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In his first major foreign-policy action as a U.S. senator nearly 20 years ago, John Kerry accused the United States of “funding terrorism.”
Fresh from a trip to the Far East, Kerry made his sensational allegation in Washington before flying to Nicaragua, then in the grip of a Marxist-Leninist junta, to coauthor a propagandistic peace proposal designed to disarm the U.S.-backed forces fighting to oust the Soviet-backed Sandinista regime.
Barely three months after being sworn as a senator, Kerry made his mark, and he made it big, as one of the leading opponents of President Reagan’s effort to defeat Soviet-sponsored revolutionaries in the American hemisphere.
The junior senator stopped at nothing: working with the nation’s sworn ideological enemies, making damaging, distorted and often baseless allegations about U.S. covert operations, accusing his own government of sponsoring terrorism, and even damaging an FBI operation against a Colombian cocaine cartel.
That April 1985 journey to Nicaragua would become a trademark of the Kerry school of statecraft: making common cause with enemies of the United States — and allowing himself to be used by them — in order to win political battles at home.
The enemy of the 1980s was not Osama bin Laden and his allies, but the Soviet Union and its proxy regimes and guerrilla forces around the world. In addition to the strategic nuclear-missile threat it posed to the survival of the United States, the U.S.S.R. at the time was also the world’s primary sponsor of international terrorism.
It was not without concern, then, that Reagan, with the help of a bipartisan majority in Congress, financed an anticommunist guerrilla army in Nicaragua, made up mainly of peasants disenfranchised by the Soviet-backed Marxist-Leninist junta that had taken power shortly before Reagan was elected to office. That junta had by now sponsored communist guerrilla and terrorist groups from neighboring countries and presented a threat to the entire region. But Kerry, ever the defender of the communist left, didn’t buy it.
To prevent the junta, known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front, from consolidating power, Reagan strongly backed the resistance fighters, whom the Sandinistas dubbed “contras,” to pressure the regime either to hold free and fair elections or be overthrown.
U.S. involvement in resisting the Soviet-backed revolutionary movements in Central America was a politically emotional issue at the time, and the highly charged atmosphere forced Reagan to tread carefully on Capitol Hill.
Seeking the release of a $14 million appropriation from the previous year for the Nicaraguan resistance, and faced with public opposition, Reagan offered to limit U.S. aid to the “contras” to humanitarian assistance only, provided the Sandinistas agreed to national reconciliation and free elections that would have broken their total grip on power. The president told Congress that if the Sandinistas failed to comply by the deadline, he would use part of the $14 million to arm and militarily equip the growing insurgent army.
Reagan’s compromise with Congress wasn’t good enough for Kerry, the only freshman senator on the then-prestigious Foreign Relations Committee. For the new lawmaker, Central America was a cause — and he was on the other side.
The new senator already had placed himself among the intractable opposition to Reagan’s national-security strategy. In announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, on Jan. 26, 1984, at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, Kerry assailed Reagan’s anticommunist, pro-democracy policy as barbaric.
“How can you teach liberty and justice and support death squads?” he demanded, falsely accusing the administration of backing the most thuggish and undemocratic elements in Central America.
Vietnam in Nicaragua
Once in office in 1985, Kerry acted on his words. He held a news conference accusing the U.S. government of financing terrorism.
“Foreign policy should represent the democratic values that have made our country great, not subvert those values by funding terrorism to overthrow the governments of other countries,” Kerry said in a statement.
He announced he and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would go to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital. The pair of Vietnam-era radicals held two days of secret talks with Sandinista junta leader Daniel Ortega, timing the visit just before a scheduled vote on release of the $14 million to the freedom fighters.
They arrived in the Nicaraguan capital late on April 18 for two days of scheduled talks with Marxist officials. On the eve of his meeting with Ortega, Kerry told the Boston Globe correspondent in Managua that the talks would “provide them [Kerry and Harkin] with enough information to sway congressional votes on the issue of aid to antigovernment rebels.”
In an interview with the Globe, Harkin said that as Vietnam veterans he and Kerry “bring perspective to the situation here in Central America that perhaps others not involved in the Vietnam War might not have.”
