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Context of 'October 5, 1986: CIA Transport Plane Shot Down in Nicaragua; Story Reveals Illegal Contra-Arms Program'

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The National Security Council’s Oliver North persuades former CIA officer Felix Rodriguez to help him divert funds and weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). Rodriguez agrees to set up the servicing of CIA transport planes and other aircraft at the Ilopango Air Base in San Salvador, El Salvador. Rodriguez works out of Ilopango, helping the Salvadoran Air Force in its own counter-insurgency activities. Rodriguez was placed at Ilopango by Donald Gregg, a former CIA agent who now serves as the foreign policy adviser to Vice President Bush (see March 17, 1983). While in El Salvador, Rodriguez uses the alias “Max Gomez.” [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: National Security Council, Donald Gregg, Felix Rodriguez, George Herbert Walker Bush, Oliver North, Central Intelligence Agency, Contras

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

The first meeting of the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office (NHAO) is held. Two aides to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see April 19, 1985 and After and September 4, 1985) attend the meeting. During the meeting, National Security Council (NSC) officer Oliver North offers the services of former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez to assist in distributing the $27 million in humanitarian aid recently approved for the Contras (see August 1985). Rodriguez is helping North channel illegal funds to the Contras (see Mid-September 1985). The agreement is to channel the funds to the Contras through El Salvador’s Ilopango Air Base, Rodriguez’s center of operations. By early 1986, the legal NHAO fund distribution will merge with the illegal North fund distribution (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993] Some of the $27 million is never used for humanitarian purposes, but instead used to buy weapons, both for the Contras and for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/28/2007]

Entity Tags: Oliver North, Elliott Abrams, Felix Rodriguez, Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office, Contras, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Retired Air Force Major General Richard Secord becomes deeply involved in organizing a covert supply operation for Nicaragua’s Contras under the name “Airlift Project.” Secord later testifies to the Congressional Iran-Contra Committee that the project’s money comes from private donations and friendly foreign governments. [New York Times, 11/19/1987]

Entity Tags: Contras, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Richard Secord

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see April 19, 1985 and After) joins the National Security Council (NSC)‘s Oliver North and the CIA’s Central American Task Force chief Alan Fiers as the principal members of a Restricted Interagency Group (RIG) which works on Central American affairs for the Reagan administration. Abrams, a staunch supporter of Nicaragua’s Contras, becomes aware of North’s machinations to divert US funds to the Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986) in spite of Congress’s prohibition on such funding (see October 10, 1984). Abrams will also become directly involved in secret, illegal efforts to secure funding for the Contras from other nations (see June 11, 1986). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Restricted Interagency Group, Contras, Oliver North, Elliott Abrams, Alan Fiers

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

President Reagan signs legislation that bans arms sales to nations that support terrorism (such as Iran), and strengthens US anti-terrorism measures. [PBS, 2000] The law, entitled the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 [White House, 8/27/1986] , does not halt the Reagan administration’s sales of arms and weapons to Iran; the arms sales go forward in spite of the law explicitly prohibiting them (see September 19, 1986, Early October-November, 1986, October 5, 1986, Early November, 1986, and November 3, 1986).

