It was the summer of 1985 and John Lantigua, then The Washington Post's Nicaragua stringer, discovered he had a new nickname, at least among American right-wingers: "Johnny Sandinista."
For many senior politicos in the Reagan Administration, Nicaragua was a black and white issue. If you weren't pro-Contra and anti-Sandinista, you were a dupe of two malevolent forces: What one senior official euphemistically called "the source" of evil in this hemisphere -- Cuba -- and the power behind Cuba that then Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey held was the center of all world terrorism and subversion: the Soviet Union.
John Lantigua's reporting didn't reflect such a Manichean worldview, and for that, the Administration would try to smear him and others who didn't "come on-side." In a "report" produced by the far-right "media watchdog" group Accuracy in Media, Daniel James -- identified only as a "Latin America expert," but, in fact, a longtime CIA contract propagandist -- reported that, according to unnamed U.S. government officials, Lantigua was being furnished with live-in female Sandinista sex slaves in exchange for penning Sandinista agitprop.
To those who covered Central America, the charges were absurd: Not only was Lantigua living with his American fiancée, but he was in the middle of a freeze-out by the Sandinistas, who, along with the Reagan Administration, sometimes found Lantigua's reporting to be inconvenient. Lantigua got a kick out of the item, assuming that it had originated with Otto Reich, a particularly ideological State Department official who Lantigua and his Newsday colleague Morris Thompson had met for lunch when Reich had made a brief visit to Managua. (Both Lantigua and Thompson remember the lunch as an unhappy experience for Reich: Thompson recalls Reich "loudly announcing things as fact about the Sandinistas' actions and polices that in fact were not true," which, Lantigua says, prompted a polite but persistent Thompson to "do a verbal tap dance on the guy.")
A few weeks later, Sharon Churcher, then New York Magazine's Intelligencer columnist, confirmed Lantigua's suspicions, revealing that Reich, described as "the administration's point man for Latin America," was "questioning the patriotism of reporters who don't toe the official line." This time, however, Reich went on-the-record, citing "defectors from the Sandinista government" as his sources for the sex slaves item. Characterizing the life of the Managua reporters as "sordid," he also added -- in what seemed to be a swipe at Thompson, who is gay -- that "for gay reporters, there are Sandinista men."
According to Reich's critics, the aforementioned tale sums up just about everything you need to know about the man: an extreme right-wing ideologue who, in the service of pushing his agenda, won't hesitate to warp reality, using classic psychological warfare tools of disinformation and innuendo. Digging into Reich's activities of the past 20 years, it's difficult to prove his critics wrong; from stints as an Oliver North associate during Iran-Contra to lobbying for Bacardi to helping write the dingy Helms-Burton Act (which props up a 40-year anti-Cuban embargo the rest of the world sees as bizarrely petulant) and being a shill for sweatshops, Reich's entire career looms as a monument to an almost sublime fusion of skillful spinning and right-wing advocacy.
Which is probably not what the U.S. needs in its next Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the position to which George W. Bush has nominated Reich. "This is a guy whose abrasive ideological approach is not highly regarded in diplomatic circles -- he's the wrong person to take charge at this critical moment," says Bill Goodfellow, at the Center for International Policy. "There is no sign he understands how nuanced policy and regional cooperation will be required to avoid deepening war in Colombia, and to deal with political instability throughout the Andean region. Reich's polarizing influence will make it harder to pursue U.S. interests in promoting social justice, achieving regional demilitarization, addressing the explosive situation in Colombia, and in simply doing business."
Especially in Cuba. "He's obsessed with actually tightening the blockade, which hasn't worked for 40 years, doesn't show any
signs of working, and does nothing but breed contempt for U.S. diplomacy in Latin America," says Goodfellow.
In short, George W. Bush has plucked a public servant from a milieu marked by subterfuge, extremism, and political bullying, and assigned him to a sensitive diplomatic post. If that sounds only typical of some of Bush's appointments to date, well, Reich is probably worse. (He's also a favorite of Senator Jesse Helms, chair of the foreign relations committee that will vote to confirm or negate Reich's nomination.) Though The Washington Post and other publications have alluded in passing to the man's cloak-and-dagger Cold War background, the fact that his nomination has thus far inspired only muted outrage means that perhaps the time has come for a fuller recounting of just what Reich and his cronies did during the 1980s.
