People who condemn the leaks of classified documents by Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden typically cite the supposed harm done to U.S. diplomacy and say lives have been put at risk. Manning/Snowden defenders counter by noting how government secrecy has been used to conceal government excesses and to stifle meaningful debate.
But there is another factor in this discussion: Secrecy often has empowered U.S. government propagandists to manipulate the people and to trick them into policies that, in turn, have cost lives, inflicted damage to national security and created hatred toward America that its enemies can then exploit. In other words, secrecy is the enabler of deception which has undercut precisely those interests that the Manning/Snowden critics say they want to protect (diplomacy and innocent life).
President Ronald Reagan's skilled propaganda team seized on what they claimed was Sandinista repression of Nicaragua's Catholic Church and its Cardinal Obando y Bravo. All right-thinking Americans, especially Catholics, were incited to outrage over affronts to religious freedom. Because of this Sandinista behavior, the White House put political pressure on Congress to send more money and weapons to the Contra rebels who were killing thousands of Nicaraguans in towns near Honduras and Costa Rica.
But there was another side of the story that was hidden behind a veil of U.S. government secrecy. For years, the CIA and the White House had been funneling money through the Catholic Church into Nicaragua to destabilize the government. In effect, the Reagan administration had an inside-outside game going, Cardinal Obando and a group of right-wing Catholic priests were spreading around money to subvert Nicaragua from the inside while the Contra rebels were inflicting bloody havoc from the outside.
Whenever the Sandinista government would take steps against the U.S.-financed subversion, Reagan's team would cite those actions as more justification to fund the Contra war. However, to make the propaganda work on the American people and Congress, the propaganda campaign required hiding the fact that the Reagan administration was using Cardinal Obando and his church infrastructure as a financial conduit.
In my reporting on the Contra war and Reagan's obsession about Nicaragua, I had uncovered this secret. Ultimately I had more than a dozen sources inside the Contra movement or close to U.S. intelligence confirming these operations, which I was told carried an annual budget of about $10 million. I also discovered that the CIA's support for Obando and his Catholic hierarchy went through a maze of cut-outs in Europe, apparently to give Obando deniability.
But one well-placed Nicaraguan exile said he had spoken with Obando about the money and the Cardinal had expressed fear that his past receipt of CIA funding would come out. The CIA funding for Nicaragua's Catholic Church had originally been unearthed in 1985 by the congressional intelligence oversight committees, which insisted that the money be cut off to avoid compromising Obando.
However, White House aide Oliver North simply had his off-the-books Contra-support operation pick up where the CIA had left off. In fall 1985, North earmarked $100,000 of his privately raised money to go to Obando for his anti-Sandinista activities.
But what to do with this information? On one hand, I worried that exposure of this clandestine operation could put Obando and those right-wing priests in greater danger. On the other hand, my job -- as I saw it -- was to arm the American people with relevant facts so they could make knowledgeable judgments and avoid being manipulated by government propaganda, especially on a matter as important as war or peace.
For me, the balance of this question was tipped when the Reagan administration began disseminating propaganda citing the Sandinistas' supposedly unprovoked clampdown on Obando's operation as a reason for reauthorizing Contra funding. If I didn't put forward this reporting, I would, in effect, be collaborating in a deception of the American people and contributing to a violation of international law, support for what any objective observer would call Contra terrorism.
So, I presented the information to my bureau chief, Evan Thomas. To my surprise, Thomas was eager to go forward. Newsweek editors then contacted the Central America correspondent Joseph Contreras, who outlined our questions to Obando's aides and prepared a list of questions to present to the Cardinal personally. When Contreras went to Obando's home in a posh suburb of Managua, the Cardinal literally evaded the issue.
As Contreras later recounted in a cable back to the United States, he was approaching the front gate when it suddenly swung open and the Cardinal, sitting in the front seat of his burgundy Toyota Land Cruiser, blew past. As Contreras made eye contact and waved the letter, Obando's driver gunned the engine. Contreras jumped into his car and hastily followed. Contreras guessed correctly that Obando had turned left at one intersection and headed north toward Managua.
Contreras caught up to the Cardinal's vehicle at the first stop-light. The driver apparently spotted the reporter and, when the light changed, sped away, veering from lane to lane. The Land Cruiser again disappeared from view, but at the next intersection, Contreras turned right and spotted the car pulled over, with its occupants presumably hoping that Contreras had turned left. Quickly, the Cardinal's vehicle pulled onto the road and sped back toward Obando's house. Contreras gave up the chase, fearing that any further pursuit might appear to be harassment.
Several days later, having regained his composure, the Cardinal finally met with Contreras and denied receiving any CIA money. But Contreras told me that Obando's denial was unconvincing. Newsweek then drafted a version of the story, making it appear as if we weren't sure of the facts about Obando and the money. When I saw a readback of the article, I went into Thomas's office and said that if Newsweek didn't trust my reporting, we shouldn't run the story at all. He said that wasn't the case; it was just that the senior editors felt more comfortable with a vaguely worded story.
We ended up in hot water with the Reagan administration and right-wing media attack groups anyway. Accuracy in Media lambasted me, in particular, for going with such a sensitive story without being sure of the facts (which, of course, I was). Thomas was summoned to the State Department where Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams heaped more criticism on me though not denying the facts of our story.