Category Archives: Narcotics

Hyde’s Blind Spot

Hyde’s Blind Eye: Contras & Cocaine

By Dennis Bernstein & Leslie Kean, ConsortiumNews.com, December 14, 1999

Henry Hyde, who starred as chief House manager in President Clinton’s impeachment, played a very different role a decade earlier.

In 1987, instead of the grim prosecutor set on punishing Clinton for his sex-and-lies offenses, Hyde was the glib defense attorney searching for reasons to spare President Reagan from possible impeachment over the Iran-contra scandal and related drug crimes implicating the Nicaraguan contra army.

As a member of the congressional Iran-contra committee, Hyde vigorously defended Reagan’s Iran-contra activities and steered the panel away from any serious investigation of the contra-cocaine connection.

The suppression of that contra-cocaine probe, in particular, proved crucial in shielding Reagan and his vice president, George Bush, from blame for a policy that fueled America’s cocaine pandemic and wreaked havoc on cities across the nation.

While it is not clear exactly what Hyde knew about the contra-cocaine corruption in 1987, government investigators already had collected strong evidence of widespread criminality.

The contra-cocaine issue had surfaced publicly in 1985 and had become the subject of a Senate inquiry in 1986. Even earlier, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration were aware of the contra-cocaine problem.

Those early suspicions have now been proved out. Last year, CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz issued a lengthy report admitting that drug traffickers permeated the contra movement from its inception in the early 1980s and that contra-cocaine smuggling continued throughout the decade. [For details on Hitz’s report, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

According to the CIA inspector general’s report, the evidence showed that from the start, the CIA knew the contras were involved in “criminal activities,” including terrorist bombings, hijackings and narcotics trafficking.

By 1981, contra operatives had delivered their first shipment of cocaine to the United States, the report revealed. The inspector general also confirmed that drug traffickers from the Medellin cartel secretly collaborated with contra operatives to pump money into the contra war.

We now know, too, that in 1982, Reagan’s first attorney general, William French Smith, gave the CIA legal clearance to work with drug traffickers without a requirement to report on their criminal activities.

This so-called “memorandum of understanding” was effectively a carte blanche for the CIA to ignore drug operatives working in the contra movement as well as other CIA-backed projects.

Though now confirmed by the CIA’s inspector general and other investigators, the contra-cocaine charges were a matter of heated denials in the mid-1980s — when the drug smuggling actually was taking place.

“The government made a secret decision to sacrifice a part of the American population for the contra effort,” testified Washington attorney Jack Blum before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1996. Blum had been special counsel to Sen. John Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on terrorism and narcotics.

Reagan administration officials also were “quietly undercutting law enforcement and human-rights agencies that might have caused them difficulty,” Blum stated. “Policy makers absolutely closed their eyes to the criminal behavior of the contras.”

From his twin perch on the House Intelligence Committee and the congressional Iran-contra panel, Henry Hyde was especially well positioned to stop potential threats to the contras from law-enforcement officials and congressional investigators who were compiling the evidence.

Hyde’s spot at the nexus of information made him one of President Reagan’s most important defenders.

One of the Illinois Republican’s principal contributions to the contra-cocaine cover-up was his championing of a bogus 1987 investigative report largely clearing the contras of drug-trafficking suspicion.

The 900-word memo, drafted by Iran-contra committee staff member Robert A. Bermingham, claimed that a thorough investigation into the drug-trafficking charges had found no evidence that the contra leadership was implicated in narco-trafficking. Bermingham submitted the memo to Iran-contra committee chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, on July 23, 1987.

During the course of our investigation, the role of U.S. government officials who supported the contras and the private resupply effort, as well as the role of private individuals in resupply, were exhaustively examined,” Bermingham wrote.

“Hundreds of persons, including U.S. government employees, contra leaders, representatives of foreign governments, U.S. and foreign law enforcement officials, military personnel, private pilots and crews involved in actual operations were questioned and their files and records examined. …

“There was no information developed indicating any U.S. government agency or organization condoned drug trafficking by the contras or anyone else.”

More broadly, Bermingham disparaged the contra-cocaine allegations as self-serving claims coming from disreputable individuals.

“During the course of our investigation, we examined files of State, DOD, NSC, CIA, DEA, Justice, Customs and FBI, especially those reportedly involving newspaper allegations of contra drug trafficking,” he said. “We have discovered that almost all of these allegations originate from persons indicted or convicted of drug smuggling.”

Bermingham also reported that “contra leaders have been interviewed and their bank records examined. They denied any connection with or knowledge of drug trafficking. Examination of contra financial records, private enterprise business records, and income tax returns of several individuals failed to find any indication of drug trafficking.”

Bermingham then concluded, “additional investigation of these allegations is unwarranted in view of the negative results to date.”

While Bermingham’s description of his investigation sounded impressive, the memo offered virtually no documentation from — or even identification of — the “hundreds” of witnesses supposedly questioned.

There were no excerpts from depositions, no quotes from the files, no references to specific records examined, no citation of which foreign governments had cooperated or how, no detailing of the witness accounts alleging contra-drug trafficking and how those stories were debunked.

Though the Democrats soon realized that Bermingham’s sweeping claims were not supported by the evidence, Hyde signed off on it and used the memo to disparage anti-contra evidence coming from other investigators.

Hyde cited the memo as proof that the Democrats had “left no stone unturned” in efforts to hurt the contras, but still had come up empty.

With Hyde’s backing, the Bermingham memo galvanized a Washington conventional wisdom that the contra-cocaine charges had been thoroughly investigated and discredited.

What is now even more troubling about the memo — and Hyde’s endorsement — is that recent internal investigations by the CIA and the Justice Department have revealed that the agencies and the groups cited by Bermingham actually possessed significant proof of contra-connected drug trafficking in their files.

The agencies also knew that criminal investigations had been sidetracked for political reasons. For example, the CIA and Justice Department acknowledged that investigative leads into a 1983 drug-smuggling case in San Francisco were dropped after CIA officials expressed concerns that contra leaders in Costa Rica could be implicated.

Consider also what was going on at the NSC and the State Department in 1985-86: NSC aide Oliver North had teamed up with four companies owned and operated by drug traffickers — and North helped arrange State Department contracts to pay all four for shipping non-lethal supplies to the contras.

According to government documents, the companies were:

•  SETCO Air, owned and operated by the notorious Honduran drug trafficker Ramon Matta Ballesteros.

• DIACSA, the Miami-based headquarters for major traffickers, Floyd Carlton and Alfredo Caballero.

• Vortex, an air service partly owned by drug trafficker Michael Palmer, descibed in court records as “working for the largest marijuana cartel in the history of the country.”

• Frigorificos de Puntarenas, a Costa Rican seafood exporter established by the Medellin cartel and operated by Cuban-American traffickers.

Months before the Bermingham memo — on March 25, 1987 — the CIA also had interviewed Cuban-American Moises “Dagoberto” Nunez about his role in Frigorificos, according to the CIA inspector general’s report.

Nunez “revealed that since 1985 he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National Security Council,” the CIA report stated, adding: “Nunez … indicated that it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he performed at the direction of the NSC.”

The Reagan administration also knew that Felipe Vidal, another Cuban-American working for the CIA and Frigorificos, had a criminal record as a drug trafficker, according to the inspector general’s report.

Defenders of Hyde and the Bermingham memo could argue that the CIA withheld much of this evidence from Congress, that Hyde and Bermingham were more dupes than conscious participants in a cover-up.

But there still was a significant body of incriminating evidence before the Iran-contra committees in 1987. Senior CIA officials, Alan Fiers and Joe Fernandez, had told the Iran-contra investigators that drugs were a significant problem on the so-called Southern Front in Costa Rica.

Also, by the time of Bermingham’s memo, Robert Owen, a North intermediary and an early congressional witness, had turned over contra files that referred to drug trafficking.

When one of Palmer’s planes crash-landed in 1986, Owen had written to North, “no doubt you know that the DC4 … was used at one time to run drugs and part of the crew had criminal records. Nice group the boys chose.”

Contrary to Bermingham’s “exhaustively” researched memo, too, some contra leaders were acknowledging financial and material support from drug traffickers.

One leader, Octaviano Cesar, admitted receiving help from notorious drug trafficker George Morales. Cesar justified the arrangements as necessary for “the security of my country.”

Bermingham’s tarring of “almost all” the witnesses as convicted or charged criminals did not turn out to true, either. Indeed, many of the witnesses who described contra-drug activity worked for the DEA or the FBI.

Throughout 1986, the Kerry investigation was forwarding contra-drug evidence to the Justice Department, including the testimony of one FBI informant named Wanda Palacio.

Palacio gave an eyewitness account of Colombian drug traffickers loading cocaine onto planes belonging to the CIA-connected airline, Southern Air Transport, in 1983 and 1985.

She identified one of the SAT pilots as contra fly-boy Wallace “Buzz” Sawyer and placed him at the airport in Barranquilla, Colombia, in early October 1985.

Sawyer died when his contra plane was shot down in Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, but his flight logs were recovered and revealed that he had flown SAT planes into Barranquilla on several days in early October 1985.

Palacio was one of the many corroborated witnesses who was not a convicted criminal, but whose information was nonetheless rejected by Reagan’s Justice Department and, presumably, by Bermingham’s study.

Indeed, from a review of the evidence available just in 1987, it seems like Bermingham must have been interviewing a different set of government officials and contra leaders than those who had caught the attention of Kerry and other investigators.

As Kerry’s final report summarized: “It is clear that individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking. It is also clear that the supply network of the contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.

“In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring or immediately thereafter.”

Though Bermingham’s memo now appears to have been a sham report based on a selective reading of the record, it dealt a powerful blow to those who favored a broader Iran-contra investigation in 1987.

In particular, Hyde seized on the document as proof that critics were falsely maligning the contras. Hyde also scolded the Democrats for not highlighting the exculpatory memo in their final Iran-contra report when it was released in November 1987.

“The fact is that the committees’ staff left no stone unturned in its efforts to obtain information that might be politically damaging to the Resistance,” the contras, declared Hyde and other committee Republicans in a footnote to the final report.

“The committees’ investigators reviewed major portions, if not all, of the contras’ financial records; met with witnesses who alleged the Resistance was involved in terrorism or drug-running; investigated the financial conduct of the [State Department’s non-lethal contra aid program, and] received no credible evidence of misconduct by the Resistance.

“It came as little surprise, of course, that the committees’ majority does not explicitly acknowledge this. … For this reason, suggestions that the committees have not investigated such matters, and other committees of Congress should, ought to be seen for what they are: political harassment by congressional opponents of the Resistance.”

In the years that followed, some of those most troubled by Hyde’s protection of the drug-tainted contra operation have been agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Michael Levine, a former undercover DEA agent, has reviewed the evidence of the Reagan administration’s complicity in the contra-cocaine operations and asserted that he has put corrupt police officers in prison for much less.

“Imagine this, here you have Oliver North, a high-level official in the National Security Council running a covert action in collaboration with a drug cartel,” Levine said.

“That’s what I call treason [and] we’ll never know how many kids died because these so-called patriots were so hot to support the contras that they risked several generations of our young people to do it.”

Levine still fumes when he reviews the incriminating entries in North’s notebooks that were turned over to the congressional committees. On July 12, 1985, for instance, North wrote about one contra arms warehouse in Honduras: “Fourteen million to finance came from drugs.”

“What the hell does that mean, and where does Congressman Hyde think the drugs went that paid for the contras’ weapons? Into kids’ bodies,” Levine said.

Levine viewed Hyde as a protector of the dirty secrets, even if he did not participate directly in the contra-cocaine operations. “As a key member of the joint committees, he certainly played a major role in keeping the American people blindfolded about this story,” Levine said. “There was plenty of hard evidence. … The totality of the whole picture is very compelling. This is very damning evidence. …

“In my book, Big White Lie, I [wrote] that the CIA stopped us from indicting the Bolivian government at the same time contra assets were going down there to pick up drugs. When you put it all together, you have much more evidence to convict Ollie North, [former senior CIA official] Dewey Clarridge and all the way up the line, than they had in any John Gotti [Mafia] case.”

Celerino Castillo III was a top DEA agent in El Salvador who encountered obstructions in the mid-1980s when his undercover work turned up links between the contra-supply operation and cocaine trafficking.

“They were running narcotics and weapons out of Ilopango to support the contras,” Castillo said in an interview. “We’re talking about very large quantities of cocaine and millions of dollars. … There’s no doubt about it; we saw the cocaine and the boxes full of money.”

Castillo said the operation was run out of “Hangars 4 and 5 controlled by North and the CIA with [former CIA officer] Felix Rodriguez. The cocaine was transshipped from Costa Rica through El Salvador and into the United States.”

The DEA agent detailed how known traffickers with multiple DEA files used the two hangars and how they had obtained U.S. visas with the help of the U.S. government.

Castillo said his reports were very thorough and included “not only the names of traffickers, but their destinations, flight paths, tail numbers and the date and time of each flight.” According to Castillo, the drug planes flown by contra pilots came from Costa Rica and sometimes the drugs came on military aircraft from Panama.

The top drug pilot flying for the contra network then was Francisco Guirola Beeche, Castillo said. Guirola’s name was all over DEA databases, according to Castillo, and the aircraft was on a watch list for drug trafficking.

Guirola, an associate of Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, ran afoul of U.S. law on Feb. 6, 1985, when his plane landed in Texas with nearly $6 million in suspected drug money on board.

Authorities seized the money — which Guirola said was going to finance political operations of D’Aubuisson’s right-wing ARENA party. But Reagan administration prosecutors soon released the plane and offered to free Guirola on probation.

The plea bargain was so lenient that it mystified U.S. District Judge Hayden Head Jr., who complained that “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.” But prosecutors persuaded the judge to approve the deal. [AP, June 13, 1985]

By letting Guirola go free, the plea bargain prevented a thorough examination of the source of Guirola’s money.

The drug-trafficking evidence at Hangars 4 and 5 might have raised suspicions, too, about Cuban-American Felix Rodriguez who oversaw the contra-supply operations for Oliver North. Rodriguez had been placed in El Salvador by Vice President Bush’s office.

During the Iran-contra hearings, the former CIA paramilitary expert received laudatory treatment from Hyde and other committee Republicans. When Rodriguez testified, Hyde showered the former CIA officer with praise for battling communism, but Hyde avoided questions about the shadowy operations at Hangars 4 and 5.

Hyde also shifted the blame to Congress for the contras’ need for money. “I know there is a zeal among some to confine this inquiry to who did what, and ignore why,” Hyde declared.

“And I just want to make the point that I think why some of these things were done contributes to a fuller understanding of who and what [was done], and that the nonfeasance of Congress may well turn out to be every bit as important as the misfeasance or malfeasance of certain individuals.”

A mountain of evidence now exists to back up the fact that the contras were connected to major cartel trafficking operations.

Yet, because of the aggressive defense played by Hyde and other Republicans — not to mention the timidity of senior Democrats — North and other key officials escaped serious investigation on drug charges.

Indeed, North nearly won a U.S. Senate seat in 1994 and has emerged since as a national television personality on NBC’s cable news networks.

For Hyde, there have been honors, too. On March 4, 1991, then-CIA director William Webster awarded Hyde a CIA Seal Medallion for his “tremendous service” and his “sustained outstanding support” for the CIA.

Without doubt, Hyde performed a “tremendous service” for the spy agency and its public reputation. At a pivotal moment in the 1980s, Hyde helped keep the lid on some of the CIA’s dirtiest secrets.

Hyde’s performance was in marked contrast to his moral zeal in the 1990s when confronting President Clinton’s dissembling about sexual peccadillos.

Moral Universe: Where More Than Space and Time Are Warped, published by Common Courage Press. The book can be ordered from www.commoncouragepress.com or by calling 1-800-497-3207

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Blast from the Past

Guns, Drugs and the CIA

Frontline #613 (PBS)
Original Air Date: May 17, 1988
Produced and Written by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn
Directed by Leslie Cockburn

NARRATOR
Tonight, on FRONTLINE: An investigation of the CIA and its role in international drug dealing.