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Terry Waite.Terry Waite. [Source: BBC]Negotiations between Iran and the US for more arms sales hit another snag, with the Iranians merely releasing some American hostages and kidnapping more (see September 19, 1986). CIA Director William Casey decides to reprise the earlier strategy of exhorting Iraq to escalate its air strikes against Iran, thus forcing Iran to turn to the US for more military aid (see July 23, 1986). Casey secretly meets with two high-level Iraqi officials, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Iraq’s ambassador to the US, Nizaar Hamdoon, to urge that the Iraqis once again intensify their bombing runs deep into Iranian territory. The Iraqis comply. But the Iranians’ return to the bargaining table is complicated by the October 5 shooting down of a CIA transport plane in Nicaragua, and the capture by the Sandinistas of the lone survivor, a cargo hauler named Eugene Hasenfus, who tells his captors of the US involvement with the Nicaraguan Contras (see October 5, 1986). Soon after, the Iranians release a single American hostage, but the Hasenfus revelation is followed by that of the Iran-US arms-for-hostages deals by a Lebanese newspaper, Al Shiraa (see November 3, 1986), and similar reports by US news organizations. With the public now aware of these embarrassing and potentially criminal acts by the Reagan administration, support for Iran within the administration collapses, most of the pro-Iranian officials leave government service, and the pro-Iraqi wing of the executive branch, led by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz, wins out. The closing months of the Reagan administration will feature a marked tilt towards Iraq in the war between Iraq and Iran. The Reagan administration will, in coming months, provide Iraq with a remarkable amount of military and economic aid, including technology to develop long-range ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and even nuclear weapons. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992] Interestingly, one of the terrorist groups holding American hostages, the Islamic Jihad Organization (a group closely affiliated with Hezbollah and not the group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri), who released American captive David Jacobson in early November, urged the US to “proceed with current approaches that could lead, if continued, to a solution of the hostages issue.” Reagan officials publicly deny that anyone in the US government has made any “approaches” to Iran or anyone else. As a side note, the release of Jacobson also shows the efforts of Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former hostage himself, to facilitate the release of the hostages in a different light. Waite’s untiring efforts have obviously been sincere, but never as effective as publicly portrayed. Instead, both the US and Iran have used Waite’s efforts as cover for their secret negotiations. One Israeli official calls Waite’s efforts the “cellophane wrapping” around the hostage releases. He says: “You cannot deliver a gift package unwrapped. That is why there will be no more hostage releases until he returns to the region.” (Waite has temporarily suspended his attempts to free the hostages, complaining about being used as a pawn in international power games.) [Time, 11/17/1986]

Entity Tags: Terry Waite, William Casey, Reagan administration, George Shultz, Islamic Jihad Organization, David Jacobson, Caspar Weinberger, Al Shiraa, Nizaar Hamdoon, Eugene Hasenfus, Hezbollah

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

Eugene Hasenfus sits among the weapons captured from his downed cargo plane. His Sandinista captors surround him.Eugene Hasenfus sits among the weapons captured from his downed cargo plane. His Sandinista captors surround him. [Source: Nancy McGirr / Reuters / Corbis]A CIA C-123 transport plane (see November 19, 1985) is shot down in southern Nicaragua by a Sandinista soldier wielding a surface-to-air missile. The transport plane left an airfield in El Salvador with arms and other supplies intended for the Nicaraguan Contras. Three crew members—US pilots William Cooper and Wallace Sawyer, Jr, and an unidentified Latin American—die in the crash, but one, a “cargo kicker” named Eugene Hasenfus, ignores CIA orders and parachutes to safety—and capture by the Sandinistas. Hasenfus is a construction worker from Wisconsin who signed on to do temporary work with CIA contractors, and has no intention of “going down with the plane.” The next day, newspapers around the world run stories with Hasenfus’s face peering out from their front pages.
Reveals US's Arming of Contras - The Hasenfus shoot-down will break the news of the Reagan administration’s secret arming of the Contras in their attempt to bring down the democratically elected Socialist government of Nicaragua. [New York Times, 11/19/1987; Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 64]
Damage Control - Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see Late 1985 and After) is the designated US spokesman on the Hasenfus shootdown. Abrams coordinates with his fellow Contra supporters, the NSC’s Oliver North and the CIA’s Alan Fiers, and with the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, on how to handle the situation. Between the three, they coordinate a denial from the Salvadoran military about any Salvadoran or US involvement in the Hasenfus flight. As for themselves, they agree not to flatly lie about anything, because they cannot be sure of what Hasenfus will say, but they agree to remain as quiet as possible and hope the media sensation surrounding Hasenfus dies down with little long-term effect. According to notes taken by Corr during one meeting, everyone knows that a leak—“eventually someone in USG [the US government] will finally acknowledge some ‘winking.’ Salv role now more public”—is inevitable. It is eventually decided that the Contras themselves will take all responsibility for the flight. Fiers worries that the flight will be connected to previous humanitarian aid supplied to the Contras (see October 1985). They also confirm that Felix Rodriguez, North’s liaison to the Contras in Central America (see Mid-September 1985), is in Miami, hiding from the press. Hasenfus will later acknowledge making at least ten supply flights into Nicaragua (see October 9, 1986). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Central Intelligence Agency, Elliott Abrams, Contras, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

