U.S. News & World Report Spreads Disinformation about Chavez Government Support for Terrorism

The appearance of a baseless article like this, combined with recent statements by the head of the Southern Command, that Venezuela’s Margarita Island is a haven for Islamic terrorist groups, suggests that the Bush administration is setting the stage for declaring Venezuela a “rogue” state.

An article recently appeared in one of the largest U.S. news magazines, an article which will remind well-informed readers of a typical disinformation campaign. The article in question, “Terror Close to Home,” by Linda Robinson, appeared in U.S. News and World Report (10/6/03) [i] and claims to have evidence that Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, is “flirting with terrorism.” The appearance of a baseless article like this, combined with recent statements by Gen. James Hill, head of the Southern Command, that Venezuela’s Margarita Island is a haven for Islamic terrorist groups, suggests that the Bush administration is setting the stage for declaring Venezuela a “rogue” state.

However, the article is so full of false conclusions, unnamed “U.S. government sources,” distortions, and outright falsehoods, that one has to wonder what the author’s real agenda is. Let’s examine the article’s problems one by one.

Falsehoods & Distortions

Linda Robinson claims that “Venezuela is providing support … that could prove useful to radical Islamic groups.” She goes on to say, “U.S. News has learned that Chavez's government has issued thousands of cedulas, the equivalent of Social Security cards, to people from places such as Cuba, Colombia, and Middle Eastern nations that play host to foreign terrorist organizations.” First of all, it is probably true that Venezuela issued identification cards (“cedulas”) to citizens of these countries, something that the U.S. does too, whenever it grants residency to a non-U.S. citizen, in the form of a “green card.” The issuance of such identification papers, if anything, helps track residents’ illegal activity, rather than obscures it, as the article suggests. The accusation from an unnamed “American official” that “more than a thousand” Colombians had received “cedulas” is meaningless in a country that has several hundred thousand Colombians living there as legal residents.

Robinson then says that “U.S. officials believe that the Venezuelan government is issuing the documents to people who should not be getting them and that some of these cedulas were subsequently used to obtain Venezuelan passports and even American visas, which could allow the holder to elude immigration checks and enter the United States.” First, on what basis do U.S. officials believe that these foreign residents should not receive residency? How could they possibly know that just from glancing at a list of names and nationalities? Second, since when can a citizen of a Middle Eastern country receive a U.S. visa more easily just because he or she has Venezuelan residency? If they can, then that is the responsibility of the U.S. government, not the Venezuelan. As Chavez suggested in a press conference with foreign journalists on October 1, perhaps U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro should be investigated for supporting terrorism, if he is granting visas to terrorists, as the Robinson article implies.

Another issue that Robinson raises is the claim that Venezuela’s Arab communities are “becoming centers for terrorist sympathizers.” To bolster this claim, Robinson cites an unnamed “Venezuelan analyst,” who says that the Venezuelan-Arab friendship association on Venezuela’s Margarita Island is a “fortress” with armed guards.  Aside from the fact that most important buildings in Venezuela have armed guards, such an observation is completely meaningless. According to such a standard, the U.S. embassy would have to be the center of terrorism, since it is by far the most fortified and fortress-like building in all of Venezuela.

Robinson’s claims are also undermined by a recent in-depth investigation by Michele Salcedo, of Florida’s Sun-Sentinel (9/5/03). Unlike Robinson, Salcedo visited Margarita Island and spoke to the people there. Her investigation casts serious doubt that there are any terrorist “cells” on the island, as Robinson and Gen. James Hill, head of the U.S. Southern Command claim.

Hill’s accusation that Arabs on Margarita Island are involved in “money-laundering, drug trafficking, or arms deals” is supposed to prove that there is Venezuelan government support for terrorism, but actually it proves no such thing. It is well known that banks throughout the world and especially in the Caribbean are in one way or another involved in money-laundering. If the accusation is true, then perhaps the Venezuelan government should crack down on this, but then the U.S. government ought to make a formal request and not let unnamed officials work with journalists who have a political agenda to make baseless accusations.

Robinson assumes that her truly weak arguments have proven Venezuelan government complicity in supporting Middle Eastern terrorists and to further support her case, she digs up the old claim that Venezuela is also supporting Colombia’s guerrilla movements, the FARC and the ELN. According to her, U.S. News has maps that “actually pinpoint the location of camps” of the Colombian guerrillas inside of Venezuela. How in the world does a map with dots prove anything? Anyone can mark a map and claim that they are secret camps. Given the “first hand reports” she claims to have, references to such maps are clearly meant to give legitimacy where her anonymous sources can’t.

Robinson then goes on to claim that the “first hand reports” prove government support for the guerillas. However, all they prove, if they are true, is that the border is porous, that there are camps within Venezuelan territory and that there are (probably corrupt) Venezuelan officers involved in drug smuggling and arms dealing. None of this proves in the least that official high-level government support the guerrillas. Anyone who knows anything about the area knows that the it is like the Wild West, with Venezuelan and Colombian military, paramilitary, drug-smuggling, kidnapping, and guerilla activity originating from both sides of the border. The area is a complete mess, as far as law and order are concerned. One could blame the government for this mess, but it is a mess for which the U.S. and Colombian governments also bear their share of responsibility. The area is ideal for drug-smuggling because it is a relatively easy passage to Maracaibo Lake and then to the Caribbean.

