THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Ledeen
Title: “When Does Security Preempt the Rules if the Law?”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. In an article not all that long ago, my guest today wrote that “there is an unfortunate stereotype in some sectors of the popular press that all those who urge the American government to take seriously the threat of international terrorism are spokesmen for a position termed “far right’” Well, that’s a point of view that surely needs to be discussed in a forum like our own, and I vowed that I would invite its new author here to The Open Mind, particularly when historian Michael Ledeen, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, and formerly a special advisor to the secretary of state, wrote an op-ed piece that The New York Times entitled “When Security Preempts the Rule of Law”. Arguing in reference to Nicaragua and Cuba that we should have fought Hitler from the start, without waiting for him to get the jump on us. R. Ledeen began his op-ed piece this way: “While Nazi Germany prepared for war and spread its power across Europe, the united states and the civilized nations of Europe scrupulously observed the letter of intentional law. And this prompted Winston Churchill to comment that ‘it would not be right or rational that the aggressive powers should gain one set of advantages by tearing up all laws, and another set by sheltering behind the innate respect for law of their opponents. Humanity, rather than legality, must be our guide.’”
Dr. Ledeen, thanks for joining me today so that I can begin to examine what it is that you have to say here. The Times entitled your piece “When Security Preempts the Rule of Law”. Are you suggesting lawlessness?
Ledeen: No, I’m suggesting a single standard. What Churchill was saying was that when you had opponents who were dedicated to the destruction of a society based on law, that it would not do to permit them to play by one set of rules and then to deprive yourself of the basic weapons against them by holding fast to standards that they were set out to destroy.
Heffner: But single-standardness, that sound so wonderfully democratic, so wonderfully equalitarian. They have one standard, we have the same standard. But we always rejected Hitler’s standards. How can we embrace them?
Ledeen: Well, I’m not calling for embracing them. What I’m saying is that when you analyze foreign policy problems of the sort that we have with Nicaragua and Cuba right now, they are running a vast guerrilla movement all over Central America, and the point of this movement is to create totalitarian societies. And what I argued I the piece was that we could not stand by and permit Cuba and Nicaragua to conduct a guerrilla war in Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala to install a totalitarian society and to pretend that everything that we did had to hold to these standards of the American constitution. And consequently, if we were going to be willing to support the democratic forces in the region, it was sometimes going to be necessary to do that covertly.
Heffner: How do you account for the fact that, as you suggest here, so much of the press – and you suggest in the other article I quoted about the stereotypes – that so much of the press identifies that posture with the far right?
Ledeen: Well, what I’ve argued, what I argued in the other piece, which was a testimony before the Denton Commission on Terrorism, is that we have a myth in the popular culture here which I think started in the McCarthy period which is that anything which is anticommunist is automatically a right winger. I think that is where it stems from in American popular culture, and there’s been a carryover into international affairs since so much of international terrorism has to do with the Soviet Union, and since it embraces ostensibly revolutionary causes a lot of journalists and intellectuals tend to sympathize with it because they sympathize with its alleged aims. What they fail to do is to realize that when those guys win they inevitably install totalitarian systems.
Heffner: But, you know, I wonder about that. This notion that the press too has been caught up in that notion. Are you really willing to embrace that idea that the press is quite so naïve, or is there something other than naiveté involved in this?
Ledeen: I don’t see any reason why the press should be exempt from the popular culture. And if the dominant popular culture in the academy and in the literature runs in that direction, why should the press be any different from anybody else? These journalists are products of the American university system of the sixties; they embrace the same popular causes. They are further egged on by a kind of corporate interest, which is that the press has become a powerful instrument in the American political system, and it achieves its ends by pushing various policies, and these policies run in terms of its ideological commitments which are those.
Heffner: Yes, but you say, talk about corporate interests. Why would it be in the interest of any corporate structure in America to downgrade and demean those who feel that terrorism is a function of communist intrigue?
