The Advertising Agency: How the CIA Flouted the Law Using Madison Avenue Techniques to Arm-Twist for the Contras

By Parry, Robert | The Washington Monthly, November 1992 | Go to article overview

The Advertising Agency: How the CIA Flouted the Law Using Madison Avenue Techniques to Arm-Twist for the Contras


Parry, Robert, The Washington Monthly


One muggy August day in 1983, five advertising executives entered the stately Old Executive Office Building next to the White House and walked to the security checkpoint where uniformed officers handed them temporary clearance badges. The executives were then led to a briefing room where a young military aide explained why the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Casey, had invited them to the National Security Council offices. Casey, the aide explained, wanted these ad men to devise tactics for selling the American people on the strategic threat posed by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and by Marxist rebels in El Salvador. After lunch, the executives met with Casey and in a brainstorming session more likely on Madison Avenue than Pennsylvania Avenue, the group sketched some ideas for pitching the Central American threat to the public.

The story of the PR campaign inspired by this meeting is one of the lesser known aspects of Iran-contra; it was overlooked again when the Reagan administration's biggest scandal crept back into the news in September to rehaunt George Bush with "what-did-he-know" questions. But in 1983, Casey set up a highly unusual propaganda machine that for three years ran "private" fundraising fronts, spread unseemly lies about the Sandinistas, and bullied journalists and editors, all in an effort to encourage the media and Congress to be more pro-contra. It didn't entirely work; most Americans never believed the contras were the Godfearing boy scouts Reagan said they were any more than they thought the Sandinistas were the devil's diplomats. But it did influence the congressional debate and discourage reporting about the contras in the nation's press. Casey's campaign was also extraordinary because it helped shield a secret White House contra aid program that was explicitly against the law. And it was a flagrant violation of the historic and legal barrier against the CIA's interference in U.S. political debates.

Casey initiated the PR offensive because, by the summer of 1983, Congress was losing patience with the contras. Stories were seeping northward about atrocities perpetrated by undisciplined contra units sweeping through Nicaraguan villages like born-tobe-wild motorcycle gangs. Unarmed captives were executed, women raped, and farming communities devastated. But Casey knew that to toss out the Sandinistas, the contras needed to grow into an effective fighting force. That would take time and money; he was running out of the former and Congress was about to get tight with the latter.

Casey believed his best chance to salvage the situation was through a combination of continued economic-militarypolitical pressure on the Sandinistas and a bold "public diplomacy" campaign at home to mold public opinion and put Congress in a more pro-contra mood. One internal White House memo would describe Casey as the driving force behind a PR apparatus that would "sell a 'new product' --Central America." But while Casey was about to get into the PR biz, he had no intention of becoming the next Lee Iaccoca; the CIA is, after all, barred by law from influencing American public opinion.

To skirt those rules, a career CIA propaganda expert, Walter Raymond Jr., agreed to resign from the agency before taking over the "public diplomacy" apparatus. Raymond also recognized that it was important "to get [Casey] out of the loop," according to an August 29, 1983, memo. That wouldn't be easy. Years later. looking back on his failure to ease Casey out of sight, Raymond offered Iran-contra investigators the rationalization that Casey had engaged in these PR activities "not so much in his CIA hat, but in his adviser-to-the-president hat."

But starting in 1983, Casey peppered the PR operation with suggestions, helped arrange staff, and received progress reports on the project's success in molding public perceptions. Even after $100 million in contra aid was approved in 1986, Casey kept up the pressure. …

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