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The Wrong Guy, by a Mile

January 10, 2002

President Bush's nomination of Otto J. Reich to be assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs has caused people here and abroad to shudder, their memories flooding with images from the bad old days of the Cold War.

Reich's legion of opponents in Congress and Latin America has asked the president to withdraw his nomination. Bush's response was to hint that he may bypass Congress by giving a "recess appointment" to Reich, who was nominated in July and has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate.

To avert this executive end run, Senate Democrats should give Reich a prompt hearing, then promptly turn down his confirmation. They'll have no trouble explaining their decision.

In the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, Reich headed the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy. His job, paid for by taxpayers, was to ghostwrite newspaper commentaries and speeches for the Nicaraguan Contras--who were being funded, in violation of a congressional ban, by Reich's bosses in the CIA and White House (remember Oliver North?). Reich harassed and intimidated editors and reporters viewed as hostile to his Contra crusade.

An independent report by the comptroller general in 1987 found that Reich's office had engaged in ''prohibited, covert propaganda activities.'' Meanwhile, Reich had become U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, a post he is alleged to have used to champion the cause of Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch, whose 30 documented offenses include blasting away with a bazooka at a Polish vessel in Miami's harbor.

Reich next resurfaced as a lobbyist, continuing to raise eyebrows. While receiving a reported $600,000 fee from the Bacardi liquor company, for instance, Reich met with Sen. Jesse Helms' office to discuss the Helms-Burton law. This 1996 measure, which further tightened the embargo on Cuba, included provisions that greatly benefited Bacardi.

Such shenanigans have not helped Reich's reputation among democratic leaders in Latin America. Former Costa Rican President and Nobel laureate Oscar Arias, who crafted the plan that brought peace to Central America, has asked Bush to come up with a different nominee. ''Appointing someone of Reich's ideological stripe and experience," he argues, "would be a setback for hemispheric cooperation.''

Bush, who has shown considerable smarts in dealing with Latin America, should listen.

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