Ilhan Omar Swings and Misses
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams got into a fiery exchange on Wednesday that began with her wondering why anything he said could be considered credible after his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. One reason people can get away with taking cheap shots at Elliott Abrams is because there aren’t a dozen people in DC, and zero reporters, who know a thing about US policy in Latin America in the 1980's.
Let’s decipher what Ms. Omar said:
She went on to recount his 1982 congressional testimony about U.S. policy toward El Salvador, where as Assistant Secretary of State he said reports about the El Mozote massacre perpetrated by the Salvadoran Army weren’t credible. Omar discussed the details of the massacre and quoted Abrams’s remarks that U.S. policy there was a “fabulous achievement.”
“Yes or no. Do you still think so?” she asked.
“From the day that President [José Napoleón] Duarte was elected in a free election to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy,” Abrams said. “That’s a fabulous achievement.”
“Yes or no. Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?” she asked.
“ That is a ridiculous question, and — no!” Abrams said.
“I will take that as a yes,” Omar said.
“I’m sorry, but I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question,” Abrams said.
“Yes or no. Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, if you believe they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?” Omar asked.
“I am not going to respond to that question. I’m sorry,” Abrams said. “I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions, and so I will not reply.”
Omar defended her line of questioning as fair, saying the American people wanted to know how U.S. goals are furthered in its foreign policy.
“Will you make sure that human rights are not violated and that we uphold international and human rights?” Omar asked.
“I suppose there is a question in there, and the answer is the entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country. That’s our policy,” Abrams said.
Abrams, responding to a final question from Omar, affirmed the U.S. position is always to further human rights and protect against genocide in its foreign policy.
Omar has opposed Trump administration in Venezuela, speaking out against fresh sanctions leveled against Maduro last month. She’s claimed Trump is backing a “far-right” “coup” by bolstering Guaido.
Abrams is a strong supporter of Israel, while Omar just apologized yet again this week for using anti-Semitic tropes, this time to attack pro-Israel politicians as being paid off by AIPAC, the lobbying organization. In the past she’s also said Israel “hypnotized the world” and compared the country to Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.
In his opening statement, Abrams called on the armed forces to help Venezuela reclaim its legitimacy and no longer support the authoritarian Maduro.
“For those remaining supporters of the regime, we have one, simple message: Your time is up,” Abrams said. “A new, free, and prosperous Venezuela will rise, and your fellow citizens will remember who stood by them in their struggle.”
The Republican National Committee ripped Omar in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon, calling her attacks on the longtime diplomat “un-American.”
“In recent days the world has witnessed the support the U.S. has offered the Venezuelan people with the ultimate goal of restoring democracy in their country.,” RNC Director and Spokesperson of Hispanic Media Yali Nuñez said. “For Rep. Ilhan Omar to attack the character of U.S Special Envoy to Venezuela, Mr. Elliott Abrams, a public servant and patriot is just simply un-American . In less than a week she has managed to offend both the Jewish and Hispanic communities in the U.S.”
How accurate are Ms. Omar’s claims? Ed Bradley and David Gelber, the correspondent and producer responsible for the infamous 1989 60 Minutes scare story on Alar and apples, teamed up to produce a segment titled “Massacre at Mozote.” The message was that Bonner, who had helped promote the cause of the communist rebels in El Salvador while covering that country for The New York Times in 1981–82, had been unjustly criticized. Raymond Bonner, who, as correspondent for The New York Times in El Salvador in 1981–82 was so helpful to the communist rebels that the U.S. ambassador described him as one of their “tools." The guilty critics were the American ambassador to El Salvador, Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Here is Bradley’s opening comment:
“It was the end of 1981. Civil war was raging in El Salvador between left-wing guerrillas and the U.S.- supported Salvadoran government. Two American newspaper reporters and a photo journalist hiked up to a mountain village called El Mozote and found out that an elite battalion of U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers had massacred more than 700 unarmed men, women and children. When the massacre story appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, the Reagan administration, which wanted to continue shipping arms and money to the Salvadoran army, flat out denied it, and the State Department put a lot of heat on the reporters who discovered the massacre. But now, 11 years later, there is no longer much doubt about what happened at El Mozote. Several months ago a team of forensic anthropologists working for the United Nations, excavated a burial site at El Mozote. Even they were astonished at what they turned up.”
