Journalism in the Public Interest

The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads in Latin America

As some in Congress question a State Department report downplaying Iranian influence, intelligence officials say covert Iranian cooperation with Venezuela has been a gateway for hostile activities in the region.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) is seen alongside Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Elias Jaua (C-R) outside of the funeral of the late President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas, on March 8, 2013. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

July 18: This post has been corrected.

Last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited his ally President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where the firebrand leaders unleashed defiant rhetoric at the United States.

There was a quieter aspect to Ahmadinejad's visit in January 2012, according to Western intelligence officials. A senior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) traveled secretly with the presidential delegation and met with Venezuelan military and security chiefs. His mission: to set up a joint intelligence program between Iranian and Venezuelan spy agencies, according to the Western officials.

At the secret meeting, Venezuelan spymasters agreed to provide systematic help to Iran with intelligence infrastructure such as arms, identification documents, bank accounts and pipelines for moving operatives and equipment between Iran and Latin America, according to Western intelligence officials. Although suffering from cancer, Chavez took interest in the secret talks as part of his energetic embrace of Iran, an intelligence official told ProPublica.

The senior IRGC officer's meeting in Caracas has not been previously reported.

"The aim is to enable the IRGC to be able to distance itself from the criminal activities it is conducting in the region, removing the Iranian fingerprint," said the intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "Since Chavez's early days in power, Iran and Venezuela have grown consistently closer, with Venezuela serving as a gateway to South America for the Iranians."

A year and a half later, Chavez has died and Ahmadinejad is no longer president. But the alliance they built is part of an Iranian expansion in the Americas that worries U.S., Latin American, Israeli and European security officials.

Experts cite public evidence: intensified Iranian diplomatic, military and commercial activity in the region; the sentencing this year of an Iranian-American terrorist in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington; U.S. investigations alleging that Hezbollah, Iran's staunch ally, finances itself through cocaine trafficking; and a recent Argentine prosecutor's report describing Iran's South American spy web and its links to a 2007 plot to bomb New York's JFK airport.

There is considerable debate inside and outside the U.S. government about the extent and nature of Iran's activities, however. That debate dominated a U.S. congressional hearing this week about a new State Department report that assesses the Iranian threat in Latin America, a region made vulnerable by lawlessness and an increasingly anti-U.S. bloc of nations.

The report resulted from a bipartisan bill, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, signed into law by President Obama in January. That measure called for a comprehensive U.S. response to Iranian incursions and a study based on threat assessments by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Most of the study is classified. A two-page unclassified section says that "Iran has increased its outreach to the region working to strengthen its political, economic, cultural and military ties."

Nonetheless, the State Department assessment concludes that "Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning" as a result of Western sanctions, U.S. cooperation with allies and "Iran's poor management of its foreign relations."

In a recent interview about the issue, a senior U.S. government official gave a measured assessment comparable to the new report.

"The countries of the region need to watch carefully for Iran as a threat within a spectrum of issues of concern in the region," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "I don't see it as a major threat now. This is worth watching. It is something there is legitimate attention to given Iran's history."

The law's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., criticized the State Department's findings Tuesday at a hearing of a House homeland security subcommittee that he chairs. Duncan does not think Iranian influence has declined so soon after a series of events and trends — including recent public warnings by intelligence and Pentagon chiefs — that brought about the passage of the Countering Iran Act.

"This administration refuses to see Iran's presence — so near U.S. borders —as a threat to U.S. security," Duncan said. "We know that there is not consensus on this issue, but I seriously question the administration's judgment to downplay the seriousness of Iran's presence here at home."

State Department officials contacted by ProPublica declined to respond because the report is classified. They said they will discuss the issue with legislators in private.

As a sign of growing Iranian influence in South America, Duncan cited the absence of a key witness at the hearing: Alberto Nisman, an Argentine special prosecutor.

In May, Nisman released a 502-page report as part of a long investigation of a car-bombing that killed 85 people at the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 — the deadliest terror attack in the Americas before 2001. The report describes the evolution of Iranian spy networks in the region and shows their role in attacks in Argentina and the foiled New York airport plot.

Although Nisman had initially accepted the congressional invitation to discuss his investigation, last week his government abruptly barred him from traveling to Washington. The Argentine attorney general said that the topic of the hearing "had no relation to the official mission of the [Attorney General's] office," Nisman wrote in a July 1 letter to Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

"The government of Argentina has silenced this prosecutor," McCaul declared at the hearing Tuesday. "I consider this to be a slap in the face of this committee and the U.S. Congress."

Expressing disappointment in a letter to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, McCaul and Duncan said the attorney general's decision "[calls] into question the authenticity of your intentions" to "pursue justice and truth on Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing."

The context for the unusual move to block the testimony is Argentina's pro-Iranian shift. Argentina has had tense relations with Iran since the AMIA attack. A previous bombing in 1992 — also blamed on Iran — destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and killed 29 people.

In 2003, Nisman was appointed special prosecutor with a mandate to revive a probe that had bogged down in dysfunction and corruption. He indicted seven Iranian officials and a Hezbollah chief as the masterminds three years later, and Interpol issued arrest warrants for them. Iranian officials denied any role and described Nisman, who is Jewish, as "a Zionist."

But six months ago, the Fernández de Kirchner government agreed with Iran to form an independent "truth commission" about the AMIA case. Argentina's about-face was blasted by Jewish groups, the political opposition, the Israeli government and U.S. officials. Critics call it a political maneuver that makes justice even less likely at this late date. Argentina's growing ties to Iran coincide with an increasingly confrontational attitude toward the United States, Spain and other Western nations.

"The Argentine president has already made her decision to curtail DEA activities, publicly and repeatedly attack the United States as an imperialistic and warmongering nation, and reopen relations with Iran that make a mockery of the rule of law," Douglas Farah, president of the IBI Consultants national security consulting firm, testified at the hearing.

Duncan said in an interview that he believes Argentina's policy change results partly from economics. Iran-Argentine trade has increased by more than 500 percent to $1.2 billion annually in the past eight years, according to the testimony of Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, a think-tank in Washington.

The attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s revealed the existence of Iranian terror networks in the Americas. The Argentine investigation connected the plots to hubs of criminal activity and Hezbollah operational and financing cells in lawless zones, such as the triple border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and the border between Colombia and Venezuela.

Indicted AMIA plotter Mohsen Rabbani, an alleged spymaster using the cover of Iranian cultural attaché in Buenos Aires, oversaw the establishment of intelligence networks in embassies, front companies and religious and cultural centers in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guyana, Paraguay and Uruguay, according to the Argentine prosecutor's report. The Iranian spies teamed with Hezbollah to carry out both bombings, according to Argentine, Israeli and U.S. investigators.

Today, the fugitive Rabbani is based in Iran and continues to play a key role in Latin American espionage, directing ideological and operational training for recruits who travel from the region, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and witnesses at the hearing.

The election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 spurred an Iranian outreach campaign in Latin America intended to find new allies and markets and counter Western pressure over Iran's nuclear ambitions, according to Berman. Iran increased the number of its embassies in the region from five to 11, launched a Spanish-language television channel and doubled its regional trade to $3.67 billion today, though many of its economic commitments have not materialized.

The Iranian expansion dovetailed with the rise of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (known by the Spanish acronym as ALBA), a bloc of leftist, populist, anti-U.S. governments including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

 In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department designated a Venezuelan diplomat and a Venezuelan businessman as terrorists for allegedly raising funds for Hezbollah, discussing terrorist operations with Hezbollah operatives, and aiding travel of militants from Venezuela to training sessions in Iran. In 2011, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted by Interpol for the AMIA bombing, attended the inauguration of ALBA's regional defense school in Bolivia, according to testimony at the hearing.

The FBI and DEA teamed up that same year to foil a plot in which commanders of the Quds Force, the external operations wing of the IRGC, were charged with directing an Iranian-American operative to use Mexican cartel gunmen to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the U.S. Senate in January 2012 that the assassination plot “shows that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States."

At a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee days later, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, then the committee chairman, warned that Iran's Latin American alliances could pose "an immediate threat by giving Iran — directly through the IRGC, the Quds Force [an external unit of the IRGC] or its proxies like Hezbollah — a platform in the region to carry out attacks against the United States, our interests, and allies."

The aborted 2007 plot to attack JFK was an attempt to use that platform, according to the Argentine special prosecutor. A Guyanese-American Muslim who had once worked as a cargo handler conceived an idea to blow up jet fuel tanks at the airport. He formed a homegrown cell that first sought aid from al Qaida, then coalesced around Abdul Kadir, a Guyanese politician and Shiite Muslim leader.

The trial in New York federal court revealed that Kadir was a longtime intelligence operative for Iran, reporting to the Iranian ambassador in Caracas and communicating also with Rabbani, the accused AMIA plotter.

"Kadir agreed to participate in the conspiracy, committing himself to reach out to his contacts in Venezuela and the Islamic Republic of Iran," Nisman's report says. "The entry of Kadir into the conspiracy brought the involvement and the support of the intelligence station established in Guyana by the Islamic regime."

Police arrested Kadir as he prepared to fly to Iran to discuss the New York plot with Iranian officials. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The Argentine investigation unearthed other signs of Iranian terrorist activity. It cites the testimony of the former director of Colombia's intelligence agency, Fernando Tabares. He described a mission by an Iranian operative to Colombia via Venezuela in 2008 or 2009. Working with Iranian officials based at the embassy in Bogota, the operative "was looking at targets in order to carry out possible attacks here in Colombia," Tabares testified.

Witnesses at the House subcommittee hearing Tuesday described Venezuela as a gateway through which Iranian operatives travel to and from the region unmolested and obtain authentic Venezuelan documents to enhance their covers.

Witness Joseph Humire, a security expert, cited a report last year in which the Canadian Border Services Agency described Iran as the top source of illegal migrants to Canada, most of them coming through Latin America. Between 2009 and 2011, the majority of those Iranian migrants passed through Caracas, where airport and airline personnel were implicated in providing them with fraudulent documents, according to the Canadian border agency.

The allegations are consistent with interviews in recent years in which U.S., Latin American and Israeli security officials have told ProPublica about suspected Middle Eastern operatives and Latin American drug lords obtaining Venezuelan documents through corruption or ideological complicity.

"There seems to be an effort by the Venezuelan government to make sure that Iranians have full sets of credentials," a U.S. law enforcement official said.

Last year's secret talks between Iranian and Venezuelan spies intensified such cooperation, according to Western intelligence officials who described the meetings to ProPublica. The senior Iranian officer who traveled with the presidential entourage asked Venezuelan counterparts to ensure access to key officials in airport police, customs and other agencies and "permits for transferring cargo through airports and swiftly arranging various bureaucratic matters," the intelligence official said.

Venezuelan leaders have denied that their alliance with Iran has hostile intent. They have rejected concerns about flights that operated for years between Caracas and Tehran. The State Department and other U.S. agencies criticized Venezuela for failing to make public passenger and cargo manifests and other information about the secretive flights to Iran, raising the fear of a pipeline for clandestine movement of people and goods.

The flights have been discontinued, U.S. officials say.

State Department officials say the Iran report reflected a consensus among U.S. government agencies. In contrast, homeland security Chairman McCaul said the intelligence community is more concerned about the Iranian threat than the State Department.

The DEA and Treasury Department have been especially active on the issue. Recent indictments and enforcement actions have revealed a complex global network of cocaine trafficking and money laundering networks that allegedly poured millions of dollars into the coffers of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Those mafias, led by accused gangsters of Lebanese origin operating in Colombia, Venezuela and Panama, allegedly have links to the Iranian government as well, according to U.S. court documents.

The State Department says a concerted effort by diplomats, intelligence officers and law enforcement investigators has stymied Iran's advances. The end of the personal bond between Chavez and Ahmadinejad was another blow, officials say.

