atlanta Journal, 7, 8, 11, 12, and 13 April 1989. On the CIA’s operation using Eleta, see New York Times, 14 Jan. 1990. Federal prosecutors dropped the charges against Eleta soon after Noriega’s ouster (Atlanta Journal, 2 and 23 Feb. 1990).

[xxx] Reuters, 9 April 1989.

[xxxi] Buckley, Panama, 241; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1 May 1990; Boston Globe, 11 July 1990. The looting resulted in part from the Bush administration’s dismissive attitude toward post-war planning, which foreshadowed the chaos unleashed by Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. On the planning debacle, see Richard H. Shultz, Jr., In the Aftermath of War: U.S. Support for Reconstruction and Nation-building in Panama Following Just Cause (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1993), 3, 16-21, 28, 63, 70; and Thomas Donnelly, Margaret Roth, and Caleb Baker, Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama (New York: Lexington Books, 1991), 375-379.

[xxxii] Wall Street Journal, 3 Jan. 1990. Attorney General Rogelio Cruz subsequently froze some 200 accounts, but all were associated with colleagues of Noriega. See Miami Herald, 18 Jan. 1990.

[xxxiii] New York Times, 11 Jan. 1990; Los Angeles Times, 11 Jan. 1990; La Prensa, 11 Jan. 1990.

[xxxiv] Houston Chronicle, 11 Jan. 1990.

[xxxv] Associated Press, 11 Jan. 1990; see also Miami Herald, 18 Jan. 1990.

[xxxvi] Wall Street Journal, 17 April 1986; Miami Herald, 6 Aug. 1984; The Panama News, 20 March 2011; interview with U.S. prosecutor David Cassidy, 7 Aug. 1987; interview with Roberto Eisenmann, 21 Sept. 1987. There is no evidence that Ford or Rodriguez knew of this money laundering, and neither faced criminal charges for it.

[xxxvii] Miami Herald, 5 and 6 Jan. 1990 and 13 Feb. 1990. Despite the embarrassment of these connections, money laundering was not yet a federal crime in the United States in the early 1980s, much less in Panama.

[xxxviii] Dow Jones, 26 Jan. 1990; Houston Chronicle, 30 Jan. 1990.

[xxxix] Los Angeles Times, 1 Feb. 1990.

[xl] Interview with Greg Passic, 13 April 2012.

[xli] Among the first such accounts appeared in Oakland Tribune, 5 and 22 Jan. 1990.

[xlii] Boston Globe, Feb. 5, 1990. The president of First Interamericas Bank was Jaime Arias Calderón, brother of Edara’s First Vice President (La Republica, 5 Dec. 1988).

[xliii] New York Times, 6 Feb. 1990. Endara called the article “very unfair” and said that although he had been a member of the board of directors of Banco Interoceánico since 1972, he had no operational capacity and was not connected “to any misdeed and much less (to) drugs.” ACAN-EFE, 16 Feb. 1990. Endara resigned from the board on 31 May 1990 (El Panama America, 26 Oct. 1990).

[xliv] Tulsa World, 2 March 1990.

[xlv] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1 May 1990; ACAN-EFE, 19 June 1990. Only a week after championing Panama’s fragile democracy, the Bush administration was said to be “turning to Guatemala’s military to promote economic and political stability” while giving a cold shoulder to its civilian government. The CIA was reported to be “trying to take over the drug war” by subsidizing army intelligence,the same institution that was Noriega’s stepping stone to power,even though the military was implicated in drug trafficking and linked to death squads. One European diplomat said with no apparent irony, “they [the United States] are turning to the military as the only institution capable of keeping this place from becoming another Panama.” Los Angeles Times, 7 May 1990.

[xlvi] Boston Globe, 11 July 1990.

[xlvii] New York Times, 21 Aug. 1990.

[xlviii] Chicago Tribune, 17 Feb. 1991.

[xlix] Christian Science Monitor, 11 Oct. 1990.

[l] El Siglo,10 May 1990; La Prensa, 10 June 1990. On the corruption of Panama’s Judicial Technical Police rank and file, see Boston Globe, 18 Dec. 1990. The director of the force, Captain Leslie Loiza, complained that “rotten apples remain in the institution” and said that he was prevented by law from investigating Cruz’s alleged links to the Cali cartel. See El Diario Independiente, 28 Feb. 1991. The next year, Attorney General Cruz allegedly blocked an attempt to fire 16 members of the police force for ties to drug traffickers (Washington Post, 28 Nov. 1992; La Prensa, 18 Nov. 1992).