VICTOR MARCHETTI
The history of the CIA runs parallel to criminal and drug operations throughout the world, but it’s coincidental.

NARRATOR
Is the CIA using drug money to finance covert operations?

RAMON MILIAN RODRIGUEZ
Narcotics proceeds were used to shore up the Contra effort.

JOHN KERRY
Something’s wrong, something is really wrong out there.

NARRATOR
Tonight, “Guns, Drugs and the CIA.”

JUDY WOODRUFF
Good evening.

Two of the most persistent offensives of the Reagan presidency have been the war against communism in Central America and the war on drugs here at home.

But investigations of America’s secret war in Nicaragua have revealed mounting evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency has been fighting the Contra war with the help of international drug traffickers.

It is not a new story.

Tonight’s FRONTLINE investigation traces the CIA’s involvement with drug lords back to the agency’s birth following World War II. It is a long history that asks this question: “In the war on drugs, which side is the CIA on?”

Our program was produced by Leslie and Andrew Cockburn. It is called Guns, Drugs, and the CIA and is reported by Leslie Cockburn.

Ronald Reagan:
Illegal drugs are one thing that no community in America can, should, or needs to tolerate. America’s already started to take that message to heart. That’s why I believe the tide of battle has turned and we’re beginning to win the crusade for a drug-free America.

U.S. Senator John Kerry:
The subcommittee on narcotics, terrorism, international operations will come to order. From what we have learned these past months, our declaration on war against drugs seems to have produced a war of words and not action. Our drugs seem to have produced a war of words and not action. Our borders are inundated with more narcotics than in anytime ever before. It seems as though stopping drug trafficking in the United States has been a secondary U.S. foreign policy objective, sacrificed repeatedly for other political and institutional goals such as changing the government of Nicaragua, supporting the government of Panama, using drug-running organizations as intelligence assets, and protecting military and intelligence sources from possible compromise through involvement in drug trafficking.

RAMON MILIAN RODRIGUEZ, Government Witness 
If we start with the premise that drug trafficking is morally reprehensible, our government agencies are not supposed to do anything like that, but they live in a practical world.

SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS

John Kerry:
Would you raise your right hand please.

NARRATOR 
Ramon Milian Rodriguez saw that world as the chief accountant of the Colombian cocaine cartel responsible for managing eleven billion dollars in drug profits. Now serving a forty-three year sentence for money laundering, he has been a key witness for a senate investigation probing links between drugs and the CIA.

RAMON MILIAN RODRIGUEZ
Say for instance, the drug group was involved in a war with a terrorist group, a communist terrorist group, well, it would behove the CIA to give that drug group as much help and advice as possible so they could win their little war.

VICTOR MARCHETTI
The history of the CIA runs parallel to criminal and drug operations throughout the world, but it’s coincidental.

NARRATOR
Victor Marchetti came to know the world of covert operations as a long time CIA officer. He is the highest ranking agency official ever to go public about what he learned.

VICTOR MARCHETTI, Central Intelligence Agency 
It goes all the way back to the predecessor organization OSS and its involvement with the Italian mafia, the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and Southern Italy. Later on when they were fighting communists in France and–that they got in tight with the Corsican brotherhood. The Corsican brotherhood of course were big dope dealers. As things changed in the world the CIA got involved with the Kuomintang types in Burma who were drug runners because they were resisting the drift towards communism there. The same thing happened in Southeast Asia, later in Latin America. Some of the very people who are the best sources of information, who are capable of accomplishing things and the like happen to be the criminal element.

WILLIAM COLBY, Former Director, CIA
CIA has had a solid rule against being involved in drug trafficking. That’s not to say that some of the people who CIA has used or been in touch with over the years may well have themselves been involved in drug traffic, but not the CIA.

RAMON MILIAN RODRIGUEZ
If the CIA is going to, if their job is to maintain the safety of our country and freedom by manipulating foreign powers to do what this country wants, and if the guy who’s holding the power at that particular moment happens to be a drug lord, then you have to get involved with the drug lord.

VICTOR MARCHETTI
As a result, we kept getting involved with these kinds of people, not for drug purposes and not for personal gain but to achieve a higher ideological goal.

NARRATOR 
In a refugee camp in Northeast Thailand, there live the remnants of one such involvement. They are the Hmong or Meo Tribe. While American troops were fighting in Vietnam, these people were the foot soldiers of a secret CIA army. They fought in undeclared war in Northern Laos, across the border from North Vietnam.

GENERAL RICHARD SECORD
They’re hill people, they’re little guys. Like most hill people they’re pretty fierce. In Laos we were the guerrillas. The war in Laos was a textbook example of what can be done in unconventional warfare.

NARRATOR
General Richard Secord is one of the many veterans of the CIA secret war in Laos. Because Laos was officially neutral, American troops could not be used. The CIA relied on massive air power and a tribal army to fight the local communists and the North Vietnamese.

On the ground in Northern Laos, a handful of CIA officers directed as many as eighty-five thousand soldiers drawn from the mountain tribes. But American officials did more than just send their allies into battle.

RON RICKENBACH, Former Official, U.S. Agency for International Development 
Early on, I think that we all believed that what we were doing was in the best interests of America, that we were in fact perhaps involved in some not so desirable aspects of the drug traffic, however we believed strongly in the beginning that we were there for a just cause.

NARRATOR
Ron Rickenbach served in Laos as an official for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1962 to 1969. He was on the front lines.

RON RICKENBACH
These people were willing to take up arms. We needed to stop the Red threat and people believed that in that vein we made, you know, certain compromises or certain trade-offs for a larger good. Growing opium was a natural agricultural enterprise for these people and they had been doing it for many years before the Americans ever got there. When we got there they continued to do so.

RICHARD SECORD
When they would move from one place to another they would carry their little bags of opium, they smoked it in pipes. And opium could be bought in the streets of any village.

FRED PLATT, Former Pilot, Laos 
When a farmer raised a crop of opium, what he got for his year’s worth of work was the equivalent of thirty-five to forty U.S. dollars. That amount of opium, were it refined into morphine base, then into morphine, then into heroin and appeared on the streets of New York, that thirty-five dollar crop of opium would be worth fifty, sixty, a hundred thousand dollars in 1969 dollars–maybe a million dollars today.

NARRATOR
The war isolated the Meo tribespeople in their remote villages. CIA-owned Air America planes became their only life line to the outside world. While Meo children came to believe that rice fell from the sky, Meo farmer witnesses could count on Air America to move their cash crop.

RON RICKENBACH
It was then the presence of these air support services in and out of the areas in question where the product, where the opium was grown that greatly facilitated an increase in production and an ease of transhipment from the point of agriculture to the point of processing. So, when I say the Americans greased the wheels, essentially what I’m saying is we did not create opium production. We did not create a situation where drug trafficking was happening. But because of the nature of our presence, this very intense American means that was made available to the situation it accelerated in proportion dramatically.

NARRATOR
The possibility that Air America flew drugs is still hotly disputed by many former senior officers.

RICHARD SECORD
You can question any number of people who were there, who actually were there, not people who claim that they had some knowledge of rumors, you can question any number of people and I venture to say they will all support what I’m saying, and that is that there was no commercial trade in opium going on.

RON RICKENBACH
I was on the airstrip, that was my job, to move in and about and to go from place to place and my people were in charge of dispatching aircraft. I was in the areas where opium was transshipped, I personally was a witness to opium being placed on aircraft, American aircraft. I witnessed it being taken off smaller aircraft that were coming in from outlying sites.

NEIL HANSEN, Former Pilot, Air America 
Yes I’ve seen the sticky bricks come on board and no one was challenging their right to carry it. It was their own property.

NARRATOR
Neil Hansen is a former senior Air America pilot, now serving a sentence for smuggling cocaine.

NEIL HANSEN
We were some sort of a freebie airline in some respects there, whoever the customer or the local representative put on the airplane we flew.

Primarily it was transported on our smaller aircraft, the Helios, the Porters and the things like that would visit the little outlying villages. They would send their opium to market.

NARRATOR
From the villages, the planes carried their cargo over the mountains to Long Chien, CIA headquarters for the war. It was a secret city. Unmarked on any map and carefully hidden from outsiders, Long Chien became one of the busiest airports in the world, with hundreds of landings and takeoffs a day.

ED DEARBORN, Former Pilot, Air America 
At the height of the war when there were thousands of people in there, there were villages all over, there were landing pads up on what we called Skyline drive which was the ridge on the north side of Long Chien. T-28s were going in and out of there, C-130s were going in and out of there. It was an amazing place, just amazing.

NARRATOR
Ed Dearborn is a veteran of Long Chien and Air America. A key figure in the covert air operation.

ED DEARBORN
From a sleepy little valley and village you know, surrounded by the mountains and the karst, this great war machine actually was working up there.

It was the heart and pulse of Laos at that time, more commonly referred to as the CIA’s secret base you now, heh heh heh.

NARRATOR
To lead their Meo army, the CIA selected Vang Pao, a former lieutenant in the French colonial army in Laos. The agency made very effort to boost his reputation.

CIA FILM

Speaker:
His name was Vang Pao, a charismatic, passionate and committed man. A patriot without a country.

NARRATOR
Vang Pao, however, did more than just lead his people in war. According to observers he and his officers dominated the trade in the Meo farmers’ cash crop. In 1968, one visitor got a first-hand look at this trade in the village called Long Pot.

JOHN EVERINGHAM, Photographer
I was given the guest bed in the village, in fact the district headman’s house, and I ended up sharing it with a guy in military uniform who I later found out was an officer of the Vang Pao army and one morning I was awoken very early by this great confusion of people and noise at the bottom of the bed, just, literally people brushing against my feet with the packets of black sticky substance in bamboo tubes and wrapped up in leaves and bits and things and the military officer who was there was weighing it out and paying off a considerable amount of money to these people and this went on for most of the morning and it went on for several mornings he brought up a great deal of this substance which I then started to think about and asked and had it confirmed that this was in fact raw opium.

NARRATOR
War photographer John Everingham has lived in Southeast Asia for over twenty years. He was one of the very few outsiders who dared to look for and photograph the secret army for himself.

John Everingham:
They all wore American supplied uniforms and the villagers very innocently and very openly told me, “oh they took it to Long Chien,” and I asked them how they took it and they said, “oh well they took it on the helicopters as everything else that went to and from Long Chien went by helicopter and so did the opium.”

Frontline:
And whose helicopters were they?

John Everingham:
Well they were the Air America helicopters which were on contract to the CIA.

NEIL HANSEN
We did not go down to the embassy and be privy to their secret briefings or anything else. We flew the airplanes. If they put something on the airplanes and told you not to look at it you didn’t look at it, because you’d no longer be employed.

JOHN EVERINGHAM 
I know as a fact soon after the army was formed the military officers soon got control of the opium trade. It helped not only them make a lot of money and become good loyal officers to the CIA but it helped the villagers. The villagers needed their opium carried out and carried over the land in a war situation that was much more dangerous and more difficult, and the officers were obviously paying a good price ‘cos the villagers were very eager to sell to the military people.

HARRY ADERHOLT, U.S. General
That’s hogwash. No way and as far as the agency ever, ever advocating that is do you think I would be in an organization where I’ve devoted my life to my country–involved in a operation like that without blowing the whistle?–absolutely not.

NARRATOR
For veterans like General Aderholt and General Secord the war in Laos is now commemorated at nostalgic reunions. Last fall they gathered at a Florida air base to talk over old times and current business.

While Vang Pao does not attend such functions, he is well remembered by his old comrades.

Frontline:
Was the agency responsible for people’s salaries, were they paying Vang Pao?

Harry Aderholt:
Of course, they were a hundred percent responsible, because Vang Pao was responding to agency requirements, even though they may have come from the highest levels of the U.S. government, yes, of course.

Frontline:
He was in the chain of command.

Harry Aderholt:
Yes.

Frontline:
Did you work with Vang Pao?

Richard Secord:
Sure, all the time.

Frontline:
What was your relationship?

Richard Secord:
I was his supplier of air, therefore he stayed in close contact with me.

Frontline:
Were you in charge of supplying Air America planes?

Richard Secord:
For the tactical air operations, yes.

NARRATOR
The movement of Air America planes say witnesses were influenced by Vang Pao’s business requirements.

Ron Rickenbach:
Vang Pao wanted control of the aircraft– sure, he would do the work that needed to be done but it would give that much more freedom and that much more flexibility to use these aircraft to go out and pick up the opium that needed to be picked up at this site or that site and to bring it back to Long Chien, and there was quite a hassle and Vang Pao won. Not only did he get control of the aircraft, but there was also a question of the operational control of the airplanes that were leaving Long Chien to go south, even into Thailand, and there was an embarrassing situation where the Americans knew that this could be exposed and it would be a very compromising situation. The way they got around that was to concede, to create for Vang Pao his own local airline, and Xieng Kouang airlines came into reality as a direct result of this compromise that was worked out, and they brought in a C-47 from the states and they painted it up nice and put Xieng Kouang airlines on it and they gave it to Vang Pao, and that aircraft was largely used for the transshipment of opium from Long Chien to sites further south.

Frontline:
Air Opium?

Ron Rickenbach:
Air opium.

Harry Aderholt:
Those airlines didn’t really belong to General Vang Pao.

Frontline:
They belonged to the agency.

Harry Aderholt:
They belonged to the agency. They were maintained by the United States government in the form of Air America or Continental, so they didn’t really own anything. It wasn’t something he could take away with him, it was something that we controlled every iota of that operation, lock, stock and barrel.

Frontline:
You know what the nickname for that airline was?

Richard Secord:
No.

Frontline:
Opium Air.

Richard Secord:
I’ve never heard that before.

NARRATOR
Back in the old days the men who flew for Air America and drank in the Purple Porpoise Bar in Vientiane were less discreet.

Most of them are long gone and far away from Laos now but one legendary CIA officer still lives across the Mekong River close to his old mountain battleground.

RON RICKENBACH
The man that was in charge of that local operation was a man by the name of Tony Poe, and he was notorious. He had been involved with the agency from the OSS days he was a World War II combat veteran and he had been with the agency from its inception and he was the prototype operations officer. They made a movie about him when they made Apocalypses Now. He was the caricature of Marlon Brando.

NARRATOR
Until now, Tony Poe has never talked publicly about the Laos operation. He saw it from beginning to end. one of Vang Pao’s early case officers, Poe claims he was transferred from Long Chien because unlike his successors, he refused to tolerate the Meo leader’s corruption.

TONY POE, Former CIA Officer
You don’t let him run loose without a chain on him. You gotta control him just like any kind of an animal or a baby. You have to control him. Hey! He’s the only guy that had a pair of shoes when I first met him–what are you talking about, why does he need Mercedes Benz, apartments and hotels and homes where he never had them in his life before. Why are you going to give it to him?

Frontline:
Plus he was making money on the side with his business?

Tony Poe:
Oh, he was making millions, ‘cos he had his own source of, uh, avenue for his own, uh, heroin.

Frontline:
What did he do with the money?

Tony Poe:
What do you mean? U.S. bank accounts, Switzerland, wherever.

Frontline:
Didn’t they know, when Vang Pao said ‘I want some aircraft’, didn’t they know what he wanted that for?

Tony Poe:
I’m sure we all knew it, but we tried to monitor it, because we controlled most of the pilots you see. We’re giving him freedom of navigation into Thailand, into the bases, and we don’t want him to get involved in moving, you know, this illicit traffic–O.K., silver bars and gold, O.K., but not heroin. What they would do is, they weren’t going into Thailand, they were flying it in a big wet wing airplane that could fly for thirteen hours, a DC-3, and all the wings were filled with gas. They fly down to Pakse, then they fly over to Da Nang, and then the number two guy to President Thieu would receive it.

NARRATOR
Nguyen Van Thieu was president of South Vietnam from 1967 to 1975. Reports at the time accused president Thieu of financing his election through the heroin trade. Like Vang Pao, he always denied it, remaining America’s honored and indispensable ally.

