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W.E. Gutman: When silence screams

The Long View

Posted: July 17, 2010 11:13 p.m.
Updated: July 18, 2010 4:55 a.m.

For independent journalists, a breed apart known for irreverence and persistence, silence is one loud telltale shriek.

“Silence is a scoop,” I learned in journalism school, “silence is evidence of collusion. When you hear nothing but the hush of obscurantism, you have a cover-up. Your job is to pull down the covers.”

Unlike open scandal, which peaks in an orgy of finger-pointing, then dies, silence leaves a trail of speculations and a scent of putrefaction. It’s bad enough when elected officials hide behind a wall of secrecy. It’s infinitely worse when the press, the conscience of a free society, abdicates its mission and colludes with politicians — or worse, with its advertisers — to keep readers marginally informed or misinformed.

I was reminded of the lengths to which the press will go to sugarcoat or suppress certain facts as I watched “The Panama Deception” the other night while Manuel Noriega was being flown to France to face the same bogus charges that cost him 20 years in U.S. custody.

The Academy Award-winning documentary chronicles the largely untold story of the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. It analyzes the events that led to it, graphically illustrates the use of excessive force, depicts the enormity of the death toll and records the destruction and devastating aftermath.

The film leaves no doubt as to why this widely condemned “police action” took place — namely, to silence Gen. Manuel Noriega, a CIA asset privy to a tangled web of U.S. dirty tricks — and offers a view of the invasion that differs significantly from official doublespeak and laundered media reports. It also tells how the U.S. government and mainstream dailies suppressed details about this operation or buried government-fed redacted snippets of information on page 20.

“If journalists would only mind their damn business,” some people grumble. Alas, many do.

Are the media slothful or too timid to ask discomfiting questions? Or do the lies they will be forced to spread discourage them from digging for the truth?

Manuel Noriega’s extradition to France, where he faces drug-related charges, has refocused attention on why the U.S. went to such lengths to silence him, on the unspoken reasons why he became such a threat to the U.S. government and why such extreme measures were taken to silence him. His case also serves as a reminder of the U.S. policy of direct and indirect interventionism that bedeviled Central America for decades.

Yes, Noriega is a thug. But for many years, he was America’s thug until (like Saddam Hussein — “Our Man in Baghdad” — and other thugs the U.S. coddled) he turned on his masters. Trained in military and intelligence protocols at the ill-famed U.S. Army School of the Americas — also known as the School of Assassins — Noriega became a valued CIA asset. He worked for the “Company” and for the less-than-virtuous U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Government documents submitted to the Miami court at his pre-trial hearings in 1991 confirm that Noriega was paid about a quarter-million dollars “for services rendered.” He may have earned considerably more under the table.
Noriega knew too much. He was America’s ear during the “Dirty War” that engulfed El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. He served as liaison between then vice president Bush and Fidel Castro in the 1980s and had met with Bush, a former CIA director, on at least two occasions.

The jury in Noriega’s trial never heard a word of this. Nor did it hear about his contacts with Oliver North, John Poindexter, CIA chief William Casey and other key figures in the Reagan and Bush administrations who connived in the supply of arms to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels paid for with nacre-dollars.

Noriega had verifiable evidence of U.S. complicity in politically motivated drug-trafficking schemes. But none was entered into evidence. The new Panamanian government’s demand that Noriega be returned there for trial was rejected.

In Panama, Noriega would have been free to spill the beans. And for many powerful men in Washington, some still alive and still pulling strings, that prospect was too much to bear.

The outcome of Noriega’s trial, like the unprovoked 1989 invasion of Panama, was never in doubt. Noriega was railroaded in a kangaroo court bent on vengeance.

It was a show trial, a warning to others to clam up. It was a plot to whitewash decades of illicit regional meddling. It was an unmistakable show of raw American muscle, of which the world would soon have more frightening examples.

And it was yet another demonstration that in America, if something happens but no one sees it, it didn’t happen.

W. E. Gutman is a widely published veteran journalist and author. From 1994 to 2006, he was on assignment in Central America. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal, to which he bids farewell in this final offering.


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