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Bush's Contra Buddies | The Nation

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Bush's Contra Buddies

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The current President George Bush, whose very name evokes a dark era many would prefer to forget, seems determined to resurrect the ghosts of America's scandal-ridden past. A number of his foreign policy appointments are former Iran/contra operatives who are being rehabilitated and rewarded with powerful foreign policy posts.

About the Author

Peter Kornbluh
Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, and co-author (with William M....

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John Negroponte's nomination to be US ambassador to the United Nations is a case in point. Bush has named him to represent the United States at an institution built on principles that include nonintervention, international law and human rights. Qualifications for the job: Negroponte was a central player in a bloody paramilitary war that flagrantly violated those principles and was repeatedly denounced by the institution in which he would now serve. As ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the acknowledged "boss" of the early covert contra operations; he also acted as a proconsul, working closely with the Honduran military commander, whose forces aided the covert war while his embassy consistently denied or misrepresented politically inconvenient evidence of atrocities and abuse.

The nomination of Otto Reich to be Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere is even more offensive to international and domestic principles. A longtime anti-Castro Cuban-American, Reich is backed by Senator Jesse Helms and the hard-line exile groups that want political payback for giving Bush his real or imagined margin of victory in Florida.

Like Negroponte, Reich was a key player in the illicit contra war. In 1983 a CIA propaganda specialist named Walter Raymond handpicked Reich to head the new and innocuous-sounding Office of Public Diplomacy. Housed in the State Department, Reich's office actually answered directly to Raymond and to Oliver North in the White House. A General Accounting Office review showed that Reich's office repeatedly provided sole source contracts to other members of North's network, including those involved in illegal fundraising for arms. More important, a Comptroller General's review concluded that Reich's office had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public."

Among those activities, as revealed in declassified records, were "white propaganda" operations--having contractors plant articles in the press or influence print and TV coverage while hiding their government connection--and using US military psychological warfare personnel to engage in, as Reich put it, "persuasive communications" intended to influence public opinion.

Reich himself engaged in a crude form of "persuasive communications," personally berating media executives and harassing reporters if news coverage was not favorable to the Reagan Administration's position. When NPR's All Things Considered ran the first major investigative report on contra human rights atrocities, Reich demanded a meeting with its editors, producers and reporters, at which he informed them that his office was "monitoring" all their programs and that he considered NPR to be biased against the contras and US policy. A Washington Post stringer remembers that after a contentious briefing from Reich in Managua in which the stringer and a reporter from Newsweek questioned the truthfulness of the Administration's assertions, an article appeared in a right-wing newsletter put out by Accuracy in Media calling him a "johnny sandinista" and falsely asserting that the Nicaraguan government was providing the two reporters with prostitutes. Reich's office, the then-US Ambassador to Managua told the Post reporter, was responsible for the rumors.

Reich's role as a revolving-door lobbyist is also likely to be a factor in his nomination hearings. As a partner in the Brock Group, a lobbying firm that according to Justice Department records represented the anti-Castro liquor giant Bacardi, Reich advised Jesse Helms's office on the drafting of the Helms-Burton legislation, which tightens the embargo against Cuba. Since passage of the law in 1996, Reich's own lobbying firm, RMA International, has received $600,000 in payments from Bacardi. Another Reich organization, the US-Cuba Business Council, has received more than $520,000 in US Agency for International Development money for anti-Castro work supporting the goals of the Helms-Burton law. If he's confirmed, Reich would become the key policy-maker interpreting and implementing legislation on Cuba, which he was handsomely paid to promote--a clear conflict of interest.

Reich's only diplomatic credential is his 1986 posting as Ambassador to Venezuela, to which officials in Caracas repeatedly objected. While there, Reich became responsible for the case of notorious terrorist Orlando Bosch, jailed in Caracas on charges of masterminding the bombing of an Air Cubana flight that killed seventy-three people in 1976. In September 1987 Bosch wrote a letter in which he thanked the ambassador as "compatriot Otto Reich" for support--a letter that, after it became public, Reich described in a cable to Washington as "a case of Cuban-Soviet disinformation." When a Venezuelan court ruled that Bosch should be released in late 1987, Reich sent a short "Clearance Response" cable to the State Department's visa office--apparently a request for Bosch to enter the United States. Bosch subsequently entered the United States illegally and was detained on parole violation charges related to terrorism and threatened with deportation because, according to the Justice Department, he had "repeatedly expressed and demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death." Reich's nomination hearings will provide the first public forum for him to explain the purpose of his "clearance" cable and what role, if any, he played in the first Bush Administration's clearly political decision to drop charges against Bosch and allow him to stay in Florida.

Negroponte has already survived confirmation hearings for two ambassadorships since the Iran/contra scandal and is unlikely to face significant opposition, but Democrats say they are drawing the line at Reich. Senators John Kerry and Christopher Dodd are leading the opposition to Reich on the grounds of his "questionable history." According to Senate aides, opponents plan to put a "hold" on the nomination--a tactic perfected by Helms against Clinton appointments--which will provide time for an investigation, access to classified records and organization of support from farm belt Republicans who understand that Reich's hard-line policy on the trade embargo against Cuba will hurt agricultural interests in their states. The political effort to line up votes against Reich and to seek full disclosure of documents on his public diplomacy operations, ambassadorship and corporate lobbying will begin in earnest after the Senate returns from Easter recess.

In a campaign reminiscent of the successful effort twenty years ago to block Reagan's anti-human rights appointee Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, the Center for International Policy, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Washington Office on Latin America, among others, are mobilizing to stop the nomination and are confident they can win. "With so much muck connected to his name and his past," suggests CIP director William Goodfellow, "Reich is an inviting target to show that the Democrats are not dead."

Indeed, failure to block Reich could open the door to ever more noxious foreign policy appointees. Senator Helms's top aide, Roger Noriega, is Bush's lead candidate to be ambassador to the Organization of American States. And at least one conservative religious group is touting pardoned Iran/contra criminal Elliott Abrams as a nominee for a human rights post--ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

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