Tony Poe:
They were all in a contractual relationship:Some of this goes to me, some of this goes to thee. And you know just the bookkeeping–we deliver you on a certain day; they had coded messages and di-di-di. That means so and so as this much comes back and goes into our Swiss bank account. Oh they had a wonderful relationship and every, maybe, six months they’d all come together, have a party somewhere and talk about their business:is it good or bad. It is like a mafia, yeah, a big organized mafia.

NARRATOR
By the end of 1970, there were thirty thousand Americans in Vietnam addicted to heroin. GI’s were dying from overdoses at the rate of two a day.

WILLIAM COLBY
When the drug traffic became a real problem to the American troops in Vietnam, then the CIA was asked by President to get involved in the program to limit that traffic and stop it.

NARRATOR 
But in 1972, a U.S. intelligence agent in Southeast Asia sent a secret field report to customs. It suggested a serious conflict of interest: quote–“It was ironic that the CIA should be given the responsibility of narcotics intelligence, particularly since they were supporting the prime movers. Even though the CIA was, in fact, facilitating the movement of opiates to the U.S., they steadfastly hid behind the shield of secrecy and said that all was done in the interest of national security.” End quote.

VICTOR MARCHETTI 
I doubt that they had any strong deep understanding of what they were allowing to happen by turning their head the other way and letting Vang Pao ship his dope out which was made into heroin which was going to our troops, which was corrupting people throughout Southeast Asia and back here, the effect it had on crime, I doubt that any one of them really thought in those terms at the time.

NARRATOR 
While the heroin trade was flourishing by 1970, the war in Laos was going badly. As the communists steadily advanced, the civilian population faced a choice between evacuation to refugee camps or being bombed by the U.S. Air Force. These operations only added to the huge cost of feeding, training and supplying the secret army. For a war that did not officially exist, the CIA was spending heavily.

Harry Aderholt:
The money was always there. We had a program–In fact, that’s the reason the agency supply system was so much better than the military supply system.

Frontline:
Cash?

Harry Aderholt:
Cash. They didn’t have to go through a procurement system, a bureaucracy, that made everything cost three times as much.

Fred Platt:
On two different occasions I brought bags up that I knew was payroll. Wish I’d have crashed on those times, and been able to stick that somewhere in the jungle and go get it, ‘cos it was unaccounted funds.

Frontline:
How much money would be in a bag?

Fred Platt:
Well I–you know, a bag would probably have a couple of hundred thousand dollars in it, depending on where you were going with it and who it was going to.

VICTOR MARCHETTI
I was sitting up there in the Director’s–on the Director’s staff, and that’s where it all came together.

NARRATOR
The CIA Director’s senior staff prepared the agency’s official budget.

Victor Marchetti:
For Laos, I think it was around thirty million, perhaps forty million, but it was very small.

Frontline:
Was that enough to run this war?

Victor Marchetti:
Well, I don’t think so. I would think the war was costing quite a big, probably–if all the costs were pulled together, I would imagine it would probably cost as much as the entire agency’s budget.

Frontline:
How was the war in Laos financed?

Richard Secord:
U.S. appropriated funds.

Frontline:
Through which agency?

Richard Secord:
I think through the CIA and through the Defense Department both.

NARRATOR
A secret Pentagon report put the Defense Department contribution to the war in Laos at a hundred and forty-six million dollars in 1970. But the report also showed that the CIA was spending up to sixty million dollars more than they were getting from Congress.

Victor Marchetti:
Well, there may have been other funds generated by Vang Pao himself through his dope operations. After all I mean they were poppy growers and opium smugglers, so I imagine there was money being earned that way that was Vang Pao’s contribution to the war.

Frontline:
Is it conceivable that the CIA would fight a war with dope money?

Victor Marchetti:
Well, yes, in the sense that they would not sell dope to earn money to support an operation. But they would look the other way if the people they were supporting were financing themselves by selling dope.

Harry Aderholt:
General Vang Pao was financed by U.S. government funds.

Frontline:
How much was he getting?

Harry Aderholt:
I don’t know what General Vang Pao was getting, but the Meo program, I’m sure, ran several hundred million dollars. At the end, to fight a war like we were fighting, and to have an airline…I don’t know what the funding was, but I’m sure the Congressional Committees have access to those records.

NARRATOR
As a former chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Narcotics, Joe Nellis did indeed have access to the records.

Joe Nellis:
Vang Pao had a heavy hand in the production of heroin in that area.

Frontline:
How much of the money that was going to pay these thousands and thousands of tribesmen to fight for us, for the CIA. Where was that money coming from?

Joe Nellis:
From the trade.

Frontline:
From the opium trade?

Joe Nellis:
Yes surely.

Frontline:
How would that work?

Joe Nellis:
Well, money would be paid for the transportation, and the safe arrival of the merchandise to its proper destination, and that money would be paid to the carrier, the person transporting the merchandise and that money would be used to pay off the farmers. But as I told you, they got so little of it that there was an enormous amount left over, and it was that money was used to feed to the peasants in order to get them to continue not only fighting for us but also continuing to give us very important intelligence about the movement of the North Vietnamese.

Richard Secord:
We wouldn’t have permitted it, it would have been too dangerous.

Frontline:
Why?

Richard Secord:
Because the American system wouldn’t put up with it.

Joe Nellis:
I have never revealed any classified information that I obtained when I was with the committee and I’m not going to start now, but I do know that that was verified.

Frontline:
That it was known here?

Joe Nellis:
Yes.

Frontline:
Well, without getting into classified information, was that at a high level or a low level?

Joe Nellis:
Well, I can’t discuss the level. Let’s put it this way; you’re familiar with the Iran-Contra business.

Frontline:
Yes.

Joe Nellis:
That was known at a very high level, it was known at all sorts of levels really–it’s amazing that they could keep it secret as long as they did, and I guess that was the situation with Air America. People in CIA certainly knew it, and at that time Dick Helms I think was the head of the office, and I’m sure he must have reported it to Nixon.

NARRATOR
Former CIA Director Richard Helms told us: “I knew nothing of this. It certainly was not policy.”

RICHARD SECORD
It’s patently impossible. There are thousands of people involved in the intelligence community in the United States who read the reports, who are intimately familiar with details of field activities, and no such operation could ever be kept secret from the authorities in Washington, and would never be tolerated, never, not for a minute.

Frontline:
How many people knew what was going on?

Joe Nellis:
Oh I don’t think it was very many at all–

Frontline:
Five?

Joe Nellis:
–A handful–

Frontline:
Ten?

Joe Nellis:
–A handful, maybe a hundred.

RON RICKENBACH
I personally did not complain, not at the time. I certainly complained after the fact, but that came as a result of my own awakening as to the rather horrible implications of what we were doing and I left working for the government rather abortively because I just could not tolerate myself-what was going on.

NARRATOR
His disgust was not only at the drug trade, but at the human cost of a war in which the recruits were as young as eight years old.

RON RICKENBACH
These people were absolutely decimated. The war itself took its own toll. Thousands and thousands of these people were either maimed or killed or died of disease or malnutrition secondary to the effects of the war. Many were bombed, many were blown away by conflict and combat. What was left after the war was the exodus to the south or to the west.

These people have had their whole life destroyed for helping out in our war. For helping out in our war.

NARRATOR
By 1981, six years after leaving Laos, the CIA was fighting another secret war, this time in Central America. The secret army were the Contras, fighting to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua. Once again, they were trained and equipped by the CIA. It was time for the old hands to go to work again.

Richard Secord:
It’s an irregular war in Central American, and there aren’t a lot of people who have experience in irregular warfare, paramilitary warfare, so it would be natural to see people who are experienced in this kind of operation utilized again.

ED DEARBORN
It’s the old boy network as somebody called it one time. The call goes out and who’s got the experience? It’s the same war, different place and different names. We’re not speaking Laotian, we’re speaking Spanish now, but it’s the same darn war, I don’t care what anybody says.

NARRATOR 
Eugene Hasenfus was just one of a number of veterans from Laos who answered the call in Central America. When his plane was shot down over Nicaragua in October 1986, an Air America handbook turned up in the wreckage. Hasenfus had operated out of the Illopango Airbase in El Salvador, headquarters for the White House Contra resupply network. His commander there had been a veteran of another old CIA network. Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban American, had been sent down from Miami.

FELIX RODRIGUEZ
The feeling that I see now in the Nicaraguan freedom fighters, I know their experience, because I was left inside once, and I wanted to help them as much as I could.

NARRATOR 
Like Rodriguez, the Miami Cubans of Brigade 2506 are still ready to support the anti-communist cause, thirty years after their failed invasion of Cuba. They were willing recruits for the CIA’s war against Nicaragua. The Brigade supplied soldiers in the field, commanders and fundraisers for the Contra cause.

The Brigade had been created and trained by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. After their defeat the CIA continued to maintain and use this skilled force of covert operators, wherever they were needed. Their numbers grew into the thousands. They had their own navy, as well as other assets provided by the CIA, including businesses and banks.

Manuel Artime:
I was in charge…

NARRATOR 
Manuel Artime was the agency’s favorite Cuban, handpicked to command both the Bay of Pigs and the covert operations that followed. In 1972, he recruited and arranged CIA training for a brilliant young accountant called Ramon Milian Rodriguez.

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
He ran covert operations out of Miami for the CIA.

Frontline:
So Artime had a whole group of people who were his people?

Milian Rodriguez:
Oh yes, Artime ran a very large operation, it was very large. It was very active, all over Central and South America.

Manuel Artime:
A lot of Cubans go to work with the Central Intelligence Agency in foreign operations.

Milian Rodriguez:
He was in charge of, among other things, the Watergate burglars and things like that.

Frontline:
Did you launder any money for the Watergate guys?

Milian Rodriguez:
I made payments for the Watergate burglars, yes. I start out in life in one scandal and I’ve ended it in another, it seems. After Watergate, the group that Manuel Artime was running in Miami was disbanded. The fact that the burglars were Cuban really hurt in Miami, so you had a situation where people were laid off. They were just given the assets. For instance, if you were running a print shop, you kept the print shop. If you had a boat, as there were many boats for surveillance and intelligence, you just kept the boat. That was really the starting off point where you got some well trained people into the drug business.

RICHARD SECORD
Many, many Cubans worked for a time in that time. Some of them have become very successful good American citizens. Others have become gangsters.

NARRATOR
But with a secret Contra was to fight, the agency was more interested in covert skills than good citizenship, particularly when it came to raising money. Ramon Milian Rodriguez was ideally placed. With access to the limitless resources of the Medellin cocaine cartel, he had no problem raising cash.

SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS

John Kerry:
You’ve been a supporter living in the Cuban community, passionately anti-communist and anti-Castro. You’ve also been a supporter of the Contras. Is that accurate?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Yes sir.

John Kerry: 
Are you aware whether or not narcotics proceeds at some time may or may not have supported Contra efforts?

Milian Rodriguez:
Yes sir. Narcotics proceeds were used to shore up the Contra effort.

John Kerry:
Did you personally play a role in some of the transfer of that money?

Milian Rodriguez:
Yes I did.

NARRATOR 
In 1984, when Congress cut off Contra funding, the White House turned to other sources for support. According to documents, Ramon Milian Rodriguez had been laundering foreign payments for the CIA up through 1982, at the same time as he was laundering cash for the cocaine cartel. He says the CIA turned to him again.

MILIAN RODRIGUEZ
To have people like me in place that can be used, is marvelous for them. The agency, and quite rightly so, has things that they have to do which they can never admit to an oversight committee, all right, and the only way they can fund these things is through drug money or through illicit money that they can get their hands on in some way.

KERRY HEARINGS

John Kerry (in hearings):
Was any of the money traceable to drugs or to drug related transactions?

Milian Rodriguez:
The money that we–you’re taIking about the money that we provided?

John Kerry:
That’s right.

Milian Rodriguez:
No sir.

John Kerry:
And why was that?

Milian Rodriguez:
Because we’re experts at what we do.

JOSE BLANDON

Frontline:
Who is Ramon Milian Rodriguez?

Jose Blandon:
He worked for the Cartel.

Frontline:
So he was laundering money for the cartel?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

Frontline:
And he worked with Noriega?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

NARRATOR
Until last year, Jose Blandon was General Manuel Noriega’s head of political intelligence in Panama. He was a key U.S. government witness for the grand jury that indicted Noriega for drug trafficking.

General Noriega was more than ready to support the Reagan administration in the Contra war after Congress cut off funding.

Frontline:
How important was Noriega to the White House in the Contra resupply effort?

Jose Blandon:
He play a key role in the supply of arms to the Contras.

Frontline:
So when various administration officials like Oliver North met with General Noriega, did they know that he was involved in narcotics trafficking?

Jose Blandon:
I think that the United States had information that Noriega is involved in drugs since at least eight years.

Frontline:
Eight years?

Jose Blandon:
Yes, so they knew about that.

Frontline:
Were they just looking the other way on his drug trafficking?

Jose Blandon:
The problem is that for the white House, I mean for the administration, the Reagan administration, Nicaragua was so important. The focus of all the foreign policy of the United States in Central America was Nicaragua and the fight against the communists, so for them drugs was something in second place.

Frontline:
Drugs took second place?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

NARRATOR 
Noriega’s Contra support earned him powerful friends in Washington, including the CIA Director William Casey. Noriega was on his payroll at a reported two hundred thousand dollars a year.

Jose Blandon:
That was a very special relationship.

Frontline:
What kind of special relationship?

Jose Blandon:
Well, Noriega talked with Casey and they had at least, that I know, more than three meetings. And he always received the support of Casey.

Frontline:
What kind of support from Casey?

Jose Blandon:
All kinds of support. Political support. So when somebody tried to investigate anything, Casey stopped it, look this is a very important person in this war

Frontline:
So Casey would actually stop investigations of Noriega?

Jose Blandon:
Yes, he was a man that helped Noriega very much.

NARRATOR
According to Blandon, Noriega was not the only drug trafficker to reap the rewards of Contra support. The cocaine cartel also saw the advantages of backing U.S. policy.

Jose Blandon:
That’s the reason why the Cartel of Medellin decided in 1983 to cooperate with the Contras.

Frontline:
So you’re saying that in 1983 the Cartel started supporting the Contras?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

Frontline:
And the reason was because they knew that they could therefore get protection?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

Frontline:
How did they help them out? Was it arms, plus cash, or was it jut arms? How did that work?

Jose Blandon:
They work in different ways. First, they established the network to supply arms, and also they pay in cash.

SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS

General Paul Gorman:
If one wants to organize an armed resistance or an armed undertaking for any purpose; the easy place to get the money, the easy places to get the guns are in the drug world.

NARRATOR
General Paul Gorman was the commander of the U.S. southern command, based in Panama, from 1982 to 1985.

PAUL GORMAN
The most ready source of money, big money, easy money, fast money, sure money, cash money is the narcotics racket.

NARRATOR
General Gorman was asked whether the Contras could have relied on drug cash.

SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS

John Kerry:
Based on your knowledge of how it works and what you understood from your experience down there, it wouldn’t surprise you?

Paul Gorman:
Not at all, particularly if they’d been on somebody’s payroll and had their funds cut off. It would be the natural recourse of those people.

Frontline:
How much money was actually contributed by you or through you for the Contras, total?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
It was a little under ten million dollars.

Frontline:
I presume it wasn’t all sent in one suitcase.

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Oh no no. It was delivered on a per need basis. You know, they’d say we need so much at such a location and we’d take care of the logistics of it.

NARRATOR
Milian Rodriguez says he used a series of Cuban controlled front companies in Miami and Costa Rica to funnel the ten million dollars to the Contra cause. These fronts ranged from banks to obscure fish companies located in out of the way Miami shopping centers or in provincial port towns in Costa Rica. The route for the drug cash was carefully disguised.

SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS

John Kerry:
Are you familiar with the name of a company called Frigirificos de Puntarenas.

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Yes sir, I am.

John Kerry:
What is that company?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Well it’s a shrimp processing warehouse, but more importantly, was one of the fronts that we used.

John Kerry:
Did you set it up? What role did you play in it?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
I was the key person in setting up the interlocking chain of companies around Frigorificos de Puntarenas.

John Kerry:
Were payments or arrangements made by which the Contras could receive money through Frigorificos?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Yes sir.

