Saving Hugo Chávez

The United States never tried to kill the late Venezuelan leader. In fact, we may have even saved his life.

As a former U.S. official with substantial experience in Venezuela, I was not surprised, but still outraged to hear the temporary new leader of that country, Nicolas Maduro, accuse the United States of murdering his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. I feel obliged to set the record straight, not because I care about what Maduro thinks, but because if not challenged, Maduro's latest falsehood will become another urban legend circulating the globe on the Internet.

Predictably, in two dozen interviews I gave to international press in the 48 hours following Chávez's death, two journalists, one from the BBC and one from the U.S. Spanish-language CNN channel, questioned me about Maduro's accusation, implying it was credible that the United States had "inoculated Chávez with the cancer" that killed him. I replied, of course, that the United States had nothing to do with his death.

Despite the hostility that characterized the U.S. relationship with Chávez, it is not only false to accuse the United States of killing Chávez, but the truth is that we likely prevented his assassination on more than one occasion. Since, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, I played a part in at least one of those instances, I feel compelled to defend our country once again from the calumnies of our foes and their acolytes by relating just one such incident. While everything herein is the best of my recollection, contemporary State Department records will substantiate the facts.

On a routine day in 2002, my secretary called me to the phone: "Ambassador Shapiro needs to talk to you on ‘secure,'" the encrypted U.S. government telephone network by which sensitive conversations are conducted. Charles Shapiro was our ambassador to Venezuela, and receiving calls from him and other ambassadors on "secure" was also routine. Weeks before, Charles and I had communicated often via secure phone for days as we attempted to manage the U.S. response to Chávez's removal from the presidency by his own people, and his subsequent return.

"Have you seen the report on the latest conspiracy to kill Chávez?," Shapiro asked.

I replied: "Yes, I did. Is this one real"?

Reports of assassination plots and coups d'état against Chávez surfaced at least twice a week in 2002. To separate fact from fiction, we were assisted by a dozen U.S. agencies that sift 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through human or technical intelligence, news, publications, rumor, misinformation, propaganda, half-truths and innumerable real and false material.

The call from Shapiro that morning, however, was not about baseless gossip. I had indeed read of the newest "plan" to kill Chávez to which Shapiro referred. It had seemed at least plausible. But I surmised, correctly, that if it were credible then I would be soon hearing from my Washington staff, other agencies, or from our embassy in Caracas.

Shapiro related the reasons why his embassy felt this was not ordinary and I agreed we should not ignore it. (For obvious reasons, I will not go into the details of the plot.) He then came to the call's central purpose: "I need your concurrence to notify Chávez."

To someone unfamiliar with the inner workings of the U.S. government, Shapiro's request could appear as a moral dilemma: the U.S. ambassador needed Washington's authorization to inform Hugo Chávez of a Venezuelan conspiracy to kill him, one that all his counterintelligence operatives had not detected, a scheme in which the United States had absolutely no involvement.

To the millions whose view of U.S. government decision-making is shaped by Hollywood movies, popular literature, or mainstream media reporting, the decision at hand would appear as fodder for a fiction thriller: This particular head of state after all, was a disgraced former Army officer and conspirator, responsible for more than 300 dead Venezuelans in a bloody 1992 attempt to overthrow and murder the freely elected President, Carlos Andres Perez.

In the movie version of our story, the U.S. officials would surely stand by and let Chávez be killed (in some fiction plots, they themselves might have carried out the murder!). They would assess arguments that did not equate: On one hand Chavez was establishing an undemocratic, anti-American government; the jails were filling with his political enemies while his corrupt cronies' coffers were filling with the republic's treasure; he was actively undermining U.S. global interests by allying Venezuela with fellow autocrats ruling Iran, Cuba, Russia, Belarus, and similar reprobate governments. On the other hand, some of Chávez's own countrymen were now planning to remove him from office by the very same illegal and lethal method that he had attempted in 1992. It was up to the United States, Chávez's perceived mortal enemy, to save him from physical elimination.