"The death of … Chavez and the election of a new president in Iran has changed the landscape of Iran's relationship in Venezuela and further weakened Iranian ties in the West," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee.

The foreign policy of new Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is a work in progress. But as Duncan and others pointed out this week, Maduro was a point man for the alliance with Iran when he led served as foreign minister from 2006 to 2012.

Correction: Due to an error in testimony by a congressional witness, this story initially misattributed a statement made by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. The story has been revised to correct the attribution and incorporate Clapper’s actual statement to a Senate committee.

I find the lack of critical thought in this article to be disturbing.  I had high hopes for ProPublica but you have failed to deliver on many levels.  I’m still an advocate but not because your journalism is exceptional but rather because investigative journalism is almost nonexistent.

Iran has never invaded another country.  The US has been involved in 70 wars or military incursions.  While Iran supports Hezbollah, which the US labors as a terrorist organization, I suspect reality is a little different than Washington propaganda.  Our founding fathers would be labeled terrorists by Washington too. 

I have a friend whose British sister is married to a Lebanese Christian.  They live in Lebanon and her parents moved there to be near the grandkids.  When Israel firebombs Lebanon, Hezbollah provides the relief, medical aid and reconstruction.  One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. 

Iran sells weapons to a democratically-elected Venezuelan government?  Is that terrorism?  What about the U.S. funneling countless billions in military aid to prop up a puppet dictator named Saddam Hussein?  My college professor, who is a proud American citizen, and whose sister still lives in Iran, said he said his two nephews were killed in that U.S. backed and funded invasion of Iran.  By the way, we supported that invasion because the CIA and British Intelligence overthrew a democratically-elected Mossaddegh in Iran during the 1950s and installed a brutal American puppet named the Shah of Iran.  And why did we do that?  Because Mossaddegh was going to nationalize the oil industry and kick out British and American oil companies.

This article is puppet journalism for a puppet government.  I expect more of ProPublica.  You should too.

Grim Reaper-your comments are very one sided. You say when Israel firebombs Lebanon, one gets the idea that they attacked the entire country, the truth is Hezbollah initiated the conflict and Israel sent a very precise response to only Hezbollah and its supporters.

I don’t know why we supported the Shah, but I do know from reading widely on his reign that women’s rights, minority rights, etc. were at a very high level. Now Christians, gays, women do not have as strong as rights as they did. There is no question about this.

You talk about military incursions, ww1, ww2, gulf war, etc are clearly strong examples of where we did the right thing. Not saying we have always made good decisions. Sometimes we have lowered ourselves to the levels of our enemies.  But only with the help of our leadership has the world seen democracy as the best choice of governance.

When you use such terms as brutal American puppet you lose your credibility along with your narrow one-sided manner.

Nice site Propublica, found it through aljazeera.

Venezuela has “spymasters” and Chavez and Ahmadinejad are “firebrands.” 

What do you call Obama?  Cool and collected?  As he drones innocent children to death in predominantly Muslim countries? 

Did Pro-publica get a grant from the empire to kick off a campaign leading to an invasion of Venezuela? 

I know they are mad because of Snowden and that could also be included in your inflammatory article.  Guess you didn’t have time to check into that and decided to go with feed you got from the vigilante Congressmen.

Ahmadinejad is on his way out. 

Venezuela???  Wow what a coincidence.  Help me out did I not just see that the US’s favorite villain of the month Mr. Snowden was either planning to go there or they had offered him a safe haven?

You don’t suppose this “Venezuela is a problem” theory is the first step in punishing a country for helping Snowden do you?

James M. Fitzsimmons

July 11, 2013, 2:59 p.m.

Terrorism is the deliberate violent attack on innocents for the purpose of sending a political message to an audience other than the victims themselves. Terrorists are not “freedom fighters” they target non-combatants for whom the political message is not even intended. Terrorist groups in need of funds interact with other criminal thugs when necessary to support operations. Hezbollah has morphed into a complex organization that engages in overt warfare (in Syria), organized crime including organized crime in the USA (see untaxed cigarette trafficking cases in NC), politics and social work in Lebanon but terrorism is in its DNA. Whatever one’s political perspective, terrorism should not be rationalized or justified by pseudo-intellectual arguments or assertions of moral equivalency if we want to live in a civilized society.

My respect for PP went up with this article. Thank you Sebastian Rotella for your efforts.

Very fine article. I thought when reading it I was going to be barraged with the standard guilt white first world excuses for third world terrorism (I call it the new white mans burden), but was delighted to read a no holds barred summary of Iran’s exportation of terror to Latin America.

Mark, your comments show the ignorance of not appreciating other views.  ie. A typical American zealot.  I have NO skin in the Israel-Palestinian debacle.  It is far more complex than stone throwing from one side or another.  I’m not qualified to say who is right and who is wrong.  But, bombing civilians is a crime against humanity.  PERIOD.

You don’t know why we supported the Shah?  Wake up.  We didn’t support the Shah, we inserted him as our tyrannical, dictatorial puppet because he would do our corporate master’s will.

WWI was started by European colonialism to defend elite interests.  That’s why the French had hundreds of thousands of military personal revolt during the war.  How is that doing the right thing?  Then we were part of a pact at the end of WWI that many at time said would create the next world war.  Which it did.  By the way, American banks and corporations helped Hitler re-arm.  Western power policies created Hitler.

The Gulf War?  HAHAHAHA.  You might try getting your head out of the propaganda machine and learning to think critically for yourself.  War is always about power.  And the fact that the U.S. has been in 70 of them is because the military-industrial complex and corporate capitalist crave power. 

Do you consult the pacifist, turn the other cheek, Jesus for your American Christian ideals?  Do you channel his power when you think of bombing and killing others?  I’m not saying the U.S. is the world’s Satan, but Paul Craig Roberts, our former Treasury Secretary did.

Become a piece of brick of the future foundation of HGP’s absolutely honest geo-politicking and expect to watch slow evaporation of criminal /thuggish minds in disguise of State heads, Oil-lords, royals etc. etc.
No worry good and honest global Citizens!

