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John Simkin

An interview with Don Bohning.

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Don Bohning joined the Miami Herald staff in 1959 as a reporter. Five years later he became a foreign correspondent for the newspaper. Over the next 36 years he reported from every independent country in the Western Hemisphere. This included the overthrow of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana and the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Bohning has also written extensively about the Bay of Pigs and the attempts to remove Fidel Castro from power in Cuba. This had included carrying out interviews with CIA officials, Jake Esterline and Jack Hawkins.

Don Bohning, who retired from the Miami Herald is the author of the book, The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965 (2005).

(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 subjects like the CIA would get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

(5) You tend to write about controversial subjects. Do you think this has harmed your career in any way? Have you ever come under pressure to leave these subjects alone?

(6) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in, and covered-up, serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

(7) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?

(8) Why is it that most books written about political conspiracies; assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc. are written by journalists rather than historians? Is it because of fear or is it something to do with the nature of being a historian?

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

I don't really consider myself an investigative journalist, but more a foreign affairs report and analyst, particularly of the Western Hemisphere. That is also what I consider my book, The Castro Obsession, to be: an in depth analysis of the subject and the period period covered. In other words, just a much more detailed effort at the types kinds of articles I wrote during much of my four decade plus journalistic career at The Miami Herald.

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

To me, at least, the most significant difference between a journalist - investigative and otherwise - and an historian, is that a journalist relies much more heavily on what he sees and hears than a historian, who depends largely on the written record available to him or her. There are, of courses, exceptions and variations and advantages and disadvantages to both. As the old cliche goes, the journalists provides the first draft of history. From there, it is up to the historian, and sometimes the journalists becomes the historian who writes the later drafts, which I hope is what I did. In that sense, I think I made the transition from journalist to historian with my book.

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

Again, from a journalist's perspective, probably anything you write that has your name on it - even an obituary - has the potential for getting you into trouble with someone, especially if you make an error. That is why it is so essential for a journalist to get his facts right; if the facts are right it is much more difficult for even those with power and influence to get you into trouble.

(4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your research into subjects like the CIA would get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

I don't think I personally, as a journalist, tend to write about controversial subjects, unless you call politics a controversial subject. I certainly have written some things that people don't agree with, but rather than investigative reporting they are usually more of an analytical nature. In that respect, I really don't consider myself an "investigative journalists" in the fashion of Seymour Hersh, for example, who combines exposes with a bit of analysis. I focus more on analysis, based on interviews and research, than the reporter who goes out to seek corruption in the police department.

(6) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in, and covered-up, serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

I have two books on my bookshelf I can see from where I am writing this. One is by Robert Blakey and Richard Billings, entitled: The Plot to Kill the President and subtitled Organized Crime Assassinated J.F.K. The other is entitled The Last Investigation, by Gaeton Fonzi. Blakey was the staff director for the House Select Committee on Assassinations; Fonzi was a committee investigator. In their books, they come to, or in the case of Fonzi, at least imply, different conclusions as to who killed JFK. Blakey says the mafia, Fonzi inplies it was rouge CIA folks and Cuban exiles. For me, they are somewhat of a metaphor as to why both historians nor journalists are reluctant to get entangled with the Kennedy Assassination. We still don't know if Lincoln's assassination was a conspiracy and we probably won't know a hundred years from now whether Kennedy's assassination was a conspiracy. So why would a serious historian or investigative journalist waste time time on amorphous conspiracy theories they likely will never be answered to anyone's satisfication? As virtually every year in recent times, including 2005, there will be two, three or four new books that will come out on the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination - all with different theories purporting to identify those responsible for the assassination.

Regarding Iran/Contra, I would respectfully disagree - at least on the journalistic side - that it was not well covered. The Miami Herald, for whom I worked at the time, won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Iran/Contra for which I was one of the editors. There is - as a recall although it has been sometime since I read it - an excellent book entitled Landslide, written by Jane Mayer & Doyle McManus [two journalists] that focuses heavily on Iran/Contra, a scandal for which several officials were indicted and went to jail. While it was a big deal at the time, in view of what has been going on in Washington it would now appear to be pretty small potatoes. But I suspect some enterprising historian will eventually revisit it in the not to distant future, perhaps as a doctoral thesis.

(7) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?