The real-life persons at either end of that secure line knew that Chávez was abusing, censoring, or dismantling the civil institutions that underpinned Venezuelan democracy, such as independent media, labor unions, religious organizations, the private sector; that his citizens were losing their lives in the process; and that if he succeeded, Venezuela's future would be dreadful. But what mattered to American officials were American policy, principles, and practice.

My reply to Shapiro, therefore, was an easy call: U.S. policy requires, if the United States is not at war with a country, that we notify its head of state if we learn of a plot against him. Chávez was in luck because both Shapiro and I served a government whose officials take law and policy seriously.

I authorized Shapiro to notify Chávez of the plot. We then reviewed the means by which he would convey the information: alerting the "comandante presidente," but simultaneously taking steps to ensure that our intelligence sources and innocent Venezuelans (and perhaps even some suspect ones) were spared the inevitable and savage retribution. Nothing in our policy, after all, requires us to act as a repressive apparatus for a police state.

Some time later, I don't recall if hours or days, I asked Shapiro: "Did you pass the message?" He said that he had.

"And what did he say?"

Shapiro replied: "Chávez was astounded that the United States would warn him of an assassination plot against him."

Of course he was astounded. After all, Chávez belonged to a cabal of military officers that had willingly violated their oaths of office when they tried to kill their own commander-in-chief but ended up killing hundreds of civilians and fellow soldiers instead. Some of those deviant officers govern Venezuela even today.

Our conversations about the plot, combined, had taken only minutes. The myriad consequences of our action did not elude me. By notifying Chávez, the United States possibly allowed him to survive, ergo to continue destroying his country's democracy and economy, and surrendering its diminishing wealth and sovereignty to someone even more despicable: Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Chávez's premeditated aggression against regional democracies continued, including covert transfers of many millions of dollars to leftwing extremists running for office in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and other nations where his allies did not win, including Panama, Peru and Honduras. Incontrovertible proof has subsequently surfaced of Chávez's support of Marxist FARC terrorists who murder civilians and military alike next door in Colombia, a U.S. ally led by democratic, reformist governments.

I do not recall receiving further information about that particular plot. We may never know if it was real or not. If the alleged plotters learned that Chávez knew he was in danger (by, for example, varying his daily routine or bolstering his bodyguard), they may have disbanded. We would have eventually known of any repercussions, such as arrests.

Still, even if the plot were indeed real, two U.S. officials did not save Chávez. If anything did, it was the country that Chávez most hated and repeatedly insulted: the United States of America. The U.S. ambassador and the assistant secretary of state on duty that day did not set any precedent. U.S. officials regularly and anonymously take comparable actions in the conduct of their duties.

For the next decade, Chávez violated his Constitution and trampled on Venezuelans' freedoms and on foreign territory in the name of his bizarre ideology, as his successors do now. Consequently, Venezuela is increasingly subjugated and rundown, a country wealthy in natural and human resources is ruled by egomaniacal anti-Americans who demolish liberty and rule of law alike in order to put their delusions, their material privileges, and their thirst for power above the needs and aspirations of "the people" in whose name they claim to rule, as tyrants always do.

Long before Maduro, Chávez fabricated stories of U.S. aggression against Venezuela, including our "complicity" in his aforementioned removal from office in 2002, one that some Western media still repeat despite official evidence to the contrary. Maduro now lies about the United States injecting Chavez with cancer or killing Venezuelans. This is unsurprising: To stay in power, despots lie and deceive. What is more shocking, however, is that some in the free and privileged West abet authoritarians by parroting this kind of anti-American nonsense.



A Personal History, An American History

How one Marine's diary helps us understand the Iraq war.

Ten years ago, as U.S. President George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office and announced the invasion of Iraq, Lt. Tim McLaughlin was already at war. He was maneuvering his Marine Corps tank in enemy territory when the president looked dead ahead at a television camera and said, "My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." It was March 2003, the time of shock and awe.

A decade has passed.