The Ambassador of Propaganda
The White House of April 10, 1984, was supposed to be the site of a pleasant historic occasion: the first state dinner for a visiting president of the Dominican Republic. But as the evening's guests arrived at the East Gate, senior national security staffers were reeling from a punishing day that included a more dubious historical distinction: the Republican-controlled Senate -- the first such in decades -- had overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the Administration for its role in mining Nicaragua's harbors.
The story had been breaking since the beginning of the year. But with The New York Times reporting days earlier that a CIA-Contra unit had done the dirty work, and that the Reagan team was drawing up political, and possibility military, contingency plans for further action in Central America, a public relations nightmare had erupted. President Reagan's spinmeisters tried to move quickly and decisively, dispatching Casey and Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam to the Hill in a vain effort to placate a surly Senate, and releasing a letter signed by Casey, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Schultz contending that Congress had been fully briefed about Central American operations.
The Senate begged to differ, however, voting 84-12 for a Ted Kennedy-sponsored resolution castigating the mining operation.
The rebuke was stunning: Howard Baker and Ted Stevens, the GOP's respective majority leader and whip, cast their lots against the administration, as did Reagan's best friend in the Senate, Paul Laxalt; even Barry Goldwater made no secret of his rage.
Critics piled on from all sides. In addition to the Republicans, major Democratic guns like Patrick Leahy, Tip O'Neill and ex-President Jimmy Carter were firing broadsides over not just the mining, but over the Administration's announcement that it
wouldn't respect a likely unfavorable judgment by the World Court, where the Nicaraguans had filed a claim against the U.S. At the dinner, Reagan was seemingly nonchalant -- "If it's not binding, I can live with it," he said of the resolution -- but as the likes of Brooke Shields, Donald Rumsfeld, Oscar de La Renta, George Schultz, Tommy Lasorda' and Jeanne Kirkpatrick listened to the crooning of Wayne Newton, the president had a quiet word with Otto Reich.
Reagan told Reich he was growing increasingly concerned about what he held was "uneven coverage" of Central America. One piece in particular stuck in his mind, a bit from CBS News that showed, according to a memo Reich later wrote for Schultz's signature, what Reagan said was "film purchased from a Cuban crew showing only farm machinery being unloaded from a Soviet freighter which we knew was also carrying weapons." Reich was hardly surprised by Reagan's state of consternation; he knew from Thomas Pickering, then US Ambassador to El Salvador, that both Reagan and Vice President George Bush "were upset" about another recent CBS News endeavor, a two-part documentary called Behind Rebel Lines. Hearing the Gipper loud and clear, Reich set to work immediately.
Though he carried the title of ambassador-at-large, Reich had never been a diplomat before, and few would see him as one now, at least in the traditional sense of the word. The son of a Cuban mother and Austrian Jewish father who had taken refuge from Hitler in Havana, Reich's family had left Cuba sometime after Castro decreed himself jefe maximo. Unlike many in the Cuban exile community, the family settled not in Miami, but North Carolina. After stints in the army, grad school, the Hill and Florida government, in 1976 Reich would become the Washington director of David Rockefeller's Council of the Americas.
Initially entering the Reagan Administration as Deputy Director of the Agency for International Development (AID) for Latin America, Reich left AID in July of 1983 after being specifically requested, according to two May 1983 National Security Council (NSC) memos, for a new job by a veteran CIA agent, Walter Raymond, Jr., whose specialty was propaganda and disinformation. In July of 1982, at the behest of CIA Director William Casey, Raymond assumed a post on the
NSC staff as "senior director of international communications and information." What this amounted to was applying covert tradecraft to media coverage of foreign affairs in the service of Reagan's policy objectives.
In early 1983, Raymond began to mull over plans for a new Central America initiative, which he fleshed out in an August 1983 memo to National Security Adviser William Clark. "The overall purpose would be to sell a 'new product' -- Central America," Raymond wrote. The Administration approach to the region had been "disinterested, incompetent, overworked, or all of the above," he observed. "We must move out into the middle sector of the American public and draw them into the 'support column'."