“Firebrand leaders”. .???
I expect a better brand of “journalism” from this site…...!
If not…...Sayonara!

Butch In Waukegan

July 11, 2013, 4:06 p.m.

The article quotes, unquestioningly, claim before a Senate committee that Iran’s ties to Latin America pose an “immediate threat” to the US.

Is that his “least untruthful” answer? Relying on official statements from intelligence and military honchos is not analysis, it’s stenography.

What a piece of rubbish bit of “reporting”—truly a low for ProPublica.

You’re quoting James Clapper and expect someone to take you seriously. Promoting government talking points is not journalism.

The article comes across like the propaganda machine we’ve all known and come to love. Grim Reaper, Cyrus, and Bert seem to be well informed in this area. The PR machine is working overtime performing damage control from the Snowden debacle. Get ready for more from many more outlets. We reacted horribly after 9/11 and I don’t see that changing, especially after reading this article.

I’m losing interest in Pro Publica, with articles like this and the one a couple of weeks ago that “Europeans” (actually the ruling elite) didn’t have much of a problem with reports of NSA mass surveillance. Has Pro Publica been taken over surreptitiously by the Koch brothers?

I agree with most everyone else on this…the article wreaks of a press release from Washington. Iran is seen as a target ever since 9/11 and many feel 9/11 was done by the Israelis to pull the US into a Holy War. Venezuela has always frustrated America because we cannot control them. This article tries to tie them together as two countries we should keep an eye on. We should turn a watchful eye on the U.S.

Is Pro Publica corrupted? This article belongs in some war mongering rag. I sincerely hope this piece is an aberation. Sebastian Rotella would be a better fit at American Standard.

I did not know that OFF the record listening of officials were considered to be investigative journalism. I thought this was ordinary journalism. If consensus of agencies were something close to the true, there were no reason to have investigative journalists. We would only need to listen to U.S. officials OFF the record. I only imagine they have a full list of journalists to be called to OFF the records talks. And - o my god - the other side of the story? have tried to reach it?

Black is white.

In other words, ProPublica, don’t just repeat what the US government says.  Have a look at what it says and does.  Then have a look at what those it criticises say and do.

The country with the most blood on its hands in the current century is - by a very large margin - the US.  Does it support freedom?  Well, it says it does, but its actions bely those words.  Does it want democracy?  Same answer - it happily supports military dictators, as long as they are its military dictators.  Then of course there are countries like Sri Lanka, which butchered civilians but are “friends”.

This is poor journalism by a group that I thought knew better.

Grim Reaper, Mr. Rotella seems to oscillate between level-headed analysis and transcribing whatever anonymous “officials” tell him uncritically.  Generally, where Iran is involved, and especially the magical link between Iranian terrorists (which nobody else knows about) and Latin American gangs, seems to be exclusively the latter.

As André points out, this is all off-the-record, anonymous sourcing with no documentation and therefore could be entirely made up.

And yet, he has also gone to great lengths to eviscerate government assertions of anti-terror “wins” on the same basis.

I love how my fellow leftists suddenly turn on ProPublica when it sets its site on a country they think shares their own ideological viewpoint.

Meanwhile, Venezuela has the worst crime in South America, the highest inflation, the worst corruption, constant food and other scarcities (toilet paper, for example), rampant blackouts, an increasing sham of a democratic system, very few independent media outlets left, massive debt, political prisoners, shrinking economy, etc etc etc.  All this while on a unprecendanted decade long oil boom that gave the state massive amounts of money at its disposal.

No matter, as long as the leadership loudly thumbs its nose at the US, my fellow leftists will ignore whats going on and come to the defense of Venezuela.  I would invite them to come and see Venezuela for themselves, but I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them.  They can go on enjoying their delusional view of Venezuela from the comforts of their keyboards, 1000s of miles away.

I hope you aren’t labeling me a leftist.  I am anything but.  I am a human being and deny labels.  Rory, your assertions about Venezuela show a limited understanding of reality.  The U.S. controls the inflation rate in Venezuela in a very primary way through the world’s reserve currency.  And the fact that Venezuela is at the mercy of the IMF/World Bank/US dollar global hegemony.  We used this troika to destroy Iran’s currency last year and sent their economy into hyperinflation.  How do you think we coerce country’s into our policies beyond our political bribes?  We hold sway over their economic livelihood.  Have you ever read NYT best-seller Confessions of an Economic Hitman?

You are very loose on the facts.  They have less food poverty than we do.  They also have a democratic food culture that makes our industrial food monopoly look like a sham.  Rampant blackouts?  What are the blackout statistics?  Are they worse than ours during Katrina and other disasters?  Or the rolling brownouts created by Enron on the west coast that murdered elderly who couldn’t afford to pay their electricity?  Is their “massive” debt an unfunded $200 trillion dollars as the U.S is?  Do they have 50 million people on food stamps and a real unemployment rate as calculate in 1980 of 24% as ours is?  Do they torture people or issue state fatwas for murder of their own citizens?  Shall I continue?  I have all day.  And I can fill it too.

This is utter nonsense. Nisman is an Israeli agent and was just prevented by Argentina from testifying at the U.S. Congress. Iran’s interests in Latin America are entirely based on trade and economic cooperation. For example, Iran is building several ocean-going oil tankers for Venezuela.

But, even if there was a military aspect to some of its associations with Latin American countries, so what? Doesn’t the U.S. have military collaboration with numerous countries in the world?

You are very loose on the facts.  They have less food poverty than we do.  They also have a democratic food culture that makes our industrial food monopoly look like a sham. 

“A democratic food culture?” 

I really don’t even know what that means.  I do know, however, that basic foodstuffs are often harder and harder to find.  In the most populous state last month, they announced they were going to turn to food rationing.

They already have effective food rationing at times in Caracas, which I have seen with my own eyes.  Soviet style 3 hour lines just to pick up Harina Pan or other food, the cornmeal staple of Venezuelan diet which is now harder and harder to find.  They write a number in sharpie on your arm and you have to wait in line.  People rush the grocery stores when they finally come in with Chickens or other meats.  You can find plenty of those videos on youtube.