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
If you add up what it cost to run the Contra operation and you get to a bottom line figure, and you deduct from that the known sources, you’re going to have a tremendous deficit and I think the question has to be where…you know, how was the deficit taken care of?

Frontline:
There was a deficit?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Yes.

Frontline:
they realized that.

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
And we took care of it.

IRAN CONTRA HEARINGS

Congressman Les Aspin:
I’ve been spending some time looking at the numbers here of the amount of aid that the Contras were getting at various time and I come to the conclusion that we’re missing something, that there’s got to be another source of funding for the Contras other than those which this committee has so far identified.

NARRATOR
Last summer, the Iran Contra committees were aware that there had been an unacknowledged source of money from somewhere.

Congressman Aspin:
I think there’s got to be some other source of funds that we, we meaning this committee has not yet uncovered.

Admiral Poindexter:
Well I don’t think I can help you there, I don’t know of anything else.

Frontline:
The war cost so much every day.

Richard Secord:
Uh-huh.

Frontline:
They were getting a certain amount, thanks to you, through Switzerland.

Richard Secord:
Any many others, yes.

Frontline:
And many others. But the war cost more than that.

Richard Secord:
Uh-huh.

Frontline:
Do you have any idea how much more it cost?

Richard Secord:
Well I think, uh–Director Casey asked me that, a similar question in the spring of ’86 I think it was an I told him that I thought that the Contra effort would need a minimum of ten million dollars over the next three months over and above the monies that we could apply in order to hang in there through the summer months til the Congress would act. There was some expectation in the White House I guess, and in State, that the Congress would act much sooner than they acted. Things were going downhill rapidly.

SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS

Senator D’Amato:
Did the people who received this money, were they aware of the fact that this was drug money, the proceeds came from drug money?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez
I–let’s put it like this, Senator D’Amato, the Contra peasant in the field did not but the men who made the contact with me did. At that time I was under indictment, I mean I was red hot.

NARRATOR
His arrest was well publicized. The five million dollars seized with him brought Vice President Bush to Miami to pose with what the money launderer termed his petty cash.

Frontline:
Did Ramon Milian Rodriguez have any friends who were working in the Contra resupply network?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

Frontline:
Who would that have been?

Jose Blandon:
Felix Rodriguez.

Frontline:
Felix Rodriguez?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

NARRATOR
A veteran of the Artime organization and the CIA, Felix Rodriguez was a key member of the White House resupply network. The Senate was told by the money launderer that it was Felix Rodriguez who solicited the drug cash.

RAMON MILIAN RODRIGUEZ 
You have a fellow that’s a tremendous patriot, like Felix Rodriguez, who has sacrificed his personal needs for the cause of fighting communism and all of a sudden he finds himself in a position where his troops are going to run out of money. They won’t have money for bullets, for food, for medicine. I think in the case of Felix it might have been something done out of desperation, they had to get money and they were willing to get it from any source to continue their war.

Richard Secord:
When they go on the offense they burn up a lot of ammunition, weapons, they need a lot of air resupply, radios, uniforms, boots, food, and all this stuff. You know, the cost just goes up.

Frontline:
Well there were allegations that Felix Rodriguez was desperately trying to make up that deficit.

Richard Secord:
If he was it certainly didn’t come to our attention.

Frontline:
So you have no knowledge of it?

Richard Secord:
No, not at all.

Frontline:
Well the allegations are that he tried to make up the deficit by soliciting money from drug traffickers.

Richard Secord:
Well I thought you were circling back to that but certainly we didn’t hear anything like that at the time. As I said Felix is no friend of mine but I’d be astonished if he were involved with drug traffickers, I really would.

Frontline:
When General Noriega told you that Felix Rodriguez was friendly with Ramon Milian Rodriguez, were you surprised to hear that Felix Rodriguez would be involved with a drug traffickers?

Jose Blandon:
Surprised? Why?

NARRATOR 
According to Blandon, while Felix Rodriguez was supplying the Contras from Illopango, he was receiving arms shipments with the help of this man: Mike Harare, a former Israeli intelligence agent and a key aide to General Noriega. Harare, says Blandon, was also in business for the cocaine cartel, using the same network to ship arms and drugs, all with the sanction of the CIA.

Frontline:
Did he get involved with narcotics trafficking in the course of helping to supply the Contras with weapons?

Jose Blandon:
Yes, that was part of the business.

Frontline:
So he was moving cocaine —

Jose Blandon:
–Yes–

Frontline:
–From Colombia to the United States?

Jose Blandon:
No. They moved the cocaine from Colombia to Panama, to the airstrips in Costa Rica or Honduras to the United States.

Frontline:
At the same time as he was gathering up arms for the Contras?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

Frontline:
Where were the arms coming from?

Jose Blandon:
From Yugoslavia, and from the East bloc, the communist countries

NARRATOR
From 1983 to 1985, says Blandon, this network, supported by Israeli and U.S. intelligence was a major source of arms for the Contras.

Frontline:
Harare, the Israeli, who was working with Noriega, was working with Felix Rodriguez?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

Frontline:
And Harare at the same time was involved with drug trafficking?

Jose Blandon:
Yes.

Frontline:
Who was Felix Rodriguez working for, or with, when he approached you?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Well the only government mention he made was Vice President Bush.

Frontline:
And what was his relationship with Bush as you understood it?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
He was reporting directly to Bush. I was led to believe he was reporting regularly to the Vice President.

Richard Secord:
He was in touch with the VP’s office on a number of occasions. I really don’t know, I’ve never understood that relationship.

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
The request for the contribution made a lot more sense because Felix was reporting to George Bush. If Felix had come to me and said I’m reporting to anyone else, let’s say, you know, Oliver North, I might have been more skeptical, I didn’t know who Oliver North was and I didn’t know his background. But you know, if you have a…let’s say we’ll call him an ex-CIA operative, even though it’s not true you know, he’s a current operative…

Frontline:
Who is?

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
Felix. You know, everyone says he’s ex-CIA–

Frontline:
This is Felix Rodriguez–

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
–Yeah, there’s nothing ex about him. But if you have a CIA, what you consider to be a CIA man coming to you saying ‘I want to fight this war, we’re out of funds, can you help us out. I’m reporting directly to Bush on it’, I mean it’s very real, very believable, here you have a CIA guy reporting to his old boss.

NARRATOR
This February 1985 memo from General Paul Gorman confirms that Bush and the Cuban had known each other for years, and that Rodriguez’ primary responsibility was Nicaragua and the Contra FDN forces.

Rodriguez quote “is operating as a private citizen, but his acquaintanceship with the Vice President is real enough, going back to the latter’s days as Director of Central Intelligence. Rodriguez’ primary commitment to the region is in Nicaragua, where he wants to assist the FDN.”

IRAN CONTRA HEARINGS

Iran Contra investigator:
Did you say anything to Vice President Bush about your activities on behalf of this resupply operation?

Felix Rodriguez:
No sir, not to him or anyone on his staff.

NARRATOR
But when Hasenfus was shot down, the first call that Rodriguez made from Central America was to a staffer of Vice President Bush. Questions about that call forced the Bush office to put out a summary, listing seventeen meetings with Rodriguez, including three with Bush himself. Nevertheless the Vice President has insisted that these contacts with Rodriguez concerned only El Salvador, not the Contras.

Ramon Milian Rodriguez:
He wasn’t selling drugs. We were, you know, he was just raising money, tainted money granted, but for a very good cause.

NARRATOR
Felix Rodriguez claims he met with the cartel’s money launderer only once, and never solicited cash.

SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS

John Kerry:
We permitted narcotics we were complicitous as a country in narcotics traffic at the same time as we’re spending countless dollars in this country to try to get rid of this problem. It’s mind boggling.

Frontline:
Is the war on drugs a big priority in this country, really?

Joe Nellis:
Oh no, no, it’s largely a joke. There is no war on drugs. No president who’s ever announced one has ever fought one, and no President who’s ever announced one has ever given the soldiers the ammunition with which to fight one.

Senator D’Amato:
The intelligence agencies of this country by God should be involved in this battle instead of working with the scum of the earth, which they’ve been doing. They should be involved in this battle as a crusade for the survival of this country and this hemisphere.

John Kerry:
I don’t know if we’ve got the worst intelligence system in the world, I don’t know if we’ve got the best and they knew it all and just overlooked it. But no matter how you look at it, something’s wrong. Something is really wrong out there.

RAMON MILIAN RODRIGUEZ
Now, you can deny U.S. government involvement in drugs all you wanted, but the patterns are there and the players are there popping up again and, you know, eventually somebody’s going to realize what the truth is.

JUDY WOODRUFF
This summer, both Ramon Milian Rodriguez and Felix Rodriguez are expected to testify publicly in front of Senator Kerry’s committee about the drug cartel’s alleged 10 million dollar contribution to the Contras.

Vice President Bush declined to be interviewed for this program or to reply to FRONTLINE’s written questions about his relationship with Felix Rodriguez.

Thank you for joining us. I’m Judy Woodruff. Good night.

Read more: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/archive/gunsdrugscia.html#ixzz1XFZV0TEF

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CIA’s Afghan Crop

CIA, Heroin Still Rule Day in Afghanistan

“U.S. Army planes leave Afghanistan carrying coffins empty of bodies, but filled with drugs.”

By Victor Thorn, AmericanFreePress.net, November 24, 2008

Afghanistan now supplies over 90 percent of the world’s heroin, generating nearly $200 billion in revenue. Since the U.S. invasion on Oct. 7, 2001, opium output has increased 33-fold (to over 8,250 metric tons a year).

The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for over seven years, has spent $177 billion in that country alone, and has the most powerful and technologically advanced military on Earth. GPS tracking devices can locate any spot imaginable by simply pushing a few buttons.

Still, bumper crops keep flourishing year after year, even though heroin production is a laborious, intricate process. The poppies must be planted, grown and harvested; then after the morphine is extracted it has to be cooked, refined, packaged into bricks and transported from rural locales across national borders. To make heroin from morphine requires another 12-14 hours of laborious chemical reactions. Thousands of people are involved, yet—despite the massive resources at our disposal—heroin keeps flowing at record levels.

Common sense suggests that such prolific trade over an extended period of time is no accident, especially when the history of what has transpired in that region is considered. While the CIA ran its operations during the Vietnam War, the Golden Triangle supplied the world with most of its heroin. After that war ended in 1975, an intriguing event took place in 1979 when Zbigniew Brzezinski covertly manipulated the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan.Behind the scenes, the CIA, along with Pakistan’s ISI, were secretly funding Afghanistan’s mujahideen to fight their Russian foes. Prior to this war, opium production in Afghanistan was minimal. But according to historian Alfred McCoy, an expert on the subject, a shift in focus took place. “Within two years of the onslaught of the CIA operation in Afghanistan, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands became the world’s top heroin producer.”

When the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is written, Washington’s sordid involvement in the heroin trade and its alliance with drug lords and war criminals of the Afghan Communist Party will be one of the most shameful chapters.

Soon, as Professor Michel Chossudovsky notes, “CIA assets again controlled the heroin trade. As the mujahideen guerrillas seized territory inside Afghanistan, they ordered peasants to plant poppies as a revolutionary tax. Across the border in Pakistan, Afghan leaders and local syndicates under the protection of Pakistan intelligence operated hundreds of heroin laboratories.”

Eventually, the Soviet Union was defeated (their version of Vietnam), and ultimately lost the Cold War. The aftermath, however, proved to be an entirely new can of worms. During his research, McCoy discovered that “the CIA supported various Afghan drug lords, for instance Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The CIA did not handle heroin, but it did provide its drug lord allies with transport, arms, and political protection.”

By 1994, a new force emerged in the region—the Taliban—that took over the drug trade. Chossudovsky again discovered that “the Americans had secretly, and through the Pakistanis [specifically the ISI], supported the Taliban’s assumption of power.”

These strange bedfellows endured a rocky relationship until July 2000 when Taliban leaders banned the planting of poppies. This alarming development, along with other disagreements over proposed oil pipelines through Eurasia, posed a serious problem for power centers in the West. Without heroin money at their disposal, billions of dollars could not be funneled into various CIA black budget projects. Already sensing trouble in this volatile region, 18 influential neo-cons signed a letter in 1998 which became a blueprint for war—the infamous Project for a New American Century (PNAC).

Fifteen days after 9-11, CIA Director George Tenet sent his top-secret Special Operations Group (SOG) into Afghanistan. One of the biggest revelations in Tenet’s book, At the Center of the Storm, was that CIA forces directed the Afghanistan invasion, not the Pentagon.

In the Jan. 26, 2003, issue of Time magazine, Douglas Waller describes Donald Rumsfeld’s reaction to this development. “When aides told Rumsfeld that his Army Green Beret A-Teams couldn’t go into Afghanistan until the CIA contingent had lain the groundwork with local warlords, he erupted, ‘I have all these guys under arms, and we’ve got to wait like little birds in a nest for the CIA to let us go in?’”

ARMITAGE A MAJOR PLAYER

But the real operator in Afghanistan was Richard Armitage, a man whose legend includes being the biggest heroin trafficker in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War; director of the State Department’s Foreign Narcotics Control Office (a front for CIA drug dealing); head of the Far East Company (used to funnel drug money out of the Golden Triangle); a close liaison with Oliver North during the Iran-Contra cocaine-for-guns scandal; a primary Pentagon official in the terror and covert ops field under George Bush the Elder; one of the original signatories of the infamous PNAC document; and the man who helped CIA Director William Casey run weapons to the mujahideen during their war against the Soviet Union. Armitage was also stationed in Iran during the mid-1970s right before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the shah. Armitage may well be the greatest covert operator in U.S. history.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Armitage met with the UK’s national security advisor, Sir David Manning. Was Armitage “passing on specific intelligence information about the impending terrorist attacks”? The scenario is plausible because one day later—on 9-11—Dick Cheney directly called for Armitage’s presence down in his bunker. Immediately after WTC 2 was struck, Armitage told BBC Radio, “I was told to go to the operations center [where] I spent the rest of the day in the ops center with the vice president.”

These two share a long history together. Not only was Armitage employed by Cheney’s former company Halliburton (via Brown & Root), he was also a deputy when Cheney was secretary of defense under Bush the Elder. More importantly, Cheney and Armitage had joint business and consulting interests in the Central Asian pipeline which had been contracted by Unocal. The only problem standing between them and the Caspian Sea’s vast energy reserves was the Taliban.

Since the 1980s, Armitage amassed a huge roster of allies in Pakistan’s ISI. He was also one of the “Vulcans”—along with Condi Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Rabbi Dov Zakheim—who coordinated Bush’s geo-strategic foreign policy initiatives. Then, after 9-11, he negotiated with the Pakistanis prior to our invasion of Afghanistan, while also becoming Bush’s deputy secretary of state stationed in Afghanistan.

Our “enemy,” or course, was the Taliban “terrorists.” But George Tenet, Colin Powell, Porter Goss, and Armitage had developed a close relationship with Pakistan’s military head of the ISI—General Mahmoud Ahmad— who was cited in a Sept. 2001 FBI report as “supporting and financing the alleged 9-11 terrorists, as well as having links to al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

The line between friend and foe gets even murkier. Afghan President Hamid Karzai not only collaborated with the Taliban, but he was also on Unocal’s payroll in the mid-1990s. He is also described by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Watan newspaper as being “a Central Intelligence Agency covert operator since the 1980s that collaborated with the CIA in funding U.S. aid to the Taliban.”

Capturing a new, abundant source for heroin was an integral part of the U.S. “war on terror.” Hamid Karzai is a puppet ruler of the CIA; Afghanistan is a full-fledged narco-state; and the poppies that flourish there have yet to be eradicated, as was proven in 2003 when the Bush administration refused to destroy the crops, despite having the chance to do so. Major drug dealers are rarely arrested, smugglers enjoy carte blanche immunity, and Nushin Arbabzadah, writing for The Guardian, theorized that “U.S. Army planes leave Afghanistan carrying coffins empty of bodies, but filled with drugs.” Is that why the military protested so vehemently when reporters tried to photograph returning caskets?

