U.S. Shifts Gears: Launches PR Campaign Against Terrorism Instead of For It
One of the difficulties facing the White House in its war of words with presumed mass murderer Osama bin Laden is that it is on unsure footing. Unlike most American propaganda campaigns about terrorism, this one portrays the evil-doers as evil. We’ve had considerable success over the years in persuading international and domestic audiences to think well of one or another evil terrorist outfit, so this new campaign requires a complete reorientation for President George W. Bush’s veteran propaganda team. To use a baseball analogy for our baseball president, it’s like asking Derek Jeter to run the bases in a clockwise direction. It will be a while before official U.S. propagandists start to act instinctively, but once they do, watch out. These guys got game.
Don’t believe me? Consider some past PR offenses Uncle Sam has launched in support of terrorists, as well as current ones in Nicaragua and Colombia.
In September 1973 Chilean terrorist Augusto Pinochet, cheered on by the CIA, overthrew a democratic government and proceeded to round up thousands of innocent people. His henchmen executed the lucky ones and tortured to death the less fortunate. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were shocked and appalled–at the bad press Pinochet was getting internationally. So they dispatched CIA-controlled Chilean labor leaders on a world tour to sing Pinochet’s praises. It helped. Pinochet’s standing improved, and he had the breathing space to carry on with the torture and murder. (Read all about it! See Robert Johansen’s magnificent book, The National Interest and the Human Interest.)
In 1981 a Salvadoran terrorist organization called Atlacatl (which doubled as a U.S.-trained army battalion) rounded up 900 or so women, children and old men in and around the village of El Mozote. Three guesses what happened next. Reagan was shocked and appalled–at two U.S. reporters who described the rape and slaughter.
The White House propaganda team kicked into high gear, launching a pretend investigation to clear Atlacatl and smearing reporters Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto. Mission accomplished! The focus quickly shifted from the deadly deeds to the alleged leftist agenda of the reporters, which allowed Atlacatl to get back to butchering. (Read all about it! Check out Bonner’s great but grisly book, Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador; astute readers will note that many of the PR techniques used to sell the Salvadoran army to the U.S. Congress and public have been resurrected to sell the Colombian army.)
Between 1980 and 1983 the Salvadoran armed forces killed some 35,000 innocent civilians. Again, Reagan was shocked and appalled–and feared that surviving Salvadorans might not see the armed forces as their savior. So, reported Newsweek in 1983, the CIA conducted a “propaganda and disinformation campaign” in the Salvadoran press (i.e., those papers that had not been exterminated by the U.S.-backed army) to convince “the civilian population that the guerrillas, not the army, are the real bad guys.”
Not mentioned in the disinformation campaign was that the guerrillas had killed only five percent as many civilians as the army, or that the reason they were waging a civil war was that the U.S.-backed army had spent the previous 50 years blocking every attempt at peaceful, democratic change. So what? It’s not the duty of U.S. propagandists to make the case for the bad guys.
Guatemala had a string of terror regimes in the 1980s that massacred tens of thousands, most of whom were defenseless Indians. Once more, Reagan was shocked and appalled–at human rights groups who documented the crimes. Although Team Reagan found good things to say about every Guatemalan terror regime, every time a new general would take over, the team would then acknowledge bad things about the prior general, so as to present the new general as a breath of fresh, terror-free air. Thus, it is permissible for our propagandists to say bad things about retired terrorist leaders we had lauded when they were terrorizing–if by doing so it helps us more effectively propagandize on behalf of the new terrorist leader.
In the early 1980s Nicaraguan citizen Edgar Chamorro was handpicked by the CIA to run the contra PR operation. The contras were a U.S.-created terrorist band that raped, tortured and murdered on a grand scale, yet never managed to hold onto a single Nicaraguan town in its decade of destruction. The CIA gave Chamorro money to bribe Honduran and Costa Rican journalists to write favorably–and dishonestly–about the contra terrorists.
But Chamorro had a falling out with the agency after telling journalists about the horrendous crimes the contras were committing. The CIA didn’t dispute the veracity of Chamorro’s remarks; they just had a problem with a guy who was hired to do PR somehow thinking that it was okay to occasionally tell the truth.
The CIA, intent on creating a documentary record of its contribution to Nicaraguan terror, distributed an assassination manual to the contras. Given the contras demonstrated proficiency at cold-blooded murder, this was like giving Michael Jordan an instructional book on how to play basketball. Anyway, the CIA distributed the manual, and Reagan was shocked and appalled–that anyone in the media could possibly believe that the CIA wanted the contras to assassinate rural Sandinista officials.
