This is the first of six articles (and one podcast episode) about Danny Casolaro, an investigative journalist who died under mysterious circumstances thirty years ago. In the ensuing decades, he has become a legend in his own right; for many, he's sort of the Platonic ideal of an investigative journalist. For others, he's a cautionary tale about conspiracy theory belief.
- Part 1: How Danny Casolaro Became the Ideal Conspiracy Theorist
- Part 2: The Parapolitics of Software Piracy
- Part 3: Coachella (not the music festival)
- Part 4: Death of the Poet
- Part 5: Suicide is Painless
- Part 6: Disinformation is a psychic rat trap that makes everybody crazy and dumb
I have the following quote pinned to the bulletin board that hangs above my desk. It’s going to be the epigraph for my next book, but I might as well share it now, as it really sets the tone for this story:
Perhaps in an age when deception has evolved into a high art form, endless uncertainty will be the fate of all our political controversies.
—Robert Parry, Trick or Treason
Increasingly, it’s the people who can live with uncertainty who will be able to navigate this world successfully. There is so much that exists in the “maybe” category that reality itself has become a sort of personality test — those who insist on binary thinking will be driven mad, or at least their actions will seem mad. The man you’re about to meet is someone who lived like he’d never heard the word “maybe,” a man who was certain he was right about all things, at all times.
Lyndon Hermyle LaRouche Jr. was born in New Hampshire in 1922. He got out of World War II by serving in a Civilian Public Service camp as a conscientious objector. After the war he threw himself into left politics, building a base of power in 1960s New York. His organization had a few names over the years: the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), the US Labor Party, and the National Democratic Policy Committee (conveniently, people thought that it was affiliated with the Democratic National Committee). By 1973, it was clear that LaRouche had created a destructive cult in the midst of the labor movement. Those who couldn’t stand it split, leaving a hardcore remnant who were so wrapped up in the cult that they didn’t notice LaRouche moving in a radical rightward direction. Life began to include “ego-stripping” sessions, or what would commonly be referred to as brainwashing.
LaRouche would go on to run for president eight times between 1976 and 2004 — including in 1992, while he was imprisoned for tax evasion. A full accounting of his beliefs are impossible; they ran the gamut from the impeding financial doomsday to holocaust revisionism to the need to colonize Mars ASAP. He died in 2019 at the age of 96.
The LaRouche cult started its political intelligence operation in 1971. Biographer Dennis King refers to it as Lyndon’s “private CIA.”
In its early years it was more like a spoof of a government spy agency. The various “sectors” and “files” representing different regions of the world were crammed into a three-floor complex in a factory building on West Twenty-ninth Street in Manhattan. It was a rabbit warren of shabby offices, such as the “Southern Cone” room, where LaRouche disciples pored over newspapers from Argentina and Chile. When I visited in 1977, dozens of young people in rummage-sale clothing sat hunched over WATS line phones amidst a surrealistic clatter of the telex machine and typewriters. There was a smog-like atmosphere from chain smoking. When an ashtray became full, the contents were simply dumped on the floor. No one had swept up in days. The bathrooms were also in a state of neglect, and the walls were devoid of any decoration. One sensed that the members were so intent on their political tasks that they didn’t even notice their surroundings. (Lyndon Larouche and the New American Fascism, Dennis King)
And you know, after throwing hundreds of members at it for ten years, not to mention untold sums of money, the darnedest thing happened: the cult put together a decent little intelligence operation. Sure, it was still primarily a propaganda arm for a madman, but it did earn a favorable reputation among certain folks in Washington.