Ledeen: Well, first they tend to deny that terrorism is a function of communist intrigue, and for the most part they suggest that terrorism is due to indigenous causes, to social misery and unfair governments and all the rest of that. And they have argued vociferously and resolutely with very few exceptions against the view that communist powers are behind a good deal of international terrorism. Take the case of the pope. It was more than two years before any large American medium – the Reader’s Digest was the first, and then NBC News was the second – to argue that there was a Bulgarian, and hence a Russian, connection to the attempt to kill the pope.
Heffner: You know, we put on the air again as a repeat the other day one of the programs I recently did with Claire Sterling, and I was particularly intrigued to note not too long ago that The New York Times that had not been particularly friendly toward Claire Sterling’s assumptions and her research concerning Bulgarian and perhaps soviet involvement in the attack on the pope, gave Claire Sterling the unique privilege of having a by-line on the first page of The New York Times.
Ledeen: Yeah, I think it’s the first time it’s ever happened, in fact.
Heffner: That someone outside of The Times would have that. But how do you account for the switch?
Ledeen: I think it’s an act of singular honesty on the part of The New York Times, which is that when Claire finally had a large body of really newsworthy evidence, that they decided to run it on the front page. There’s an interesting background to that story: she was originally writing it as a piece for the magazine. And when Abe Rosenthal found out that this was in the works for the magazine, he said, “No, this is a news story, and we’re going to put it on the front page”. And that’s when they did it.
Heffner: Well, now, you were an assistant to Secretary of State Hague. Claire Sterling, when she sat at this table two years ago, was distraught at her in ability to get even the secretary of state to pay that much attention, sufficient attention, to the work that she had done, to the digging that she had done, along these lines. How do you account for that?
Ledeen: The secretary of state had been subjected to really unusual punishment from the intelligence community, from lots of people in the State Department, and from the press as a whole for having said that he believed the soviet union was behind a great deal of international terrorism, and that he wanted to make terrorism the human rights theme of the Reagan Administration.
Heffner: He said that the very first day, if I remember correctly.
Ledeen: He said it the first minute, I think. And for this he was lambasted by an intelligence community which claims not to have any first-hand evidence of a soviet connection, and by popular press that went after him demanding that all kinds of secrets be published and intelligence information be released and so forth. And he had really been fumbled on this issue, and was not about to come out and say, and under any circumstances, to revive this issue. This was at a time when Claire was facing this libel suit in Paris on the Kuriel case where she was being sued by Kuriel’s widow for accusing Kuriel of having been a KGB agent in support of international terrorism. And that’s another interesting story, because she won the case, and lost a very minor secondary suit for which she paid a token one franc for having misspelled a name somewhere in her book, and the Washington Post ran a headline saying, “American author condemned for libel”. In Paris, they never reported the fact that her claim against Kuriel has been sustained by the French court.
Heffner: All right, now how do we…a couple of things to explain. How do we explain the Washington Post’s efforts in this regard?
Ledeen: I think it is the same problem. I think it is a general problem. It is the same problem for The Washington Post and The New York Times until very recently, and the American intelligence community, which has, there has been a fundamental unwillingness to take a look at this problem as it actually exists, and to take a hard look at the evidence. First and foremost for the government because it has very grave implications. If we are to say on the record, on the basis of what we know, that the Soviet Union is a major force behind international terrorism, then the public is going to scream and yell and demand that we do something about it. And we are probably not prepared to do those things because they are very unpleasant things, and they are grave consequences. Secondly, because of the popular culture that we talked about. Third, because a lot of people in the intelligence community have, for 15 years, been saying that they have had no such evidence. And in my opinion they are afraid that if it turns out, for example, in the case of the pope, that the Russians were involved in it, that they may be called to account not only for this case but for a whole long background of cases, and this is a very disruptive thing to a governmental system.
Heffner: Given your interest in this area, I ask you the same question that I asked Claire sterling: is this more a function of this fear of discovery that they were inept, or more a question of not knowing what to do if indeed what they did know became public?
Ledeen: I think it’s fundamentally a lack of proper investigation and analysis.
Heffner: On our part?
