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Frozen in Time

The WSJ’s Paranoid Lens on Latin America

by PHILLIP CRYAN

In one of her Wall Street Journal columns last year, Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote that U.S. lawmakers and State Department officials who criticize the Colombian military’s human rights record are "still fighting the Cold War, on the wrong side." She struck again February 6, accusing nongovernmental organizations of publishing fraudulent statistics about Colombia’s record. She said they’re "cooking the human-rights books," aiding a guerrilla effort to dupe U.S. officials into reducing military aid.

O’Grady, a senior Journal editorial writer since 1999, is far from the only journalist guilty of bias and omission in coverage of Colombia. Most U.S. reporters provide no historical context and base their claims on government sources and on opinion polls that exclude the country’s poor majority.

But O’Grady’s distortions differ from such biases. They are purposeful and consistent, systematic.

A typical column from 2002 was headlined, "Capitol Hill Leftists Side With Colombia Terrorists." By "terrorists," she meant only the guerrillas, not the paramilitaries. One of the "leftists," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), wrote in response that O’Grady’s "absurd" arguments aimed "to brand people who defend human rights as enemy sympathizers."

An O’Grady column published November 13, 2003 led to a similar response from a Fellowship of Reconciliation volunteer living in San José de Apartadó, a western Colombian village where dozens of residents have been killed for refusing to acknowledge the authority of any armed actors, whether guerrillas, paramilitaries or official security forces. The volunteer, Sarah Weintraub–in a somewhat better position than O’Grady to assess the community’s practices, having lived there for nearly a year–found it bewildering O’Grady’s column labeled the community a "guerrilla haven," an accusation that invited paramilitary attacks on the villagers. "This was not a misunderstanding," Weintraub wrote in her group’s newsletter. "This must have been deliberate."

She has not confined her reckless accusations to Colombia. She started a 2002 column with the hysterical question, "Is Fidel Castro busy cooking up viruses in Cuban labs to share with Islamic fundamentalists?" And she wrote at least two columns defending President George W. Bush’s 2001 appointment of Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Reich was a key figure in the Reagan administration’s Iran-contra scandal and multiple Latin American counterinsurgency wars, yet O’Grady called Democratic Party opponents of his nomination Castro supporters still sore over the defeat of Nicaragua’s socialist government.

"After eight years of drift, serious policy makers are back in charge," she wrote in the first paragraph of a piece praising Reich. It reminded me of a "Get Your War On" cartoon from November 2002, after George W. Bush named former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to head the government’s 9/11 inquiry (Kissinger later stepped down to avoid disclosing the names of his consulting firm’s clients): "I’m sure [Kissinger has] already drafted his final report: ‘Over the past few years, there has been an unfortunate lapse in the number of innocent people being slaughtered as a direct result of my foreign policy initiatives! Can we please get back on track?’" Serious policy-makers indeed.

O’Grady’s February 6 piece suggests that NGO statistics have heightened U.S. government concern about human rights and that this concern has "hollowed out the Colombian military," prolonging the war and causing thousands of deaths. She singles out the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), a highly respected organization that has helped bring military officials to trial.

The CCJ replied with a letter to the editor that notes some of O’Grady’s falsehoods and exaggerations, such as her suggestion that only groups "lying to serve certain unacknowledged political goals" would criticize President Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s administration for jailing people based on mere suspicion of guerrilla collaboration. The letter notes that the Colombian government’s own inspector general objects to the roundups. "The least we can ask," it adds, "is that you publish these corrections to partially reduce the harm these unbalanced insinuations may cause those who work for human rights in Colombia."

O’Grady’s accusations, in other words, could get CCJ leaders killed, restoring literal meaning to the phrase "hatchet job." The Journal, nevertheless, has not published the letter.

She has even advised that Colombia "legalize self-defense groups." Anyone with a passing knowledge of the country’s conflict can get the unsubtle hint. Right-wing paramilitary groups have been legal for the better part of the last four decades, and Uribe seems intent on cleansing paramilitaries’ records yet again.

After all, "the U.S. admits that it will need the help of bad guys in the Arab world to fight its enemies," O’Grady wrote during the buildup to war in Afghanistan, in a column called "What About Colombia’s Terrorists?" So what if they massacre hundreds of innocent civilians each year? They’re fighting the bad guys. Case closed.

All O’Grady’s positions seem derived from a simplistic and increasingly irrelevant template: fervent anti-communism. Never mind that fifteen years have passed since the Berlin Wall fell. In O’Grady’s anachronistic–and frankly pathetic, if the size of her audience did not make it enraging–paranoia, anyone not squarely in her camp is either a communist or a hapless "do-gooder" manipulated by the wily, mighty Reds.

It is O’Grady, not those she attacks, who seems bent on bringing the Cold War back into style.

PHILLIP CRYAN returned to the United States in November after 18 months in Colombia. A shorter version of this piece appeared in his biweekly Colombia Week column on media coverage of Colombia’s war. He lives in Ames, Iowa. He can be reached at: phillipcryan000@yahoo.com