According to the New York Times, Harkin and Kerry said “that they were seeking commitments that could help defeat President Reagan’s request.”
The Globe reported from Managua, “After marathon meetings with the senators that spilled into the early-morning hours, Ortega reasserted Nicaragua’s commitment to Central America as a zone free of nuclear weapons and foreign military bases, including those of the Soviet Union and Cuba.”
Kerry foreign-policy aide Richard McCall and Sandinista officials hammered out a working paper that Kerry said he would present to President Reagan. Ortega reportedly was at their side for the last three hours of the meeting.
The final three-page product, which Kerry called a “peace proposal,” included Sandinista promises of a cease-fire, as long as the United States cut off all assistance, including humanitarian aid, to the anticommunist forces and their families.
Back in Washington, Harkin claimed that the Sandinistas “desire peace and not only normal but friendly relations with the United States. What we have is a new, bold and innovative approach. I am hopeful that we can pursue it.”
“This is a wonderful opening” for peace, Kerry added of the Ortega plan, “without having to militarize the region.”
But the plan was phony. It was nothing more than a “restatement of old positions,” a State Department official said at the time. “There is no mention of any dialogue with the unified democratic opposition, which we consider essential to internal reconciliation. Without such a dialogue, a cease-fire proposal is meaningless, essentially a call for the opposition to surrender.”
A White House spokesman dismissed the Kerry-Harkin-Ortega plan as nothing more than “propaganda.”
Even the Sandinistas’ own Washington lawyer, Paul S. Reichler, said the plan offered nothing new.
“There is no offer of any kind from the government of Nicaragua today that is any different from what they’ve been saying all along,” Reichler told the New York Times. The newspaper also noted that in the plan the Sandinistas made no commitment to national reconciliation.
Nevertheless, on the floor of the Senate in an emotional April 23 speech, Kerry presented the document as something new.
“I share with this body the aide-m?moire which was presented to us by President Ortega,” he told his colleagues — without mentioning his own role and that of his aide McCall in its drafting.
He took Ortega’s word for everything.
“Here,” he pronounced to the Senate, “is a guarantee of the security interest of the United States.”
Kerry continued: “My generation, a lot of us grew up with the phrase ‘give peace a chance’ as part of a song that captured a lot of people’s imagination. I hope that the president of the United States will give peace a chance.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., who was also at loggerheads with the administration over Central America, took the unusual step April 23 of rebuking his colleagues and accusing Kerry and Harkin of breaking the law and “transgressing” against the Constitution by holding unauthorized negotiations with a foreign leader.
With Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., heaping praise on the Managua trip, Goldwater said Kerry and Harkin “negotiated over there … and now they’re trying to force the president of the United States to negotiate with the president of Nicaragua. I honestly think two members of our body are violating the [federal] code when they undertake to negotiate” and are “usurping a section of the Constitution” giving only the president the right to negotiate with foreign leaders, Goldwater said. “To transgress against the Constitution is wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Kerry shot back that he was “a veteran of Vietnam who fought and was wounded in that conflict.”
He added that Secretary of State George P. Shultz had encouraged the trip, quoting from a letter to House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., encouraging “congressional travel to Nicaragua and Central America.”
Rebuked by the Secretary of State
But collaboration with the Sandinistas wasn’t what Shultz had in mind.
Speaking before several thousand State Department employees two days after the above exchange on the Senate floor, Shultz took an indirect swipe at Kerry and Harkin. He zeroed in on policy critics who previously had pooh-poohed what would happen to Southeast Asia as they demanded and achieved an end to U.S. support for those embattled peoples.
Referring to “the fate of the people of Cuba, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos,” Shultz said, “those who assure us that these dire consequences are not in prospect [in Central America] are some of those who assured us of the same in Indochina before 1975. The litany of apology for communists, and condemnation for America and our friends, is beginning again.”
“Do we want another Cuba in this hemisphere? How many times must we learn the same lesson?” asked Shultz. “Broken promises. Communist dictatorships. Refugees. Widened Soviet influence, this time near our very borders. Here is your parallel between Vietnam and Central America. Just as the Vietnamese communists used progressive and nationalist slogans to conceal their intentions, the Nicaraguan communists employ the slogans of social reform, nationalism and democracy to obscure their totalitarian goals.”