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Why We’re Really There

How Deeply is the U.S. involved in the Afghan Drug Trade?

Experience in Indochina and Central America suggests that CIA, the principal paymaster for U.S.-backed Afghan warlords, may be more deeply involved in the drug trade than we yet know.

By Eric Margolis, The Huffington Post, October 15, 2008

 

Opium fields in Afghanistan
RAWA: Since 2001 the opium cultivation increased over 4,400%. Under the US/NATO, Afghanistan became world largest opium producer, which produces 93% of world opium.

Afghanistan is in a `downward spiral,’ the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, admitted last week, giving the most negative view of that conflict heard in Washington.

Military men are programmed to always be optimistic, so Admiral Mullen’s grim words were particularly noteworthy. They also flatly contradicted the rosy claims of `progress’ in Afghanistan made by the Bush administration and its increasingly dispirited allies in Canada, France, Germany, Italy and other NATO nations that were dragooned into this deeply unpopular war.

Most Europeans see the Afghan conflict as a 19th-century style colonial war for regional domination and resources. By contrast, Americans are still being misled by their corporate media and posturing politicians of both parties into believing the seven-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is a noble `anti-terrorism’ mission that is defending women’s rights and rebuilding a ravage nation instead of another brutal grab for energy, this time from the Caspian Basin.

In a troubling example of Vietnam-style ‘mission creep,’ the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, is calling for 15,000 more American troops on top of the 8,000 now slated to arrive in January 2009. His predecessor told Congress that 400,000 U.S. troops would be needed to pacify Afghanistan.

But McKiernan also called for talks with Afghan nationalists resisting western occupation collectively known as Taliban. Days earlier, it was revealed that senior British officers and diplomats in Afghanistan had called the US-led war `un-winnable’ and advocated peace talks with Taliban.

When the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is written, Washington’s sordid involvement in the heroin trade and its alliance with drug lords and war criminals of the Afghan Communist Party will be one of the most shameful chapters.

Admiral Mullen also ordered U.S. and NATO forces to begin targeting Afghanistan’s opium and heroin dealers. Under American tutelage, Afghanistan has become the world’s leading narco-state, surpassing even Colombia, and now producing 90% of the world’s heroin. Well over half of the nation’s GDP consists of drug money. Considering this, Admiral Mullen’s ‘shoot on sight’ orders seem rather overdue.

The 64,000 rupee question that arises from Admiral Mullen’s new anti-drug policy is: Why was it not done seven years ago when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan? Why did Washington turn a blind eye to the Afghan drug trade and is only now taking some action?

The answer is simple and dismaying. America’s local allies in Afghanistan, the politicians and warlords who overthrew Taliban in 2001, are up to their turbans in the heroin trade. Drug money is the blood that courses through Afghanistan’s veins and keeps the economy limping along. The U.S.-installed Karzai regime in Kabul propped up by US and NATO bayonets has only two sources of income: cash handouts from Washington, and the proceeds of drug dealing.

When Taliban ruled 90% of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, it almost totally stamped out poppy cultivation as un-Islamic. The UN’s drug control agency has confirmed this fact. The only remaining source of drug dealing was in the remote northeast of Afghanistan controlled by the Russian and Iranian-backed Northern Alliance, made up of Tajik Panshiri tribesmen, brutal Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostam, and the remains of the old Afghan Communist Party.

In 2001, the U.S. overthrew Taliban and put the drug-dealing Northern Alliance and Communists in power. Since then, Afghanistan’s drug production has spread across the nation and exports have soared by 60-70%, making Afghanistan the source of nearly all the world’s supply of heroin.

Washington called off efforts by the Drug Enforcement Agency to combat the Afghan drug trade for fear of endangering the power base of its former CIA `asset,’ President Hamid Karzai. Starting with Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, the U.S.-installed regime’s most important supporters are all involved in varying degrees with the heroin trade. As this writer has seen himself, almost every important warlord gets revenue from the drug trade. The Northern Alliance warlords are considered the biggest of the nation’s narco-dealers. Ahmed Karzai denies involvement.

Moving against the drug warlords would have meant undermining Karzai’s sole domestic support. So Washington held its nose and let the drug trade flourish in order to sustain the occupation. The faux `war on terror’ and lust for Caspian energy trumped the old war on drugs.

Russian state-controlled Channel One TV has broadcast a report containing allegations that US forces are involved in drug-trafficking from Afghanistan to Europe. It also highlighted the problem of drug abuse in the British army.

Experience in Indochina and Central America suggests that CIA, the principal paymaster for U.S.-backed Afghan warlords, may be more deeply involved in the drug trade than we yet know.

Author Alfred McCoy’s wrote a brilliant study in his ground-breaking `The Politics of Heroin’ in which he documents how first French, then American intelligence was drawn into the heroin trade in Laos and Vietnam as a way of supporting anti-Communist guerilla fighters. The same thing happened in Central America where CIA collaborated with cocaine-dealing members of the anti-Communist Contras.

In both cases, drugs served as a currency and became more important than paper money. French and American spies even ended up transporting heroin for their local allies. The same may be happening in Afghanistan.

Equally disturbing, there is no way that simple Afghan farmers or Taliban fighters are running the drug trade, as Washington claims. Poppy sap is collected and converted into opium tar. Then it is smuggled to secret labs in Pakistan to be transformed into first morphine base, and then purified into heroin. None of these drugs would move south into Pakistan or be processed with imported chemicals without the full cooperation and assistance of the Afghan government, its supporting warlords, and local Pakistani officials. The drugs are then smuggled out of the port of Karachi, again under at protection by port and local officials. Pakistan is a key U.S. ally.

The Karzai regime has been totally corrupted by the drug trade, and so has parts of Pakistan’s establishment. But the United States has also become corrupted in the sense that it has done nothing to combat this scourge and has collaborated with Afghanistan’s drug barons by at minimum turning blind eye.

When the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is written, Washington’s sordid involvement in the heroin trade and its alliance with drug lords and war criminals of the Afghan Communist Party will be one of the most shameful chapters.

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“Big Al” Carone

Married to the Mob and the CIA

Was “Big Al” Carone a prominent Mafioso, CIA operative, NYPD detective, bagman for George Bush and Oliver North, drug dealer, assassin and a “man of honor?”

by Michael C. Ruppert, High Times, September 11, 2002

“The plaintiffs would have this court believe that Mr. Carone has played the role of Forrest Gump, popping up as a key player in virtually every government conspiracy theory promulgated over the last 50 years. This court simply cannot view any of the plaintiffs’ claims as plausible, especially in light of the complete lack of even a scintilla of evidence except for one patently forged document and self-serving declarations. Accordingly, the court dismisses the case pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1).” — Ricardo M. Urbina, United States District Judge, February 27, 2001

I first walked into this case in late 1983 when I got a call from former CIA case officer David MacMichael. As a matter of conscience, Dave had for many years been speaking out about illegal and inhumane operations being conducted by the CIA.

“Mike, there’s a woman in New Mexico named Dee Ferdinand. She says that her father, a guy named Albert Carone, was a high-level agency operative. He was also NYPD. She says that he was also in the Mafia. He’s been dead since ’90 and every record about him has apparently been sanitized. The family’s been denied benefits and had bank accounts stolen even though the daughter has records. She says her father knew Ollie North and George Bush personally. I think it’s something you might want to look into.”

It bit me like a pit bull. I had just started writing about CIA operations again after a disastrous and painful experience as the Los Angeles County press spokesman for the Ross Perot presidential campaign of 1992. That had proven to be yet another case of unmet expectations in my quest to find an honorable man. I had also just spent months putting together a conference in Indiana for the families of what was to ultimately become 109 US servicemen who had been “suicided” or died under suspicious circumstances. In almost every case where I could get information, I had discovered that there was a connection between the deaths and covert operations. Quite often there were links, reported by the dead serviceman to his family, of drug smuggling or criminal activity on or around military bases where they served.

My then fiancée, Mary, and I had brought many of these families together in a small town in Indiana in the fall of 1993. The ultimate pain for all of them was the discovery that there was no honor in their own government. The deaths of all of their sons, husbands and brothers had been dismissed as suicides or accidents. The cover-ups had been sloppy, arrogant and brutal in their apparent contempt for evidence. All of the families had vowed to do whatever it took to break the cases. None of them understood that they all would ultimately fail.

Now I was presented with a case where it had happened to someone on the inside–a bad guy. Would it be any different?

Mary and I packed our bags and flew to Albuquerque. My “cop instincts” had always served me well, and there was something about the demeanor of Desiree (Dee) Ferdinand, with her disarming Brooklyn accent reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob, that allowed me to instantly trust her. Her husband, Tommy Ferdinand, had struck me the same way. No b.s. and a sense of humor that I wish he still had today. I had told Dee up front where I was coming from. I didn’t like bad guys. She had been just as up-front that she knew that her father was a crook, a drug dealer, a CIA operative, a bagman, a killer and an all-around not-very-nice person. But for her it was a matter of honor.

That, I understood.

The Ferdinands rented a large ranch house in Corrales, just north of the city. On two acres Dee boarded and cared for six horses. She had a son, Vinnie, who was in his early twenties and going to college. Vinnie would soon become a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy. She had a younger daughter, Nikki, who was still living at home. Also living at the house was Tommy’s mother, Irene, and a not-too-friendly Rotweiler named Mikie which Mary instantly named “Cujo.”

The hospitality was genuine New York Italian and the food was just as authentic. Over two and a half days we talked. I asked questions and looked at documents and papers retained by Dee Carone Ferdinand after the death of her father, Albert Vincent Carone, in January 1990.

HONOR, YES: HONEST, NO

In a videotaped deposition made in September 1998 as she and a former Green Beret named Bill Tyree brought suit against the CIA, Dee Ferdinand was asked to describe what kind of a man her father was. “He was known as man of great respect, a man of honor. That is not to say that he was honest. He wasn’t. He did many bad things. But he lived by a code of honor. If he said something was so, you could take it to the bank.”

Over the years I have talked to almost every family member who knew Big Al, including Dee’s sister Carla and her husband John. Dee, Tommy, Carla, John, Irene and Vinnie had all seen Big Al in his Army uniform. Tommy and John told me how they had driven him at times to secure areas at LaGuardia or JFK airports, in full uniform, often with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. On other occasions he had been chauffeured in military vehicles. On one occasion Tommy had dropped him off at JFK inside a secure area, only to see the figure of Richard Nixon waiting for Carone in the open doorway of a nearby helicopter.

Over the course of two days I “debriefed” the family. Carone knew a great many people. He had served as an NYPD detective and bagman for the Genovese and Colombo families. He frequently took military leaves of absence to travel all over the world. The names of people he would later talk about, knowing of his imminent death, included Bill Casey, George Bush, Oliver North, Elliot Abrams, Richard Armitage (now deputy secretary of state to Colin Powell), Richard Secord, John Singlaub, Rafael “Chi Chi” Quintero, drug smuggler Barry Seal, Arkansas billionaire Jackson Stephens, Special Forces Colonel James “Bo” Gritz, General Richard Stillwell, Edwin Wilson, Robert Vesco and many more.

The paper exhibits were compelling and convincing. But I retained a healthy skepticism until I put Dee through a final test. I prepared list of names, some fake, some authentic. I asked Dee if her father had mentioned any of the names over the years. Without a single misstep she picked out almost every member of the board of directors of the Nugan Hand Bank, a legendary CIA drug bank that operated in Australia during the late 1970s and early ’80s. She didn’t fall for any of the falsified names. The real names included Edwin Black, General Leroy Manor and legendary CIA drug banker Paul Helliwell. [For an excellent history of the Nugan Hand affair, I recommend The Crime of Patriots by the late Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny.]

I had been thoroughly convinced that Al Carone was everything his daughter said he was. I told her that in my opinion, there was only one man who could help her. He had served as the CIA’s chief of station in Laos during the Vietnam War. He had risen to oversee the agency’s Western Hemisphere operations and the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende. He had been the most powerful operations executive at the CIA before Jimmy Carter took office in January 1977. He had stayed with CIA until about 1980, and had retired under a cloud caused by the escapades of Edwin Wilson, one of his protégés who had been convicted of selling plastic explosives to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

Throughout his career, especially from the days in Southeast Asia when he ran the largest CIA operation in history, his name had been linked to heroin. His name also turned up during the Iran-Contra investigations of the 1980s, which saw an explosion in cocaine use from which America has not yet recovered. From the moment that I had learned that CIA was dealing drugs and had begun the investigations that would nearly cost me my life, I had been obsessed with this man. He was the man who had been in charge of CIA’s covert operations when they had tried to recruit me in 1976.

“Dee, “I said. “As far as I know there is only one man who can help you. His name is Ted Shackley.

BIG AL’s SCHOOLING

Al Carone, or “Big Al” as he was known, had been a de facto orphan in Brooklyn in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. A street kid, left to roam while his mother “entertained” gentlemen at night, he had slept under stoops and in stairwells. He had been adopted by the legendary mobster Vito Genovese, who operated out of a nearby bar. Genovese fed the young street kid, sometimes let him sleep in the bar, and gave him quarters and dimes for running errands. It was here that Al Carone learned about loyalty and honor. There was no end to his love for “Don” Vito.

By the time World War II came around, little Al had become “Big Al,” a lifelong bodybuilder and a “made” member of the family. He entered the Army and was quickly assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps. Dee said that all of the paperwork she possessed covered the fact that her father really had spent the entire war working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. This made immediate sense to me, because I had seen US government reports that Vito Genovese and his boss, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, had been used by the OSS and the Office of Naval Intelligence throughout World War II, first to protect New York docks from sabotage, then to assist in the invasion of Italy and later to prevent Communists and Socialists from winning elections in postwar Italy. The latter activities, funded by Corsican heroin, were the genesis of the famed French Connection, which smuggled tons of heroin into New York City until the 1970s.

After the war in 1946, “Big Al” had joined the New York City police. Dee had photos of her father as a patrolman and later as a detective. Throughout his NYPD career, Carone had made the payoffs to make sure that the CIA’s dope hit the streets safely. She had cancelled pay stubs, copies of pension records, a copy of his graduation roster from the police academy. Big Al had retired as a detective first grade in 1966. Yet, after her father’s death, when she went to ask for death benefits, the NYPD had told her that Al Carone has never been a policeman.

I remember holding one of his passports in my hands and seeing the visa stamps for London, the Bahamas and New York City. I remember the travel records of one of his partners named James Strauss, showing massive expenditures for dozens of flights to all of the world’s financial capitals, sometimes every other day, that a former FBI agent once told me, “could only have come from a GTR government travel account, because an airline would never allow a private business to run up that kind of a tab.”

Most of all I remember holding his personal phone book, separated at the spine from years of use and finding entries for maybe a dozen known Mafia figures including “Boss of Bosses” Paul Castellano, Joe Perscillia, Matty “the Horse” Ianniello and many others. Also in the phone book, on a separate sheet of paper but in the same handwriting, was the Locust Valley, Long Island address and phone number for CIA Director William Casey.

Casey, said the entire Carone family, had been at the Ferdinand home for Vinnie’s christening in the early ‘70s. When Dee was growing up, Casey and his wife had been frequent guests for dinner and social events. So had, on different occasions, Santo Trafficante, mob boss of South Florida, known as Uncle Sonny; Sam Giancana, known as Uncle Momo; and the short-lived boss of bosses Aniello Delacroce had been known as “Uncle Neal.” Both Delacroce and Castellano died in New York mob hits.

There were photographs of Carone in Army uniforms: one as a major, one as a full colonel. There were telegrams and letters referring to him by his military rank. And yet, after his death–which, as I read from the death certificate, was caused by “chemical toxicity of unknown etiology”–the US Army had insisted that he had never served in the military after 1946 and had never attained a rank higher than staff sergeant. He had been buried in a New Mexico military cemetery with that rank on his tombstone. This, said Dee, was not honorable.

