Thursday 7 August 2003

Masters of deceit

Convicted felons responsible for thousands of deaths are calling the shots at the White House

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announced today that DARPA's participation in the Futures Markets Applied to Prediction (FutureMAP) program has been withdrawn"

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 torturers.

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.

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