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The Right's Chicago Trial | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

The Right's Chicago Trial

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Fascism with a human face, in this case the visage of Lieut. Col. Oliver North, disturbed more than the left political community, which has been correctly proclaiming a Reagan putsch for years. As President Reagan ages in the attic, the youthful colonel spoke up as Reagan écorché, self-satisfied in his contempt for Congress, for law, for the Constitution. If the efficient procedures of the soap opera could be applied, Reagan would now be written out of the script and Ollie brought in as the new lead, as good an actor at half the age. But the scriptwriters are already in Iowa, and Olliemania will have the staying power of the hula hoop.

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you.

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A friend of mine, active in the New Left and the antiwar movement at the end of the 1960s, remarked to me that North reminded him of himself twenty years ago: ebullient, brimful of confidence as the exponent of history’s true mission, histrionically effective in playing to the gallery to the discomfort of vested authority. The Iran/contra hearings have, in a sense, been the right’s echo of the Chicago conspiracy trial. In both cases those in the dock or at the witness table had the political certitude to face down their inquisitors and seize control of the proceedings. The Chicago trial concluded radicalism’s season as the pacemaker of political discourse, and the Iran/contra inquiry is a similar swan song for the right.

This is not to insinuate that Reaganites are the moral equivalents of radicals. The Chicago Eight were trying to stop the kind of war Colonel North was trying to start, and they were the sort of people he had in mind when he collaborated in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s secret contingency plan to suspend the Constitution and appoint military commanders to run state and local governments under martial law during a national crisis, understood to include domestic opposition to a military invasion abroad. It is still unclear whether Reagan ever signed an executive order consummating North’s vision. Those plans for martial law may be in the files now, waiting to become operational. When the excellent Representative Jack Brooks tried to question North about the secret contingency plan, Senator Daniel Inouye, sheeplike, cut him off.

Bosco’s Coup

North’s testimony may mark the end of an era, but that does not mean the Democrats have anything lined up by way of uplifting replacement. The homilies of David Boren of Oklahoma, Lee Hamilton of Indiana and the others were heavy with eclogues to “bipartisanship.” Hamilton, the man who in 1985 found no reason to suspect North of any circumvention of the Boland amendment, insisted virtuously, “During my six years on the Intelligence Committee, over 90 percent of the covert actions that were recommended to us by the President were supported and approved.”

Small wonder that after listening appreciatively to this underdogged mush, the White House announced it would increase the amount of aid for the contras that it had been planning to seek from Congress. As we move toward the vote on contra aid, we may expect the traditional barrage of propaganda about Sandinista abuse of human rights and military triumphs in the field. Indeed, on July 17, The New York Times ran a story from its military correspondent Bernard Trainor, headed “Nicaraguan Rebels Say They Won Biggest Victory Over Sandinistas.” In The Times’s first edition Trainor merely relayed the claim of contra spokesman Bosco Matamoros that the Sandinista military garrison at San Jose de Bocay had been overrun. Trainor says that Matamoros called him up from Honduras announcing that he had some good news, as relayed to him at midday from the contra unit in the field. In time for the second edition Trainor got the State Department to agree that there had been heavy fighting in the area, but no confirmation from Nicaragua of anything resembling Matamoros’s claim.

Two days later Stephen Kinzer reported from the scene that the contras had not overrun the garrison but had managed to kill nine Sandinista soldiers, three children and a pregnant woman. As Trainor remarked to me, “Matamoros has been strangely quiet since then.” Nonetheless, Matamoros has every reason for satisfaction. On one phone call from Honduras he got a headline in The Times claiming a major contra victory at exactly the moment Olliemania was supposedly producing support for the contra cause.

This raid would have provided a good opportunity for the Iran/contra committees to recall North. One of those deferential inquisitors could have said: “Colonel North, when you were asked about that $13,800 security gate for your house you said that you had received a threat from Abu Nidal, one of the world’s foremost terrorists. Then you held up a large blowup of material about Nidal and said that though you would be happy to meet him on equal terms, Nidal was not likely to accommodate you, and your concern was for the lives of your wife and children. Well, Colonel North, here is a large photograph of José Domingo Martínez Vivas, standing beside the bodies of his wife and 3-year-old son after they had been murdered in San José de Bocay by the contras whom you helped to train and arm. José would probably like to meet you on equal terms, Colonel North, but he won’t have that opportunity. He won’t be able to fiddle a $13,800 security gate either. So tell us, Colonel North, in what way are you any less of a terrorist than Abu Nidal?”

Ralph’s Thermidor

The Ralph cover-up continues. Ralph was the thirty-pound lobster scheduled for display in the New England Aquarium, who died on July 9, supposedly after a fall. The story put out by the aquarium was that Ralph had fallen from a scale while being weighed, had been “irreparably cracked” and subsequently “destroyed” because of the possibility of infection.

A full Congressional inquiry is in preparation to consider the central unresolved question.

Did he jump or was he pushed? Ralph was more than a yard long, thirty-nine inches to be precise. He was hauled from Georges Bank, where he had spent the previous half-century, probably entering the world at the time of the Spanish Civil War, and was sold to the aquarium for $127.50. An aquarium spokeswoman, Sandra Goldfarb, was defensive when reached by my colleague Ken Silverstein. She wondered whether “anyone is interested in this” and then, with reluctance, divulged that “they were weighing the lobster and it moved—the scale has a curved container—the scale separated and the container part broke free.” Ralph then “fell to the counter” and cracked his shell. He was “euthanized” forthwith.