In our collective memory, the invasion tends to fuse with everything that came later: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the improvised explosive devices, the beheadings of Westerners, the suicide bombings at mosques, the civil war of Sunnis against Shiites. Our memory of the invasion itself is nearly washed away by the tragedies that followed it. Could there be anything new to say or learn about the first steps into a quagmire?

I found the answer when I opened McLaughlin's invasion diaries. It was 2010, and I was working on a magazine article about the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue at Firdos Square; the flag that was famously draped on the statue was McLaughlin's. I wanted to see it, so I met McLaughlin in Boston and we drove to his hometown in New Hampshire, where he kept the flag in a safe-deposit box. It was almost as good as new -- it had been displayed just once -- though it was smaller than I expected and had a synthetic feel that seemed at odds with the fame it had acquired. Holding it, I couldn't help thinking, "This is what created so much awe?"

In fact, it wasn't McLaughlin's flag but his diaries that stole the show during my visit. Sand fell out when I opened them -- he had not touched the notebooks since writing the last entry in Iraq in 2003. He started the diaries when his tank battalion was deployed to Kuwait in the months before the Iraq invasion, but the narrative is far grander: His diaries revisit the morning of 9/11, when he was working at the Pentagon, providing a jolting reminder of how everything began. McLaughlin writes about stumbling through the building's dark, smoke-filled corridors, trying to make sure his brother, also a Marine who worked there, had not been injured. He writes of the flashing emergency lights and robotic evacuation warning, and of his numb awareness that although his country was now at war, he had no idea what to do or what would come next.

The one thing he knew for sure was that he would not fight for America from behind a desk. He pleaded his way out of his Pentagon job and was assigned to a tank battalion at Twentynine Palms, California. By the time he was deployed to Kuwait, he commanded a platoon of Abrams tanks that soon spearheaded the Marine attack on Baghdad. His diary chronicling that operation is unlike any document of war I have come across: It is a combatant's handwritten description of the killing, chaos, and exhaustion of an invasion that culminated with his own flag becoming a global icon.

"Company volley into buildings," he wrote one day. "Killed 4 soldiers trying to run away.… My position is good to cut off back door exit. Kill dismounts in grove (3-7?) then 1 swimming across canal. 2 just about in canal." He also kept a list of the enemy vehicles, soldiers, and civilians that his tank alone eliminated. At the bottom it says, "70 people dead."

There are maps of Firdos Square and the Pentagon, phrases from a Johnny Cash song, poems about love and longing -- and darkly funny entries too, including a letter he wrote to a Victoria's Secret model while he was waiting in Kuwait for the invasion to begin: "It'd be nice to get a few letters. And I know this probably isn't going to work." There is also the simply moving, like his letter to the parents of a Marine in his platoon who was injured. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart," McLaughlin wrote. "The parents of America put a tremendous faith in me as I am trusted with the lives of your children."

McLaughlin shared his diaries with me because in 2003 I had followed his battalion to Baghdad as a "unilateral" journalist driving a rented SUV through the war zone; I was at Firdos Square when his flag was raised on the statue. I used his diaries as source material for my story, published in the New Yorker, and I showed them to Gary Knight, a photographer who, like me, had driven into Iraq and followed McLaughlin's battalion to the capital. Knight recognized that the vivid pages should be enlarged and displayed in a gallery. McLaughlin agreed, and on March 14 our exhibit opens at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City, featuring McLaughlin's diaries, as well as articles I wrote about the invasion and photographs Knight shot.

No American has experienced war and peace in quite the way McLaughlin has, or written about it in quite the way he has. The difference in his account is not just the honesty of his words and the lethality of his actions, or the PTSD diagnosis he received from doctors after the invasion, or the iconic flag that he still possesses, or even the copy of the U.S. Constitution that was on his Pentagon desk on 9/11, now charred from the smoke of the attack. It is also the fact that his account of war is written in his own hand, at the time of the invasion, immediate and unfiltered, without the flattening look of a computer font. There is just this startling and timeless thing, a warrior's diary that puts blood and flesh into words like invasion and war.

Gary Knight/VII