By Robert Parry
- Lost History: CIA's Perception Management
WASHINGTON -- William J. Casey was a quick study, always looking for an edge whether in business or in the ideological struggles that consumed the last years of his life. So in early August 1983, the balding CIA director hunched over a desk at the old Executive Office Building and scribbled down notes from five public relations experts who were brainstorming how to sell Ronald Reagan's Central American policies to the American people.
Earlier that day, a national security aide had warmed the P.R. men to their task with dire predictions that leftist governments would send waves of refugees into the United States and cynically flood America with drugs. The P.R. executives jotted down some thoughts over lunch and then pitched their ideas to the CIA director in the afternoon.
"Casey was kind of spearheading a recommendation" for better public relations for Reagan's Central America policies, recalled William I. Greener Jr., one of the ad men. Two top proposals arising from the meeting were for a high-powered communications operation inside the White House and private money for an outreach program to build support for U.S. intervention.
The ideas from that session and other meetings held during the Reagan administration's first years still resonate today. Through the mid-1980s, Casey's domestic propaganda campaign would descend into scandal-generation and disinformation against opponents, tactics that are now generic to American politics.
But few Americans know about Casey's "public diplomacy" apparatus which refined this approach in the 1980s -- or that the operation was overseen by CIA propagandists and military psychological warfare experts steeped in an Orwellian concept called "perception management."
Scores of documents about this operation poured out during the Iran-contra scandal. The documents made clear that the driving force behind these aggressive P.R. tactics was Casey, the World War II spymaster who understood the power of information and the value of deception. But the documents received little attention in the mainstream press.
As the Washington media grew bored with the Iran-contra story, articles focused on the celebrity of Lt. Col. Oliver North and narrow questions, such as who authorized a diversion of Iran arms sales profits to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. Yet, the "public diplomacy" campaign was a dramatic tale, too. It was the story of how the top level of the CIA had circumvented law and manipulated U.S. public opinion in support of CIA covert operations in Central America. Although the CIA is legally barred from influencing domestic politics, no one was held accountable for the apparent violations of law.
At the start of the Reagan administration, Casey's challenge had seemed daunting. The administration saw Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua as another Cuba and Daniel Ortega as another Castro. But in late 1980, the American people saw El Salvador's right-wing military engaged in a bloodbath against leftist political opponents. To make matters worse, Salvadoran soldiers even raped and murdered four American churchwomen. The public also retained fears of "another Vietnam."
So, Reagan's initial strategy of bolstering the Salvadoran army required defusing the negative publicity and somehow rallying the American people to the anti-communist cause. As deputy assistant secretary to the Air Force, J. Michael Kelly, put it, "the most critical special operations mission we have ... is to persuade the American people that the communists are out to get us."
Hounding the Press
At the same time, the White House worked to weed out American reporters who uncovered facts that undercut the desired images. As part of that effort, the administration attacked New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing the massacre of about 800 men, women and children in the village of El Mozote in northeast El Salvador in December 1981. Accuracy in Media and conservative news organizations, such as The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, joined in pummeling Bonner, who was soon ousted from his job.
The administration also made sure to reward its friends. According to one National Security Council memo dated May 20, 1983, U.S. Information Agency director Charles Wick brought private donors to the White House situation room for a fund-raiser which collected $400,000 for AIM and a few other pro-Reagan groups.
By then, "public diplomacy" was becoming Casey's new code word for influencing the opinions of the American people as well citizens of foreign countries. "The overall purpose" behind Casey's initiative "would be to sell a 'new product' -- Central America -- by generating interest across-the-spectrum," another NSC document stated.
A "public diplomacy strategy paper," dated May 5, 1983, summed up the problem. "As far as our Central American policy is concerned, the press perceives that: the USG [U.S. government] is placing too much emphasis on a military solution, as well as being allied with inept, right-wing governments and groups. ...The focus on Nicaragua [is] on the alleged U.S.-backed 'covert' war against the Sandinistas. Moreover, the opposition ... is widely perceived as being led by former Somozistas."
The administration's difficulty with most of these press perceptions was that they were correct. But the strategy paper recommended ways to influence various groups of Americans to "correct" the impressions anyway, what another planning document would call "perceptional obstacles." "Themes will obviously have to be tailored to the target audience," the strategy paper said.
So, with Casey personally consulting experts, a "public diplomacy" apparatus took shape to carry out this "perception management." The operation was based in the NSC and was directed by Walter Raymond Jr., the CIA's top propaganda expert until transferring to the NSC in 1982.
A le Carre Spy
Raymond, a 30-year veteran of CIA clandestine services, was a slight, soft-spoken New Yorker who reminded some of a character from a John le Carre spy novel, an intelligence officer who "easily fades into the woodwork," according to one acquaintance. Raymond formally resigned from the CIA in April 1983 so, he said, "there would be no question whatsoever of any contamination of this."
But from the beginning, Raymond fretted about the legality of Casey's involvement. Raymond confided in one memo that it was important "to get [Casey] out of the loop," but Casey never backed off and Raymond continued to send progress reports to his old boss well into 1986.
It was "the kind of thing which [Casey] had a broad catholic interest in," Raymond shrugged during his Iran-contra deposition. He then offered the excuse that Casey undertook this apparently illegal interference in domestic politics "not so much in his CIA hat, but in his adviser to the president hat."