Now, it is possible that Ralph, foreseeing decades of incarceration, ogled all the while by Bostonians, simply decided to take the fall, as Colonel North would put it, and leaped from the container. It is also possible—and Goldfarb’s extreme unease fortifies suspicion—that someone thought Ralph would look great on a grill. It is unclear what happened to Ralph’s remains. Goldfarb says that the giant lobster was not preserved because the aquarium already has another one on display. Senator Inouye says the hearings will be bipartisan and doubts the existence of a smoking gun.

Shamed

Goaded by two installments run in this column of the letter sent to it by Tony Jenkins a year ago, The New York Review of Books in its issue of August 13, has finally managed to publish this same letter. The New York Review of Books also prints: a letter from Patt Derian, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the Carter Administration, confirming Jenkins’s account of a 1984 rally held in Chinandega and accusing Robert Leiken again of being “slippery” and of using “a free ride on a human rights trip”for his own ends; letters supportive of Leiken from his old traveling crony Bernard Aronson and from Nina Shea, Washington director of the Puebla Institute, which, on the testimony of Edgar Chamorro, was founded as a front; and from Leiken, his strength suddenly restored after months of delay, a characteristically dishonest response. For readers’convenience, the balance of Jenkins’s letter appears below.

Leiken knows his credentials are weak, so he deceitfully claims the endorsement of respected liberals such as Patt Derian, who was President Carter’s Assistant Secretary for Human Rights. “I find Leiken’s efforts to incorporate me, as an expert to validate his views, a slippery technique,” says Derian. She complains that he alludes to events that occurred in her presence and then indiscriminately tacks on descriptions of other events or personal opinions of which she has no knowledge, in order to make it appear that she can confirm his information or that she agrees with his conclusions.

For example, Leiken has consistently lied about events at an opposition rally that occurred in the Nicaraguan town of Chinandega in 1984. He was not at the rally; I was. I accompanied a TV crew who recorded most of the event. Backed by this evidence, I have, elsewhere, exposed Leiken’s description as a tissue of lies. Nevertheless Leiken claims that his version was confirmed, in front of Derian and others, by several Chinandegans during a visit to that town earlier this year [1986]. But Derian says, “I cannot confirm anything exceptthat Arturo Cruz came into town and along the mainstreet in a car, and not in a parade or on foot, as Leiken has said.” In other words Denan will not endorse the Leiken version and specifically exposes one lie which he has now repeated on several occasions. 

In a similar way Leiken has tried to discredit the Nicaraguan elections by quoting anonymous “party leaders,” hinting darkly at the possibility of electoral fraud. To boost his shaky evidence in his NYR piece of December 5, 1985, he “quoted” Adolfo Evertsz, a leader of the Socialist Party (for, by inference, if the Socialists who are Sandinista allies condemn the elections, we know they must have been rigged). But Evertsz says he has no recollection of ever having met Leiken; he denies the misstatements Laken attributes to him and suggests that Leiken mistranslated a speech he made which was broadcast on Nicaraguan television, and used the mistranslated comments as If they had been made in an interview. The statement Leiken puts into Evertsz’s mouth speaks of Sandinista efforts “to confuse and frighten people” and of threats of reprisals against nonvoters. Evertsz says “these statements are ridiculous” and refutes other “quotes” Leiken attributes to anonymous Socialist Party officers.

As part of the effort to establish his credentials a scholar Leiken claims a virtual monopoly on the facts; he says his critics should “distinguish false speculations from factual claims.” Yet even on matters as simple as the names of political parties Leiken gets his own facts all wrong; detailed in my earlier letter he garbles the history of the various Nicaraguan conservative parties. His purpose is subtle: to prove that one conservative faction “was awarded official status by the Sandinista courts,” implying that the courts are pliant to government pressure.To anyone who has studied the Nicaraguan legal system this charge is ridiculous.

Nicaragua still uses, virtually unaltered, the pre-revolutionary legal code, while many judges are non-Sandinistas distrustful of police evidence. It was partly for this reason, and to boost the rate and speed of convictions, that the government created the so-called Anti-Somocista Popular Tribunals—the kangaroo courts which try wartime Public Order offenses and which closely parallel Northern Ireland’s Diplock courts.

But all civil and criminal cases still go through the normal judicial system. The case to which Leiken refers was heard by the seven members of the Supreme Court, of whom two were self-proclaimed conservatives and a third was a member of the Independent Liberal Party. Shortly afterwards, in a public display of judicial independence, the head of the Supreme Court threatened to resign unless Sandinista authorities executed his court orders. The news was trumpeted delightedly on the front page of the opposition paper, Even the bitterly anti-Sandinista lawyer Enrique Sotelo Borgen, whom Leiken has quoted at length in his own defense, describes the Supreme Court as “impartial.”

I could go on like this forever, unmasking Leiken’s lies, slurs and mistakes, but you won’t let me…

Yours faithfully, Tony Jenkins

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