CIA cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus, in the custody of Nicaraguan officials after his transport plane filled with weapons and supplies for the Contras was shot down (see October 5, 1986), publicly states that he had made ten other trips to ferry arms and supplies to the Contras. Six of those were from the Ilopango airfield in El Salvador (see Mid-September 1985). He also states that he worked closely with two CIA agents, “Max Gomez” and “Ramon Medina.” “Gomez” is actually Felix Rodriguez, who serves as the liaison between the Contras and National Security Council officer Oliver North. “Medina” is another CIA operative, Rafael Quintero. Hasenfus says that Gomez and Medina oversaw the housing for the crews, transportation, refueling, and flight plans. The same day as Hasenfus’s public statement, Nicaraguan officials reveal that one of Hasenfus’s crew members, who died in the crash, carried cards issued by the Salvadoran Air Force identifying them as US advisers. And, the Nicaraguans claim, one of the crew members had a business card identifying him as an official with the US’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office (NHAO—see October 1985). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993; Spartacus Schoolnet, 12/29/2007]

Entity Tags: Felix Rodriguez, Contras, Eugene Hasenfus, Rafael Quintero, Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office, Oliver North

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams is interviewed by conservative columnist Robert Novak and Novak’s partner, Rowland Evans. Novak, who is openly sympathetic to the Nicaraguan Contras, asks Abrams about his knowledge of the connections between the US government and the Contras as revealed by the downing of a CIA transport plane over Nicaragua (see October 5, 1986). Abrams, who provides false testimony to Congress today and in the following days, tells a similar story to Novak. Abrams goes further with Novak than he does with Congress, denying that any such person as “Max Gomez,” the CIA liaison to the Contras, even exists (Gomez is actually former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez—see October 10-15, 1986). “Whoever that gentleman is, he certainly isn’t named Max Gomez,” Abrams notes. Abrams also denies that “Gomez” has any connection to Vice President Bush (see October 11-14, 1986). Abrams adds that whoever this “Gomez” is, “he is not on the US government payroll in any way.” Novak asks if Rodriguez has any connection to the National Security Council or any other government agency, and Abrams says: “I am not playing games.… No government agencies, none.” In June 1987, Abrams will admit that he lied to Novak. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Rowland Evans, Contras, Elliott Abrams, Robert Novak, National Security Council, Felix Rodriguez

