Sep 1 2001

Scandal? What Scandal?

Bush's Iran-Contra appointees are barely a story

Elliott Abrams (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Elliott Abrams (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Throughout the summer of 2001, the media were profligate with resources for the Chandra Levy story, excavating every corner of her and Rep. Gary Condit’s past to unearth a prurient bounty of personal detail. That level of investigative vigor might have exposed far more vital information had it been applied to Bush’s appointment of numerous Iran-Contra veterans to key posts.

But with a few admirable exceptions, news stories about Elliot Abrams, John Negroponte and Otto Reich have largely relied on past reporting and he-said, she-said soundbites by the usual supporters and critics, rather than in-depth investigations into their complicity in one of the bloodiest scandals of the past 20 years. And their guilt is based not on speculation or gossip, but on hard evidence that they aided torturers and death squads,circumvented Congress and the Constitution, and deceived the American people.

“President Bush,” the Washington Post reported on March 25, “is quietly building the most conservative administration in modern times, surpassing even Ronald Reagan in the ideological commitment of his appointments, White House officials and prominent conservatives say.”

It’s not that Bush is whispering the names of nominees too softly for the press to hear. Rather, the reporting itself is, for the most part, quiet.

Three nominations that should have raised a noisy clatter from the nation’s presses are:

  • John Negroponte, as ambassador to Honduras from 1981-85, covered up human rights abuses by the CIA-trained Battalion 316. He is Bush’s choice for U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and, as Extra! went to press, was expected to clear Senate confirmation hearings.
  • Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state under Reagan, pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding evidence from Congress (i.e., lying) over his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Bush I pardoned him; Bush II has appointed him to the National Security Council as director of its office for democracy, human rights and international operations. The post requires no Senate approval.
  • Otto Reich’s nomination as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the top post for Latin America, was predicted to draw the most congressional fire. Reich was head of the now-defunct Office for Public Diplomacy (OPD), which the House Committee on Foreign Affairs censured for “prohibited, covert propaganda activities” (Washington Post, 10/11/87).

Iran-Contra redux

Washington spent more than $4 billion on El Salvador in the ’80s, backing wildly brutal regimes and their death squads against a leftist insurgency. The 12-year civil war left 75,000 Salvadorans dead–overwhelmingly civilians killed by U.S.-supported forces. As Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, and later for inter-American affairs, Elliott Abrams, in his own words, “supervised U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean” (Ethics and Public Policy Center). He helped cover up one of the worst atrocities of the war: a Salvadoran army massacre in El Mozote that left 800 to 1000 civilians dead.

In Nicaragua, after the leftist Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-supported dictator in 1979, Washington created and funded the Contras, a guerrilla army that concentrated its fire on civilians. The Reagan administration escalated the civil war after the leftist Sandinista party won an election endorsed as free and fair by international monitoring agencies. In a campaign to tarnish the Sandinistas and gild the Contras, Otto Reich’s Office of Public Diplomacy pressured U.S. media and planted ghostwritten articles and editorials. The comptroller-general of the U.S., a Republican appointee, found that the OPD had violated a ban on domestic propaganda.

Under Ambassador John Negroponte, neighboring Honduras grew so crammed with U.S. bases and weapons that it was dubbed the U.S.S. Honduras, as if it were simply an off-shore staging ground for the Contra war. While poverty raged, U.S. military aid jumped from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million by 1984. The Honduran army, especially the U.S.-trained Battalion 316, engaged in widespread human rights abuses, including kidnapping, torture and assassination. Negroponte worked closely with the perpetrators and covered up their crimes, according to Ambassador Jack Binns, his predecessor in the post (In These Times, 2/28/01).

Spurred on by media reports and popular protests against U.S. intervention in Central America, Congress passed the Boland amendment, which cut off most military aid to the Contras. Undaunted, the Reagan administration circumvented Congress and popular outrage by waging a covert war and raising money for the Contras from private and foreign sources. One of the “neat ideas” Oliver North and his cronies concocted was to funnel profits to the Contras from the secret sale of U.S. arms to Iran–which was under embargo after seizing Americans as hostages. The discovery of this and other illegal schemes led to the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Negroponte, Abrams and Reich played key roles.

Writing for history

With the 1990s, aside from the occasional hurricane or bus plunge, the media spotlight shifted away from Central America. Still, a few investigative reports took advantage of new evidence and time-loosened tongues. Mark Danner revisited the El Mozote massacre for the New Yorker (12/6/93), documenting as well Washington’s success in trashing the original reporting on the slaughter by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermopietro.

In 1995, the Baltimore Sun undertook a months-long investigation into the U.S. role in Honduras, implicating Negroponte. Under editor John Carroll, Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson reported (6/27/95) that members of the U.S.-trained Battalion 316 used “shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves.” Cohn and Thompson showed that despite insistent denials, Negroponte had to have known.