Ledeen: On our part. I think we simply failed to take, to follow the leads to investigate the cases. And a real unwillingness to accept information when it came to us. I’ll give you two examples that I have found on my own: in 1968 we had a defector from Czechoslovakia, General Shayna, who was one of the highest-ranking military officers ever to defect from the Warsaw Pact. And Shayna has claimed, in a conversation with me, years later, that he kept the books of the terrorist training camp in Czechoslovakia in which European terrorists were trained by the GRU, the soviet military intelligence. The intelligence community does not accept that testimony. Then in 1978, Yon Pachep
a, who was the deputy director of Romanian intelligence, defected. And they told the CIA that he had infiltrated the Red Brigades, and had found they were being trained in Bulgaria. And so far as I know the intelligence community has never granted that case. Now we have Italian investigating magistrates who have amassed an enormous body of documentation, not just about the Bulgarian connection to the pope, but to Soviet bloc assistance, to terrorism in Italy over the years. The Bulgarian connection was known in Italy starting early in 1981 as a result of the investigation of the Red Brigades. All of this is on the record. Still, there is no reaction from the American government that seems to take all of this into account, and they are still, at least in some quarters, suggesting that this is a lot of nonsense.
Heffner: Disinformation, what role does it play in this, what you consider to be, nonsense in evaluating the charges that have been made?
Ledeen: I don’t know. And I don’t know anyone who does know. What we can say about disinformation is two-fold: first, that we know that the KGB has a huge directorate of disinformation on which they spend a huge amount of money; and that secondly, in many western countries that we know of, they have recruited people in the press to spread disinformation for them. It would be unlikely that they had not tried it in this country. But having said that, I still know of no case where this has actually happened.
Heffner: What do you mean, Dr. Ledeen, when you say, “recruited people”?
Ledeen: Hired people, either by paying them or by giving them psychological rewards, to have them do the work of Soviet foreign policy for them.
Heffner: To what extent do you – I know you’re going to say, “We don’t know” – to what extent do you believe that that kind of involvement has indeed taken place?
Ledeen: I believe it must have taken place. The logic of the case is that it must have taken place here. But again, I must say that I don’t know in the sense that I do not know of any case where it has happened, nor do I particularly care in terms of how you fight it. Because the way you worry about disinformation is the same way you fight error, which is to expose it as false, to try to convince of the truth, and to simply expose the mistakes as they are published and as they are claimed.
Heffner: Of course, going back to the question of Claire Sterling’s revelations, is quite some time before what she felt to be true could be revealed to larger and larger numbers of people. So, the notion that the truth shall make us free – perhaps a little naïve?
Ledeen: Perhaps a little naïve, but the basic thing about Claire’s story is that nobody was working on it. Not that it couldn’t be made public. Claire, by herself, a private person after all, without clandestine methods, without a huge intelligence service at her beck and call, without liaison officers all over the world, she just went around from place to place – and Marvin Kalb the same (let’s not forget that Marvin did similar work and came to similar conclusions), so it’s not a single case – they ran around Europe and talked to government officials and private persons in various places and pieced together a pretty convincing case that linked the Bulgarian intelligence services to Aliancha.
Heffner: Of course, that brings it to the question of what we do, and brings us back to the op-ed piece in The New York Times, “When security preempts the rule of law”. It’s interesting for me to note that when Senator Moynihan, Senior Senator from New York, gave a commencement address in may at Fordham, he talked about waiting out the soviet union; said the united states should be less obsessed with the Soviets because, as he said, “The Soviet idea is spent…history is moving away from it with astounding speed”. And he rather condemned those who wanted to move away in the name of necessity from the idea of law governing our international relations. Now, Moynihan is not soft on the Soviet Union; quite to the contrary. Do you see some conflict between his position and your position?