White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters, “The very hour the House was rejecting the aid package [to the Nicaraguan resistance], President Ortega was going to Moscow to seek funds for his Marxist regime.”
White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan went further, accusing congressional Democrats of “supporting communism” in Central America.
Kerry’s political allies duck
Kerry scrambled for political cover. He asked Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, under whom he had served as lieutenant governor, to hold a news conference praising his Nicaragua initiative. Dukakis declined. Kerry asked the same of his predecessor, retired Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass. Tsongas did not do so.
Kerry even approached former congressman James Shannon, whom he had defeated in the Senate primary the year before, asking for a written statement of support. No statement came, though Shannon, according to the Boston Herald, did give some radio interviews on Kerry’s behalf.
Kerry’s staff asked other Massachusetts congressmen “to speak out in the House in praise of Kerry’s trip and meeting with Ortega so that support could be seen on television through C-SPAN,” according to the Herald. “All those contacted turned him down.”
Most of Kerry’s Senate colleagues ignored the plan and voted for aid to the Nicaraguan resistance. The House, however, voted against the aid. Kerry was thrilled. So was Ortega, who immediately announced a trip to the U.S.S.R. to petition for $200 million more in Soviet support.
Kerry didn’t blame the Sandinistas for going to Moscow, of course. Instead, he blasted the Reagan administration for rejecting his “peace offer.”
Said Kerry, “I think it was a silly and rather immature approach” on the part of Reagan. He was not surprised that Ortega would respond with a fund-raising trip to the Soviet Union, saying breathlessly, in the words of a Boston Globe story, that Reagan “forced Ortega to look to the Soviets for help.”
This, then, was the context of John F. Kerry’s very first national-security initiative in the U.S. Senate.
Were his actions those of commitment to principle or crass selfishness?
“He’s a shrewd opportunist whose personal political ambitions dictate every move he makes,” Boston Globe columnist David Farrell wrote with specific reference to Kerry’s trip. “The arrogance he often displays came through in his boastful assertion last week that his conversations with the Sandinistas ‘were longer than any the Secretary of State has had with the Nicaraguan government in five years.’”
Farrell predicted that, as a result of the Sandinista venture, “a buildup of Kerry by liberals … can be expected in the weeks ahead. He’ll likely be getting excellent television coverage to dispel, or at least blunt, Republican charges that Kerry and the Democratic Party have been groveling at Ortega’s feet in their effort to give House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. one victory over Reagan. The buildup of Kerry is already under way with commentaries which suggest that the state’s junior senator now has added substance to his widely recognized flashy style.”
His liberal detractors within the Democratic Party, Farrell wrote, had long accused him of “all style, no substance.”
Farrell continued, “The eagerness of Kerry and his party to fall for the Sandinista government’s phony sales pitch to rid the country of Red advisers has a high disaster potential for the Democrats who are gradually assuming the label of being soft on communism.”
Some Massachusetts Democrats, including then-representative Brian Donnelly, complained that thanks to people like Kerry, “We face the very real prospect of being called soft on communism. We certainly don’t need that.”
Kerry launches his own ‘investigation’
Fed by supportive journalists and Washington-based think tanks that supported the Sandinistas, Kerry put his experience as a former assistant county prosecutor to work in 1986, launching a full-scale “investigation” of his own to discredit the Nicaraguan resistance and the Reagan administration.
His probe, alleging an international criminal conspiracy, coincided with lawsuits against retired Army Gen. John Singlaub and others in what was called a legal harassment campaign against American opponents of the Sandinista regime, alleging bizarre international plots.
The cases collapsed under legal scrutiny but made sensational headlines that fueled Reagan opponents for years. The first significant lawsuit was filed in May of that year by Tony Avirgan and his wife Martha Honey, two U.S. journalists who were open Sandinista sympathizers.
Evidence in their lawsuit, much of which Kerry and his staff recycled as public statements, was based “largely on information from a dead informant whom they never met and identified only as ‘David X,’” the Washington Times’ James Morrison reported at the time. According to Morrison, Avirgan “admitted that he had never met David X,” who “was the source of the information of the entire conspiracy.”
