Last Friday, National Public Radio host Mary Louise Kelly reported that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had stormed out of an interview with her at the State Department because he was irritated by her questions regarding his failure to defend former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was the target of a smear campaign orchestrated by President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, prior to her removal from the post—an incident that is at the heart of current impeachment proceedings against the president.
|Secretary of State Mike Pompeo|
But before she could leave the building, a State Department aide escorted Kelly to a room where Pompeo was waiting for her. For the next several minutes, the secretary of state berated and swore at her for questioning him about Ukraine, asking her if she really thought “Americans give a fuck” about Ukraine. In an attempt to humiliate Kelly, he had his aides bring a map with no names or writing on it and demanded that she point to Ukraine. To his chagrin, she did so without hesitation—despite the fact that, by any professional standard, she would have been justified in telling Pompeo to point to it himself.
Pompeo later accused Kelly of lying to him by saying there would be no questions about Ukraine. Kelly says she specifically told the secretary’s staff in preparation for the interview that Ukraine would definitely be on the docket. He also said she had told him their conversation after the failed interview would be off the record. Kelly denies this, saying she was merely led into the room and was told to turn her recorder off before Pompeo started dressing her down. Furthermore, it is worth considering that the journalist might well have considered herself to be under duress, given the situation. Nor is this the way that off-the-record negotiations work between interviewer and inteviewee.
|NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly|
Pompeo says he has nothing more to say about the interview. President Trump’s reaction has been to say that he doesn’t know “why NPR even exists.” It seems clear to me that both men think that public media should be at the service of the administration and the chief executive, not at the service of truth, professionalism and objective reporting in its task of informing the public.
Interestingly enough, I have a case in point of my own from a quarter-century ago. During the Clinton era, I was a stringer for several years for the United States Information Agency (USIA), a state-funded information-gathering organization that operated out of Washington from 1953 to 1999. When they first offered me the gig I almost turned it down saying that I was an independent free-lancer and didn’t want “to work for the government.” The assignment editor at the time, Andrew Lluberes, said I needn’t worry. The USIA was just like any other news agency. I should think of them as a kind of American BBC.
My one condition for accepting the assignment was that, as long as I got the facts straight, my work should never be subject to censorship.
The test came when I—like a lot of other American foreign correspondents—was investigating a lead about a chapter that was included in the training manual for the notorious School of the Americas, known today as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Back in the seventies and eighties when I was covering the bloody machinations of various authoritarian regimes in South America for several newspapers in Britain and the US, the School of the Americas was fondly known among American and British correspondents as “Dictator School”, since it was hard to find a leading operative member of the region’s military regimes who hadn’t been through training at the US facility in Panama.
Washington long tried to sell the SOA as an American mutual training facility located in the Panama Canal Zone for military personnel from throughout Central and South America. It was, successive US administrations held, a training ground in the fight against communist subversion and terrorism. The school indeed imparted useful instruction on counterinsurgency, jungle warfare, survival, strategy and tactical planning. But it had been persistently reported that it also provided chillingly effective methodology for the application of physical and psychological torture of prisoners, as a means of collecting compelling intelligence. Indeed, when American civil rights groups and news professionals reported on the gross human rights violations being carried out by dictatorial regimes from Guatemala and El Salvador in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south, Latin American military men would scoff and say, “You think the United States doesn’t use torture? They literally wrote the book on it!”
But following the Reagan era, which, after the scrupulously human and civil rights-oriented administration of US President Jimmy Carter, re-opened the floodgates in South America to human rights abuses, the SAO came under scrutiny. The Reagan foreign policy for the region was a sort of point/counterpoint message that the region’s authoritarian regimes should start moving toward a democratic opening, but should first get left-wing “subversion” cleaned up, and for that, the US was willing to turn a blind eye.
That was the almost literal message that military leaders in Argentina, where I was based, received from Reagan’s envoy, National Security Adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick, almost as soon as Carter moved out of the White House and Reagan moved in. Placing Kirkpatrick in historical context, she was a staunch McCarthyite-style anti-communist who counseled Reagan to follow his own anti-communist political instincts and lend American backing to some of the bloodiest far-right military regimes that the Americas had ever known. She was said to be particularly fond of then-Argentine dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri, urging Reagan to side with the Argentine regime over Britain in the ten-week Falklands/Malvinas War. It would be hard to separate her influence from Galtieri’s clear—but, as it turns out, erroneous—confidence that the Argentine dictatorship would have Washington’s support for a full-scale invasion of the British-held Falklands to back Argentina’s 150-year-old claim to the archipelago located off of the country’s Patagonian coast. This was a stance that was staunchly opposed by Reagan’s then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
|Reagan security adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick|
Kirkpatrick was also one of the Reaganites who favored the conspiracy to skim money off of US arms sales to provide backing for the extreme right-wing Nicaraguan Contras, a position which ran sharply counter to that of then-Secretary of State George Schultz, who argued that because of the gross human rights abuses carried out by the group, doing so would be “an impeachable offense”.
American philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky once dubbed Kirkpatrick the “chief sadist-in-residence of the Reagan Administration” and pointed to both her hypocrisy and that of the administration in claiming to be “protecting democracy” by saving the region from communism, while actively supporting brutal military regimes that showed no respect for human rights or democracy. When four American Catholic missionary nuns were raped, beaten and murdered in El Salvador by a paramilitary hit squad formed by five members of the country’s National Guard, Kirkpatrick backed the official story that the country’s dictatorial regime had had nothing to do with the incident, while adding that “the nuns weren’t just nuns.”
But in line with that hypocritical government policy, throughout the eighties, one after another of the former military regimes gave way to some form of more pluralistic government. And as a result, there began a kind of historical revision of the preceding years in which the victims of the former regimes were now governing the countries in question, and as such were digging back into the motives and methods by which dictators had ruled. In the process, the SOA came back into sharp focus.
And this was where I came in.
In October of 1996, the USIA assigned me, as special correspondent, to cover an Americas defense ministers’ conference held at the idyllic Llao-Llao Hotel Resort, located at the confluence of Lakes Nahuel Huapi and Moreno, within overland hiking distance from my home in Patagonia. (I can see the roof of the lodge-like hotel in the distance from my upstairs window). As soon as I got the gig, I decided that I would seek an occasion to question then-US Defense Secretary William Perry about information that was rapidly coming to light regarding “torture training” at the SOA.
In the timeline of the years leading up to this inter-American Defense Ministers’ meeting, a list of some 60,000 SOA graduates de-classified in 1993 was virtual confirmation that not only dictators but also death squad members and paramilitary assassins had received SOA training. Two bills were presented in the US Congress to cut funding to the school but neither ever made it out of the House. Both bills were introduced by Rep. Joseph Kennedy III. Despite their failure to pass, Kennedy did manage to secure requirement of a report on the school’s status with regard to the promotion of respect for human rights.
In 1995, the House Appropriations Committee urged the Department of Defense to make greater efforts to inculcate staunch defense of human rights into SOA training. Not convinced as to the efficacy of this urging, Kennedy introduced a bill that year to completely pull the plug on the SOA and shut it down. It should be replaced, the congressman suggested, “with a US Academy for Democracy and Civil-Military Relations.” But that bill also stalled out while awaiting executive comment from the Clinton administration.
Again in 1996, a congressional committee urged the Defense Department to promote effective efforts to incorporate human rights training into the regular curriculum of the school and to monitor the human rights performance of its graduates.
It wasn’t until September of 1996, that the Pentagon made training manuals from the School of the Americas available to the public. Those materials confirmed that tactics included in the manuals “violated American policy and principles.” Then Representative Nancy Pelosi said that the material released by the Pentagon had “confirmed (her) worst suspicions. Namely, that “US Army intelligence manuals, distributed to thousands of military officers throughout Latin America, promoted the use of executions, torture, blackmail, and other forms of coercion.” Among other things, she indicated, US taxpayer dollars had been used to promote tactics based on “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions, and the use of truth serum.”
So, in early October, when Secretary Perry arrived in Patagonia for the inter-American meeting, the SOA’s heinous past was fresh news. And when Perry organized a Q and A session for American correspondents, I was quick to get my question about the SOA in at the outset. I was prepared for Perry, who was there for a conference on cooperation between Latin American and US defense administrations, to be upset by the questions and perhaps to tell me that it wasn’t the time or place to talk about the SOA, especially since I had identified myself as special correspondent for the state-owned USIA. And, indeed, he was shaken by my questions and my insistence. But there was no attempt to shut me up.
|Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry|
Instead, Perry called the materials “shocking” and said that even though the teaching of tactics that were in complete violation of human rights formed “only a small percentage” of the entire program, “that is not an excuse.”
“I want to emphasize,” I quoted him as saying, “that what was done was wrong and totally unacceptable.” He said that an effort had been made to destroy all copies of the manual except one kept by the Counsel General. And he added that the Clinton administration had launched an investigation to ensure that no other military instruction manuals approved by the Pentagon supported practices that violated human rights.
Clearly, this was a burning issue that placed the US, and successive administrations, in a bad light. And the SOA remained a thorn in the side of US democracy into the 21st century, with continuing reports of its adherence to tactics that violated human rights. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that human rights researcher Ruth Blakeley indicated, following interviews with personnel from the SOA’s successor organization, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, and anti-SOA protesters that “there was considerable transparency...established after the transition from SOA to WHINSEC. She added that “a much more rigorous human rights training program was in place than in any other US military institution.”
My point here is that, at no time was I bullied by Defense Secretary Perry, the Clinton administration or the USIA to desist from writing and filing the story. Nor was I chided by Perry or his people after the press conference for putting him on the spot. On the contrary, they took me as a professional doing my job and they responded with the professionalism of people paid to do the work of the government—not of the president. My story was published without a single edit.
There’s a lesson in here for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, in seeking to bully journalist Mary Louise Kelly, has acted with the same mafia thug attitude to the interview with NPR as his boss did when he allegedly told his henchmen, Lev Paras and Rudy Giuliani, that he wanted career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch “taken out”. And as a ranking public figure, it is also clear that Pompeo has not only disrespected Kelly but has also perpetrated a direct attack on freedom of the press, by seeking to intimidate a reporter who asked him uncomfortable questions.
These are not attitudes that should be considered acceptable from leaders of a country that still stakes any claim whatsoever to being a democracy.