Oct 1 1987

Former Contra Leader Edgar Chamorro on the CIA and Media Manipulation

Edgar Chamorro was a Contra leader and press spokesperson from 1982 until 1984, when he resigned. The following year he testified against the United States in Nicaragua’s case before the World Court. FAIR interviewed him in early October as he prepared to visit Nicaragua. Chamorro is the author of Packaging the Contras (Institute for Media Analysis, 1987).

Edgar Chamorro reading the CIA assassination manual.

Edgar Chamorro reading the CIA assassination manual.

FAIR: How closely did the CIA supervise your Contra activities?

Chamorro: In 1982, the CIA invited me to become one of the Contra directors. At that time they needed people who could speak for the Contras while Congress was debating the Boland and Harkin amendments. The CIA instructed me to hold a press conference after we rehearsed what I was supposed to say. I was told to speak about bringing democracy to Nicaragua, but we all knew that our purpose was to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The CIA gave us a list of things to say about the Sandinistas to make them look like Communists. And we were told to deny working with the CIA, that all our funding came from private sources. The CIA coached us on how to talk to Congress so it wouldn’t sound like we were violating the Neutrality Act laws.

FAIR: Did this pattern of CIA control continue throughout the time you were with the Contras?

Chamorro: Yes, we held lots of press conferences in the US because the CIA thought this was a good way to impress people. We also ran media campaigns from offices in Venezuela and Guatemala. The CIA arranged PR tours for us in Western Europe knowing that whatever we said would be picked up by North American journalists and repeated in the US. We visited diplomats and VIPs in Europe, focusing on cities where Socialist International groups were strong. We were told to emphasize issues that would influence specific targets: church people, Jewish groups, the private sector. Our propaganda efforts were coordinated with Washington’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which disseminated false stories about how the Sandinistas persecuted each of these groups.

FAIR: The charges about anti-Semitism and attacks on the Catholic church were contrived?

Chamorro: The CIA are unscrupulous, action-oriented people who believe anything they do is justified because their purpose is to defeat what they label as “Communist.” They don’t care if the Catholic church suffers—all they care about is magnifying tensions and provoking conflict between the Sandinistas and the Catholic hierarchy. The CIA thought the church was the best way to put pressure on the Nicaraguan government.

FAIR: How were North American journalists treated when they visited Contra camps in Honduras?

Chamorro: We gave them a lot of attention. Some had special clearance to visit any time because the CIA considered them important. I remember George Crile from CBS 60 Minutes was invited. NBC’s Fred Francis and ABC’s Peter Collins were also given special treatment. It seemed like the CIA wanted to use people like this, and I think they were successful.

FAIR: How so?

Chamorro: The three major TV networks keep showing the same footage of Contra forces practicing in Honduras that was filmed years ago. They run these pictures as if they depicted Contras fighting inside Nicaragua today. The editors know its deceptive and they shouldn’t use the old footage. They are tacitly cooperating with the White House by building sympathy for the Contras. This assault on the imagination of US citizens is conducted through newspapers as well as television.

Take Stephen Kinzer, for example, in the New York Times. He’s like an errand boy. building up those stories that fit in with Reagan’s agenda—one day it’s the church, the next day the Miskitos, then the private sector. In the last two weeks, I’ve seen at least eight articles by Kinzer which say exactly what the White House wants. Kinzer always raises questions about Sandinista intentions, whether they’re truly democratic, and so forth. When you analyze his articles,, you see he’s just responding to what the White House is saying.

FAIR: Is the problem that reporters and editors share the same foreign policy biases as the White House?

Chamorro: For me, the most amazing thing is that journalists keep accepting the State Department version or the official line as fact. I can recall times when I was speaking at Contra press conferences, and reporters criticized me for raising too many questions! I’m serious. Reporters from all the big papers—the Times, the Post, the Miami Herald— were eager to use me as a source, but they didn’t want to hear my doubts about the Contras. Add to this the very active Office of Public Diplomacy, which fabricated news so that whenever something positive happens in Nicaragua the press would look in the wrong direction and go chasing after phantom MIGs, for example, just when Nicaragua has elections. The timing is controlled. Events can be neutralized when people are confused or distracted. That’s why timing is so important.

