A new collection of work by the late investigative reporter Robert Parry, titled “American Dispatches,” chronicles the late journalist’s career, from his origins as a student activist to his later reporting on corruption and wrongdoing at the highest heights of government. Parry’s son Nat, who edited the book, joins Jon Schwarz to discuss his father’s life and work.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Jon Schwarz: I’m Jon Schwarz, a writer at The Intercept, filling in for Ryan Grim on this week’s episode of Deconstructed.
You may have heard the term “a writer’s writer,” which means an author who is especially appreciated by other authors, who understand what it takes to produce good work.
Robert Parry, who died in 2018, was a kind of reporter’s reporter. He broke huge stories; uncovered some truly stunning facts about recent American political history. But he was largely appreciated by other journalists, and did not get the attention he deserved from the world, for a very good reason — powerful people did not like what he reported, and were anxious to make sure you, among lots of other people, never heard about it.
Parry helped break the Iran-Contra scandal and the Contras’ involvement in cocaine smuggling in the 1980s. He worked for years for the Associated Press, and then Newsweek. But when he found himself stymied in these jobs, he created one of the first online journalism sites, Consortiumnews.com, in 1995.
Did you know that in the early 1990s, after the fall of communism, the Russian government sent a report to the U.S. congress, telling them that Soviet intelligence had been monitoring the Reagan campaign in 1980, and the campaign had conspired with the revolutionary Iranian government to keep American hostages in Tehran until after the election? Or that Alexander Haig, Reagan’s secretary of state, told him that he, Haig, had confirmed with the Saudi crown prince that Jimmy Carter had given Saddam Hussein a “green light” to invade Iran in 1980? Probably not, unless you were reading the classified documents Parry was publishing on his website.
During his life, Parry wrote many books, including “Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’”; “Fooling America: How Washington Insiders Twist the Truth and Manufacture the Conventional Wisdom”; and “America’s Stolen Narrative: From Washington and Madison to Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes to Obama.”
On this episode of Deconstructed, I spoke to Parry’s son Nat, who edited a new collection of Parry’s work called “American Dispatches: A Robert Parry Reader.” It’s a book that should be read by anyone who’s interested in what is going on, how this country actually worked for the past 50 years, and much more.
I guarantee you that if you read it, you will be in for some pretty big surprises.
JS: Nat, thank you for joining us on Deconstructed.
Nat Parry: Thanks for having me.
JS: I wanted to start by telling a story of your father’s that, to me, kind of explains everything about the U.S. foreign policy blob in Washington DC. And the blob, as people may know who are familiar with the term, includes not just the sort of official members of the foreign policy establishment, but also the people at the top of the U.S. media. And this is something that your dad described happening right after he had started working for Newsweek in 1987.
JS: And it’s in the middle of the Iran-Contra scandal. Congress is investigating the fact that the U.S. government — the Reagan administration — had sent arms to Iran and taken the money and turned around and given it to the Contras attempting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. And your father went to a dinner at the home of the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, Evan Thomas.
And, as your father said: “The invited guests of honor were retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft” — this is not something your father said, but people may remember him as one of the closest advisors to President George H.W. Bush, Bush number one.
“Scowcroft had been one of the three members of the Tower Board which had just completed an initial investigation of the Iran-Contra arms for hostages scandal and Rep. Dick Cheney, the ranking Republican on the House Iran-Contra panel.
At the time, a key question of the Iran-Contra scandal was whether Reagan’s National Security Adviser Adm. John Poindexter had informed the President about the diversion of profits from arm sales to Iran to Reagan’s beloved Contras. As the catered dinner progressed, Scowcroft piped up: ‘I probably shouldn’t say this, but if I were advising Adm. Poindexter, and he had told the president about the diversion, I would advise him to say that he hadn’t.’
I was startled. Here was a Tower Commission member acknowledging that he really wasn’t interested in the truth after all, but rather political expediency. Not familiar with the etiquette of these news week affairs, I stopped eating.
‘General,’ I said. ‘You’re not suggesting that the admirals should commit perjury, are you?’
There was an awkward silence around the table, as if I’d committed some social faux pas. Then Newsweek Executive Editor Maynard Parker, who is sitting next to me, boomed out: ‘Sometimes, you have to do what’s good for the country.’”
NP: [Laughs.] Yeah.
JS: So that was their view of what’s good for the country. What was your father’s view of what was good for the country?
