Widening the U.S. Role in Colombia While Narrowing the Debate

by Dennis Hans

Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, which
modestly calls itself "the premier center for policy analysis and
exchange on Western Hemisphere affairs," is emerging as the "go-to" guy
for Washington-based journalists, such as PBS NewsHour's Ray Suarez,
looking for a non-governmental opinion on U.S. policy towards Colombia.
Not coincidentally, that screeching sound you hear is the brakes being
applied to meaningful debate.

On the February 25 PBS NewsHour, interviewer Ray Suarez discussed the
conflict with Colombia's ambassador to the United States and Shifter.
Anyone familiar with Shifter will not be surprised that he passed up
every opening to undermine the moral basis of the Bush administration's
push to widen and deepen U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war. A
major justification for the push is the "War on Terror," but guess
what? There's this right-wing paramilitary federation in Colombia, the
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), that the State Department
has labeled a "Foreign Terrorist Organization."

In recent years, according to reputable human rights groups, the AUC
has committed about 75 percent of the politically motivated murders in
Colombia. And guess what? The U.S.-backed Colombian army facilitates
AUC terror! In countless ways! And Colombia's civilian government puts
more effort into PR campaigns to create the illusion of governmental
action against the AUC than into meaningful action to end the army-AUC
collaboration. (Read all about it in the latest report from Human
Rights Watch, The 'Sixth Division': Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S.
Policy in Colombia.)

So to clarify: The White House seeks to extend the "War on Terror" to
Colombia by helping in all sorts of additional ways the U.S.-backed
army that continues to facilitate the terror perpetrated by the
Colombian terrorist organization that does the most terrorizing. Which
for many people raises obvious questions. But not, understandably, for
the Colombian ambassador. Nor for NewsHour's Suarez. Nor for Shifter.
Which may explain why the mainstream media is anointing Shifter "Mr.
Independent Expert." He knows better than to point out the bleeding
obvious; he knows how to keep his misgivings well within the Washington

Shifter and the Passage of Plan Colombia

Should there be any news editor or producer out there with an ounce of
investigative zeal, I offer this advice: Before you ever again present
Shifter as someone to counter the official line of Washington and
Bogotá, first make him explain his past role in building "bipartisan"
support for Plan Colombia.

Recall that in early 2000, this $1.6 billion aid proposal, 80 percent
of it earmarked for the Colombian military and police, was falsely
presented to the public as an initiative of Colombia's elected civilian
president. But back in 1998, Andres Pastrana had proposed a
non-military Marshall Plan of sorts for his country--a plan that went
nowhere. It was overhauled by Clinton administration hawks and
Colombian generals, and a militarized version was unveiled in September
1999 as "Plan Colombia."

The new plan had to be sold to a skeptical U.S. Congress and public.
Pastrana, U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey and other officials did their
part. So did an "independent" task force dominated by establishment
heavyweights and co-sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and
the Inter-American Dialogue. The task force's director was none other
than senior Inter-American Dialogue fellow Michael Shifter.

Of course, to have maximum impact on the body politic, such a task
force should be bipartisan and balanced. So director Shifter signed up
veteran Republican hawk Brent Scowcroft--George H. W. Bush's national
security adviser--as one co-chair and Democratic Senator Bob Graham as
the other.

There's just a slight problem with the choice of Graham: On Latin
American issues he's barely distinguishable from Jesse Helms. This is
partly explained by the politics of Graham's home state of Florida,
where few politicians do or say anything about U.S. policy in Latin
America that might upset the powerful, right-wing, Cuban-American
lobby. When George W. Bush nominated a favorite of that lobby, Reagan
administration domestic propagandist and media enforcer Otto Reich, for
assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Graham was one
of the few Democratic senators to support Reich.

So one of the questions that editors and producers must put to Shifter
is, how does he explain his choice of Bob Graham? Was Shifter's goal
the illusion of balance, like the 1980s Kissinger Commission on Central
America that enlisted AFL-CIO cold-war hawk and nominal Democrat Lane
Kirkland to provide a bipartisan patina to its rubber-stamping of
Reagan's militaristic policies?