[li] Chicago Tribune,7 Oct. 1990; Critica Libre, 27 June 1990. For later prison breaks by leading operatives of the Medellín Cartel, see DPA [German Press Agency], 22 Feb. 1991.

[lii] Reuters, 6 Sept. 1990.

[liii] El Siglo, 23 Aug. 1990; La Prensa, 9 Oct. 1990.

[liv] Baltimore Sun, 23 Oct. 1990; Independent, 24 Oct. 1990; Latin American Weekly Report, 8 Nov. 1990. The DEA’s Greg Passic confirmed that he briefed Cruz about Rodriguez Gacha’s bank accounts, based on information captured by Colombian police, to no avail (Passic interview, 13 April 2012). Endara said his holdings in the bank amounted to only two shares worth $200, not two percent as reported. See Circuito RPC Television (Panama City), 25 Oct. 1990.

[lv] Marc Cooper, “Same As It Ever Was,” Village Voice, 28 May 1991. Fernandez Espina denied any impropriety in the $3 million loan that one of his hotels received from Interbanco. See his letter to the Washington Post, 12 Aug. 1991.

[lvi] Cooper “Same as it Ever Was.” For similar statements by the president of Panama’s National Bar Association, see El Panama America, 26 Oct. 1990.

[lvii] Baltimore Sun, 28 Oct. 1990. See also New York Times, 22 Oct. 1990; Christian Science Monitor, 20 Nov. 1990. One European diplomat called those outbursts “maybe the best show in town. It’s like unexpectedly walking in on a married couple in the middle of a fight over sex. You know it’s rude to stay but you just can’t leave.” Los Angeles Times, 27 Dec. 1990.

[lviii] San Diego Union-Tribune, 30 Nov. 1990.

[lix] Reuters, 6 Nov. 1990; El Siglo, 6, 7 and 9 Nov. 1990; Critica Libre, 7 Nov. 1990; El Panama America, 7 Nov. 1990; La Prensa, 7 Nov. 1990.

[lx] ACAN-EFE, 31 Oct 1990; La Prensa, 8 Nov. 1990; Latin American Weekly Report, 15 Nov. and 6 Dec. 1990. Following an investigation, the commission decided to liquidate the bank. See Independent, 27 Dec. 1990.

[lxi] Wall Street Journal, 19 Dec. 1990. Endara and other critics of the treaty insisted they supported cracking down on drug money laundering but not on tax evasion or insider trading. See La Prensa, 30 Oct. 1990; El Diario Independente, 2 Nov. 1990; La Prensa, 8 Nov. 1990.

[lxii] New York Times, 11 Feb. 1991.

[lxiii] Independent, 8 May 1991. Foreign Ministry legal adviser Julio Berrios resigned in April, just as the treaty was finally being signed.

[lxiv] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 1991, 171-172, 372-373. The General Accounting Office came to many of the same conclusions a few months later, citing the informed opinion of one DEA agent that “trafficking may have doubled since Operation Just Cause.” U.S. General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, House of Representatives, “The War on Drugs: Narcotics Control Efforts in Panama,” GAO/NSIAD-91-233, July 1991.

[lxv] Washington Post, 18 April 1991.

[lxvi] Chicago Tribune, 25 April 1991.

[lxvii] Prosecutors in the Miami case accused Falcón and Magluta of importing 75 tons of cocaine and earning more than $2 billion. The lawyer for the two accused, Frank Rubino, also represented Manuel Noriega at the time and thus had reason to disparage Endara. See Circuito RPC Television (Panama City), 4 April 1991; El Siglo, 5 April 1991; La Estrella de Panama, 7 April 1991; San Francisco Examiner, 9 April 1991; San Francisco Chronicle, 24 Dec. 1991; Linda Robinson, “The Panama Connection,” U.S. News and World Report, 9 Dec. 1991, 37-40; Jim DeFede, “Falcon and Magluta,” Miami New Times, 12 Feb. 1992. According to one account, the confidential DEA affidavit was leaked not by the U.S. embassy, but by the office of the attorney general in Panama. See El Panama America, 9 April 1991. Zealous DEA officers later reportedly detained and questioned Endara’s law partner, Hernán Delgado, at Howard Air Force Base, until Ambassador Hinton intervened on his behalf. See El Clarin Nacional, 5 Sept. 1991.

