Ronald Reagan's Legacy:
Eight Years of CIA Covert Action
by William Blum
Covert Action Quarterly, Winter 1990
Ronald Reagan was not the most interventionist American president
of modern times. Dwight Eisenhower retains that honor, insofar
as significant extralegal meddling in other countries' politics
is concerned. Reagan intervened in the face of political obstacles
which would most likely have inhibited Eisenhower or any other
president to a marked degree.
Reagan presided over an American public grown cynical and
suspicious of the overseas adventures of the CIA, the U.S. military,
and other arms of the U.S. government. World opinion was yet more
cynical. The previous decade had brought Indochina, Chile, Angola,
Watergate, seemingly endless revelations about CIA misdeeds, exposes
by former Agency officers, lengthy and relatively antagonistic
Congressional investigations, oversight committees, professional
CIA-watchers of the left and the center, and a media that had
finally learned to ask some of the right questions and follow
up on some of the right leads.
American destabilization and other covert operations of the
1950s did not have to deal with any of this; they did not face
the glare of public exposure or censure until years after their
occurrence, if ever.
In the 1980s, the information was leaked often within days,
yet, in most cases, Reagan, CIA director William Casey, Oliver
North & Co., et al., seemed unfazed by any of this.
CIA pilots bombed Indonesia in 1958 on several occasions,
causing considerable death and destruction. In the United States,
this was virtually a non-event. To this day, you will have to
search long and hard to find any mention of it in standard works
of reference, school texts, etc. In 1986, the U.S. bombed Libya
and Reagan went on TV immediately to proudly announce the event.
For some 30 years, the CIA covertly funded foreign coups,
counter-insurgency operations, politicians, political parties,
labor unions, student organizations, book publishers, newspapers,
and all manner of other, generally pro-capitalist and anti-communist
institutions. Beginning in the 1970s, these activities, past and
current, began to be exposed with alarming regularity and increasing
embarrassment to Washington political leaders. Something had to
What was done was not to end such activities. What was done
by the Reagan administration was simply to make the activities
ostensibly overt and thus, hopefully, eliminate the stigma associated
with covert activities. It was a master stroke. Of politics, public
relations, and cynicism.
In 1983, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was set
up to "strengthen democratic institutions throughout the
world through private, nongovernmental efforts." Funded by
Congress, i.e., the American taxpayers, NED engages in much of
the same kinds of interference in the internal affairs of foreign
countries which are the hallmark of the CIA.
Some causes which have been supported by NED largesse were
- Over $400,000 to the Center for Democracy, a New York-based
foundation run by Soviet emigres which has used the Soviet human
rights network, tourists, and "experienced" travelers
to gather political and military information on the U.S.S.R. The
Center has also smuggled American films with anti-Soviet themes
(White Nights, Red Dawn and The Assassination of Trotsky) into
the Soviet Union.
- Several hundred thousand dollars since 1985 to La Prensa,
the anti-Sandinista newspaper in Nicaragua, which can only be
viewed as part of the Reagan administration's campaign to overthrow
the government; several million more has been allocated to support
organizations opposing the Sandinistas in elections scheduled
- Newspapers in other developing countries, including Grenada,
Guyana, and Botswana.
- Translation into Polish of a book that accuses the Soviet
Union of a World War II massacre of Polish Army officers. The
book was to be smuggled into Poland.
- $400,000 a year to the Solidarity trade union in Poland,
to clandestinely print underground publications, as well as funds
for other political organizations, youth groups, and churches.
This is in addition to several million dollars allocated to Solidarity
by the U.S. Congress.
- $830,000 to Force Ouvriere, the French anti-communist trade
union which the CIA began funding in the 1940s.
- $575,000 to an extreme right-wing French group of paramilitary
and criminal background, the National Inter-University Union.
The funding of this group as well as Force Ouvriere was secret
and is known of only because of its exposure by French journalists
in November 1985.
- $3 million to the Philippines, "quietly being spent
to fight the communist insurgency...and to cultivate political
leaders there." Some of this money was channeled to the National
Citizens Movement for Free Elections, which was set up by the
CIA in the 1950s to support the presidential campaign of Ramon
The National Endowment for Democracy, like the CIA before
it, calls this supporting democracy. The governments and movements
against whom the financing is targeted, call it destabilization.
