False Republican claims about President Barack Obama’s health-care initiative, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s demagogic charge about a “death panel,” are part of a pattern of systematic lying that has marked the GOP’s political tactics at least since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s.
Indeed, to understand how the war against health-care reform is gaining traction, you must look back three decades to the dawn of this Republican era of pervasive deception.
It was during the early Reagan administration that it hit me that falsifying reality was no longer an aberration for Republicans – something done by a politician caught in a tight spot or a debater spinning a losing argument – but had become part and parcel of GOP strategy.
Not that Democrats and other politicians don’t lie or dissemble, too. As a reporter for the Associated Press, I had encountered devious politicians of various stripes while covering Rhode Island politics and Washington’s Capitol Hill in the mid-to-late 1970s.
But something new was afoot in the early 1980s. Republicans were adopting a conscious approach to deception that was qualitatively different from what was common in politics. With the aid of a growing right-wing media, the GOP covered up ghastly crimes by its allies and enflamed public opinion against its adversaries, regardless of the facts.
I first confronted this pattern while covering Reagan’s hard-line policies toward Central America. The lies started just weeks after Reagan’s 1980 election, when four American churchwomen were raped and murdered by government security forces in rightist-ruled El Salvador.
On the night of Dec. 2, 1980, two of the women, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, drove a white mini-van to the international airport outside San Salvador. There, they picked up Ita Ford and Maura Clarke who had attended a conference in Nicaragua.
Leaving the airport, the van turned onto the road that heads into the capital city. At a roadblock, a squad of soldiers stopped the van and took the women into custody. After a phone call apparently to a superior officer, the sergeant in charge said the orders were to kill the women. The soldiers raped them first and then executed the women with high-powered rifles.
The atrocity was only one of hundreds committed each month by the Salvadoran security forces in a “dirty war” against leftists and their suspected supporters, a conflict that was more mass murder than a war, a butchery that would eventually claim some 70,000 lives. The Dec. 2 atrocity stood out only because Americans were the victims.
The proper response from U.S. officials would have seemed obvious: to join U.S. Ambassador Robert White in denouncing the brutal rape and murder of four American citizens. But the incoming Reagan foreign policy team didn’t see it that way; Reagan was on the side of the rightist Salvadoran military.
So, the rape-murder was treated like a public relations problem, best handled by shifting blame onto the victims. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s choice for United Nations ambassador, depicted the victims as “not just nuns. The nuns were political activists – on behalf of the [leftist opposition] Frente.”
Kirkpatrick's implication was that it wasn’t all that bad to rape and murder “political activists.”
After Reagan took office in 1981, his first Secretary of State Alexander Haig went before Congress and testified that “the nuns may have run through a roadblock or may have accidentally been perceived to have been doing so, and there may have been an exchange of fire.”
In just a few weeks, the nuns had gone from being innocent victims to “political activists” to armed insurgents – although knowledgeable U.S. government officials admitted there was no evidence behind Haig’s shoot-out speculation.
At one point when I was covering a news conference held by the churchwomen’s families, the event was disrupted by right-wing “journalists” who had positioned themselves around the room and began accusing the families of misrepresenting the facts.
“They weren’t raped,” one of the men yelled at the shocked family members. Clearly, Washington was entering a new phase of aggressive right-wing activism that would seek to intimidate anyone who challenged Reagan’s version of reality.
Beyond the churchwomen’s case, the evidence was overwhelming that the Salvadoran security forces and their allied “death squads” had committed the bulk of the political carnage, But Reagan insisted that wasn’t the case.
“We think we are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador,” Reagan told a news conference on March 6, 1981. Reagan cited figures that purported to show that the leftist guerrillas “boasted” about committing more than half the political killings in 1980.
But Reagan reached that conclusion – which contradicted the assessments of all leading human rights groups – by relying on methodology that systematically over-counted the guerrilla claims. His analysts added up every time the guerrillas issued a war bulletin on enemy troops killed, even when the dispatches were being repeated or when the tallies were cumulative.
In other words, the State Department simply counted the same guerrilla battlefield claims over and over again to bring the number to about half the total of people killed. As I reported for the AP, Reagan administration officials could not cite any specific guerrilla “boast” about committing more than half the political killings. That was an invention.
While playing defense for its right-wing allies, the administration went on the offensive against journalists who challenged Reagan’s lies and misstatements.
Reagan’s first presidential news conference was so full of errors that it prompted the AP's Washington bureau to publish a fact-checking article disputing a number of the false or misleading claims. But that article drew angry complaints from the White House and pro-Reagan conservatives in the news media, including some executives at AP “member” newspapers.