LaRouche, the Trotskyist-turned-far-right-Democrat, went over alarmingly well in Reagan-era Washington. They “enjoyed a wide range of contacts at the CIA, National Security Council, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” King writes. Central to the intelligence operation is Executive Intelligence Review, a weekly news magazine launched in 1974. Among the pricey intel available to subscribers was this item about President Carter:
Unless the Carter administration puts across its fascist “energy policy,” which is now improbable, or unless a thermonuclear war with the Warsaw Pact erupts this spring or summer, which is still a grave possibility, the impeachment of the administration of Jimmy Carter should begin no later than the autumn of 1977. (“Weekly Magazine Is Centerpiece of LaRouche Operations” by William M. Welch, Associated Press, June 7, 1976)
The LaRouche organization didn’t just cultivate relationships with spies. “Many reporters in the mid 1980’s [sic] were contacted by LaRouchians who offered assistance,” according to journalist and researcher Chip Berlet’s report Right Woos Left. “This assistance was accompanied by their relentless peddling of typical LaRouchian distortions regarding vast conspiracies, yet many of the individual documents and sources provided by the LaRouchians checked out as factual.” Among the stories promoted by EIR was the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal. The magazine was “among the first,” according to Berlet, “to run articles exposing aspects of the arms-for-hostages deals and the covert Contra aid network, well before a fateful plane crash first tipped off the mainstream press to the full extent of the story.”
Executive Intelligence Review — that is, LaRouche’s private CIA — was largely a product of the cult leader’s paranoia and lust for power. Just the same, he was operating at a time when private intelligence was particularly au courant.
In the late 1970s, an effort to essentially privatize the Central Intelligence Agency (or at least the dirtiest of its “dirty tricks”) was spearheaded by a group of current and former employees unhappy with attempts to reform the intelligence organization. The Senate had launched the Church committee, Congress the Pike Committee, and perhaps most egregious to the spooks, Jimmy Carter appointed Admiral Stansfield Turner to Director of Central Intelligence in 1977. Turner was not “their guy,” and he had to go.
Like the CIA itself, the ideological engine of this Shadow CIA was “anticommunism,” a catch-all for far-right-wing extremism and free market ideology. It counted among its financial backers the John Birch Society, the World Anti-Communist League, and — if the stories are true — it had access to gold plundered by the Japanese and hidden throughout the Pacific at the end of World War II. The privatization of intelligence decentralized it, pushed it into the private sector. If the CIA was difficult to exercise any control over at all, the Shadow CIA would be impossible.
Lyndon LaRouche saw an opportunity in the shake-ups at the CIA, and when he put the word out, all sorts of cranks and conmen turned up — precisely the kinds of characters who, like LaRouche himself, were besotted with the world of intelligence:
Edward von Rothkirch was a chancer who presented himself as a freelance agency contractor working undercover behind the Iron Curtain with an anti-Soviet sabotage unit called the Freikorps of Barbarossa. Roy Frankhouser was a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who courted LaRouche by claiming to be a former CIA operative whose glass eye was the result of an injury sustained during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. It was hogwash, but LaRouche was impressed and signed him up on a $700 weekly retainer. He did little to justify the fee. On one occasion LaRouche dispatched him on a spying mission to Boston. Instead he went to a Star Trek convention in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Frankhouser did not admit his deception, but called from the hotel to warn the organization that he had just discovered that the FBI was tapping its phones.
The most elaborate and costly scam was perpetrated by a group of hustlers led by a figure code-named “the Major,” who announced himself as a CIA officer who wanted to cooperate with LaRouche and his security team on a top-secret project. He persuaded them to buy a large farm south of Washington, DC, on which special agents would be trained for old-school missions of the sort discouraged by Stansfield Turner’s reforms. In exchange, the Major would supply LaRouche with agency intelligence on the latest assassination attempts against him. Then a call came through that the Soviets had got wind of the plan. To allay suspicion, hundreds of thousands more dollars would be required to stock the farm with animals to disguise its true function. Excited by this intrigue, LaRouche instructed his acolytes to hand over the cash. (Matthew Sweet, Operation Chaos p. 254)
Not everything that LaRouche did would be as laughable.