The NED was not an aberration of an other wise legal, accountable,
non-interventionist Reagan foreign policy. Among the other stories
of international intrigue and violence of the Reagan era worth
South Africa: Working closely
with British intelligence, the U .S . provided South Africa with
intelligence about the banned and exiled African National Congress,
including specific warnings of planned attacks by the group and
the whereabouts and movements of ANC leaders. As part of South
Africa's reciprocation, it sent 200,000 pounds of military equipment
to contra leader Eden Pastora.
Fiji: The coup of May 1987
bore all the fingerprints of a U.S. destabilization operation-the
deposed prime minister, Timoci Bavadra, in office only a month
after being elected over the conservative former Prime Minister
Ratu Mara, was intent upon enforcing the ban upon nuclear vessels
in Fiji ports; two weeks before the coup, Gen. Vernon Walters,
he of extensive CIA involvement over the years, visited Fiji and
met with the army officer who staged the coup; at the same time,
Ratu Mara was visiting U.S. military headquarters (CINCPAC) in
Hawaii; the AFL-CIO/CIA labor mafia was well represented, working
against the nuclear-free Pacific movement; and several other similar
components of a now all too-familiar scenario.
Grenada: The invasion by the
U.S. military in October 1983 was accompanied by a battalion of
falsehoods that stands out even in an administration noted for
its creation of dial-a-lie. The "democracy" installed
in the country reached fruition this year when the government
banned the importation, by name, of over 80 leftist books, and
later suspended Parliament to block a no-confidence vote.
Libya: Along with Nicaragua,
Ronald Reagan's manic obsession, culminating in the April 1986
bombing which took the lives of about 37 people, all civilians
but one, and wounded some 93 others. The dead included Libyan
leader Muammar Qaddafi's young adopted daughter; his other seven
children and his wife were hospitalized. "Our evidence is
direct, it is precise, it is irrefutable," announced the
President of the United States in explaining that the bombing
was in retaliation for the Libyan bombing nine days earlier of
a West Berlin nightclub frequented by American servicemen which
killed one soldier and injured many other soldiers and civilians.
The evidence of Libyan culpability in the Berlin bombing, how
ever, was never directly or precisely presented to the world.
Surinam: In December 1982,
CIA Director William Casey told the House and Senate intelligence
committees that President Reagan had authorized the CIA to try
to topple Surinam ruler Col. Desi Bouterse, supposedly leading
his country into "the Cuban orbit." Even though the
committee refused to approve the covert operation, there is good
reason to believe that the administration did what it wished.
An invasion of the country was scheduled for July 1, 1983 by Florida-based
mercenaries-Americans and others. It was called off only after
being discovered by the internal security agency of the Netherlands,
the former colonial power in Surinam.
Seychelles: The country's leader,
France Albert Rene, amongst other shortcomings in the eyes of
Washington, was a socialist, pursued non-alignment, and wanted
to turn the Indian Ocean into a nuclear-free zone. For this he
was the object of various American destabilization conspiracies
beginning in 1979. In November 1981, the CIA reportedly was behind
a mercenary invasion of the island nation which originated in
South Africa and got no further than an armed battle at the Seychelles
El Salvador: The Reagan administration's
bloodiest intervention. Largely obscured has been the extent of
direct American involvement in the fighting. At least a dozen
Americans have been killed or wounded in helicopter and plane
crashes while flying reconnaissance or other missions over combat
areas. There have been numerous reports of armed Americans spotted
in combat areas, a report by CBS News of U.S. advisers "fighting
side by side" with government troops, and reports of other
Americans, some ostensibly mercenaries, killed in action. By 1983
there were more than two hundred U.S. intelligence agents (about
two-thirds of them from the CIA) operating in El Salvador. At
least until 1985, CIA paramilitary personnel were organizing and
leading special Salvadoran army units into combat areas to track
down guerrillas and call in air strikes.
Lebanon: Another civil war
the United States felt compelled to take part in, leading to the
terrible bombings of the American Embassy and Marine barracks
in 1983, followed, in December of that year, by American ships
firing some 700 shells into the Beirut mountains, missing their
military targets but causing destruction in civilian areas. In
1985, William Casey and a Saudi prince conspired to eliminate
Muslim leader Sheikh Fadlallah, believed to be connected to the
attacks on the American facilities. This plot culminated in March
when the men employed to carry out the elimination drove a car
bomb into a Beirut suburb near Fadlallah's residence. The explosion
took 80 lives, wounded 200, and left widespread devastation. Fadlallah
escaped without injury.