Raymond also understood that the administration's hand in the P.R. projects must stay hidden, because of other legal bans on executive-branch propaganda. "The work down within the administration has to, by definition, be at arms length," Raymond noted in an Aug. 29, 1983, memo.
Repeatedly, Raymond lectured his subordinates on the chief goal of the operation: "in the specific case of Nica[ragua], concentrate on gluing black hats on the Sandinistas and white hats on UNO [the contras' United Nicaraguan Opposition]." There was no space for the fact that both sides wore gray hats. So Reagan's speechwriters dutifully penned descriptions of Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua as a "totalitarian dungeon" and the contras as the "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers."
As one NSC official told me, the campaign was modeled after CIA covert operations abroad where a political goal is more important than the truth. "They were trying to manipulate [U.S.] public opinion ... using the tools of Walt Raymond's trade craft which he learned from his career in the CIA covert operation shop," the official admitted.
Another administration official gave a similar description to The Miami Herald's Alfonso Chardy. "If you look at it as a whole, the Office of Public Diplomacy was carrying out a huge psychological operation, the kind the military conduct to influence the population in denied or enemy territory," that official explained.
The operation's most visible arm was a new office at the State Department called the Office of Public Diplomacy. It was headed by Cuban exile Otto Reich, whose job included selecting "hot buttons" that would anger Americans about the Sandinistas. He also browbeat correspondents who produced stories that conflicted with the administration's "themes." Reich once bragged that his office "did not give the critics of the policy any quarter in the debate."
Another part of the office's job was to plant "white propaganda" in the news media through op-eds secretly financed by the government. In one memo, Jonathan Miller, a senior public diplomacy official, informed White House aide Patrick Buchanan about success placing an anti-Sandinista piece in The Wall Street Journal's friendly pages. "Officially, this office had no role in its preparation," Miller wrote.
Other times, the administration put out "black propaganda," outright falsehoods. In 1983, one such theme was designed to anger American Jews by portraying the Sandinistas as anti-Semitic because much of Nicaragua's small Jewish community fled after the revolution in 1979. However, the U.S. embassy in Managua investigated the charges and "found no verifiable ground on which to accuse the GRN [the Sandinista government] of anti-Semitism," according to a July 28, 1983, cable. But the administration kept the cable secret and pushed the "hot button" anyway.
The administration's public diplomacy also followed up on one idea heard by the P.R. men who met with Casey in August 1983 -- to promote the theme that leftist governments would ship narcotics to the United States. The obstacle to that argument, however, was that the Drug Enforcement Administration knew of no drugs which had transited Nicaragua since the Sandinistas took power.
The reason was simple: it made little sense for traffickers to smuggle drugs through a country with almost no trade with the United States while the CIA was monitoring all planes leaving Nicaraguan air space. The Reagan administration solved that P.R. problem by arranging a "sting" operation overseen by Oliver North and the CIA.
In 1984, convicted narcotics trafficker Barry Seal, who was cooperating with the DEA, arranged for a plane to fly a load of cocaine into Nicaragua. But the plane was shot down by Sandinista air defenses. Seal then flew in a second plane, a C-123 transport. He snapped some grainy photos of men, supposedly Nicaraguans and Colombians, loading bales of cocaine onto the plane. Seal then flew the load back to the United States where the story was leaked to The Washington Times and quickly spread onto front pages across America. The desired image was achieved.
Poisoning America's Youth
In a TV address, President Reagan then accused top Sandinistas of "exporting drugs to poison our youth." Even today, Seal's photos are cited by conservative journalists to counter evidence of cocaine smuggling by the contras, the guys in the glued-on white hats.
Yet, in the Seal-Sandinista drug case, only one Nicaraguan, a shadowy figure named Federico Vaughan, was ever indicted. Vaughan supposedly worked for the Nicaraguan Interior Ministry. But strangely, Vaughan had been calling his American drug contacts from a phone located at either the U.S. or other Western embassies. It was never clear for whom Vaughan was working. DEA officials stated that they had no evidence that any other Nicaraguan official, besides Vaughan, had participated in drug smuggling.
The DEA also complained that the White House blew the smuggling investigation prematurely to embarrass the Sandinistas before a contra aid vote. The bigger fish sought by the DEA had included the leaders of the Medellin drug cartel. But the administration had sacrificed that probe to gain a propaganda edge.
A year later, in 1985, the evidence would build that the contras were engaged in real drug trafficking. In reaction, the administration again would put P.R. ahead of law enforcement. The public diplomacy team would activate, to attack the journalists and investigators who revealed this evidence.
Even after the Iran-contra scandal unraveled in 1986-87 and Casey died of brain cancer, the Republicans fought to keep secret the remarkable story of this public diplomacy apparatus. As part of a deal to get three moderate Republican senators to join Democrats in signing the Iran-contra report, Democratic leaders dropped a draft chapter on the CIA's domestic propaganda role.
The American people were thus spared the chapter's troubling conclusion: that a covert propaganda apparatus had existed, run by "one of the CIA's most senior specialists, sent to the NSC by Bill Casey, to create and coordinate an inter-agency public-diplomacy mechanism [which] did what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might do. [It] attempted to manipulate the media, the Congress and public opinion to support the Reagan administration's policies." It had succeeded.
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