FAIR: How deeply was the CIA involved in manipulating the Honduran and Costa Rican media to get pro-Contra coverage? Were foreign journalists on the CIA payroll?

Chamorro: My experience was in Honduras. Since 1982, the CIA bankrolled prominent journalists, including top people in Honduran television. These arrangements were initially set up by the Argentine military officers who were then training the Contras. Colonel Cáceres, formerly of Somoza’s National Guard, was in charge of giving money to people in the media. They had a key person in HONDUTEL [the Honduran telecommunications system] who could slow down or stop the wire when news came into the country. The CIA always knew when bad news was coming, and they would alert their media contacts. Radio broadcasters were paid to denounce the Sandinistas and make the Contras look better, or to censor stories that were bad for the Contras. This was done for several years and CIA officials told me the same thing was taking place in Costa Rica. I believe it’s still going on.

FAIR: It’s ironic that CIA agents regularly censor news stories in Honduras when all we hear about is how the Sandinistas censor La Prensa. What was La Prensa’s role in the CIA’s destabilization campaign? Were you surprised to learn that it too was bankrolled by the US government?

Chamorro: No, I was not surprised at all. The CIA viewed La Prensa as a propaganda asset and I’m sure that’s how it’s being used today. I knew that La Prensa received money through the Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. And I knew the CIA had contacts with people in La Prensa. Take for example, the case of Umberto Belli, a former priest who served as editor of La Prensa’s editorial page before moving to the US. Belli is now a director of the Puebla Institute, a front group established by the CIA to neutralize the more respectable, long-term organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch, which have documented extensive Contra atrocities.

FAIR: Presumably this is another way the CIA manipulates the media. These phony human rights groups are treated as legitimate news sources by US journalists…

Chamorro: …which results in contradictory signals about human rights in the press. North Americans like to say ‘”on the one hand—and yet on the other,” so no one can make up their mind. That’s the objective — to paralyze people, control the way they think.

FAIR: If the CIA hadn’t initiated the Contra war, do you think the Sandinistas would have imposed press restrictions? Or was this primarily a response to US aggression?

Chamorro: I think it was a response to the aggression and to the sophomoric approach of La Prensa, which never acknowledged the terrible tragedy of the war. It never reported Contra human rights abuses. It was so biased, blaming everything on the Sandinistas. La Prensa was an instrument of US policy—even when it was shut down.

FAIR: Since you’ve become a critic of US policy, has it been more difficult for you to get major media access in the US as compared to your Contra days?

Chamorro: Yes, definitely. I left the Contras in December 1984, just when Oliver North began taking over for the CIA. Since then, I’ve been in a few brief TV debates, but not very often. ABC interviewed me last summer about the Reagan/Wright proposal, but they never ran it — perhaps because I told them the Reagan peace plan was merely a public relations ploy. It’s happened many times before. Whenever they need money from Congress, the CIA repackages the Contras, adding a few new faces along with a spurious peace initiative which they know the Nicaraguan government can’t possibly accept. The Reagan administration has never wanted peace. The pending request for another $270 million for the Contras is a clear indication of this.

FAIR: Are you hopeful about the Arias plan?

Chamorro: I am, because I know the Nicaraguan government is very serious about peace. The Sandinistas are committed to making it happen, and US control of the situation is slipping. Of course, it’s a very fragile process and it could be sabotaged. I think the CIA will try one more big push before its over. They’ll spend a lot of money to bolster the internal opposition—the right-wing political parties and some of the business groups. They’ll fund demonstrations in an effort to create a major showdown like in the Philippines. But it won’t work with the Sandinistas. They are not like Marcos or Somoza. They still have a lot of popular support, particularly among the poor. If Contra aid is cut off, there is a real chance for peace.

Edgar Chamorro reading the CiA assassination manual