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Veteran Investigative Journalist Bob Parry on the Iran-Contra Scandal and the Perils of Reporting It

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Investigative journalist Robert Parry helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s while working as a reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He joins us from Washington. [includes rush transcript]

As we continue over coverage of Nicaragua, investigative journalist Robert Parry joins us now from Washington, D.C. In the 1980s he helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal while working as a reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek. Robert Parry now runs the website Consortium News.

  • Robert Parry. Veteran investigative journalist and editor of the online ezine For years he worked as an investigative reporter for both the Associated Press and Newsweek magazine. His reporting led to the exposure of the 'Iran-Contra' scandal. His books include “Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'” and “Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our coverage of Nicaragua, investigative journalist Robert Parry joins us now, also from Washington, D.C. In the 1980s, he helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal, while working as a reporter for the Associated Press and for Newsweek. Robert Parry now runs the website, We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ROBERT PARRY: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Nicaragua now, 20 years later. In fact, if you were doing your reporting today, it looks like you’d be reporting on the very same people.

ROBERT PARRY: Well, many of the same people, certainly. We haven’t seen a lot of change. And certainly the history that we covered back in the 1980s remains very relevant. The fear that was engendered through the Contra War is still very much alive in Nicaragua.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the visit of Oliver North, who has resurrected himself now as a talk-show host, could you talk a little bit, for those of our listeners who perhaps don’t recall or were a lot younger at the time, the role of Oliver North in the Nicaraguan civil war?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, Oliver North was a very energetic, aggressive Marine officer. He was assigned to the National Security Council staff during the Reagan presidency. He became a kind of cult figure within the right, even sort of behind the scenes. He was the guy who was putting the muscle behind President Reagan’s efforts in Nicaragua. First, even when the CIA was involved directly in the early part of the 1980s, North was one of the people that coordinated matters back with the White House to the — in the field and with the CIA. He then, after the CIA was ordered to stop supporting the Contras by Congress, Oliver North took this program underground with President Reagan’s approval and still really working with many of the intelligence people in the field, many of the CIA people were then suddenly working for him, at least coordinating through him up into the White House. So he became even more of a legend in Washington.

He was a person who was able to pull together a number of these elements. He helped raise money for the Contras. He helped arrange for their weapons flows to go into them. All this, while the White House was denying it was doing it, remember. Congress was very much asleep at the switch. The House Intelligence Committee failed to follow up on some of the early reporting that we were doing and others were doing. So, North became increasingly a central figure and a controversial one.

And then, when he was finally exposed for what he was up to in the fall of 1986, it was also shown that he was involved with the Iranian arms-for-hostage deal, since he also had as a portfolio the issue of terrorism. So he was working both the Iran side and the Central America side, and with the money funneling between the two, he was able to — it gave birth to the Iran-Contra scandal, the fact that there was money coming from weapons sales to Iran that was then being sent to the Contras. But there are other money flows and other arrangements of weapons that he was also handling for the Contras.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Wasn’t there some indication that he had more than a passing interest in drug trafficking, as well, in that area?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, the Contras became involved in drug trafficking in the 1980s. It was done partly to help raise money for themselves. They were in a very unique position, working with the United States government on one side and then also becoming a way for South American drug dealers to move their supplies, their material, their contraband up into the United States. So, because the Contras became an intermediary for that, they also had some protection because they were working for the U.S. government, and the U.S. government was very hesitant to blow the whistle on them. So we now know, based on investigations that went on into the late 1990s, that many of the Contras, really dozens and dozens of them, were implicated in this way, and the U.S. government turned a blind eye, because it did not want the negative public relations that would have come from admitting that the drugs were being brought to the United States through the Contras.

And Oliver North was one of the people who was aware of this problem and essentially didn’t do much about it. He was a person who — he may have used it against some of the Contras he didn’t like, in terms of trying to expose them and embarrass them, but he allowed other elements of the Contra movement to go ahead with this program.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Parry, you attempted to expose the whole story. You wrote pieces that didn’t get published. You worked for AP, then you worked for Newsweek. In a nutshell, can you explain what you learned, how you ended up leaving AP, going to Newsweek, and even then, couldn’t do the kind of expose you felt needed to be done on the Iran-Contra scandal?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, there was a lot of resistance to any of this kind of reporting in Washington at the time. The Reagan administration was extremely aggressive in going after journalists who were digging into these areas. These were extremely sensitive areas. They were both politically sensitive and legally sensitive. So it was hard for journalists to do this work.

There were a number of journalists in the field in Central America, who were doing courageous work, people like Ray Bonner of the New York Times, who had been digging into the human rights problems in El Salvador, in particular. And he was — his career was very badly damaged, and he was made a sort of an example of what happens to you if you go into these areas too aggressively. Some reporters said that they were warned off from going after the North story, because that was seen as a career-ender.

At AP, we continued to push that. I was working with Brian Barger during some of this time and were able to find out an awful lot of information. The Miami Herald did some good work. So those stories were hard to get out, because the White House was denying much of it. There was a sense that we were perhaps taking AP into some dangerous territory. But I think most of our stories, in some form or another, did get out.

Basically I left AP because after the Iran-Contra scandal finally broke, I was approached by Newsweek and offered a job there, and I felt, you know, there had been so much — there was a lot of controversy with the stories inside the AP that I had been doing, so it just seemed like the right time to leave.