Taking part in this effort would be a new, revamped U.S. State Department Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), previously a one-man operation staffed by former U.S. Senator Richard Stone. On July 5, 1983, Reich was announced as the new head of OPD. Publicly, he was characterized to the Associated Press as a "special advisor to George Schultz" who would "report directly to Schultz." Despite Reich's later contentions that this was in fact the case, nothing could have been farther from the truth. In one memo, Raymond cautioned Clark that the State Department would not take kindly to "Public Diplomacy's representatives being presidential representatives." Right he was: Upon being informed of OPD's role in the new Central American publicity initiative, George Schultz pleaded with Reagan in both memos and meetings with Reagan, to be the "sole representative" directly under Reagan charged with coordinating Central American policy. Reagan's response was to send Schultz a flow chart that had the Secretary of State not directly under the President, but the NSC. "No single agency," Reagan wrote Schultz, could take point on the task; better to run it as an interagency working group reporting to NSC. Which, in the case of OPD, meant reporting to Walt Raymond.
The Case of the Phantom MiGs
In a 1989 interview with UPI, Reich recalled that as the Nicaragua harbor-mining story broke in early April of 1984, he was in Canada flacking for the Administration's Central America policy. Not only was he unaware of the plot, he told UPI, but he was shocked and concerned as he dug into the plot's history: "As I read the cables, I said to myself, 'I've got to get out of this,''' he told the wire service.
According to an April 15 memo Reich drafted for Schultz's signature, however, he wasn't so overwrought that he couldn't
continue to extol the Administration line. After his Wayne Newton-soundtracked conversation with the president, Reich called on the CBS News bureau where, he later reported, he spent nearly an hour analyzing and objecting to CBS's Central America coverage. CBS's diplomatic correspondent "took copious notes," Reich wrote, and, after a two hour meeting with then-bureau chief Jack Smith, set up another meeting in which he would take the network to task as all assembled watched Behind Rebel Lines. "This is one example of what the Office of Public Diplomacy has been doing," Reich wrote. "It has been repeated dozens of times over the past few months. It is a very slow and arduous effort to try to show the networks that they are not illustrating to the American people an accurate picture of what is happening in Central America."
Reich added that OPD was working hard to "dispel the disinformation and misinformation" about Central America. The
Miami Herald would later discover, however, that far from dispelling bunk, OPD was spreading it around. In a December 21, 1986 article, the newspaper reported that OPD -- in addition to serving as a conduit for sexy-but-less-than-accurate documents declassified by Oliver North and fed to hungry journalists in the service of building up the "Nicaraguan threat" -- had also stoked the fires of a phony story from two years earlier that had sophisticated Soviet fighter aircraft bound for Nicaragua.
On November 6, 1984, CBS national security correspondent David Martin filed a brief item, read on the CBS Evening News, reporting that U.S. intelligence had picked up signs that the Soviet Union might be sending MiG fighter planes to Nicaragua. Martin's sources didn't say they had hard evidence, but confirmed that satellites had picked up what looked to be MiG crates on a dock at a Black Sea port that had been loaded on a ship destined for Nicaragua.
"The next morning at Reagan's victory press conference," recalls Martin, "Sam Donaldson got up and asked, 'Are the Soviets really sending Mig-21's to Cuba?' and Reagan said, 'We don't know,' which was a perfectly accurate statement. And the story went bonkers from there."
The Nicaraguan elections were taking place about the same time as in the U.S., and for weeks, OPD had been waging a stealthy PR campaign to undermine the credibility of the Sandinista plebiscite. Martin says his sources for his report did not come from OPD; in fact, he says, one of OPD's military detailees tried to dissuade him from running the report, telling him that it was impossible, and that "there's no way the Russians would do something that stupid." It's possible Martin's sources were leaked information directly from Oliver North; whatever the case, OPD took full advantage of the situation: The Miami Herald would later discover that OPD quickly set up over two dozen "background briefings" for journalists buttressing the notion that the MiGs were en route.
Over on the Soviet desk in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence (DI), senior analyst Mel Goodman and others couldn't believe what they were seeing in the press. "We had good intelligence that they weren't going to ship any MiGs," says Goodman. "They'd already been warned about doing this by Schultz, and their view was, if we have bombers in Cuba, why risk putting them in Nicaragua?" Goodman later sent a memo to this effect to DI Chief Robert Gates, who responded with a note saying the CIA, "shouldn't stick its neck out on this." Goodman's memo never made it off Gates' desk.
Well before the MiG story broke, analysts over in the DI's Central America division and the National Intelligence Council (NIC) were also marveling at what was unfolding before their eyes. One of them, David MacMichael, would leave Langley with an exceptionally bad taste in his mouth. A veteran academic researcher who had also been an on-again, off-again analyst for various U.S. intelligence agencies, MacMichael had been brought to the NIC in 1981. Over the next two years, he grew increasingly amazed and alarmed at the gap in perception between the professionals and the Casey-esque ideologues.