In his independent magazines the Consortium and iF, Bob Parry relentlessly investigated the period, while many reporters and scholars drew on the documentation accumulated by Tom Blanton and Peter Kornbluh at the National Security Archive. The importance of all this work is evidenced by how often it is cited–not always with credit–in reporting on the nominations of Abrams, Negroponte and Reich.

Condensed soup reporting

John Negroponte (cc photo: The Ford School)

John Negroponte (cc photo: The Ford School)

Investigations of the nominees, when they are served up at all, have been mostly condensed like canned soup into a bland palatable broth. A few op-eds, including one by Mary McGrory (Washington Post, 7/8/01), have been scathing, but added little new information.

Some exceptional reports on Negroponte were notable for actually including investigative journalism. Los Angeles Times reporters Maggie Farley, Norman Kempster and T. Christian Miller–under the lead of editor John Carroll, who had moved from the Baltimore Sun–wrote a devastating exposé on the ambassador’s role (5/7/01). They were the first journalists to note a possible connection between Negroponte’s nomination and the deportation from the U.S. and Canada of several Hondurans connected to human rights abuses. The most notorious was Gen. Luis Alonso Discua Elvir, a founder of Battalion 316. The L.A. Times quoted unnamed officials who said that “the speed of his removal was unprecedented,” and speculated that the desire to make Discua unavailable for testifying at Negroponte’s confirmation hearings was a factor in his hasty deportation.

Built on historical record and contemporary interviews, Sarah Wildman’s March 19 piece for the New Republic was a well-documented refutation of Negroponte’s claims of innocence. She concluded by characterizing the diplomat as having “not exactly the moral sensibility you want in a U.N. ambassador.”

The Baltimore Sun updated its 1995 investigation with a March 7 story bluntly describing Negroponte as “a retired career diplomat who helped conceal from Congress the murder, kidnapping and torture abuses of a CIA-equipped and -trained Honduran military unit.”

Most of the media have not been as diligent. For months after Negroponte’s name was floated for U.N. ambassador, virtually the only mention of his Honduras record in the New York Times was a paragraph inside Jane Perlez’s May 27 piece on how Sen. James Jefford’s defection would impact Bush’s foreign policy. Perlez noted “obstacles” to Negroponte’s confirmation, “largely over his role as ambassador in Nicaragua [sic] in the Reagan administration, when he carried out the covert strategy to crush the leftist Sandinista government.” As Ronald Reagan said after a 1982 trip to Latin America, “You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries” down there. The Times ran a correction (6/5/01).

The Times eventually weighed in on June 14 with a front-page piece by Marc Lacey that reviewed Negroponte’s career. Lacey often fell back on vague language and passive voice:

The Central Intelligence Agency several years ago found that serious rights violations in Honduras were not properly reported to Washington during Mr. Negroponte’s tenure. Most of the report is blacked out, and the unclassified parts raise questions about Mr. Negroponte without providing answers.

On August 1, the New York Times finally got around to addressing the reappearance of so many Iran-Contra figures in the administration. A piece by Christopher Marquis led with an insider description of some of the Iran-Contra cold warriors clustered at a party, smirking over the controversy their nominations have raised and dismissing concerns over their suitability as “the other side…still fighting the old battles.” Like the Lacey article, Marquis’s reporting added no substantive background information on the nominees or the policies they carried out. To its credit, the article explored the effect of the nominations might have on Latin America. Oddly, however, Marquis quoted only the opinions of U.S. officials and experts.

As of the beginning of August, however, the Washington Post still hadn’t found it newsworthy that someone nominated for a U.N. ambassadorship has been accused of condoning and covering up human rights violations. With no apparent irony, both the Washington Post (5/13/01) and the New York Times (5/9/01) speculated that one reason the U.S. was knocked off the U.N. Human Rights Commission was that Negroponte’s nomination had not been approved.

As Extra! went to press, neither the Post nor the Times has mentioned Negroponte’s connection to Battalion 316. The international edition of Time (5/21/01), but not the U.S. version, simply cited the Baltimore Sun and L.A. Times to illustrate that the nomination “has revived unsettling questions.” NPR‘s Tom Gjelten (6/11/01) offered the vague and decorous assessment that “Negroponte’s critics say he was so anxious to protect the Contras and their military allies in Honduras that he covered up human rights abuses there.”

Hope for war criminals

News reporting on Elliott Abrams has been so sparse and pallid as to give hope to war criminals everywhere. Like Negroponte, Abrams maintains ignorance when not boasting that his policy was a “fabulous achievement” (Washington Post, 3/21/93).

A few outlets have written strong editorials, particularly the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s scorched-earth description (7/11/01) of Abrams as a “deceitful, scheming coddler of Latin American tyrants,” and “uncontrite peddler of lies.”

Most news stories, however, have simply noted the appointment and mentioned Abrams convictions for withholding evidence from Congress–as if he were a minor player haunted by sins of omission. They’ve ignored his cover-ups of the Salvadoran army’s massacre at El Mozote and assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Except for reporting in The Nation (7/2/01) and a piece by this reporter in In These Times (8/6/01), few publications have reprised Abrams’ role in Iran-Contra.