[lxviii] El Siglo, 5 April 1991; DPA, 12 April 1991.

[lxix] El Siglo, 11 April 1990; San Francisco Chronicle, 24 Dec. 1991.

[lxx] Reuters, 11 April 1991; Associated Press, 2 April 1991; New York Times, 3 April 1991; Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1991.

[lxxi] Reuters, 11 April 1991. For details of the pact, see “Treaty with U.S. signed as laundering increases again,” Money Laundering Alert, 2 (June 1991), 7. Ironically, Sen. Jesse Helms held up ratification of the treaty in the U.S. Senate for more than two-and-a-half years, asserting that it would give corrupt Panamanian officials the right to see confidential U.S. documents (San Francisco Chronicle, 5 Feb. 1994).

[lxxii] Chicago Tribune, 26 May 1991.

[lxxiii] James Henry, “Panama: Dirty Business as Usual,” Washington Post, 28 July 1991.

[lxxiv] Diario 16 (Madrid), 18 and 19 Aug. 1991; El Siglo, 23 May 1991.

[lxxv] Miguel Antonio Bernal, “Panama After the Fall is a State of Turmoil,” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 July 1991.

[lxxvi] Kenneth Sharpe, “U.S. Losing the Drug War in Panama,” Chicago Tribune, 19 Dec. 1991. Although that estimate was likely inflated, in July 1992 U.S. customs seized 5.3 tons of cocaine that had been packed in Panama (Dallas Morning News, 28 Oct. 1992). Panamanian police confiscated some 20 tons of cocaine in 1992, several times the total for all the 1980s (AP, 1 Feb. 1993).

[lxxvii] 26 Dec. 1991 press release, cited in Los Angeles Times, 12 June 1992.

[lxxviii] San Diego Union-Tribune, 12 April 1992.

[lxxix] Agence France Presse, 24 Dec. 1992; Washington Post, 28 Nov. 1992; El Siglo, 12 and 31 Oct. 1992, 5 and 9 Nov. 1992, and 24 April 1996; El Panama America, 1 Nov. 1992; La Prensa, 8 Nov. 1992; Reuters, 28 Oct. 1993; Wall Street Journal, 10 July 1997; U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, April 1993, at (accessed March 14, 2012). Other officials who came under investigation after Cruz for drug-related crimes included the director of Panama’s police academy (La Prensa, 15 April 1993) and the former head of Panama’s Customs bureau, who was accused of stealing $1.8 million in seized drug cash (Washington Post, 20 Sept. 1993).

[lxxx] Associated Press, 1 Feb. 1993.

[lxxxi] Cathy Booth, “Day of Reckoning,” Time, 26 Aug. 1991, 18.

[lxxxii] Department of Treasury, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, “Transactions Involving Panama,” Advisory 23, July 2000, at (accessed June 22, 2013).

[lxxxiii] Quotes from Department of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 2013, volumes I and II ( and (accessed 22 June 2013). On corruption during the period 2004 to 2011, see Carrie Burggraf, “The U.S. Whitewashes Panama’s Fatal Flaws to Champion Their Free Trade Agreement,” 25 Aug. 2011, at (accessed 20 June 2012). For a compilation of recent news stories about Panama’s booming drug trade, visit

[lxxxiv] See, for example, Michael Kenney, From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies and Competitive Adaptation (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2007), 88-90.

[lxxxv] Seattle Times, 9 Jan. 1990.

[lxxxvi] Robinson, “The Panama Connection,” 38. On U.S. pre-invasion concerns about Attorney General Cruz, see Washington Post, 2 Nov. 1992.

[lxxxvii] Robinson, “The Panama Connection,” 40.

[lxxxviii] For examples, see Agence France-Presse, 26 Aug. 1991; San Francisco Chronicle, 24 Dec. 1991; Alma Guillermoprieto, “Letter from Panama,” New Yorker, 17 Aug. 1992, 62; Los Angeles Times, 18 Oct. 1993. In the film version of John Le Carre’s novel The Tailor of Panama, Harry Pendel says, “When Bush came in and removed Ali Baba he left the 40 thieves” See (accessed 17 March 2012).