Analysis and policy implementation were often discussed in inter-agency meetings. Among those present at some of the
meetings was Larry Tracy, an Air Force colonel and veteran Defense Intelligence Agency briefer now detailed to the Office of
Public Diplomacy. An old friend of Reich's from graduate school, Tracy turned down an opportunity to command the notorious School of the Americas to work with his old friend Reich. Now a consultant, Tracy remembers talking to Reich about the future during the 1980 campaign. "We were both very sympathetic to Ronald Reagan -- we saw in Latin America an area that was vital to the U.S., and were certainly concerned about Cuba's support [of] leftist movements throughout the region," he says. By 1981, he says, "it became clear what the Sandinistas were becoming; they were going to be a second Cuba in the area."
This, according to CBS's David Martin, was ridiculous. "The biggest single counterweight to some of the things the Reagan Administration was saying about the Sandinista threat was to just go to Nicaragua," he says. "The Reagan people would unveil these U.S. photos of Soviet tanks in Nicaragua, with the suggestion that they were going to invade El Salvador and Honduras, and you'd go down there and see the terrain and know some tank built in the 50's ain't going anywhere in that terrain. The weapons they had were for the defense of the revolution, to keep themselves in power. Their chances of invading another country were zero."
Harold Ford, one of the agency's most distinguished former analysts, concurs. "The majority view at the Agency was that there
were Cuban and Communist things at work, but that the sky was not about to fall, and there was a minority view that there wasn't much of a threat at all, that the Sandinistas were a sort of home-grown nationalist element, and the Cuban element was very small," he says. "I don't recall anybody buying the 'official government' view, the view the hawks had that the sky was falling. I think it was Reagan who said something like the Sandinistas were only so many miles from Texas, and would come roaring up into the U.S. We used to make jokes -- 'With what transport and over what mountain range?'"
As for arms and "exporting the revolution," Ford says some at the Agency believed outside military support "trickled in," probably in miniscule amounts via canoe. A former CIA contract employee who spent nearly a decade working for the agency out of Honduras agrees and says he and others came to regard the Washington obsession with finding Nicaraguan arms ridiculous. "The agency set up a lot of surveillance to see if the Sandinistas were actually supporting the Salvadorans," says the ex-operative, who, though he has been publicly named before, would only speak to The American Prospect on condition of anonymity. The CIA "monitored the road. They set up two units of fast boats, one in the Honduran Navy and one in the El Salvador Navy, both called the 'Piranhas,' to go after Sandinista arms shipments. They caught squat."
As the MiG story took on a life of its own in November, everyone who had real knowledge of the situation knew where the misinformation was originating -- elements from the hard-line directorate of operations (DO) and its intergovernmental affiliates, with the OPD actively feeding this misinformation to the press. Goodman says he and others often considered leaking their own analysis to the press, but were cowed by the company policy of random polygraphing. While they were good analysts, they weren't good liars. By contrast, he says, "lying is part of what being in the DO is all about."
So, as they read ginned-up stories with information attributed to "intelligence officers," some in the DI chuckled, while others
gnashed their teeth. Goodman fell into the latter group. "Reich was effectively a station chief at Foggy Bottom," says Goodman now. "He was supporting a DO policy operation that was basically a black operation, directed at U.S. citizens."
An Ollie North for the New Millennium?
According to reports by the State Department's Inspector General, the General Accounting Office, and two congressional committees, Reich's behavior at the OPD left room for improvement. Among other things, Reich was found to be keeping illicit company and making irresponsible arrangements with contractors of questionable provenance. "There were points in the investigation we were looking at each other going, 'This is in a class of its own,'" says a professional investigator involved in one of the probes. "There was nothing that seemed to be correct in terms of following rules and procedures."
In January 1984, about six months after Reich took over at OPD, Mark Richards, a U.S. Air Force colonel detailed to the U.S. Information Agency, was seconded to OPD. Though Richards retired in July of 1984, Reich felt he had to keep Richards on, so Richards incorporated as a private contractor. A 1987 GAO probe noted that "as a military retiree, Colonel Richards would be subject to dual compensation limitations if employed as a consultant," a fine point that would "reduce his military retirement pay." However, the report noted, "to Colonel Richards, the reduction was unacceptable." So, between July 1984 and February 1986, Mark Richards Associates (MRA) received four contracts worth $136,000 that violated Office of Management and Budget contracting regulations.
