It's been known for some time that John McCain was affiliated in the early 1980s with a right-wing anti-communist organization, the U.S. Council for World Freedom. But the nature and extent of the candidate's former ties to the group went largely ignored until this week, when the McCain campaign attacked Barack Obama for his connection to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.
Now that McCain is attempting to tar Obama with his association with extremists, McCain's role in the council is receiving more scrutiny. McCain joined the group's board at the behest of Gen. John Singlaub, a friend of his father. Singlaub himself had taken the helm of the group after being dismissed from his command in South Korea for criticizing then-President Jimmy Carter's decision to draw down American troops. It was under Singlaub that the U.S. Council for World Freedom became well known for its role as a front working with Oliver North to raise money for the Nicaraguan Contras in the late 1980s. The organization began, however, as an affiliate of a worldwide group, the World Anti-Communist League, allegedly funded by the Taiwanese and South Korean dictatorships.
The group's early roots were firmly planted in the far right. In 1981, the Anti-Defamation League called the WACL "a gathering place for extremists, racists and anti-Semites." Singlaub himself said in 1985 that some chapters of the League contained former Nazis and had been "terribly anti-Semitic," though he claimed that he had purged the League's extremist elements, "certainly by 1984." In 1982, the U.S. Council for World Freedom received tax-exempt status, which it lost in 1987 for its role in supporting the contras.
Singlaub sought out McCain as a board member when the now-senator was serving in the House of Representatives. "It looks good to have names on a letterhead who are well-known and appreciated," Singlaub told the Associated Press this year. He also told the AP he doesn't recall any active role played by McCain. McCain claimed in 1986 that he had left the group two years earlier, though some Council letterhead continued to list his name through that year, and he appeared at a Council event in 1985 honoring Afghan anti-Soviet fighters. (Tom Loeffler, then a Republican congressman from Texas who was the McCain campaign's national finance co-chair until this spring, was also in attendance.)
In 1983 and 1984, Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson wrote a series of columns linking the League's (expelled) Latin American affiliates to death squad assassinations. Two weeks after Anderson's column on the group's links to violence, McCain asked to be taken off the advisory board, saying he no longer had time for the Council. In 1986, he reiterated his request, and said, "I didn't know whether (the group's activity) was legal or illegal, but I didn't think I wanted to be associated with them."