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The US Has a Long History of Weaponizing Aid to Other Countries

There is a covert U.S. strategy in which humanitarian aid is weaponized not by withholding it, but by providing it.

Dan Medford of the US Green Berets unloads a relief package at a distribution center on November 19, 2013, in Leyte, Philippines.

The spread of the coronavirus will not save Iran from sanctions, the U.S. cried. “Our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues,” U.S. Special Representative for Iranian Affairs Brian Hook said, as the State Department added more sanctions on Iran, one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic.

Iran had pleaded for an easing of sanctions, since U.S. sanctions are “severely hampering” Iran’s fight against the coronavirus. Intensifying the sanctions rather than easing them to allow Iran to fight the virus is a form of “medical terrorism,” according to Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif. Medical terrorism that locks a country under pandemic out from humanitarian aid is one way of using humanitarian aid as a weapon of war or regime change.

Like Iran, Venezuela is on its back, struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic with the grip of U.S. sanctions on its throat. As it gasps for breath, the U.S. will only release Venezuela’s throat if the democratically elected president, Nicolás Maduro, surrenders to regime change demands and abandons his office, completing a decades-long attempt at a coup that dates all the way back to Hugo Chávez in 2002. The U.S. is taking advantage of mass Venezuelan deaths during a pandemic to force Maduro and the party of Chávez out of office. Though disguised as a compromise transition, it is neither a compromise nor a transition, as Maduro would be forced from office and not allowed to run again. Meanwhile, the lives of Venezuelans held hostage, while the pretender, Juan Guaidó, would be allowed to compete in the next election. Humanitarian aid as blackmail to carry out a coup is another way of using humanitarian aid as a weapon.

Both of these strategies were overt actions in which human lives were leveraged and humanitarian aid was withheld to accomplish foreign policy goals. But there is a covert U.S. strategy in which humanitarian aid is weaponized not by withholding it, but by providing it. In this act of betrayal of trust, humanitarian aid is sent into a suffering country as a Trojan Horse carrying weapons or other acts of war in its belly. This strategy makes an early appearance in the post-World War II Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan

The Marshall Plan was sold to the public as a humanitarian plan to rebuild Europe after World War II to insulate it against communism. But, while aid money was flowing into Europe, some of it was being diverted for covert purposes. CIA expert John Prados reveals in his book Safe for Democracy that the CIA used that humanitarian aid vehicle as a way of hiding the source of money being smuggled into Europe for propaganda and political actions.

According to Joel Whitney, in his book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, those propaganda actions included using “confidential funds” from the Marshall Plan to finance magazines, like Der Monat, which were injected into nearly every foreign nation to advance the U.S.’s clandestine Cold War cultural and foreign policy propaganda war.

From 1951 to the closing of the Marshall Plan in 1952, under the direction of Frank Wisner, the head of CIA covert operations, Marshall Plan funds were diverted for covert programs. Prados says that several organizations have been used, or set up, by the CIA to funnel funds and that the CIA’s role is often concealed by funneling money through legitimate foundations.

But the covert U.S. strategy extends beyond money; humanitarian aid was used to camouflage the delivery of weapons.

Laos: Hard Rice

Originally approved by Eisenhower in the 1960s, as well as attacking North Vietnam, the CIA’s clandestine guerilla forces in Laos targeted the Laotian Pathet Lao, whom the State Department considered communists. The U.S. believed Laos was part of the key to stopping the domino spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. The covert force would play a major role in keeping Laos from falling to the communists. As the wars in Vietnam and Laos merged into one, the CIA force would also act to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply route to Vietnam.

But the Pathet Lao were not so simply defeated, and as the ground war began to fail, the U.S. took to the air, and the secret American bombing campaign — which would make Laos one of the most bombed countries in history — began.

In the 1960s, humanitarian aid to Laos took the form of food deliveries. But those food deliveries hid the delivery of weapons. In The Ghosts of Langley, John Prados describes the way weapons were flown into the country on humanitarian aid planes flown by Air America. Air America pilots developed a cynical code word to distinguish legal food cargo from illegal weapons cargo: “soft rice” meant food and “hard rice” meant arms. The humanitarian delivery of food was cynically used as a Trojan Horse for getting weapons into Laos.