Fed by Honey and Avirgan, who worked closely with his staff, Kerry gave the false allegations credibility in the press. Despite its accomplishments in muddying the waters of the emotional Central America debate, the Kerry probe kept falling apart. One key witness, British soldier of fortune Peter Glibbery, swore that Kerry staffers bribed him to accuse Sandinista opponents of crimes, only to recant the next day. Others, including a former French soldier named Claude Chaffard, said that Kerry staffers promised to help him out with U.S. visa problems and paid him money while he cooperated.
Kerry’s staff engaged in bitter battles with the Republican majority staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanding full hearings. Halfway attempts to allow Kerry to air his concerns on the panel failed to appease.
Bribery allegations persisted.
“Sen. John Kerry’s attempts to prove criminal activity by the Nicaraguan resistance have stretched from California to Costa Rica, cost thousands of dollars paid by one of his aides, and have drawn allegations that he offered potential witnesses money or immigration favors to testify against the anticommunist rebels,” Morrison reported in the Times in August 1986.
“A Justice Department investigation discovered nothing of significance, but gave Mr. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, a platform to denounce the resistance and ask hostile questions about U.S. policy in Central America.”
Signed appeal by ‘illegal racket’
Kerry personally signed a letter used in a direct-mail appeal for an outside group to raise funds to continue digging up the dirt for his “investigation.” The group, headed by former ambassador Robert E. White, called itself the Commission on United States-Central American Relations, which operated out of a Capitol Hill town house.
The commission, a front of the International Center for Development Policy, included as members open supporters of the Sandinistas, the Cuban government of Fidel Castro, and the communist FMLN guerrillas of El Salvador, according to commission literature.
“It was a racket that was probably illegal at the time, and certainly would be illegal now,” a former Senate staffer with firsthand knowledge of the investigation tells Insight. Kerry wrote a letter on U.S. Senate letterhead, praising White and his response “to our call for help on the Contra investigation.” White’s group in turn reprinted the letter as part of its fund-raising package. The donation pledge card had a picture of Kerry’s face with a quote exhorting recipients to send in their money.
Receipts from credit cards and money orders, obtained by Insight and separately by the Washington Times, showed that White’s organization and Kerry’s foreign-policy aide McCall paid the expenses of the witnesses. Neither Kerry nor the witnesses publicly disclosed these expenses.
Kerry’s office periodically released statements and draft staff reports to keep his allegations in the headlines. One of the reports, issued in October 1986, was authored by staffers Jonathan Weiner and Ron Rosenblith and alleged widespread drug trafficking by the Nicaraguan resistance. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee created a subcommittee to investigate these theories.
Then, in November, a new and unrelated development broke: that elements in the Reagan administration had tried to arm the contras through a deal to swap arms for hostages with the mullahs in Iran. This became known as the Iran-Contra scandal and added new seriousness and credibility to Kerry’s allegations.
FBI agents accused Kerry of damaging probe
Kerry won key collaboration from some conservatives by alleging that the contras were a major hub in an international cocaine-smuggling operation. In so doing, the senator damaged an FBI investigation of Colombia’s Medellin cartel.
Aides to Kerry “severely damaged a federal drug investigation” in the summer of 1986 “by interfering with a witness while pursuing allegations of drug smuggling by the Nicaraguan resistance,” the Washington Times reported in January 1987, citing federal law-enforcement officials.
The FBI repeatedly had warned the staffers to back off, saying they were endangering an ongoing federal antidrug operation. An FBI informant became “spooked” and stopped cooperating after Kerry’s staff interfered, the officials said, and changed her story to include the contras as part of the plot.
“She got spooked off by all the Kerry thing, by going to Massachusetts and feeling she had to be protected, and that was that,” an official said. The informant would not make herself available to the FBI to discuss her previously unstated allegations against the Nicaraguan resistance.
Other drug traffickers started talking to Kerry’s staff.
“These individuals are selling a story to Congress and to the media that they have concocted to have their sentences reduced or to have their cases dismissed,” a Drug Enforcement Administration agent told the New York Times.
