Group Watch: Knights of Malta

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GroupWatch: Profiles of U. S. Private Organizations and Churches, was compiled by the Interhemispheric Resource Center, Box 4506, Albuquerque, NM 87196. < > Their work focused on issues related to U. S. foreign policy in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Note that this collection includes a wide range of groups with a variety of political viewpoints. Some, like the Heifer Project, appear to be what they seem-engaged in charitable humanitarian efforts. Check when each article was last updated as much material is no longer current. This material is provided as a source for historic research.

Knights of Malta

Acronym/Code: SMOM (Sovereign Military Order of Malta)

Record date: 11/91


J. Peter Grace (chair, U. S. chapter; W. R. Grace), Martin F. Shea (sec, U. S. chapter; Morgan Bank), John D. J. Moore (chancellor; U. S. Ambassador to Ireland under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford). Members include: William Simon (Citicorp; former Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon), Prescott Bush Jr. (brother of Vice Pres George Bush), Alexander Haig (former Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan), Jeremiah Denton (former Republican senator from Alabama; author of the Denton Amendment), Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Lee Iacocca (Chrysler), Barron Hilton (Hilton Hotels), William F. Buckley, William P. Clark (former Natl Security Adviser under President Reagan), Frank Shakespeare (former director of the U. S. Information Agency and a director of the Heritage Foundation), Robert Abplanalp, Spyros Skouras (Prudential Lines; Grace Lines), Francis X. Stankard (Chase Manhattan), Felix Larkin (W. R. Grace; former Dept of Defense general counsel), C. W. Owens (W. R. Grace), Harold A. Stevens (W. R. Grace), Charles W. Miller (W. R. Grace), Paul F. Hellmuth (W. R. Grace), Harold A. Eckmann (W. R. Grace). (10,14) Clare Booth Luce (a Dame of SMOM), Francis V. Ortiz Jr. (former Ambassador, country director, or U. S. chief of mission to Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Barbados, Grenada, and others), Patrick J. Frawley Jr. , William A. Schreyer (Merrill Lynch), Walter J. Hickel (former governor of Alaska; former Secretary of the Interior under Richard Nixon), John McCone (former director of the CIA under President Kennedy). (6) Edward Bennett Williams (exec representative), Thomas M. Walsh (financial representative), Paul Dietrich (program director). (15) Father Bruce Ritter (founder and former director of Covenant House. (18) Past members include: The late William Casey (CIA director under President Ronald Reagan). (14)

Religious, Service

The formal name of this elite Catholic lay organization is the "Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John, of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta" (SMOM). It was founded in l061 as a military order to protect "the poor of Christ" and pilgrims to the Holy Land. An international order of laymen with charitable objectives, SMOM now claims 10,000 members in 42 countries. The group is organized as a sovereign,

though landless, diplomatic state whose only territory consists of a headquarters in Rome. This unusual diplomatic status allows SMOM to send items across borders without review by local customs authorities. (5,10,13) Social historian Stephen Birmingham has said that the Knights of Malta "comprise what is perhaps the most exclusive club on earth. They are more than just Catholic aristocracy. They can pick up a telephone and chat with the Pope. "(14) SMOM has been called "the cutting edge of right-wing Catholicism, a hidden mating ground where the Catholic church and the U. S. ruling elite intersect. " As of l983, the U. S. chapter had l,750 members. (10,14)


The Knights of Malta receive many contributions from large corporations. (5) SMOM's Federal Association in l985 listed revenues and support of $205,463 of which $l90,302 came from private contributions and $15,161 from private revenue, e. g. investments. (9) SMOM has received funds from the U. S. Agency for Intl Development for projects in El Salvador. (13) It has also received funding from the Christian Broadcasting Network. (2,3)

