The problem of conflating documentable facts with analysis and conclusions and then merging them with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories popular on the far right has plagued progressive foreign policy critiques for several years. The Christic Institute's "Secret Team" theory is perhaps the most widespread example of the phenomenon. While many of the charges raised by Christic regarding the La Penca bombing and the private pro-Contra network are documented, some of their assertions regarding the nature and operations of a long-standing conspiracy of high-level CIA, military, and foreign policy advisors inside the executive branch remain undocumented, and in a few instances, are factually inaccurate.
There are two related questions in this matter. One is whether or not the case was handled properly with regard to the actual clients, Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan. The other is how much unsubstantiated conspiracism was made part of the case and its surrounding publicity. This paper will focus on the issue of the undocumented conspiracy theories.
Some critics of the Christic Institute say undocumented conspiracy theories, perhaps first circulated by the LaRouchians and the Spotlight, were inadvertently drawn into Christic's lawsuit against key figures in the Iran-Contra Scandal. The Christic Institute no longer uses the "Secret Team" slogan, which it employed for the first few years of its Iran-Contra lawsuit, Avirgan v. Hull. The suit, filed in 1986, is also called the La Penca case, after the Nicaraguan town where a 1984 bombing killed three journalists and at least one Contra and wounded dozens, including television camera operator Avirgan and the intended target, Contra leader Eden Pastora. Among the twenty-nine defendants named were retired Generals Richard Secord and John Singlaub, businessman Albert Hakim, Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar, and contra leader Adolfo Calero.
It is arguable that while Christic pursued the broad conspiracy of the "Secret Team" , the bedrock portions of the case involving the actual La Penca incidents took a back seat. A few weeks before the case was slated for trial, the Christic Institute still had not diagramed the elements of proof, a legal procedure where the text of the complaint is broken down into a list of single elements that have to be proven with either valid documentation, a sworn affidavit, or a live witness. This had created problems for researchers and lawyers who had no master list of what needed to be proven when devising questions for depositions and witnesses.
When a special meeting was convened shortly before trial, it turned out that for some of allegations concerning the alleged broad "Secret Team" conspiracy, the only evidence in possession of the Christic Institute was newspaper clippings and excerpts from books--and in a few instances there was no evidence other than uncorroborated assertions collected by researchers.
Raised at the meeting was the issue of whether or not the case had unwittingly incorporated unsubstantiated conspiracy theories from right-wing groups such as the LaRouchians. The staff was warned that some defendants would likely prevail at trial due to lack of court-quality evidence and would then likely pursue financial penalties (called Rule 11 sanctions).22
These matters are important because Christic press statements have fueled the idea, and many Christic Institute supporters believe, that the dismissal of the case was just another example of a massive government conspiracy and cover-up. It is undeniable that the presiding judge was hostile to Christic and stretched judicial discretion to the breaking point in dismissing the case. The dismissal was unfair. However, according to a statement issued by Christic client Tony Avirgan, the Institute must share at least "partial responsibility for the dismissal of the La Penca law suit."
The conspiracy Avirgan refers to was spelled out in a two-page circular sent out to promote the sale of the "Affidavit of Daniel P. Sheehan," filed in 1986 and revised in early 1987. The circular began:
In a thoughtful analysis of the Christic Institute's lawsuit, David Corn observed in the July 2-9, 1988, Nation that the institute "deserves credit. . . for recognizing the Iran-contra scandal and its significance early on." He added: "It has kept the investigative fires burning, sought to hold individuals accountable for their roles in the affair, and probed issues overlooked by the congressional investigating committees (including the contra drug connection and the La Penca bombing. . . )" The institute's "advocacy of the Secret Team theory," on the other hand, struck Corn as a serious flaw. It might be handy for raising money in direct-mail solicitations but it presented problems for people who prefer evidence to rhetoric. (In February, 1993 Avirgan and Honey filed a motion seeking Sheehan's disbarment.)
Jane Hunter of Israeli Foreign Affairs agrees that some of the Christic research is problematic. "As a researcher I have over the years found nothing in the Christic case worth citing," says Hunter. Hunter worries about the rise of conspiracism on the left, including some of the allegations made in the Christic lawsuit. "If you keep looking for all the connections, all you are going to see is something so powerful that there is no way to fight it. We have to look at the system that produces these covert and illegal operations, not who knew so and so three years ago."
Dr. Diana Reynolds is another critic of portions of the Christic thesis. Reynolds, an assistant professor of politics at Bradford College in Massachusetts, thinks undocumented conspiracy theories hurt the Christic case. She believes there is much solid evidence concerning the actual La Penca bombing and aftermath, and some specific Iran-Contra material, but she thinks "it is fair to say that some right-wing conspiracy theories were woven into the theory behind the Christic case." Reynolds read thousands of pages of depositions taken by the Christic Institute while she was researching a story on federal emergency planning, later published in Covert Action Information Bulletin. According to Reynolds:
Reynolds suggests it is fair to ask whether or not Christic was manipulated by right-wing persons associated with factions in the intelligence community. "It is curious that Wilson is a former intelligence operative, and that Wheaton, at the same time he was working for Christic, was also alleged by Mr. Owen in his Christic deposition to be passing information to Neil Livingston at the National Security Council to protect some of the people who were implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal," says Reynolds. At least two former Christic investigators say they warned Sheehan not to rely on conspiratorial analysis and to be suspicious of material from right-wing sources. Nevertheless, Sheehan was rebuked by his own staff and others in Christic leadership for repeatedly lapsing into an overly conspiratorial analysis in public appearances, and for making claims that the Christic staff could not document or otherwise support when responding to follow-up inquiries by reporters.23
While the allegation that right-wing conspiracy theories were woven into the case is hotly denied by Christic, the contacts by the LaRouchians during the mid and late 1980's are not disputed. According to a Christic spokesperson:
David MacMichael and Lanny Sinkin are no longer affiliated with the Christic Institute. Sinkin says his contact with the LaRouchians while at Christic was limited to a few brief conversations. MacMichael, a former CIA analyst turned agency critic who now writes and lectures on covert action, has had a more extensive relationship to the LaRouchians. MacMichael and Sinkin, however, were not the only Christic investigators who received information from the LaRouchians. Christic investigator Bill McCoy also received information from the LaRouchians as did at least one other Christic researcher, according to former staffers.
Sheehan was warned by his own staff in 1988 that contacts with the research circles around LaRouche and Liberty Lobby were a problem on both factual and moral grounds. Later Danny Sheehan appeared on the Undercurrents program broadcast on WBAI-FM and other Pacifica and progressive radio stations. Christic told the radio audience that it was untrue that LaRouchians had supplied information to the Christic Institute, and blasted a passing reference to this matter in Dennis King's book, Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism. Shortly after Sheehan's statements, an offer to promote King's book as a premium gift during an annual fundraising drive for the radio station was withdrawn. King believes Sheehan's unequivocal denial undercut the credibility of his book and was responsible for WBAI withdrawing the original offer.
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