A former AFL-CIO political director, who is now running a project to establish a “progressive Congress,” walked away in disgust last week when I tried to question her about a trip she had made to Castro’s Cuba. The exchange, such as it was, occurred at the “Take Back the American Dream” conference in Washington, D.C., where Karen Ackerman had appeared on a panel about how to elect progressive candidates in the 2012 elections and ensure Democratic Party control of the House and Senate.
“Why do you care?” she responded, as I pursued her with questions about a pro-Castro junket she took to the communist “island paradise.”
The trip to communist Cuba was one of several initially organized by Weather Underground terrorist Bernardine Dohrn and run by the Cuban intelligence service, the DGI. Young people on the trips were indoctrinated in the communist philosophy and given training in terrorism. Dohrn and her husband, fellow communist terrorist Bill Ayers, were associates of Barack Obama when he was launching his political career in Chicago.
In years past, when Congress had internal security committees and subcommittees, travel to Cuba was investigated because of the concern about such trips being used for intelligence purposes against the United States. Most of the travel to Cuba in those years was illegal.
Ignoring this threat, President Obama has expanded travel to Cuba, even though the Castro regime has kidnapped and holds hostage an American foreign aid worker by the name of Alan Gross.
A new book, Castro’s Secrets, by Brian Latell, the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for Latin America from 1990-1994, adds to the concern about those who traveled to Cuba by describing the case of a Venceremos Brigade veteran who worked or may still work as a university professor in the U.S.
In addition to her “subversive effectiveness in molding her students’ thinking,” she became “a trusted DGI influence and access agent,” he says. By that, he means that she was “a talent scout and proxy recruiter” for Cuban intelligence whose job was to arrange for others, including students, to work for the DGI. He writes that she had intended one of her recruits, a student, to gain employment at the CIA and work there as a Cuban mole. He was put under the control and direction of the professor’s own DGI case officer and was taught how to beat the CIA’s lie detector machine.
Latell says that his information comes from a major defector from Cuban intelligence, Florentino Aspillaga, who defected in 1987. He says Aspillaga did not know the identities of any of the American DGI agents but was acutely aware of how the Venceremos Brigades and travel to Cuba and meetings with DGI officials were used for intelligence purposes.
For his part, Latell says he is not sure if the plan to penetrate the CIA succeeded or not but that he is not aware of any evidence on the public record indicating that anyone meeting Aspillaga’s descriptions was ever prosecuted for being a spy or foreign agent.
Latell does not name the American university professor in his book. He tells me in a follow-up interview, “I did not want to know her name and Aspillaga did not tell me. And even if I knew it, I am sure the legal review of my manuscript would have removed it before publication. I don’t know, therefore, if she is still working for the Cubans.”
Karen Ackerman’s background, of course, is not in the intelligence community, but rather in Congress, the Big Labor movement, and the progressive community.
Before going to the AFL-CIO, she served as Chief of Staff for Democratic Rep. Lydia Velazquez, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Ackerman is today on the board of Progressive Majority, a political action committee “committed to progressive candidates and issues,” and runs an organization called “Progressive Congress Table,” which supports and endorses candidates for office.
But the term “progressive” goes far beyond what many would regard as a liberal Democrat, as an examination of Ackerman’s carefully concealed background demonstrates.
In addition to making a trip to Cuba to be indoctrinated in communist ideology, under the cover of harvesting sugar cane for Castro, the record shows that Ackerman was a member of a communist youth group and traveled to East Berlin during the Cold War for a “youth festival” that featured communist entertainment and propaganda. The slogan of the event was “For anti-imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship.”
We had previously sent several letters to Ackerman personally when she functioned as the AFL-CIO’s political director, asking about her trip to Cuba. We had also asked then-AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney about Ackerman’s work at the giant labor federation and what he thought about her Cuba connection. All the letters were ignored.
At last week’s conference, she appeared friendly and talkative, “Call me Karen,” until I started asking questions about Cuba and she noticed my name badge.