In a country that has some of the most fertile soil in all of America, their is shortages all sorts of produce that Venezuela used to export.  You have to go to 6 or 7 different stores to try to scrounge up enough sugar to bake cookies, and sometimes one is forced to buy individual packets of sugar from some shady person on the street. Cane sugar grows naturally in parts of this country!

Last time I was in Caracas (2 months ago), my mother in law had to wait 3 hours to buy 3 rolls of toilet paper.  Do you know how humiliating it is to have to ration out toilet paper to your own family, especially you have visitors from abroad? 

Price controls, expropriation of farms, unsatisfactory infrastructure, and other measures have made this hassle a fundamental part of life in Venezuela for the past 5 or 6 years.  The government is able to hold on by importing more and more food each year, while domestic production continues to shrink.  (Although currency controls and a corrupt import/export company sometimes doesn’t allow enough imports to be brought in)

Meanwhile, the government continues to blame shortages on hoarders, speculators, and the CIA trying to undermine the government. 
Two examples: Last week, Eduardo Samoan, the head of Venezuela’s Consumer Protection Agency, told the public that American company KimberlyClark and the ‘fascists’ have been involved in coup preparing plan by withholding toilet paper from Venezuela.  Maybe he didn’t realize that KimberlyClark was actually the company the government had just partnered with to alleviate the toilet paper shortage crisis.  But that’s irrelevant, those in the barrios and countryside never hear that part of the story, thanks to the Venezuelan government’s ‘hegenomy on information’, as they call it.

With Harina Pan so hard to come by (and to reiterate, Harina Pan is the basic foodstuffs for all Venezuelans.  It’s eaten at least once a day, if not more) the government blamed hoarders and the US.  They showed a picture of a Harina Pan shelf in a Miami grocery store, and said that US had bought all the Harina Pan to keep it away from poor Venezuela.  Of course, all the Harina Pan you will find in stores all over the US is all made in Colombia, not Venezuela. (Harina Pan has moved almost of all of its factories to Colombia over the last 10 years) But that doesn’t get in the way of telling its people, via state channels and newspapers, that the problem with Harina Pan is because of the evil empire.

to Rampant blackouts?  What are the blackout statistics?  Are they worse than ours during Katrina and other disasters?  Or the rolling brownouts created by Enron on the west coast that murdered elderly who couldn’t afford to pay their electricity?

I’m not sure what Enron or Katrina have to do with the topic at hand.  I am sure, though, that regular blackouts are a fact of life for Venezuelan citizens.  They happen regularly, often hours of day most every day.  (Caracas isn’t quite as bad, as the government sacrifices power in other areas to keep Caracas from having to experience the same level of problems).  The Venezuelan government even admits its a ‘crisis’.  It’s an undisputed fact, I’m not going to look up statistics but being in Venezuela from time to time and trying to Skype with relatives there I know the reality of blackouts. 

I’ll leave the other topics for now.

Daniel Qualkinbush

July 12, 2013, 7:02 p.m.

Hmmm, let’s see.

Venezuela extends an offer of, and is identified in the press as the best best for, asylum for Edward Snowden. Now we see Venezuela being vilified in a similar manner, and even linked to, Iran,

Curious timing, that…

Your remarks aren’t worth responding to.  They are clearly your perspectives rather than facts.  I would guess your family may be one of those who has taken everything from everyone else under the American puppet system.  I could refute much of what you are saying as not fact but perspective.  I’m glad toilet paper is the big issue with you.  That means you may have an unhealthy bowel system.  You should be able to snap one off without much need for TP. 

Much of the issues in Venezuela come from U.S. bullying.  Some comes from an experiment to try to democratize a capitalist system.  Frankly, we are going to see the day when expropriation of land comes to the U.S.  Because Venezuela was under the same private, for-profit capitalist system that destroys democracy and leaves the vast majority of the assets in the hands of a few predators and corporations.

I am very dissappointed.  This article belings on FOX, not Pro Publica.  Among the obvious untruths:  “In May, Nisman released a 502-page report as part of a long investigation of a car-bombing that killed 85 people at the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 — the deadliest terror attack in the Americas before 2001”  Do we count the Oklahoma City bombing, or is that excluded because it was done by a Right WIng Fanatic?, and this jewel of investigative reporting “The Iranian expansion dovetailed with the rise of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (known by the Spanish acronym as ALBA), a bloc of leftist, populist, anti-U.S. governments including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.” In other words ‘the usual suspects’ when it comes to US needs, wants and desires.  It wasw not too lng ago, at a time when US China relations were snagged, that there were other ‘investigative; articles pointing out the dangers of Chinese ‘infiltration’ into South America.  SO it seems that our ‘enemy of the day’ changes according to who is currently standing up to the US.  At least we have moved on from “9/11, 9/11, WMD, 9/11, Mushroom Cloud” in our rhetoric. 

The plain fact is that Central and South America have grown strong enough to stand up (to a certain degree) to the US publicly, and the US does not like it.  After a hundred years of US domination in the region, installing and deposing governments at will, killing innocent farmers for organizing against US exploitation or growing a cash crop, and generally treating Central and South America as missguided children in need of control by a stern master, a few of these countries have banded together to try to limit US interference in their internal business. 

Merely a quick GOOGLE of ‘crime rates by country’ shows that the US has the highest crime rate in the world.  I would match poverty in the US with poverty in any of the named countries at any level you want to name.  The inner cities in much of America almost rival the refugee camps in the Middle East in both poor conditions and in crime.  The US Congress, at this moment, has stripped the Public Assistance for Food Stamps (getting food to poor people) from the Farm Bill, cut off Unemployment benefits for millions of out of work people, while extending once again the trillion dollar Patriot Act which most Americans feel is unconstitutional, wastefull and overly intrusive. 

