By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, October 10, 1986
I’m going to probe the burning issue of: Who is Hasenfus?
All we really know about poor Hasenfus is that no one wants to claim him. Ronald Reagan says Hasenfus wasn’t working for him. The Defense Department says he’s not theirs. The State Department says he looks too scruffy to be on their pin-striped payroll. And the CIA says heaven forfend that they would be using an American citizen to mess around illegally on foreign territory.
So now, abandoned by his country, Eugene Hasenfus — 45 years old of Marinette, Wis. — is stuck in a Nicaraguan jail in the same dirty clothes he was wearing when his U.S.-built transport plane was shot down by Nicaraguan forces last Sunday and he parachuted to earth as the only survivor in the four-man crew, three of whom were, like Hasenfus, Americans. The government there is apparently going to put him on trial as a CIA spy.
Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said that if the reports were true that Hasenfus and his three colleagues were carrying arms to anti-government rebels, “then they are heroes. God Bless them.” But Elliot, like all the other sunshine hero-worshipers, didn’t claim Hasenfus as his own, either. He didn’t even offer to fly down to Nicaragua with a clean shirt and a change of underwear for the miserable sod.
It’s easy to offer blessings to a freedom fighter from the safe distance of Washington, D.C.; it’s quite something else to come out of the disinformation closet and give him an honest helping hand.
Maybe that’s what all this is — maybe it’s just part of the Reagan administration’s new disinformation policy that we’ve been hearing so much about. Could it be possible that our leaders are simply throwing us of the scent to give themselves some breathing space to plot Hasenfus’ rescue? Adm. John Poindexter, our national security chief, could at this very moment be on his way to Nicaragua in disguise to lift Hasenfus out in a surprise helicopter mission. God bless him, I hope it’s true.
But the trouble with disinformation is that you never know who or what to believe.
For example, a nasty rumor has been going around that Hasenfus is really an undercover reporter working for Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report and that negotiations are underway to swap him for one of the Nicaraguan spies now operating out of the United Nations. Another rumor had it that he would be swapped for Mort Zuckerman.
Could it be that it’s Mort — not Admiral Poindexter — who’s flying down to Managua to get Hasenfus out? That’s what he did when his Moscow correspondent, Nicholas Daniloff, was arrested by the Soviets six weeks ago.
But there’s a big difference between the Hasenfus and Daniloff cases. Nobody feigned ignorance of Daniloff. On the contrary, everybody claimed him. The president himself immediately said that the Russians had “kidnapped” Daniloff on trumped-up espionage charges as a ploy to get their real spy, Zakharov, out of jail in New York. At this, Secretary of State Shultz went ahead and negotiated the Daniloff-Zakharov swap.
Shultz, by the way, says he never heard of Hasenfus. I’d like to believe him. But, again, that’s the problem with the disinformation business. Once they start lying to us as a matter of policy, who can you trust?
You may recall that the CIA used to put agreeable reporters on its payroll. Then, in 1977, when press organizations protested that this was undermining the credibility of reporters, particularly overseas, the CIA said it was ending the practice. But recently we learned that the intelligence agency sometimes breaks this rule and signs on reporters again.
This can be very confusing for the public. What happens, for instance, if another branch of the government feeds disinformation to a reporter-agent for the CIA? And then, suppose the unwitting CIA puts another Machiavellian twist on it and doles it out as “honest” disinformation to the citizenry? It makes the head spin just to think about it.
Remember the CIA’s secret war in Laos? Guys who looked just like Hasenfus would fly around in airplanes that looked just like the one that Hasenfus was flying in. And they would bring weapons — just like the ones that Hasenfus was transporting — to the CIA’s Meo guerrilla army. And these guys who looked just like Hasenfus would tell reporters they were working for A.I.D. (the Agency for International Development, which distributes America’s economic — not military — aid to foreign countries). And the buildings they worked out of had signs on them that said “A.I.D. Annex.”
It wasn’t really very secret. But then, neither is the mission of Hasenfus and his friends.
The only difference is that their employers this time have their origins in Hollywood and sometimes confuse play-acting with real life. So maybe the Reagan bunch actually believe that they never heard of Hasenfus. Or, they may have convinced themselves that they can really keep this thing secret. After all, the CIA will tell you disinformationally, Hasenfus knew the risks.
Nonetheless, one hopes that this man without a country from Marinette, Wis., will not despair, as he languishes in his Nicaraguan cell. Eventually, we will get him out — even if it means giving up Poindexter or Zuckerman in a trade.