One of the least understood aspects of the 1980 Presidential race is the role of this Shadow CIA. When George Bush faced off against Ronald Reagan in the primary, both had their cadre of disgruntled spies. Bush had won their loyalty in his time as Director of Central Intelligence under Gerald Ford, and Reagan through his campaign manager: William Casey was an OSS veteran, former chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission, and CIA asset since the 1950s. As a result, when the Reagan-Bush ticked solidified, it had its own intelligence network. If journalists like Robert Parry are correct (and I think they are), this network was the origin of the October Surprise and Iran-Contra scandal.
With the election of Reagan, kook season was on in Washington, D.C. Anyone who could help Reagan, Casey, et. al was brought into the fold. This included fascist Catholics, actual, World War II-era Nazis, religious cultists like the Moonies, and the LaRouche organization.
In late 1984, when The New Republic published “The LaRouche Connection” by Dennis King and Ronald Radosh, the Beltway press took notice. And when I read it thirty-six years later, one name jumped off the page: Norman Bailey, former senior director of international economic affairs for Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council. He wasn’t shy about his connections to the cult:
Bailey, now a partner with former CIA director William Colby in a Washington consulting firm and advisor to the Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign, told us he had met with the LaRouchians between eight and twelve times, including three meetings with the LaRouche himself…. Despite Bailey’s initial reservations (he had sued the LaRouchians in 1975 after they called him a “fascist”) he was struck by their support for Administration policy on such issues as beam weapons, nuclear power, and industrial revitalization. He says he gained useful information “from time to time” which he would “jot down and pass on.” (“The LaRouche Connection,” The New Republic, November 19, 1984)
In addition to ingratiating itself with the Reagan Administration, the LaRouche intelligence arm was finding success all over the globe. “These people are like ferrets,” Bailey said. “They get to see very high [foreign] officials, who sometimes open up to them.” They included Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Mexican President López-Portillo, and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.
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The LaRoucheites did more than take meetings — they were happy to rat out leftists like the Basque separatists when it furthered their agenda. “The LaRouchites came to Spain in 1983 to join the fray against ETA,” according to an item in the Winter 1995 issue of Covert Action Quarterly. “They traded intelligence information on ETA members living in France and provided contacts with French security forces to help ease the way for carrying out attacks there.”
The thing to remember about the LaRouche organization is that it is a political cult, a group whose real activities and motivations lay beneath the surface; and it’s these motivations that determine everything the group does. In addition to providing sometimes solid leads to journalists, EIR also released “intelligence” detailing how Queen Elizabeth, while taking a beak from running the global drug trade, bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was how she planned to take back the North American colonies.
LaRouche was on top of the Inslaw story from the beginning: It was LaRouche’s Director of Counterintelligence Jeffrey Steinberg who introduced Michael Riconosciuto to Bill Hamilton. Steinberg furnished Casolaro with leads as Executive Intelligence Review published its own stories on the scandal. In fact, the main pusher of the Octopus conspiracy was a true trifecta of weirdness: The LaRouche organization, The Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon (a right-wing religious cult with its own ties to the Shadow CIA), and the Holocaust revisionists at the Liberty Lobby.
It wasn’t just disgruntled CIA agents who gained new prominence when Jimmy Carter left Washington. As governor of California in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan began to assemble the rogues’ gallery of authoritarian misfits that would come to define national politics in the 1980s. One of the worst was Louis Onorato “Jeff” Giuffrida.
A veteran of World War II and Korea, Giuffrida retired from the Army as a colonel in 1971. He is the author of a 1970 thesis for the Army War College called National Survival — Racial Imperative. This is “a pseudophilosophical, historical analysis of the origins of racial prejudice,” according to journalist Matthew Cunningham-Cook, which calls for “the establishment of concentration camps to imprison potentially millions of black Americans in the event of a revolutionary uprising in the United States.” Giuffrida established the California Specialized Training Institute (CSTI), where he finally got his chance to lay the groundwork for the aforementioned concentration camps. CSTI trained police from across the country in disaster response and counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency doctrine acknowledges that unjust societies create conditions that demand social change, and that social change exists on a continuum: on one end are the reformers, people working within the system; and on the opposite end lay the revolutionaries: those who will pick up a gun or build an IED to make their point. From this perspective, the law-abiding social reformer is little more than the precursor to political violence, and must be treated accordingly. (See this story in Failed State Update to follow that particular thread from Vietnam to the present day.)