Another unnamed “U.S. official” says, according to Robinson, that “It's no secret the level of cooperation that the Venezuelan government is giving to the Colombian groups, from the shipment of arms in, to the shipment of drugs out, to the movement of people in and out of Colombia.” If this is no secret, then why does the U.S. government not make a formal complaint and officially declare Venezuela a “narco-state”? Robinson then quotes the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Meyers, who in August made statements where he compared Venezuela to Syria. Robinson uses these statements as further proof that Venezuela is involved in terrorism. However, while the statement caused a diplomatic row between the U.S. and Venezuela, Robinson took them out of context because Meyers did not say that there was any proof of Venezuela supporting terrorism. He said, “I think there is more to learn with respect to Venezuela and we are going to have to continue to explore that.” The rest of his statements were completely hypothetical, saying that if Venezuela supported terrorism, then one could compare Venezuela to Syria.[ii]

Next, Robinson connects the FARC and ELN with the Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL) and the Bolivarian Circles. There is a complete lack of any substantiating evidence to any of these claims (except for the unexplained use of quotation marks around the word “instrumental” when describing FARC and ELN involvement). It may well be that there are connections between the three armed groups (FARC, ELN, FBL), but again, this does not prove the overall argument that Venezuela is supporting terrorism. As for the Bolivarian Circles, the vast majority of these are unarmed community groups, as numerous international reporters have already discovered. It is pure opposition propaganda to present these as some kind of paramilitary group.

Finally, Robinson ends this “investigative report” by claiming that Cubans are directly involved in Venezuela’s intelligence and paramilitary apparatus. Aside from the fact that Venezuela, unlike Colombia, to most people’s knowledge, does not have a paramilitary “apparatus,” this is another example of attempting to prove guilt by association. It is certainly true that there have been numerous cooperation agreements between Cuba and Venezuela, especially in the social realm, but this does not prove in any way that Chavez wants to set-up a one party political system, with nearly complete state control over the economy, as exists in Cuba. As for the Chavez government providing oil shipments to Cuba at preferential terms, this is hardly different from the preferential shipments that Venezuela makes to numerous other nations of the Caribbean.

False Conclusions and Unnamed Government Officials

As if it were not bad enough journalism to present such a long series of poorly substantiated claims, Robinson makes extremely heavy use of unnamed government officials. Except for the few public comments that Gen. Hill and Gen. Myers made, she does not provide a single name of anyone she interviewed. It is well known that government officials want to be able to talk off the record. Generally, however, there are two main reasons for doing so.  First, they might have information that is confidential and want to leak it for personal or political reasons. Or, second, they want to give a particular spin to a sensitive political issue, but cannot prove any of their claims.

With the exception of FARC deserters, it seems very doubtful that the numerous informants that Robinson spoke to wanted anonymity because the information they had was confidential. If there is proof of the Venezuelan government’s involvement in terrorist activity, then why not make it public? Why not publicly accuse the Venezuelan government of supporting terrorism and then provide the proof? Presumably this would cause the break-off of relations between Venezuela and the U.S. But surely there are more diplomatic and effective ways to deal with such an issue than via direct confrontation or via journalists with an axe to grind.

It seems much more plausible that these unnamed officials maintain their anonymity for reasons of generating spin using allegations for which they lack concrete proof, as part of an effort to discredit and undermine a government that they do not like. In this sense, the entire article is very reminiscent of the old CIA and U.S. government practice of planting false news as part of their undercover operations.[iii] Such tactics were used to great effect when the CIA worked on toppling the governments of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, of Salvador Allende in Chile, and of Sukarno in Indonesia.

There’s another, more charitable explanation for the problems with Robinson’s article, which is that the U.S. officials she relies on receive all of their information members of Venezuela’s opposition. This is very similar to what we saw when the U.S. relied on Iraqi informants who were interested in provoking a U.S. invasion and concocted as much information as possible about the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that six months after the invasion have still failed to show up. Members of Venezuela’s opposition have a history of concocting stories to discredit the Chavez government, whether involving false testimonies from the pilots of President Chavez or Vice-President Rangel, supposed government sponsored kidnappings, or the supposed chauffeurs of pro-Chavez members of the National Assembly. All of these were eventually proven to be false.

Perhaps the most amazing statements in Robinson’s article, for anyone capable of logical thought, are the false conclusions she draws. For example, she lists the supposed government support of non-Venezuelan terrorists by issuing Venezuelan identity cards, a claim that is not substantiated in the least, the disappearance of an Arab that the U.S. is looking for questioning, and the existence of a fortified Venezuelan-Arab Association building. She then jumps to the conclusion that “Venezuela's support for terrorist organizations isn't limited to those based in Lebanon or Egypt.” None of the forgoing arguments ever proved in any way that Venezuela (presumably Chavez) is supporting terrorist organizations. The entire article is peppered with such faulty logic, in an attempt to show that “Chavez is flirting with terrorism.”

It would be nice if one could attribute this atrocious article to bad journalism. However, the author is the Latin America Bureau Chief for U.S. News and World Report, the third largest news magazine in the U.S. Rather, it seems that either the author has been manipulated by her numerous unnamed “U.S. officials” who are pursuing an agenda of their own, with the intention of undermining and destabilizing a foreign government and perhaps even providing the justification for intensified foreign intervention in Venezuela, or she shares these goals herself and is a willing accomplice of the domestic and international opposition to the Chavez government. In either case, U.S. News does enormous damage to its reputation as a serious news magazine.

[ii] Transcript of the August 12 press conference with Gen. Meyers: http://usinfo.state.gov/topical/pol/conflict/03081210.htm

[iii] For a brief article on this practice, see Reuters, February 25, 2002, “U.S. Planting False Stories Common Cold War Tactic,” By Tabassum Zakaria: http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2002/02/re022502.html