Ledeen: Yes. It’s probably a definition of what constitutes lawful behavior in international affairs. I believe that there’s a legitimate place in international affairs for covert and clandestine action, though it depends primarily on the necessities of our friends and allies. And I think, to take the Nicaraguan case for example, that the preference of people like Eden Pastora and the Contras who are fighting against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua is that the assistance they receive from the American government be covert, otherwise I would advocate doing it openly and, in fact, my current position in having it all come out is to do it openly. But in a situation where for them it would be terribly embarrassing and difficult if the money were to come, let us say, voted by Congress or through the National Endowment for Democracy or the Ford Foundation or wherever, then we should be prepared to give this assistance clandestinely and covertly.
Heffner: It’s interesting to me that you comment about doing it openly. Now, that question always comes up, “Why not do it openly”?
Ledeen: Again, I say it’s a question of convenience to the people who are receiving it. And there are many cases in which it must be covert because in cases where people are helping us in foreign countries where they would be killed if it were known that they were helping us, then it has to be secret.
Heffner: But do you feel that it has perhaps a negative impact upon us – and I’m not talking about those who receive our aid, those who we are helping help us – but the impact upon our own democratic institutions, if we continue to do things in a surreptitious, clandestine manner?
Ledeen: It depends what the things we are doing are.
Heffner: Well, now wait a minute. If you say, “This is all right”, and start down that slope, doesn’t it become almost of necessity a slippery slope down which you go further and further and further?
Ledeen: No, I don’t think so. I’m one of those who believe that our foreign policy should consist primarily in supporting the democratic revolution wherever we can reasonably help it. And therefore we are going to be in the business of undermining governments, nondemocratic governments, in a variety of places around the world. Now, I believe that that is the legitimate task of American foreign policy. I think it’s true to our revolutionary traditions.
Heffner: Yes, but as an historian, what is your feeling and concern, if any, again, about the impact upon our own institutions?
Ledeen: I think that, to take the case of French assistance to the American Revolution, and some refer to a secret, that the French are quite proud of it and have every reason to be. Some of the things that we have done secretly…
Heffner: But they’re French.
Ledeen: (laughter) Well, but we ought to be Americans.
Heffner: Yes, but that’s just the point. Can we do it as Americans?
Ledeen: Well, I think we can, if we have reasonable leadership and if the case is effectively made. One of the dismaying things is that this case is so rarely made. Look, in Central America, to come back to the point of my article, what we have is a substantial guerrilla movement being run by Cuba and Nicaragua. Even the opponents of this policy agree on the facts, Senator Lehey and so forth have said, “Yes, there’s certainly this Nicaraguan connection”. My own conviction at the time I wrote the article and throughout has been that were it not for Nicaraguan clandestine support to the guerrillas in Salvador, there would be no civil war in Salvador and there would be no guerrilla movement because they don’t have popular support. There is no real popular base for this movement in Salvador. Now, if we are simply to stand by and say, “They can do whatever they want”, and we in Salvador are simply going to try to defend this government and give it assistance, what we are doing is turning over all the initiative of the outcome of Central American politics for the next, however long you wish to stipulate, to our enemies.
Ledeen: That’s intolerable.
Heffner: Okay. I understand that. But I guess I’m asking you what is, if any, the downside for us and our institutions, of playing that game?
Ledeen: Well, I think that if people take an abstract, moralistic position about it and say all secret activity is wrong, and if they manage to convince the American public or a substantial part thereof that it is wrong, then it will have a bad political effect in the American public.
Heffner: Isn’t that what’s happening?
Ledeen: I wonder whether that’s happening or not. I really wonder. I haven’t seen any polling about this specifically. And the president has been fairly effective in making a case that we should be supporting these people. We have not seen it in the Congress. I’ll be curious to see if he really makes a case for it and demands that Congress pass assistance to the Contras this summer. Whether they support it or not, and if they don’t, whether he makes it a campaign issue and how that plays. My feeling was that if he were to make it a campaign issue and how that plays. My feeling was that if he were to make it a campaign issue, he would sweep the field with it.
Heffner: You know, I was interested in reading the piece you wrote about Grenada and the documents that you were working with that came from Grenada. Indicating what? That the president was totally correct in his evaluation of what was happening there, as justification for our invasion?
