The Intelligence Community lost a bona fide hero last month with the death of David C. MacMichael, 93, a former contract CIA analyst who resigned from the Agency in 1983 to go public with information that the Reagan Administration was planning a coup d’état against the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega.
MacMichael’s revelations led in part to what is now known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
MacMichael was a little before my time at the CIA. He left seven years before I began working there. But even after seven years, his name was spoken often and admiringly.
MacMichael was not some malcontent who wanted to make a name for himself in the media or on Capitol Hill. He was a brilliant and well-regarded analyst who took his oath to “uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic” seriously.
He recognized illegality when he saw it and he knew that his choices boiled down to two: He could pretend that what the Reagan Administration was doing in Nicaragua was fine or right or none of his business, or he could blow the whistle. He did what was right.
MacMichael’s decision was not an easy one. The America of 1983 had Ronald Reagan as its new president. Known for his virulent (and in many cases irrational) anti-communism, Reagan had convinced the American people of an impending “domino effect” where one Central American country after another, beginning with Nicaragua, would fall in communist revolutions, ultimately bringing the threat of revolution to the United States itself.
It was supposedly initiated by the Soviet Union, supported by Cuba, and implemented by Nicaragua. Nicaragua had already “fallen,” and El Salvador was next!
This was a ridiculous foreign policy, of course, but Reagan had a popular electoral mandate, a Republican Senate for the first time in 30 years, and a working majority in the House. There weren’t many people in the country with the guts to stand up to him.
MacMichael was a contract analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. With clearance access two levels above Top Secret, his job was to go through all-source intelligence from the State Department, CIA officers working abroad, NSA intercepts, Defense Department reporting, and even the media, to find the truth about what was happening in Central America.
He used his expertise to provide analysis to the President, the Vice President, the National Security Advisor, and the Secretaries of State and Defense. It was his expertise that was supposed to allow those senior policymakers to create the best-informed policy possible. But those policymakers, our leaders, weren’t interested in the truth or in MacMichael’s expertise.
The crux of the issue was this: Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas had taken power in Nicaragua in 1980 after dictator Anastasio Somoza fled to Miami. For a brief period, President Jimmy Carter provided aid to the Sandinistas. But he cut off that aid when it became clear that the Sandinistas were sending Soviet weapons to rebels in El Salvador. Carter then began a policy of pressuring the Sandinistas (and the Soviets and Cubans) to slow or stop the flow of weapons.
Reagan took office in January 1981 with the Carter policy still in place. MacMichael, meanwhile, was analyzing the data and he realized that the policy was working. The flow of weapons to El Salvador had slowed to a trickle.
But the Reagan Administration insisted publicly that the flow was a tidal wave, not a trickle. CIA Director William Casey ordered him to report Casey’s contrived version. MacMichael knew it was a lie, and he refused to remain silent.
He resigned from his position at the CIA in 1983 and he went to Nicaragua at his own expense to investigate. He then briefed members of Congress on his findings. And in 1984, he gave his findings and evidence to the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The effect was immediate. Secretary of State George Schultz said that MacMichael “must be living in some other world.”
But Congress believed him, and it refused to appropriate aid for the CIA backed anti-Sandinista Contra rebels who were slaughtering peasants, teachers and doctors with abandon.
The Reagan Administration then made an error of historic proportions. It illegally sold arms to Iran through a Saudi middleman and used the profits to buy weapons for the Contras, an event known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
As the Reagan Administration slowly fell apart thanks to Iran-Contra, and the fall guys were convicted of a myriad of crimes, MacMichael took his place in the pantheon of truthtellers.
He became the key witness in Nicaragua v. United States, a case heard in 1986 before the International Court of Justice. It ruled that the U.S. had violated international law by supporting and supplying the Contras and by mining Nicaragua’s harbors. He also testified multiple times before Congress into the 2000s.
David MacMichael was not a young man when he passed away. But up until the end he continued to be a role model for young people employed in all aspects of national security.
He demonstrated that their loyalties must always be to the law, to the Constitution, and to the truth. The country is a lesser place without him.
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About the Author
John Kiriakou was a CIA analyst and case officer from 1990 to 2004.
In December 2007, John was the first U.S. government official to confirm that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners, a practice he described as torture.
Kiriakou was a former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former counter-terrorism consultant. While employed with the CIA, he was involved in critical counter-terrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” nor did he ever authorize or engage in such crimes.
After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou appeared on ABC News in an interview with Brian Ross, during which he became the first former CIA officer to confirm the existence of the CIA’s torture program. Kiriakou’s interview revealed that this practice was not just the result of a few rogue agents, but was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.
Kiriakou is the sole CIA agent to go to jail in connection with the U.S. torture program, despite the fact that he never tortured anyone. Rather, he blew the whistle on this horrific wrongdoing.