A CSTI course called “Civilian Violence and Terrorism: Officer Survival and Internal Security” makes it clear that movements for social justice are a threat to the system, and therefore valid targets of counterinsurgency. The text was approved by Giuffrida himself, and undoubtedly reflects the thinking of California Governor Ronald Reagan:
With the exception of the mentally deranged or the intoxicated person, all acts of illegal and criminal violence have roots somewhere in our present social, economic, or political environment.
[Our] mission can be accomplished only if we fully understand that . . . legitimate violence is integral to our form of government for it is from this source that we can continue to purge our weaknesses . . . [and] illegal violence has roots which are attached to emotional situations of political, economic, or social inequality.
It is necessary for the police executive to treat his occupation like all other executives. He must do it well but not so well that he puts himself out of a job. He must reduce crime but not stop it.
He faces an impossible task of being required by law (actually or by his own interpretation) to preserve a free and democratic society and at the same time he must eliminate crime and violence. These tasks are totally incompatible. . . .
When Reagan became the president, he installed Giuffrida as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With the help of Oliver North and George Bush, FEMA became a vital part of a parallel, secret government. Like CSTI in California, FEMA was intended to be the last bastion of order after the world succumbed to chaos, whether the disaster was natural, nuclear, or communist. There was already an elaborate, top secret infrastructure that dated back to the 1950s for keeping the government running in case of nuclear winter or race war, and Giuffrida was tasked with making sure it had the latest technology for rounding up people with the wrong politics.
In 1985, Giuffrida resigned from FEMA after a congressional subcommittee discovered that he had approved the construction of a $170,000 residence, to be paid for with public funds and built on government property. After his disgraced exit from public service, Giuffrida went on to work as a security consultant for Lyndon LaRouche.
Civil libertarians and left-wing activists were appalled when they heard what FEMA was up to. But with the end of the Cold War and the election of Bill Clinton, most everyone filed the real-life Punishment Park in the back of their minds. The White House plan for martial law became relegated to just another right-wing conspiracist talking point, even after 9/11 revealed how willing the government is to trample on our civil rights.
In a 2008 article for Radar called “The Last Roundup,” Christopher Ketcham revealed the existence of a Homeland Security database called Main Core (DHS absorbed FEMA and its martial law infrastructure in 2003). Ketcham reported that there were eight million Americans in this database, “people [who] could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention” in the event of a national emergency.
Tim Shorrock, the eminent national security reporter and author of Spies for Hire began looking into Main Core after Ketcham’s story broke.
“That Norman Bailey guy that I talked to” for the story? Shorrock asked me, rhetorically, earlier this year. “He’s the first intelligence guy to ever admit that they use PROMIS.”
Bailey was an enthusiastic supporter of the Lyndon LaRouche intelligence arm. He was also the Senior Director of International Affairs for the National Security Council from 1981-1983. If he says he used PROMIS, that it was used by the U.S. government in the 1980s, this is a very big deal. It signals that Bill Hamilton’s claims — the claims that Danny Casolaro was investigating at the time of his death — might be proven right, after all.
In Salon, Shorrock wrote that:
From 1982 to 1984, Bailey ran a top-secret program for President Reagan's National Security Council, called “Follow the Money,” that used NSA signals intelligence to track loans from Western banks to the Soviet Union and its allies. PROMIS, he told me, was “the principal software element” used by the NSA and the Treasury Department then in their electronic surveillance programs tracking financial flows to the Soviet bloc, organized crime and terrorist groups. His admission is the first public acknowledgement by a former U.S. intelligence official that the NSA used the PROMIS software.