I think this article is either very lazy reporting, which I do not expect in Pro publica, or purposefull propaganda, which I find customarily on FOX and not in this news service.  How about investigating why the US takes credit for tearing down the Berlin Wall while discussing how to build a better Wall along their southern border complete with guard posts, drones, and armed guards.

clarence swinney

July 13, 2013, 11:40 a.m.

My take.  My neighborhood is called Beverly Hills Section. Large homes.
I now call it Hispanicville.  I have no problem with it. I am proud of many of the Hispanics.
Several reside in one home. Eight cars at home across the street. The children are my pals.
I know they must miss their original home and many lifetime friends. I wish them well and hope they will one day get the American Dream—Home Ownership—Well Educated Children—Owners of local businesses. Bless them.

Timely article. I watched a hearing on Capital Hill and it was acknowledged what many of us have suspected for a very long time that Iran’s influence in Latin America is great. Hezbollah active South of our border. It was also stated that Iranians are flying in and out of the U.S. with no problems.

Guns to Mexico’s cartels. Crossings occurring through our borders.

Time to get heads out of the sand.

Grim Reaper

You are truly pathetic.  You won’t engage with me? I don’t have facts, but persective?  I should have known better than waste my time when, in response to me bringing up the electricity shortages in Venezuela, you brought up Katrina and Enron?  That in response to rampant inflation you came up with this gem “The U.S. controls the inflation rate in Venezuela’. Hilarious.

‘I would guess your family may be one of those who has taken everything from everyone else under the American puppet system.’

Wow. If that was the case, we must have been doing something really wrong.  My dad drove a bus for 34 years and now off license taxis, and my mother sells baked goods from her house (when she can get the ingrediants, which is hard).  We are not exactly sifrinos.  We are just sick of watching our country decay in every way possible.

You want to know a little secret?  I voted for Hugo Chavez.  Twice.  I was a little unsure but I thought he might be Venezuela’s savior.  He turned out to be not a savior but a disaster, a demogauge populist who happened to enjoy an unprecendanted oil boom which gave him enough cash to make himself an autocrat and a world figure while the country went to rot and the long established democratic system with free press, free judiciary, and free elections was dismantled and distorted piece by piece.

The truth is you’re not any interested in Venezuela, or the people in Venezuela, or the facts of Venezuela, and you know it.  You just want to take any opportunity to attack the US.  The fact that you know nothing about the shortages, and the power outages, and the recent and ongoing toilet paper shortage, the rampant crime, the inflation, all admitted by the government and common knowledge to anyone with a cursory interest in Venezuela, shows you are either utterly clueless or don’t really care.

Go ahead though, keep on commenting on articles on topics about which you know nothing.  I’m sure you’ll convince a lot of people of the merit of your views when you offer nothing except crude jokes and dime store cliches, while real people suffer and freedoms are trampled.

“Merely a quick GOOGLE of ‘crime rates by country’ shows that the US has the highest crime rate in the world.  I would match poverty in the US with poverty in any of the named countries at any level you want to name.  “

Where do these people come from? Ay dios mio!  You can find more informed comments on Yahoo articles, for chrissake


You know what?  You are clueless.  Do you think people in the U.S. experience such shortages at TP?  Do you think the 58 million people on food stamps don’t experience shortages?  Of the people in the largest prison population on earth aren’t a result of a violent society?  A society that sees rolling brownouts due to manipulation of energy by corporate power enabled by politicians.  I could go on and on and on.  But, much of the U.S. looks like a war zone and comparable to the poverty experienced in Venezuela.

You are utterly clueless.  Chavez inherited a system of massive wealth inequality.  A system that was propped up by the US. and thus is similar in its wealth distribution and social dynamics to the US.  Now, I don’t believe you have any of the answers of how to solve such a class-driven system of inequality and social injustice since you seem to believe the U.S. is some some bastion of freedom and toilet paper.  But, Chavez, to his credit tried to ameliorate the injustices and poverty created by a US puppet system that raped the vast majority of people.  He inherited a system of massive corruption.  Do I think Chavez was, in some ways, a megalomaniac?  Yes.  Is he responsible for this?  Hmm.  His policies certainly may have had unintended consequences.  Like encouraging people to take up gun ownership because of the corruption in VZ. 

Venezuela’s problems in large part were created by the U.S.  And are still determined by the U.S. through our hegemony of global finance and trade asserted through the dollar, the IMF, the World Bank and a military used to enforce it.

You love to put words in other people’s mouths.  Those words come from no place other than your own subconscious shadow.  They aren’t my words.  They are yours. 

Things in the U.S. certainly are not any different than VZ.  The only difference is our currency can’t collapse because it is the world’s reserve currency and thus has artificial demand metrics associated with it.  If that system would unwind, we would see even more poverty than VZ.  Likely 50-70% unemployment. 

You need to wake up.  You live in some fantasy land.  Did Chavez make things worse in some areas?  I’m sure he did.  What are your answers?  More predatory corporate control and concentration of wealth within a class-based system of violence?

Eric Saunders

July 18, 2013, 8:36 p.m.

This reporter seems like a Judy Miller type of stenographer here.  The logic of Iran sponsoring terror against the US is so absurd that it has to be neocon propaganda.  After all, why would Iran give the US a reason to attack the country?  I guess the propaganda message is that they would do this because they are soooo ‘crazy,’ but I don’t buy it.

The question is, why does ProPublica tarnish its name by publishing this insidious garbage?

Jim Lobe has done a devastating critique of this article. ProPublica should hire him!

As Javier Lopez said, Jim Lobe has demolished this article:

Lobe concludes with:

Given the misattribution of a quotation critical to the story’s thesis; the prolific use of anonymous “Western intelligence sources” and the like; the citation of sources with a clear ideological or political axe to grind; the omission of information that could bear on those sources’ credibility; the more or less uncritical acceptance of official reports that are known to be controversial but that generally reflect the interests of the axe-grinders; and the failure to confirm misinformation that can be quickly searched and verified, one can’t help but ask whether Rotella’s work meets ProPublica’s standards.