What they had turned up, one of the anthropologists said, were the remains of 146 victims, 131 of them children under 12 years old, in the village of El Mozote. Bradley said this was “just one of what are expected to be many burial sites.” Bradley interviewed two villagers who told of seeing the troops wantonly kill noncombatants, including babies, and a former army lieutenant who claimed to have participated in the sweep of the area but had no first-hand knowledge of what transpired in El Mozote. On the basis of this evidence, Bradley asserted that the reporting done by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guilliermoprieto, of The Washington Post, had been “professional and accurate,” discrediting their critics.
An extraordinary propaganda campaign had been under way in this country to dissuade the United States from lending military or even economic aid to the embattled Salvadoran civilian-military junta. Orchestrated by El Salvador’s Marxist-Leninist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the crusade had as its objective the intimidating of President Reagan into not certifying that the junta was making progress in the area of human rights and, failing that, persuade Congress to oppose such certification and so create a political liability for the Republicans in the 1982 congressional elections.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the FMLN’s propaganda offensive was the degree to which the U.S. media, led by The New York Times and The Washington Post, had lent themselves to it. Indeed, some news dispatches appearing in The Times and The Post had seemed indistinguishable from broadcasts over Radio Venceremos, the FMLN’s chief propaganda organ, judging by their content. The Village Voice agreed that The New York Times had provided a powerful propaganda assist to the guerrillas. It was particularly impressed with “a remarkable threepart series from Ray Bonner, reporting on his trip in the guerrilla-controlled province of Morazan.”
Bonner’s peers said that he was “readier to believe guerrillas than the government.” It noted that women and children can be active participants in guerrilla warfare and charged that Bonner had underplayed that possibility in his report on the Mozote massacre. Obviously it would not have helped Bradley’s case for Bonner to have discussed the specific criticisms made by Time. Im not disputing that noncombatants may have been killed at El Mozote, however Bonner’s story exaggerated the number killed there. Bradley carefully avoided calling the discrepancies in the numbers to the attention of his viewers. His interviews with the two eyewitnesses, a housewife named Rufina Amaya and a young man who was only 7 years old at the time, failed to touch on the number of people killed.
Ray Bonner of The Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of The Washington Post had been given a guided tour of parts of Morazan province by the guerrillas.
Their stories about their observations began to appear in the two papers just before President Reagan had to notify Congress on January 28, 1982 whether or not El Salvador was eligible for our aid. It is not clear from their stories just when they made the tour. But Guillermoprieto’s sensational story about a massacre in the small town of Mozote was dated January 14. It was published by The Post on the front page on January 27. The Times carried a similar story, obviously by Bonner but without his by-line, the following day on page A-12, with no indication that it might have been written two weeks earlier.
Alma Guilliermoprieto reported in 1982 that Rufina Amaya claimed to have counted about 170 men and women being rounded up and taken off to be killed. She also said that Amaya told her that El Mozote had about 500 inhabitants. Bonner, using figures supplied to him by the guerrillas, reported that 482 noncombatants had been massacred in El Mozote. That would have left only about 20 survivors, based on Amaya’s estimate of the population. Bonner added that “the peasants” had compiled the names of 733 persons murdered by the soldiers in El Mozote and the surrounding area. He also noted that the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador had put the total at 926.
Guillermoprieto’s account of what transpired at Mozote is based on interviews with three survivors of the massacre, a housewife and two teenage boys. The housewife said that all the men, women, and children in the village were herded into the village square by government troops and then taken away and shot. She said she had counted about 80 men and 90 women, not including children. She said there were about 500 living in the village, but the guerrillas had warned the villagers that an army attack was coming and advised them to get out. She said they stayed because they didn’t fear the soldiers.
Bonner of The Times turned up different figures. He reported that the villagers compiled a list of 733 men, women and children who were murdered by the soldiers. He then added that the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador had put the total at 926. Bonner said the number of dead in Mozote was 482, including 280 children, according to the list compiled by the peasants. That left 251 that were presumably slain in other villages to bring the total up to 733. However. Bonner cautioned that it is not possible to determine independently how many people died or who killed them.