NP: Well, I think my father had this sort of old fashioned, sort of Boy Scout view of journalism that the job of a journalist is to find things out and go tell the people. Sort of this old fashioned idea of you let the chips fall where they may and let justice be done, though the heavens fall, that sort of attitude.
He came from this tradition of the ’70s, with the Watergate press corps and coming out of the Vietnam War era, where I think at that time, people really just had no inclination to really believe anything that the government was telling them. And journalists really had a skeptical view of Washington, and they weren’t particularly inclined to believe what they were being told.
But that sort of changed in the 1980s. A lot of the pressure that the Reagan administration was bringing to bear on editors and journalists, and he saw this shift in the way that journalists covered these things. And at the time, he started at the Associated Press, and that’s where he broke a lot of his important stories on Iran-Contra and Contra cocaine. And even in that environment, he found it somewhat oppressive. And the editors didn’t always want to go out on a limb with some of these stories.
But he found that eventually they would publish his articles. One time, it was done by mistake. Another amusing anecdote from the era was when he broke the story of the Contras trafficking cocaine, he and his partner Brian Barger were the first to report on that. And they had developed, I think, something like two dozen sources by that point. They had people on-the-record, government documents, and pretty much all of the documentation you could hope for, and they had this good story ready to go. And, at the last moment, the Associated Press editors decided to kill the story. But it had already gone down to the Latin America wires and was translated into Spanish, and was inadvertently published in Spanish language newspapers. And so the English AP wire sort of ran to catch up and put out the story in the American press. And it’s sort of an amusing anecdote, but, you know, that was sort of how things went during that period in the ’80s; a lot of pushback from editors, and a lot of fear of coming under pressure from the administration.
But then he went to Newsweek. So that was the environment at the AP, which he found was already somewhat difficult, and a lot of the stories he was working on ended up causing some friction with his superiors. And so he went on to the, to Newsweek and thought that that might be a better environment. But then, I think soon after he ended up in Newsweek, that’s when they had this catered dinner — the story that you just told of Maynard Parker bellowing out: “Sometimes you have to do what’s good for the country.” And he realized that he was in a very different environment than he expected.
He always sort of described the AP as sort of a working man’s news bureau, but you get to Newsweek and it was a very different environment. This dinner that he played out, the story that you told, it was a catered dinner with tuxedoed waiters, and so it’s just a very different environment. And what he came to sort of realized at this point was that he was in a different world than he thought he was, and that there wasn’t this adversarial relationship that he thought was the way things should be between journalists and people in power, but they we were sort of sitting at the same table, and both sort of interested in shaping conventional wisdom and maybe not telling the full story to the American people.
JS: I think we should go back for just one second, and emphasize again, that AP broke this story, this enormous story, by your father and his partner, about the Contras funding themselves with sales from cocaine, by accident against their own wishes.
NP: [Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s how it came to be. I mean, I don’t know all the details. But yeah, basically, he had filed this report, and thought that it was good to go. And then he and Brian were told: Yeah, sorry, we’re not going to run this.
They probably got some pushback from the Reagan administration. Maybe they called someone in the White House and was told like: This is nonsense, or Robert Parry’s crazy, duh duh duh. But then it went out by accident, and that’s how that was published, because they scrambled to put out the English version, so just to sort of save face. But yeah, I guess it’s sort of an embarrassing episode for them.
But I think one thing that is also worth pointing out about that episode was that even though this is probably one of the biggest stories of the ’80s. I mean, when you think about it, at the time, there was the just-say-no campaign. I mean, cocaine was a big deal. You had the crack-cocaine explosion, and inner cities being just devastated by this epidemic of crack-cocaine, and you had the Reagan administration, pushing this just-say-no campaign, and Nancy Reagan was out there doing these events and all this stuff —
Nancy Reagan: Not long ago, in Oakland, California, I was asked by a group of children what to do if they were offered drugs? And I answered: “Just say no.”
NP: At the same time, the government’s turning a blind eye to cocaine trafficking, which is probably the kindest way of putting it [laughs]. In some cases, it may have been more deeply involved than just turning a blind eye. But, at the bare minimum, they kind of look the other way as this was happening.
But even so, when the AP put that out, accidentally or inadvertently, it wasn’t really followed up. I mean, I think that was one of the things that my dad always found very frustrating about reporting in the ’80s and breaking some of these stories is that he was often just out on a limb.
When you break a story like this, what you want to happen is for it to have legs and for other media outlets to follow up. But the Washington Post didn’t touch it. The New York Times didn’t touch it. The AP, on its own, published this article.
