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How the National Security State Created a State of Global Insecurity

Oliver North, Eugene Hasenfus, Ronald Reagan, Adolfo Calero

Oliver North (left), Eugene Hasenfus capture (right top), newspaper clipping (right middle) and President Ronald Reagan in Robert McFarlane's office with Adolfo Calero, a Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance (Contra) leader, and Oliver North (right bottom). Photo credit: C-SPAN, University of Wisconsin, The Constantine Report and National Archives


Dear Reader: As journalism chases the perceived diminishing attention span by making everything shorter and shorter, we’re going to head in the opposite direction on occasion – go really deep and thorough on something historical and still of interest. Here’s one such case: a remarkable look at Iran-Contra, a still somewhat-mysterious big scandal of 30 years ago that tells us much about the Deep State, the Military-Industrial complex and America’s will to empire that provides context to so much happening today.

This is the first of a three-part series exploring Iran-Contra and its implications. Part I describes the Reagan Administration’s secret wars and illegal arms deals exposed in the scandal. Part II explains how the constitutional and legal crisis unfolded but backfired politically in the Bush and Clinton years. Part III will survey the era of global insecurity we have entered in the second Bush and Obama Administrations and the role key members of the incoming Trump team played in creating it by immunizing themselves from the consequences of past criminality.

The author, Doug Vaughan, spent years as an investigative journalist covering the Central/South American horrors of the 1970s and 80s. In this series, he draws a throughline from that troubling time to the present cast of characters taking their places in a new administration. It provides background to Donald Trump’s decision to ignore many veterans of the George W. Bush administration while reaching back to those who served Bush’s father and Ronald Reagan, and the pernicious influence of Dick Cheney.

–Russ Baker, Editor in Chief


“Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.” — Claudius1

Thirty years ago the United States government was embroiled in a scandal whose repercussions are felt today in a perverse variation on the idea that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We have been repeating Iran-Contra operations in various forms and guises ever since, only now they’re not a scandalous aberration but standard operating procedure of the Deep State.

Illegal wars are now legal. Covert operations are continuous. Only revealing them is illegal.

Thirty years later, every day is Day of the Dead and each night is New Year’s Eve when we make resolutions to do better next time. Where to begin the body count? The scandal itself began dramatically enough, at least in the theater of television if not the cauldron of secret war where it had been simmering, waiting to explode, for years.

The Fat Lady, the Arrow & a Rabbit’s Foot


Let’s return, then, to the unmasking of aged players, the unraveling of ancient plots:

On the night of October 5, 1986, a young conscript in the People’s Sandinista Army named Jose’ Fernando Canales Aleman was on patrol near San Carlos on the Rio San Juan in the hills of southern Nicaragua. Hearing the now-familiar low roar of a big propeller-driven airplane, Canales aimed his shoulder-fired rocket-launcher at the big belly of a lumbering Fairchild C-123K Provider as it swung down to 2,500 feet overhead in the moonlit clouds.

Bwooshh! The Soviet-made Strela (“arrow” in Russian) surface-to-air missile roared off with its characteristic tailing flare, then Boom! exploded near the fuselage of the aircraft. Much to the boy-soldier’s delight and surprise — “shock and awe” were terms reserved for later displays of superior firepower — the big bird burst into flame. Down it came like a wounded duck, crashing into the jungle.

A single parachute popped open. Fluttering down came the lucky survivor. The patrol quickly surrounded him, tied him up and took him to their camp while others searched the wreckage. In the mess, they found 3 bodies with documents identifying the dead pilot as William Cooper; the co-pilot as Wallace Sawyer; the radioman as Freddy Vilches, a Nicaraguan.

Their lone captive identified himself as Eugene Hasenfus (“rabbit’s foot” in German), a semi-employed construction worker from Marinette, Wisconsin, an ex-Marine and Vietnam War vet. Like his dead companions, Hasenfus had signed on with Corporate Air Services to load and kick cargo out of the Provider for a lousy $3,000 a month. So cheap were his employers, he had borrowed the parachute from his sky-diving brother; it was the only ‘chute on board.  A day later, Hasenfus was in Managua with smiling guards of the state-security force facing the cameras as the hapless mug of a two-faced war.2

Nicaraguan Contras

Nicaraguan Contras, 1987.

Photo credit: Tiomono / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Call it a lucky shot in the dark: It was inevitable, perhaps, that a soldier someday would shoot down a plane. But because that lone crewman survived, that one lucky shot put the lie to at least seven years of deceptions by the US government:  Since the Sandinistas took power in July 1979, reporters had been chronicling the murderous raids by the US-trained and supplied Contras (from the Spanish for counter-revolutionary) on villages along the northern border with Honduras for six years, and the southern border with Costa Rica for four. Most of these reports were widely distributed in Latin America and Europe but ignored by the public or dismissed as Communist propaganda in the US.3

There should have been no surprise because there was ample precedent: The United States government supported mercenaries under William Walker who invaded Nicaragua in 1855 and declared himself president with ambitions to rule all of Central America. But he made the mistake of seizing a railroad from the Vanderbilt interests, who organized a counter-counter-revolutionary expedition to overthrow the usurper, culminating in his execution in 1861.

