On the first day of September, 1991, in room 419 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, there was a hearing that had been structured in such a way as to elicit as little public attention as possible. Experts were on hand to speak in tones pitched to guarantee boredom. Committee members, typically half-prepared and distracted, seemed to ensure an atmosphere of monotony and torpor. The Subcommittee on “Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations” of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was taking evidence on the murky and obscure workings of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), an institution which in the months ahead was to become known as the “Bank of Crooks and Spies.” In various postures of piety and relaxation were Sens. Jesse Helms (R-NC), James Jeffords (R-VT), Claiborne Pell (D-RI), Paul Simon (D-IL), Alan Cranston (D-CA), and John Kerry (D-MA), the subcommittee chairman.
The two witnesses were Jack Blum, a former investigator for the subcommittee, and William von Rabb, U.S. Customs commissioner under Presidents Reagan and – until just that previous month – Bush – and dull their revelations were not. As Blum and von Rabb got deeper and deeper into their testimony, a number of reporters who had shown up – more out of habit and having nothing better to do – began to catch one another’s eye; in the seats reserved for the public, quiet gave way to murmurs and even a few whistles of astonishment.
Did the Federal Reserve possess a list of names of prominent Washingtonians who had taken kickbacks from BCCI? Yes, it did. Had BCCI helped certain outlaw states acquire American nuclear technology? Yes, it had. Had payments been made through BCCI to drug runners, gun smugglers, death-squad leaders? You bet. Had the Treasury Department known about BCCI? Sure. What about the Justice Department? They knew what was up, and seemed most concerned that no others would.
The testimony which began to slowly emerge in the weeks and months which followed should have concerned any evangelical with the patience to follow the hearings; it revealed a sinister and noxious web of relationships which connected BCCI, to the CIA, the State Department, the Justice Department, the Middle East, drug-smuggling, money-laundering, the Contras, the Vatican, a number of rich North American and Latin American businessmen, Clark Clifford, Manuel Noriega, the Calero brothers, the Medellin Drug Cartel, D’Aubuisson, Oliver North, Elliot Abrams, the Death Squads, killings, torture, “disappearances,” etc. – essentially all those elements which in any way had been connected to the defeat of communism in Central and South America. And there, in the midst of it all, were the evangelicals.
Many evangelicals, of course, will say that their involvement with such things (and people) had been worth it – the defeat of communism in Central and South America! But was it really? Can any good ever come out of such enterprises? such entanglements? – the torture! the “disappearances!” the drug-smuggling! the money laundering! etc. There is a price to be paid when one involves himself in such things – the defilement of one’s soul; the contamination of one’s psyche; the corruption of one’s character. That’s why the Scriptures warn that it’s better for Christians – especially when acting together as a “community of faith” – to suffer evil and the wrong-doing of others than to take matters into one’s own hands and strike back – even when they are apparently justified in doing so, as when, for example, the goal is the defeat of communist subversion:
“But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also … Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Please see Matt. 5:39-48)
But apparently that’s not what a large number of evangelicals thought! – evidently Larry Lea didn’t think so! nor did Cubie Ward! (more about this in upcoming journals) nor, evidently, did the Rev. Phil Derstein, head of Gospel Crusade, Inc. based out of Brandenton, Florida. Derstine is closely associated with Oral Roberts and various other “Seed Faith” luminaries. Derstine is typical of those evangelicals who, for one reason or another, got mixed up in the “goings-on” in Central and South America and who, as a result, became entangled in the CIA’s dirty little war against communism in that area of the world in the 1970s and ’80s.
Derstein told reporters at the 1987 National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Washington DC that he had become involved in the “happenings” in Central America at the behest of the National Security Council (NSC), specifically as a result of Oliver North’s entreaties. Derstine’s assertions as to his connection to the NSC are supported by a November 1985 report in a Florida newspaper, the Sarasota Harald-Tribune, that U.S. Rep. Andy Ireland (R-FL) had personally accompanied Derstine to a National Security Council briefing together with Oliver North prior to his September 1985 trip to the Honduras-Nicaragua border region.