So, when Reagan peppered his next press conference with more errors of fact – and AP journalists began compiling a new fact-checking article – the story was killed by the AP brass in New York, where some top officials including general manager Keith Fuller were vocal admirers of the new President.
Similar pressure was mounting across the U.S. news media.
At the New York Times, for instance, Central America correspondent Raymond Bonner became the target of right-wing attack groups when he kept on reporting about Salvadoran government atrocities, including the El Mozote massacre in December 1981 at which hundreds of men, women and children were shot, hacked to death, bludgeoned or burned alive.
Bonner’s El Mozote story and a similar one by the Washington Post’s Alma Guillermoprieto appeared on Jan. 27, 1982, the day before Reagan was set to certify that the Salvadoran government deserved more U.S. weapons because it was making a “concerted” effort to respect human rights and “achieving substantial control over all elements of its own armed forces.”
Despite the new revelations of a massacre, Reagan went ahead with the certification and dispatched assistant secretaries of state Thomas Enders and Elliott Abrams to Capitol Hill to denounce the El Mozote stories as false or at least wildly exaggerated.
The administration’s denials – combined with escalating attacks on Bonner’s credibility from well-financed right-wing organizations – led the New York Times to withdraw Bonner from Central America and stick him in a lesser job, leading him to quit.
In removing Bonner, the Reagan team had collected an important journalistic scalp. (Almost a decade later – after the Salvadoran civil war ended – a United Nations forensics team dug up the massacre site and discovered hundreds of human skeletons, including those of little children. After his vindication, Bonner was rehired by the Times.)
Beyond Central America – in the name of escalating the Cold War – the Reagan administration unleashed propaganda waves, one after another, including bogus charges about the Soviet Union using “yellow rain” chemical warfare, plotting to assassinate Pope John Paul II, etc., etc.
This propaganda battering not only pounded the Washington press corps but eroded the objectivity and professionalism within the CIA’s analytical division, which had long prided itself on giving honest analysis to the policymakers. But the analysts were now pressured by CIA Director William Casey and his deputy Robert Gates to ratify the alarmist tales.
Much as honest journalists were weeded out of the mainstream news media during this period, so too were truthful CIA analysts, as careerists who were willing to play ball solidified their dominance both inside the national press corps and the U.S. intelligence community. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
As the Reagan administration’s propaganda campaign continued – and shifted to supporting a war by rightist contra rebels against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua – I began asking myself the unsettling question of what was the role of an American journalist when the U.S. government was not just lying once in a while but was lying systematically.
Was it possible to do your job honestly when it put you constantly in conflict with senior government officials who would retaliate in every way within their power, from denying you access, to complaining to your superiors, to siccing outside attack groups on you?
Most American journalists who were confronted with this difficult question chose to finesse the point, acting as if even blatant government lies were points in dispute or simply adopting a “patriotic” posture and taking the government’s side against foreign “enemies.”
Though early on I was suspicious that this war on reality was organized – not just an ad hoc response to individual cases – I didn’t find the documentary evidence to support that belief until the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986-87 resulted in a rupture of Reagan administration documents.
Scores of documents, which were released during congressional Iran-Contra hearings, showed that CIA Director Casey and other senior Reagan officials had created a "public diplomacy" apparatus that took aim not only at foreign public opinion but domestic as well.
The operation was overseen by CIA propagandists and military psychological warfare experts steeped in a concept called "perception management," the idea that the reactions of the American people could be controlled if their perceptions of global events could be managed.
However, the revealing documents received little attention in the mainstream press, in part perhaps because they revealed how successfully the Reagan administration had manipulated key journalists and coordinated its activities with anti-journalism groups.
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 Accuracy in Media and other pro-Reagan attack groups.
Casey, a World War II spymaster obsessed with the art of propaganda, knew it was the key to winning public support for Reagan’s Central American policies. "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 these perceptions was that they were on target. But the strategy paper recommended ways to influence various groups of Americans to "correct" the impressions, what another planning document would call eliminating "perceptional obstacles."
"Themes will obviously have to be tailored to the target audience," the strategy paper said.
So, a "public diplomacy" apparatus took shape to carry out this "perception management" campaign. The operation was based in Reagan’s National Security Council and was directed by Walter Raymond Jr., the CIA's top propaganda expert until transferring to the NSC in 1982.
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.
Given legal prohibitions on CIA manipulation of U.S. public opinion, 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.
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 done within the administration has to, by definition, be at arm’s 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 said.
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. [For details, see Parry’s Lost History.]
Even after the Iran-Contra scandal was exposed in 1986-87 and Casey died of brain cancer, the Republicans fought to keep secret the remarkable story of his public diplomacy apparatus.
As part of a deal to get three moderate Republican senators to join Democrats in signing the Iran-Contra majority report, Rep. Lee Hamilton, the investigation’s co-chairman, agreed to drop a draft chapter on the CIA's domestic propaganda role.