And it did lead to a congressional investigation, John Kerry, as I guess he was chairman of the Subcommittee on Foreign Relations, but he started an investigation in the mid-to-late ’80s, it went on for a couple of years, they uncovered a lot of really important details about this whole operation and something called the arms supermarket, which was involved with the drug trade and arms trafficking and all that, but even that was somewhat ignored, and John Kerry’s investigation never really got the attention it deserved until maybe a decade later, then the whole Gary Webb series came out and got new life.
Newscaster: There are documents which we’ve obtained independently from BCCI that confirm a participation in planned arms deals. And while some of these deals may have been aborted in the end, they do appear to have been negotiated with important Iran-Contra figures like Adnan Khashoggi and Manucher Ghorbanifar, who is the arms merchant used by Oliver North and the NSC for negotiations with Iranian moderates.
JS: Yes, and I think it’s worth remembering that Newsweek — I don’t know whether your father was still working there or not, or whether he’d left by that point — referred to John Kerry for investigating this as a “randy conspiracy buff.”
NP: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right. My dad used that line quite often when he would write about his experience at Newsweek. He was fond of telling the story of how they would call John Kerry a “randy conspiracy buff,” so it kind of goes to show the mentality they had towards some of these very important stories.
I mean, to me, that whole Contra cocaine story, and later, what Gary Webb did with his reporting on it, how the media treated that, and how they continued to sort of pretend like it didn’t happen, or that Gary Webb was crazy, or that this was just a conspiracy theory, I mean, that really kind of shows to me where the limits are for what the media can cover. I mean, in some ways, the New York Times will break some important stories here and there, there will be some exposés on things, and so it’s not like they do a bad job on everything, but when you look at some of those stories like Contra cocaine, it really shows the limits of what is just beyond the pale for them, and where they sort of draw the line.
JS: The most incredible thing about the Contra cocaine story is not even the fact in and of itself but, to me, you would look at the situation and be like: Of course, of course, we’re protecting cocaine traffickers, because The New York Times itself had covered in-depth the fact that we had been working closely with heroin traffickers during the Vietnam War.
NP: Right. Mhmm.
JS: And more recently, in Afghanistan, The New York Times ran big stories about how closely we were working with Hamid Karzai’s brother, who is the biggest heroin trafficker in Afghanistan.
JS: And so, of course that happens: Any government trying to run an empire like the U.S. is going to end up allying itself with people who are getting money from anywhere they can, and that is going to always include drugs.
JS: And so it shouldn’t be a surprise, it should be something that people should have expected. But instead it was seen as this preposterous nonsense.
NP: [Laughs.] Yeah. That’s a good point.
JS: And, as you say, the context was that George H.W. Bush was giving a speech about the scourge of drugs where he held up a bag of cocaine that he claimed had been bought across the street from the White House.
President George H.W. Bush: This is crack-cocaine, seized a few days ago by drug enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House, it could easily have been heroin or PCP. It’s as innocent-looking as candy. But it’s turning our cities into battle zones. And it’s murdering our children. Let there be no mistake: This stuff is poison.
JS: It was crazy. So of course, it was a huge story. But it also should have been expected.
JS: And your father did a great job covering it, not just at the time, but continuing, as you say, with Gary Webb, where Gary Webb sort of re-broke the story in 1996.
JS: And then faced total career destruction and, very sadly, later committed suicide.
NP: Yeah. And one of the things my dad was fond of pointing out about Gary Webb was his contribution to this bigger picture, not just by his reporting, which was substantial, and filled in a lot of details about what happened to the cocaine once it arrived in the U.S. and how it fueled these drug gangs and all that. But it led to a CIA investigation, which essentially confirmed a lot of the details — and of course, the executive summary kind of would contradict the actual content of the Inspector General’s report.
But as someone who would read all these reports cover to cover, my dad found that the content of the reports actually did confirm a lot of what Gary Webb had reported, and, and what my dad had reported, and filled in a lot of the details there. So I mean, despite the fact that the media treated Gary Webb as a pariah and destroyed his career and, you know, sadly led to him committing suicide, actually his reporting was vindicated in many ways by the CIA’s own investigation.
Newscaster: Gary Webb, are you there this morning?
Gary Webb: Yeah, I am.
Newscaster: Good morning.
GW: Good morning to you.
Newscaster: How are you?
GW: Very tired.