North had been passing himself off as a “Charismatic Catholic” (and, ipso facto, a card-carrying member of the evangelical community), and had, as a result, earned the endorsement of such evangelical notables as Pat Robertson. Robertson had described North as a “born-again” Christian and as a personal associate – it seems that all it takes today to become an evangelical is to speak in tongues, raise one’s hands at prayer meetings, and punctuate one’s speech with “Hallelujahs” and “Amens.” (Certain New Age cults do that; does that, one wonders, make them Christian as well?)
Interestingly, there is no evidence that prior to the 1980s North had ever taken any interest – personally or otherwise – in evangelicalism, which has led certain skeptics (and not just liberal ones) to conclude that his (i.e., North’s) interest in evangelicalism had been carefully and knowingly calibrated by the NSC and the CIA more as a cynical device to lure the evangelical community into the war against communism in Central America than anything else. Indeed, according to North’s testimony during the Iran / Contra hearings, Bill Casey, the Catholic head of the CIA, had taken the lead in this direction. North testified that Casey was a “dedicated Christian” who had taken him under his wing as a “father would a son.”]
Derstine said that in meetings he attended with North, North would often punctuate his speech with “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” – indicating that the NSC and the CIA had molded and shaped their pupil well, and had expertly coached him in the vernacular of charismatic evangelicalism. Indeed, during this time it was not uncommon – according to sources who had occasion to listen in at the meetings of CIA and State Department operatives with Death Squad leaders and other assorted surrogates and agents at the Contra jungle camps in Central America – to hear great amounts of “Hallelujahs” and “Amens” emanating from those tight-knit circles. One person described these “gatherings” as resembling prayer meetings more than what they really were: the machinations of various killers hell-bent on the overthrow of the Sandinistas at whatever cost to the civilian population in blood and misery.
According to Derstine, North also introduced him to Contra leader Adolfo Calero and Enrique Bermudez. Both Bermudez and Calero have been linked through their Contra organizations not only to Death Squad activity, but also to drug-smuggling operations involving the Medellin Drug Cartel. Derstine said that North had arranged similar introductions for other U.S. based evangelical organizations, among which were Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and Woody Jenkins’ group, Friends of the Americas.
Derstine claims to have traveled to Honduras and northern Nicaragua about a dozen times for meetings with Calero and Bermudez to “provide the Contras with ideological training.” Derstine said, “I’ve been preaching among the Contras. They’re so open to the Gospel. We’re trying to get a chaplains’ program going there. We’ve brought Bibles into the Contras. We’ve brought teaching tapes to the men, and they’re open for us to bring in preachers any time we’re able to.” [One cannot help but wonder, however, what such a Gospel, one that has been so thoroughly politicized, can produce? - the kind which produces converts who can torture and kill while at the same time singing hymns, praising God and speaking in tongues? (Please see summer journal for more information on this matter)]. Derstine said that following his return from such missions, he would be met at the airport by State Department and CIA officials and debriefed – and one cannot really suppose that the CIA and the State Department were really all that interested in the number of converts to Christ Derstine’s efforts had produced. Their interest obviously lay elsewhere and had little to do with the Kingdom of God.
Oh, what a muddled and snarled intrigue we as evangelicals got ourselves mixed up in when we involved ourselves and our churches with the CIA and the NSC in Central and South America. This is what happens when Christians involve themselves – even for the best of reasons – in politics. Someday we will have to explain it all – and on “that day,” we won’t be able to hide behind our contrived excuses and painstakingly complex obfuscations. And it’s doubtful that the One to Whom we must ultimately answer will accept our involvement with torture, drug-smuggling, “disappearances,” Death Squad leaders, etc. – all our elaborate justifications notwithstanding. We would all be well-advised to remember that –
“How the CIA subverts the government at home” in Harper’s Magazine, 1991; carried by the Sacramento Bee, September 22, 1991.
1. Please see “Gospel Crusade, Inc., Contras linked to U.S. fundamentalists” in The Sacramento Bee, March 1, 1987, pg. F-5. Released through the Pacific News Service.
2. Ibid., pg. F-4.
3. Ibid., pg. F-4.
4. Please see “Colombian drug figure: contras got $10 million” in the Sacramento Bee, November 28, 1991, pg. A-4. Associated Press release. The information was obtained from imprisoned drug kingpin Carlos Lehder in testimony connected to the trial of former Panama strongman Manuel Noriega.