Gregory Wilpert on US News& @World Report article

From: michael a. lebowitz (mlebowit@SFU.CA)
Date: Fri Oct 03 2003 - 14:59:19 EDT

An important item from, the new English-language 
source of news and analysis from Venezuela.
         in solidarity,
Magazine's reputation seriously damaged

U.S. News & World Report Spreads Disinformation about Chavez Government 
Support for Terrorism
Thursday, Oct 02, 2003
By: Gregory Wilpert

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 

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.

[i] Link: 
[ii] Transcript of the August 12 press conference with Gen. Meyers:
[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:

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Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
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