Newscaster: Tell us, in a couple of minutes, what this is about?
GW: It’s about a drug ring that operated in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid-’80s. And it was connected to a Nicaraguan, anti-communist army called the FDN, which was one of the biggest groups that we know is as the Contras. And it was selling cocaine in Los Angeles, for the most part, but in other areas of the country as well, to the gangs, to the Crips and Bloods, down in South Central Los Angeles. And they were taking the money and using some of it, I don’t know how much, we haven’t figured that out yet, to buy weapons for the Contras.
JS: Yeah. So I would just say: For anyone who’s curious about this, get “American Dispatches,” there’s a ton of it in there. Or you can just visit the CIA website, which really does have its own investigation of what happened and includes some pretty startling details.
NP: That’s right.
JS: So next, I wanted to ask you about your father’s long years of work on trying to uncover the history of the 1968 presidential campaign and whether or not Richard Nixon had actually conspired with the Vietnamese government, the South Vietnamese government, to keep the war going. And this was, as with the Contra-cocaine story, an example of how valuable the work your father did was because he would keep at things literally for decades. And as more and more history dribbled out, he would take it and put it in context and explain exactly what it meant.
So what was the story in 1968?
NP: Well, I mean, President Johnson was negotiating in Paris for an end to the Vietnam War in 1968. And it looked promising in terms of reaching some kind of peace agreement to end the war. But Nixon’s campaign went behind the back of the Johnson administration and, through backchannels, sort of promised a more favorable deal to the North Vietnamese when Nixon was elected. And, of course, when he was elected, there was no secret plan to end the war, but it just escalated and tens of thousands of additional Americans died and who knows how many Vietnamese.
But yeah, it was a story that my father covered for decades, and through a lot of FOIA requests and visits to the Nixon library and just digging for decades, really uncovered a lot of details, including something about the Wall Street insider trading — and this is one story I included in the reader, “American Dispatches.” Because he did a lot of reporting on this story in the mid-2010s, when he was really writing about this a lot, but I definitely wanted to include something in the reader about this story, because it was a very, very important story, but I found that most of the articles he wrote were very long-form and he went he went into a lot of detail and compiling a big reader like this that ended up being 700 pages, I was really looking for brevity as much as possible. So the article I chose on this was about the Wall Street insider trading, because I guess some people on Wall Street knew of what Nixon was up to, and knew that the war was going to be prolonged, and they were profiting off of this insider knowledge. So that’s something he uncovered, probably in 2014 or so. But, yeah. That’s sort of the gist of it.
But it’s sort of a precursor to the 1980 October surprise, where the Reagan campaign went behind the back of the current administration, trying to free hostages in Iran. And that’s a whole ’nother story that he pursued for decades. But yeah, a very similar kind of dynamic.
JS: Yeah. And the significance of the 1968 story, and the Nixon campaign is, again, not just the facts in and of themselves, but if you know, as we now do — and in fact, you can read about it in The New York Times, [that] Nixon absolutely did do this, absolutely did conspire to prolong the war — is that once you know that one campaign did do this already, it casts a different light on the story of what happened in 1980. Again, a story that your father pursued for years, for decades, and uncovered truly extraordinary facts.
So let’s talk about that for a little bit. Set the stage for the 1980 Reagan campaign.
NP: Sure. Well, as we all know, there was a revolution in Iran in 1979. Islamist radicals took over and when they overthrew the shah, they also seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and they wanted documents, I guess. I think that was the main goal of seizing the embassy. They wanted to prove what the CIA was doing in Iran and backing the shah, and all that.
But they had these American hostages that they held in the embassy for, I believe, 444 days in total. And this was really like the story of 1980. It was covered every night on the nightly news. I mean, I don’t personally remember it. I was only four at the time. But if you go back and look at archival footage, you see, they had a daily count on the nightly news channels: Day 76, Day 77.
Newscaster: Good evening. The American Embassy in Tehran is in the hands of Muslim students tonight, spurred on by an anti-American speech by the Ayatollah Khomeini, they stormed the embassy, fought the Marine guards for three hours, overpowered them, and took dozens of American hostages. The students want the deposed shah returned to Iran for trial.
Newscaster: Some 60 Americans, including our fellow citizen, whom you just saw bound and blindfolded, are now beginning their sixth day of captivity inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It’s Friday morning there now. But throughout this night in Washington, officials will continue their search for some way to negotiate the hostages’ freedom.
