Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Government Manipulation and Distortion of History, Part I
Louis Wolf, Director of Research, Covert Action Quarterly
Having just traversed the political chessboard known as The Election, we are all still adjusting to new realities, such as the fellow from Arkansas who has moved himself and his family into the White House. Wait until the hip-pocket histories of the past election year start getting rushed into print, as they doubtless will; we can surely predict how little of the total picture they will record, and at how superficial they will be. Similarly, pick up almost any contemporary history college-level textbook about US foreign policy and read it with an eye first for accuracy, and in terms of the history you know, as opposed to the history you--as historians--may have read in the past or may have been taught. You will be as disturbed and frustrated as I am on such occasions.
The history we read has more often than not traveled a circuitous route through filters and biases that leave the words on the page relatively hollow and meaningless. Look for example at the chapter (if you find one), or just the few pages to be found in most standard history texts about the war in Vietnam. You will see how little resemblance there is between what is on the printed page and what you know about or have experienced personally. In my own case, either first as a conscientious objector in Laos as the B-52s were flying over on their way to Vietnam or on bombing missions just miles from where I was or, then as an antiwar protestor in Manila and the US, I am still looking to find the truth that I know and personally witnessed in Laos during those years. To this day, neither the official, government history, nor the history written by most scholars, tells but a fraction of the truth about the US war in Laos, the so-called "secret war."
I will return to that later. First, I wish to address the crying need for historians of today to reach beyond the "official," government-issue version of "history." This is especially urgent when it comes to truthfully and accurately recording the many controversial, contested, and every now and then "secret" (albeit publicly known) US wars, interventions, and "low-intensity" operations.
There was the Office of Public Diplomacy, headquartered at the Reagan State Department, actively targeting youth and students and every sector of public opinion via the mass media, with propaganda--which professional military and civilian government disinformation specialists call, with all the racist overtones of their terms, "white" (largely true, if biased in a certain direction), "grey" (partly true, partly false), or "black" (completely false) information, i.e., disinformation, about U.S. policies and activities in Central America. There were also the "briefings" and "leaks," given to chosen persons in both the print and electronic media, including by Lt. Col. Oliver North.
There is a CIA branch within its Directorate of Operations which deals entirely in media operations, mostly abroad (they're strictly illegal in the US--though it is known that doesn't always stop them), designed to influence public opinion. One scholar on this subject posited that the CIA's budget for covert propaganda and generalized media operations alone, fifteen years ago, ranged between $75 and $200 million. 1
Since the Rockefeller Commission report, 2 the multi-volume US Senate Church Committee was report issued in 1976-77, 3 the 1977 article by Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone 4, and the House CIA media report, 5 (each disclosing large-scale domestic media operations by the Agency) successive Directors of Central Intelligence have issued internal directives prohibiting certain domestic activities directed at or involving US media, as well as planting propaganda abroad that will return to the US--known in the trade as "blowback." 6 The reality is that, with the electronic revolution in media technology, there can be little or no control over what will happen to a false article or broadcast that the CIA plants in any media anywhere in the world.
It is not only false CIA propaganda that finds its way into the media, and into more than a few history texts. One of the critical problems of both journalists and historians is a virtually routine, and often blind, acceptance as fact of many prominent myths, including more than a few initially spawned by the designers of disinformation in the ranks of the military and intelligence agencies. Some of the myths arise more than anything from an ideological base, others from a conscious distortion of history. These myths then inexorably grow in stature and become, as expressed by one of the best investigative journalists in the country, Robert Parry, "conventional wisdom." 7
Every US president during my lifetime (that goes back to Franklin D. Roosevelt) has stated the seemingly magic phrase: "The United States is the greatest nation on earth." Recently, during the final presidential debate prior to the election, candidate Bill Clinton raised this categorization to a new level. He said: "This is the greatest nation in human history." It is surely unnecessary to underline for you the incredible Eurocentric racism and arrogance of this view, declared as it is by presidents and presidents-elect not only to the US public, but with the aid of electronic communications, to the entire world. Sad to say, there are precious few in this country, either in the media or among historians, who call to account those who make these statements.
On the eve of the war, Bush declared: "We will succeed in the Gulf....Among the nations of the world, only the United States of America has had both the moral standing and the means to back it up. We're the only nation on this Earth that could assemble the forces of peace." 8 Then just before he launched the war, while comfortably seated in the White House, George Bush looked out to the cameras and, with straight face, told millions of listeners, "We are going to kick ass." (It is notable that the FCC "seven dirty words" rule barring the use of this language was not applied.) Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell said, also just before "Operation Desert Storm" (this time within a smaller circle), "This is the Super Bowl." The glaringly embarrassing character of the top war planners was further demonstrated by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell when they strode up to a F-117A Stealth fighter plane parked in a hangar in Saudi Arabia, and proceeded to inscribe on a 2,000-pound bomb, "To Saddam with affection." 9 It was not surprising, even if a little jarring, to hear candidate Bill Clinton (in the final debate two weeks before the election) proclaim: "Operation Desert Storm was a remarkable event."