This is small beer, however, compared to the dealings between Reich's OPD and another contractor, the innocuously-named
International Business Communications (IBC). Once described by a Reagan political aide as "the White House outside the
White House," IBC's principals were Carl "Spitz" Channell, Frank Gomez and Richard Miller. IBC company played a key role in not only covertly and illicitly funneling funds to the contras, but in pioneering the use of stealthy non-profit groups to smear political opponents.
Channell and Miller were respectively convicted in 1987 of defrauding the government and conspiracy to defraud the
government, for using their non-profit National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty (NEPL), under Oliver North's coordination, to raise private funds for the contras and then shifting the funds to IBC, which then moved the money to secret accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. (Rather like Clinton and the Lincoln Bedroom, the funds were solicited from known rich conservative donors who, in exchange for their money, got trips to the White House that included briefings with Oliver North and visits with Reagan.)
In addition to overseas contra-related activities, Channell's NEPL and it's Channell-led affiliates like the American Conservative Trust and the Anti-Terrorism American Committee, also used money in an effort to cripple American politicians opposed to Reagan's contra policy. Former US Representative Michael D. Barnes (D-MD) was plagued by ads attacking his critical stance, ads that held "the people behind" the Sandinistas were Fidel Castro and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and literally pictured Barnes in league with the Cuban and Iranian leaders, as well as Muammar Qaddafi and Yassir Arafat. After Barnes was knocked out of the primary, the attack ads continued, in support of GOP candidate Linda Chavez and in opposition to Barbara Mikulski. When, as the Washington Post reported, Chavez found the ads more hindrance than help, rather that ring Channell, she called North and asked the NSC aide to tell Channell to knock it off.
Between February 1984 and September 1986, OPD entered into six contracts with IBC, worth a total of $440,000. In 1987, the State Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded that OPD was guilty of contracting improprieties in its dealings with Gomez and IBC. Of particular note was a $276,000 contract that should have been put out for public bidding. Instead of publicizing the tender in the Commerce Business Daily as the law required, OPD classified the contract "SECRET" -- even though, as the OIG found, "there was nothing of a national security or even a sensitive nature" in the contract, which was essentially an extension of a preexisting unclassified contract. Though the OIG report shied away from saying anything more, a 1987 House Foreign Affairs Committee report drew the obvious conclusion: "The real reason for classification was to avoid publication in the CBD and possible challenges to the sole source contractual relationship with IBC."
Reich has long maintained that there was nothing wrong, unethical, improper or illegal about OPD's actions. "What [Walter Raymond and I] have denied -- repeatedly and under oath -- is that the office was controlled by NSC staff," Reich wrote in a letter to The Washington Post in 1988. "As an inter-agency office, the Office of Public Diplomacy reported periodically to the NSC. But it was part of the Department of State, and as head of it, received daily guidance from the Department of State." Not only is this questionable based on George Schultz's recollections (the only mention he makes of OPD in his voluminous memoir is an indirect and uncomplimentary reference), but in a May 30, 1985 memo to the Defense Department, Reich characterizes his office as "an inter-agency coordinating group located in the State Department, responding to NSC direction." The December 11, 1985 minutes of a Public Diplomacy Meeting, classified CONFIDENTIAL, conclude with the following item: "NSC will formally task State to develop and implement a Public Diplomacy plan based on recent changes in the internal situation in Nicaragua." Too, a March 20, 1985 NSC memo casts considerable doubt on Reich's assertion. Entitled "Timing and the Nicaraguan Resistance Vote" and classified SECRET, the 14-page memo was written by Oliver North to National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane.
In it, North notes that in the following week, the broadcast networks would auction off prime time commercial slots. "Actions by U.S. interests groups are very sensitive to the timing," he writes. "If we are to retain their support, we must let them know by Friday whether or not they should proceed." (He also adds that the head of the CIA is well in the loop for all of this: "You should be aware that Director Casey has sent a personal note to Don Regan on the timing issue.") Following the memo is a 12-page checklist drawn up by North doling out responsibility to various NSC-directed elements. Next to "supervise preparation and assignment of articles directed to special interest groups at rate of one per week beginning March 10 (examples: article on Nicaraguan educational system for NEA, article by retired military for Retired Officers Association, etc.)," is "State/LPD" -- the official designation for OPD. North also assigns tasks, by name and under the "State/LPD" heading, to IBC principal Gomez and an IBC employee, Jon Kuykendall.