JS: I think on one show, I’m trying to remember whether it was Nightline or somewhere else like, the name of their segment was always “America Held Hostage.”
NP: [Laughs.] Uh huh. Yeah. So it was a big deal. And it was destroying Jimmy Carter’s reelection chances. And there are other factors, the economy, and the whole stagflation and national malaise at that time, but this did not help. And so what they were hoping for was an October surprise, where they might free the hostages right before the election. And that was sort of the original October surprise, like that’s when the term was coined, and nowadays every election has an October surprise or an expected October surprise, but that was the first one. And I think that that term was actually coined by William Casey, who was the campaign director for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and would later become CIA director. He’s an old spymaster. He was in the original OSS, the precursor to the CIA. So he had been in the CIA for a very long time. He was the campaign director for Ronald Reagan.
And the allegations actually came up as soon as the election happened, they were already suspicious. Because on the day of the inauguration, after Reagan defeated Carter, within minutes of Reagan being sworn in, the hostages were freed. And so there were always some suspicions that there was something that went on there between the Reagan campaign and the Iranians to hold the hostages there until the election to ensure that Carter was defeated.
My dad discovered a lot of the details when he was covering Iran-Contra because these networks that were being used in the mid-’80s for transfers of arms As from the U.S. to Iran, as part of this whole operation to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras, these networks were established much earlier, which is what he was beginning to discover. He was hearing this from his sources in the mid-’80s, because most people assume that these networks were established at the time, like in ’84, ’85. But what he was being told was that they went back to 1980, when the Reagan campaign undercut Carter’s hostage negotiations, which, by the way, I would say is treason, if you’re going behind the back of the president to undercut his foreign policy and to hold Americans hostage, you know, for political gain. I mean, I think that would pretty much fall under any definition of treason.
So his second book was called “Trick or Treason” about the October surprise mystery. So he was actually recruited by PBS Frontline to produce a documentary about this in the early ’90s. So what it all came down to, there were these allegations that there were secret meetings in Paris and Madrid, between the Reagan campaign, and the Iranians. But the defense that the Reagan people would give is, basically, it would give alibis like say: Oh, well, William Casey couldn’t have been there, because he was at this conference in London. And so my dad went on this multi-continent investigation trying to solve this mystery, and pursuing all these alibis and finding out that none of the alibis held up. And he wasn’t at the conference in London, he wasn’t at the Bohemian Grove, and all these other places where he was supposed to be. But he never really proved that it happened — at the time, really, what he proved was that the alibis didn’t hold up. And there was always this possibility that these meetings took place.
But then later, after publishing “Trick or Treason,” he uncovered a bunch of documents from the House investigation into this matter that took place in 1992. And it was during the transition between the Bush administration and the Clinton administration that they hastily wrapped up this investigation, and had all these boxes of files they kept in a storage room, which actually was an old ladies’ room that was converted into a storage room, and he sort of surreptitiously copied a bunch of classified files that weren’t really meant to see the light of day, that really provided strong evidence that this did happen.
And one of the strongest pieces of evidence was this Russian report from the Russian intelligence services that confirmed a lot of these allegations, but much of this evidence was suppressed and kept from the American people.
JS: My favorite part about that story is him going down into the basement, going down to this former bathroom where all the reports are being stored, because he was like, one of the only people in Washington who was actually interested in reading this report.
NP: [Laughs.] Yeah.
JS: And that, like the security guard, or the staffer, whoever it was, was like: Oh, yeah, they’re in the bathroom. Go look in there.
And he went inside, and opened up one of the boxes, and he was expecting to find copies of the declassified version of the report. But instead, they’d waved him into this bathroom that held copies of the classified version —
JS: — that he was absolutely not supposed to have access to, and just quietly copied some of these pages — including, as you say, the report from Russian intelligence, saying that: Yes, absolutely, this did happen. Here’s where it happened. Here’s who was involved.
And so you found the Russian government saying this, you found the head of French intelligence at the time, who was very conservative and close to the Bushes, you found Yasser Arafat, like all of these people who are involved in top-level international politics, said: Yes, this happened. And I had this personal experience [laughs] demonstrating that it did. But this did not seem to be able to penetrate the consciousness of the U.S. media.
NP: Yeah, that’s right.
Another good source was Ari Ben-Menashe, who was former Israeli intelligence. And he also was an eyewitness, he said that he saw Bill Casey going into this hotel where these meetings supposedly took place.
