Masters of deceit
Convicted felons responsible for thousands of deaths are calling the shots at
the White House
Thursday August 7, 2003
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
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
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 favourite 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 immunised 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 sur veillance 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 programmes 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
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