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

The Reagan administration, reeling from the revelation that it has illegally armed the Nicaraguan Contras (see October 5, 1986), attempts to conceal its workings in Nicaragua. In a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, joined by CIA officials, assures committee members that the US government is not involved in supplying the Contras. According to the witnesses, the CIA claims it had nothing to do with Eugene Hasenfus, the cargo handler who survived the recent downing of a CIA transport plane and in doing so revealed the existence of the illegal arms deals. Supposedly, the only involvement by US officials was to offer public encouragement. The committee Democrats do not believe anything Abrams or the CIA officials say, but at least one committee member, Dick Cheney (R-WY) offers his support. According to the summary written by the administration staffer taking notes that day, “Mr. Cheney said he found our ignorance credible.” There is far more going on than the committee Democrats know—or than Cheney will tell them. For years, Cheney has been urging Congress to authorize aid to the Contras, but the majority Democrats have been inconsistent in their support. As authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein will later characterize the situation, Abrams, a self-described former socialist turned enthusiastic neoconservative, and others in the administration, such as National Security Council staffer Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, have now taken matters into their own hands (see October 5, 1986), in direct violation of US law. Committee Democrats are as yet unaware that Reagan officials such as North have also been negotiating arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, in a covert three-way deal involving Iran, the US, and the Contras (see November 3, 1986). [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Central Intelligence Agency, Contras, Elliott Abrams, Reagan administration, Oliver North, House Intelligence Committee, Lou Dubose, Jake Bernstein, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Ronald Reagan speaks to the nation.Ronald Reagan speaks to the nation. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]President Reagan addresses the nation on the Iran-Contra issue (see October 5, 1986 and November 3, 1986). “I know you’ve been reading, seeing, and hearing a lot of stories the past several days attributed to Danish sailors (see Early November, 1986), unnamed observers at Italian ports and Spanish harbors, and especially unnamed government officials of my administration,” he says. “Well, now you’re going to hear the facts from a White House source, and you know my name.” But despite his direct introduction, Reagan presents the same half-truths, denials, and outright lies that his officials have been providing to Congress and the press (see Mid-October, 1986 and November 10, 1986 and After).
'Honorable' Involvement - He admits to an 18-month “secret diplomatic initiative” with Iran, for several “honorable” reasons: to renew relations with that nation, to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war, to eliminate Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, and to effect the release of the US hostages being imprisoned by Hezbollah. He calls the press reports “rumors,” and says, “[L]et’s get to the facts.”
Falsehoods Presented as Facts - The US has not swapped weapons to Iran for hostages, Reagan asserts. However, evidence suggests otherwise (see January 28, 1981, 1983, 1985, May 1985, June 11, 1985, July 3, 1985, July 8, 1985, August 6, 1985, September 15, 1985, December 6, 1985, December 12, 1985, Mid-1980s, January 7, 1986, January 17, 1986, Late May, 1986, September 19, 1986, and Early October-November, 1986). Reagan also claims the US has not “trafficked with terrorists,” although Iran is listed as a sponsor of terrorism by the State Department. It “has not swapped boatloads or planeloads of American weapons for the return of American hostages. And we will not.” Reports of Danish and Spanish vessels carrying secret arms shipments, of Italian ports employed to facilitate arms transfers, and of the US sending spare parts and weapons for Iranian combat aircraft, all are “quite exciting, but… not one of them is true.” Reagan does admit to his authorization of “the transfer of small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts for defensive systems to Iran,” merely as a gesture of goodwill. “These modest deliveries, taken together, could easily fit into a single cargo plane,” he says. (In reality, the US has already sent over 1,000 missiles to Iran over the course of a number of shipments.) He says the US made it clear to Iran that for any dialogue to continue, it must immediately cease its support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, and to facilitate the release of US hostages held by that group in Lebanon. Evidence exists, Reagan says, of the Iranians ramping down their support of terrorism. And some hostages have already been freed, a true statement, though he fails to mention that others have been taken.
Admission of May Meeting - Reagan admits that former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane met with Iranian officials (see Late May, 1986). According to Reagan, McFarlane went to Iraq “to open a dialog, making stark and clear our basic objectives and disagreements.” He presents no further information about the meeting, except that the talks were “civil” and “American personnel were not mistreated.”
Exposure Risks Undermining Efforts to Facilitate Peace - The public disclosure of these “honorable” negotiations has put the entire US efforts to broker peace between Iran and Iraq in jeopardy, he says. In negotiations such as these, there is “a basic requirement for discretion and for a sensitivity to the situation in the nation we were attempting to engage.”
Reagan Says Congress Not Lied to - Reagan says that there is no truth to the stories that his officials ever lied to members of Congress about the Iranian negotiations (see Mid-October, 1986). The members of Congress who needed to know about the negotiations were informed, as were the “appropriate Cabinet officers” and others “with a strict need to know.” Since the story has now broken, “the relevant committees of Congress are being, and will be, fully informed.” [Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 11/13/1986; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 65-66]