But yeah, I mean, he was really alone in covering this. And he knew, I think, at the time, this was not a career advancement opportunity. It was clear that this was a story that nobody wanted. It had been debunked — using air quotes — debunked. I mean, essentially the congressional investigations kind of whitewashed, or accepted all these bogus alibis. And once that congressional investigation ran its course, the media took that as a cue that this is just not a story that we’re interested in. And there were a lot of stories that trumpeted the congressional debunking.
And so the conventional wisdom was established: Like OK, this is a conspiracy theory and you know, not something that serious journalists were looking into. But because of that, my dad was able to sort of get access to these documents that nobody else was interested in. He actually was, another funny part of that story was that when he was in the bathroom, in this converted bathroom that was being used as storage for these files, when he discovered he had all these classified documents at his fingertips, that his minder, the guy who was working in the storage facility, and was supposed to be keeping an eye on him, was offering to help, but he was saying: No, no, no, I got this. And apparently the copy machine he was using was some old Xerox machine that kept breaking down. And he’d be like: I’ll fix it! I’ll fix it! And he was sort of just trying to keep the minder at a distance. And he was also limited to something like 12 copies for each visit. So he would just go day after day.
JS: [Laughs.] I’m just back again for this boring, old non-classified material.
NP: [Laughs.] Yeah, he got a lot of good material that way. And that’s when he decided to start this website, Consortium News, because even at that time, even among the alternative media, nobody was really interested in this. He had all these important documents that he thought he could really tell a good story, write a good story about, and no one was interested in it. So that’s what led him to launch his website Consortium News in 1995. It was really the early days of the Internet, anyone who remembers that time will remember there wasn’t really that much on the internet. I mean, you had some UFO enthusiasts who would have some websites, and you could find some interesting stuff on the Internet, but you didn’t have a lot of serious journalism being done. And so he saw this as an opportunity to put this information out there.
And it was sort of, in a way, the original WikiLeaks as well, because he published those documents in their raw form, to back up his article. So he had published a series, I think, of eight articles on these October Surprise X-Files, as he called them, but then had the original documents there as well. So anyone could see for themselves.
JS: Yeah, that is one of the most remarkable things about Consortium News — consortiumnews.com — I recommend that everybody check it out, and the extensive archives of Robert Parry’s writing there. Get “American Dispatches.” But there’s so, so much more, as you say, you couldn’t fit it all in one book.
NP: [Laughs.] Yeah.
JS: But I think after beating up on these Republican presidents for a little bit, we should mention one of the documents that I believe was found in that same bathroom involving Jimmy Carter, and what it said about what Jimmy Carter had done regarding Iran.
NP: The green light. Yeah.
So these talking points that Alexander Haig prepared for Ronald Reagan in, I believe, 1981. And you might correct me if I’m getting anything wrong here, but basically confirmed that Jimmy Carter had given Iraq the green light to invade Iran in 1979, which I feel like these days we’ve become so jaded, and some of these things don’t even seem that shocking anymore. I don’t know. There’s so much that goes on these days that I don’t know if that sounds shocking. But I guess the point is that he gave a green light to this war. And we were also providing weapons to Iraq, clandestinely — and later, of course, we were supplying Iran with weapons. So we’re funding, supplying, both sides with weapons. That was one of the documents that he came across in the ladies’ room was this memo that confirmed that Jimmy Carter gave the green light to Iraq’s invasion.
JS: Yes. And something else your father pointed out was that when the government officially declassified these talking points from Alexander Haig —
NP: He was secretary of state, by the way, I think.
JS: Yeah, that’s right. He was Secretary of State. And he had just returned from his first trip to the Middle East, and was reporting back to Reagan.
JS: And finally, decades later, these talking points were declassified — mostly. But as often happens when some documents are declassified, sections are redacted, and two of the nine paragraphs were redacted when this memo was declassified. And one of them was the one with Haig’s statement about Carter. So officially, we’re not supposed to know this. It’s all thanks to that bathroom in the basement of the Capitol.
JS: And, again, the extraordinary thing about these kinds of facts is that in the United States, people are barely aware of them, if they’re aware of them at all; the people who know them, dismiss them as having zero importance. But to the rest of the world, they are pretty significant.
The Supreme Leader of Iran gave a speech in 2009, where he specifically mentioned how America gave Saddam a green light: if Saddam did not have a green light from the Americans, he would not have attacked our borders, they imposed eight years of war in our country, about 300,000 of our people were martyred.