The United States threatened the country by “gunboat diplomacy” throughout the 19th century as a potential route for a transoceanic canal and to guarantee payment of “loans” secured by a lien on customs duties and excise taxes. The US directly occupied the port cities, then took over the country from 1912-25, and 1926-33, triggering an uprising led by Augusto Cesar Sandino. Sandino was executed by the commander of the US-created National Guard, Anastasio Somoza, whose family ruled until his son’s overthrow in July 1979 by Sandino’s successors and namesakes, the Frente de Liberacion Nacional Sandinista.4

The Carter Administration had handled the Sandinistas gingerly, withdrawing support from Somoza, as they had the Shah of Iran a year earlier, encouraging economic development — a euphemism for investment of foreign capital — to contain “communist expansionism” and supporting a “democratic opposition” and “free and fair elections” in the name of human rights.5

But the ousted Somocistas had already begun organizing in exile with support from sympathetic governments in league with exiled Cubans from Miami all around the Gulf and Caribbean coasts. The Republican Party’s candidates made their intentions clear during the 1980 campaigns,6 openly calling for “regime change” in both Nicaragua and Iran, starting with economic strangulation of their debt-strapped economies, and psychological warfare using private companies, foundations, churches, pro-business newspapers and labor unions, a model that had worked in Chile in 1973.

A former CIA officer laid out this blueprint in a paper published by the right-wing Heritage Foundation on the eve of Reagan’s election,7 followed afterward by a series of policy papers, journal articles, speeches and a propaganda offensive orchestrated by his National Security Council.8 As in any war, psywar preferred its victims far away, where their screams could not be heard, but the targets of this propaganda were at home, watching TV.

The war had never been confined to words, as the head of the new Nicaraguan government, Daniel Ortega, made clear to the United Nations Security Council on March 25, 1982, when he denounced the US-trained and supplied counter-revolutionary army in Honduras and the Panama Canal Zone, continuous violations of the country’s air space and offshore territory by surveillance and resupply craft, bombing of bridges and ports, even the rendition — kidnapping — and torture of prisoners of this covert war. The US response was not to deny these attacks but to accuse Ortega of “paranoia” based on a guilty conscience 9 — a psy-war tactic today’s social media call “gas-lighting.” There was another motive: the US war on Nicaragua was illegal, not only under international law and the UN Convention, but US law, including the Neutrality Act.

As in any war, psywar preferred its victims far away, where their screams could not be heard, but the targets of this propaganda were at home, watching TV.

The organizers of this not-so-secret war had maintained the fiction that, since Congress banned the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from providing weapons two years earlier, all this mayhem had been orchestrated by a “private” network of supporters while the ever merciful US government had confined itself to providing “humanitarian assistance” to refugees. But, unkicked by Hasenfus inside the cargo bay were, according to the manifest, “60 collapsible AK-47 rifles, 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, several dozen RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots.” (Others put the take at 70 AKs, 100,000 rounds.) A flight log showed the Provider had left a CIA hive at Ilopango air base in El Salvador, buzzed down the western coast of Nicaragua, swung over the Costa Rican side of the San Juan, only to be hit by the Strela when it crossed the border into Nicaraguan air space to drop its load. It was just another lawless act of war in another illegal, undeclared war made visible by the inevitable collateral damage.10

Echoes in the Garbage Can


News of the downed Provider and Hasenfus captured arrived in Denver thanks to a wire dispatch from the Associated Press on October 8, 1986, hot-handed to me by a colleague over a beer at the Press Club. My primitive online computer bulletin board was already buzzing with rumors confirmed by expensive collect calls from friends in Managua. Between jobs, marriages and stints in Latin America where I had travelled, studied, worked since 1968, I was flogging as a freelance reporter for, among others, The New York Times, mostly chasing Klansmen and Nazis who had gunned down11 a friend, Alan Berg, a radio talk-show host, in June 1984. They had shown up in various fracases with protesters in Denver then hid in their homey bunkers while pumping up each other’s courage in the new online chat rooms like Usenet, where they were so far beyond conservative, or conventional notions of the Right that they took on the moniker alt-right.

Lines converge for events, revealing a pattern: I also was pursuing ties of a local investor to weapons tests in the California desert for the Contras, assembled by a private security firm staffed by veterans of the military and the CIA. And they led me back to my home turf.