So I went to Newsweek, but there I found the same kind of problems, perhaps even more so, where there were senior editors at Newsweek who did not want to see these stories pursued aggressively. And they were very happy to accept a kind of series of cover stories that were put out for the Iran-Contra scandal. In effect, after Oliver North was finally exposed in 1986 as having played the central role, the cover story became that it was essentially a rogue operation that he and a few men of zeal had been conducting.

That wasn’t the case either. It had really been approved by President Reagan, deeply involved Vice President Bush, involved the Central Intelligence Agency, from the director, CIA director Casey, down to people in the field, station chiefs, Joe Fernandez, for instance, in Central America. So it was really — it was still a government operation. It was just being done illegally.

The problem was that both the Democrats and the Republicans did not really want that pursued too fully. There was a sense among the Democrats that they were happy to accept the cover stories, because otherwise they might have to impeach President Reagan, because President Reagan was doing much of what we’re now seeing happening in this Bush administration, of going beyond the normal constitutional boundaries in trying to conduct wars, even when there are laws prohibiting these things, but still doing it anyway. And Congress didn’t want that fight. The Democrats really did not want that fight in the late 1980s, and so it never got fully pursued.

And when Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh did take it further and broke through many of the cover stories, he was not well received for doing that. There was a tremendous feeling in Washington: just let it go. It’s old history. We have other things to worry about in the nation’s capital. The Cold War was kind of an explanation for all this, and when the Cold War ended, there was a sense of “Let’s just forget that old history.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bob, some of those key figures who were involved back then are still around, and now they’re in the new administration. And some of them — Negroponte, Abrams — could you talk about some of these folks and their role then and how they have now been resurrected once again in the Bush administration?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, John Negroponte was, of course, ambassador to Honduras. He was a conservative. He had been a hardliner. He had been in Indochina during the Vietnam War. He had worked for Henry Kissinger. But he was considered more of a hardliner than Kissinger. And he helped put together the Contra movement, which was based in Honduras in those early years. And many of the early problems with the human rights violations — the Contras were essentially going into Nicaragua and killing people. It was kind of a terrorist organization. They were committing torture. They were executing Nicaraguan civilian officials. They were torturing people. They were killing Nicaraguan soldiers they had captured. And this was all being done with the understanding and the protection of the U.S. embassy in Honduras, where John Negroponte was the ambassador. So he knew a great good deal about this. Exactly all the details, no one’s ever quite sorted that out, but he was certainly deeply involved.

Elliott Abrams was at the State Department in those years. Elliott represented sort of the neoconservatives as they were sort of beginning to take shape in the early 1980s. And these were bright young guys who basically felt they were smarter than pretty much anybody else, and their idea was, how do you manipulate the American people to get them to support these kinds of operations. Many of them also had learned from the Vietnam era that you had to control the American population. So they developed these concepts they called “perception management.” And the idea was to manage the American people’s perceptions about events, not tell them the truth necessarily, but exploit certain pieces of information and manufacture some propaganda and use it domestically to keep the American people in line. So that was sort of their thinking, and what they were contributing to this. They had a group at the State Department called the Public Diplomacy Office, and that office was headed by Otto Reich, another hardliner who went after the Washington press corps quite aggressively, tried to get people fired or reassigned if they were causing trouble.

And those kinds of strategies did not die with Iran-Contra. They just continued. And when George W. Bush came into power, not only does many of the people come back, people like Elliott Abrams and John Negroponte, who’s now, of course, the Director of National Intelligence, but the concepts came back: the idea of exaggerating dangers, frightening the American people, managing their perceptions. And so, much of, not only the personnel, but the strategies have reappeared in this period of the new administration.

AMY GOODMAN: John Bolton, was he involved?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, John Bolton was around. He was not a person that I was dealing with directly. But many of these people were sort of credentialed during this period. They got jobs at sometimes low- or mid-level of the Reagan administration and then used that as a way to build their careers and move up, and they came back again — some of the lower-level people came back in higher positions under George W. Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Parry, finally, as you look today, 20 years later, back at the Iran-Contra scandal and the difficulty in getting word out about the scandal — the New York Times holding onto the story. Ultimately it was the Reagan administration themselves, right around Thanksgiving 20 years ago, that admitted much of what happened, which certainly took out a lot of the investigating of it, because they were admitting it themselves. Do you make parallels for what’s happening today in journalism?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, sure. I think there’s been a tendency not to be aggressive, and that was a big lesson learned in the 1980s. Many of the reporters who really pushed these stories and went after the hard news had their careers damaged, and many reporters who didn’t moved up. So you ended up with sort of a kind of a reverse Darwinianism, if you will, I mean, where the — well, maybe not reverse, but it was the reporters that played ball got ahead, and they became the managing editors of today. So, there was a cultural change that occurred with the Washington press corps during that period, and that remains with us: this idea of not asking the hard questions, not pushing the edge of the envelope. And we saw that certainly during the run-up to the Iraq war, and we’ve seen it really continuing to today.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Parry, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

ROBERT PARRY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran investigative journalist, started the first online investigative magazine at I want to thank you for joining us, had worked for Associated Press and Newsweek, as well.

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