Published on Thursday, August 7, 2003 by the Guardian / UK
Masters of Deceit
Convicted Felons Responsible for Thousands of Deaths are Calling the Shots at the White House
by Isabel Hilton
The announcement that Admiral John Poindexter's latest brainwave - to encourage betting on the likelihood of a terrorist attack - had been terminated was characteristically bland. It began: "The Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced today that DARPA's participation in the Futures Markets Applied to Prediction (FutureMAP) program has been withdrawn"
The language does not betray the repugnant nature of the project, but then Poindexter is expert at disguising repugnant projects in bland language. He came to prominence in the Reagan administration, where the word "freedom" was used to justify renewed support for Latin American military dictatorships guilty of some of the most egregious human rights abuses on the planet. President Jimmy Carter had frozen them out, but Ronald Reagan's election meant a renewed round of invitations to Pentagon cocktail parties for Latin American torturers.
The tiny, impoverished countries of central America were, to the Reagan White House, the most pressing threat to the United States, through their impertinent insistence on trying to change their internal political arrangements, first through the ballot box and later through resort to arms. But in those days, even a president was not free to do exactly what he wanted. The US constitution gave the right to declare war to Congress, and Congress was cramping the Reagan administration's style in central America.
In El Salvador, there was a leftwing insurgency that needed to be repressed, but there were congressional restrictions on the numbers of US military personnel the president could send. Old friendships, though, are worth a lot. The Argentine generals were happy to lend some spare killers to help out in El Salvador. (Washington was so grateful that the generals thought it would not object to their invading the Falkland Islands - but that's another story.)
In Honduras a local band of killers was doing a good job under the protection of John Negroponte, then US ambassador in Tegucigalpa, now US ambassador to the United Nations. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas had overthrown the US-backed Somosa dictatorship and had gone on to consolidate their power by winning an election. The problem was that Congress had voted the Boland amendment, which banned the administration from funding their favorite Nicaraguan terrorists, the Contras, who had been engaged to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
Poindexter, by then national security adviser, proved his worth with a breathtakingly simple scheme. The administration would sell arms to Iran and divert the proceeds to the Contras. Since both ends of the operation were highly illegal - Iran was also under a US arms embargo - it had to be secret.
It worked for a while. The euphemistically named Office of Public Diplomacy planted articles in the US press depicting the Contras as democrats and freedom fighters and put the frighteners on any one who tried to report otherwise. But still journalists reported on the affair. By late 1986, it had begun to leak.
In September 1996, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica - a small central American country noted for its decision to abolish its army - found that the US was using his country as a supply base for the secret Contra operations. When he decided to call a press conference, Oliver North, a marine working for Poindexter, swung into action. As he reported to Poindexter in an email they later tried to destroy, North called President Arias to "tell him that if the press conference were held, Arias [one line deleted] wd never see a nickel of the $80m that McPhearson had promised him earlier on Friday". Oliver Tambs, another conspirator, "then called Arias and confirmed what I had said and suggested that Arias talk to Elliott (Abrams) for further confirmation. Arias then got the same word from Elliott. [one line deleted ] At 0300 Arias called back to advise that there wd be no press conference and no team of reporters sent to the airfield."
But just a month later the Nicaraguans shot down a CIA supply plane. A month after that, a Lebanese newspaper reported Reagan's arms deals with Iran. A frenzy of shredding and the destruction of emails broke out, and it took a congressional investigation - during which Poindexter, Elliott Abrams, Caspar Weinberger, Colin Powell (now secretary of state) and Richard Armitage (now deputy secretary of state) lied - and a specially appointed independent counsel to get the full story. By then, though, as the independent counsel reported, the administration's web of deceit had achieved its objectives - to protect Reagan, vice-president George Bush and the rest from the consequences of their conspiracy. As the independent counsel put it, Poindexter and North were made "the scapegoats whose sacrifice would protect the Reagan administration in its final two years".
Poindexter, North and two others were indicted on 23 counts of conspiracy to defraud the US and Poindexter was convicted on five felony counts of conspiracy, false statements, destruction and removal of records and obstruction of Congress. His conviction was reversed on the technicality that he had given immunized testimony to Congress.
Elliott Abrams later pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. George Bush senior pardoned him; and Bush junior appointed him director of the National Security Council's office for democracy, human rights and international operations and then to his current job as director of Middle East affairs in the White House. The wars these men promoted had left 75,000 dead in El Salvador and 30,000-40,000 dead in Nicaragua, not to mention many thousands dead in Guatemala and Honduras.
Poindexter, having fallen on his sword to save Reagan and Bush, moved into the private sector to pursue his passion for electronic surveillance. In the 1980s, Poindexter had pioneered electronic surveillance in the US through a 1984 initiative known as National Security Decision Directive 145. This gave intelligence agencies the right to trawl computer databases for "sensitive but unclassified information", a power Poindexter later expanded to give the military responsibility for all computer security for both the federal government and private industry.
It would be wrong to argue that convicted felons should not get a second chance. But this usually requires payment of a debt to society and even remorse, something Poindexter has never shown. Under this President Bush, Poindexter expanded the surveillance of US citizens to unprecedented levels, designing programs that would not only track trillions of emails, text messages and phone calls but even send agents into public libraries to compile information on what Americans were reading.
Back in Argentina, though, where the festering sore of crimes that were never cleansed through judicial procedures has haunted politics for decades, the new president, in a bold and surprising move, has removed legal obstacles to the extradition of more than 40 military officers wanted for torture, kidnapping and murder of various foreign citizens in the Dirty War. Lies and deceit, as they have learned in Buenos Aires, are enemies of freedom and democracy and generate more lies and deceit. President Nestor Kirchner's actions may yet put an end to a culture of past impunity that has poisoned the politics of the present. In Washington, under this administration, the crimes of the past have been the passport to power; the methods, far from being discarded, have merely been refined.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003