Appearing as they did just when the President was formally certifying that El Salvador was making enough progress in the human rights field to merit continued receipt of U.S. aid, these stories were vigorously exploited by critics of El Salvador in Congress. Karen OeYoung, foreign editor of The Washington Post, has denied that the story was held up for publication in order to try to influence President Reagan’s thinking on El Salvador aid. She said on a radio talk show that the story was published as soon as it reached Washington. Maybe so, but Mozote is only a few miles from the Honduran border, and it seems unlikely that it would take the reporters nearly two weeks to get to a city with a teletype machine. Reporters are supposed to be competitive, dashing to the nearest telephone or teletype to get in their hot story. Here we have reporters from two rival papers who view the scene of what they take to be the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children in early January, and their stories are not run in their papers until January 27 (Post) and January 28 (Times). If they weren’t held up in Washington and New York, it would appear that the reporters themselves delayed the stories by mutual agreement.
Bradley’s assertion that “more than 700” had been massacred was simply the unverified rebel claim transmitted by the credulous Bonner. The heart of the case against Bonner was his willingness to report unverified information supplied by the rebels. The estimates of the victims were obviously very elastic. The guerrilla radio had announced on December 21 that 192 non-combatants had been killed at El Mozote, but on January 2 they upped the total to 472. Another 10 were added to the figure supplied to Ray Bonner. It appeared that no figure was too high for Bonner to accept and repeat without question, and Ed Bradley showed no interest in trying to reconcile the discrepancies or even call attention to them. Indeed, a statement by Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders was edited to avoid raising doubts in the minds of viewers about the magnitude of the killing.
Enders said: “There is no evidence at all to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, or that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the 733 or the 926 victims variously cited in the press. In fact, the total population of El Mozote canton last December is estimated locally at only 300, and there are manifestly a great many people still there.”
60 Minutes omitted the italicized words, which cast even more doubt on Bonner’s numbers than the population estimate of 500 that Rufina Amaya gave to Guilliermoprieto in 1982. Contrary to Bradley’s claim, Enders’ statement was not a “flat out” denial that noncombatants had been killed. It was a claim that our government lacked evidence that the killing had been “systematic” or that it had been on the scale claimed by Bonner.
One of the tricks being used regularly by our propagandists of the press against El Salvador is the misrepresentation of the responsibility for the violence there. In his story on the alleged massacre at Mozote, Raymond Bonner mentioned that the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador had put the number of victims at 926. Bonner says the Commission “works with the Roman Catholic Church.” It is frequently quoted in the press as an authoritative source for the number of deaths from political violence in El Salvador. Captured documents have shown this group to be under control of the Marxists. Its head, Marianela Garcia Villas, has long supported the violent left according to the Salvadoran embassy in Washington. One of its members, Norma Guevara, was arrested in Texas last July on charges of smuggling arms. The State Department says it is “an insurgent propaganda vehicle.” Nevertheless this group continues to be treated by our media as a reliable source of information.
Another group that is frequently cited in connection with data on deaths is the “Legal Aid Office.” This is usually referred to as the Legal Aid Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador. In an article in the Washington Post of January 27 that ran alongside the story of the alleged massacre at Mozote, John Dinges discussed the Legal Aid Office breakdown on responsibility for violent deaths. It attributed 60 percent to joint actions of the army and security forces and 35 percent to unidentified paramilitary gangs. Dinges added: “There is no category for victims of leftist violence — a deficiency that has evoked criticism of the office by Sun Salvador’s Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas.” The Legal Aid Office was once connected with the Church, but that connection has been severed. Acting Archbishop Rivera y Damas has criticized this group severely for its political bias and has denied it any right to speak for the archdiocese.
A third source for death data is the Central American University, which is run by the Jesuit order. In his testimony, Assistant Secretary Enders said that it is easy to tell where this group stands from the fact that it has a category called “ajusticiados,” meaning persons “justly executed” by the guerrillas.
In addition to his report on the El Mozote massacre, which appears to have exaggerated the number of noncombatants killed, several of Bonner’s stories in the Times in January 1982 fit the classic communist disinformation pattern. By that I mean (1) playing up real or invented atrocities by our own troops or those we are supporting in their resistance to the communists; and (2) portraying the communist rebels as genuine democrats or simple peasants who have no agenda beyond getting rid of their cruel oppressors and establishing a humane, democratic society.