Ledeen: Yes. The two basic claims he made were certainly true. The first that the students at the medical school were in danger; and the second was that the airport was designed to be used, at least in part, for military purposes. Both of those were confirmed.
Heffner: But of course, but what you touch on in those comments has to do with what was happening with people from Grenada being sent to the soviet union, establishing what kind of tie?
Ledeen: Establishing the normal tie between a colonial zed country and the colonial master.
Heffner: With Grenada being the colony of the Soviet Union?
Ledeen: Grenada being the colon of the Soviet Union, with Cuba as interposed taskmaster.
Heffner: All right. Do you think the American press knows that now?
Ledeen: In part, I think they know it more than they did to start with. They absolutely didn’t believe it to begin with. They were violently opposed to this by reflex. And part of it, I think, was guilt because the American press had done a terrible job in covering developments in Grenada for the several months before the invasion and were caught short by the tack itself. If you compared the American press, for example, with the British press; if you read The Financial Times or The London Times for the couple of months before the invasion you will find a very complete description of an island in terrible crisis.
Heffner: it’s interesting that you say that because clearly here it all came out of the blue. And it came out of the blue in a form in which the press was able to say, “The administration has kept us away from this and has kept us away from the administration”. You mean all they would have had to have done is read the British papers?
Ledeen: Had they read the British papers they would have known this. Had they listened to the BBC they would have known it. My own story is the Saturday or Sunday night before the invasion I was listening to the BBC and they had some character, some nut I thought, on who said, “The Americans are about to invade Grenada, and it’s going to take place in the next several hours”. And I turned it off and I said, “Well, there goes another one”. And I woke up the next morning and turned on the television news and there it was.
Heffner: Assuming too, when you thought, “There goes another one”, that there wasn’t any basic reason for it?
Ledeen: I didn’t know any more about Grenada than anybody else. I wasn’t up to date on Grenada at all.
Heffner: In a sense – and I don’t mean to indict the press in this country – but that ends up to be what we’re talking about, or at least public information. And where do we get our public information? I guess from the press.
Ledeen: I think that it is almost impossible for the American public to form accurate and reasonable judgments about foreign policy based on what they get from the American media.
Heffner: does that mean abdication on the part of the American public of our role in foreign policy?
Ledeen: No. it means an irresponsible role. It means that there’s a tendency to be manipulated by these terrible oversimplifications of what is going on. And I think there is now a reaction in the American body politic against this, as demonstrated precisely by the public’s reaction to the press’s hollering after being kept out of Grenada. It was four to one the public didn’t’ care whether the press went to Grenada or not.
Heffner: So what’s the answer? Believe the president? I remember when Richard Nixon used to say basically the counterpart of “It’s what’s up front that counts”. Listen to the president. Don’t go behind the returns. Don’t analyze them. Don’t criticize them.
Ledeen: Well, I think the American public right now is taking the position of a plague on both your houses. They certainly don’t have any high evaluation of politicians, this president or any other, or that Senator or any other. What has happened is that the journalists have now been dragged down roughly to the level of the politicians, and they’re all in the same boat. And the public basically doesn’t believe any of them.
Heffner: What happens when the boat begins to sink? All of us there?
Ledeen: I’m afraid we all go down, because as it is right now it’s very hard to have a serious discussion on foreign policy in this country.
Heffner: You know, I remember – we have a minute remaining – I remember when Gene McCarthy was on this program years and years and years ago, and he said, “In a presidential election, or in a senatorial election, no candidate for the Senate has a right to talk about foreign policy because no one except the president of the United states knows what’s going on”.
Ledeen: Well, it’s no longer true, because with the oversight committees on intelligence, they now do know what’s going on. What’s so terrifying is that a lot of them use that information irresponsibly. And if we had more time we could talk about leaks for policy purposes of information that’s very essential to the country.
Heffner: you think that is happening?
Ledeen: It’s definitely happening.
Heffner: Well, you’re right. If we had more time we would go on that way, but I’m getting the signal that we don’t have that time. Come back again, Dr. Ledeen.
Ledeen: With pleasure.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”