So people in other countries do pay attention to this kind of stuff. It’s just here where we don’t hear about it.
JS: And, again, it’s what this adds to the context of world affairs. Like, if you are Iranian, and you believe that Alexander Haig was correct about this, that’s kind of a sore spot, you know? [Laughs.]
JS: Like, America gave Saddam Hussein a green light to attack your country killing hundreds of thousands of people, including with chemical weapons; you’re going to have a certain perspective on the United States. And Americans just don’t know anything about that.
NP: That’s right.
I mean, it also speaks to the just cynicism of our leaders, just thinking about this the green light that Carter gave, and the fact that we also clandestinely armed Iraq — and Iran — during this time, but specifically Iraq, because I mean these this was what was used as justification years later — originally with the Persian Gulf War. And that’s another one, we gave a green light to invade Kuwait. April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the Iraqis that they could basically go ahead, and we don’t take a position on Arab-Arab conflicts. But then, they use these incidents to justify our own wars. [Chuckles cynically.]
So just the cynicism of that, where they know that they’ve sort of authorized this, and they’ve armed them, they’ve given them the weapons, and while it was happening, they, they ignored it, but they enabled it, they lied about it, and then years later, they use it as justification for our own intervention — and actually, I mean, there’s so many examples of that. I mean, Noriega was another one, in the invasion of Panama in 1990. I mean, this guy was a CIA asset involved with the cocaine trade and all that. But then when he stepped out of line or became politically inconvenient, we decided to invade and take him out.
And there really is such cynicism in the way that they manipulate the American people, how people don’t know this very important background. So it enables people to be more easily manipulated, you know? And then it just kind of goes on and on. And we have another war here, and we forget the lessons of that war, and then we go to Syria.
But I think that’s when you read my dad’s writing, and hopefully you want people to read this reader, I mean, what comes through is I think his growing exasperation over the years, and the lies that are told, and how the American people are just constantly manipulated. And no one ever seems to learn any lessons from anything.
JS: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit about how he approached his work, because I think that, in particular, was a key thing that he understood was necessary. I think you find that in the most effective communicators of any political persuasion — or even just advertisers.
Like I like to quote something in a book by Frank Luntz, who is a very famous Republican consultant, but also does tons of consulting for just corporations on ads, as I understand it. And he wrote this book called, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” And I think that is extremely good advice for anybody who wants to communicate with other human beings. It doesn’t matter what you say, if people don’t hear and understand it.
JS: And Luntz said, “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Remember, you may be making yourself sick by saying the same exact thing for the umpteenth time, but many in your audience will be hearing it for the first time. The overwhelming majority of your customers or constituents aren’t paying as much attention as you are.”
And that is one of the core problems, to me, of the U.S. media is that it’s assumed that if a story is told once, then you’re done with it, and then you can leave it behind forever, because everybody already knows about it.
NP: That’s true.
JS: Well, people don’t already know about it. And your father understood that.
NP: Yeah, I think it’s a good point. I mean, I think even myself or you, I’m sure there are things you don’t remember. I mean, somebody who pays very close attention to all these things, and you do your research, and you read, and you study the history, but we don’t remember everything.
I think one of the good things about Twitter and social media, like sometimes people will dig up some old clip or something to share it. And it can be very important to just refresh your memory about these things.
So it is important to try to include the history when, as a journalist — don’t assume that people remember everything. It is important to go back and retell the story. I think also, as a writer, it helps to get back and provide the context for yourself so that you’re sure that you understand what it is that you’re trying to explain to the reader?
JS: Yes, I will say, I’m now getting old enough that I sometimes read things that I wrote long ago, and I’d completely forgotten what I’d said. I was like: Wow, that was pretty interesting. Good for me in 2004!
JS: But yeah, that is part of the repetition that I think is so key that people should understand about how to approach this work, is that when you’re repeating stuff, you’re going back and you’re telling the history again. And you have to tell the history, because individual facts mean nothing to people, and they cannot even really understand the facts or hear the facts, if they don’t know the context for them. And so your dad was fantastic about that, about providing that context, not just: Here’s one or two interesting facts, but here’s where they fit into the larger overall story.
NP: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s a good way of putting it.
