In the 1980s Robert Parry broke many of the stories that later became known as the Iran-Contra affair. Those stories included the first story about the White House network led by Oliver North. He also co-authored the first story about Nicaraguan contra-cocaine trafficking. In 1984 Robert Parry won the George Polk Award for National Reporting.
Robert Parry, who has also taught at the New York University Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, The Press & Project Truth (1992), The October Surprise X-Files: The Hidden Origins of the Reagan-Bush Era (1996), Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq (2004) and Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush (2007).
Robert Parry also runs the Consortium News website.
During the Cold War, Shackley had run many of the CIA's most controversial paramilitary operations, from Vietnam and Laos to the JMWAVE operations against Fidel Castro's Cuba. When Bush was CIA director in 1976, he appointed Shackley to a top clandestine job, associate deputy director for operations.
But Shackley's CIA career ended in 1979, after three years of battling Carter's CIA director, Stansfield Turner. Shackley believed that Turner, by cleaning out hundreds of covert "old boys," was destroying the agency -- as well as Shackley's career.
After retiring, Shackley went into business with another ex-CIA man, Thomas Clines, a partner with Edwin Wilson, the rogue spy who later would go to prison over shipments of terrorist materials to Libya. Clines himself would be convicted of tax fraud in the Iran-contra scandal, another controversy in which Shackley's pale specter would hover in the background.
But in 1980, Shackley was set on putting his former boss, George ush, in the White House and possibly securing the CIA directorship for himself. Shackley volunteered his prodigious skills to Bush in early 1980. Though that fact has come out before, Shackley's involvement in the Iran hostage issue, the so-called October Surprise controversy, has been a closely held secret, until now.
In 1992, the House investigators should have jumped when they saw the Shackley tie-in. The task force, which was examining charges that Republicans sabotaged Carter's hostage talks, already knew that other ex-CIA men were managing a 24-hour-a-day "Operations Center" at Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters to monitor Iran developments. Richard Allen had called the ex-spies a "plane load of disgruntled CIA" officers "playing cops and robbers."
Some House investigators wanted the behind-the-scenes CIA role mentioned. A "secret" draft chapter of the House task force report, which I also found in the storage room, stated that: "Many of the [Operations Center's] staff members were former CIA employees who had previously worked on the Bush campaign or were otherwise loyal to George Bush." But that section was deleted from the publicly released version.
Another task force discovery -- also dropped from the final report -- was that conservative "journalist" Michael Ledeen, another Shackley associate, was privately collaborating with the Reagan-Bush campaign on the Iran hostage issue. The draft chapter said Ledeen was an unofficial member of the campaign's "October Surprise" group. A separate page of Allen's notes revealed Ledeen joining campaign director, William J. Casey, in a Sept. 16 meeting for what was called the "Persian Gulf Project."
In 1980, Shackley had teamed up with Ledeen as paid consultants to a "war game" for SISMI, the Italian intelligence service with close ties to the secret international right-wing Masonic lodge, P-2. As the 1980 campaign neared its end, Italian intelligence leaked a damaging -- and questionable -- story to Ledeen about President Carter's brother Billy and his business ties to Libya. Ledeen wrote the story for The New Republic without mentioning that he was working for SISMI or assisting the Reagan-Bush campaign.
Shackley had strong bonds to many CIA officers still in the government, too. Donald Gregg, who also has been linked to the October Surprise allegations, served under Shackley's command in Vietnam. In 1980, Gregg was the CIA liaison inside Carter's National Security Council, making him privy to secrets about the hostage talks. Gregg would later become national security adviser to Vice President Bush and a secondary figure in the Iran-contra scandal.
Investigative reporting is to journalism what theoretical research is to science, having the potential to present new realities and shatter old paradigms – how people see and understand the world around them – which, in turn, can transform politics.
That is why investigative journalism is so important to the health of a democracy. A dramatic set of new facts – as in Watergate or Iran-Contra – can overcome long-maintained lies and shake a corrupt government to its foundation.
Investigative reporting also can strip away the pleasing façade of a deceptive leader or it can expose flaws in a “conventional wisdom” that is taking the nation in a dangerous direction. Done right, investigative journalism is a huge threat to powerful elites trying to manipulate a population.
These are some of the reasons we have worked so hard over the past decade to keep Consortiumnews.com going. It is also why a greater capacity for producing independent investigative journalism is crucial for changing today’s U.S. political dynamic.