If there was any "guidance" from a higher authority at the State Department here, it's far from apparent. That Oliver North's
calendars show a total of 70 meetings with Raymond between 1984 and 1986 for the express purpose of discussing "public
diplomacy," also provide more than a bit of basis for questioning Reich's contention. And then there is the matter of the March 13, 1985 memo, classified CONFIDENTIAL, to White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan from Reich deputy
Jonathan S. Miller. Titled "White Propaganda," the memo informs Buchanan that an op-ed piece by Professor John Guilmartin -- "a consultant to our office [who] collaborated with our staff in the writing of this piece" -- has run in The Wall Street Journal, and that "officially, this office had no role in its preparation." In addition to adding that the OPD staff is ghostwriting ostensibly independently authored pieces for two Contra leaders, Miller further informs that OPD has deployed a secret agent to arrange press briefings: "Through a cut-out, we are having the opposition leader Alphonso Rubello visit the following news organizations while he is in Washington this week."
In a 1989 interview with O'Dwyer's PR Report, Reich held that the March 13 memo was an "exaggeration," a "false memo" with examples that were "not factual." While it is possible that Miller was carried away by the cloak-and-dagger, boys-on-adventure mood that permeated the Iran-Contra enterprise, a 1987 legal opinion by the Reagan-appointed Comptroller General of the United States (the chief of the General Accounting Office) concluded that OPD had broken the law by, "using funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress."
In addition to citing the Miller memo as an example, the Comptroller General's finding also stated that "materials contained
in S/LPD files indicate that covert propaganda operations were conducted on several other occasions and were not separated from routine legitimate activities." As such, the finding added, it was difficult to determine exactly how much of the taxpayers'
money had been "expended illegally," and that trying to recover the ill-spent funds would be a fruitless endeavor. Bottom line:
"S/LPD engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the
Administrations Latin America policies."
Indeed, Reich even went so far -- during the Grenada invasion in 1983 and at crucial junctures in 1985 -- to request soldiers from the U.S. Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group at Ft. Bragg. Usually marshaled against a foreign enemy considered hostile to America, in this case, the troops were deployed against U.S. citizens. Memos written by Reich or his OPD associates to each other and the Pentagon discuss the need for military personnel who have "experience in persuasive communication and military intelligence," and who can look for "exploitable themes and trends, and will inform us of possible areas for our exploitation."
According to a May 30, 1985 memo from military advisor Daniel W. "Jake" Jacobowitz, some of the fruits of the PSYOPS specialists' labors would be used to "feed people like Newt Gingrich to read on C-Span during the open orders and enter into the Congressional Record." In addition to feeding Gingrich, Reich also paid numerous visits on news organizations who, he and others like him in the administration felt, were "biased" in their reporting. In one particularly memorable January 1985 meeting, approximately a dozen National Public Radio staffers crowded into the small, smoky windowless editorial meeting room at NPR's M street offices to hear Reich not only expound on his view of Central America, but menace the NPR staffers." 'Moscow on the Potomac,' that's what he called us when he showed up," NPR staffer Ted Clarke says, characterizing the meeting as one with an unpleasant "edge." Bill Buzenburg, NPR's diplomatic correspondent at the time, remembers that Reich repeatedly "called us 'National People's Radio' and kept saying 'you guys should be broadcasting from Havana.'"
After those pleasantries, says Buzenburg, Reich, "launched into a strict ideological attack, meant to bring pressure on NPR to change its coverage. He came in and made it very clear that he had leaned on other news organization, and that they had changed their coverage." Then, he says, Reich informed the NPR staffers that he had people monitoring all their coverage and transcribing all of their reports. "These were stories I knew intimately, and what he'd do was take a piece saying what State had said and what the Sandinistas said and he'd go, 'Look at what you did here,' taking specific quotes out of the context of the whole story. It was infuriating. His problem wasn't with the stories in their entirety, but with the fact that there were other points of view, critical points of view, in them."
Buzenburg knew of Reich before the meeting, and had heard that Reich looked upon NPR as "broadcasting from enemy territory." Still, he was not entirely prepared for what he heard at the meeting. "The arrogance," he says, "was amazing. It was as if he didn't believe the administration had to make its case against other facts and points of view."