Behind Colin Powell’s Legend: Panama War

From the Archive: Though largely forgotten, the brief U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 established key precedents that would reappear in later conflicts from the Persian Gulf and Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq policies shaped, in part, by Gen. Colin Powell, as Robert Parry and Norman Solomon wrote in 1996.

By Robert Parry and Norman Solomon (Originally published in 1996)

From the Vietnam War and the Iran-Contra scandal, Colin Powell had learned the hard lessons of waging modern warfare. Combat was now only a modest part of the mix, exceeded by a larger dose of politics and an even-bigger part, P.R.

As for combat, Powell’s bitter Vietnam experience had taught him one overriding military principle, a rule that might be summarized as: “it’s better to win than to lose.” The Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force would follow.

But Powell also understood that warfare, as waged by the United States in the late 20th Century, no longer conformed to the famous dictum: diplomacy by other means. War had become the violent outgrowth of the political/media gamesmanship that was played along the Potomac. In an age when the best-known journalists were TV pundits, diplomacy was too grand a word for the spasms of war fever that would occasionally grip the capital.

“Once you’ve got all the forces moving and everything’s being taken care of by the commanders,” Powell advised other senior officers at the National Defense University in 1989, “turn your attention to television because you can win the battle [and] lose the war if you don’t handle the story right.”

In other words, the fickle political mood of Washington could decide the outcome of conflicts and of careers, so it was a military imperative to cultivate the opinions of the media elite. “A great deal of my time is spent sensing that political environment,” Powell explained.

Powell’s commitment to winning in “that political environment” had transformed the general into a very tough Washington “player,” albeit one with a friendly smile and an easygoing manner. Powell counted among his most valued contacts many of the top journalists in Washington.

As Ronald Reagan’s last national security adviser, Powell was highly regarded as an expert spinner who successfully limited the damage from the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987-88. He could wow reporters in White House background briefings or schmoose their bureau chiefs over lunch at the nearby Maison Blanche restaurant.

Yet, at the start of George Bush’s presidency, Powell wanted a respite from Washington and got it by assuming command of Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Georgia. That posting also earned the general his fourth star. But his sojourn into the regular Army would be brief, again. Behind the scenes, the Bush presidency was hurtling toward another confrontation with a Third World country, this time Panama.

Gathering Storm

On June 21, 1989, in secret, the Justice Department promulgated an extraordinary legal opinion, asserting the president’s right to order the capture of fugitives from U.S. laws even if they were living in foreign countries, even if the arrest meant ignoring extradition treaties and international law. The opinion had specific relevance to U.S.-Panamanian relations because a federal grand jury in Florida had indicted Panama’s military leader, Gen. Manuel Noriega, on drug-trafficking charges.

By August, Bush and his defense secretary, Dick Cheney, were urging Powell to return to Washington where he would become the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On his first day on that new job — Oct. 2, 1989 — Powell joined debates about whether to intervene in support of a home-grown Panamanian coup attempt aimed at ousting Noriega.

“The whole affair sounded like amateur night,” Powell wrote in his memoirs, My American Journey. “Cheney, [Gen. Max] Thurman and I … agreed that the United States should not get involved.” Bush went along with his military advisers — and with only minimal U.S. help, the coup failed. Noriega promptly executed the plot’s organizer.

In the wake of the coup attempt, Bush came under fierce criticism in the news media and in Congress. TV’s armchair-warrior pundits had a field day mocking Bush’s supposed timidity. Rep. David McCurdy, D-Oklahoma, spoke for many when he declared: “There’s a resurgence of the wimp factor.”

According to Bob Woodward’s book, The Commanders, Powell was stunned. He had never seen “piling on of this intensity, and across the whole political spectrum. It was as if there was a lynch mob out there.” Even more unsettling, Powell saw his own leadership at the JCS jeopardized by Washington’s super-macho political environment.

Neither Bush nor Powell would make the same mistake again. The two leaders quickly built up U.S. forces in Panama, as the administration spoiled for a fight and as Noriega shouted his defiance. During this period, Woodward quoted Powell as saying, “we have to put a shingle outside our door saying, ‘Superpower Lives Here’.”