His tall torture tale is a good example. It charged that U.S. Green Berets in camouflage fatigues watched as Salvadoran military personnel tortured a 13-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy suspected of being rebel sympathizers. Their lifeless bodies were allegedly dumped on the street in San Salvador. The uncorroborated story, which ran on page 2 on January 11, 1982, came from Antonio Gomez Montano, an army deserter living in Mexico.
There were numerous flaws in the story which would have been detected if Bonner had checked it out. For example, U.S. military advisers in El Salvador were not allowed to wear jungle camouflage fatigues. Gomez claimed that U.S. Green Berets trained a helicopter parachute unit at Ilopango air base. No U.S. trainers worked with the parachute unit at Ilopango. There were only two Green Berets in El Salvador at the time and they were not assigned to Ilopango. He claimed his parents had been killed by the National Guard in May 1981, but records showed that his parents both died of natural causes long before that date. Gomez claimed to have deserted after escaping from the stockade at Ilopango, but his records showed he simply failed to return to duty after two days of leave.
But even worse, evidence surfaced that Gomez had told a far more grisly story than the one Bonner submitted to the Times. Bonner’s story said only that the Americans were present during the torture, but the January 1982 issue of Alert, a publication of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), said: “What The New York Times article fails to mention is that this soldier (Gomez), in a taped interview, directly implicates these ‘trainers’ in the tortures.” Gomez was quoted as saying, “The officers who were teaching us were the American Green Berets…They began to torture this young fellow. They took their knives and stuck them under his fingernails. After they took his fingernails off, then they broke his elbows. Afterwards they gouged out his eyes. They then took their bayonets and made all sorts of slices in his skin all around his chest, arms and legs. Then they took his hair off and the skin of his scalp. When they saw there was nothing left to do with him, they threw gasoline on him and burned him…”
Covert Action Information Bulletin, a publication put out by friends of CIA turncoat Philip Agee, discussed this story in its March 1982 issue, repeating the account of the torture of the boy and adding an even more horrifying description of the rape and torture of the 13-year-old girl. In this account a second boy was tortured but not killed in the process. He was allegedly thrown out of a helicopter over the ocean from a height of 14,000 feet. Gomez claimed that there were eight Green Berets in all participating in the torture session, according to CAIB.
Leftists in Mexico had been peddling Gomez’s story but had found no takers among American reporters until Bonner picked it up, eight months after Gomez’s desertion. The Times eventually acknowledged that the story should not have been published, and Bonner agreed, writing in his 1984 book, Weakness and Deceit, “I now believe that I should not have written Gomez’s account without seeking a second source to verify what he related …. I suspect now that he embellished what had happened, and I do not believe that the American advisers had been present as he described.”
Atrocity stories play an important role in wars. They can be used to fire up emotions against the enemy. They can be used to undermine morale and home front support of one’s own side or one’s allies. The use the media make of atrocity stories is a pretty good indication of which side they want to see triumph. In World Wars I and II, our press focused on the atrocities committed by the Germans and Japanese. Little or nothing was said about those committed by our own forces or by or allies. One of the most shameful cover-ups of World War II was the failure to report the Soviet murder of 10,000 Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest in 1939. That was concealed from the public to avoid undermining support for our Soviet ally.
In Vietnam, nothing was a better indicator of the sympathies of the media than the contrast between their coverage of the My Lai massacre by American troops and the Hue massacre by the communists. At Hue some, 3,000 bodies of non-combatants who had been murdered were found. Another 2,000 who had disappeared were never found. Our media showed almost no interest in those corpses. There were very few stories in the papers and none on television. Most Americans today have never heard of the Hue massacre. But everyone knows of My Lai, where perhaps 100 Vietcong non-combatants were killed by our forces in an attack on a Vietcong village. My Lai became one of the big stories of the war.
The Hue massacre told more about the Vietnamese communists and how they would govern than the My Lai massacre told about the United States. That was not a lesson that our media wanted to drive home.
Similarly in Central America, the Sandinista treatment of the Miskito Indians is a good indicator of how the communists can be expected to treat those who resist their rule if they win out in El Salvador and Guatemala. Of course, the Sandinista action in imprisoning over 7,000 people after they took over is an equally good indicator of what lies in store if their ideological counterparts had won in El Salvador.
