Pope Francis, the CIA and the ‘Death Squads’
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Discovering this CIA funding of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church presented professional problems for me at Newsweek, where my senior editors were already making clear that they sympathized with the Reagan administration’s muscular foreign policy and felt that the Iran-Contra scandal had gone too far in undermining U.S. interests.
But what was the right thing for an American journalist to do with this information? Here was a case in which the U.S. government was misleading the American public by pretending that the Sandinistas were cracking down on the Catholic Church and the internal opposition without any justification. Plus, this U.S. propaganda was being used to make the case in Congress for an expanded war in which thousands of Nicaraguans were dying.
However, if Newsweek ran the story, it would put CIA assets, including Cardinal Obando, in a dicey situation, possibly even life-threatening. So, when I presented the information to my bureau chief, Evan Thomas, I made no recommendation on whether we should publish or not. I just laid out the facts as I had ascertained them. To my surprise, Thomas was eager to go forward.
Newsweek contacted its 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. However, 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 Newsweek in 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 now 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 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. Newsweek also agreed, in the face of right-wing pressure, to subject me and the article to an internal investigation, which quietly reconfirmed the facts of the story.