Entity Tags: US Congress, Robert C. McFarlane, Hezbollah, Contras, Ronald Reagan, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who has already lied repeatedly under oath to Congress about third-party funding of the Contras (see October 10-14, 1986), lies again to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his knowledge of any such funding (see August 9-19, 1986). Appearing before the committee with senior CIA official Alan Fiers, who has himself lied to Congress about the same activities, Abrams tells the committee: “Well, we—after the Hasenfus shootdown (see October 5, 1986) we were asked about, you know, what did you know about the funding of Hasenfus and his operation. And the answer here is the same answer. That is, that we knew there were private contributions coming in, because they sure weren’t surviving on the money that we were giving them, which at one time was nothing and then the 27 million came along (see August 1985). So there was money coming in. But there was no reason to think it was coming from foreign governments, and I certainly did not inquire as to which individuals it was coming from.” Abrams denies ever discussing third-party funding with anyone on the National Security Council staff, which would include Oliver North, Abrams’s partner in the $10 million Brunei deal (see June 11, 1986). A frankly disbelieving Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) says: “Well, you would say gee, they got a lot of problems, they don’t have any money. Then you would just sit there and say, what are we going to do? They don’t have any money. You never said, you know, maybe we could get the money this way?” Abrams replies: “No.… We’re not—you know, we’re not in the fundraising business.” Two weeks later, Abrams will “correct” his testimony, but will still insist that he knows nothing of any such third-party funding. [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Bill Bradley, Alan Fiers, Oliver North, Senate Intelligence Committee, Elliott Abrams, Contras

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says that before the Iran-Contra revelations of October 1986 (see October 5, 1986, October 10-15, 1986, and October 11-14, 1986) he had never even heard of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, the liaison between the Nicaraguan Contras and the National Security Council (see Mid-September 1985). As he has done so many times before, Abrams is lying. When he took his position in July 1985 (see April 19, 1985 and After), Rodriguez was already working out of the Ilopango airfield in El Salvador. Notes taken by the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, indicate that Abrams knew of Rodriguez by September 1985 at the latest (see September 4, 1985). During that month, Abrams and Corr discussed Rodriguez in at least one meeting. (Corr will later say he cannot recall any such meeting.) Rodriguez was also a frequent topic of discussion in meetings held in late 1985 by the Restricted Interagency Group (RIG—see Late 1985 and After) chaired by Abrams. And Abrams was aware of concerns within the government about Rodriguez’s involvement in disbursing humanitarian funds allocated by the US Congress to the Contras (see October 1985). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Elliott Abrams, Contras, Edwin Corr, Restricted Interagency Group, Felix Rodriguez, National Security Council, House Foreign Affairs Committee

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Felix Rodriguez, in US Army uniform.Felix Rodriguez, in US Army uniform. [Source: Cuba Informazione]CIA operative Felix Rodriguez testifies before the Iran-Contra committee (see May 5, 1987). Rodriguez, a Cuban exile and former US Army officer, is notorious for his involvement in the execution of South American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1967. Rodriguez also ran covert assassination operations for the CIA during the Vietnam War. Rodriguez’s connection to the White House was through Donald Gregg, the national security adviser to Vice President Bush (see March 17, 1983). Gregg had helped station Rodriguez at an airport in El Salvador, where Rodriguez could, under the pseudonym “Max Gomez,” manage the Contra resupply operation for Oliver North and Richard Secord (see Mid-September 1985 and November 19, 1985). CIA cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus (see October 5, 1986) told his Sandinista captors that “Max Gomez” was his contact with the CIA. Rodriguez’s testimony is potentially explosive, but committee member Dick Cheney (R-WY) has no interest in eliciting any such infomation. Instead, he invites Rodriguez to launch a well-scripted diatribe against allowing the Soviet Union to establish a Communist foothold in Latin America. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 73-74]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Richard Secord, Central Intelligence Agency, Felix Rodriguez, Donald Gregg, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Oliver North

