Aug 2 2010

PBS’s Shultz Doc Has Content to Match Its Conflicts

After FAIR criticized PBS for airing Turmoil and Triumph, a documentary about Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz that was funded almost entirely by his friends and associates (Action Alert, 7/12/10; Activism Update, 7/20/10), the program’s producer/writer/director David deVries (, 7/16/10) complained that FAIR (and Nation critic Greg Mitchell–7/12/10) hadn’t “[paid] much attention to the content and quality of the production.”

FAIR had not seen the program prior to its three-part airing on PBS; our initial criticism was based on the conflicts of interest in its funding, bolstered by other critics’ description of its uncritical approach to its subject (New York Times, 7/12/10; Wall Street Journal, 7/9/10; San Francisco Chronicle, 7/10/10). Now that the program has aired, however, we can report that its content is as selective, deceptive and indeed inaccurate as you would expect to find in a vanity project of this sort.

The documentary’s most glaring omissions come in its discussion of Shultz’s role in the Iran/Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration tried to ransom U.S. hostages by selling arms to Iran, and surreptitiously continued efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government in defiance of congressional prohibitions. Part two of Turmoil and Triumph (7/19/10) presents Shultz as a principled opponent of these schemes who was left out of the loop by his conspiring colleagues:

Fearing Shultz’s opposition, [National Security Adviser Robert] McFarlane and the others deliberately keep the secretary of state out of the loop in planning the Iran/Contra operation…. In meeting after meeting with Reagan and his staff, Shultz tries to discourage any attempts to go around the Congress. But in the end, the tide of thinking among White House security advisers and the priorities of the president further isolate Shultz from any Contra planning.

In the third part of the documentary (7/26/10), the narration reiterates:

As the summer of 1986 passes, George Shultz continues to be left out of plans for the arms sales and Contra funding. But even this will not protect him from the crisis waiting to envelope the administration.

These depictions of Shultz as innocently unaware of the Reagan administration’s most damaging scandal is clearly contradicted by the historical record. As independent counsel Lawrence Walsh declared (and exhaustively documented) in his final report on the Iran/Contra prosecutions (Chapter 24):

Shultz’s carefully prepared testimony stated that he received no information regarding arms transfers to Iran during 1985 and 1986. It conveyed the impression that, because of his steadfast opposition to proposals to transfer arms to Iran, national security advisers McFarlane and Poindexter and the NSC staff had successfully concealed information from Shultz and the Department of State regarding actual arms transfers to Iran.

The contemporaneous handwritten notes of [Shultz’s aides] demonstrate the inaccuracy of Shultz’s assertions and the popular impression regarding his knowledge. Shultz was aware of Israel’s TOW and HAWK missile transfers to Iran during 1985. He was aware of direct arms transfers from the United States to Iran during 1986. The notes also demonstrate that, to the extent Shultz did not have complete information regarding the arms transfers, his situation was caused as much by his desire not to know more as it was by efforts at the NSC staff to conceal information from him.

On the Contra project, far from opposing any effort to circumvent Congress, Shultz was actively involved in these schemes. Turmoil and Triumph (7/19/10) declares: “Without the knowledge of the secretary of state, National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane begins to recruit third party donors to contribute money to the Contras.” In reality, as the Walsh report states (Chapter 25), Shultz participated in discussions of which other countries would be asked for donations, and almost made one of the solicitations personally:

Following a May 16, 1986, National Security Planning Group meeting, in which the need for further assistance to the Contras was discussed, [Assistant Secretary of State Elliott] Abrams raised with Shultz the issue of soliciting third countries for funding…. Abrams suggested to Shultz that the sultan of Brunei, an oil-rich Southeast Asian country, be approached during Shultz’s upcoming visit to Brunei in late June 1986…. In June 1986, Abrams obtained bank account information from [National Security Council operative Oliver] North on a card typed by his secretary, Fawn Hall…. During his trip to Asia on June 23 and 24, 1986, Shultz took with him this index card but on the advice of U.S. Ambassador Barrington King, Shultz did not ask the Sultan of Brunei for assistance to the Contras.

Did deVries fail to consult the final report of the most authoritative investigation of the biggest scandal of his subject’s career? Or did he read it and choose to ignore it? Either option would transfer his project from the realm of journalism to that of propaganda.

There are other astonishing omissions. Can we agree that a three-hour look at the career of George Shultz should explain the idea known as the “Shultz Doctrine”? Shultz’s seminal assertion of a right to “use force to prevent or pre-empt future attacks” (International Legal Materials, 1/86)–which prompted the Wall Street Journal (4/29/06) to call Shultz “the father of the Bush Doctrine” of pre-emptive attacks on nations perceived as dangerous–went unmentioned in Turmoil and Triumph.

DeVries dismissed complaints that his documentary ignored Shultz’s prominent role in advocating for the 2003 attack on Iraq, including his position as chair of the pro-invasion “Committee for the Liberation of Iraq,” because this was “outside the focus of the show which followed Shultz almost exclusively through his tenure as secretary of state, ending in 1989.” But his advocacy for a new norm of international law that legitimizes “active prevention, pre-emption and retaliation” against terrorism is one of the most abiding, and controversial, legacies of Shultz’s tenure at the State Department, providing the justification for two ongoing wars.

DeVries’ stated desire (, 7/16/10) was to create “a positive portrayal of an American, much admired by leaders of both political parties, who has served his nation successfully at the highest level of government and academia for almost 70 years.” One can see, then, why he chose to leave out aspects of Shultz’s role in history that are less than universally acclaimed. Why PBS would choose to give three hours of airtime to such a project, however, is still a mystery.