Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA)
from COVERT CADRE by S. Steven Powell
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) specializes in influencing the media. Its director, Larry Birns, has earned a reputation with Washingtonians, both in Congress and the media, for his tenaciousness in acquiring and brokering leaks - leaks which invariably embarrass the United States. COHA has also helped marshal U.S. labor support for the revolutionary Left in Latin America. Like WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), COHA owes its creation to the Chilean coup.
In 1973 Larry Birns traveled to Chile as a representative of the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America. There he met with Orlando Letelier and other members of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. Before this, Birns had edited the monthly magazine International Documentation on the Contemporary Church, better known as IDOC, founded by a group of Dutch Catholic bishops in the early 1970s, but denounced by the Vatican for its left-wing politics.
COHA became an important part of the Latin network in 1975 after Birns met with Letelier, and then working at the IPS (Institute for Policy Studies). Letelier helped pay for Birns and Rep. Michael Harrington (D-Mass.) to travel to a meeting of the International Tribunal to Judge the Crimes of the Chilean Junta in early 1976; sponsored by the World Peace Council, it was being held in Mexico City. In an interview, Birns admitted that COHA emerged as a byproduct of that WPC-sponsored meeting to serve as a vehicle “to manipulate the sophisticated political and academic communities.” IPS founder Richard Barnet was a COHA trustee up until 1976, the year of the Letelier scandal. As of 1984, IPS fellow Roger Wilkins and lPS trustee Terry Herndon served on COHA’s board along with such people as Thomas Quigley of USCC and WOLA and Brady Tyson, a founding member of NACLA.
COHA has had a consistent record of opposing U.S. policies in Latin America. For instance, regarding U.S.-El Salvador relations in 1981, COHA’s Richard Allan White wrote, “Our assistance to the dictatorship there will pale beside the contempt in which the United States will be held if it continues supporting the ever-increasing needs of yet another decaying regime under attack.”
As for Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. COHA reported disingenuously at the end of 1983 that “the number of Cuban advisors, including some teachers and military specialists, has been reduced as over 2,000 have returned to Cuba.”
Passing judgment on Grenada three months after the U.S. intervention-which met with over 90 percent of the Grenadan peoples’ approval—COHA reported:
...The various U.S. actions taken on Grenada after the initial operation have compromised the Grenadan government’s authority and the failure to establish high standards for human rights observance and move quickly to hold elections, has made the islanders’ constitutional privileges a function of the U.S. government’s desire that an acceptable, pro-U.S. candidate win the elections.
COHA pushed its positions on the media, but not all has gone smoothly in this respect. Associated Press correspondent Ary Moleson, who used COHA material, came under sharp criticism from our then ambassador to Nicaragua, James D. Theberge, who wrote A.P.’s management: “While few pay much attention to Mr. Moleson’s stories in the U.S., it is regrettable, and should be of concern to you, that he regularly misinforms your Latin American readers by citing this particularly reckless and ill-informed source, COHA.
Assistant Secretary of State Vaky received regular calls from Birns, who threatened to go public with this or that piece of information if Vaky didn’t comply with whatever it was Birns wanted. Eventually an exasperated Vaky told his staff, “Ignore him, he’s got mental problems.”
COHA’s credibility also suffered a momentary blow when a document forgery, was traced back to Larry Birns of COHA. Birns said he had circulated it unaware of its true origin. Meanwhile, however, some prominent journalists had swallowed the forged “dissent paper” and concluded that the U.S. should acknowledge that “the FDR/DRU coalition is an Iegitimate and representative political force in Salvadoran politics.’” Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, Stephen Kinzer of the Boston Globe, Anthony Lewis and Flora Lewis of the New York Times were just a few who were taken in. Although the State Department showed it up as a clumsy forgery and Flora Lewis admitted in her Times column that she had been duped, the damage was done.
When in 1984 some 80 percent of the Salvadoran people went to the polls in an election in which several parties competed, a COHA press release called it “a downright phony event in a country without a free press and a downright nasty security force.” In sharp contrast, four days before the November election in Nicaragua, in which the plausible opposition parties refused to participate, COHA announced that “conditions for a credible election in Nicaragua and are better than those that existed in Salvador.” Afterward COHA reported that the “Nicaraguan election was qualitatively better than U.S. - sponsored Salvador ballots. There was definitely much more of an honest effort on behalf of the Sandinistas to present a full-fledged, legitimate election, “said COHA spokesperson Megan Ballard, who added that the CIA was the principal source of Nicaragua’s problems.
Return to: Biographical Sketches of the Left