A journalist who remembers a mid-80s Reich briefing at the U.S. embassy in Honduras doesn't find this surprising. "He was at this podium on a little stage, telling everyone that they weren't accurately reporting what was taking place in Central America.
Someone asked, 'So why do you think you're getting such a bum rap from the media?' Reich got off the podium, slipped over to the small couch where this reporter was sitting and whisper[ed], in all seriousness, 'Because of Communists like you,' and [got] up and [went] back to the podium."
Part of the problem with naming Reich to State is that while diplomacy can be, and sometimes is, conducted quietly, it is not the same as covert action, which has a tendency to either (a) be abused by those who find it more expedient, or (b) complicate
policy situations through unnecessary subterfuge or the creation of unintended consequences. Lest one think that Reich has moved past this proclivity for spinning from the shadows, Reich still seems a proud propagandist at heart, particularly on an issue of great concern throughout this hemisphere: sweatshops.
If you point your web browser to www.wrapapparel.org, you'll find the homepage of what appears to be a group devoted to championing the oppressed and exploited worker. The Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP) program bills itself as an independent, non-profit effort to certify that the clothes you wear were produced under humane and legal conditions, and proudly trumpets the vita of its vice-chairman, "Ambassador Otto Reich."
WRAP is, in fact, a creature of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, and according to Terry Collingsworth,
an attorney with the International Labor Rights Fund, it was "set up as an industry dominated monitoring project as a cover to avoid legitimate monitoring. It's a dodge, and is so regarded by everyone except the industry." The National Labor Committee's Charles Curnahan goes further, calling it "the worst, the lowest you can go" of industry-backed "rights" groups, but says that he wasn't surprised to find Reich near the top of WRAP's board. "Given the work he did in the Office of Public Diplomacy," he says, "this isn't too much of a stretch -- it's the same thing: propaganda and psychological warfare."
As labor and human rights remain a perpetual issue in pan-American treaties and negotiations, Reich's association with WRAP does not bode well for the future. That two of his fellow officers are no strangers to the spooky ways of right-wing operational agitprop should also give progressives and trade unionists considerable pause.
WRAP's chairman of the board is Joaquin "Jack" Otero, a Cuban-American labor activist who was the first Latino to be elected to the AFL-CIO's executive council, and who headed the Labor Department's International Affairs Bureau during the Clinton Administration. Appreciated for his fundraising and voter mobilization efforts for the Democratic Party, Otero skewed right on Cuba, and was criticized by some for his role in championing NAFTA's weak environmental and labor side agreements. According to ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, Otero was also a contract agent for the CIA, and was mobilized by the agency in Quito, Ecuador, in 1963 and Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1964.
Otero is hardly the most notorious of Reich's fellow travelers on the Cuba issue. As Ambassador to Venezuela from 1986 to 1989, Reich, according to declassified diplomatic cables, took more than a passing interest in the fate of Orlando Bosch, a venerated figure in the right-wing Cuban exile community. Convicted of attacking a Polish freighter with a bazooka in Miami harbour in 1968, Bosch violated the terms of his U.S. parole when he took off for Venezuela after being subpoenaed in connection with a murder investigation. In Venezuala, he was arrested, tried and convicted for planning the successful 1976terrorist bombing of a Cuban airliner in Barbados. Bosch's deliverance came through a bizarre appeals process, which ultimately acquitted him of complicity in the airline bombing. Though Washington officially deemed Bosch unwelcome in the United States, a declassified cable indicates that Reich nonetheless tried to get Bosch a visa. In a September 1987 letter to the Fifth Conference of Cuban Intellectual Dissidents, held in Caracas, Bosch effusively thanked his "compatriot," Ambassador Reich. According to a cable Reich sent back to Foggy Bottom, the letter reflected no contract or affinity between Reich and Bosch, but "looks like a case of Cuban-Soviet disinformation." Bosch was arrested in 1988 at Miami International Airport as an undesirable alien and a parole-violating terrorist. In 1990, the first Bush Administration effectively pardoned him and released him from jail.
After going to work for former Labor Secretary William Brock in 1990 as a lobbyist for NAFTA, in 1996 Reich and his old OPD chum Jonathan Millier started RMA International. (Also in 1996 Reich helped author the ridiculous and draconian Helms-Burton Act, and managed to snag $520,000 in funding for his own pro-embargo group, the U.S.-Cuba Business Council. ) RMA's chief client is the Bacardi Martini liquor company, owned by a Cuban family that gives copiously to exile causes. Thanks in part to Reich's lobbying (recompense from Bacardi: $600,000), Florida Senator Connie Mack added a rider, Section 211, to the FY 1999 budget bill that obliterated any trademark protection for Cuba. This gave Bacardi the legal cover to start marketing rum under the "Havana Club" label -- the same label Cuba, in conjunction with France's Pernod Ricard, has been producing for years.
