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What is the National Endowment for Democracy and how does it promote regime change around the world?

KENNY COYLE takes a look at the NED, its staff and its shady mission to promote US foreign policy interests

MANY activists involved in international solidarity campaigns will be familiar with the name of the US regime change organisation the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). 

But where did it come from and how does it work?

The NED is the overt, traceable and trackable agency for US-backed regime change. 

The NED’s public funding, like the tip of an iceberg, betrays the locations but not the depths of US political interference and manipulation. 

From Kiev to Caracas, from Belgrade to Beijing, the NED has bankrolled movements that dovetail with “US national interests.” 

US political interference is hardly new. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had been founded just a few months earlier, intervened in the 1948 Italian elections, where massive support for the Italian Communist Party and its then Socialist Party ally threatened to create a government opposed to US interests.

Around $1 million was distributed to the Christian Democrats and allied parties to prevent the communist-led People’s Democratic Front coming to power. 

The pulpits and the press were encouraged to take a stand against the atheistic communists, the Vatican supported the slogan “o con cristo o contro cristo” (either with Christ or against Christ).

As the historian Effie Pedaliu noted: “In their fight against Italian communism, the US utilised unrestricted psychological and political warfare, incorporating among other means, black propaganda, meddling in trade union politics, suitcases of money changing hands in some of Rome’s most exclusive and elegant hotels, letter writing campaigns by the Italian-American community, red, white and blue ‘friendship trains’ distributing gifts that had been sent from the US and Hollywood with Frank Sinatra and Gary Cooper even playing their part.”

The CIA played its full part, as did its British junior partners. The right wing of the British Labour Party helped divide and factionalise the Italian Socialist Party, its more radical fraternal counterpart: “Morgan Phillips [secretary of the Labour Party] and Denis Healey (secretary of the international department of the Labour Party] were instrumental in all the developments taking place within the Italian Socialist Party from before the Palazzo Barberini split onwards and they provided guidance to the secessionist factions of Ivan Matteo Lombardo and Giuseppe Saragat as well as securing their recognition by the international labour movement.

“The British also took steps to manipulate food supplies, made naval visits to Italian ports, looked into solutions for Italy’s surplus population problem, proposed Franco-Italian border adjustments in favour of Italy, participated in the Tripartite Declaration on the future of Trieste and waived off all Western claims for the extradition of alleged Italian war criminals. 

“Finally, they exploited the high reputation of the BBC among Italians to communicate anti-communist messages put together by the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office,” says Pedaliu.

Over 80 years later, the techniques of subversion and the agencies implementing them may have changed but the overall strategy has not.

After the twin debacles of Vietnam and Watergate in the 1970s, the CIA came under attack from all sides.

Radicals exposed the CIA’s involvement in “black bag jobs,” assassinations, coup plotting and the like, liberals were appalled by the CIA’s political bias, while the right was embarrassed by its sheer ineptitude. 

Several of the Nixon loyalists who broke into the offices of the Democratic Party in the Watergate were “former” senior operatives of the CIA and the belief that the agency was a hotbed of ultra-right activists involved in undermining the US’s own political system forced a shift in policy. 

In 1976, a US Senate inquiry led by senator Frank Church provided a public dossier of some of the CIA’s murkiest activities, ranging from Chile to the Congo. 

A year earlier, Philip Agee, a former CIA field agent published a devastating account of his direct involvement in operations in Latin America in his book Inside the Company: A CIA Diary, where he revealed in detail how US embassies worked with right-wing death squads, funded anti-communist student and labour movement fronts, pro-US political parties and individuals, and so on.

The spotlight on the CIA was so intense that new methods had to be found to promote US interests in foreign political systems without a clear connection to the US state.

The NED was originally set up in 1983 during the Reagan presidency. Its function was to take over the political regime change programmes from the CIA by presenting itself as an independent and private non-governmental organisation. 

To avoid the political recriminations that had surfaced over Watergate, the NED was intended to be deliberately bipartisan with both establishment parties having their own sections within the NED — the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), and the International Republican Institute (IRI). 

Although its name has changed several times, one of the founding groups of the NED is the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, also known as the “Solidarity Centre.” 

This evolved out of the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) operated by the AFL-CIO, the main US trade union federation, originally set up in 1977.

In a fine display of US pragmatism, this trade union wing is balanced by an openly corporate segment known as the Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).

Despite the reference to its “private” character or its status as a “non-government organisation,” the NED is run and controlled by a board of directors which reads like a Who’s Who of establishment America.

The NED president Carl Gershman was a resident scholar at Freedom House and former executive director of Social Democrats, USA (sometimes unkindly but justifiably referred to as “State Department Socialists”). He served as a US diplomat at the UN during the Reagan era.

Then there’s Andrew H Card Jnr, a former chief of staff to president George W Bush. It was Card who was filmed whispering in Bush’s ear telling him of the Twin Tower attacks on September 11 2001, after which Bush continued to sit immobilised for several minutes in front of a school reading class in Florida.

Card was also vice-president-government relations for General Motors Corporation — reminding us of the saying “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa.” 

J William (Bill) Leonard, the NED’s chief operating officer, was formerly deputy assistant secretary of defence for security and information operations.

The NED’s secretary is Marilyn Carlson Nelson, heiress to the Carlson travel company millions and a former board director of Exxon Mobile oil firm, which previously tried to sue Venezuela’s state-owned oil after the Chavez government nationalised its assets.

NED treasurer is Robert Tuttle, another lucky heir, this time to a car-dealership fortune. George W Bush appointed him as the US ambassador to Britain. Tuttle was one of Bush’s largest fundraisers during his election campaigns.

Also sitting on the board is the “Honorable” Elliott Abrams (yes that really is his title), whose historic connections to bloody Latin American dictatorships made him Trump’s obvious choice for special envoy to Venezuela. 

In 1991, facing a multicount felony indictment, Abrams agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanour counts for withholding information to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. 

He was sentenced to two years’ probation, a $50 fine and 100 hours of community service. He was later pardoned by president George HW Bush.

Flicking through the “Where are they now file?” we find Francis Fukuyama, the conservative pundit who infamously predicted “The End of History.”

Nepotism being alien to US democracy, it’s a surprise to find Barbara Haig, daughter of the late Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff and Reagan’s secretary of state and former Nato supreme commander, as deputy to the president for policy and strategy.

Aside from Tuttle, the NED board includes seven former US ambassadors, the bulk of the rest are serving or retired US senators or congress representatives, with a sprinkling of academics, lawyers, trade union officials and journalists. 

Almost without exception there is a track record of dutiful service to US foreign policy.

For example, Kenneth Wollack served as legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which guards Israel’s interests among the Washington elite.

Dr Nadia Schadlow was “most recently US deputy national security adviser for strategy.” She sits on the board alongside former US Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who led sanctions campaigns against both Cuba and Venezuela.

Funding for the NED, in the past few years has reached $170 million, which is then funnelled in the form of grants to suitable groups overseas.

The Endowment is registered as a non-profit organisation under section 501c (3) of the US Internal Revenue Service Code.

Ironically, this section states that qualifying organisations “may not be an action organisation, ie, it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” 

The IRS also states that “Section 501(c)(3) organisations are restricted in how much political and legislative (lobbying) activities they may conduct.”

However, the NED is not the only agency promoting regime change and regime consolidation. 

The NED funding on its own can be misleading as to the real level of resources the US devotes to destabilising unfriendly governments and shoring up friendly ones. 

To get a clearer picture we need to look at other US agencies, in particular the official US aid and development organisation USAid, which will be the subject of the second of this two-part series, appearing tomorrow.


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