The Knight's Federal Association describes its general purpose as one of promoting the spiritual and physical welfare of the sick, disabled, and poor through charitable giving. It says that fundraising and allocation of funds is its primary response to requests for assistance. In l985, the Association had plans to set up a hospice program and to participate in disaster relief projects in El Salvador, Chile, Costa Rica, Mozambique, Guinea, and other areas in Africa. (9) SMOM's work in Central America was pushed forward in l983 when J. Peter Grace contacted Robert Macauley, director of AmeriCares, to suggest joint involvement in the shipment and distribution of medical supplies in the region. (16)

El Salvador: El Salvador is one of the countries with which the Knights of Malta enjoys diplomatic privileges, and the organization has had a presence there among the Catholic elite since l942. It was not until l974, however, that SMOM obtained its legal status as a charitable organization in El Salvador. As of l988, there were ten Knights in El Salvador, and the group said it employed 30 people in the country. The local organization maintains particularly close ties with SMOM branches in the United States from which it obtains the bulk of its funds and supplies.

Gerald Coughlin, a U. S. citizen who married into the wealthy Quinones family, is the Knights' Salvadoran director. Coughlin administers SMOM from the International Harvester building in San Salvador, which doubles as the main SMOM warehouse in the country. The NGO distributes humanitarian aid-primarily medicines--to more than 120 churches and institutions, including hospitals, clinics, childcare centers, orphanages, and homes for the elderly. In addition, it operates ten clinics, sponsors a repopulation project in Aguacayo, Suchitoto, and is starting a prosthesis program in the San Miguel area. The organization reports that it distributes $12 million in supplies annually and that it brought in approximately $8 million in earthquake relief. About 90 percent of this assistance is medicine; the rest is distributed among food, educational material, furniture, and medical equipment. Associated SMOM branches in France, Rome, Venezuela, and the United States contribute funds and supplies to the Salvadoran effort. The Washington D. C. and New York chapters of the Knights have provided constant aid, most of which comes from a Catholicoriented foundation called AmeriCares (see Private Connections).

SMOM says it gives people a psychological lift by funding

projects such as the Boy Scouts and soccer teams. It is also

sponsoring productive activities, such as teaching people how to sew so they can eventually work in textile assembly industries known as maquiladoras. The Agency for Intl Development has given the Knights of Malta $500,000 for a prosthesis program involving two clinics which provide provisional prostheses to victims of guerrilla land mines. The organization funds the government's human rights organization to monitor human rights violations and to keep a census of the victims of mine explosions. SMOM explains its program in counterinsurgency terms: "If you're not eating and a private organization brings you food, then you're less likely to be recruited by the guerrillas. "(13) SMOM took funds from AmeriCares to El Salvador. (1) They helped Christian Broadcasting Network distribute supplies and received funds from them. (2,3) They assisted Air Commando Association in El Salvador. (2) They are also helping with AID's resettlement program in El Salvador. (7)

Guatemala: AmeriCares donates goods and SMOM distributes them. SMOM is doing minimal development work there but is distributing goods to priests in conflict zones. (5) An AmeriCares/SMOM joint venture in Guatemala has distributed $6 million to $7 million in medicines in 1985-86. Overhead costs are minimal because local Knights provide office space, transportation, and storage facilities. One of the top Knight's in Guatemala, Roberto Alejos, allowed the CIA to use his sugar plantations in San Sebastian, Retalhuleu to train anti-Castro counterrevolutionaries for the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Knights' donations have reached most areas of the country, including hospitals and health campaigns in the government's "model villages. " These villages, similar to the strategic hamlets in Vietnam during the conflict in Indochina, are designed to control and pacify local populations. SMOM has donated to hundreds of other NGOs, including Living Water Teaching, PAVA, and the 700 Club. (5,16)

In 1981 Covenant House, the New York-based home for street teens founded by Father Bruce Ritter, expanded its operations to Guatemala through the foundation of Casa Alianza. AmeriCares and the Knights of Malta provided major support to the new enterprise. Roberto Alejos served as the conduit for hundreds of pounds of food and medicine from AmeriCares and helped to obtain donations for Casa Alianza from private sources. (18)