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Investigative journalist Robert Parry speaks at a conference in Heidelberg, Germany concerning the progression of journalism from the 1970s to the present. Parry tells the gathering that American investigative journalism may have hit something of a zenith in the 1970s, with the media exposure of the Pentagon Papers (see March 1971) and the Watergate scandal (see August 8, 1974). “That was a time when US journalism perhaps was at its best, far from perfect, but doing what the Founders had in mind when they afforded special protections to the American press,” he says. “In the 1970s, besides the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, there were other important press disclosures, like the My Lai massacre story and the CIA abuses—from Iran to Guatemala, from Cuba to Chile. For people around the world, American journalism was the gold standard. Granted, that was never the full picture. There were shortcomings even in the 1970s. You also could argue that the US news media’s performance then was exceptional mostly in contrast to its failures during the Cold War, when reporters tended to be stenographers to power, going along to get along, including early in the Vietnam War.” However, those days are long past, Parry notes, and in recent years, American journalism has, he says, gone “terribly wrong.” Parry says that the American press was subjected to an orchestrated program of propaganda and manipulation on a par with what the CIA did in many foreign countries: “Think how the CIA would target a country with the goal of shoring up a wealthy oligarchy. The agency might begin by taking over influential media outlets or starting its own. It would identify useful friends and isolate troublesome enemies. It would organize pro-oligarchy political groups. It would finance agit-prop specialists skilled at undermining and discrediting perceived enemies. If the project were successful, you would expect the oligarchy to consolidate its power, to get laws written in its favor. And eventually the winners would take a larger share of the nation’s wealth. And what we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States was something like the behavior of an embattled oligarchy. Nixon’s embittered allies and the Right behaved as if they were following a CIA script. They built fronts; they took over and opened new media outlets; they spread propaganda; they discredited people who got in the way; ultimately, they consolidated power; they changed laws in their favor; and—over the course of several decades—they made themselves even richer, indeed a lot richer, and that, in turn, has translated into even more power.”
Building a Base - Right-wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers (see 1979-1980) and Richard Mellon Scaife, along with Nixon-era figures such as former Treasury Secretary William Simon (a Wall Street investment banker who ran the right-wing Olin Foundation) worked to organize conservative foundations; their money went into funding what Parry calls “right-wing media… right-wing think tanks… [and] right-wing attack groups. Some of these attack groups were set up to go after troublesome reporters.” Parry finds it ironic, in light of the CIA’s interference in the affairs of other nations, that two foreign media moguls, Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch, were key figures in building and financing this conservative media construct. Some media outlets, such as Fox News (see Summer 1970 and October 7, 1996), were created from scratch, while others, such as the venerable and formerly liberal New Republic, were bought out and taken over by conservatives. When Ronald Reagan ascended to the White House, Parry says, he brought along with him “a gifted team of [public relations] and ad men.” Vice President George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, enabled access to that agency’s propaganda professionals. And Reagan named William Casey to head the CIA; Casey, a former Nixon administration official, was “obsessed [with] the importance of deception and propaganda,” Parry says. “Casey understood that he who controlled the flow of information had a decisive advantage in any conflict.”
Two-Pronged Attack - Two key sources of information for Washington media insiders were targeted, Parry says: the “fiercely independent” CIA analytical division, whose analyses had so often proven damaging to White House plans when reported, and the “unruly” Washington press corps. Casey targeted the CIA analysts, placing his young assistant, Robert Gates, in charge of the analytical division; Gates’s reorganization drove many troublesome analysts into early retirement, to be replaced with more malleable analysts who would echo the White House’s hard line against “Soviet expansionism.” Another Casey crony, Walter Raymond Jr., worked to corral the Washington press corps from his position on the National Security Council. Raymond headed an interagency task force that ostensibly spread “good news” about American policies in the foreign press, but in reality worked to smear and besmirch American journalists who the White House found troubling. According to Parry, “Secret government documents that later emerged in the Iran-Contra scandal revealed that Raymond’s team worked aggressively and systematically to lobby news executives and turn them against their reporters when the reporters dug up information that clashed with Reagan’s propaganda, especially in hot spots like Central America.” It was easy to discredit female journalists in Central America, Parry says; Raymond’s team would spread rumors that they were secretly having sexual liaisons with Communist officials. Other reporters were dismissed as “liberals,” a label that many news executives were eager to avoid. Working through the news executives was remarkably successful, Parry says, and it was not long before many Washington reporters were either brought to heel or marginalized.