But what had been done to Al Carone and his family had been more ruthless, systematic and well executed than anything I have seen before or since. Immediately after his death, both his personal and joint bank accounts held with Dee had disappeared. Even though Dee held passbooks and cancelled checks, the banks had insisted that the accounts never existed. Life-insurance policies which Dee and Tommy had given to a local attorney named Robert Fuentes–later discovered to have intelligence connections–disappeared. Carone’s NYPD pension vanished. The state of New Mexico said that Al Carone had never had a driver’s license. He lived there for 10 years. Coin collections and the contents of several storage facilities evaporated. Even the registration on his personal vehicle, which had always been registered in his name, was altered in state computers. When Dee went to check about having it transferred to her daughter, she found that the New Mexico DMV records showed that Dee had originally purchased the car in the early ‘80s.

Carone’s death had been long, painful and expensive. He knew he was going to die after his own collision with a question of honor, yet he had said repeatedly to the entire family that when he died they all would be taken care of. For the Mafia there was no more important code of honor than taking care of the family. It was apparently different for the CIA, and Big Al Carone had planted his feet in too many worlds before his own death. And it seems, to this day, that the world of the CIA was the one that eliminated his life, and in them, and the interests they worked for, there was no honor at all.

Nobody ever doubted where Al Carone was coming from. “Civilians” were not to be hurt. People who got killed were players, and they knew that was part of the game. Although Carone taught torture and interrogation techniques and guerrilla warfare, he served mostly as a “paymaster,” especially for assassinations and executions in the dark world of clandestine warfare. One assassination that Dee and Tommy would later discuss in their videotaped depositions was John F. Kennedy. Carone had revealed, before his death, that he had been in Dallas on November 22, 1963, that he had been positioned on a rooftop at the Love Field airport but could not get a clean shot. He was grateful for that. He had also delivered a cash payoff to Jack Ruby before the assassination.

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, when there were drug missions to be financed, Al Carone delivered both the money and the orders. When someone needed to be killed, it was the same thing. Before his death, he talked openly of working with Oliver North, Richard Secord, Richard Armitage, Barry Seal and Elliot Abrams. He told his family that North, Secord, Abrams and Armitage were “assholes.

SEALING HIS FATE

Throughout the years Carone had also shown signs of compassion and his own code of honor. He often lamented the fate of the POWs and MIAs in Vietnam and, in the years before his death, spoke openly about how “the boys” had been sold out. He spoke on several occasions of a Green Beret named “Sandy” whom he had worked with. He said Sandy had been sold out, betrayed and framed for a murder he didn’t commit because he had learned too much. Carone became obsessed with helping Sandy, and had spoken of delivering diaries to CIA headquarters that had been kept by his murdered wife that could have “brought down the government.” Both Dee and Tommy had seen the diaries in Carone’s briefcase before he had taken them to Langley, Virginia.

Carone was a good soldier. He did his job for years and kept his grumblings close to his vest. But things were falling apart. They had gotten out of hand. There were too many drugs, too much killing; too much corruption in Al Carone’s scheme of things. It no longer served any greater purpose. There was no compass except greed.

In the summer of 1985 Al Carone and his buddy Jim Strauss—whose company had the voluminous airline bills—went on a mission to Mexico. That mission, as were many of the other activities of Al Carone, fell under the umbrella code name of Amadeus. Dee and Tommy had heard the name many times before, when answering phones or taking messages for Big Al. It was name that always made him jump. It was a name that they said connected directly to George Herbert Walker Bush.

Carone was gone for weeks. And when he returned from Mexico he was never the same. His heart was broken. He said that he and Strauss and the men who were with them had wiped out entire village which Dee and Tommy can only remember as Chiapatulla or Tapachulla. “We killed everything there,” said Big Al, “men, women children, everything.” It was wrong. He also spoke of how a narc and a pilot had been tortured and buried alive. He was referring to DEA Agent Kiki Camarena. It was shortly after that he started to get violently ill. Within 18 months or so, he had kidney failure. The doctors, and there were many, could not pinpoint the cause. He would tell Dee and Tommy, “I’m not long for this world. The suits are coming to get me.”

He talked more openly in his last years. He voiced his concerns and became obsessed with the POWs, with Sandy and the “assholes” who had taken over the government. Before he died in 1990, he made his daughter promise not to bury him in his Army uniform. He was ashamed. “Burn it,” he said.

THE BIGGEST BATTLES AND HEAVY LOSSES

Shortly after I left New Mexico, Dee Ferdinand went to a luncheon of former intelligence officers. There she met former Howard Hughes aide and lifelong CIA operative Robert Maheu. Maheu gave her Shackley’s phone number.

Dee’s first conversation with Shackley was not thrilling. Keeping his standard noncommittal posture, he denied knowing Al Carone. This was a position he changed in subsequent conversations with Dee over the years. He asked her what she wanted. The first thing she wanted was her father’s headstone changed to reflect his rank of colonel.

It was changed within 10 days, and Dee took photographs of the new marker. She also “appropriated” a copy of the change order. The Army still—to this day—denies the rank.

After returning to Los Angeles, I wrote up a report of what I had learned. I sent it to a good friend, a retired Army Criminal Investigation Division warrant officer named Bill McCoy who lived in Alexandria, Virginia. McCoy was impressed and got Dee’s phone number from me. That was the beginning of a tightly woven friendship that involved phone calls, sometimes five times a week, until McCoy’s death in October 1997. “Mac,” as we all called him, was a loveable giant, prone to wearing berets, who had his investigative fingers in almost every covert operation I had ever heard of.

There were many mysteries about McCoy that remain unsolved to this day. Not the least of which was why he spent two years keeping Dee from learning the identity of Bill Tyree, the former Green Beret who had been framed for his own wife’s murder. Tyree, on the other hand, had only been told Dee’s married name rather than her maiden name. In the meantime I, familiar with both cases, never knew what Mac was doing.

Mac was a father-like figure, a great cook and raconteur. I visited his home in Virginia many times in 1994 and 1995. While coordinating information on a number of investigations, he managed to keep Bill and Dee from connecting. In the meantime, as the Carone family were threatened, intimidated and plagued by all manner of terrifying events, Dee’s resolve only deepened. She told me, with a conviction I still remember, “This is about honor. This is becoming a vendetta. All I want is what rightfully belonged to my father, nothing more.”

Her brother-in-law was shot at. Her son Vinnie narrowly escaped death in what appeared to be a staged traffic accident. Her fences were cut a half-dozen times and her horses scattered over the New Mexico countryside. Tommy, who held a civilian job at Kirtland Air Force Base, was shuffled to lower-paying assignments and eventually laid off. In 1997 Vinnie, then a sheriff’s deputy working extradition cases, was sent on dangerous and solitary assignments. He was photographed in secure areas of government facilities.

Dee would talk to McCoy four or five times a week. I would talk to McCoy or Dee at least twice a week. Still, none of us knew that Sandy and Tyree were one and the same, even though McCoy was doing investigations on Tyree’s case and he held all the pieces.

LACK OF HONOR

Things were complicated further in April 1995, when the Murrah Building was destroyed by a bomb blast in Oklahoma City. I was living near DC at the time, and Dee had called me within hours of the blast. She had called Shackley almost immediately. Then she called me. I gave her my word that I would not repeat what Shackley had said. According to Dee, Shackley said the act would be placed squarely at the feet of domestic terrorists. This, even as news reports were reporting only that Islamic terrorists were suspects.

Shortly thereafter, a journalist named David Hoffman, whom I had put in touch with Dee, got the same story from her on the strict condition that the conversation was off the record and confidential. Less than a year later he published a book in which he reported all of Dee’s conversation with Shackley, and even embellished to the point of placing himself in Shackley’s living room and describing him smoking a pipe, sitting in an overstuffed chair and “chortling” in satisfaction.

Dee, as a matter of honor, called Shackley as soon as she heard about the book. Because of that action or responsibility her relationship with him continued and, in fact, deepened.

BREAKTHROUGH TO DEFEAT

Bill McCoy died suddenly in October 1997. He was found sitting in his favorite easy chair, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Questions still linger among those of us who knew him.

It was around the time of Mac’s death that Dee and Tyree connected. Dee learned that Billy was “Sandy” and Billy learned that Dee was the daughter of Big Al. Facilitated by Massachusetts attorney Ray Kohlman, who came to represent both of them, first Billy and then Dee filed suits against the government. Over the years, Billy placed collect calls from the Walpole state prison in Massachusetts that sometimes added between $500-800 a month to the Ferdinands’ phone bills. This wore heavily on Tommy and his temper frequently got the better of him, especially as his hours were being cut back.

Dee was obsessed, and now she had a court case and searing documents that helped both her and Tyree. Affidavits long buried came to the surface, including one purportedly written by Bill Casey. Though filled with grammatical errors and misspellings, I was inclined to believe the document’s authenticity. My reasons were simple and based upon my years of experience, I knew that intelligence agencies often wrote completely accurate documents and deliberately salted them with errors to later discredit them. The 1986 document had more credibility because, while completely vindicating Dee’s assertions, it carefully laid all the blame in the CIA at the feet of people who were then or would soon be dead. It never once mentioned George Bush, and the document followed the long-cultivated CIA fallback position that drug dealing was all done to fight communism, and never once mentioned the billions of dollars that had flowed into American financial markets.

From 1998 until her case was finally dismissed, there were endless, draining, expensive, time-consuming legal moves, the kind I have witnessed in dozens of cases over the years. As time progressed, first Tyree’s suit and then Dee’s were dismissed. All of this happened and Dee and Bill Tyree spent more time talking to each other than any other living souls. They have never seen each other in person. For Tyree, locked up on a life sentence, this was not an issue. For Dee’s family, especially Tommy, who was paying the phone bills, it was; especially as the family teetered from month to month, on the edge of eviction.

I have both and seen and lived this hellish existence in the search for justice and the redemption of honor. It eats everything.

Dee and Tommy were divorced last year, as the suit was finally thrown out by a court system that seemingly wouldn’t know the rule of law, or honor, if it smacked it in the face. Dee now lives in a modest Albuquerque apartment and Tommy spends a lot of time riding his motorcycle. Tommy’s mother will no longer speak to Dee. Vinnie, still a sheriff, has at times estranged himself from his mother in recent years. All of Dee’s horses are gone and she holds down a job to pay the rent.

“It’s over,” she says with the same conviction I heard in 1993. “I will have nothing more to do with my father’s case. They won. I have nothing more to give.”

FINDING MEANING

Dee has had a number of conversations with Ted Shackley over the years and refuses to discuss details of any of them except to say that he was always helpful, always sympathetic and that he gave her advice that helped as she prepared and fought her case. “Of all the people I have spoken to who had something to do with this case, he’s the only one who never lied to me.”

When I asked how she could trust Shackley, she refused to discuss the matter any further. The conversations were private. It was a matter of honor.

One time, in tears, she recounted how Shackley had told her how proud he was of her as Big Al’s daughter, and that she had fought as hard as possible to honor her father. He had told her that she had behaved as he would have wanted his own daughter to behave, and maybe that is what this story is all about.

Having lost all of her material possessions and her marriage, and having suffered for years in a losing and futile battle—the way all of these battles always end—Dee Carone Ferdinand has no doubt in her heart that she gave all she had to give. She sleeps soundly at night and there is something in her still that remains defiantly unbroken, as Al Carone’s visions of total, unprincipled corruption come to full flower in the American government.

It was, after all, a matter of honor.

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How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal

Derided by the mainstream press and taking on Reagan at the height of his popularity, the freshman senator battled to reveal one of America’s ugliest foreign policy secrets.

By Robert Parry, Salon, October 25, 2004

In December 1985, when Brian Barger and I wrote a groundbreaking story for the Associated Press about Nicaraguan Contra rebels smuggling cocaine into the United States, one U.S. senator put his political career on the line to follow up on our disturbing findings. His name was John Kerry.

Yet, over the past year, even as Kerry’s heroism as a young Navy officer in Vietnam has become a point of controversy, this act of political courage by a freshman senator has gone virtually unmentioned, even though — or perhaps because — it marked Kerry’s first challenge to the Bush family.

In early 1986, the 42-year-old Massachusetts Democrat stood almost alone in the U.S. Senate demanding answers about the emerging evidence that CIA-backed Contras were filling their coffers by collaborating with drug traffickers then flooding U.S. borders with cocaine from South America.

Kerry assigned members of his personal Senate staff to pursue the allegations. He also persuaded the Republican majority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to request information from the Reagan-Bush administration about the alleged Contra drug traffickers.

In taking on the inquiry, Kerry challenged President Ronald Reagan at the height of his power, at a time he was calling the Contras the “moral equals of the Founding Fathers.” Kerry’s questions represented a particular embarrassment to Vice President George H.W. Bush, whose responsibilities included overseeing U.S. drug-interdiction policies.

Kerry took on the investigation though he didn’t have much support within his own party. By 1986, congressional Democrats had little stomach left for challenging the Reagan-Bush Contra war. Not only had Reagan won a historic landslide in 1984, amassing a record 54 million votes, but his conservative allies were targeting individual Democrats viewed as critical of the Contras fighting to oust Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. Most Washington journalists were backing off, too, for fear of getting labeled “Sandinista apologists” or worse.

Kerry’s probe infuriated Reagan’s White House, which was pushing Congress to restore military funding for the Contras. Some in the administration also saw Kerry’s investigation as a threat to the secrecy surrounding the Contra supply operation, which was being run illegally by White House aide Oliver North and members of Bush’s vice presidential staff.

Through most of 1986, Kerry’s staff inquiry advanced against withering political fire. His investigators interviewed witnesses in Washington, contacted Contra sources in Miami and Costa Rica, and tried to make sense of sometimes convoluted stories of intrigue from the shadowy worlds of covert warfare and the drug trade.

Kerry’s chief Senate staff investigators were Ron Rosenblith, Jonathan Winer and Dick McCall. Rosenblith, a Massachusetts political strategist from Kerry’s victorious 1984 campaign, braved both political and personal risks as he traveled to Central America for face-to-face meetings with witnesses. Winer, a lawyer also from Massachusetts, charted the inquiry’s legal framework and mastered its complex details. McCall, an experienced congressional staffer, brought Capitol Hill savvy to the investigation.

Behind it all was Kerry, who combined a prosecutor’s sense for sniffing out criminality and a politician’s instinct for pushing the limits. The Kerry whom I met during this period was a complex man who balanced a rebellious idealism with a determination not to burn his bridges to the political establishment.

The Reagan administration did everything it could to thwart Kerry’s investigation, including attempting to discredit witnesses, stonewalling the Senate when it requested evidence and assigning the CIA to monitor Kerry’s probe. But it couldn’t stop Kerry and his investigators from discovering the explosive truth: that the Contra war was permeated with drug traffickers who gave the Contras money, weapons and equipment in exchange for help in smuggling cocaine into the United States. Even more damningly, Kerry found that U.S. government agencies knew about the Contra-drug connection, but turned a blind eye to the evidence in order to avoid undermining a top Reagan-Bush foreign policy initiative.

The Reagan administration’s tolerance and protection of this dark underbelly of the Contra war represented one of the most sordid scandals in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Yet when Kerry’s bombshell findings were released in 1989, they were greeted by the mainstream press with disdain and disinterest. The New York Times, which had long denigrated the Contra-drug allegations, buried the story of Kerry’s report on its inside pages, as did the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. For his tireless efforts, Kerry earned a reputation as a reckless investigator. Newsweek’s Conventional Wisdom Watch dubbed Kerry a “randy conspiracy buff.”

But almost a decade later, in 1998, Kerry’s trailblazing investigation was vindicated by the CIA’s own inspector general, who found that scores of Contra operatives were implicated in the cocaine trade and that U.S. agencies had looked the other way rather than reveal information that could have embarrassed the Reagan-Bush administration.

Even after the CIA’s admissions, the national press corps never fully corrected its earlier dismissive treatment. That would have meant the New York Times and other leading publications admitting they had bungled their coverage of one of the worst scandals of the Reagan-Bush era.

Oct 25, 2004 | The warm and fuzzy glow that surrounded Ronald Reagan after he left office also discouraged clarification of the historical record. Taking a clear-eyed look at crimes inside Reagan’s Central American policies would have required a tough reassessment of the 40th president, which to this day the media has been unwilling to do. So this formative period of Kerry’s political evolution has remained nearly unknown to the American electorate.