Two decades later, in 1986, an operation that looked a lot like the “hard rice” operation in Laos was unfolding in the skies over Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: Mixed Cargoes

Like Pegasus, the Trojan Horse had developed wings. The Reagan administration used planes full of humanitarian aid to hide the weapons that were mixed in in the belly of the plane. The current U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, was part of a special group managed by then-White House aide Oliver North that delivered the decisions on the Trojan Horse weapons operation. At the time, Abrams was assistant secretary of state. On one known occasion, the special program’s decision was to fly humanitarian aid into Honduras. From Honduras, the plane would then fly to El Salvador, where it picked up seven tons of weapons that were airdropped into Nicaragua. At least twice, the U.S. flew such “mixed cargoes” on planes that were carrying weapons mixed in with the cargo of humanitarian aid.

Robert Duemling, the former head of the State Department’s Nicaraguan humanitarian assistance office, has confessed that “he had twice ordered planes to shuttle weapons for the contras on aid planes at Mr. Abrams’s direction in early 1986.” In response, Abrams “defended his role in authorizing the shipment of weapons on a humanitarian aid flight to Nicaraguan rebels, saying the operation was ‘strictly by the book.’”

But the operation was not by the book: The U.S. government was, at the time, under a congressional prohibition against giving any military aid to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels.

The secret Trojan Horse operation was violently revealed when, on October 5, 1986, a cargo plane flown by an American crew was shot down over Nicaragua. The crashed plane was full of weapons. Extensive reporting by Robert Parry at the time shows that records discovered since the crash reveal the “magnitude and extent of the airwing resupply operation, in terms of the volume of cargo transported.” The cargo plane was part of a secret five-plane smuggling air force.

According to Parry, The New York Times confirmed the Trojan Horse nature of the operation when it reported that “the same planes and crews that were used to carry non-lethal aid to the Contras were used at other times to supply the Contras with weapons.” Parry reports that documents recovered from the downed cargo plane show “scores of flights this year to deliver aid to Contra bases.” The planes were flown by Miami-based Southern Air Transport. Until 1973, Parry reports, Southern Air was owned by the CIA.

Vietnam and Laos: Tom Dooley

Sometimes the Trojan Horse looked less like a cargo plane and more like an ambulance. Tom Dooley was a young, decorated U.S. Navy doctor in Vietnam; he was the youngest officer at the time to have received the Legion of Merit.

Dooley had a background in propaganda and psychological warfare. The Navy granted him leave to write a book. That book would become part of Operation Passage to Freedom. Officially, Operation Passage to Freedom’s objective was to relocate hundreds of thousands of refugees from Communist North Vietnam to President Ngô Đình Diệm’s South Vietnam. Secretly, its objective was to strengthen Diệm’s grasp on the south. The two-pronged plan featured a psychological warfare campaign of disinformation to terrify North Vietnamese Catholics into fleeing to the South, which was headed by the Catholic Diệm. The second prong would attempt to focus the world’s gaze on the plight and flight of the North Vietnamese, making the south look like a haven from northern persecution and atrocities.

Dooley’s book would make those atrocities world famous. The problem was that it was a work of fiction: the atrocities he claimed to see as a doctor took place in his imagination, not in North Vietnam — and his bosses in the Navy knew it. Press officer William Lederer, whose idea it was that Dooley be given leave to write the book, confirms that “those things never happened. The atrocities he described in his books either never took place or were committed by the French.” Dooley was sent to Vietnam as a Navy doctor, but his reporting created a fictional picture in the American imagination of a largely Catholic Vietnam repressed by the atrocities of the north. That fictional picture fostered the need to come to the aid of the Vietnamese in the American psyche and helped pave the path to intervention and war. Dooley’s psychological warfare was a Trojan Horse for military warfare.

Dooley’s next mission would see him being sent to Laos. And, it is in Laos that Dooley would most clearly be recreated as a Trojan Horse who would weaponize humanitarian medical aid. Foreign forces were banned from entering Laos by the Geneva Accords. But doctors could cross the border; medical aid could enter the country. Tom Dooley would open a medical clinic in Laos just miles from the Chinese border.

One of the men behind the recreation of Tom Dooley was Edward Lansdale, the head of CIA psychological warfare in Vietnam. While Dooley continued his propaganda work and continued his reports and his “Letters from Laos,” the CIA asked him to do something more. The CIA turned Dooley into a Trojan Horse. Along with the surgical gear and pharmaceuticals that Dooley would bring into Laos would be the weapons that the CIA used Dooley to smuggle in. Dooley would bury those arms, and agents would then excavate the arms and pass them on to local militias. Dooley’s clinic looked like American humanitarian aid, but it was a Trojan Horse for bringing weapons into Laos.

