ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE BOMB TICKS: With enemies like Otto Reich, who needs friends? Just ask Ann Louise Bardach (a k a Annie), globe-trotting investigative reporter and peripatetic resident of Santa Barbara’s South Coast. Reich — former U.S ambassador to Venezuela who ran a covert propaganda operation at federal taxpayer expense on behalf of Latin American death squads in the 1980s — has challenged Bardach’s journalistic integrity. On the witness stand in an El Paso courtroom, Reich accused Bardach of being biased. Bardach, who has written extensively for Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Washington Post, has yet to win a Pulitzer. But now that she’s been smeared by Reich, why would she want one? It would be so redundant.
Bardach just spent six grueling days on the witness stand, testifying — very much against her will — against an 83-year-old anti-Fidel Castro terrorist named Luis Posada. Bardach was the star witness in the federal government’s case against Posada, who, since the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, has concocted plot after plot to topple the Castro regime in Cuba. And for much — but not all — of Posada’s career, he’s been on the CIA payroll. When a Cuban jetliner was blown out of the sky in 1976, killing all 73 on board — 24 being members of the Cuban fencing team — Posada was arrested and brought up on charges in Venezuela, where he was living at the time. Posada managed to escape, however, before he could be tried by civil authorities. In the late 1990s, when Cuba became a tourist resort for the revolutionary chic, Posada orchestrated a campaign to plant bombs in Havana’s most popular hotels and restaurants to scare the visitors away. Little bombs, he explained, so no one would get killed. It turned out his bombs weren’t little enough. One Italian tourist got killed; a dozen others injured. As is often the case, Posada is not up on federal charges for any of these crimes. Instead, he’s in hot water for lying about the mini-bombing spree when applying for American citizenship in 2005. In addition, he stands accused of entering the country illegally.
Under the administration of George W. Bush, the federal government was of at least two minds about prosecuting Posada. Many regarded Posada as a friend, others as a loyal, if volatile, subcontractor. But after 9/11, mad bombers — no matter what their political stripe — became an untenable liability for a government that had made the war on terror its chief reason for being. Even so, elements within the federal government seemed intent on throwing the case. The FBI bureau in Miami — where extremism in pursuit of Castro has never been considered a vice — “accidentally” shredded five boxes of evidence against Posada. Absent these files, the feds needed notes and tapes from 13 hours of interviews that Bardach conducted with Posada back in 1998. Exasperated with the lack of media attention his “little” bomb campaign had garnered, he contacted Bardach — who had written extensively about Cuba and was part of an investigative team working for the New York Times. Posada explained the ins and outs of the campaign and provided documentary evidence to back it. Bardach cowrote a lengthy article to this effect. When the feds demanded Bardach turn over tapes and notes, she — and the New York Times — waged a five-year legal battle, claiming it was assault upon the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate. Sources, they argued, needed to be protected at all costs. The courts didn’t buy it and insisted there was a critical distinction between confidential and nonconfidential sources. And no one could argue Posada was remotely confidential.
In person, Bardach exudes a perpetually harassed and harried mien, yet she has an uncanny habit of landing in the eye of any tornado, usually with front-row seats. As a conversationalist, she tends to tell no less than six stories simultaneously, starting each somewhere near the middle, and jumping from one to the next with little notice or warning. On the witness stand, Bardach was a runaway train. The judge repeatedly implored her not to deliver lengthy narrative answers when a simple yes or no would suffice. To no avail. When Posada’s defense attorneys tried to paint Bardach as a Castro-loving stooge — which she decidedly is not — Bardach felt compelled to set the record straight. At one point, the defense showed a photograph of Bardach holding a pen in her hand while interviewing Castro. Castro, he argued, would never allow anyone he did not absolutely trust to get within striking distance armed with so dangerous a weapon as a pen. Bardach, it should be noted, was so beloved by Castro that he kicked her out of Cuba once.
To discredit Bardach, Posada’s attorneys called Reich to the witness stand, where he accused both Bardach and the New York of Times of journalistic bias against anti-Castro activists. When it comes to slanting and planting the news, Reich knows his business. During the 1980s, he ran the Office of Public Diplomacy, technically a branch of the State Department, but in practice, answering directly to the White House. President Ronald Reagan was running a covert war against the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua — funding it by selling missiles to the terrorist nation of Iran. Reich used federal funds to run a covert propaganda campaign on behalf of the Contras, then fighting the Sandinistas, targeting the American people. He’d concoct phony news stories about Soviet fighter jets being sent to Managua — or similarly tall tales about chemical weapons caches — and, hiding their true authorship, get them planted in mainstream news outlets like NBC news, Newsweek, or the Miami Herald. He’d pay seemingly independent experts to write op-ed pieces supportive of the covert war, many of which were published by respected news organs like the Wall Street Journal. As for reporters and news organizations that did not cooperate, Reich circulated rumors they’d received sexual favors from prostitutes working for the Nicaraguan government. Ultimately, the Office of the Comptroller General would conclude that Reich used federal funds for improper purposes. For this, he would be rewarded with an appointment as Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs by George W.
The Posada trial remains far from over. Whatever the verdict, the moral is clearly that the pen is mightier than the sword. But not necessarily a bomb.