The Gipper actually said that the CIA’s intent was for the contras to “remove” the officials from office! The idea, explained Reagan, was to say to the officials that you are being relieved of your duties as judge, agrarian reform officer, whatever, at which point the unharmed official would return to his previous station in life. Note that Reagan made this crackpot claim long before we could excuse it as the mad meanderings of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Back home, Otto Reich and veteran CIA disinformationist Walter Raymond ran Team Reagan’s domestic propaganda campaign on behalf of the contra terrorists. They intimidated gutless journalists, planted op eds in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, and did such a swell job that Congress approved $100 million in aid in 1986, a mere two months after the World Court ordered Team Reagan to quit the murderous contra war and cough up reparations to Nicaragua. You think it’s easy persuading Congress to bankroll butchers? Okay, maybe it is easy. But Reich and Raymond did a good job just the same. Dubya chose wisely when he asked Reich to be his undersecretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.
In Honduras in the 1980s, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte carried the propaganda water for a CIA-backed Honduran military terror squad, Battalion 316, which specialized in the torture and murder of dissidents. By downplaying abuses and pretending they weren’t part of a government strategy, he was able to maintain Honduras as a staging area for contra forays into Nicaragua to murder do-gooders like American Ben Linder. Good work, John. Glad to see President Bush has entrusted you with the U.S. ambassadorship to the United Nations.
Present-day Campaigns on Behalf of Facilitators of Terror
A U.S. PR campaign this autumn helped elect 1980s terror-facilitator Enrique Bolaños president of Nicaragua. Back in the day, Bolaños headed a business group that collaborated with the same CIA that was promoting mayhem and murder. (Thirty thousand Nicaraguans were killed in a terror war that never would have been were it not for Reagan.) Bolaños and his ilk were indispensable to the White House, because they provided semi-civilized cover to contra cutthroats, making it possible for John McCain and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to feel good about supporting the contras.
Displaying the chutzpah that is the hallmark of pro-terror propagandists, the 2001 White House PR team pinned the terrorist label on Bolaños’ opponent, Daniel Ortega, presenting him as an Osama type who promoted and protected terrorists as leader of the Sandinista government of the 1980s. Ortega certainly had and still has flaws, but the historical record makes clear that the primary perpetrators of 1980s Nicaraguan terror were not Ortega’s Sandinistas, but Reagan and Bolaños’ contras.
Turning to Colombia, in the past ten years its army has gradually privatized its dirty war against dissent. Today, it commits limited doses of terror while facilitating massive doses by the paramilitary death squad alliance known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC, which on September 10 was added to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terror Organizations, has in recent years been responsible for 75-80 percent of the political killings in Colombia.
The U.S.-sponsored Colombian army shares intelligence with the AUC, the better to help the paramilitaries draw up death lists. Often, the army will usher the AUC through roadblocks and seal off a village just long enough for the death squad to dismember with chain saws community activists, human rights investigators, labor leaders and others suspected merely of sympathizing with the political program of leftist guerrillas.
The Colombian army’s praises are sung by everyone from Secretary of State Colin Powell (see, Colombia’s Right-Wing Terror Campaign Easy to Shut Down–If Only the U.S. Had the Will) to Senator Bob Graham (see, Colombia-aid Supporters Use Lies, Evasions and Distortions) to 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace (see, Colombia, 60 Minutes and The Year of Improving Significantly). Yes, the administration has prominent Democrats and “liberal” journalists on this pro-terror team. These highly sophisticated propagandists are quick to denounce the death squads’ depredations, but all pretend that the army is the AUC’s nemesis rather than its protector. Thus, their “solution” is to continue to ply the army with aid so they’ll be more effective in crushing the AUC. Guess what? The more aid we provide, the stronger the AUC grows.
Maybe, just maybe, the stated goal isn’t the real goal. If it were, policy makers long ago would have reassessed the situation and put real pressure, not the phony stuff, on the Colombian generals and their front man, President Andres Pastrana. Surely, the last thing policy makers would do is lobby against human-rights conditions or accept cosmetic changes at face value and cynically trumpet them to sell Congress and the media on massive aid to the terror-facilitating army.
But most of our media and Congress do take at face value the pronouncements of Pastrana and his generals, not knowing or caring that their credibility is nil. The latest report from Human Rights Watch, The ‘Sixth Division’: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia, contrasts the words of Pastrana and the generals with their deeds. One international observer hit the nail on the head: “The military is playing a double game. While it aggressively pursues a public relations campaign to clean up its image, on the ground it continues to strongly support paramilitary groups.” Nothing could be more obvious–unless your name is Mike Wallace. Even more pathetic than Wallace is the Columbia Journalism Review. This sorry excuse for a media “watchdog” devotes an article in the September/October issue, not to scrutinizing Colombia’s PR operation, but to uncritically lauding it.
Today, savvy pro-terror propagandists in the Bush administration –Negroponte, Reich (if the Senate ever approves him) and Iran-contra perjurer Elliott Abrams (now assisting Condoleeza Rice)–must become anti-terror propagandists. It won’t be an easy transformation, but if President Bush didn’t think they could make it, he never would have sought their services. I mean, c’mon, can you think of any other reason he’d want them in his “anti-terror” administration?
This article originally appeared in Colombia Report, an online journal that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).