In mid-December 1989, the tensions exploded when four American officers in a car ran a roadblock near the headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Forces. PDF troops opened fire, killing one American. Another American officer and his wife were detained for questioning. After their release, the officer alleged that he had been kicked in the groin and that his wife had been threatened with rape.

American Honor 

When word of this humiliation reached Washington, Bush saw American honor and his own manhood challenged. He possibly could hear, too, the pundits hooting about his cowardice if he didn’t act. Powell recognized the need for decisive action. On Dec. 17, he recommended to Bush that a massive U.S. military force capture Noriega and destroy the PDF, even though the assault would result in many civilian casualties and violate international law.

On Bush’s orders, the invasion began on Dec. 20, with Powell and Cheney monitoring developments at the Pentagon. The high-tech American assault force, using the F-117 Stealth aircraft for the first time, incinerated the PDF headquarters and the surrounding civilian neighborhoods. Hundreds of civilians — some human rights observers would say thousands — perished in the first few hours of the attack. An estimated 315 Panamanian soldiers also died, as did 23 Americans. But Noriega eluded capture.

Despite that temporary setback, Powell did not forget his own dictum about putting the best spin on a story. Stepping before cameras at the Pentagon, Powell declared victory and downplayed the disappointment over Noriega’s disappearance. “This reign of terror is over,” Powell declared. “We have now decapitated [Noriega] from the dictatorship of his country.”

In the following days, as U.S. forces hunted for the little dictator, Powell demonized Noriega over the supposed discovery of drugs and voodoo artifacts in his safehouse. Powell started calling Noriega “a dope-sniffing, voodoo-loving thug.” (The white powder in Noriega’s house that was initially called cocaine would turn out to be tamale flour.) When asked once too often about the failure to capture Noriega, Powell told the reporter to “stick it.”

The tragedies on the ground in Panama could sometimes be worse. On Dec. 24, shortly after midnight, a nine-months-pregnant Panamanian woman, Ortila Lopez de Perea, went into labor. She was helped into the family Volkswagen which was marked by a white flag. With her husband, her mother-in-law and a neighbor, she headed to the hospital.

At a U.S. military roadblock on the Transisthmian Highway, the car stopped. The four Panamanians requested an escort, but were told that one wasn’t necessary. After being waved through, they drove another 500 yards to a second checkpoint. But at this spot, the young American troops mistook the speeding Volkswagen for a hostile vehicle. The soldiers opened up with a 10-second barrage of automatic rifle fire.

When the shooting stopped, Lopez de Perea and her 25-year-old husband Ismael were dead. The neighbor was wounded in the stomach. The mother-in-law, though unhurt, was hysterical. The unborn baby was dead, too.

The U.S. government would acknowledge the facts of the shooting, but refuse any compensation to the family. The Southern Command concluded that its investigation had found that the incident “although tragic in nature, indicate[s] that the U.S. personnel acted within the parameters of the rules of engagement in effect at that time.”

Noriega Surrenders

On the same day as the tragic shooting, Manuel Noriega finally re-emerged. He entered the papal nuncio’s residence and sought asylum. The United States, however, demanded his surrender and bombarded the house with loud rock music. On Jan. 3, 1990, in full military uniform, Noriega surrendered to U.S. Delta Forces and was flown in shackles to Miami for prosecution on the drug charges.

With Noriega’s surrender, the Panamanian carnage was over. Two days later, the victorious Powell flew to Panama to announce that “we gave the country back to its people.”

In his memoirs, Powell noted as downsides to the invasion the fact that the United Nations and Organization of American States had both censured the United States. There were also the hundreds of civilian dead. They had been, in effect, innocent bystanders in the arrest of Manuel Noriega.

“The loss of innocent lives was tragic,” Powell wrote, “but we had made every effort to hold down casualties on all sides.” Some human rights organizations would disagree, however, condemning the application of indiscriminate force in civilian areas.

“Under the Geneva Accords, the attacking party has the obligation to minimize harm to civilians,” one official at Americas Watch told us. Instead, the Pentagon had shown “a great preoccupation with minimizing American casualties because it would not go over politically here to have a large number of U.S. military deaths.”

But for the Inside-the-Beltway “players,” there was no political price to pay for excessive violence against Panamanians.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. Information about the documentary based on the book is at