Also, how does Shifter explain his failure to fire both Graham and
Scowcroft after they penned a falsehood-laden op-ed in the Los Angeles
Times, urging Congress to approve massive aid to Colombia?

When the Ugly Truth Isn't Ugly Enough

In the April 26, 2000 essay, Quick Aid to Colombia--For Our Sake,
Graham and Scowcroft wrote, "Since 1990, Colombia's growing guerrilla
insurgency has murdered 35,000 of its own citizens." Wrong. At their
time of writing that number represented the consensus estimate of human
rights groups on how many Colombians had been killed by all sides in
the civil war and the related "dirty war."

The 35,000 included combatants killed in battle as well as combatants
and noncombatants executed outside of battle. As anyone who has
followed Colombia over the past dozen years knows, there has been a
dramatic shift in responsibility for political killings outside of
combat. The U.S.-backed Colombian army and police used to commit the
majority of these, but their direct role dropped significantly in the
mid-1990s and precipitously in the past four or five years.

By amazing coincidence, right-wing paramilitary death squads have
picked up the slack, killing in record numbers the very sorts of people
that state security forces used to kill frequently: union officials,
peasants and their leaders, peace activists, human rights investigators
and even government prosecutors. The right-wing death squads brand them
as rebel collaborators and then kill them.

Colombia's leftwing insurgents certainly merit harsh criticism. They
are world leaders in kidnapping for ransom. They have killed thousands
of innocents over the past dozen years, not just civilians, but police
and soldiers who had surrendered and thus posed no threat. The fact
that the FARC and ELN claim to represent the impoverished and neglected
peasants of rural Colombia in no way justifies their crimes. By the
same token, their actual crimes in no way justify the hoary lie peddled
by Graham and Scowcroft.

The co-chairs began their Los Angeles Times piece by criticizing an
attack on two fishing villages by leftist guerrillas who killed 30
people, "including a mayor, two children and 24 police officers." This
is perfectly fair. That grisly assault was also condemned in a
statement issued by Human Rights Watch just a couple of weeks before
the co-chairs published their op-ed. But unlike Graham and Scowcroft,
Human Rights Watch also pointed out that in 1999 "Colombia's Public
Advocate recorded over 400 massacres. Most massacres were perpetrated
by paramilitaries working with the tacit acquiescence or open support
of the Colombian army."

With 80 percent of the proposed $1.6 billion earmarked for the
Colombian Armed Forces, the facts that escaped the Scowcroft-Graham
radar screen would appear to be relevant. Yet their essay contained not
one word on terror perpetrated or facilitated by agents of the
Colombian government. Like other aid proponents, the "bipartisan"
co-chairs pretended not to notice that the Colombian security forces
and their paramilitary partners are waging a dirty war against dissent.

Shortly before the op-ed appeared, Graham and Scowcroft issued a
lengthy Interim Report to the task force and the public, so as "to make
an impact on deliberations in Congress, as well as respond to an
immediate opportunity to shape the current debate about U.S. policy."

Because the task force included people who know Colombia well, the
co-chairs couldn't resort to crude disinformation of the sort they
planted in the Los Angeles Times. Thus, rather than saying that 35,000
Colombians were murdered by insurgents, the Internal Report stated,
"Armed conflict has killed more than 35,000 Colombians in the past
decade." In the Internal Report, the co-chairs were careful not to
apportion responsibility for those deaths, which would greatly
undermine the sales pitch. Another falsehood in the op-ed, "insurgents
had murdered 5,000 police officers since 1990," also does not appear in
the Internal Report.

A majority of task force members signed the Internal Report.
Interestingly, the best-informed member refused. Cynthia Arnson of the
Woodrow Wilson International Center is a former associate director of
Human Rights Watch who has written and edited reports on Colombia. Had
Shifter truly been interested in a balanced task force, he might have
selected Arnson rather than Graham as co-chair.

Eagerly signing the report was the most disreputable task force member,
convicted Iran-Contra perjurer Elliott Abrams. At the time he was
ensconced, hold your Orwell jokes, at the Ethics and Public Policy
Center. These days he's back at the White House, advising Condoleezza
Rice on human rights and democracy. And if you think that's funny,
consider that the stated mission of Shifter's employer, the
Inter-American Dialogue, is "to improve the quality of debate and
decisionmaking on hemispheric problems."

