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May 13, 1997

Money Scandals:

"Mr. Smith" Goes to Washington

by Norman Solomon
Creators Syndicate / CAN-EX

Few politicians are as idealistic as the hero in the classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But the nation's capital is teeming with journalists who resemble another Mr. Smith -- the guy in George Orwell's most famous book.

In "1984," Winston Smith was employed to dispose of inconvenient bits of history. In 1997, the process in real-life newsrooms may be more subtle, but it's often quite Orwellian. Certain awkward facts just don't get into America's media picture.

Case in point: The current uproar over foreign money in last year's campaign.

China is suspected of seeking to influence the outcome of some U.S. congressional races in 1996. That's bad -- very bad.

When the United States maneuvered to sway the Russian presidential race in 1996, however, that was good -- very good.

"YANKS TO THE RESCUE" blared the cover of Time magazine's July 15 issue, featuring a 10-page spread about a squad of U.S. political pros who "clandestinely participated in guiding [Boris] Yeltsin's campaign."

American resources poured into Russia to help Yeltsin win at the polls. The reaction from journalists? Not even a whimper about the principle of non- intervention in another country's elections.

Actually, the United States makes a habit of such interference around the world.

"U.S. leaders routinely channel millions of tax dollars to political parties in other countries," a Cox News Service article explained. "Private institutes ... have used these federal funds to supply equipment, services, training and expert advice on strategy and polling to political parties and other private groups in more than 100 countries."

When the exceptional article appeared in late February, it didn't cause a ripple in the national media pond. "I haven't had any response to the piece," Cox reporter Andrew Mollison told me a few days ago.

Mollison's in-depth story delved into direct U.S. aid to political parties "scattered around the globe and through the alphabet from Albania to Zambia." So, his story was out of sync with the prevailing media script, which typecasts the U.S. government as a victim -- not a perpetrator -- of anti- democratic plots by foreigners.

The D.C.-based National Endowment for Democracy has rarely faced tough scrutiny from news outlets. Established in 1983, it gets annual funding of $30 million from the federal treasury. The money is used to assist favored political forces overseas. Forty- one of the Duma members now sitting in the Russian parliament, for instance, received campaign aid from one of the endowment's conduits.

Today, the American press -- obsessed by Asian money in U.S. politics -- would lose its self-righteous tone if it reported some relevant history. A few examples:

ITALY: The CIA provided $10 million for campaigns in Italy's 1972 parliamentary elections and passed along another $6 million for the June 1976 elections.

CHILE: In 1964, eager to defeat socialist Salvador Allende, the CIA got behind the Christian Democratic Party's presidential candidate, Eduardo Frei. "The CIA underwrote more than half the party's total campaign costs," says journalist William Blum. His definitive book Killing Hope recounts that "the agency's overall electoral operation reduced the U.S. Treasury by an estimated $20 million -- much more per voter than that spent by the Johnson and Goldwater campaigns combined in the same year in the United States."

Six years later, Chile's voters elected Allende president, despite continued U.S. backing for his opponents. Allende died in September 1973, when a U.S.- supported coup ushered in 16 years of bloody dictatorship.

AUSTRALIA: In 1973, when the newly elected Labor Party government charted an independent course in foreign policy, the CIA got very busy -- dispensing large amounts of money to conservative parties. Under enormous pressure, the government of Prime Minister Edward Gough Whitlam fell in 1975.

EL SALVADOR: The CIA boosted Jose Napoleon Duarte to victory in the 1984 presidential contest. Irked because a farther-right candidate lost, Sen. Jesse Helms complained that the CIA had secretly donated $2 million to Duarte's campaign. "In other words, the State Department and the CIA bought the election for Duarte," said Helms.

NICARAGUA: After a decade of the Contras' guerrilla war financed by U.S. taxpayers, the incumbent Sandinistas lost the 1990 election to the pro-U.S. presidential candidate, Violeta Chamorro. Researchers, including former CIA analyst David MacMichael, calculated that U.S. aid to electoral foes of the Sandinistas totaled $26 million between 1984 and 1989 in a country with just 3.5 million people -- the equivalent of a foreign infusion into U.S. politics of nearly $2 billion.

Such information belongs in media coverage of the current foreign-money scandal. But America's journalists have dispensed with unpleasant history.

Winston Smith feared for his life. What's their excuse?


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