Dominica: "Financial support
to the Freedom Party of Eugenia Charles to defeat Oliver Seraphin
in the Dominican elections." In 1980 Charles won the election.
Mauritius: In 1981-82, financial
support was given to Seewoosagar Ramgoolam in an attempt to bring
him to power in the 1982 elections. Ramgoolam did not win in the
Chad: In 1981, the administration
formally decided to supply Hissene Habre in his attempt to overthrow
the government of Goukouni Oueddei. Through the CIA, Habre was
supplied with money, arms and ammunition, and other equipment.
"The operation was coordinated with Egypt,...which furnished
Habre with weapons and ammunition in exchange for U.S. replacements.''
Sudan provided a base of operations and a supply-line. American
commitment increased several times during 1981, ending with a
total of about $10 million. In June 1982 Habre's men "took
control of N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, and set up a provisional
$625 million was appropriated between 1980-84, "including
about $40 million reprogrammed from the Pentagon budget and as
much as $250 million in fiscal year 1985 alone." Afghanistan
has be come one of the most expensive covert actions in American
history. This money was used in continuing military aid to the
rebel forces of Zia Khan Nassery, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Sayed Ahmed
Gailani and to conservative mullahs "to harass Soviet occupation
forces and challenge the legitimacy of the government of Babrak
Karmal." The Afghanistan rebels also received monies from
the National Endowment for Democracy. This included one grant
of $180,000 ostensibly for their school system; but in the extreme
chaos of the war area, there can be no satisfactory way of determining
what the ultimate disposition of the money was; this can only
be viewed as part of the Reagan administration's campaign to overthrow
the government supported by the Soviet Union. (This is ironic
in light of the deep loathing Americans feel for the government
of Iran, for if the Afghan rebels take power they will undoubtedly
create a similar fundamentalist Islamic state.)
Ethiopia: A support operation
of about $500,000 per year for the opposition to the so-called
Cambodia: Several million dollars
a year for the forces fighting against the Vietnamese-backed government,
a policy which dlrectly benefited the notorious Khmer Rouge.
Ango!a: In 1985 the Clark Amendment
banning covert military aid to Angolan rebels was lifted and Reagan
ordered the release of $13 million in covert aid to Jonas Savimbi.
According to government sources, profits generated from the illegal
sale of arms to Iran, as well as money intended for the Afghan
rebels, also may have been used to fund UNITA.
Argentina: "Aid and training
were provided (in 1981) to the contras through the Argentinean
Defense Forces in exchange for other forms of aid from the U.S.
to Argentina. This arrangement...avoided detailed congressional
scrutiny and public explanations, and. . .hid the cost in various
aid budgets for Argentina." CIA-Argentine cooperation ended
when the U.S. supported Britain in the 1982 Malvinas War.
Nicaragua: A traditional, multi-level,
multi-millions-of dollars, CIA destabilization operation to overthrow
the government: economic boycott and cut off of international
credit; crippling of the oil supply by blowing up fuel depots,
ports, and pipelines, and mining the waters of oil-unloading ports;
extensive damage to the agricultural infrastructure; covert funding
of private organizations and the Catholic church which were actively
subverting the government; a major military campaign in support
of the contra rebels, including U.S. reconnaissance flights over
Nicaragua and U.S. pilots flying combat and supply missions; several
attempts to assassinate the Sandinista leadership; a major attempt
to under mine the 1984 elections which the Sandinistas won handily.
Honduras: Honduras was turned
into a launching area and support base for the Nicaragua operation:
landing strips, docks, radar stations and communication centers
were built under the cover of repeated U.S.-Honduran military
exercises. For seven years, attacks were carried out against Nicaragua
from the soil of a supposedly neutral Honduras.
The eight years of the Reagan administration brought an unparalleled
growth in CIA covert activities and U.S. intervention abroad.
This listing is only a sample of hundreds of operations that sought
to destabilize foreign governments and have diminished the prospects
for international peace. The victims of CIA interventions will
remember the Reagan years far into the future.
Now a new U.S. president is on the scene speaking of "a
kinder and gentler America." How willing are the people of
Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cambodia to believe the former
Director of Central Intelligence? George Bush will likely carry
on the Reagan legacy, even in light of changes in U.S.-Soviet
relations. It promises to be a long four years.
'William Blum is the author of The CIA: A Forgotten History,
U.S. Global Interventions Since World War 2 (London: Zed Books,
1986). A revised edition will published by St. Martin's Press
in 1990, titled -- Killing Hope.
and Third World