Nicaragua: Since the election of the UNO government in 1990, the Knights of Malta, particularly the chapter in Los Angeles, have made major donations to Nicaragua. SMOM members assisted in the delivery of three plane-loads of medical supplies from AmeriCares that arrived in Managua three days after the election. It is estimated that the Nicaraguan chapter of SMOM has 25 members, about half of whom live out of the country. (19,20) Members of the German SMOM served as part of the ONUCA (Organizaciones Unidas de Centro America) peacekeeping force that watched the Nicaraguan borders to prevent contra movements across the border with Honduras. (20)

J. Peter Grace has a long history of involvement in CIA-linked projects, such as the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). In addition, he was involved with the CIA-backed Radio Free Liberty and Radio Free Europe projects in Europe, and Grace representative Francis D. Flanagan belonged to International Telephone and Telegraph's (IT&T) "Ad Hoc Committee on Chile" during the l973 overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. IT&T had CIA backing for its efforts against the Allende government. (14)

El Salvador: For its work in El Salvador, the Knights of Malta benefits from free transport of its humanitarian supplies by the United States military due to the space-available provisions of the Denton Amendment. SMOM and the U. S. -based Family Foundation of America received an AID grant to

carry out rehabilitation programs in an area of Suchitoto selected by the military for pilot repopulation efforts. AID has also given SMOM $500,000 for the prosthesis program described in Activities. (13)

Guatemala: In Guatemala, the Knights of Malta have worked with the Guatemalan Natl Reconstruction Committee (CRN) and the Ministry of Health. (5)

SMOM has worked with or supported the activities of a variety of NGOs, including AmeriCares, Christian Broadcasting Network, and Air Commando Association. (1,2,3) It was loosely linked to the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund (a pro-contra fundraising effort) and CAUSA (the political arm of the Unification Church) through William Simon. (4) It supports the work of Friends of the Americas and acts as the distribution network for AmeriCares in Central America. (6) J. Peter Grace is a board member of AmeriCares and served on the board of the nowdefunct Friends of the Democratic Center in Central America (PRODEMCA). He also served on the board of trustees of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the Latin American arm of the AFL-CIO. AIFLD has been linked to the CIA and is funded primarily by the Agency for Intl Development. AIFLD promotes pro-U. S. labor unions in Latin America. Including Grace himself, at least eight Knights are directors of the W. R. Grace Company. William Simon and Prescott Bush Jr. are members of AmeriCares, and Simon was on PRODEMCA's natl council. Simon, who was Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon, was also the chairman of the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund (NFF), a fundraising organization set up in l985 by the Washington Times, a newspaper owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. The NFF was established to raise funds for the Nicaraguan rebels popularly known as the contras. (l0,11,14) Clare Booth Luce was also a director of the NFF and was on the Board of the Washington Times. (6) Like the Knights of Malta and the NFF, PRODEMCA and AmeriCares were involved in efforts to support the contras and/or private sector opposition groups in Nicaragua. (10,12) In many ways, SMOM and the Connecticut-based AmeriCares foundation are interlocking organizations. Grace, in addition to his work as an AmeriCares director, was instrumental in its founding, and the president of the New York City SMOM chapter is the vice-president of AmeriCares. (13)

El Salvador: SMOM, as noted, works closely with AmeriCares in El Salvador. The latter organization says it sent about $13 million in aid to El Salvador between l983 and l986. AmeriCares receives support from AID for the cost of shipment from the U. S. to El Salvador. Other supplies comefrom the Tom Dooley/InterMed Foundation and from Direct Relief Intl. Gerald Coughlin, described above in Activities, serves as the Salvadoran country representative for both of these organizations. In addition to AmeriCares, SMOM in El Salvador works closely with the Salvadoran American Foundation and the Family Foundation of America. Local Rotary and Lions clubs use SMOM's duty-free privileges to import supplies into the country. Project Hope in Washington helps SMOM in El Salvador with transportation and storage. (13) The Dooley Foundation gives supplies to SMOM for its work in El Salvador. (7)