Shifter, Scowcroft and Graham did their part in persuading Congress to
bite the Plan Colombia apple, and later in 2000 the House and Senate
split their differences to agree on a $1.3 billion package. Graham
would have preferred more, and he continues to be an advocate for
massive aid and toothless human rights conditions.

NewsHour's Big Disappointment

Which brings us to Ray Suarez. On paper, he improves the dreadful
roster of in-the-box NewsHour interviewers. Undoubtedly, he's the only
NewsHour correspondent capable of the sort of insights that he shared
during a forum titled, The Media in National Crisis, which was held on
October 1 at the American University. Commenting on the national
security and terrorism "experts" dominating the tube in the aftermath
of September 11, Suarez said that many "are being used as expert guests
with very little reference to their actual past as policymakers and as
people who did things and caused things to be done in the world."

Suarez also noted, "A left/right dialogue, as the American news
business imagines it, is to get a tepid centrist and a hard
right-winger and have them argue. So the idea that we have a spectrum
of opinion, a continuum of opinion, and you can sample from points all
along that continuum, has been less and less true with each passing

Ironically, those keen observations help us understand Suarez's
Colombia segment. Although the Colombian ambassador is not a "hard
right-winger," he most certainly is an apologist for his government and
its terror-facilitating army. Shifter is close to the "tepid centrist"
role, though perhaps a better description is "right-leaning centrist
with some explaining to do." Needless to say, Suarez was not prepared
to confront Shifter on his recent policy work or his suitability to
provide a different perspective than the ambassador. Then again,
NewsHour honcho Jim Lehrer is never happier than when the guests reach
a "consensus."

Suarez could have gotten Michael McClintock or Robin Kirk of Human
Rights Watch. McClintock may be the foremost expert on the human
consequences of U.S. counterinsurgency aid in Latin America, including
Colombia as far back as the 1960s, and Kirk is an experienced
specialist on Colombia. Suarez could also have gotten Adam Isacson of
the Center for International Policy, Larry Birns of the Council on
Hemispheric Affairs, or someone from Amnesty International or the
Washington Office on Latin America. That is, he could have gotten a
moderate, liberal or progressive of demonstrated integrity and
expertise to provide a different perspective than the Colombian
ambassador. Instead, he got Shifter.

Both Shifter and the ambassador favor more military aid and training in
order to make the armed forces more professional and respectful of
human rights. But with the army having privatized most of the dirty
war, leaving the grisly stuff to its paramilitary partners, direct
violations by state security forces are relatively few these days.
After all, hasn't the United States been advising and training
Colombia's counterinsurgents for 40 years, often recommending
paramilitary-type terror as a swell thing?

Suarez could have pointed that out. He could have asked if the CIA and
the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) are still working with their
counterparts in Colombian military intelligence, long a hotbed of
paramilitary collaboration. He could have discussed the PR techniques
used by the Colombian and U.S. governments to create the illusion of a
serious crackdown on the AUC, noting their similarity to those used by
the Salvadoran army in the early 1980s to "prove" to a gullible U.S.
Congress and media it was cleaning up its act. Suarez could have asked
if there is such a thing as a Colombian "establishment"? And is it a
help or hindrance in implementing social and economic reforms that
would benefit the neglected rural and urban poor?

In a setup piece to the discussion, Suarez correctly noted that Ingrid
Betancourt, a presidential candidate kidnapped by FARC rebels, is a
critic of the FARC. He could have also added that in her book, Until
Death Do Us Part, which he cited, she brands Pastrana a liar and an
impediment to meaningful reform, and calls the AUC paramilitary death
squads "a clandestine instrument of the establishment." But these
critical matters are off the board when the guest list is restricted to
Shifter and the Colombian ambassador, and the person posing the
questions is Ray Suarez.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the New
York Times, Washington Post, National Post and online at
MediaChannel.org, TomPaine.com, Slate and The Black World Today, among
other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and U.S.
foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and
can be reached at: HANS_D@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

This article originally appeared in Colombia Report, an online journal
that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).