We can think back on how the journalistic process worked in the 1970s: the Watergate scandal exposing Richard Nixon’s scheme for rigging the political process, or the Pentagon Papers exposure of the lies that led the nation to war in Vietnam, or the revelation of CIA abuses that showed how the country was drifting toward a secret national security state.
Indeed, the disclosures of government wrongdoing in the 1970s represented a real and present danger to those leaders who favored the transition of the United States from a democratic republic into a world empire where the people’s consent is managed through the skillful use of images, fear and myths.
The work of investigative journalists in the mid-1970s represented such a threat to those who pulled the strings from the shadows that a sustained counterattack was organized to punish independent-minded journalists while also building a huge right-wing media echo chamber to drown out dissenting information.
Over the next decade, the Right’s media strategy advanced smartly, aided unintentionally by an inverse judgment by many influential figures on the Left to downplay media in favor of more “grassroots organizing.”
While conservative funders poured hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars into media outlets and think tanks, progressive funders largely favored community organizing or direct action, such as feeding the homeless and buying up endangered wetlands.
By the mid-1980s, the result of the conservative strategy was being felt. The Right’s defensive mechanisms put journalists and other investigators on the defensive when they examined issues, such as “death squads” in Central America, that put Ronald Reagan's policies in a negative light.
Career-minded reporters recognized how easy it was to get marginalized as a “liberal” or – in the case of the Nicaragua conflict – as a “Sandinista sympathizer.” Many journalists backed away from the career danger and even joined the sniping at fellow reporters who insisted on pursuing wrongdoing by the Reagan administration.
This dynamic was a major reason why the Iran-Contra abuses festered for so long with only scattered reporting at outlets, such as the Associated Press (where I worked) and the Miami Herald. Many of our colleagues at prestige outlets, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, took a walk on the scandal rather than tangle with Reagan’s aggressive neoconservative operatives who were already on the rise.
Still, at AP, Brian Barger and I were able to uncover many of the secrets about the White House support for the Nicaraguan contra rebels waging war against the leftist Sandinista government. We also discovered that some of the contra units were augmenting their war chests through drug trafficking.
By 1986, this investigative reporting was threatening to expose a web of criminality that implicated high-ranking officials of the Reagan administration. But denials and intimidation – backed by the growing conservative media apparatus – prevented anything like full disclosure. Oliver North and other officials simply lied to official inquiries.
The dikes only burst when one of North’s supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, and a Lebanese newspaper reported in November 1986 that the White House was secretly selling weapons to Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government. When North was found to have diverted some Iran profits to pay for contra supplies, the Iran-Contra scandal was born.
But the strength of the Right’s media infrastructure and an aggressive containment strategy by the White House limited the exposures and spared Reagan administration officials from going to jail. Several of Iran-Contra’s darkest corners – the contra-drug trafficking and secret Republican contacts with Iran dating back to the 1980 presidential campaign – never were seriously explored.
We founded the Consortiumnews.com website in 1995, back in the "early days" of the modern Internet. The site was meant to be a home for important, well-reported stories that weren't welcome in the O.J. Simpson-obsessed, conventional-wisdom-driven national news media of that time.
As one of the reporters who helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press in the mid-1980s, I was distressed by the silliness and downright creepiness that had pervaded American journalism by the mid-1990s. I feared, too, that the decline of the U.S. press corps foreshadowed disasters that would come when journalists failed to alert the public about impending dangers.Also by 1995, documents were emerging that put the history of the 1980s in a new – and more troubling – light. Yet, there were fewer and fewer media outlets interested in that history. The memories of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were enveloped in warm-and-fuzzy myths that represented another kind of danger: false history that could lead to mistaken political judgments in the future.So, with my eldest son Sam serving as technical adviser (he was in his early 20s so the Internet didn't seem that strange to him), we started what we called "the Internet's first investigative 'Zine" in November 1995.Some of our articles reexamined important chapters of the 1980s (such as the “October Surprise” controversy from Election 1980 and evidence of Nicaraguan contra-cocaine trafficking). Other stories explored current crises (such as the War in Kosovo and the impeachment assault on President Bill Clinton).
Author Norman Solomon and I produced a groundbreaking series on the real story behind Colin Powell's legend. Another series examined how Rev. Sun Myung Moon became an influential player in Washington. Working with talented freelance reporters around the world, we also undertook important historical investigations (such as how the Nazis after World War II - crossing "rat lines" to South America - contributed to the region’s bloody repression).
In 1976, when George H.W. Bush was CIA director, the U.S. government tolerated right-wing terrorist cells inside the United States and mostly looked the other way when these killers topped even Palestinian terrorists in spilling blood, including a lethal car bombing in Washington, D.C., according to newly obtained internal government documents.