Guatemala: In this country, SMOM has worked with or supported the Rotary Club, AmeriCares, Lions Club, Living Water Teaching, PAVA, the CBN's 700 Club, Catholic Service Organizations for the Interior, and a number of hospitals and orphanages. (5,16)

Honduras: The Knights of Malta works closely with AmeriCares in Honduras. In addition, donations for SMOM have arrived in Honduras via United Brands and Standard Fruit boats. (17)

According to a source named Jimmy-the-Weasel, Mafia members apparently created memberships in SMOM for a fee, using their connections in SMOM. (8) During the Vietnam war, the Knights of Malta supported U. S. military intervention in Southeast Asia and contributed to Washington's pacification campaign in South Vietnam. (10) SMOM gave its highest award of honor, the Gran Croci Al Merito Conplacca, to Gen. Reinhard Gehlen in l948. Gehlen, who was not a Catholic, was awarded the honor because of his efforts in the "crusade against godless Communism. " Gehlen headed Adolf Hitler's spy operations against the Soviet Union during World War II. After the war, he and his spy apparatus--staffed mostly by former Nazis--were recruited by the CIA. He became the first director of the BND, West Germany's intelligence agency, which contributed large percentages of NATO's raw intelligence during the Cold War. (14) In l963, as Director of the CIA, John McCone oversaw the assassination of South Vietnam's Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem. In l973, from a senior post in IT&T, he played a role in the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile. (6)

U. S. Address: The Hill Building, 839 l7th St. NW, Washington D. C. 20006 (202-835-2657).

1. AmeriCares Information Packet.

2. Air Commandos Association Newsletter, Feb, 1985.

3. Synapses, "CBN: Unholy Alliance," May, 1985.

4. Miami Herald, June 24, 1985.

5. Interview with Roberto Alejos, Jan 27, 1987.

6. Francoise Hervet, "Knights of Darkness: The Sovereign Military Order of Malta," Covert Action Information Bulletin, Winter, 1986.

7. Interview with Gerald Coughlin, 1987.

8. Letter from James Sullivan, July 28, l987.

9. Bureau for Food for Peace and Voluntary Assistance, Report of American Voluntary Agencies Engaged in Overseas Relief and Development Registered with the Agency for Intl Development, Voluntary Foreign Aid Programs, l985 (Washington D. C. : AID, l986).

l0. The New Right Humanitarians, The Resource Center, l986.

ll. Summary of La Prensa Grant Proposal, Natl Endowment for Democracy, no date.

12. John Spicer Nichols, "La Prensa: The CIA Connection," Columbia Journalism Review, July/August l988, pp. 34-35.

l3. Private Organizations with U. S. Connections: El Salvador, The Resource Center, l988.

l4. Martin A. Lee, "Who Are the Knights of Malta?" Natl Catholic Reporter, Oct ll, l983.

l5. Office of Private & Voluntary Cooperation, The Executive Contact List: Private and Voluntary Organizations Registered with the Agency for Intl Development (Washington D. C. : AID,

no date).

l6. Private Organizations with U. S. Connections: Guatemala, The Resource Center, l988.

17. Private Organizations with U. S. Connections: Honduras, The Resource Center, l988.

18. "War for the Children," Newsday, Oct 7, 1990.

19. Interview with Agnes Thompson Kelly, Knights of Malta,

Nicaragua, July 18, 1990.

20. Interview with Enrique Ortega, Nicaragua, July 14, 1990.

The underlying cites for this profile are now kept at Political Research Associates, (617) 666-5300.

GroupWatch: Profiles of U. S. Private Organizations and Churches was compiled by the Interhemispheric Resource Center, Box 4506, Albuquerque, NM 87196. < > See note at top of page.