'Perception Management' - Reagan’s team called its domestic propaganda scheme “perception management.” Parry says: “The idea was that if you could manage how the American people perceived events abroad, you could not only insure their continued support of the foreign policy, but in making the people more compliant domestically. A frightened population is much easier to control. Thus, if you could manage the information flows inside the government and inside the Washington press corps, you could be more confident that there would be no more Vietnam-style protests. No more Pentagon Papers. No more My Lai massacre disclosures. No more Watergates.” The New York Times and Washington Post, the newspapers that had led the surge of investigative reporting in the 1970s, were effectively muzzled during the Reagan era; Parry says that the two papers “became more solicitous to the Establishment than they were committed to the quality journalism that had contributed to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.” The same happened at the Associated Press (AP), where Parry had attempted, with limited success, to dig into the Reagan administration’s Central American policies, policies that would eventually crystallize into the Iran-Contra scandal (see May 5, 1987). Few newspapers followed the lead of AP reporters such as Parry and Brian Barger until late 1986, when the Hasenfus air crash provided a news story that editors could no longer ignore (see October 5, 1986). But, Parry says, by the time of the Iran-Contra hearings, few news providers, including the Associated Press, had the stomach for another scandal that might result in another impeachment, particularly in light of the relentless pressure coming from the Reagan administration and its proxies. By June 1990, Parry says he understood “the concept of ‘perception management’ had carried the day in Washington, with remarkably little resistance from the Washington press corps.… Washington journalists had reverted to their pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate inability to penetrate important government secrets in a significant way.” The process accelerated after 9/11, Parry says: “[M]any journalists reverted back their earlier roles as stenographers to power. They also became cheerleaders for a misguided war in Iraq. Indeed, you can track the arc of modern American journalism from its apex at the Pentagon Papers and Watergate curving downward to that center point of Iran-Contra before reaching the nadir of Bush’s war in Iraq. Journalists found it hard even to challenge Bush when he was telling obvious lies. For instance, in June 2003, as the search for WMD came up empty, Bush began to tell reporters that he had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein had refused to let UN inspectors in. Though everyone knew that Hussein had let the inspectors in and that it was Bush who had forced them to leave in March 2003, not a single reporter confronted Bush on this lie, which he repeated again and again right through his exit interviews in 2008” (see November 2002-March 2003, November 25, 2002, December 2, 2002, December 5, 2002, January 9, 2003, March 7, 2003, and March 17, 2003).
The Wikileaks Era and the 'Fawning Corporate Media' - Parry says that now, the tough-minded independent media has been all but supplanted by what former CIA analyst Ray McGovern calls the “Fawning Corporate Media.” This has increased public distrust of the media, which has led to people seeking alternative investigative and reporting methods. Parry comments that much of the real investigative journalism happening now is the product of non-professionals working outside the traditional media structure, such as Wikileaks (see February 15, 2007, 2008, and April 18, 2009). However, the independent media have not demonstrated they can reach the level of influence of institutions like the Washington Post and the New York Times. “[I]f we were assessing how well the post-Watergate CIA-style covert operation worked,” Parry says, “we’d have to conclude that it was remarkably successful. Even after George W. Bush took the United States to war in Iraq under false pretenses and even after he authorized the torture of detainees in the ‘war on terror,’ no one involved in those decisions has faced any accountability at all. When high-flying Wall Street bankers brought the world’s economy to its knees with risky gambles in 2008, Western governments used trillions of dollars in public moneys to bail the bankers out. But not one senior banker faced prosecution.… Another measure of how the post-Watergate counteroffensive succeeded would be to note how very well America’s oligarchy had done financially in the past few decades. Not only has political power been concentrated in their hands, but the country’s wealth, too.… So, a sad but—I think—fair conclusion would be that at least for the time being, perception management has won out over truth. But the struggle over information and democracy has entered another new and unpredictable phase.” [Consortium News, 5/15/2012]

Entity Tags: Fox News, David Koch, Washington Post, William Casey, William Simon, Central Intelligence Agency, Associated Press, The New Republic, Sun Myung Moon, Walter Raymond, Jr, Ronald Reagan, New York Times, George W. Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Parry, Ray McGovern, Robert M. Gates, Olin Foundation, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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