Two decades later, it’s hard to recall the intensity of the administration’s support for the Contras. They were hailed as courageous front-line fighters, like the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, defending the free world from the Soviet empire. Reagan famously warned that Nicaragua was only “two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.”

Yet, for years, Contra units had gone on bloody rampages through Nicaraguan border towns, raping women, torturing captives and executing civilian officials of the Sandinista government. In private, Reagan referred to the Contras as “vandals,” according to Duane Clarridge, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, in his memoir, “A Spy for All Seasons.” But in public, the Reagan administration attacked anyone who pointed out the Contras’ corruption and brutality.

The Contras also proved militarily inept, causing the CIA to intervene directly and engage in warlike acts, such as mining Nicaragua’s harbors. In 1984, these controversies caused the Congress to forbid U.S. military assistance to the Contras — the Boland Amendment — forcing the rebels to search for new funding sources.

Drug money became the easiest way to fill the depleted Contra coffers. The documentary evidence is now irrefutable that a number of Contra units both in Costa Rica and Honduras opened or deepened ties to Colombian cartels and other regional drug traffickers. The White House also scrambled to find other ways to keep the Contras afloat, turning to third countries, such as Saudi Arabia, and eventually to profits from clandestine arms sales to Iran.

The secrets began to seep out in the mid-1980s. In June 1985, as a reporter for the Associated Press, I wrote the first story mentioning Oliver North’s secret Contra supply operation. By that fall, my AP colleague Brian Barger and I stumbled onto evidence that some of the Contras were supplementing their income by helping traffickers transship cocaine through Central America. As we dug deeper, it became clear that the drug connection implicated nearly all the major Contra organizations.

The AP published our story about the Contra-cocaine evidence on Dec. 20, 1985, describing Contra units “engaged in cocaine smuggling, using some of the profits to finance their war against Nicaragua’s leftist government.” The story provoked little coverage elsewhere in the U.S. national press corps. But it pricked the interest of a newly elected U.S. senator, John Kerry. A former prosecutor, Kerry also heard about Contra law violations from a Miami-based federal public defender named John Mattes, who had been assigned a case that touched on Contra gunrunning. Mattes’ sister had worked for Kerry in Massachusetts.

By spring 1986, Kerry had begun a limited investigation deploying some of his personal staff in Washington. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry managed to gain some cooperation from the panel’s Republican leadership, partly because the “war on drugs” was then a major political issue. Besides looking into Contra drug trafficking, Kerry launched the first investigation into the allegations of weapons smuggling and misappropriation of U.S. government funds that were later exposed as part of North’s illegal operation to supply the Contras.

Kerry’s staff soon took an interest in a federal probe in Miami headed by assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Feldman. Talking to some of the same Contra supporters whom we had interviewed for the AP’s Contra-cocaine story, Feldman had pieced together the outlines of North’s secret network.

In a panicked memo dated April 7, 1986, one of North’s Costa Rican-based private operatives, Robert Owen, warned North that prosecutor Feldman had shown Ambassador Lewis Tambs “a diagram with your name underneath and John [Hull]’s underneath mine, then a line connecting the various resistance groups in C.R. [Costa Rica]. Feldman stated they were looking at the ‘big picture’ and not only looking at possible violations of the Neutrality Act, but a possible unauthorized use of government funds.” (For details, see my “Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press and ‘Project Truth.'”)

John Hull was an American farmer with a ranch in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border. According to witnesses, Contras had used Hull’s property for cocaine transshipments. (Hull was later accused of drug trafficking by Costa Rican authorities, but fled the country before facing trial. He returned to the United States.)

On April 10, 1986, Barger and I reported on the AP wire that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami was examining allegations of Contra gunrunning and drug trafficking. The AP story rattled nerves inside the Reagan administration. On an unrelated trip to Miami, Attorney General Edwin Meese pulled U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner aside and asked about the existence of this Contra probe.

Back in Washington, other major news organizations began to sniff around the Contra-cocaine story but mostly went off in wrong directions. On May 6, 1986, the New York Times relied for a story on information from Meese’s spokesman Patrick Korten, who claimed “various bits of information got referred to us. We ran them all down and didn’t find anything. It comes to nothing.”

But that wasn’t the truth. In Miami, Feldman and FBI agents were corroborating many of the allegations. On May 14, 1986, Feldman recommended to his superiors that the evidence of Contra crimes was strong enough to justify taking the case to a grand jury. U.S. Attorney Kellner agreed, scribbling on Feldman’s memo, “I concur that we have sufficient evidence to ask for a grand jury investigation.”

But on May 20, less than a week later, Kellner reversed that recommendation. Without telling Feldman, Kellner rewrote the memo to state that “a grand jury investigation at this point would represent a fishing expedition with little prospect that it would bear fruit.” Kellner signed Feldman’s name to the mixed-metaphor memo and sent it to Washington on June 3.

The revised “Feldman” memo was then circulated to congressional Republicans and leaked to conservative media, which used it to discredit Kerry’s investigation. The right-wing Washington Times denounced the probe as a wasteful political “witch hunt” in a June 12, 1986, article. “Kerry’s anti-Contra efforts extensive, expensive, in vain,” screamed the headline of a Washington Times article on Aug. 13, 1986.

Back in Miami, Kellner reassigned Feldman to unrelated far-flung investigations, including one to Thailand.

The altered memo was instrumental in steering Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., away from holding hearings, Kerry’s later Contra-drug report, “Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy,” stated. “Material provided to the Committee by the Justice Department and distributed to members following an Executive Session June 26, 1986, wrongly suggested that the allegations that had been made were false,” the Kerry report said.

Feldman later testified to the Senate that he was told in 1986 that representatives of the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI had met “to discuss how Senator Kerry’s efforts to get Lugar to hold hearings on the case could be undermined.”

Mattes, the federal public defender in Miami, watched as the administration ratcheted up pressure on Kerry’s investigation. “From a political point of view in May of ’86, Kerry had every reason to shut down his staff investigation,” Mattes said. “There was no upside for him doing it. We all felt under the gun to back off.”

The Kerry that Mattes witnessed at the time was the ex-prosecutor determined to get to the bottom of serious criminal allegations even if they implicated senior government officials. “As an investigator, he had a sense it was there,” said Mattes, who is now an investigative reporter for Fox News in San Diego. “Kerry was a crusader. He was the consummate outsider, doing what you expect people to do. … At no point did he flinch.”

Years later, in the National Archives, I discovered a document showing that the Central Intelligence Agency also was keeping tabs on Kerry’s investigation. Alan Fiers Jr., who served as the CIA’s Central American Task Force chief, told independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-Contra investigators that the AP and Feldman’s investigations had attracted the hostility of the Reagan-Bush administration. Fiers said he “was also getting a dump on the Senator Kerry investigation about mercenary activity in Central America from the CIA’s legislative affairs people who were monitoring it.”

Negative publicity about the Contras was particularly unwelcome to the Reagan-Bush administration throughout the spring and summer 1986 as the White House battled to restore U.S. government funding to the Contras. In the politically heated atmosphere, the administration sought to smear anti-Contra witnesses cooperating with Kerry’s investigation.

In a July 28 memo, initialed as read by President Reagan, North labeled onetime Contra mercenary Jack Terrell as a “terrorist threat” because of his “anti-Contra and anti-U.S. activities.” North said Terrell had been cooperating “with various congressional staffs in preparing for hearings and inquiries regarding the role of U.S. government officials in illegally supporting the Nicaraguan resistance.”

In August 1986, FBI and Secret Service agents hauled Terrell in for two days of polygraph examinations on suspicion that Terrell intended to assassinate President Reagan, an allegation that proved baseless. But Terrell told me later that the investigation had chilled his readiness to testify about the Contras. “It burned me up,” he said. “The pressure was always there.”

Beyond intimidating some witnesses, the Reagan administration systematically worked to frustrate Kerry’s investigation. Years later, one of Kerry’s investigators, Jack Blum, complained publicly that the Justice Department had actively obstructed the congressional probe. Blum said William Weld, who took over as assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division in September 1986, was an “absolute stonewall” blocking the Senate’s access to evidence on Contra-cocaine smuggling. “Weld put a very serious block on any effort we made to get information,” Blum told the Senate Intelligence Committee a decade after the events. “There were stalls. There were refusals to talk to us, refusals to turn over data.”

Weld, who later became Massachusetts governor and lost to Kerry in the 1996 Senate race, denied that he had obstructed Kerry’s Contra probe. But it was clear that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was encountering delays in getting information that had been requested by Chairman Lugar, a Republican, and Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, the ranking Democrat. At Kerry’s suggestion, they had sought files on more than two dozen people linked to the Contra operations and suspected of drug trafficking.

Inside the Justice Department, senior career investigators grew concerned about the administration’s failure to turn over the requested information. “I was concerned that we were not responding to what was obviously a legitimate congressional request,” Mark Richard, one of Weld’s top deputies, testified in a deposition. “We were not refusing to respond in giving explanations or justifications for it. We were seemingly just stonewalling what was a continuing barrage of requests for information. That concerned me no end.”

On Sept. 26, 1986, Kerry tried to spur action by presenting Weld with an 11-page “proffer” statement from a 31-year-old FBI informant who had worked with the Medellin cartel and had become a witness on cartel activities. The woman, Wanda Palacio, had approached Kerry with an account about Colombian cocaine kingpin Jorge Ochoa bragging about payments he had made to the Nicaraguan Contras.

As part of this Contra connection, Palacio said pilots for a CIA-connected airline, Southern Air Transport, were flying cocaine out of Barranquilla, Colombia. She said she had witnessed two such flights, one in 1983 and the other in October 1985, and quoted Ochoa saying the flights were part of an arrangement to exchange “drugs for guns.”

According to contemporaneous notes of this “proffer” meeting between Weld and Kerry, Weld chuckled that he was not surprised at allegations about corrupt dealings by “bum agents, former and current CIA agents.” He promised to give serious consideration to Palacio’s allegations.

After Kerry left Weld’s office, however, the Justice Department seemed to concentrate on poking holes in Palacio’s account, not trying to corroborate it. Though Palacio had been considered credible in her earlier testimony to the FBI, she was judged to lack credibility when she made accusations about the Contras and the CIA.

On Oct. 3, 1986, Weld’s office told Kerry that it was rejecting Palacio as a witness on the grounds that there were some contradictions in her testimony. The discrepancies apparently related to such minor points as which month she had first talked with the FBI.

Two days after Weld rejected Palacio’s Contra-cocaine testimony, other secrets about the White House’s covert Contra support operations suddenly crashed –literally — into view.

On Oct. 5, a quiet Sunday morning, an aging C-123 cargo plane rumbled over the skies of Nicaragua preparing to drop AK-47 rifles and other equipment to Contra units in the jungle below. Since the Reagan administration had recently won congressional approval for renewed CIA military aid to the Contras, the flight was to be one of the last by Oliver North’s ragtag air force.

The plane, however, attracted the attention of a teenage Sandinista soldier armed with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. He aimed, pulled the trigger and watched as the Soviet-made missile made a direct hit on the aircraft. Inside, cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus, an American mercenary working with the Contras, was knocked to the floor, but managed to crawl to an open door, push himself through, and parachute to the ground, where he was captured by Sandinista forces. The pilot and other crew members died in the crash.

As word spread about the plane crash, Barger — who had left the AP and was working for a CBS News show — persuaded me to join him on a trip to Nicaragua with the goal of getting an interview with Hasenfus, who turned out to be an unemployed Wisconsin construction worker and onetime CIA cargo handler. Hasenfus told a press conference in Managua that the Contra supply operation was run by CIA officers working with the office of Vice President George Bush. Administration officials, including Bush, denied any involvement with the downed plane.

Our hopes for an interview with Hasenfus didn’t work out, but Sandinista officials did let us examine the flight records and other documents they had recovered from the plane. As Barger talked with a senior Nicaraguan officer, I hastily copied down the entries from copilot Wallace “Buzz” Sawyer’s flight logs. The logs listed hundreds of flights with the airports identified only by their four-letter international codes and the planes designated by tail numbers.

Upon returning to Washington, I began deciphering Wallace’s travels and matching the tail numbers with their registered owners. Though Wallace’s flights included trips to Africa and landings at U.S. military bases in the West, most of his entries were for flights in Central and South America.

Meanwhile, in Kerry’s Senate office, witness Wanda Palacio was waiting for a meeting when she noticed Sawyer’s photo flashing on a TV screen. Palacio began insisting that Sawyer was one of the pilots whom she had witnessed loading cocaine onto a Southern Air Transport plane in Barranquilla, Colombia, in early October 1985. Her identification of Sawyer struck some of Kerry’s aides as a bit too convenient, causing them to have their own doubts about her credibility.

Though I was unaware of Palacio’s claims at the time, I pressed ahead with the AP story on Sawyer’s travels. In the last paragraph of the article, I noted that Sawyer’s logs revealed that he had piloted a Southern Air Transport plane on three flights to Barranquilla on Oct. 2, 4, and 6, 1985. The story ran on Oct. 17, 1986.

Shortly after the article moved on the AP wires, I received a phone call from Rosenblith at Kerry’s office. Sounding shocked, the Kerry investigator asked for more details about the last paragraph of the story, but he wouldn’t say why he wanted to know. Only months later did I discover that the AP story on Sawyer’s logs had provided unintentional corroboration for Palacio’s Contra-drug allegations.

Palacio also passed a polygraph exam on her statements. But Weld and the Justice Department still refused to accept her testimony as credible. (Even a decade later, when I asked the then-Massachusetts governor about Palacio, Weld likened her credibility to “a wagon load of diseased blankets.”)

In fall 1986, Weld’s criminal division continued to withhold Contra-drug information requested by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to Justice Department records, Lugar and Pell — two of the Senate’s most gentlemanly members — wrote on Oct. 14 that they had been waiting more than two months for information that the Justice Department had promised “in an expeditious manner.”

“To date, no information has been received and the investigation of allegations by the committee, therefore, has not moved very far,” Lugar and Pell wrote in a joint letter. “We’re disappointed that the Department has not responded in a timely fashion and indeed has not provided any materials.”

On Nov. 25, 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal was officially born when Attorney General Edwin Meese announced that profits from secret U.S. arms sales to Iran had been diverted to help fund the Nicaraguan Contras.

The Washington press corps scrambled to get a handle on the dramatic story of clandestine operations, but still resisted the allegations that the administration’s zeal had spilled over into sanctioning or tolerating Contra-connected drug trafficking.

Though John Kerry’s early warnings about White House-aided Contra gunrunning had proved out, his accusations about Contra drug smuggling would continue to be rejected by much of the press corps as going too far.

On Jan. 21, 1987, the conservative Washington Times attacked Kerry’s Contra-drug investigation again; his alleged offense this time was obstructing justice because his probe was supposedly interfering with the Reagan administration’s determination to get at the truth. “Kerry’s staffers damaged FBI probe,” the Times headline read.

“Congressional investigators for Sen. John Kerry severely damaged a federal drug investigation last summer by interfering with a witness while pursuing allegations of drug smuggling by the Nicaraguan resistance, federal law enforcement officials said,” according to the Times article.

The mainstream press continued to publish stories that denigrated Kerry’s investigation. On Feb. 24, 1987, a New York Times article by reporter Keith Schneider quoted “law enforcement officials” saying that the Contra allegations “have come from a small group of convicted drug traffickers in South Florida who never mentioned Contras or the White House until the Iran-Contra affair broke in November.”

The drift of the article made Kerry out to be something of a dupe. His Contra-cocaine witnesses were depicted as simply convicts trying to get lighter prison sentences by embroidering false allegations onto the Iran-Contra scandal. But the information in the Times story was patently untrue. The AP Contra-cocaine story had run in December 1985, almost a year before the Iran-Contra story broke.

When New York Times reporters conducted their own interview with Palacio, she immediately sensed their hostility. In her Senate deposition, Palacio described her experience at the Times office in Miami. She said Schneider and a “Cuban man” rudely questioned her story and bullied her about specific evidence for each of her statements. The Cuban man “was talking to me kind of nasty,” Palacio recalled. “I got up and left, and this man got all pissed off, Keith Schneider.”