He had this tendency, something that was a bit of a challenge for me as the editor of this reader, because he did this so effectively, of always going back and re-examining stories from different angles. But I realized, when you put it in a book, you know, you might not want a lot of repetition. So that was something that I spent a lot of time trying to keep enough so that it would hold the essence of each article, so that it had the context that he felt was important, you know, for each individual article, but also keeping in mind that, as a reader, you don’t want to necessarily read the same thing over and over in one book. But he was very fond of revisiting these themes — including a lot of history. And I think one thing that, as someone who was in Washington for so long, and covering these stories for so long, he saw these same people just get recycled, whether it’s Elliott Abrams, or Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. I mean, people who have always been there in different iterations. And actually, one of the early articles that I included from 1981, as the Reagan administration was taking shape, my dad wrote an article for the AP that was describing the backgrounds of all of these people that were being put in key foreign policy positions, particularly on Central America and how the Reagan administration was going to tackle the foreign policy challenges in Central America. But all these people were Vietnam War figures, generals and people who were very much involved with the prosecution of the Vietnam War.
So you have these people recycled from Vietnam, put in charge of Central America. And then a couple of decades later, some of these same people, or their protegees, the people who cut their teeth in Central America, then were put in charge of Iraq policy, you know, and it just goes on and on — and so you have to tell the full story of the history, because it’s oftentimes the very same people that have implemented the same policies from one continent to the other, and they’re basically pursuing the same neocon agenda.
JS: Yeah, you probably know the famous quote from the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, about how peoples’ struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
And I remember reading that the first time and he was a sort of a dissident writer under the ultimate control of the Soviet regime. And I thought: Oh, well, that must be awful that happens in communist countries like that.
But it is absolutely 100 percent true. And just remembering the past is an incredibly powerful weapon. And I think that we should make sure to put in a plug what your father did most of all, which is reading things. [Laughs.] The amazing thing about the United States is that it really is, by historical standards, a truly open country —
JS: — in the sense that you can find out what is going on as your father did, you just have to make an effort. Like, the system doesn’t make it easy for you, but if you have a library card and an internet connection, you actually can do it.
And lastly, can you just tell us a little bit about your dad as a person? Certainly the impression that I get from his work was that he was modest in a really appealing sense. And that he always would say that sort of anybody could do this, if you just had the willingness to put in the work.
And he also was not a self-promoter. He wanted to do the work, and mostly let it speak for itself.
NP: Yeah, I think that’s right. I know his wife, Diane, always would encourage him to do more self promotion.
But there definitely was some modesty there. But I think a part of it was also like, he knew what he was good at. And he was a good journalist, and he was a good writer. And I guess he did sort of feel like the work should speak for itself.
He came of age long before social media. And I kind of wonder sometimes how he would have fared these days where so much of everything’s just really self-promotion, and developing a huge Twitter following. I don’t think he would have ever been particularly interested in that. I mean, maybe he would have developed a following anyway, based on his journalism. Of course, it wasn’t completely before or after his time, but it wasn’t part of his development, I guess, as a journalist.
But he had a very strong work ethic. I mean he would work from very early hours in the morning until late at night. And I live in Denmark, and sometimes I would get a little annoyed when he would come, because he never really was on vacation. Even when he would take a vacation, it always would be a working vacation. He never really unplugged, I would say.
But at the same time, he is also very fun loving. He had this puppet that he would entertain his grandchildren with, his alter ego, this kangaroo puppet called Kanga — very fun-loving, especially when he was around his family and grandkids, he had a lot of fun. And I think he took a lot of joy in family life and sports. He was a big sports fan, New England sports: big Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics fan. And so he did know how to unplug at times, but never really would lose sight of his mission as a journalist.
And, I mean, there were times though, I would say that, especially as he was getting older, I would sometimes encourage him to maybe give it a rest and try something else [laughs], because you can see that it did affect him knowing what he knew, and seeing just the constant cycle of the manipulation of the American people and the wars that we constantly get involved, and Russiagate, and all this stuff that he kind of could see through very clearly as someone who knew what was going on. And it would get to him that these things would just keep happening.
And so sometimes I would say, “Why don’t you try something else? Maybe you could relax at this point in your life.” Because, as a big sports fan, I thought: Maybe you could try just writing about sports or something a little less stressful. But I don’t think that was in his nature. And he would have just continued doing it forever. But unfortunately, his health went south pretty quickly in early 2018, and passed away before his time, in some ways. But yeah, I think he would have kept doing it as long as he could have, regardless of the stress that it might have caused him.
[End credits theme music.]
JS: That was Nat Parry, and that’s our show.
Nat edited the new book “American Dispatches,” a collection of work by his late father Robert Parry.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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