I speak only for myself here, but I wrote my book, The Castro Obsession: US Covert Operations Against Cuba 1959-1965, for two reasons: to satisfy my own curiousity and to help complete the historical record. I had lived in South Florida and worked for The Miami Herald at the time all the activity was secretly taking place. While one was generally aware that something was going on, its full scope began to slowly emerge with the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s on Alleged Assassination Plots Against Foreign Leaders. With the end of the Cold War an increasing amount of documents were being declassified and those involved became much more willing to discuss their roles. I was fortunately enough to have gotten to know some of the participants in the 1960s and others in the 1990s after they retired so began doing interviews with them in the mid-1990s. I also relied on numerous other authors, articles, reports and documents but to me, the interviews were the most important, providing some human context to the written words already available

As for credibility, having worked as a journalist form nearly 50 years, I think my intiution is quite reliable in judging whether people I am interviewing are being truthful. As far as documents and whether illegal behavior taking place, it was not a problem I was confronted with in writing my book, given the time that had passed and since no illegal behavior apparently occurred by anyone involved, unless you consider assassination attempts against Castro illegal behavior, which I doubt anyone did at the time, even though they may or may not have been authorized by the sitting president.

(8) Why is it that most books written about political conspiracies; assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc. are written by journalists rather than historians? Is it because of fear or is it something to do with the nature of being a historian?

I think it is partially answered in my response to Question #6. I suspect there will be more books written by historians on the subjects cited above after historians have further time to digest the information available. I suspect, also, the historian is a bit more concerned about damaging his legacy and thus a bit more cautious in drawing conclusions than the journalist is, judging by some of the books that have appeared so far on the subjects above.

Edited by Don Bohning

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Regarding Iran/Contra, I would respectfully disagree - at least on the journalistic side - that it was not well covered. The Miami Herald, for whom I worked at the time, won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Iran/Contra for which I was one of the editors. There is - as a recall although it has been sometime since I read it - an excellent book entitled Landslide, written by Jane Mayer & Doyle McManus [two journalists] that focuses heavily on Iran/Contra, a scandal for which several officials were indicted and went to jail. While it was a big deal at the time, in view of what has been going on in Washington it would now appear to be pretty small potatoes.

I cannot understand how you can describe the Iran-Contra Scandal as “pretty small potatoes”. I would have thought that senior politicians involved in illegal activities concerning arms and drugs was fairly important. Nor are you right when you suggest the major figures went to jail for their crimes.

In November, 1986, Ronald Reagan set-up a three man commission (President's Special Review Board). The three men were John Tower, Brent Scowcroft and Edmund Muskie. Richard L. Armitage was interviewed by the committee. He admitted that he had arranged a series of meetings between Menachem Meron, the director general of Israel's Ministry of Defence, with Oliver North and Richard Secord. However, he denied that he discussed the replenishment of Israeli TOW missiles with Meron.

Armitage also claimed that he first learned that Israel had shipped missiles to Iran in 1985 when he heard William Casey testify on 21st November, 1986 that the United States had replenished Israel's TOW missile stocks. According to Lawrence E. Walsh, who carried out the official investigation into the scandal (Iran-Contra: The Final Report), claims that Armitage did not tell the truth to the President's Special Review Board. "Significant evidence from a variety of sources shows that Armitage's knowledge predated Casey's testimony. For instance, a North notebook entry on November 18, 1986, documents a discussion with Armitage about Israel's 1985 arms shipments to Iran - three days before Armitage supposedly learned for the first time that such shipments has occurred."

Walsh also adds that "classified evidence obtained from the Government of Israel... and evidence from North and Secord show that during the period Meron met with Armitage, Meron was discussing arms shipments to Iran and Israel's need for replenishment. Secord and North, on separate occasions, directed Meron to discuss these issues with Armitage."

The report implicated Oliver North, John Poindexter, Casper Weinberger and several others but did not mention the role played by Bush. It also claimed that Ronald Reagan had no knowledge of what had been going on.

The House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran was also established by Congress. The most important figure on the committee was the senior Republican member, Richard Cheney. As a result George Bush was totally exonerated when the report was published on 18th November, 1987. The report did state that Reagan's administration exhibited "secrecy, deception and disdain for the law."

Oliver North and John Poindexter were indicted on multiple charges on 16th March, 1988. North, indicted on twelve counts, was found guilty by a jury of three minor counts. The convictions were vacated on appeal on the grounds that North's Fifth Amendment rights may have been violated by the indirect use of his testimony to Congress which had been given under a grant of immunity. Poindexter was also convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and altering and destroying documents pertinent to the investigation. His convictions were also overturned on appeal.