They never mentioned the contras or the White House until the Iran-Contra affair broke. “They had plenty of opportunities to tell their story in court and none of them did.”
Kerry’s conspiracy theories unravel
By early 1987, even with the Iran-Contra scandal unfolding against the Reagan administration, Kerry’s own drug-conspiracy theories continued to crumble.
The DEA and Justice Department had dismissed the claims of one of Kerry’s star witnesses, accused cocaine trafficker Jorge Morales, that the CIA and Nicaraguan resistance forces were involved in large-scale drug trafficking — an allegation that Kerry used in a widely publicized staff report.
Morales himself offered to recant what he told Kerry and say he fabricated much of his story. As part of his plea bargain, Morales was free to testify to Kerry’s investigators, but the plea bargain also stated that he would be further penalized if he gave any false, misleading or incomplete information. Morales never testified to Kerry.
The senator had no sooner lost one of his star witnesses than the Washington Times revealed that Kerry had concealed evidence of Sandinista drug trafficking and had deleted information from his staff report of the previous October to pin the blame on the Sandinistas’ U.S.-backed opponents. As with several news stories that discredited Kerry’s investigations, the senator refused to speak to journalists seeking to question him.
“Law-enforcement officials and congressional sources said the witness incident was typical of interference in Justice Department investigations by Kerry staff,” the Times reported.
Kerry’s office issued a written statement instead, in which the senator made no comment about the report his office had ruined the FBI investigation. The statement claimed that he had “repeatedly sought the cooperation of the Justice Department and the FBI,” but that the federal agencies did not reciprocate.
By that point, though, his investigation was under full-scale attack.
“Sen. John Kerry is coming under increasing fire from federal law-enforcement officials,” the Associated Press reported. “The officials have said Kerry’s work was based largely on unsubstantiated allegations from informants, most of whom already have been interviewed by federal law-enforcement officials and some of whom have previously been found to be unreliable. A number of them are charged with various crimes or are in jail.”
The Kerry team then muddied the issue further by alleging that the Justice Department had meddled in a federal drug probe to cover up politically embarrassing information, and by trying to connect drug dealers to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was campaigning at the time to succeed Reagan as president of the United States.
Kerry appeared to be using his subcommittee to throw mud at Bush. In May 1988, Bush accused Kerry of leaking unsubstantiated allegations that his office approved drugs-for-weapons deals to arm the contras. No evidence surfaced to confirm the claims, and Kerry and his staff squelched testimony to refute them.
Kerry refused to let a former CIA operative, who had testified at a closed hearing of the senator’s subcommittee, make his testimony public so he could clear his name. Coincidentally that former operative, Cuban-American Felix Rodriguez, was being pinned as Bush’s connection to the Iran-Contra scandal.
Rodriguez repeatedly asked Kerry and subcommittee investigator Jack Blum to release his testimony, so he could defend himself from accusations that he had arranged an illegal drug deal.
“I have been trying desperately to testify publicly,” Rodriguez said in June 1988, saying that Kerry and Blum repeatedly reneged on agreements to release his earlier closed testimony.
He suspected Kerry did it for political purposes. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on Kerry’s subcommittee, defended Rodriguez against the allegations and confirmed the former CIA operative’s version of events.
McConnell publicly accused Kerry of abusing the subcommittee to damage Bush and to help the flagging presidential campaign of Kerry’s longtime friend and ally Dukakis.
The politicization of the current 9/11 commission, and the attempts by Democratic partisans to prove that the current president, George W. Bush, failed to prevent the 9-11 terrorist attacks when he could have stopped them, seems to be a repeat of the Kerry subcommittee’s modus operandi of 1987-88.
According to the Boston Globe, McConnell “said Kerry had given credibility to witnesses who were critical of President Reagan and Vice President George Bush but failed to summon others to testify who would rebut the criticisms. Also, McConnell said Kerry had purposely held the hearings during periods when the Senate was not in session in order to limit the number of committee members who might attend the hearings and test the truthfulness of the witnesses.”
McConnell told the Globe, “I think the integrity of the Senate investigative process and the objectivity, fairness and balance of this particular effort have been compromised for political purposes.”
J. Michael Waller is a senior writer for Insight Online.