Otto Reich’s legacy of white propaganda

In the 1980s, the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy planted editorials in major newspapers, intimidated reporters and even used psychological warfare.

It was all in order to garner public support for its controversial, costly and violent Contra War in Central America.

“The Office of Public Diplomacy had a very innocuous sounding name, but in fact it was a very sinister, covert operation that was designing propaganda,” said Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba and Chile Documentation Projects. “Putting people secretly on the US payroll—reporters, writers—and having them then pretend to be independent, writing op-ed pieces in major newspapers, and nobody would know that the US government was behind this, but from declassified documents we know that Otto Reich was behind this.”

Behind this effort was Otto Reich, a Cuban-American diplomat and anti-communist crusader. Although the Office of Public Diplomacy became the sacrificial lamb of the Iran Contra Scandal following a congressional investigation, Reich moved on unscathed to become US ambassador to Venezuela and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

In 2009, immediately after the president of Honduras was overthrown in a military coup, Otto Reich resurfaced in the mainstream media.

It’s easy to link Otto Reich to what happened in Honduras, and to what happened in the media, especially here in the US,” said Rodolfo Pastor, a former Honduran diplomat. “You can totally see his influence in the main newspapers and the mainstream media. The night following the coup, CNN had, as the star of their night, was Otto Reich. Ever since he was in charge of what he was doing in the 1980s, he's been around like a ghost. You see him personally writing op-eds in major newspapers and you see him working behind the scenes. What you have to wonder is who's paying him to do so?

The legacy of white propaganda in the 1980s paved the way for similar manipulation of the media in the run-up to the Iraq War.

The Iraq War is a textbook case of how a government…uses propaganda, planting stories in the US media to convert public opinion favorably toward war,” said Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist. “Within a matter of days on September 19 [2002], the New York Times, Michael Gordon and Judith Miller published a front page, long story in which they said that US intelligence officials had found out that Saddam Hussein had purchased aluminum tubes that could only be used for nuclear weapons. What they didn’t say of course was that this was a minority view in the intelligence community.”

Norman Soloman, the founder and president of the Institute for Public Accuracy in Washington, DC said the underlying mission to spin policy and lay groundwork for foreign policy moves has not changed. The agenda and regional focus has shifted, but in the approach little has changed.

In a dictatorship often it doesn’t matter what the people think, so propaganda is often less rigorous. In a society with important elements of democracy, it’s all the more important to try to affect public opinion,” he said.

Soloman said propaganda today has moved beyond the government, to coalitions with think tanks, the media, pundits and lobbyists. Each works to push and sell views and agendas.“A lot of the coverage in media and the attention on Capitol Hill is policy driven out of the White House and the State Department, so journalists, columnists, often members of Congress take their cue, explicitly or not, even for what’s worth talking about, from the State Department,” Soloman explained.

Today the media is full of former government officials, specialists and ranking military members. Government spin via the media continue today through these people, argued Soloman.

There is a log of spinning out of the government,” he said. “We have that going on where there are economic, political, social and military agendas being pushed and the end result is this world view being reinforced all the time.”

Soloman said we need a single standard on certain issues, like human rights for example. If there was a set standard it would be much harder to spin political issues.