A retired Army officer, Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, lived in the mountains near Denver but was seldom home to answer the phone or random knocks on his door.  Singlaub had served in World War II with the Office of Special Services (OSS, forerunner of CIA) as a “Jedburgh”, part of a team that parachuted behind enemy lines to organize resistance and sabotage. He worked with the CIA, fought in Korea, and rose to chief of special operations for the military in Vietnam. His Military Assistance Command-Vietnam/Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG) was the hatchery for later “elite” combined-operations like Delta Force. He returned to Korea as commander of Army forces there but was forced to retire by Jimmy Carter when, like his idol and patron Gen. MacArthur, he denounced the commander-in-chief’s effort to reduce the number of troops and nukes on the peninsula as part of negotiations to end that war.

John K. Singlaub

Retired Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, former Office of Strategic Services officer and founding member of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), gets his Special Forces tab pinned on his chest in 2/20/2016. Inset: a younger portrait of Singlaub.

Photo credit: US Army and US Army / Wikimedia

As head of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL),12 Singlaub was fronting internationally as a fundraiser and cheerleader for that ostensibly “private” network of right-wing supporters of the Contras, including the Coors brewing clan (patriarch Joseph Coors made an easy touch: he had funded the John Birch Society, was a member of Reagan’s informal “kitchen cabinet” of advisers). The network included outright Nazis, fascists, Latin military dictators, the Moonie religious cult with ties to the Korean CIA that owned the Washington Times, predecessor to the newly formed Fox News as mouthpiece for the Right.

WACL provided a forum for coordinating mercenaries recruited through Soldier of Fortune, the magazine published in Boulder by retired Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown,13 who had worked under Singlaub in Vietnam, running Green Beret A-teams into the countryside to capture, interrogate and kill Viet Cong for CIA’s Phoenix Project. An SoF editor, veteran of MACV-SOG in Vietnam, Operation Menu in Cambodia, and CIA’s Laotian war, George Bacon had been engaged earlier on behalf of CIA-backed warlord Holden Roberto in Angola.14 Another merc, represented by a lawyer friend of mine, had been captured within days of arrival in 1976, tried, and released in 1982. He was not a happy guy and told us why: Like Hasenfus, he had been promised fortune if not fame, and blamed his ignominious capture on the incompetence of his superiors like Bacon, whose name is on a “wall of honor” at CIA headquarters. Another SoF editor and ex-Army Ranger, Mike Echanis, hired out as dictator Anastasio Somoza’s presidential guard and died there when his chopper was shot down on the Rio Sapoa in 1978.15

Singlaub had a direct link to the Reagan White House in the person of Donald Gregg, who had served as CIA station chief in Seoul when Singlaub commanded the Army there. Gregg now served as national security adviser to Vice-President Bush, to whom the management of the Contra war had been delegated. The crusty old general’s old boss in the Jedburghs was Reagan’s CIA Director William V. Casey.

Looking back, none of this was news to anyone who had been paying attention beyond their doorstep, not just reporters with some experience in the region but even to casual travelers, like those many supporters of the Sandinistas — “sandalistas” they were derisively dubbed — college students who went there to study, church groups who put up schools and clinics, but especially those who had come to oppose US policy, based on past experience in the region or testimony from the frontlines by groups like Witness for Peace.16

Most of the public probably didn’t know or weren’t interested because most of the media —  which then meant newspapers, an already endangered species at the height of hubris, which provided the news to television and radio, where call-in talk-shows with shock-jocks like Berg or his conservative competitors like Rush Limbaugh were the rage — were not paying attention or playing catch-up or worse, beating the drums for war.

Colorado was hardly unique: Singlaub and Brown set up a “charity” to help the Contras get supplies by small planes and helicopters, run by another retired general in Texas, Heinie Aderholdt, who had been Singlaub’s deputy for air operations at MACV-SOG. There were much larger nodes in Southern California, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, especially where there were concentrations of Vietnamese and H’mong who had worked for the CIA, Cuban exiles longing for revenge against Castro, even Nazi collaborators who had scampered down the Ratlines into the nascent Agency’s embrace at the end of the Good War. Like the Butcher of Riga, Edgars Laipenieks — Olympic hero, coach of track and ski at the University of Denver, recruiter of Soviet defectors in Mexico City, 1968, according to Agency whistleblower Philip Agee.17 Laipenieks had been fingered to me by my dean at the University’s Graduate School of International Studies, Josef Korbel, himself a CIA-sponsored refugee, father of future Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and mentor to my classmate, Condoleezza Rice. So, follow the money — if you can find it. But first, follow the men. Privateers maybe, but private? Gimme a break.

I had also done some work for the Washington Post on the escapades of Edwin Wilson and Frank Terpil, former CIA contractors who allegedly had gone “rogue” in working for the Reagan administration’s once and future bogeyman, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, in Libya.18