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An interview with Robert Parry


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 22 May 2006 - 11:44 AM

Robert Parry has worked as a journalist for The Associated Press, Newsweek and PBS Frontline and has reported from Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran, Israel and Haiti.

In the 1980s Robert Parry broke many of the stories that later became known as the Iran-Contra affair. Those stories included the first story about the White House network led by Oliver North. He also co-authored the first story about Nicaraguan contra-cocaine trafficking. In 1984 Robert Parry won the George Polk Award for National Reporting.

Robert Parry, who has also taught at the New York University Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, The Press & Project Truth (1992), The October Surprise X-Files: The Hidden Origins of the Reagan-Bush Era ( 1996) and Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq (2004). He also runs the Consortium News website.


(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become an investigative journalist?

(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?

(3) How do you decide about what to write about?

(4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your research into controversial issues will get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

(5) Did the publication of Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & "Project Truth." (1999) and Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq (2004) cause you any problems?

(6) Did you have any problems having your books published? Would it have been easier and better for your career if you wrote a book saying that George Bush and Ronald Reagan were telling the truth about the Iran-Contra scandal?

(7) On page 3 of Lost History you argue that America’s secret history “is in danger of being lost, possibly forever”. You add that this is because that the “national news media is absorbed by tabloid journalism and disinterested in serious research.” I agree that this was the case before the emergence of the web. Are you more optimistic about the exposure of the “secret history” in 2006?

(8) In Lost History you argue that the 1970s journalists had some notable successes such as Watergate and the publication of Pentagon Papers. However, is it possible that these were examples of a “limited hangout”. According to Victor Marchetti, a top CIA agent: “A limited hangout is spy jargon for a favourite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phoney cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting - sometimes even volunteering some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.”

The two editors who take the credit for Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, Ben Bradlee (Washington Post) and Abe Rosenthal (New York Times) have a long record of covering up important political scandals and were very much under the influence of “Operation Mockingbird”. Is it possible that the truth about Watergate and the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK was never revealed during the 1960s and 1970s?

#2 Robert Parry

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Posted 22 May 2006 - 05:48 PM

(7) On page 3 of Lost History you argue that America’s secret history “is in danger of being lost, possibly forever”. You add that this is because that the “national news media is absorbed by tabloid journalism and disinterested in serious research.” I agree that this was the case before the emergence of the web. Are you more optimistic about the exposure of the “secret history” in 2006?


Obviously, the Internet has helped and we've been part of providing free journalistic content since 1995. But the Internet has limits. Part of the problem goes to resources. The major news outlets - newspapers and TV - still have the money to do substantial journalism when they choose to. The Internet tends to be derivative of that work. There's also a lack of professionalism, which some actually favor although I am not among them. I believe there's an important role for journalistic professionalism relating to standards of evidence, readability, fairness, etc. Amateurism raises the odds that serious mistakes will be made. So, I think the key will be to figure out how to infuse quality Internet journalism with sufficient resources so the work can be upgraded and sustained.

(8) In Lost History you argue that the 1970s journalists had some notable successes such as Watergate and the publication of Pentagon Papers. However, is it possible that these were examples of a “limited hangout”. According to Victor Marchetti, a top CIA agent: “A limited hangout is spy jargon for a favourite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phoney cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting - sometimes even volunteering some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.”

The two editors who take the credit for Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, Ben Bradlee (Washington Post) and Abe Rosenthal (New York Times) have a long record of covering up important political scandals and were very much under the influence of “Operation Mockingbird”. Is it possible that the truth about Watergate and the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK was never revealed during the 1960s and 1970s?


I agree that the 1970s was not some Golden Age of journalism, but it was a lot better than what preceded it and what has followed. In many ways, that era reflected the divisions in the Establishment that had opened up because of Vietnam and Watergate. There was also increasing pressure from the more leftist "underground press" which was challenging the mainstream press on credibility with large segments of the readership. These various pressures and fractures gave journalists a little more freedom to do their jobs.

The Reagan-Bush era was about reversing those trends, a process that was carried out ruthlessly and successfully. Groups were funded to attack honest mainstream journalists, a robust conservative media was created, and the "underground press" pretty much disappeared. The media's anti-Clinton-Gore aggressiveness of the Clinton era was really just a coinciding of the interests of the emerging conservative media with the "we're not liberal" mainstream media. That dynamic was made worse by woeful judgments from wealthy progressives that media was not important. So, there was no "liberal" counterweight news media to speak of (just a few under-funded magazines usually based in out-of-the-way places like San Francisco, Madison, Boston, Chicago - almost anywhere but Washington, the front lines of the media battles).

What I'm saying is that I think the process is a bit more complicated that simply seeing the disclosures of the 1970s as an orchestrated limited hang-out. Like today, it was more the result of the competing interest groups, but they were weighted in different directions. That could be interpreted as hopeful news, since I think the dynamic could be changed with a serious devotion of resources to build an honest media infrastructure. But we'll see.

#3 John Simkin

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 04:48 PM

(1) On page 130 you point out after your stories on Oliver North were published by AP you were recruited by Evan Thomas to join the staff of Newsweek (February, 1987). However, soon after you arrived Evan Thomas seemed to lose interest in your research into North. For example, Newsweek did not send a member of staff to report on North’s trial in 1989. By 1990 Thomas made clear that you were no longer wanted at Newsweek and you agreed to leave the organization.

Is it possible that Evan Thomas recruited you in order to keep you off the case? I say this because it has been claimed that Newsweek was a very important part of the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird. See for example, Carl Bernstein’s CIA and the Media in Rolling Stone Magazine (20th October, 1977).