The American people were thus spared the chapter's troubling conclusion: “One of the CIA’s most senior covert action operators was sent to the NSC in 1983 by CIA Director Casey where he participated in the creation of an inter-agency public diplomacy mechanism that included the use of seasoned intelligence specialists.
“This public/private network set out to accomplish what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might attempt – to sway the media, the Congress, and American public opinion in the direction of the Reagan administration’s policies.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Iran-Contra’s Lost Chapter.”]
Author Mark Hertsgaard aptly entitled his book about the U.S. news media’s posture toward Reagan and his administration On Bended Knee.
This history remains relevant today because the Republicans largely extricated themselves from the Iran-Contra scandal without suffering too much damage.
Though implicated in the scandal, Vice President George H.W. Bush relied on similar deceptive and “hot button” campaign tactics – such as blaming Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for furloughed black convict Willie Horton raping a white woman – to keep the White House in Republican hands.
By the time Democrat Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Washington’s mainstream and right-wing news outlets were marching almost in lockstep, happily going on the offensive against the young President with a mix of distortions and exaggerations – such as the endless attacks on his Whitewater real estate investment and other alleged skullduggery in Arkansas.
This news media's pervasive scandal-mongering contributed to Clinton’s impeachment when he was caught in a lie about a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Though Clinton survived a Senate trial in 1999, the stage was set for a transfer of that press hostility to Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore in Election 2000. [See our book, Neck Deep.]
After seizing the White House despite losing the popular vote, George W. Bush’s presidency restored the media status quo of the Reagan-Bush-41 years. Most of the Washington press corps fell back on its knees, failing to ask tough questions about false claims regarding everything from the massive tax cuts favoring the rich to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush-43 administration also benefited from an expanded and highly sophisticated right-wing media apparatus – a vertically integrated structure reaching from newspapers, magazines and books to cable TV, talk radio and the Internet. When lonely citizens spoke up, like former weapons inspector Scott Ritter or the Dixie Chicks, they were emphatically slapped down.
The Republicans and their right-wing allies had achieved critical mass for a system that seemed capable of defining reality itself. That had been a dream of Bill Casey and Ronald Reagan, but under George W. Bush, it was almost fulfilled – but not completely.
Eventually with the stubborn Iraqi insurgency, Hurricane Katrina drowning New Orleans and swelling budget deficits, reality reasserted itself – and the American voters stripped the Republicans of their congressional control in 2006 and then the White House in 2008.
However, the Republicans have not repudiated the propaganda machinery that churned out so many of their successes over the past three decades. Instead they have turned to it with greater determination, viewing their continuing media power as the party’s last stronghold.
Republicans also have continued to push the nation’s “hot buttons,” much as they once did in rallying hostility against the Nicaraguan government or frightening people about the Soviet Union. Only now the target is the first African-American President, Barack Obama.
From the “perception management” strategies of the 1980s, one can see the roots of the false claims from the “birthers” who insist that Obama was born in Kenya despite clear documentary evidence that he was born in Hawaii, according to state files and local newspapers.
Facts don’t matter in this environment. “Hot buttons” – and repetition of the "themes" by numerous media outlets – matter.
“Perception management” is working, too, in building hysteria about Obama’s health-care initiative. Republicans and medical-industry-funded P.R. groups are spreading almost any wild rumor that might stir up the GOP “base” and scare easily frightened citizens.
That is where Palin’s unfounded claims about a “death panel” comes in, taking an innocuous clause in one of the congressional health-care bills – permitting Medicare payments to doctors who consult with patients and family members about end-of-life questions – and transforming that into some diabolical plot to kill the elderly and possibly other impaired citizens.
On her Facebook page on Aug. 7, Palin wrote: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
Rather than repudiate Palin’s false and outlandish claim, other leading Republicans, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, defended her.
“You are asking us to trust turning power over to the government, when there are clearly people in America who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards,” Gingrich said on ABC News’ “This Week” on Aug. 9.
Beyond lacking any evidence to support these euthanasia claims, there is the bitter irony that the current U.S. system of private health insurance has contributed to the deaths of untold thousands of Americans who – because they can’t afford health insurance or must pay large deductibles – don’t see a doctor when they or family members are at an early stage of illness.
While dreaming up the notion of Obama’s “death panel,” Palin, Gingrich and other Republicans ignore the well-documented reality that for-profit health insurance companies routinely deny Americans coverage even when those denials mean sentencing sick people to premature death.
So, in defense of real “death panels” run by insurance company bureaucrats, the Republicans conjure up make-believe “death panels” run by the government. It all makes sense in the world of perception management.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on August 12, 2009.