The Good Guerrillas
Attacking the El Salvadoran government and our own military with atrocity stories was only half the disinformation campaign. It was also important to portray the communist-led guerrillas in a heroic, non-threatening light. Bonner did just that in the series of three articles in the Times reporting on his expedition to Morazon province, guerrilla territory, The El Mozote massacre was one of these stories. The others denied allegations that El Salvador was under attack by terrorists using Soviet arms supplied by Cuba. The guerrillas that Bonner met convinced him that “theirs is an indigenous revolution spawned by decades of political and social injustice.” He reported, “None of those questioned said they knew of anyone, including the senior commanders, who had been to Cuba or Nicaragua for training. ‘It is an insult to say the Cubans and Nicaraguans are helping us,’ a 27-year-old soldier said. ‘We are campesinos. We can do it ourselves.’” A guerrilla leader was quoted as saying that as far as he knew, no arms from Cuba or Nicaragua had been received by the guerrillas. He claimed that they bought their arms on the market with funds obtained from “kidnappings, bank robberies and ‘war taxes’ imposed on businesses.”
The vision of revolutionaries providing schools and health care to peasants appeals to liberals. Bonner told his readers that “the guerrillas have set up schools for children, health clinics and hospitals, military schools and a radio station.” He wrote: “The immense majority of the guerrillas are Christians, according to the Rev. Rogelio Ponseele, a 42-year-old Belgian-born Roman Catholic priest who has been in the mountains with the guerrillas and their families since Christmas Day 1980. He has baptized more than 200 of their children, he said. ‘They are motivated by their Christian faith to try to bring democracy to El Salvador,’ Father Ponseele said in an interview.”
He portrayed the guerrillas as popular idealists fighting corrupt government troops forced into the military or attracted by the pay. In his January 28 story, Bonner quoted a 19-year-old guerrilla platoon commander who said, “Even though the enemy has planes, bombs, more powerful weapons, and American advisers, we will win because we have the support of the people. The army soldiers are fighting ‘because they are paid to, are obligated to.’ The peasants are fighting because they want to.”
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Thomas O. Enders, said in testimony before a House subcommittee on February 2, 1982 that two Embassy officers had been sent to investigate the reports of the massacre at Mozote. He said: “While it is clear that an armed confrontation between guerrillas occupying El Mozote and attacking government forces occurred last December, no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the 733 or 926 victims variously cited in press reports. In fact, the total population of El Mozote canton last December is estimated locally at only 300, and there are manifestly a great many people still there.” That portion of Mr. Enders’ testimony did not find its way into either The Post or The Times.
Both Bonner and Guillermoprieto reported that they had seen “dozens” of corpses that were still unburied at the time of their visit. Guillermoprieto explained that the peasants had buried some of the bodies, but the guerrillas had asked that they not be buried until outside observers were brought in to see them. Bonner said that most of the bodies he saw were buried under burned out and collapsed roofs in some 20 mud brick huts. Neither he nor Guillermoprieto reported seeing any mass grave containing those hundreds that the Post reporter’s informant had said were marched out of the village square and shot. Although both reporters had heard the story from the same housewife, they told it differently. Bonner said many of the victims were shot in their homes, which was consistent with his seeing the bodies there. Guillermoprieto also said she observed lots of bodies in the church and in the huts, but she did not try to reconcile that with the housewife’s account of the people being taken out of their homes and shot.
The Times quoted Col. Alfonso Cotto of the Salvadoran armed forces as saying that the stories about hundreds of civilians having been killed were totally false and were fabricated by the guerrillas. The military sweep in Morazan had taken place between December 8 and December 21. The guerrilla radio had announced on December 27 that 192 non-combatants had died at El Mozote. but on January 2 they raised that to 472. The number has continued to grow with the telling.
