Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign

Johan Carlisle

Johan Carlisle is a free-lance journalist based in San Francisco.

The remote jungle shack full of journalists and guerillas exploded suddenly in a murderous flash. The blast from the metal camera case full of C-4 plastique which had been carefully set down in front of Eden Pastora devastated the small group. Seventeen journalists were wounded that evening, May 31, 1984, at La Penca, Nicaragua, and three eventually died. Pastora, the charismatic ex-Sandinista hero, and some of his contra rebels were slightly injured. The wounded journalists were forced to lie unattended in their own blood for hours before everyone was finally evacuated by canoe and jeep to the nearest hospital in nearby Costa Rica--an eight hour trip at best. In the confusion of the understaffed hospital emergency room the bomber slipped away unnoticed and while his cover identity is known, he has never been found.

Over the next few days, American news reports of the bombing and the identity of the bomber varied widely. Most news agencies said the identity of the bomber was unknown and reported the details of the bombing with few speculations about the sponsor of the tragic event. ABC and PBS, in their evening news broadcasts on June 1, held forth with a startling announcement that the bombing was the work of ETA (1) Basque "terrorists" working for Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Here was another example of Reagan's infamous "terrorist internationale" in the news only a few months before the 1984 presidential election.

The ETA story played for about a week until the French authorities said that the alleged Basque terrorist, Jos Miguel Lujua, had been under house arrest in southern France for a number of years. By that time the La Penca bombing had become old news and was forgotten until May of 1986 when the Christic Institute filed a lawsuit against 28 individuals, on behalf of Tony Avirgan, one of the injured journalists, and his journalist-wife, Martha Honey. In the course of investigating the so-called Secret Team (2), it became obvious from new evidence provided by government documents that the ETA story was a carefully planned US government disinformation campaign. The ETA cover story provides a rare opportunity to track the genesis of a covert propaganda operation.

The US government profited greatly from the widespread belief that the Sandinistas were behind the assassination attempt of Eden Pastora at La Penca. Col. North had discussed on several occasions provoking the Costa Ricans into requesting direct US military intervention in the illegal war against Nicaragua. Linking the Nicaraguans with international terrorism played well at home and revived Reagan's wilting bouquet of trumped up rationales for continuing the contra war. Shifting the blame to the Sandinistas for a callous attack on the international journalist community to eliminate the troublesome Pastora (3) hit the Sandinistas coming and going. After the assassination attempt, Eden Pastora faded away as a major player in the Southern Front and members of Col. North's "off the shelf" covert supply network and "Somocista" contras moved in.

The disinformation campaign began in a series of articles in the Costa Rican and Spanish newspapers in September of 1983 (nine months before the bombing) with the arrest of ETA member Gregorio Jimenez in San Jos, Costa Rica. He was charged with planning to assassinate Eden Pastora as part of an ETA commando group assignment. It was later shown that the news reports alleging ETA activities in Costa Rica aimed at the elimination of Pastora were generated by the intelligence community and were never substantiated. At the time, Costa Rican president, Luis Monge was in Spain, as was Nicaraguan Interior Minister, Toms Borg. Monge was trying to get European support for Costa Rican neutrality in the contra war, while Borg was attempting to get sorely-needed financial aid from the socialist government of Spain. As a result of the widely publicized arrest of Jimenez, a meeting between Monge, Borge and the president of Spain was cancelled and new tensions were created between Nicaragua and two potential Spanish-speaking allies.

The fact that the stories started about nine months before the bombing and continued to appear sporadically with very few facts has fueled speculation that this was part of an orchestrated campaign. [See Chronology of a Disinformation Campaign, for more details.]

On March 15, 1984, a little over two months before the bombing, the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy (4) (OPD) contracted with a private consultant, Luis Miguel Torres, to produce a report on ETA terrorism in Central America. Torres, an associate of Frank Gomez who worked with the various Spitz Channell organizations (5), produced an interview with a man using the alias Alejandro Montenegro, a friend of Torres' and an alleged FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberacion Nacional) defector. Allegations from this interview were leaked to the press immediately after the bombing.

Montenegro claimed that ETA had tried numerous bombings in El Salvador, very similar to the one at La Penca. David MacMichael, a former Central American analyst for the CIA, says that these events never took place. The Montenegro interview, it turned out, was the only piece of evidence that OPD was able to provide in an internal memo/chronology of alleged ETA terrorist activities in Central America sent to the NSC right after the bombing. Furthermore, the urgency to complete the Torres report is odd. Otto Reich, the titular head of OPD, wrote three memos demanding that the report be finished by March 26, 1984--eleven days from contract issuance to completion. Several sources note that this is an extremely short time for production of a government report--particularly one of such an obscure nature (6)-- raising the possibility that it was to be used as a cover for the La Penca bombing. The report was apparently not completed until May 5, 1984, sixteen days before the La Penca bombing.