On February 8, 1982, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote “were not credible,” and that “it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.”

It’s not as if hard evidence and gruesome details of Abrams’ knowledge and culpability are difficult to find. The man was convicted in open hearings and remains brazenly unrepentant. He called his prosecutors “filthy bastards,” the proceedings against him “Kafkaesque” and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee “pious clowns,” according to an article in Legal Times (5/30/94). Raymond Bonner broke the story of the El Mozote massacre in the New York Times (1/27/82). The story also ran in the Washington Post (3/5/82). Post reporters Guy Gugliotta and Douglas Farah (3/21/93) further documented Abrams’ role in El Salvador in a 1993 story.

That was then. This time around, Post’s news columns have barely mentioned the nomination or El Mozote. Aside from the August 1 overview article, the New York Times‘ coverage was confined to a 150-word piece (7/6/01) announcing the appointment, noting Abrams’ run-in with Congress and describing him blandly as “a prominent figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.”

Perhaps the Times is still gun shy. After pressure from the State Department and attacks from other media, executive editor A.M. Rosenthal lost faith in Bonner’s original El Mozote reporting and ordered him back to the Metro desk. That kind of pressure on the media later became the specialty of Otto Reich, George W. Bush’s choice to be the top State Department official for Latin America.

Mightier than the pen

Otto Reich: Bush's Point Man (Newsweek)

Otto Reich on the cover of Newsweek‘s Latin American edition (7/8/02)

As head of the Reagan administration’s Orwellian Office of Public Diplomacy, Reich ran “Operation ‘White Propaganda.'” He and other OPD officials regularly showed up in newsrooms and editorial meetings to excoriate reporters and editors for unfavorable coverage and to slander insufficiently sympathetic reporters. The OPD planted stories and op-eds in the U.S. media that were ghostwritten by Reich’s operatives or assigned to “independent” experts. Tainted articles ran in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, among other outlets. His office also engaged in such dirty tricks as charging that reporters in Nicaragua were paid for their anti-U.S. coverage with the services of Sandinista-supplied prostitutes. Jason Vest’s 7,000-word piece on the American Prospect website (5/25/01) offers the most extensive account of Reich’s attempts to influence the U.S. media.

Reich himself visited executives and reporters at CBS where, according to a 1984 memo from Secretary of State George Shultz to Ronald Reagan (In These Times, 4/16/01), he “privately and confidentially” influenced coverage of the Salvador war. “Everyone at CBS has been cordial and cooperative,” the memo noted, adding that this example of OPD activities “has been repeated dozens of times over the past few months.”

Reich had help from his friends. According to a staff report by the House Foreign Affairs Committee (9/7/88),

senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence and psychological operations specialists from the Department of Defense, were deeply involved in establishing and participating in a domestic political and propaganda operation run through an obscure bureau in the Department of State which reported directly to the National Security Council rather than through the normal State Department channels.

According to Eric Alterman in The Nation (5/7/01), old habits die hard. After the New York Times assigned Bonner to cover Reich’s nomination, Reich tried to have the reporter taken off the story. The Times ran the March 8 article by Bonner and Christopher Marquis on page 6. Like Karen DeYoung’s piece a month later (4/15/01) for the Washington Post, it devoted a few workmanlike paragraphs Reich’s questionable activities as head of OPD. Both articles discussed the policy implications of appointing an anti-Castro ideologue and detailed potential conflicts of interest raised by Reich’s lobbying for corporations including Bacardi-Martini and Lockheed Martin.

Ink on his hands

While Negroponte, Abrams and Reich were all deeply implicated by an Iran-Contra policy that resulted in serious human right violations, coverage of Reich has been the somewhat more extensive.

There are several possible explanations. Unlike Abrams, whose appointment needs no congressional approval, Reich’s State Department post requires Senate confirmation, an opportunity for opposition that gives the story legs. (Negroponte’s post also requires a Senate vote, but as the Senate has already approved him for several ambassadorships since his Honduras post, reporters may have sensed less potential for conflict.)

Another key factor in the quality of coverage is the easily accessible postings on Reich by the National Security Archive. In 15 minutes, even the busiest or laziest journalist can download enough damning documentation to satisfy any editor.

And not to be discounted in the differential reporting is the propensity of journalists to take more personally activities, like those of the OPD, that tarnish the myth of an independent media. Negroponte and Abrams have blood on their hands. Reich’s are mostly smeared with ink. Negroponte and Abrams coddled torturers, protected death squads and helped kill peasants in Central America. Reich messed with the U.S. media.

Today Reich’s kind of plotting hardly seems worth the effort–with media resources squandered on titillating gossip, while real muck goes mostly unraked.

Terry J. Allen reported from Central America during the 1980s. Her articles have been published in the Boston Globe, In These Times,, Harper’s and, as well as various international outlets. She can be contacted at .