The Great, Warm, Red-White-and-Blue Beating Heart of This Beleaguered Country (Book Three, Part 67: The Christic Institute)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: The CIA was very bad, and then there was a bombing in La Penca, Nicaragua, that injured a journalist, Tony Avrigan.
In this, the eleventh hour, with the world poised on the brink of Red Armageddon, it is vital that we, as a nation, should rally around those symbols that are closest to the great, warm, red-white-and-blue beating heart of this beleaguered country. They are our hope and our inspiration, the legends that urge our people onward even in times of deepest crisis. -Alan Moore, Watchmen
Subsequent investigation revealed that “Per Anker Hansen’ was in fact a man named Vital Roberto Gaguine, an Argentinian leftist who had traveled to La Penca along with Swedish journalist Peter Torbiörnsson. Tobiörnsson was in fact a Sandinista sympathizer who had worked closely with a Nicaraguan intelligence unit called the Fifth Directorate, run out of the Interior Ministry by Tomás Borge, although he has always maintained that he simply thought Gaguine was a spy and not a bomber, and in his later career worked to expose the details of Sandinista involvement in the bombing. This has not entirely satisfied Honey, however, who, not unreasonably, points out that pinning the blame on the Sandinistas would have benefitted the Reagan administration, who instead stonewalled and obfuscated the investigation, and who points out a number of aspects of the bombing that remain unexplained.
The details of Gaguine’s involvement and Torbiörnsson’s complicity, however, did not begin to emerge until 1993, and Torbiörnsson’s full involvement did not emerge until 2009. Long before all of this, when the bulk of the evidence to be unearthed was still related to the CIA theory, Avirgan and Honey found themselves in touch with the Christic Institute, who felt that the evidence they had collected tied in with their ongoing investigations of the CIA. Ultimately Avirgan and the Christic Institute filed a $24 million lawsuit against a wide spread of people alleged to have been responsible for a conspiracy to commit the La Penca bombing along with drug and arms trafficking, illegal assassination programs, and more. It should be stressed that many of the underlying claims in the lawsuit were ultimately well-documented—the Iran-Contra scandal was, after all, real, and the lawsuit was filed months before it emerged into popular awareness. And, more to the point, the CIA really was responsible for a host of illegal activities including drug smuggling and illegal assassinations.
Despite its prescience, however, Avirgan v. Hull was a deeply ambitious lawsuit, and the Christic Institute had bad luck in drawing James Lawrence King as the judge. King was a Nixon appointee who would have a long career of conservative and pro-government rulings, and on June 23rd 1988 he dismissed the case, declaring that the Christic Institute’s case consisted of “unsubstantiated rumor and speculation from unidentified sources with no first-hand knowledge” and levying one million dollars in fines against the Institute for filing a frivolous suit.
It is undoubtedly the case that King was a particularly hostile judge, and opinion was sharply divided on whether his dismissal and penalties were unduly harsh, but even writers who are sympathetic to the Institute’s aims tend to suggest that the lawsuit was deeply flawed. Tony Avirgan, for his part, put the blame for the lawsuit’s failure firmly on Daniel Sheehan, complaining that “ As plaintiffs in the suit, Martha Honey and I struggled for years to try to bring the case down to earth, to bringing it away from Sheehan’s wild allegations. Over the years, numerous staff lawyers quit over their inability to control Sheehan,” and that in terms of the La Penca bombing itself “there is a strong body of evidence here in Costa Rica. It is enough evidence to get a reluctant Costa Rican judiciary to indict two CIA operatives, John Hull and Felipe Vidal, for murder and drug trafficking. Unfortunately, little of this evidence was successfully transformed into evidence acceptable to U.S. courts. It was either never submitted or was poorly prepared. In large part, this was because Sheehan was concentrating on his broad, 30-year conspiracy.”
This is a complex claim. On the one hand, as the Christic Institute pointed out in their defense, they had to work within the confines of the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, which meant that they had to prove a very specific sort of criminal conspiracy. In order to accomplish this, they identified a variety of figures that comprised the conspiracy, ranging from Colombian drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar to CIA figures like Ted Shackley and Thomas Clines. However the Christic Institute’s claims went well beyond the mapping out of a conspiracy to commit the La Penca bombing. They also sought to link the CIA figures named in the lawsuit to a group they referred to as the Secret Team, a group comprised of “former high-ranking American CIA officials, former high-ranking U.S. Military officials and Middle Eastern arms merchants” that “carried on its own independent, American foreign policy—regardless of the will of Congress, the will of the President, or even the will of the American Central Intelligence Agency.” It is this latter claim that Avirgan is referring to in his complaint about Sheehan’s obsession with a thirty-year conspiracy, and this is probably fair from the perspective of trying to win a lawsuit about the La Penca bombing—wider claims about CIA malfeasance could only dilute the narrower argument that was at the heart of the actual case.
It’s also clear that, from Sheehan’s perspective, Avirgan v. Hull was a vehicle for pursuing the larger claims about the Secret Team. Certainly the Secret Team formed a huge part of the Christic Institute’s public outreach and fundraising around the case. They distributed buttons with the slogan “Stop the Secret Team” and used the term frequently when speaking to journalists. Later in the progress of the case they backed off on this slightly—their 1988 publication Inside the Shadow Government, which was essentially a book version of one of their court filings, avoided using the “secret team” terminology in favor of the titular shadow government, but the underlying claim was much the same, and the terminology no less conspiratorial. These broad claims about the CIA and its power were very clearly the point, inasmuch as the Christic Institute was presenting itself to the general public. And Avirgan’s argument that this focus distracted from the actual case has clear merit—Inside the Shadow Government was, for instance, a revised version of an earlier affidavit filed by Daniel Sheehan, also distributed as a pamphlet by the Christic Institute, which relied on dozens of anonymous sources while repeatedly making claims about the “secret team.”