On June 15, 1984, Otto Reich authored a 41-page memo entitlted "Press Reports on Attempt on Eden Pastora". The memo contains the text of the leaked Montenegro interview done by Torres, Department of State cables, Foreign Broadcast Information Service reports, and various press clippings (7). The last of these articles, written by Roger Fontaine (8) in the Washington Times on June 11, 1984, cites the Montenegro interview--which would not be distributed by the OPD for another 4 days--as his principal piece of evidence supporting the ETA story. Fontaine cites the French government assertion that the alleged Basque terrorist, Jos Miguel Lujua, was under house arrest in France at the time of the bombing, but concludes that, "US officials in Washington and San Jos remain confident, however, that Mr. Lujua or someone like him with similar terrorist connections was involved in the incident." [Emphasis added by author.] This is a classic intelligence community tactic--feeding disinformation to a journalist and then using his story as evidence which is then fed to other journalists through confidential briefings.

ABC World News Tonight seems to have been the primary outlet for the ETA story. It remains a puzzle why the rest of the US news establishment declined to use the ETA story emanating from the US intelligence community and the OPD. A few journalists said they immediately became suspicious of the story and decided to wait and see.

ABC Pentagon correspondent, John McWethy apparently harbored no such doubts. He boldly stated on ABC's evening news program that, "there is growing evidence the Sandinistas have hired international hit men from a Basque terrorist group known as ETA to have Pastora killed." He then mentioned the September, 1983, arrest of Gregorio Jimenez and the January, 1984, deportation of 6 ETA members from France to Panama. "They end up in Panama . . . later moving to Cuba, then to Nicaragua. Intelligence reports place a group of half a dozen Basques in Nicaragua's capitol. They stay at the Camino Real hotel, posing as journalists. The same hotel occasionally used by some of the journalists who attended the Pastora press conference 2 days ago."

McWethy's story is so elaborate, complete with fancy maps showing the routes taken by the "terrorists" that it could be used in journalism school as a shining example of superhuman investigative reporting. Instead, hidden propagandists were feeding these lies to him and he was reporting them as truth. He concluded, "Analysts [...] say the type of explosive used [is] strikingly similar to many other assassination attempts in Central America. All of them linked to Basque hit men." An amazing bit of information considering that the June 15, 1984, OPD memo was unable to reveal any other ETA "hits."

McWethy, when questioned about the sources of his information on the ETA connection reportedly said that a Department of Defense report, in addition to CIA information, pointed the finger at ETA. While there is no proof that the OPD briefed McWethy, it is interesting to note that one of the principal "official leakers" at the OPD was an Air Force intelligence officer on loan to OPD named Mark L. Richards, working under the actual head of the OPD, Walter Raymond, Jr., a CIA psychological warfare expert(9).

MacNeil/Lehrer, the only other major US news organization to carry the ETA story, was not as dramatic or positive as ABC. The program featured an in-depth interview with Robert Leiken, a senior associate of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace and a neo-conservative who was secretly on the payroll of the covert Spitz Channell fundraising/propaganda operation at the time. Leiken was introduced as an expert on Central America without any mention of his recent conversion from liberalism or his involvement with Channell. Leiken said that he had heard that Pastora's followers were denying that the CIA was behind the bombing, and claimed that Basque terrorists connected with the ETA had instigated it. Actually, Pastora concluded fairly quickly that the assassination attempt was sponsored by the CIA and the FDN.

Thus, two of the five major US TV networks used information from the Office of Public Diplomacy and other intelligence sources along with Costa Rican stories of dubious nature to quickly paint an elaborate scenario blaming the bombing on the Sandinistas and the Basque ETA. Richard Dyer, publisher of the Costa Rican English language newspaper, the Tico Times, said, "[The ETA story] didn't make too much sense, but on the other hand we had no other clues and so for the moment it was sort of accepted, maybe we were getting somewhere." Derry Dyer, co-publisher of the Tico Times , which had employed Linda Frazier, the only US citizen killed at La Penca, said, "It certainly looks like there was an active disinformation campaign. Certainly there were so many leads that when tracked down turned out to be completely false. And they served to get everybody off the trail in the days following the bombing."

The dis-information had additional effects. First, it obscured the identity of the real killer and arguably contributed to his escape. Second, these stories inflicted further injury on Tony Avirgan. Following the bombing, ABC News flew a specially equipped Lear jet to San Jos to transport the severely-injured reporter, at the time working for ABC, to the US for medical treatment. Because of his reported links to Basque terrorists, Avirgan was detained for three days in Costa Rica, while the assassin slipped away.