The profound popular opposition to the war, and mass demonstrations both in the U.S. and across the globe, were largely ignored by both the White House and the Congress amid the headlong rush to war. Alongside dozens of demonstrations nationwide estimated to have mobilized over three-quarters of a million people, there were more than 3,200 demonstrations against the war worldwide, where more than four million people took to the streets. 10 Whether the various histories of the war and the policies leading to it give weight to this mass opposition to the war policy remains to be seen.
In a memorable cartoon 11 that relied on the actual justifications for going to war against Iraq which were offered up by President Bush and his spokespersons, Herblock offered a powerful reminder of the duplicity of the war policy. Hopefully, historians will not overlook these self-serving, contradictory slogans.
Alongside 548,000 troops (and 45,000 body bags) mobilized to the war zone, the Pentagon dropped more than 88,000 tons of bombs on Iraq, 12 while deploying and using the Rockeye II Mk 20 cluster bomb that generates a hail of some half-million high-velocity shrapnel fragments, fuel-air explosive munitions containing high-energy fuels, with blast overpressures of two hundred pounds per square inch (psi) (humans can withstand forty psi), and the 15,000 pound BLU-82/B slurry bomb, known inside the military as "Big Blue" or the "Daisycutter." It carries a specialized explosive, DBA-22M, which is a mix of ammonium nitrate, powdered aluminum and a polystyrene soap binding agent. It is capable of producing blast overpressures of up to one thousand psi, a force exceeded only by nuclear weapons.
In the last hours of the war, as thousands of Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians, were fleeing Kuwait back toward Basra in Iraq on what was to be named the "Highway of Death," the "turkey shoot" began, and was over hours later, leaving behind a trail of death and devastation measuring some ten lanes wide by seven miles long. There were no survivors. 13
The scene evoked images of Hell for one soldier. "It was like driving through Dante's inferno," said Lt. Bill Feyk. Sgt. First Class Larry Porter admitted: "I don't think my wife needs to know what took place out there. I do not want her to know that side of me." 14
And when the boys and men tired of the unending bombing sorties, the head-to-head trench warfare, and the frequent desert sandstorms, some were given three-day "R&R" interludes onboard one of five Pentagon-chartered luxury cruise ships, outfitted with swimming pool, Jacuzzis, tennis courts, jogging track, bars, a nightclub, and a movie. George Bush's elite war fighters were even provided the services of three British striptease dancers contracted in London by DoD and specially brought in for three months on shipboard. "A lovely little routine with a few karate kicks," their manager boasted about one of his "girls," eighteen year-old Debbie McKee. "Then she gets down to sexy undies, stockings, suspenders, and what have you." 15 It is no secret that nearly without exception, the US media performed its "journalistic" role as virtual "cheerleaders" for the war. Viewers of ABC's "Nightline," the "CBS Evening News," NBC's "Good Morning America," and the CNN "News Hour," were provided a steady diet of cockpit footage showing "smart bombs" hitting stairwells of bunkers and buildings, while media anchors expressed awe at the advanced technology. Then there was the incredible array of everlasting "news briefings" [sic] by military brass. The New York Times described a battle on February 27 as, "...a one-sided victory... an impressive tableau of destruction." 16
The degree to which the Pentagon and White House truly managed the news during the Gulf War is exemplified by the systematic way that the human costs of the one-sided war were sanitized out. For example, CovertAction learned that all photographs taken or owned by the major picture agencies and showing bodies, were mysteriously ordered to be removed from circulation to the public through the mass media, and indeed from media files altogether. Gone. This "disappearance" and possible destruction of perhaps hundreds of news photos, not only distorted both the conduct and the effects of the war; it means that historians will never have the photographic record that has been available after other past conflicts involving the United States. 17 The subject of this panel is, of course one that, as a direct by-product of the field of journalism that I have pursued since 1966, I deal with on a daily basis. Nearly every day, as I read the newspapers or listen to and watch the electronic media, I am faced with news stories that either have been generated by or in some manner relate to a government document or documents, or which are portrayed as same. Through years of reading and from the constant flow and remarkably repetitive patterns in these news stories, it has become possible to develop a fairly refined "nose" for government mis- or disinformation, even if this non-anatomical nose may not be able to actually "finger" the precise source of the mis- or disinformation. The reliability of this "nose" has, for this writer at least, proven quite good.