The exchange went like this:
Kincaid: “Why haven’t you responded to my letters?”
Ackerman: “What letters?”
Kincaid: “About your trip to Cuba.”
Ackerman: “Oh. Those letters.”
As she walked away, I said, “You don’t want to talk about that?” “No” was the curt response. Later, she said, “Why do you care?”
The answer, quite obviously, is that a major political operative for the Big Labor and progressive movements has a controversial background that has connotations of associating with sworn enemies of the United States. But she doesn’t want to talk about it.
Ackerman has been a columnist for Politico, but her bio on the site of the publication makes no mention of her controversial involvement in communist activities. Politico says the bios are supplied by the commentators themselves.
The bio does say, however, that in 1997 she was appointed AFL-CIO Deputy Political Director and supervised the political program as well as directing the AFL-CIO PAC (Political Action Committee). In 2002, she accepted the position of AFL-CIO political director.
“She became the first woman ever to be appointed Political Director of the AFL-CIO,” Politico said. She may also have been the first open Marxist to have achieved that position—a subject she has tried to avoid for several years as we have tried to question her about it. The Ackerman case is an indication of how far to the left some American labor unions have drifted over the years.
The Pink Sheet on the Left, a publication that served for many years as an authoritative report on left-wing activities, said in 1976 that Ackerman was a member of the Young Workers Liberation League, the youth arm of the Communist Party, and had been an organizer with the communist-dominated Local 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.
Her current bio includes the same affiliation, saying that she “has worked in the Labor and Progressive Movements all her adult life” and “began organizing hospital workers in the early 1970’s for Local 1199 in Philadelphia.”
It goes on, “She developed union member political programs to elect progressives (David Dinkins, Mark Green) and became Political Director of Public Employees Federation, SEIU/AFT. Ackerman joined the Sweeney team as AFL-CIO Deputy Political Director and in 2003 became Political Director. In 2008, under Ackerman's leadership, the AFL-CIO waged its most aggressive union political program ever, reaching 13 million union members and their families, with 250,000 union volunteers.”
After attempting to contact her through letters and emails and failing to obtain a response, we reported Ackerman’s participation in a Venceremos Brigade trip to Cuba in the early 1970s. Another veteran of the brigades was Karen Nussbaum, also an AFL-CIO functionary.
On yet another occasion, according to a report in a communist newspaper, Ackerman attended the Tenth World Festival of Youth and Students in communist East Germany in 1973. Ackerman, identified as then being an organizer for labor union Local 1199 from Philadelphia, was quoted as saying, “What the festival has done for me, and I’m sure for many others, is help us to understand just what imperialism has done to the rest of the world. We tend to get demoralized struggling in the U.S., but when we see what others are struggling against and the victories they have won, it gives us strength.”
Most of the American delegates were Young Workers Liberation League members or anti-Vietnam War activists.
World Magazine, a publication of the Communist Party USA, reported that Ackerman “was particularly impressed” during her visit to the communist police state “with the bilateral meetings of the U.S. with the Vietnamese and Free German Youth of the GDR [German Democratic Republic.]”
At the time, Communist Vietnam was attempting to conquer non-communist South Vietnam through a military invasion and was torturing American POWs. More than 58,000 Americans died trying to keep South Vietnam free.
According to a March 16, 1970, report in the Congressional Record, some of the Venceremos Brigade “cane cutters” in Cuba at that time met with communist Vietnamese officials and greeted them with shouts of “Vietnam will conquer.” The Vietnamese presented the Americans with rings allegedly made of aluminum taken from U.S. aircraft shot down in Vietnam.
A Cuban official told the American members of the Venceremos Brigade that “Cuba, Vietnam, and you shall conquer.”
Ackerman has certainly conquered Big Labor, becoming in the process a prominent figure in the progressive movement that now wants to take control of both houses of Congress. But don’t ask her about her trips to Cuba or East Germany. And don’t expect the major media to take an interest.
Cliff Kincaid is the Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.