That car bombing on Sept. 21, 1976, on Washington’s Embassy Row, killed Chile’s former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker Ronni Moffitt, while wounding Moffitt’s husband.
It soon became clear to the FBI and other federal investigators that the attack likely was a joint operation of DINA, the fearsome Chilean intelligence agency of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, and U.S.-based right-wing Cuban exiles.
But Bush’s CIA steered attention away from the real assassins toward leftists who supposedly killed Letelier to create a martyr for their cause. Eventually, the CIA’s cover story collapsed and – during the Carter administration – at least some of the lower-level conspirators were prosecuted, though the full story was never told.
Recently obtained internal FBI records and notes of a U.S. prosecutor involved in counter-terrorism cases make clear that the connections among Bush’s CIA, DINA and the Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM) – which supplied the trigger men for the Letelier bombing – were closer than was understood at the time.
DINA provided intelligence training for CNM terrorists who acted like a “sleeper cell” inside the United States; federal prosecutions of right-wing Cuban terrorists were routinely frustrated; and the CIA did all it could to cover for its anticommunist allies who were part of a broader international terror campaign called Operation Condor.
Beginning in late 1975, Operation Condor -- named after Chile's national bird -- was a joint operation of right-wing South American military dictatorships, working closely with U.S.-based Cuban and other anticommunist extremists on cross-border assassinations of political dissidents as far away as Europe.
This meant that during George H.W. Bush’s year at the CIA’s helm, the United States both harbored domestic terrorist cells and served as a base for international terrorism. Yet no U.S. official was ever held accountable -- and in many cases, just the opposite....
Regarding the DINA-CNM alliance, Chile’s star assassin Michael Townley told FBI interrogators after his arrest in 1978 that Cuban exiles involved in the Letelier murder had received DINA training, including CNM member Virgilio Paz, who “attended a one-month ‘quickie’ intelligence course sponsored by DINA,” the internal FBI report said.
Townley, a fiercely anticommunist American expatriate who had emerged as DINA’s chief overseas assassin, told the FBI that Paz’s training was personally approved by DINA’s director, Col. Manuel Contreras, who – the CIA later acknowledged – was an asset of the U.S. spy agency.
Paz lived at Townley’s residence during his three-month stay in Chile and DINA paid for Paz’s frequent calls back home to the United States, Townley said, recalling that Paz left Chile close to his son Brian’s birthday on June 6, 1976.
About a month later, Colonel Pedro Espinoza, DINA’s director of operations, summoned Townley to a meeting near St. Georges School in suburban Santiago. Townley recalled driving his DINA-supplied Fiat 125 sedan to the early-morning meeting and taking a thermos of coffee.
Espinoza asked Townley if he’d be available for a special operation outside Chile. Townley complained “that he had spent a majority of 1975 in Europe on DINA missions and that he felt he was neglecting his family with constant travel on behalf of DINA,” according to the FBI report...
When I tracked down former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Sanford, who was assigned to the Cuban terrorism cases in the mid-1970s, he still sounded frustrated at the lack of support he got from Washington to pursue these killers who inflicted death both inside and outside the United States.
“My blood starts to boil when I think of how much we could have done but how badly we were kept in the dark,” said Sanford, now 66, living in northern Florida. “I asked for stuff and never got it.”
Sanford recalled that when CIA Director Bush visited Miami at the end of the bloody year 1976, FBI agents “asked him for information from the CIA on where explosives [for the Cuban exiles] were stashed.” The response from Bush, according to Sanford, was “forget about it.”
Referring to the umbrella organization CORU, Sanford said, “it was the only terrorist group that ever exported terrorism from the United States.”
Ironically, the CIA’s analytical division reached a similar, troubling conclusion in an annual report entitled “International Terrorism in 1976” that was published in July 1977, after CIA Director Bush had left office.
“Cuban exile groups operating under the aegis of a new alliance called the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations [CORU] were particularly active during the second half of the year,” the CIA reported. “They were responsible for no less than 17 acts of international terrorism (at least three of which took place in the US).
“Statistically, this matches the record compiled by the various Palestinian terrorist groups during the same period. But largely because the Cuban exile operations included the October bombing of a Cubana Airlines passenger aircraft, their consequences were far more bloody.”
In other words, Cuban exiles based in the United States – during George H.W. Bush’s year in charge of the CIA – outpaced Palestinian terrorists in terms of a total body count.