It is also important to realize that the specific phrasing “secret team” had troubling roots that spoke to a larger carelessness in the Christic Institute’s actions. The phrase “secret team” was not an invention of Sheehan and the Christic Institute, but rather a phrase borrowed from L. Fletcher Prouty, who wrote a 1973 book entitled The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the United States and the World. Prouty had been a colonel in the Air Force who spent eight years from 1955 to 1963 as a liason between the CIA and the Pentagon. The book was one of the earlier works to reveal details of the CIA’s misdeeds, but Prouty often tipped into elaborate conspiracy theories that pushed beyond what the evidence he could point to actually supported, eventually coming into the orbit of the Liberty Lobby, a right-wing operation that repeatedly tipped into overtly antisemitic conspiracy theories, with the “Secret Team” rhetoric quickly gathering antisemitic connotations. It is easy to elevate this observation into guilt by association, and it must be stressed that Prouty’s original book was not overtly antisemitic (although later editions, published decades after the Christic Institute’s lawsuit, were published by a Holocaust denial outfit), and that the Christic Institute did not make any antisemitic claims. Nevertheless, claims originating in the Liberty Lobby’s weekly newspaper Spotlight made their way into the Christic Department’s depositions, while other claims could be traced back to Lyndon LaRouche’s movement. None of this invalidates the larger claims that Sheehan and the Christic Institute made, but they do suggest the degree to which those sound arguments were being pulled astray by overtly conspiratorial thinking.
Although it is for the most part a more sober and careful presentation of the underlying claims, the “Secret Team” rhetoric made multiple appearances in Brought to Light, the eventual product of the Christic Institute’s collaboration with Joyce Brabner. Originally slated to be a collaborative publication between Eclipse and Warner Communications, the book was eventually produced purely by Eclipse, and billed itself as “revealing “30 years of drug smuggling, arms deals and covert operations that robbed America and betrayed the constitution,” a clear reference to the conspiracy theory. Brought to Light was also billed as “Two Books in One,” and printed as a reversible publication that could be read from either side to come to the same eventual “conclusion” in the middle. This split was the idea of Brabner, who reasoned that “there were two ways the stories could be told. One was this very heavy legal deposition as filed by the institute, and the other was a straightforward look at the bombing.” The latter of these was entitled “Flashpoint: The La Penca Bombing,” and was done by Joyce Brabner and Thomas Yeates.
This worked much like Brabner’s work in Real War Stories, except instead of telling about the war experiences of conscientious objectors, Brabner and Yeates adapted Avirgan and Honey’s account of the La Penca bombing and their investigation into a comics narrative. Their approach in this is largely centered on the way in which Avirgan and Honey’s lives were disrupted—the bombing does not take place until the sixteenth page of a thirty-two page comic, and the latter portion of the comic is as focused on the terror involved in tracing a story in which your contacts and sources are shot at, threatened, and mysteriously disappear. The larger message of CIA malfeasance and corruption comes through, especially in the last few pages where the Christic Institute heroically steps in to push the lawsuit, but the comic’s focus is less on establishing the detailed context than on capturing the story from the specific perspective of Avirgan and Honey—the emotional content of being caught in a bomb blast, watching a colleague die in front of you, and then being terrorized as you try to determine your own government’s complicity in your trauma. In other words, although the focus had changed to events with global political implications, Brabner was fundamentally working in the Harvey Pekar mould: using comics to render singular perspectives and extraordinary stories in a form that is more widely accessible.
While “Flashpoint: The La Penca Bombing” focused on the particulars that nominally underpinned the Christic Institute’s lawsuit, the other half of Brought to Light, entitled “Shadowplay: The Secret Team,” offered a more general history of the CIA, focusing on the larger conspiracy theory that was Sheehan’s main interest. Brabner declined to write this half, instead offering the job to Alan Moore, with art by Bill Sienkiewicz.
Sienciewicz, like Moore, was a rising star of the 1980s comics scene, and indeed their careers largely moved in sync over the decade. Like Moore, Sienciewicz got his start in 1979 on a comparatively minor gig, drawing backup features in The Hulk! starring Moon Knight, originally designed as an antagonist for Werewolf By Night but eventually spun off to be a solo superhero who basically boiled down to a Batman clone in a bright white costume that was both a memorable design and a deeply questionable decision for night time operations. Little about these stories spoke to the artist being one of the major talents of the next decade—Sienciewicz appeared little more than a competent Neal Adams clone, which was, to be fair, a perfectly reasonable thing to be when drawing a low rent Batman knockoff.
In 1980 he moved on to an ongoing Moon Knight series. Over the next three years he drew most of the first thirty issues of it, along with a roughly one year run on Fantastic Four. This period saw a slow evolution in Sienkiewicz’s style, as he embraced a rougher and more expressionistic approach—by the time of his final issue of Moon Knight he’d embraced a style with a much scratchier line, at times practically devolving into scribbling, and making use of vast expanses of key black. The werewolf antagonist of the issue was a monstrous thing that seemed at times to be exploding outward from the very lines that defined him, and the comic ended with a splash of the werewolf retreating down a street that offered a neon noir cityscape dotted by impressionistic streetlights. This came in 1983, as Moore was starting on Swamp Thing, having graduated from proving himself as a compelling talent to being given a run with which to prove himself a superstar.
For Sienkiewicz, that role would be played by New Mutants.