That question takes on additional and urgent importance given the subject — alleged terrorist activities by Iran and Hezbollah — Rotella specializes in. All of us remember the media’s deplorable failure to critically challenge the Bush administration’s allegations — and those of anonymous “Western intelligence sources”, etc. — about Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, as well as his vast and fast-growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including a supposedly advanced nuclear-weapons program. We now face, in many respects, a comparable situation with respect to Iran. Bearing that history in mind, any media organization — but especially one of ProPublica’s stature and mission — should be expected to make extraordinary efforts not only to verify its information, reduce its reliance on anonymous sources and avoid innuendo, but also to aggressively challenge “official” narratives or those that are quite obviously being promoted as part of a campaign by parties with a clear interest in confrontation — even war — with Iran. The stakes are considerable.

Another strong vote for the eviscerating Lobe analysis.

Peter Reigart

July 19, 2013, 6:53 p.m.

ProPublica was founded by the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. It is now led by a former investigative editor of The New York Times, and the former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
They seem to be trying but old habits die hard.
A sad sign of the times to see such blatant factless propaganda disguised as news.
As Mr. Saunders commented “The question is, why does ProPublica tarnish its name by publishing this insidious garbage? “

Follow the money, sometimes in order for the donations to flow a little (lot of) disinformation will help keep the bills paid.

From the editors at ProPublica:

Several commenters have remarked on a critique of this story by Jim Lobe on the LobeLog. Mr. Lobe also criticized the story in an email to Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief. Our response to Mr. Lobe follows, as does his initial email:

From: Stephen Engelberg []
Sent: Monday, August 12, 2013 10:09 AM
To: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Subject: RE: Rotella on Iran terrorist infrastructure in Latin America


We’ve reviewed your critique of our story, “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads to Latin America,” and the two issues you raised in an email to Steve Engelberg requesting corrections. We’re certainly not averse to correcting when warranted. In this instance we’ve decided that’s not required.

First, you say we misreported Joseph Humire’s testimony about Iranian migrants going to Canada. In fact, Humire’s testimony states that Iran is the number one source of improperly documented migrants (i.e., illegally entering on false, altered, stolen or improperly obtained travel documents), most of whom seek refugee status when they arrive. Citing the Canadian border services agency, his testimony stated that most of those Iranian migrants arrived via Latin America from 2009 to 2011, and that the majority passed through Caracas. This is what we reported in our brief mention of his testimony. Nowhere did we say there is a “flood” of Iranian operatives into Canada, as you wrote. We spoke to Mr. Humire. He said our story was an accurate account of his testimony, which was not solely based on the report by the Canadian border services agency, but on his conversations with Canadian border officials who are concerned about the Iranian migrant issue. He said this accounts for differences in wording between his testimony and the report, which states that Latin America was the primary last embarkation point for Iranian migrants in 2009 and 2010. As you noted, the report also states that the flow subsequently shifted to Western Europe, although Caracas and Mexico City remain significant embarkation points.

Second, you dispute the section stating that the trial of Abdul Kadir, convicted in the 2007 JFK terror plot, revealed that he was a longtime intelligence operative for Iran. According to a Justice Department news release about his sentencing to life in prison, however, “Kadir, a former member of the Guyanese parliament, admitted that he regularly passed information to Iranian authorities about sensitive topics, including the Guyanese military, and believed himself bound to follow fatwas from Iranian religious leaders.” Furthermore, the full 502-page report by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman into Iran’s activities in Latin America further explores the evidence that Kadir was an Iranian operative. The Nisman report cites the U.S. court file and testimony to Argentine prosecutors by witnesses including New York Joint Terrorism Task Force investigator Robert Addonizio, who testified that Kadir “worked for the Iranian government and provided it with intelligence information about Guyana” and that Kadir’s activities “were those of a spy.”  You have a different view of the nature of Kadir’s relationship with Iran, but our account of the assessments of the U.S. and Argentine authorities is accurate.

Your blog raises other complaints, but in fact the story is far more balanced and restrained than your portrayal. Among other things, it prominently states that there is “considerable debate inside and outside the U.S. government” about the extent and nature of Iranian influence in Latin America. The story also quotes a senior U.S. government official in support of the State Department’s conclusion that Iranian influence is actually waning. And it reports Rep. Bennie Thompson’s opinion that the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had weakened Iranian ties. You failed to mention any of those points in your post.

Regarding the correction of Director Clapper’s remarks, you are already aware that the mistake stemmed from an error in testimony by Ilan Berman. Upon learning from a government official of a potential misattribution, we contacted Mr. Berman. He graciously acknowledged responsibility for the error, so we immediately corrected and updated the story.

We agree that anonymous sources should be used sparingly, with discretion and with full awareness of the potential for officials to use the cloak of anonymity for political purposes. That said, it seems wholly unrealistic to presume that people in the U.S. government or elsewhere would discuss classified information on the record. We note that your own stories cite anonymous sources, several of whom do not appear to be risking their security clearances. Your recent posts quote unnamed “U.S. officials”, a “lobbyist”, an “insider”, a “well-connected Congressional staffer” and “one Washington veteran.” As you are no doubt aware, an unprecedented number of criminal leak investigations has cast a significant chill on government sources. Front-line officials and others involved in national security cases often will not speak on the record about sensitive information if it jeopardizes their safety, their career or an important investigation.

At the same time, when our story cites, by name, the testimony of former Colombian intelligence chief Fernando Tabares about alleged Iranian terrorist activity, you describe the information as “purported” and “of unknown origin.” This is perplexing, as the story clearly names “the Argentine investigation” as the source of Tabares’ testimony, which can be found on pages 474 and 475 of the Nisman report along with information from a second Colombian intelligence official. We have reviewed the full version of Nisman’s report in the original Spanish. We also note that Sebastian Rotella has considerable independent expertise about the AMIA attack, which he began covering in the mid-1990s when he was based in Argentina.

Finally, your insinuations about an ideological agenda are simply without merit and are debunked by any number of stories by Rotella, who has a proven and esteemed record of unbiased, revealing and incisive reporting. We have full confidence in his competence and professionalism.