The horror stories associated with the contra war continue to unfold although there seems to be a general apathy on the part of mainstream American investigative journalists. Many analysts think that the purpose of the La Penca bombing could well have been to inflame the tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and to provide an excuse to invade Nicaragua with American troops. Whatever its purpose, the ETA disinformation campaign is typical of CIA propaganda operations which have preceded successful coups d'etat. In Guatemala, in 1954, the CIA set the stage with clandestine radio stations and other types of covert propaganda operations. In Chile, in 1973, the CIA ran one of its most sophisticated propaganda campaigns against Allende.

The ETA story raises serious questions about US intelligence operations. Should the intelligence community be prohibited from influencing the media and Congress? How can this be legislated and monitored, given the failures of the Congressional oversight committees, the reticence of the Iran-contra committees, and the ability of a charismatic president to blithely sidestep the Boland Amendment? Unfortunately, the ETA story is only one of thousands of such covert operations that has been discovered. Covert intelligence operations are rarely exposed and even when they are, they are seldom censured. The only hopeful development in all of this is the beginning of a new movement, partly generated by the Christic Institute's La Penca lawsuit, to aggressively challenge the National Security Act of 1947. Many feel that only by rewriting this original charter for American intelligence operations can the fundamental cancer creating havoc worldwide be excised.

Research assistance by Sheila O'Donnell and Rick Emrich.


(1) ETA (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna) translates roughly as Basque Homeland and Liberty. ETA has been waging a guerilla/terrorist war for independence from Spain and France for decades.

(2) The Secret Team, named in the civil RICO indictment, includes Gen. Richard Secord, Gen. John Singlaub, Albert Hakim, Adolfo Calero, Ted Shackley, Thomas Clines, and Chi Chi Quintero. The lawsuit was dismissed by the Chief Federal judge in Miami on June 24th, 1988, one working day before the historical trial was to begin. The Christic Institute and the plaintiffs, Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, are appealing in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

(3) Pastora had called the La Penca press conference, at the insistence of Costa Rican security officials, to announce an end to years of conflict with the Somocista contras in Honduras who, along with the CIA, had been pressuring him to join forces with them, and thus, present a unified image to Congress. Ironically, the front page of the New York Times, June 1, 1984, carried the bombing story prominently while underneath was a small story about Pastora cutting all ties with the FDN and denouncing the CIA.

(4) The OPD was created to influence the public and Congress on the contra war and other Reagan administration covert wars around the world. OPD was found guilty of conducting "white propaganda" efforts by the Government Accounting Office in 1987, and quickly became the only casualty of the Iran-contra affair. For further information, see two articles by Peter Kornbluh: "Reagan's Propaganda Ministry", Propaganda Review #2, and the Washington Post, 9/4/88, p. C-1.

(5) Carl R. ("Spitz") Channell raised money, legally and illegally, for the contras from 1985 until 1987 when he pled guilty to defrauding the IRS and the US Treasury. At one point, Channell controlled an elaborate network of non-profit organizations and consultants.

(6) The "Ultimate Destination" for the 25 page report was The Official Coordinator for the U.N. Conference on Scientific and Technological Development. The director of this office denied ever commissioning or seeing the report.

(7) The State Department refused to turn over the OPD memo in response to subpoena served in the Christic Institute lawsuit. In fact, State has released only one document under subpoena to the Christic attorneys, the cover sheet to a January 20, 1987 twenty-page report on the Christic lawsuit with a handwritten note at the top by a State Department official named Peter Olson. The note says, "Delib. CIA effort to throw people off track of real perpetrators."

(8) Fontaine is a close associate of Gen. Singlaub and one of the principal WACL (World Anti-Communist League) creators of the contra war. He served as Special Assistant for Central American Affairs on the NSC in the early '80s and works for the Georgetown Institute for Strategic Studies in addition to writing for the Washington Times.

(9) Virtually all of the specialized personnel at the OPD were officially "on loan" from other agencies. This helped to obscure the true nature of the OPD. Thus, while Otto Reich, a political appointee, was the titular head, Walter Raymond was the actual operational director.

RESTRICTIONS: Copyright 1991 by Propaganda Review. All rights reserved under the International Copyright Union, the Universal Copyright Convention, and the PanAmerican Convention. Unauthorized republication is prohibited but reprinting (or reposting in other conferences or networks) of all Propaganda Review articles is encouraged. Please contact Johan Carlisle (jcarlisle), Managing Editor, for permission.

Copies of Propaganda Review magazine (with illustrated articles) are available for $6. [Note: issues #1 and #5 are out of print.] For more information, to order back issues, or to subscribe to PR ($20/4 issues; $40-libraries & foreign) contact jcarlisle (via e-mail on PeaceNet), call (415) 332-8369, or write to:

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