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The advertising agency: how the CIA flouted the law using Madison Avenue techniques to arm-twist for the contras.

One muggy August day in 1983, five advertising executives entered the stately Old Executive Office Building next to the White House and walked to the security checkpoint where uniformed officers handed them temporary clearance badges. The executives were then led to a briefing room where a young military aide explained why the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Casey, had invited them to the National Security Council offices. Casey, the aide explained, wanted these ad men to devise tactics for selling the American people on the strategic threat posed by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and by Marxist rebels in El Salvador. After lunch, the executives met with Casey and in a brainstorming session more likely on Madison Avenue than Pennsylvania Avenue, the group sketched some ideas for pitching the Central American threat to the public.

The story of the PR campaign inspired by this meeting is one of the lesser known aspects of Iran-contra; it was overlooked again when the Reagan administration's biggest scandal crept back into the news in September to rehaunt George Bush with "what-did-he-know" questions. But in 1983, Casey set up a highly unusual propaganda machine that for three years ran "private" fundraising fronts, spread unseemly lies about the Sandinistas, and bullied journalists and editors, all in an effort to encourage the media and Congress to be more pro-contra. It didn't entirely work; most Americans never believed the contras were the Godfearing boy scouts Reagan said they were any more than they thought the Sandinistas were the devil's diplomats. But it did influence the congressional debate and discourage reporting about the contras in the nation's press. Casey's campaign was also extraordinary because it helped shield a secret White House contra aid program that was explicitly against the law. And it was a flagrant violation of the historic and legal barrier against the CIA's interference in U.S. political debates.

Casey initiated the PR offensive because, by the summer of 1983, Congress was losing patience with the contras. Stories were seeping northward about atrocities perpetrated by undisciplined contra units sweeping through Nicaraguan villages like born-tobe-wild motorcycle gangs. Unarmed captives were executed, women raped, and farming communities devastated. But Casey knew that to toss out the Sandinistas, the contras needed to grow into an effective fighting force. That would take time and money; he was running out of the former and Congress was about to get tight with the latter.

Casey believed his best chance to salvage the situation was through a combination of continued economic-militarypolitical pressure on the Sandinistas and a bold "public diplomacy" campaign at home to mold public opinion and put Congress in a more pro-contra mood. One internal White House memo would describe Casey as the driving force behind a PR apparatus that would "sell a 'new product' --Central America." But while Casey was about to get into the PR biz, he had no intention of becoming the next Lee Iaccoca; the CIA is, after all, barred by law from influencing American public opinion.

To skirt those rules, a career CIA propaganda expert, Walter Raymond Jr., agreed to resign from the agency before taking over the "public diplomacy" apparatus. Raymond also recognized that it was important "to get [Casey] out of the loop," according to an August 29, 1983, memo. That wouldn't be easy. Years later. looking back on his failure to ease Casey out of sight, Raymond offered Iran-contra investigators the rationalization that Casey had engaged in these PR activities "not so much in his CIA hat, but in his adviser-to-the-president hat."

But starting in 1983, Casey peppered the PR operation with suggestions, helped arrange staff, and received progress reports on the project's success in molding public perceptions. Even after $100 million in contra aid was approved in 1986, Casey kept up the pressure. In August of that year, he dispatched one of his CIA counselors, Peter Dailey, to meet with the public diplomacy team and urge them to "run it more like a political/presidential campaign." A month later, on September 13, 1986, National Security Adviser John Poindexter sent a computer message to Oliver North, saying that Casey was still looking for "a political operative that can twist arms and also run a high-powered public affairs campaign."

One National Security Council official who worked closely with North and ex-CIA propagandist Raymond told me that the overall strategy was "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." Raymond, who called public diplomacy a "new art form," described the objective of his propaganda campaign as "gluing black hats on the Sandinistas and white hats [on the contras] ."

A team of what we can only guess were underutilized psychological warfare specialists from the special operations forces at Fort Bragg was called in to complement the creative talent already assembled from the advertising world. Their job was to identify "exploitable themes and trends," and, no question about it, they came up with some good stuff. One such "theme" was dubbed "Sandinista chic" and involved revealing that the "commandantes [were] living a high life style... [of] corruption and drugs."

Another early PR tactic targeted the U.S. Jewish community by depicting the Sandinistas as antiSemitic. Most of Nicaragua's small Jewish community had indeed fled Nicaragua after the revolution, but an investigation by the U.S. embassy in Managua found that the exiles' troubles stemmed from their close commercial and military ties to the Somoza dictatorship. The embassy "found no verifiable ground on which to accuse the [Nicaraguan government] of anti-Semitism." The White House withheld the embassy findings by keeping the cable classified.

To help create a receptive audience in Washington for its contra cheerleading, the administration's "public diplomacy" apparatus secretly funded several ostensibly private organizations to reiterate PR messages and challenge critics. The administration solicited from private donors $400,000, which was then dispensed to friendly groups, including Accuracy in Media, to spearhead attacks on critical journal_ ists. On other occasions, the administration paid outside consultants to write pro-contra opinion pieces that were then published in American newspapers.