Initially, Cuba was content to litigate the matter via the World Trade Organization. Upon hearing that the lobbyist responsible for Section 211 was being given the United States's Latin America portfolio, however, the Cuban government announced on March 17 that, after decades of respecting U.S. patents, it was going to start producing its own versions of U.S. patented AIDS drugs, as well as Bacardi rum. RMA has also done work for British American Tobacco (see the recent Center for Public Integrity investigation), which may be looking to reclaim some Cuban properties, and has also consulted for defense contractor Lockheed, which would really like to see an end to a longstanding ban on high-tech arms sales to Latin America, so it can sell F-16s to Chile.
Reich's use of propaganda as an instrument against the Managua-based journalists in 1985 illustrates a certain continuity in
extremist-driven policy towards Central America. Thirty years earlier, based on scant evidence and histrionic extrapolation, the
CIA concluded that Guatemala would be the point of a Soviet "expandable beachhead," to use agent Tracy Barnes' term; 30 years later, the ideological torch had been passed to a new generation of ideologues obsessed with Soviets and Cubans aggressively trying their luck elsewhere in Central America.
Castro is still with us, and there is no doubt that Reich will serve as the point man for a Cuba policy held hostage by Little Havana. (Even Reich's pals think he's off on this one: While old friend Larry Tracy considers Reich's anti-communism "a virtue and not a vice" and is "biased in favor of Otto Reich," he adds, "we disagree on the Cuban thing.") Teadoro Petkoff, minister of economic planning and coordination in Venezuela's Caldera administration and now editor of the respected newspaper Tal Cual, says he had fond recollections of chats with Reich while he was ambassador there, but shudders at the prospect of his return tonState. "He's a hawk, a very hard hawk, or at least he was in his talks with me," says Petkoff, who's no fan of Castro or Venezuela's current president, Hugo Chavez. "His appraisals about Latin American politics are too much biased by his Cuban exile optics. From my point of view, I think his appointment could be bad for relations between the U.S. and Latin America."
The notion of Reich's return to State is, for Petkoff and others, something of an unpleasant blast from the past. When Reich's
name was first floated for Ambassador to Venezuela in 1985, then-President Jamie Lusinchi was in the process of trying to rebuild relations with Cuba, as well as pushing forward the multi-nation Contadora peace process for Nicaragua. Seeing the appointment of Reich as a move by Washington to get Lusinchi to take a more anti-Cuba, anti-Sandinista position, Lusinchi's foreign minister -- as well as a leading Venezuelan congressman and former foreign minister -- objected, noting that "Venezuela's foreign policy does not depend on the ambassadors in Caracas." Eventually the U.S. prevailed on Venezuela to honor Reich's diplomatic credentials, though he wasn't an entirely beloved figure in Caracas: In 1989, for instance, the newspaper La Republica reported, with some umbrage, that Reich had turned the U.S. Embassy into something of a support base for the Panamanian Civic Crusade, an anti-Noriega group backed by the CIA.
In the view of Larry Birns, the head of Washington's Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the combination of Reich's hard-line views, current business connections, and Iran-Contra past would make him a disastrous choice to be the United States' point person for Latin America. "It would be of interest to anticipate the violent polemical struggle between Fortune 500 U.S. multinationals, most of whom denounced Helms-Burton for interfering with trade with Cuba, and the State Department's Latin American office under an ideologically driven Reich." (Birns is also alarmed at the prospect of Roger Noriega, another Jesse Helms favorite, being named Ambassador to the Organization of American States.)
"If confirmed, [Reich's] tenure will inevitably be littered with hemispheric vendettas, abusive run-ins with strong-willed regional leaders, and a cheerful indifference to state department rules and regulations," Birns says. "During his years in the public sector, Reich seemingly has found it against the very marrow of his personality and basic nature to be able to walk down a straight path. If [Secretary of State Colin] Powell continues to maintain that Reich and Noriega are the best qualified candidates to fill the vacancies, then the Secretary of State can expect to soon be hearing from Saturday Night Live. "