Dooley’s clinic was a front: it barely functioned as a clinic at all. Though patients weren’t frequent visitors, CIA officers were. They came both to make sure that Dooley had hidden the weapons well and to squeeze him as a spy to see if he learned anything about Chinese troop movement.

Tom Dooley was not the last of the medical Trojan Horses.

Afghanistan, Bin Laden and Vaccinations

Amir Aziz was a major and doctor in the Pakistani army. He lived near Osama bin Laden’s compound because Pakistani intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had asked him to move there to provide treatment to the ailing bin Laden, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

His true story is confusing. Aziz was a CIA informant. The operation to raid bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011 was ready to go. But President Obama was nervous: he wanted to know that U.S. forces were actually targeting the right man. For proof, they turned to Amir Aziz. Bin Laden’s doctor was given the job of obtaining a sample of bin Laden’s blood to provide proof via DNA. In The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Hersh reports that Aziz’s “DNA sample showed conclusively that it was bin Laden in Abbottabad.”

But the plan did not go as smoothly as intended. Aziz was picked up and held for questioning in Pakistan. His role as a CIA informant had been leaked. According to Hersh, he was eventually released, but his role in the highly classified mission had been leaked, and U.S. intelligence was unable to locate and plug the leak. The risk was now too great that Aziz’s role in sneaking out the DNA would also become known. So, a cover story was created.

The star of the cover story was another Pakistani doctor named Shakil Afridi. Afridi’s practice offered free hepatitis B vaccinations. But Afridi was also a former CIA asset. The cover story was put out that the CIA had run a fake vaccination program with Afridi that had failed to secure bin Laden’s DNA. The story was meant to cover the true story of how a doctor was used to acquire the DNA that would greenlight the killing of Osama bin Laden. Posters advertising Afridi’s vaccination program were plastered around the region.

According to Hersh, the truth was that Afridi had actually been recruited by the CIA much earlier. His job “was to use vaccinations as a way to get the blood of terrorism suspects in the villages.” Those samples would provide the material for an earlier intelligence program to get information on suspected terrorists in the Abbottabad area.

The Afridi story covered the Aziz story. And both stories painted the fuzzy picture of how medical treatment and humanitarian vaccination programs had secretly hidden intelligence operations.

Iraq: Infiltrating UNSCOM

Sometimes, ironically, the Trojan Horse took on the incarnation of the war makers sneaking into countries in the belly of the peacekeepers.

In the 1990s, the UN Special Commission, or UNSCOM, was the international arms control team tasked with locating and monitoring Iraq’s missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. UNSCOM’s job was to prevent weaponization and to prevent war.

But, as Barton Gellman revealed in his reporting for The Washington Post in 1999, the United States used its membership in UNSCOM to infiltrate CIA agents and espionage equipment into the territory of its enemy.

For three years, the U.S. used UNSCOM as a Trojan Horse to sneak its own agents into Iraq for intelligence gathering that served U.S. interests, and not the interests of the UNSCOM agency that provided it cover.

UNSCOM had installed in Iraq a remote monitoring system that allowed international inspectors to watch Iraqi facilities in “near real time.” Iraq didn’t know that UNSCOM was doing that; UNSCOM didn’t know that the U.S. was doing more than that.

UNSCOM was a U.S. Trojan Horse. Unbeknownst to UNSCOM, technicians who were employees of the CIA had given the remote monitoring system “covert capability.” Hidden in the system “were antennas capable of intercepting microwave transmissions, and the U.S. agents placed some of them near important nodes of Iraqi military communications.” The military information the CIA got by piggybacking on the UNSCOM remote monitoring system was “of considerable value to U.S. military planners but generally unrelated to UNSCOM’s special weapons mandate.” The CIA exploited UNSCOM as a Trojan Horse.

Scott Ritter, who was a lead inspector for UNSCOM until 1998, reports that, “On one occasion, I uncovered activity taking place in Iraq, under the auspices of UNSCOM, that I viewed as being suspicious. I felt that it was intelligence activity related to the collection of intelligence information and that it was being done on behalf of the United States.” Ritter says that he did not believe UNSCOM had given its approval nor was it even aware of the covert American operation.

Ritter is describing a U.S. Trojan Horse when he says that, “U.S. intelligence [was] seeking to infiltrate the weapons inspectors program and use the unique access the inspectors enjoyed in Iraq for purposes other than disarmament.”

It is no wonder that countries are reluctant to accept humanitarian aid offered by the U.S. From the Marshall Plan in 1951 to today, there is a long and cynical history of the U.S. using humanitarian aid as a Trojan Horse to smuggle aggression into the country they are pretending to help.

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