When George Bush became president he set about rewarding those who had helped him in the cover-up of the Iran-Contra Scandal. Bush appointed Richard L. Armitage as a negotiator and mediator in the Middle East. Donald Gregg was appointed as his ambassador to South Korea. Brent Scowcroft became his chief national security adviser and John Tower became Secretary of Defence. When the Senate refused to confirm Tower, Bush gave the job to Richard Cheney. Later, Casper Weinberger, Robert McFarlane, Duane R. Clarridge, Clair E. George, Elliott Abrams and Alan D. Fiers, Jr., who had all been charged with offences related to the Iran-Contra scandal, were pardoned by Bush.

George Bush’s son continued this process by appointing Cheney as his vice president and Armitage as his Deputy Secretary of State.

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I cannot understand how you can describe the Iran-Contra Scandal as “pretty small potatoes”. I would have thought that senior politicians involved in illegal activities concerning arms and drugs was fairly important. Nor are you right when you suggest the major figures went to jail for their crimes.

In November, 1986, Ronald Reagan set-up a three man commission (President's Special Review Board). The three men were John Tower, Brent Scowcroft and Edmund Muskie. Richard L. Armitage was interviewed by the committee. He admitted that he had arranged a series of meetings between Menachem Meron, the director general of Israel's Ministry of Defence, with Oliver North and Richard Secord. However, he denied that he discussed the replenishment of Israeli TOW missiles with Meron.

Armitage also claimed that he first learned that Israel had shipped missiles to Iran in 1985 when he heard William Casey testify on 21st November, 1986 that the United States had replenished Israel's TOW missile stocks. According to Lawrence E. Walsh, who carried out the official investigation into the scandal (Iran-Contra: The Final Report), claims that Armitage did not tell the truth to the President's Special Review Board. "Significant evidence from a variety of sources shows that Armitage's knowledge predated Casey's testimony. For instance, a North notebook entry on November 18, 1986, documents a discussion with Armitage about Israel's 1985 arms shipments to Iran - three days before Armitage supposedly learned for the first time that such shipments has occurred."

Walsh also adds that "classified evidence obtained from the Government of Israel... and evidence from North and Secord show that during the period Meron met with Armitage, Meron was discussing arms shipments to Iran and Israel's need for replenishment. Secord and North, on separate occasions, directed Meron to discuss these issues with Armitage."

The report implicated Oliver North, John Poindexter, Casper Weinberger and several others but did not mention the role played by Bush. It also claimed that Ronald Reagan had no knowledge of what had been going on.

The House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran was also established by Congress. The most important figure on the committee was the senior Republican member, Richard Cheney. As a result George Bush was totally exonerated when the report was published on 18th November, 1987. The report did state that Reagan's administration exhibited "secrecy, deception and disdain for the law."

Oliver North and John Poindexter were indicted on multiple charges on 16th March, 1988. North, indicted on twelve counts, was found guilty by a jury of three minor counts. The convictions were vacated on appeal on the grounds that North's Fifth Amendment rights may have been violated by the indirect use of his testimony to Congress which had been given under a grant of immunity. Poindexter was also convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and altering and destroying documents pertinent to the investigation. His convictions were also overturned on appeal.

When George Bush became president he set about rewarding those who had helped him in the cover-up of the Iran-Contra Scandal. Bush appointed Richard L. Armitage as a negotiator and mediator in the Middle East. Donald Gregg was appointed as his ambassador to South Korea. Brent Scowcroft became his chief national security adviser and John Tower became Secretary of Defence. When the Senate refused to confirm Tower, Bush gave the job to Richard Cheney. Later, Casper Weinberger, Robert McFarlane, Duane R. Clarridge, Clair E. George, Elliott Abrams and Alan D. Fiers, Jr., who had all been charged with offences related to the Iran-Contra scandal, were pardoned by Bush.

George Bush’s son continued this process by appointing Cheney as his vice president and Armitage as his Deputy Secretary of State.

Touché re "small potatoes" It was a bad choice of words to describe Iran/Contra although in comparison to some of the things the current Bush II administration has done during six years in office, it may wind up as being rather small potatoes historically.

I do think, however, that Iran-Contra was covered extensively and quite well journalistically and at the time but perhaps less so historically. And it certainly was covered much more extensively and aggressively than the beginnings of the Iraq war and other travesties of the current administration in Washington.

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