Ever since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, its strengthening in 1974, and the passage of the Privacy Act in the same year, historians, journalists, and persons in many other fields of endeavor have used these laws to try to obtain files and documents from various federal agencies, on themselves, and on many different subjects and persons of interest and concern. Despite the fact that it has proven possible to get many documents released, with dozens of books and articles published from them (I have personally written several articles based in part on such releases) it is impossible to miss the built-in resistance and lethargy of most (not all) government bureaucrats involved with administration of responses to FOIA/PA requests, particularly from such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State. This is often very inhibiting on the research process, and has been particularly marked during the Reagan and Bush era. Often, their attitude seems to be either, "deny that any records exist," or "make them (the requestor) take us to court first (before releasing very much, if anything)." Nonetheless, this writer firmly believes in utilizing FOIA/PA to the maximum. Given the open and explicit hostility to these laws by these agencies, particularly by the CIA, NSA, and Department of Defense, including congressional testimony and lobbying to gut the laws entirely, the day may not be that far off when we all will look back on the existence of these laws as a "golden age." While they do exist, use them.
It is no secret in Washington that much more than ninety percent of the "leaking" of government documents is done by the government itself to serve one or several short and/or long-term ends or agendas. This practice is carried out within the very environment that is erected upon the Great Wall of Secrecy. Historians and journalists must continually be aware of the phenomenon, and of how the evolution of both news gathering and history writing are consciously and routinely manipulated by it. One must also beware as well that, every now and then, leaked documents have been altered, or occasionally, even forged. During the Cold War, US officials would frequently exclaim about Soviet use of disinformation, while pretending that "our side" never engages in the practice; the US has done so since World War I and before, and not just in combat situations.
Just as both research and polls are never neutral, since they depend upon who asks the questions, what questions are asked and not asked, who pays for the research or poll, and who does the interpretation and analysis of the results, our recorded history is often a by-product of what the government wants and doesn't want the people to be told.
One chapter in U.S. foreign policy which, for all practical purposes, has been either ignored or misrepresented by nearly all historians in this country, is the US role in Laos during the Vietnam War. 18 From 1964-67, this writer did alternative service in Laos as a conscientious objector to military service with International Voluntary Services (IVS), working as a rural development worker helping build wells, water-seal latrines, a school, and distributing agricultural seeds and fertilizer. Then eighteen years later, in December 1985-January 1986, I revisited Laos in a six-member delegation of persons who had worked there with IVS previously. This was a very important and moving experience for all of us, particularly seeing for ourselves the many visible changes since wartime.
Laos once was called The Land of One Million Elephants. But that was prior to the horrendous US bombing of the country, unparalleled in all history. From 1962-1975, nearly three million tons of ordnance--i.e., bombs of every size and description up through the 2,000-pounder which makes craters the size of a football field, as well as napalm, Agent Orange, and many other lethal weapons that were dropped on the Lao country and people. On a per capita basis, this made it the most bombed country in the history of the world.
Though indeed many elephants died, no one really knows how many people died during the war. While a precise national census was never taken before US intervention in Indochina, it was believed there were approximately two and one-half million inhabitants prior to 1960. The best available current population data, from the United Nations World Population Program, gives a 1990 figure of 4,139,000. Extrapolating from this latter number and allowing for normal population growth in the interim, it can be deduced that the Lao population was cut by a factor of at least one-third as a direct result of U.S. aggression. This doesn't include thousands who are forever physically and psychologically maimed. Today, fully seventeen years after the war supposedly ended, there remain many unexploded Guava and Grapefruit antipersonnel "bombies" air-dropped by the Air Force in untold numbers. There are hundreds of cases yearly of incidents where people--most often children--unknowingly step on, or accidentally strike while working in the rice paddies or forests, a "bombie" embedded just below the surface of the ground, detonating it, and either being killed, or sustaining a severe injury, such as losing an arm, a leg, or an eye, as well as suffering psychological damage. For these people, the war that never was is not yet over.
The Lao nation has had to endure and overcome the legacy of oppressive French colonialism and crude warfare, followed by a combination of highly technological, nearly genocidal warfare, and a markedly obtuse, condescending postwar posture from Washington. Seventeen years after the end of the war, it is monumentally immoral that in Laos--with whom this nation has bilateral diplomatic relations--the US refuses any real measure of genuine reconciliation. The White House and State Department remain essentially opposed to anything more than a mini Band-Aid level of helping to rebuild the country from the ravages of the war it waged there, unlike it's massive efforts to assist with the re building of Germany and Japan. Washington has offered Laos a token $1 million for artificial limbs and $8 million for road construction, a certifiable diplomatic insult.