In her book, Katharine The Great (1979), Deborah Davis points out that Newsweek was owned by the Astor Foundation. The most dominant figure of the organization was Gates White McGarrah. His grandson was Richard McGarrah Helms, a leading figure in the CIA’s Directorate of Plans that ran Mockingbird. Helms was a childhood friend of Ben Bradlee (page 141). In the early 1950s Bradlee worked for the Office of U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE). This was an organization under the control of the CIA. In 1953 Bradlee went to work for Newsweek. Recently released documents concerning the Rosenberg case show that while employed by Newsweek, Bradlee was also working for the CIA.

In 1961 it was Ben Bradlee who told Phil Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, that Newsweek was up for sale. Bradlee told Graham that he had heard this from his good friend, Richard Helms (page 142). Phil Graham had been recruited to Operation Mockingbird by Frank Wisner soon after the CIA was created in 1947. Wisner and Graham had both been members of the OSS during the Second World War.

(2) On page 224 you mention that the U.S. press virtually ignored the declassification the CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz’s report into the Iran Contra report. Yet the report identified “more than 50 contras and contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade” and revealed “how the Reagan administration protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations which threatened to expose the crimes in the mid-1980s”.

You point out that at the time the press was preoccupied by the Monica Lewinsky case. One would have thought that it was in Bill Clinton’s interest to highlight Hitz’s report. However, he never did so. It is possible that Clinton himself had been compromised over the Iran-Contra scandal and therefore the CIA knew that he could not afford to start talking about this scandal? For example, see Daniel Hopsicker’s book, Barry and the Boys: The CIA, the Mob and America’s Secret History, for information on how Clinton was linked to Barry Seal’s drug operation in Arkansas.

#4 Robert Parry

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 02:49 PM

On page 130 you point out after your stories on Oliver North were published by AP you were recruited by Evan Thomas to join the staff of Newsweek (February, 1987). However, soon after you arrived Evan Thomas seemed to lose interest in your research into North. For example, Newsweek did not send a member of staff to report on North’s trial in 1989. By 1990 Thomas made clear that you were no longer wanted at Newsweek and you agreed to leave the organization.

Is it possible that Evan Thomas recruited you in order to keep you off the case? I say this because it has been claimed that Newsweek was a very important part of the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird. See for example, Carl Bernstein’s CIA and the Media in Rolling Stone Magazine (20th October, 1977).

In her book, Katharine The Great (1979), Deborah Davis points out that Newsweek was owned by the Astor Foundation. The most dominant figure of the organization was Gates White McGarrah. His grandson was Richard McGarrah Helms, a leading figure in the CIA’s Directorate of Plans that ran Mockingbird. Helms was a childhood friend of Ben Bradlee (page 141). In the early 1950s Bradlee worked for the Office of U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE). This was an organization under the control of the CIA. In 1953 Bradlee went to work for Newsweek. Recently released documents concerning the Rosenberg case show that while employed by Newsweek, Bradlee was also working for the CIA.

In 1961 it was Ben Bradlee who told Phil Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, that Newsweek was up for sale. Bradlee told Graham that he had heard this from his good friend, Richard Helms (page 142). Phil Graham had been recruited to Operation Mockingbird by Frank Wisner soon after the CIA was created in 1947. Wisner and Graham had both been members of the OSS during the Second World War.


I suppose there are always things you don't know. As for my hiring at Newsweek, I think it resulted from how poorly the magazine had done on the scandal to that point. That said, Newsweek never liked the story and wanted it put to rest as soon as possible. Editor Maynard Parker was very sympathetic to the neoconservatives and became my nemesis. Evan felt that my presence so angered Parker that I had become an obstacle for Evan's plans for the Washington bureau. Newsweek did see itself as a centrist Establishment publication, but it was not necessarily in line with the CIA, especially when the analysts described a weakening Soviet Union. Newsweek favored a much harder line and even considered the CIA soft of the Soviets. Even in the late 1980s, Parker and other top editors pushed for an article about Soviet tanks threatening the Fulda Gap in Germany. Despite objections from Washington correspondents, I think that story was eventually done.



On page 224 you mention that the U.S. press virtually ignored the declassification the CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz’s report into the Iran Contra report. Yet the report identified “more than 50 contras and contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade” and revealed “how the Reagan administration protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations which threatened to expose the crimes in the mid-1980s”.

You point out that at the time the press was preoccupied by the Monica Lewinsky case. One would have thought that it was in Bill Clinton’s interest to highlight Hitz’s report. However, he never did so. It is possible that Clinton himself had been compromised over the Iran-Contra scandal and therefore the CIA knew that he could not afford to start talking about this scandal? For example, see Daniel Hopsicker’s book, Barry and the Boys: The CIA, the Mob and America’s Secret History, for information on how Clinton was linked to Barry Seal’s drug operation in Arkansas.


As for the Clinton stuff, it's absolutely nonsense and disinformation. Clinton was not involved in the contra drug trade. That was a psy-op run by the Republican Right -- and pushed by some leftists who hated Clinton and were quietly collaborating with the Right. (I don't want to mention names but one became a prominent hawk on Iraq.) Some of those Clinton-cocaine books were just dishonest ways to make money. Other times, good people have been sucked into the disinformation.

But Mena wasn't why Clinton failed to use the Hitz material differently. The Clinton crowd had decided by late 1992 to give Bush Sr. and others a pass on the scandals of the 1980s so that would not interfere with their domestic agenda. Once that decision was made there was no reasonable way for them to go back on it, even when the Republicans began trashing Clinton. Please don't fall for these silly Clinton conspiracy theories. They have been another bane of my existence.



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