Waiting for Otto

Why would a man sullied by Iran-contra and illegal propaganda campaigns be a Bush nominee? Good question.

At the White House's request, Reich has not spoken publicly about his nomination since Bush tapped him in March. But his remarks on a radio talk show on Miami station WQBA-AM (1140) before his nomination provide a fairly fresh glimpse of ideas he might share with members of the Foreign Relations Committee, if he ever gets a hearing. The program, Polos Opuestos (Opposite Poles), originally aired in January and was rebroadcast just after the nomination.

"Fidel Castro is still seen as a dinosaur of the Cold War who supported the Soviet Union, who damaged the interests of this country, and who continues to damage them," Reich told the station. "And the only reason he can't damage them more is because he doesn't have money. I think that we have to avoid letting money into him from whatever source, private or international, because we know what Fidel Castro will do with this money, and that is to again support terrorism. As he said recently, very proudly, that he effectively supported the guerrillas in all of the Latin-American countries with the exception of Mexico, and I don't believe that either."

Reich's chances looked pretty rosy while Helms was still chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. That changed in May, when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party and gave Democrats control of the Senate. Joe Biden (D-Del.) replaced Helms as chairman of the committee. Last August assistant senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), acting on behalf of fellow Democrats, sent Reich's nomination back to the White House. It was a way of suggesting Bush find someone else for the job, though Reid told reporters that if Bush felt strongly about Reich, he could resubmit the nomination. The president did just that in early September.

The Cuban American National Foundation's Joe Garcia has hitched his well-traveled lobbying machine to Reich's stalled nomination
Steve Satterwhite
The Cuban American National Foundation's Joe Garcia has hitched his well-traveled lobbying machine to Reich's stalled nomination
Despite the new era of unity in the nation's capital, Otto Reich (top) is where Senators Dodd (center) and Kerry draw the line
Despite the new era of unity in the nation's capital, Otto Reich (top) is where Senators Dodd (center) and Kerry draw the line


But despite CANF's lobbying efforts and the newfound congressional unity in the wake of September 11, Reich's nomination is in serious doubt. Democrats have qualms about his propaganda work for the Reagan administration foreign-policy team that brought us the Iran-contra affair. "The Reich nomination is dead," concluded one committee staffer who works for a Democratic senator from a Midwestern state. To make matters worse, some of Reich's fellow Republicans don't even back him on the issue at the core of his diplomatic persona: the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Answer (b) also is correct. Beginning last March, two senior members of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), began publicizing their concerns about Reich's involvement in the Reagan administration's covert activities, spearheaded by Lt. Col. Oliver North, to aid anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua.

Some of the senators' qualms are the same as those contained in a 1987 report by the bipartisan congressional committees that investigated the Iran-contra affair. Otto Reich is featured in a section titled "White Propaganda," which referred to his work at the Office of Public Diplomacy. The report described the OPD's operations as "a new, nontraditional activity for the United States government," which involved the illegal use of taxpayers' money for public-relations lobbying. For example the office produced op-ed pieces that were published in national newspapers without disclosing OPD involvement. The report quoted Reich's description of his modus operandi as "a very aggressive posture vis-à-vis a sometimes hostile press."

The U.S. comptroller general, after another investigation, soon concluded that Reich's operations were "prohibited covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public." The OPD had violated a restriction barring the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress.

His background briefings, in which he often accused journalists of being communist sympathizers, are legendary in Washington. National Public Radio editors recall a meeting in which he testily referred to the network as "National People's Radio." His crusade also targeted U.S. reporters working in Central America. Miami-based author (and former New Times staff writer) John Lantigua remembers having lunch with Reich during a visit he made to Nicaragua in 1985, when Lantigua was freelancing for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Reich was quarrelsome, Lantigua recalled, when the diplomat was confronted with facts that contradicted his ideology-laden conceptions about the socialist Sandinista government. "In retrospect he was fishing. He was being provocative to see who would argue with him," Lantigua surmised. The journalist soon found himself the subject of a report by Accuracy in Media, which claimed that the Sandinista regime was providing sex slaves to Lantigua in exchange for favorable reporting. Reich later took credit, telling a New York magazine writer that he had gotten the information from Sandinista defectors. "The guy's a slimeball," Lantigua scoffed.

Reich also engaged in potentially far more volatile forms of disinformation. In November 1984, purportedly citing classified intelligence documents, Reich told journalists the Sandinista government may have received a shipment of Soviet MiGs. Network news programs and major newspapers picked up the tidbit, which proved to be false. But the OPD goal, in this instance to malign the Sandinistas, was met.

In March Senator Dodd told the New York Times he didn't think Reich was "the right person" for the job. The right person, he suggested, would be someone with the diplomatic and political skills "to maintain bipartisan support for U.S. policies in the hemisphere." In July Dodd told NPR reporter Steve Inskeep he thought Reich's performance at the OPS was grounds for disqualifying his nomination. "I don't care what your party is or what your politics are, if you don't tell the truth and you lie to Congress, I'm not going to vote for you," Dodd declared.

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