According to Bailey, the Reagan program marked a significant shift in resources from human spying to electronic surveillance, as a way to track money flows to suspected criminals and American enemies. (Tim Shorrock, “Exposing Bush's historic abuse of power,” Salon, July 23, 2008)
Shorrock was kind enough to let me hear his interview with Bailey. It’s not the best recording, and it can be very hard to discern at times, but I transcribed the relevant passage:
Tim Shorrock: I’ve heard that there is a software program called PROMIS—
Norman Bailey: That's correct.
TS: That was developed by a—
NB: Developed by a company which developed it for the Department of Justice to follow case law.
TS: And that they had this long drawn out case where they said it was basically taken or stolen by the government. Was that PROMIS used in? I mean, I found this one report in The Mainichi I think, by Japanese writers saying that the CIA used it, PROMIS, that the NSA has used it as a way to follow transactions.
NB: There is an enormous bibliography about this stuff. Whole books have been written about PROMIS.…
I don’t have a dog in this fight, so I’m not going to say that it is right or it is wrong or whatever. Their claim was that the Department of Justice illegally and improperly provided the software to other agencies in the government, which didn't pay Inslaw. They first of all should've, according to the company, they should’ve asked the company's permission to do that. And if the company had given permission and the other agencies used it, they should've paid Inslaw for the use of the software. So they say that Department of Justice did it without permission, and the other agencies used it without paying for it.
Now, that the software was used, this much I know. Yes it was. The PROMIS software is — it was, but it’s not any longer, but it was — the principal software element of the following of criminal money laundering by Treasury. I don’t know about the CIA….
TS: So, how did it work?
NB: I have no idea.
NB: As far as I’m concerned, this is magic.
This gets to the core of what the PROMIS scandal is. Not “The Octopus,” not Casolaro's novelistic attempts to superimpose a narrative on every story he stumbled across, from Cabazon Arms to Iran-Contra, the Shadow CIA, Yamashita's gold, the Loch Ness Monster, and whatever else Robert Booth Nichols and Michael Riconosciuto tried to sell him. All we really know is that at some point, something called PROMIS was likely a key component in Treasury Department investigations of terrorist money movements.
Perhaps Bailey knew about PROMIS through his work at the Reagan NSC.
Perhaps he heard about it in his meetings with LaRouche.
Does he feel free to explain what he knows about PROMIS, not because he’s blowing the whistle, but because he’s familiar with the case through the Executive Intelligence Review? Who knows?
Was the Treasury Department even using the 32-bit version of PROMIS developed by Inslaw, or was this the 16-bit version developed with a government grant in the 1970s, the version that the government had a legal right to use? Did they pirate Inslaw’s software, but not pay a super-genius hacker meth head named Michael Riconosciuto (whose rumored genius-level intellect is just that, a rumor) to commit the crime? Are we really supposed to believe that the only way the federal government had to steal Inslaw’s source code was to hire Riconosciuto to do it in an air conditioned semi-trailer in California’s Inland Empire? I don’t know, and I don't know if there is any way to know, short of some sort of forensic examination of the source code for all this software that isn’t supposed to exist.
The whole thing is damnably obscure. PROMIS exists in a journalistic limbo, a place where we can make educated guesses but will never know the truth. This is the ambiguity that plagued Danny Casolaro’s investigation. This is Robert Parry's “endless uncertainty” that lies at the center of “all our political controversies.”
And it is the true cost of disinformation, of secrecy, and why none of that is compatible with democracy. All it took was a few jackasses like Michael Riconosciuto, con men with inscrutable motives, and PROMIS has gone from being a story of government corruption to a MacGuffin for the countless conspiracy folk tales that have obscured the true history of the last fifty years, and probably the next fifty years as well.
Living in a twilight world such as this couldn't have been great for Danny Casolaro's psyche; but I don’t think that’s what killed him. To answer that mystery, we need to look at Michael Riconosciuto, Robert Booth Nichols, and the LaRouche cult. We need to look at the kind of disinformation that can drive journalists — and entire nations — mad.