Attacking the El Salvadoran government with atrocity stories is only half of the propaganda job. In addition, it is important that the guerrillas be painted in a heroic light. Raymond Bonner was adept at this. The Village Voice was pleased because his first report on the guerrillas “lengthily confuted administration claims of Cuban outsiders running a terrorist war with Soviet supplied guns.” Bonner reported that the peasants and their leader’s in Morazan “contend that theirs is an indigenous revolution spawned by decades of political and social injustice.” Nothing appeals to the American intelligentsia more than the Jeffersonian revolutionary who provides schools and hospitals to the sturdy farmers. And so Bonner tells his readers “the guerrillas have set up schools for children, health clinics and hospitals, military schools and a radio station. Peasants are cultivating corn, sugar cane, beans and other crops and grazing cattle.”
Of course they must be shown to be good God-fearing men and women. Bonner writes: “The immense majority of the guerrillas are Christians, according to the Rev. Rogelio Ponseele, a 42-year-old Belgian-born Roman Catholic priest who has been in the mountains with the guerrillas and their families since Christmas Day 1980. He has baptized more than 200 of their children, he said. ‘They are motivated by their Christian faith’ to try to bring democracy to El Salvador, Father Ponseele said in an interview.”
The notion that they are backed and armed by Cuba and Nicaragua must be disposed of. Bonner writes: “None of those questioned said they knew of anyone, including the senior commanders, who had been to Cuba or Nicaragua for training. ‘It is an insult to say that Cubans and Nicaraguans are helping us,’ a 27-year-old soldier said. ‘We are campesinos, but we can do it ourselves.’” The guerrilla leader is quoted as saying that as far as he knew, no arms from Cuba or Nicaragua had been received by the guerrillas. He explained that they simply bought their arms on the market with all the money they were taking in from “kidnappings, bank robberies, and ‘war taxes’ imposed on businesses.”
Finally, it is vital that the guerrillas be shown to be dedicated fighters who are battling for their ideals in contrast to the corrupt government troops who fight only because they are conscripted or because they are paid. This Bonner tackled in his third report on January 28. He quoted a 19-year-old platoon commander who said, ‘Even though the enemy has planes, bombs, more powerful weapons, and American advisers, we will win because we have the support of the people.” He added: “Also, he said the army soldiers are fighting because ‘they are paid to, are obligated to.’ The peasants are fighting because they want to.”
And, of course, the guerrillas are humane, reasonable men who will be generous in victory to the vanquished. Bonner says they don’t kill their prisoners, because (a) this will encourage others to surrender to them and (b) after they win they will want to integrate their troops with the regular army and so they want to minimize the ill will generated by the war. Furthermore, they want to minimize the killing. He quotes a guerrilla with a sixth- grade education as saying, “We’re ready to negotiate, to seek a political settlement, so that fewer people will be killed, but the enemy doesn’t want one. So the only way is to continue fighting.”
It is obvious that Raymond Bonner is a worthy successor to Herbert Matthews, the famed Times correspondent who did so much to help popularize Castro in this country, thus helping him get the support he needed to take over Cuba and make it into a Soviet puppet, it is little wonder that following his massive reports in The Times on the guerrillas, The Village Voice wrote: “It’s clear that, at least for the time being, the administration has lost the propaganda war.” That conclusion was reached only from reading The Times. The Washington Post did the same thing, using stories by Alma Guillermoprieto, John Dingee and foreign editor, Karen DeYoung. Miss DeYoung was made foreign editor of The Post in recognition of her great contribution to bringing about the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua by the same kind of reporting that we are now seeing coming out of El Salvador.
Did We Save El Salvador?
There is abundant proof that the rebels in El Salvador received arms and money from Cuba and Nicaragua, but they also got advice and ideas. One of the lessons they learned from their communist comrades in other countries was the importance of halting the flow of Atnerican aid to the government they were seeking to overthrow.
Ruben Zamora and Hector Oqueli, rebel spokesmen, explained this to New York Times reporter Philip Taubman. In Taubman’s story, published February 26, 1982, Oqueli was quoted as saying, “We have to win the war inside the United States.” Taubman wrote, “Their primary goal, the rebels said, was to overcome the pronouncements of the Reagan Administration that have portrayed the guerrillas as Soviet and Cuban puppets. The guerrillas began with the example of Vietnam. ‘The American media, especially television, turned public opinion against the war,’ said Mr. Zamora.”
“One step,” Taubman explained, “was to invite American reporters in El Salvador to visit rebel strongholds in the countryside. These visits, which began late last year, generated a series of newspaper articles about the rebels and their supporters. At the same time, the leaders began to contact editorial writers at major American newspapers, hoping to persuade them to write more sympathetically about the insurgents.”
