Pursuing the Shadow Government
By Eric Guthey
Vol. 10, No. 5, 1988, pp. 5, 8-9
Last May, Southern Changes reported on the work of the Christic Institute, a Washington-based public interest law firm that has a strong history of legal activism throughout the South.
The Christic Institute had filed a civil suit in a Miami Federal court against twenty-nine alleged members of the “Secret Team” Christic believes to be behind the Iran Contra Affair, behind a massive guns-for-drugs campaign to fund the U.S.-backed Contras, and behind a whole litany of covert acts of right-wing terrorism stretching back over twenty-five years. The defendants included retired Major General Richard Secord, retired General John Singlaub, Oliver North’s aide Robert Owen, businessman Albert Hakim, former CIA operatives Theodore Shackley and Thomas Clines, and Thomas Posey, a self-styled mercenary and head of the Alabama-based Civilian Materiel Assistance, a Contra-support group (Posey is currently under indictment in Miami on separate charges of violating the Neutrality Act).
The lawsuit held out the possibility of forcing key figures of the Iran/Contra affair to answer tough questions that had not even been asked by the mainstream press, by the Tower Commission, by the Congressional Iran/Contra Committees, or by Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.
But on June 23, just four days before the trial was to begin, Chief U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King threw the case out of court, maintaining that it wee based on hearsay and inadmissable evidence.
The Christic Institute had filed its $24 million suit under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute (RICO). Under the statute, the Christic Institute would have to prove that each of the defendants committed at least two acts contributing to a criminal conspiracy that also resulted in the injury of the Christic Institute’s client, journalist Tony Avirgan, during the 1984 assassination attempt against former Contra leader Eden Pastora (another alleged operation of the Secret Team). In 0a ruling, Judge King said that the “causation link” between the injury to Avirgan and the various criminal acts cited by the Christic Institute was missing.
Charging that Judge King’s ruling was “arbitrary” and full of “gross legal errors,” the Christic Institute immediately appealed the decision, and will bring its case before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sometime later this year.
In a funding appeal mailed to supporters shortly after the decision, the Christic Institute suggested that political motives were behind the abrupt dismissal of their case. “Apparently, Judge King looked at this evidence and realized that his Miami
courtroom was going to become center stage for a riveting political drama–right in the middle of the ’88 election campaign. So he stopped the trial,” the mailing said.
But Judge King is not the only one to question the Christic Institute’s “Secret Team” theory. In an article written before King’s decision but published just afterwards, David Corn of The Nation called the theory a “political device” intended to rally opposition to the national security apparatus as well as an “ambitious historical thesis that purports to explain much of U.S. foreign policy since 1959.” (“Is There Really a ‘Secret Team’?”, The Nation, July 2/9, 1988) According to Corn, the Christic Institute uses the Secret Team hypothesis to portray the secret war against Castro, the CIA assassination program in Vietnam, the covert war in Central America, and a whole slew of other covert operations as ventures of the Secret Team and therefore private, non-governmental acts. Said Com, “This lets the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and various administrations off the hook.”
Corn also noted that the Christic Institute emphasizes the “dark conspiracy” overtones of the Secret Team hypothesis because it is “easy to package and offers a highly visible target for the institute’s crusade.” (For example, the Christic Institute’s mailing that came out immediately after King dismissed the case stated, “We must continue to expose the Secret Team for who they are–private operatives of a “shadow government” that wages secret ware, assassinates innocent people and smuggles drugs to finance illegal foreign policy operations.” [Christie Institute’s emphasis]) Corn claimed, however, that the Secret Team hypothesis is merely a legal necessity which glosses over the historical reality of government covert activity in order to win a case in court. Corn therefore charged that the Christic Institute, “in pursuit of its educational and political mission, is offering this version of history to the public at $15 a copy” and is therefore placing a historically “problematic document” in the hands of its constituency.
Responding to Corn’s criticisms last month, Christic attorney Andrew Love said that the Christic Institute has always recognized a certain amount of tension between its litigation and public information efforts. “But, legally, we have to work within the constraints of the RICO statute,” he said.
Love said that for this very reason the public version of the Christic Institute’s legal declaration, which is entitled Inside the Shadow Government, includes an introduction which explains why RICO requires the Christic Institute to concentrate on the activity of the Secret Team. “We wish that David Corn had read that introduction more carefully,”
Love also reiterated that the legal focus of the case is not intended to deflect criticism away from the U.S. government, but rasher to expose connections between the Secret Team’s private operations and the government. “I don’t think we’ve ever said that the Secret Team is removed from the government,” he said. “But we’re not going to come out and say that everything they did was sanctioned by the government–because that could be interpreted as a defense for them.”
“We can’t take on the government–we would be thrown out of court right away,” Love explained further. “So we’ve taken on the next beat thing. The whole idea of going to trial is to expose what’s going on–and we assume that this process will expose connections with the government along the way.”
The Christic Institute’s investigation has indeed uncovered considerable evidence that a “shadow government” has been waging war in the name of the American people and without their knowledge or consent. But Christic’s focus on the Secret Team should not be taken to suggest that the shadow consists solely of a radical fringe of rogue operative I perpetuating such countersubversion outside of the government and outside of the law. Studied carefully and in the context of Reagan Administration policy, the evidence provided by the Christic Institute suggests that covert acts of a terrorist nature have become a legal commonplace within our system of government–and this conclusion can be supported by the findings of other investigations.
For example, investigative journalists Frank Snepp and Jonathan King recently reported in the New York Times that federal authorities knew of Tom Posey’s violations of the Neutrality Act for over three years, but did not move against him because his illegal activity served Administration purposes. King and Snepp maintain that the Justice Department felt compelled to take action against Posey and his associate, Jack Terrell, “only after Mr. Terrell soured on Administration policy and began criticizing it openly–and only after Congress began investigating.” (“Iran-Contra Folly,” New York Times, July 31,1988) Meanwhile, Snepp and King point out, government officials who encouraged Posey and Terrell or conducted similar operations of their own go unpunished, and the investigations of those former Administration officials who have been indicted (i.e., Oliver North and John Poindexter) are being deliberately hampered by federal intelligence agencies unwilling to release relevant documents.
Two recent books also reveal the extent to which the U.S. government is willing to mislead the public and subvert the legal system where Administration policy is concerned. In A Candid Inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings, Maine Senators George Mitchell and William Cohen (a Democrat and a Republican, respectively) assert that the Congressional Iran-Contra Committees on which they both eat failed to ask important questions or to follow up significant leads uncovered in the course of their hearings. And Jane Mayer’s and Doyle McManua’s new book, Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988, made the headline, this month because it revealed that Administration officials actually discussed relieving President Reagan of his duties on the grounds of incompetence. But the not-so-surprising news about Reagan’s ineptitude is just the prologue to Landslide, which actually focuses more broadly on the Iran-Contra affair. Among other things, the authors conclude that George Bush had “laid before him in clear, unsparing terms” the Iran arms-for-hostages swap as early as July 1986, and that he did absolutely nothing about it. Bush has vigorously denied any knowledge of the initiative.
In such a state of affairs, when the agencies of government cannot be depended on to uphold the Constitution and when candidates for president are willing to lie repeatedly, any efforts to shed light on the shadow government–including the indirect efforts of the Christic Institute–deserve recognition and support.
Eric Guthey is a student in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University.