Otto Reich: Propagandist Or Honest Broker?

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - Otto Reich is a staunch anti-communist and a controversial man.

He could not get a hearing in the Senate after President Bush nominated him last year to be America's chief diplomat in Latin America, instead receiving a temporary recess appointment to the post in January.

Besides many liberals in Congress, additional opposition to Reich comes from journalists, news organizations and some media watchdogs that believe he acted as a "propaganda officer" during his tenure at the State Department' Office of Public Diplomacy during the Reagan administration.

Much of the controversy centers on Reich's handling of information regarding Central America; specifically, the war in Nicaragua between the Marxist Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

But did Reich manipulate journalists or was he simply performing his duties as a State Department public affairs official? While the term propagandist is sometimes bandied about, others believe journalists should more closely check out leads on stories before writing or broadcasting them.

Jeff Cohen of the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting claims the mission of the Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), which Reich ran in the early and mid-1980s, was "to inflame fears about Nicaragua and its left-wing Sandinista government that had come to power by overthrowing a corrupt, U.S.-supported dictator."

"By covertly disseminating intelligence leaks to journalists, Reich and the OPD sought to trump up a Nicaraguan threat, and to sanctify the U.S.-backed Contra guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's government as freedom fighters," said Cohen. "The propaganda was aimed at influencing Congress to continue to fund the Contras."

Cohen accused Reich of saying that "Soviet MiG fighter jets were arriving in Nicaragua. With journalists citing unnamed 'intelligence sources', the well-time story surged through U.S. media on the night of Ronald Reagan's (1984) re-election."

Among those jumping on the story, according to Cohen, was NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who broke into her network's 1984 election night coverage with details. "The furor spurred a Democratic senator to discuss a possible air strike against Nicaragua, but the story turned out to be a hoax," Cohen said.

But was the genesis of that story the handiwork of Reich and his office? Mitchell says no.

"I had no contact with Reich's office," said Mitchell in an interview with "I reported a story. I would have to go over my records because it was many years ago, but I know that I did not have any contact with Otto Reich about that."

Reich mirrored Mitchell's recollections, telling he never met Andrea Mitchell, either in person or on the telephone.

Nonetheless, the National Security Archive, a national security watchdog group, cited a U.S. Comptroller General's report in 1987 that said Reich's office committed "prohibited, covert propaganda activities, beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities."

The archive group also accused Reich of violating "a restriction on the State Department's annual appropriations prohibiting the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress."

But Reich dismisses the accusations, saying he was neither lying nor trying to manipulate anyone, but merely doing his job and being truthful about it.

"False accusations about my office are legion and amazing, frankly. Very few people are going back and checking these charges against me because they are completely false," said Reich. "But their desire to keep me out of the job far outweighed their journalistic responsibility."

Reich admits, "I had to be quite aggressive in countering some of the lack of information, and in some cases, wrong information that some members of the media and some members of Congress had about what was going on in those regions."

What made him controversial with some in the establishment media, Reich speculates, is that they "are not used to being confronted with contrary facts. Unfortunately, a lot of the media, sometimes [think] that they should have the last word and didn't particularly appreciate being corrected."

Reich acknowledges having made some enemies, saying there were - and are - some who, "for ideological reasons, just simply did not like the fact that my office was created in the first place to correct the record."

As to Cohen's charges of covert operations at the Office of Public Diplomacy, Reich said there's nothing to the charge.

"Our program was anything but covert. It was one of the most open offices that the State Department ever had," said Reich. "The Office of Public Diplomacy was created to get information out. We didn't do anything covertly."

Regarding allegations Reich made about the potential Sandinista threat to Nicaragua back in the 1980s, many have been confirmed by history. The U.S.-aided Contras kept the Sandinistas in check and prevented them from establishing another communist satellite nation in Latin America.

The Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega also turned out to be an unpopular leader. In 1990, he was defeated by Violetta Chamorro in Nicaragua's presidential election. Ortega attempted a political comeback last year and was defeated again.

On other Central American matters, Reich argues that events have proven him and his work to be correct.

"We said that the Sandinistas were supporting the Salvadoran guerrillas (during the 1980s) and now there is no doubt that they were supporting the Salvadoran guerrillas," said Reich. "The Sandinista leadership has even admitted they armed and trained and supplied those guerrillas."

"We also said that the Cubans and the East Germans and a lot of other Soviet bloc countries were present in Nicaragua in large numbers and were helping to build what they hoped would be a totalitarian, communist dictatorship, (during the 1980s)," Reich said.

Reich believes he was not misleading journalists or the public about Central America, particularly Nicaragua, but brought out information "at a time when a lot of the so-called prestige press were unwilling to say it."

"Some of them (establishment media) may have been embarrassed by the information that we put out which proved what they were saying at the time was incorrect. Perhaps some of the people have a very long memory and this is their way of settling accounts," Reich said.

While not commenting directly about Reich, Dr. Fred Fedler, a professor of journalism at the University of Central Florida believes publicists, no matter where they work, try to show their client in a favorable light because it is their job.

"Typically the publicist is trying to show his client in a favorable light because that is what publicists do. And journalists on the other hand, say they want stories that are entertaining or informative -- that serve the public rather than special interests. And you just have a natural conflict because different people have different interests," said Fedler.

"The publicist," Fedler continued, "tends to serve their clients and their bosses. But I think sometimes too much of their information is beneficial to the public and journalists just have to be on their guard and decide what to use and what's fair and get both sides."

"It's just part of a 150-year-old ongoing conflict" between journalists and public relations people, Fedler believes.

Reich, a hard line anti-Communist, has irritated Democrats, especially Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) by making statements in support of the Nicaraguan Contras and against the Sandinistas. Reich also helped draft the controversial Helms-Burton law, which allows Americans to file lawsuits against any Cubans benefiting from property that was seized by the Castro revolutionaries in 1959. Former President Clinton signed the bill into law.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal last year, Dodd said Reich "is not qualified" to be an assistant secretary of state and said he was disappointed with Bush's decision to appoint Reich.

"I regret the administration has made this decision. The appointee becomes a lame duck as soon as he takes the position and can only serve until the end of this Congress. There are many difficulties in the region and it is unfortunate that U.S. foreign policy in the region is being sacrificed for a narrow domestic political agenda," said Dodd in a statement from his Capitol Hill office.

Reich's appointment has irked the Castro government in Cuba as well. "Unbelievable" is the way one top Cuban government official characterized Reich's nomination when it came up last year.

Reich has previously served as the assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development and as a special advisor to former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, during which time he established and managed the interagency Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean.

From 1986 to 1989, Reich was the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and received the State Department's Exemplary Service Award and Superior Honor Award.

His recess appointment as assistant secretary of state is effective for one year.

Reich is confident that President Bush will re-nominate him and hopes he will at least get a Senate hearing in order to fully answer the allegations against him.

"I waited for almost a year for the Senate to give me the opportunity that every presidential nominee is supposed to have, which is supposed to be a public hearing. I, frankly look forward to a public hearing because the president is going to nominate me again," Reich said.

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