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MediaWatch: June 1988

Vol. Two No. 6

Janet Cooke Award: Front Line: Joining the Christic Cause

It's an historic case and is now set to go to trial in Miami on June 27. It's not landmark in nature because of the whopping $23.8 million sought by the plaintiffs, but because of what it could mean to the national security interests of our nation. The radical left Christic Institute, an "inter-faith" non-profit organization filed the case on behalf of radical pro-Sandinista American journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey.

Their conspiracy theory: the CIA and several government agencies teamed up with an "old boy secret team network" to engage in 25 years of global assassination, international terrorism, drug smuggling, and gun running. Specifically, the institute claims the 27 defendants, including Contra supporters General John Singlaub, Rob Owen, former CIA deputy director Ted Shackley, planned and financed the attempted 1984 assassinations of Contra military leader Eden Pastora and U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis Tambs.

The Christic case is wrought with innuendo, hearsay, and the testimony of convicted drug dealers, but thanks to a sympathetic press tremendous harm has already been inflicted on the anti-communist movement. Since the filing of the suit in May of 1986, the Christics have received mention in 99 articles in The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the two major wire services. Newsweek's Robert Parry and Rod Nordland, UPI's Brian Barger, ABC's Richard Threlkeld, and PBS' Bill Moyers have led the fight to discredit covert operations and support for the Contras. But recently, PBS went to the forefront in endorsing the left-wing conspiracy theory. Two recent one-hour programs earn its series Frontline the June Janet Cooke Award.

"Murder on the Rio San Juan," aired on April 19, mirrored Christic claims that a secret network and the CIA were responsible for the assassination attempt on Pastora, which killed nine and injured Avirgan. Featured throughout the program were Avirgan, Honey, Christic general counsel Daniel Sheehan, and liberal Democratic Senator John Kerry. Only five minutes of the show were dedicated to any rebuttal of the unsubstantiated claims. Less time was given to what even program producer Charles Stuart admitted to MediaWatch was "the most logical theory" -- that the Sandinistas, through the international communist terror network, wished to see Pastora dead.

Stuart claimed that all possible theories were "unearthed," but former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Curtin Winsor, one of the few sources allowed to dissent from the scenario, saw it another way: "The show was violently distorted and gave far too much credibility to the Christics." Indeed, Barger is listed as a reporter. Barger told MediaWatch he has nothing to do with the lawsuit, but Christic spokesman Rob Richie confirmed that he supplied information for the complaint and may be called as a witness.

The May 17 program, produced by Leslie Cockburn, a long-time foe of U.S. Central America policy, took the conspiracy theory one step further, linking support for the Contras to drug running. In fact there exists a strong link between Cockburn and the Christics. As a West 57th producer and in her book, Out of Control, Cockburn used a number of key Christic sources to further her scenario, including convicted criminals Jesus Garcia, Michael Tolliver, George Morales, Peter Glibbery, and Ramone Milan Rodriguez. As well, Cockburn championed Sheehan in her book. Sheehan, in a conversation with MediaWatch, touted her investigation as "independently affirming what our case has set out to prove." In a November 1987 eleven page report, the Christic Institute cited Cockburn's "independent" account 12 times. Cockburn will also be called as a witness. The Christic case links Contra drug running back to the Vietnam War. Curiously, Cockburn also begins there. Without concrete evidence, Cockburn claimed the same network began operating in support of the Contras: "By 1981, six years after leaving Laos, the CIA was fighting another secret war, this time in Central America. The secret army were the Contras--fighting to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua. Once again they were trained and equipped by the CIA. It was time for the old hands to go to work again." According to Cockburn, the Colombian drug cartel laundered millions to support the Contras by using "banks (and) obscure fish companies located in out of the way Miami shopping centers or in provincial port towns of Costa Rica." The 1987 Christic document is strikingly similar: "Contra narcotics smuggling stretches from cocaine plantations in Colombia, to dirt airstrips in Costa Rica, to pseudo-seafood companies in Miami...."

Two Congressional committees -- notably the Democrat-controlled House Select Committee on Narcotics and the Iran-Contra Committee -- have cleared the Contras and U.S. agencies of any involvement in drug running. Cockburn preferred to feature the allegations of Senator Kerry. She failed to mention that Kerry has been accused of illegally aiding or bribing several key witnesses in Costa Rica.

Dismissing the undeniable link between Cockburn and the Christics, Frontline Senior Producer Mike Sullivan declared: "We certainly view it as legitimate journalism. Leslie Cockburn is one of the most independent thinking producers I've ever run into." So critics of Contra support and covert action can rest assured they have an ally in the media. Some leftist "journalists" will undoubtedly continue to give credence to this left-wing conspiracy theory under the guise of objectivity and independent inquiry.