White House aide Oliver North pursued a similar strategy when he raised private donations for procontra organizations such as the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty. That group, run by conservative activist Carl "Spitz" Channell, spent North-solicited money to sponsor negative political ads against congressmen who were regarded as swing votes and others who were leading contra critics. When one targeted critic, Maryland Rep. Michael Barnes, lost a Senate primary bid in 1986, Channell sent North a telegram proclaiming "an end to much of the disinformation and unwise effort directed at crippling your foreign policy goals."

Then there was the strategy for dealing with the press. From 1984 to 1986, the administration tried to stop reporters from publishing evidence that would cast a disparaging light on the contras by establishing a special public diplomacy office at the State Department, headed by Cuban exile Otto Reich.

In a memo to Raymond, Reich boasted that his "public diplomacy" office took "a very aggressive posture vis-a-vis a sometimes hostile press" and "generally did not give any quarter in the debate." Reich vowed that "attacking the president was no longer cost-free." The office had "killed" a number of purportedly "erroneous news stories" before the American people got to hear them, he said. And when Reich couldn't stop bad press outright, the least he could do was make the lives of the offending journalists very unhappy.

Reich's modus operandi was to go over the reporter's head to his editor or to a senior news executive, and challenge every fact, no matter how minor. If nothing else, the experience would waste the editor's time and leave him less eager to challenge the administration's spin the next time the reporter showed up with a contra-related story. In April 1984, for instance, Reich showed up at CBS offices in Washington after President Reagan fumed about the network's Central America coverage. Secretary of State George Shultz later reported to the president that Reich's team had spent one hour complaining to the offending correspondent and two more hours with his bureau chief. This approach, Shultz said, "has been repeated dozens of times over the past few months."

At National Public Radio, which is partially government funded, Reich and one of his aides demanded a meeting with executives and reporters after the network aired a report about a funeral for Nicaraguan civilians massacred in a contra attack. At the session, NPR's foreign editor Paul Allen recalled, Reich "went ballistic" over the story and warned NPR that its broadcasts on the contras "were being measured" for minutes that were deemed either pro- or anti-contra. Reich said he had made similar visits to many other news organizations and had succeeded in getting critical reporters reassigned.

Allen said Reich's tactics had a subtle effect at the radio network. NPR executives were later cool to stories about the controversial Nicaragua issue. Allen contended that his job evaluation was marked down partly for his role in airing the massacre story. Eventually, he quit NPR and left journalism altogether.

ABC News' correspondent Karen Burnes, who investigated the drug-trafficking issue and other allegations of corruption within contra ranks, cited similar frustrations. She told Rolling Stone that the administration pounding was so powerful that she opted for reassignment to Ethiopia to cover the famine. "I'll take a civil war any day before working in this city," she said.

At times, the public diplomacy squad played even dirtier. In 1985, Reich leaked a scurrilous story about American reporters in Managua accepting Sandinista prostitutes. "It isn't only women," Reich told New York magazine. For gay journalists, he said, the Sandinistas provided men. The "prostitute" charge was picked up and trumpeted by Accuracy in Media, which identified a Washington Post reporter as one of those allegedly receiving the sexual favors.

Reporters who stayed on the contra trail too long grew to expect administration-sponsored character assassination. In 1985-86, while at the Associated Press, reporter Brian Barger and I wrote many stories about contra abuses and the secret role of Oliver North in supplying the rebels in defiance of Congress. Administration spokesmen would routinely accuse us of bias, say we were "contra-obsessed" and accuse us of having gotten stories through "a personal relationship with someone on the NSC staff."

The whispered accusations against Barger were far nastier than the public ones. An official from Reich's public diplomacy team called one day in 1986 to warn me that my partner was "a Sandinista agent." When I pressed the government official for any evidence to support the charge, he acknowledged that he had none but continued to insist that Barger was "bad news."

Casey at the bat

The overall effect of the Reagan administration's campaign was to wear down the reporters who tried to probe what eventually became the biggest national security scandal of the decade. Although a handful of journalists turned out a few important stories on North's secret intelligence operation, many others figured it just wasn't worth the inevitable heat they would take.

Behind the scenes, Reich and Raymond celebrated their success. Reich bragged that his office had "played a key role in setting out the parameters and defining the terms of the public discussion on Central America policy." Raymond reported to Casey about the achievements of the CIA director's "public diplomacy" brainchild. In a memo sent through NSC adviser Poindexter, Raymond told Casey that "it is clear we would not have won the House vote without the painstaking deliberative effort undertaken by many people in the government and outside."

This claim may have had more to do with braggadocio than reality. But it's true that it took the shooting down of one of North's supply planes over Nicaragua on October 5, 1986, and a report about an Iranian arms-for-hostage scheme in a Beirut weekly on November 3, 1986, to bring the Iran-contra story the prominence it had long deserved. If Watergate was the high water mark for independent journalism, the Iran-contra scandal might have been its nadir. And successfully manipulating the press has proven to be one of the Reagan administration's more enduring legacies. Indeed, when the Desert Storm command sequestered journalists throughout the Persian Gulf war, it was easy to be reminded of Reagan's PR diplomacy team and hear, faintly and in the background, Casey's ad men hard at work.
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Author:Parry, Robert
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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