/s/ The Editors, ProPublica

From: Jim Lobe, IPS []
Sent: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 1:20 PM
To: Stephen Engelberg
Subject: Rotella on Iran terrorist infrastructure in Latin America

Hi Mr. Engelberg:

Please forgive my presumptuousness in addressing this directly to you, but I couldn’t find anyone else, such as an ombudsman, to whom to address this complaint. My name is Jim Lobe, and I’ve served as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service ( for almost three decades.

I refer to Mr. Rotella’s article published July 11, “The Terror Threat and Iran’s Inroads in Latin America,” for which ProPublica has already issued one important correction regarding the misattribution of a quotation by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to DNI James Clapper.

I published a lengthy critique (including the misattribution) of Mr. Rotella’s article on my blog ( on July 18, just a few hours after the correction was issued and 24 hours after I had alerted the DNI’s press office to its existence. (The critique can be found at In addition to the misattribution, I also noted at least two major factual errors in the story – including the characterization of an individual convicted in a terrorist plot 2010 as a “longtime intelligence operative for Iran” and the assertion that Iran was the top source of illegal migrants to Canada – neither of which has been corrected by ProPublica.

If you have the patience to read the critique, you will see that these factual errors and misattributions, at least in my view, have been symptomatic of larger problems regarding Mr. Rotella’s reporting on Iran/Hezbollah/terrorism-related issues, problems which some of my colleagues and I have noticed for some time and about which they may be writing more for the blog. You will also see that, at least in the case of this specific article, a very highly regarded former top intelligence official with expertise on Iran and the Middle East, Paul Pillar, shared some of our views. In case you don’t have the patience to read the critique, this is what he sent me by email after reading Mr. Rotella’s article:

“The article certainly seems to be an effort to go out of the way to raise suspicions about Iranian activities in the hemisphere, by dumping together material that is either old news or not really nefarious, and stringing it together with innuendo. Almost all of the specifics that get into anything like possible terrorist activities are old. The Iranian efforts to make diplomatic friends in Latin America by cozying up with the regimes in Venezuela and elsewhere that have an anti-U.S. streak is all well known, but none of that adds up to an increase in clandestine networks or a terrorist threat. The closest the article gets in that regard is with very vague references to Venezuela being used by “suspected Middle Eastern operatives” and the like, which of course demonstrates nothing as far as Iran specifically is concerned. Sourcing to an unnamed “intelligence officer” is pretty meaningless.”

Assuming that Mr. Pillar used his best professional judgment in making this assessment, I would think that ProPublica should be quite concerned about his view – especially the reference to the use of “innuendo” in the story – if not so impressed with mine. Innuendo, I’m sure you will agree, is not something ProPublica would ever want to be associated with, especially on such an issue of such importance to U.S. foreign policy.

In any event, I hope that ProPublica would consider issuing the additional corrections of fact noted above.

Given ProPublica’s very important mission and work, as well as your own many contributions to excellent journalism, I would be very gratified to hear back from you on this.
Thanks for your time and consideration.

Best regards,


Eric Saunders

Aug. 12, 2013, 5:19 p.m.

The facts still remain:  There is no reason for Iran to support terror attacks in the Western hemisphere, but there is much motivation for the neoconservatives to use any all means of ginning up the perception that Iran has done so or is doing so.  Furthermore, these neoconservatives have a history of using all manner of subterfuge and bullshit in order to achieve their murderous, criminal political goals, e.g. the Iraq War.

The editors of ProPublica are twice as smart as one would need to be to grasp these obvious facts, so the more important question is: why is ProPublica allowing itself to be tainted by publishing transparent neocon propaganda?

James M. Fitzsimmons

Aug. 13, 2013, 9:03 a.m.

Hezbollah has been in the USA and Canada for decades. In the mid-1990’s, both Canadian and US law enforcement/intelligence agencies established evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of connections between Hezbollah operatives in both Canada and the USA with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Hezbollah operatives were engaged in organized criminal activities to procure/smuggle critical equipment (night vision devices, laser range finders, stun guns etc.) for terrorist activities and to generate revenue for Hezbollah. Criminal cases were developed by USA and Canadian law enforcement agencies over a 4 year period. Evidence of sophisticated criminal activity resulted in numerous convictions and indisputable intelligence about Hezbollah’s activities in the USA and Canada.  In June 2002, Hezbollah operatives were convicted in US District Court, Charlotte of providing material support and resources to Hezbollah. 24 other conspirators were prosecuted under RICO and other Federal statutes.  These are “smoking gun” facts. Thanks again, Sebastian Rotella for your article.

Can you take me off the updates for this thread?  I am still receiving them in my email inbox.  I no longer read ProPublica. 

Thank you.

Eric Saunders

Aug. 13, 2013, 9:44 p.m.

Hezbollah’s chief military campaigns were against the illegal Israeli occupation of Lebanon.  The targets were Israeli military and therefore the attacks cannot be described as ‘terrorist,’ since that would require attacks aimed at civilians.  This is just more proof that the word ‘terrorism’ is a nonsensical catch-all applied to any group that works against the ends of Western imperialism.  No intelligent person is fooled by neocon propagandists like the author of this article and the sad spammers in the comments here who tow the imperial line.

James M. Fitzsimmons

Aug. 14, 2013, 8:34 a.m.

Re above: Admittedly, Hezbollah is a more complex entity than just a terrorist organization. They currently engage in military operations in support of the murderous Syrian regime (and indirectly Iran) i.e. they kill other Muslims who oppose Hezbollah’s state supporters, Iran and Syria. They have engaged in assassinations in Lebanon and terror in So. America and Bulgaria recently. Hezbollah is an international organized crime conspiracy as evidenced by RICO convictions of operatives in US District Court, for example. In Canada, Hezbollah operatives laundered money for their criminal activities and were caught doing this. Hezbollah’s notorious history began in the 1980’s with the terrorist act of suicidal truck bombing the US Marine Barracks in Beirut killing over 250 Marines serving as Peacekeepers.

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