Bonner’s classic disinformation/propaganda stories were valuable assets in that campaign. They were timed to appear in the weeks and days preceding the deadline for the president to certify that El Salvador was making sufficient progress in safeguarding human rights to qualify for continued aid. Bonner’s El Mozote massacre story ran the very day that Reagan was to send that certification to Congress.
Reagan understood the communist strategy. Moreover, he recognized that subjecting El Salvador to communist rule was not appropriate punishment for its shortcomings in the human rights area, nor was it in the best interests of the United States. He was determined to prevent the expansion of the communist beachhead that had been established in Nicaragua in 1979.
As a result, Bonner and his allies in the media did not prevail. The New York Times pulled him out of El Salvador in August 1982. He had served there only 10 months, and his recall was clearly not the routine rotation the Times claimed it to be. The true story is described in detail in Joe Goulden’s book Fit To Print: A.M. Rosenthal And His Times.
When The Wall Street Journal devoted its entire editorial space to a scathing criticism of the Times’ coverage of Central America and Bonner’s reporting in particular on February 10, Sulzberger, Goulden wrote, summoned executive editor Abe Rosenthal to his office and expressed concern about Bonner’s reporting. Rosenthal was obliged to take a close look at what Bonner was writing. He went to El Salvador for an on-the-spot investigation, and the end result was that he decided Bonner had to go. It was none too soon.
The Wall Street Journal reviewed the sorry record of American journalists misjudging the communists ever since the Ilolshevik revolution. It asked, “Are we going to have to watch the script replayed again in El Salvador, or can we in the press succeed in bringing some perspective to the story? By now we ought to realize that atrocities, some of them well documented, have been committed by both sides. We ought to recognize the exceeding improbability of a guerrilla success leading to anything but a Cuban-dominated regime….The press will have failed if, in the whirlpool of confusion, these realities are lost.”
The pitiful pile of bones unearthed at El Mozote and shown on 60 Minutes is a reminder of the brutality that often characterized the struggle to ward off the attempted communist takeover. But it doesn’t compare with the huge mound of skulls in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a memorial to the world’s worst holocaust since World War II. And some will remember that another New York Times reporter, Sydney Schanberg, after doing for the rebels in Cambodia what Bonner was trying to do for the rebels in El Salvador, had a story in The New York Times on April 13, 1975 under this headline: “Indochina Without Americans: For Most A Better Life.”
One thing I did not do was deny that civilians may have been massacred at El Mozote. Neither did the other critics of Bonner cited by 60 Minutes, The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.
As for Ms. Omar’s claim that the US backed an armed faction within Guatemala which engaged in war crimes, The US never backed Montt, US aid to Guatemala was cut in 1977 and was only resumed in 1986, 3 yrs after Rios Montt gave up power. In El Salvador, the US supported the centrist Christian Democrats, who were targets of death squads. The Carter Administration repeatedly intervened to prevent right-wing coups. The Reagan Administration repeatedly threatened aid suspensions to halt right-wing atrocities. The death squads denounced President Duarte as a traitor and threatened his life because he had publicly met the FMLN leaders for peace talks.
As for Nicaragua, Somoza openly blamed Carter for his downfall. The Sandinistas spoke of Carter’s support. The Carter Administration was the single largest donor to Sandinista Nicaragua, sending $108 million in direct aid and arranging $262 million in loans. The aid stopped when Nicaragua continued to arm communist insurgents in El Salvador. The Reagan Administration twice offered to resume aid if the Sandinistas ended their military build-up and their attack on El Salvador.
Accuracy in Media:
AIM Report - March B, 1993
This same story was severely criticized in Time's March 24 article. Time also reported that some of Bonner's peers said…
AIM Report - February B 1982
DANIEL JAMES HAS PROVIDED A MORE COMPLETE CATALOG IN HIS ARTICLE, "THE MEDIA CRUSADE to Sink E1 Salvador," in the…
AIM Report - April A 1982
"'We have to win the war inside the United States,' said Hector Oqueli one of the (El Salvadoran) rebel leaders...His…
AIM Report - September B 1982
Many members of AIM took our suggestion that they write to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman of The New York Times…