Despite significant efforts by the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic government--the Pathet Lao--to forge progressive policies and social programs that would significantly alter the status quo, there are always very real problems facing it. In a land of long, slender lowland valleys, vast expanses of thick, uncharted jungle, and steep, cloud-topped mountains, where distances are measured in terms of how long it takes to walk from one place to another, with a per capita income of under $200 yearly, with an approximate fifty-five percent illiteracy rate, and with a pronounced dearth of infrastructure in public health, transportation, and communications, there are many obstacles to conquer.
It is generally agreed that the government is honest and largely corruption-free. One major change since the US war has been the priority given by the Lao government to education, which commands the largest portion of the national budget. Some seventy percent of the villages in the country have an elementary school, with over a half million students; the goal is for every village to have a school. High-school and university education is also vital to the government's agenda, with over twenty training centers for teachers at these levels already functioning. Seeking to make strides in agricultural and forestry development, the government is willing to try unorthodox solutions. A case in point is one innovative azolla propagation project near Vientiane, which has trained more than two dozen people from six rural provinces. The government is advocating the use of guano (bat excrement found in large quantities in caves) as fertilizer.
Not only does Laos have to worry about a policy emanating from Washington that combines festering hostility and unwritten agendas, most recently in the form of vague accusations implicating the Lao government in opium-trafficking--a charge (which all evidence available to me suggests is false) that seems to have been made either for a quick headline or to backhandedly pressure the Lao over the unending demands to search for and turn over the bones of downed Air Force pilots, and the live POWs it is now alleged are being held there after so many years have passed.
Laos-Thailand relations, which were bad throughout the centuries and were not improved while Thailand was during the war a key base of offensive Pentagon and CIA operations against the country, today remain somewhat strained though they have improved. Imports going into landlocked Laos are exorbitantly taxed by the Thai. In 1990, Thailand even refused to export barbed wire which the Lao need to keep water buffaloes out of the rice paddies during dry season. The justification given by the Thai: the wire would be used by the Lao for "military purposes." Likewise, Laos-China relations are at a stalemate with the PRC continuing on and off to give military training and aid to ragtag guerrilla groups that are then infiltrated into Laos through Thailand on forays to conduct terrorism and sabotage in border villages. Thailand, in turn, has close diplomatic relations with China.
To this day, official U.S. history (and most of what is recycled in our history texts) would have people believe that there were never any US military personnel on the ground in Laos. Lao government statistics however tell a very different history: 369 Americans killed and 15,861 injured. As testified to by both active-duty and ex-GIs during the Winter Soldier investigation, held in Detroit in 1971, there were before then numerous secret cross-border military (and CIA) operations into Laos. This on top of daily B-52 blanket-bombing and napalming of the corridor in southeastern Laos adjacent to the "Ho Chi Minh Trail."
Today, much of the landscape seen from the air looks more like a moonscape, strewn as far as the eye can see with bomb craters. Even the Plain of Jars with its huge, majestic red and brown clay jars that legend tells were used centuries ago to collect rain water and which had survived the passage of time, were not spared from the attentions of the US Air Force and its bombs. Further, a 500-plus page official history of the Air Force's herbicide spraying program in Indochina--"Operation Ranch Hand"--shows that, just between December 1965 and June 1966, some 200,000 gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliant herbicides were secretly sprayed in Laos. 19
Nearly the entire population of northern, eastern, and southern Laos in particular was literally forced underground by the intense American bombing and napalming. Entire cities and villages were evacuated into caves during all daylight hours, where schools, medical clinics, and foundries to build weapons were established. Due to lack of light and vitamins, many people, especially the children lost almost all the color in their eyes and skin which became yellowish. At first they were fearful of the war but gradually gained courage. One young woman in her thirties and now a nursery school teacher, told our delegation in 1986 of her experience. When the bombing was heaviest, she said, the people were forced to move deeper into the caves to escape the deafening noise, and they performed the traditional Lao lamvong dance as if in defiance of the bombs.
Since it first set up shop in Laos in 1959, the CIA had its people there first in dozens, then by the hundreds and, at the height of the "secret war" between 1967-1972, even thousands. Some of them were in uniform, the majority wore the usual khaki and plaid street clothes that were like a trademark. Even though they were "secret agents," the Lao would routinely point at them, saying loudly, "There goes the CIA." They were building out of whole cloth a secret mercenary army from among the Hmong tribespeople in what was the Agency's largest paramilitary operation in its history until Nicaragua in the 1980s.