The parameters for a “responsible” Iran-Contra investigation were being set. On July 16, 1987, the New York Times published another story that seemed to discredit the Contra-drug charges. It reported that except for a few convicted drug smugglers from Miami, the Contra-cocaine “charges have not been verified by any other people and have been vigorously denied by several government agencies.”

Four days later, the Times added that “investigators, including reporters from major news outlets, have tried without success to find proof of … allegations that military supplies may have been paid for with profits from drug smuggling.” (The Times was inaccurate again. The original AP story had cited a CIA report describing the Contras buying a helicopter with drug money.)

The joint Senate-House Iran-Contra committee averted its eyes from the Contra-cocaine allegations. The only time the issue was raised publicly was when a demonstrator interrupted one hearing by shouting, “Ask about the cocaine.” Kerry was excluded from the investigation.

On July 27, 1987, behind the scenes, committee staff investigator Robert A. Bermingham echoed the New York Times. “Hundreds of persons” had been questioned, he said, and vast numbers of government files reviewed, but no “corroboration of media-exploited allegations of U.S. government-condoned drug trafficking by Contra leaders or Contra organizations” was found. The report, however, listed no names of any interview subjects nor any details about the files examined.

Bermingham’s conclusions conflicted with closed-door Iran-Contra testimony from administration insiders. In a classified deposition to the congressional Iran-Contra committees, senior CIA officer Alan Fiers said, “with respect to [drug trafficking by] the Resistance Forces [the Contras] it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people.”

Despite official denials and press hostility, Kerry and his investigators pressed ahead. In 1987, with the arrival of a Democratic majority in the Senate, Kerry also became chairman of the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations. He used that position to pry loose the facts proving that the official denials were wrong and that Contra units were involved in the drug trade.

Kerry’s report was issued two years later, on April 13, 1989. Its stunning conclusion: “On the basis of the evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.”

The report discovered that drug traffickers gave the Contras “cash, weapons, planes, pilots, air supply services and other materials.” Moreover, the U.S. State Department had paid some drug traffickers as part of a program to fly non-lethal assistance to the Contras. Some payments occurred “after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.”

Although Kerry’s findings represented the first time a congressional report explicitly accused federal agencies of willful collaboration with drug traffickers, the major news organizations chose to bury the startling findings. Instead of front-page treatment, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all wrote brief accounts and stuck them deep inside their papers. The New York Times article, only 850 words long, landed on Page 8. The Post placed its story on A20. The Los Angeles Times found space on Page 11.

One of the best-read political reference books, the Almanac of American Politics, gave this account of Kerry’s investigation in its 1992 edition: “In search of right-wing villains and complicit Americans, [Kerry] tried to link Nicaraguan Contras to the drug trade, without turning up much credible evidence.”

Thus, Kerry’s reward for his strenuous and successful efforts to get to the bottom of a difficult case of high-level government corruption was to be largely ignored by the mainstream press and even have his reputation besmirched.

But the Contra-cocaine story didn’t entirely go away. In 1991, in the trial of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega for drug trafficking, federal prosecutors called as a witness Medellin cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder, who testified that the Medellin cartel had given $10 million to the Contras, a claim that one of Kerry’s witnesses had made years earlier. “The Kerry hearings didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time,” a Washington Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991 acknowledged. “The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention.”

Kerry’s vindication in the Contra drug case did not come until 1998, when inspectors general at the CIA and Justice Department reviewed their files in connection with allegations published by the San Jose Mercury News that the Contra-cocaine pipeline had contributed to the crack epidemic that ravaged inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s. (Ironically, the major national newspapers only saw fit to put the Contra-cocaine story on their front pages in criticizing the Mercury News and its reporter Gary Webb for taking the allegations too far.)

On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page story, with two more pages inside, that was critical of the Mercury News. But while accusing the Mercury News of exaggerating, the Post noted that Contra-connected drug smugglers had brought tons of cocaine into the United States. “Even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,” the Post reported.

A Post editorial on Oct. 9, 1996, reprised the newspaper’s assessment that the Mercury News had overreached, but added that for “CIA-connected characters to have played even a trivial role in introducing Americans to crack would indicate an unconscionable breach by the CIA.”

In the months that followed, the major newspapers — including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times — joined the Post in criticizing the Mercury News while downplaying their own inattention to the crimes that Kerry had illuminated a decade earlier. The Los Angeles Times actually used Kerry’s report to dismiss the Mercury News series as old news because the Contra cocaine trafficking “has been well documented for years.”

While the major newspapers gloated when reporter Gary Webb was forced to resign from the Mercury News, the internal government investigations, which Webb’s series had sparked, moved forward. The government’s decade-long Contra cocaine cover-up began to crumble when CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz published the first of two volumes of his Contra cocaine investigation on Jan. 29, 1998, followed by a Justice Department report and Hitz’s second volume in October 1998.

The CIA inspector general and Justice Department reports confirmed that the Reagan administration knew from almost the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the CIA-backed army but the administration did next to nothing to expose or stop these criminals. The reports revealed example after example of leads not followed, witnesses disparaged and official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged. The evidence indicated that Contra-connected smugglers included the Medellin cartel, the Panamanian government of Manuel Noriega, the Honduran military, the Honduran-Mexican smuggling ring of Ramon Matta Ballesteros, and Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans.

Reviewing evidence that existed in the 1980s, CIA inspector general Hitz found that some Contra-connected drug traffickers worked directly for Reagan’s National Security Council staff and the CIA. In 1987, Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veteran Moises Nunez told CIA investigators that “it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC.”

CIA task force chief Fiers said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued then “because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [Oliver North’s fundraising]. A decision was made not to pursue this matter.”

Another Cuban-American who had attracted Kerry’s interest was Felipe Vidal, who had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s. But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics officer for the Contras and covered up for him when the agency learned that he was collaborating with known traffickers to raise money for the Contras, the Hitz report showed. Fiers had briefed Kerry about Vidal on Oct. 15, 1986, without mentioning Vidal’s drug arrests and conviction in the 1970s.

Hitz found that a chief reason for the CIA’s protective handling of Contra-drug evidence was Langley’s “one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government … [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the Contra program.”

According to Hitz’s report, one CIA field officer explained, “The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.”

This pattern of obstruction occurred while Vice President Bush was in charge of stanching the flow of drugs to the United States. Kerry made himself a pest by demanding answers to troubling questions.

“He wanted to get to the bottom of something so dark,” former public defender Mattes told me. “Nobody could imagine it was so dark.”

In the end, investigations by government inspectors general corroborated Kerry’s 1989 findings and vindicated his effort. But the muted conclusion of the Contra-cocaine controversy 12 years after Kerry began his investigation explains why this chapter is an overlooked — though important — episode in Kerry’s Senate career. It’s a classic case of why, in Washington, there’s little honor in being right too soon. Yet it’s also a story about a senator who had the personal honor to do the right thing.

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CIA’s 1980s Dope Peddling

CIA Admits Tolerating Contra-Cocaine Trafficking in 1980s

by Robert Parry, The Consortium online magazine, June 8, 2000

In secret congressional testimony, senior CIA officials admitted that the spy agency turned a blind eye to evidence of cocaine trafficking by U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels in the 1980s and generally did not treat drug smuggling through Central America as a high priority during the Reagan administration.

“In the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas appears to have taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations against those with whom the agency was working,” CIA Inspector General Britt Snider said in classified testimony on May 25, 1999. He conceded that the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in “a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner.”

Still, Snider and other officials sought to minimize the seriousness of the CIA’s misconduct ­ a position echoed by a House Intelligence Committee report released in May and by press coverage it received. In particular, CIA officials insisted that CIA personnel did not order the contras to engage in drug trafficking and did not directly join in the smuggling.

But the CIA testimony to the House Intelligence Committee and the body of the House report confirmed long-standing allegations ­ dating back to the mid-1980s ­ that drug traffickers pervaded the contra operation and used it as a cover for smuggling substantial volumes of cocaine into the United States.

Deep in the report, the House committee noted that in some cases, “CIA employees did nothing to verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the opportunity to do so. In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual.”

Former CIA officer Duane Clarridge, who oversaw covert CIA support for the contras in the early years of their war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government, said “counter-narcotics programs in Central America were not a priority of CIA personnel in the early 1980s,” according to the House report.

The House committee also reported new details about how a major Nicaraguan drug lord, Norwin Meneses, recruited one of his principal lieutenants, Oscar Danilo Blandon, with promises that much of their drug money would go to the contras. Meneses and Blandon were key figures in a controversial 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News that alleged a “dark alliance” between the CIA and contra traffickers.

That series touched off renewed interest in contra-drug trafficking and its connection to the flood of cocaine that swept through U.S. cities in the 1980s, devastating many communities with addiction and violence. In reaction to the articles by reporter Gary Webb, U.S. government agencies and leading American newspapers rallied to the CIA’s defense.

Like those responses, the House Intelligence Committee report attacked Webb’s series. It highlighted exculpatory information about the CIA and buried admissions of wrongdoing deep in the text where only a careful reading would find them. The report’s seven “findings” ­ accepted by the majority Republicans as well as the minority Democrats ­ absolved the CIA of any serious offenses, sometimes using convoluted phrasing that obscured the facts.

For instance, one key finding stated that “the CIA as an institution did not approve of connections between contras and drug traffickers, and, indeed, contras were discouraged from involvement with traffickers.” The phrasing is tricky, however. The use of the phrase “as an institution” obscures the report’s clear evidence that many CIA officials ignored the contra-cocaine smuggling and continued doing business with suspected drug traffickers.

The finding’s second sentence said, “CIA officials, on occasion, notified law enforcement entities when they became aware of allegations concerning the identities or activities of drug traffickers.” Stressing that CIA officials “on occasion” alerted law enforcement about contra drug traffickers glossed over the reality that many CIA officials withheld evidence of illegal drug smuggling and undermined investigations of those crimes.

Normally in investigations, it is the wrongdoing that is noteworthy, not the fact that some did not participate in the wrongdoing.

A close reading of the House report reveals a different story from the “findings.” On page 38, for instance, the House committee observed that the second volume of the CIA’s inspector general’s study of the contra-drug controversy disclosed numerous instances of contra-drug operations and CIA knowledge of the problem.

“The first question is what CIA knew,” the House report said. “Volume II of the CIA IG report explains in detail the knowledge the CIA had that some contras had been, were alleged to be or were in fact involved or somehow associated with drug trafficking or drug traffickers. The reporting of possible connections between drug trafficking and the Southern Front contra organizations is particularly extensive.

“The second question is what the CIA reported to DOJ [Department of Justice]. The Committee was concerned about the CIA’s record in reporting and following up on allegations of drug activity during this period. In many cases, it is clear the information was reported from the field, but it is less clear what happened to the information after it arrived at CIA headquarters.”

In other words, the internal government investigations found that CIA officers in Central America were informing CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., about the contra-drug problem, but the evidence went no farther. It was kept from law enforcement agencies, from Congress and from the American public. Beyond withholding the evidence, the Reagan administration mounted public relations attacks on members of Congress, journalists and witnesses who were exposing the crimes in the 1980s.

In a sense, those attacks continue to this day, with reporter Gary Webb excoriated for alleged overstatements in the Mercury News stories. As a result of those attacks, Webb was forced to resign from the Mercury News and leave daily journalism. No member of the Reagan administration has received any punishment or even public rebuke for concealing evidence of contra-cocaine trafficking. [For details on the CIA’s internal report, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Besides confirming the CIA’s internal admissions about contra-drug trafficking and the CIA’s spotty record of taking action to stop it, the House committee included in its report the Reagan administration’s rationale for blacking out the contra-cocaine evidence in the 1980s.

“The committee interviewed several individuals who served in Latin America as [CIA] chiefs of station during the 1980s,” the report said. “They all personally deplored the use and trafficking of drugs, but indicated that in the 1980s the counter-narcotics mission did not have as high a priority as the missions of reporting on and fighting against communist insurrections and supporting struggling democratic movements.

“Indeed, most of those interviewed indicated that they were, effectively speaking, operating in a war zone and were totally engaged in keeping U.S. allies from being overwhelmed. In this environment, what reporting the CIA did do on narcotics was often based on one of two considerations: either a general understanding that the CIA should report on criminal activities so that law enforcement agencies could follow up on them, or, in case of the contras, an effort to monitor allegations of trafficking that, if true, could undermine the legitimacy of the contras cause.”

In other words, the CIA station chiefs admitted to the House committee that they gave the contras a walk on drug trafficking. “In case of the contras,” only monitoring was in order, as the CIA worried that disclosure of contra-drug smuggling would be a public relations problem that “could undermine the legitimacy of the contra cause.”

The House report followed this CIA admission with a jarring ­ and seemingly contradictory ­ conclusion. “The committee found no evidence of an attempt to ‘cover up’ such information,” the report said.

Yet, that “no cover-up” conclusion flew in the face of both the CIA inspector general’s report and the report by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Both detailed case after case in which CIA and senior Reagan administration officials intervened to frustrate investigations on contra-connected drug trafficking, either by blocking the work of investigators or by withholding timely evidence.

In one case, a CIA lawyer persuaded a federal prosecutor in San Francisco to forego a 1984 trip to Costa Rica because the CIA feared the investigation might expose a contra-cocaine tie-in. In others, Drug Enforcement Administration investigators in Central America complained about obstacles put in their path by CIA officers and U.S. embassy officials. [For more details, see Lost History.]

In classified testimony to the House committee, CIA Inspector General Snider acknowledged that the CIA’s handling of the contra-cocaine evidence was “mixed” and “inconsistent.” He said, “While we found no evidence that any CIA employees involved in the contra program had participated in drug-related activities or had conspired with others in such activities, we found that the agency did not deal with contra-related drug trafficking allegations and information in a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner.”

Even in this limited admission, Snider’s words conflicted with evidence published in the CIA inspector general’s report in October 1998. That report, prepared by Snider’s predecessor Frederick Hitz, showed that some CIA personnel working with the contras indeed were implicated in drug trafficking. The tricky word in Snider’s testimony was “employees,” that is, regular full-time CIA officers.

Both the CIA report and the House report acknowledged that a CIA “contractor” known by the pseudonym Ivan Gomez was involved in drug trafficking. In the early 1980s, the CIA sent Gomez to Costa Rica to oversee the contra operation. Later, Gomez admitted in a CIA polygraph that he participated in his brother’s drug business in Florida.

In separate testimony, Nicaraguan drug smuggler Carlos Cabezas fingered Gomez as the CIA’s man in Costa Rica who made sure that drug money went into the contra coffers.

Despite the seeming corroboration of Cabezas’s allegation about Ivan Gomez’s role in drug smuggling, the House committee split hairs again. It attacked Cabezas’s credibility and argued that the Gomez drug money could not be connected definitively to the contras. “No evidence suggests that the drug trafficking and money laundering operations in which Gomez claimed involvement were in any way related to CIA or the contra movement,” the House report said.

What the report leaves out is that one reason for this lack of proof was that the CIA prevented a thorough investigation of Ivan Gomez’s drug activities by withholding the polygraph admission from the Justice Department and the U.S. Congress in the late 1980s. In effect, the House committee now is rewarding the CIA for torpedoing those investigations.

In one surprise disclosure, the House committee uncovered new details about the involvement of Nicaraguan drug smuggler Oscar Danilo Blandon in trafficking intended to support the contras financially. Blandon, a central figure in the Mercury News series, said he was drawn into the drug business because he understood profits were going to the contra war.

In a deposition to the House committee, Blandon described a meeting with Nicaraguan drug kingpin Norwin Meneses at the Los Angeles airport in 1981. “It was during this encounter, according to Blandon, that Meneses encouraged Blandon to become involved with the drug business in order to assist the contras,” the House report stated.

“We spoke a lot of things about the contra revolution, about the movement, because then he took me to the drug business, speaking to me about the drug business that we had to raise money with drugs,” said Blandon. “And he explained to me, you don’t know, but I am going to teach you. And, you know, I am going to tell you how you will do it. You see, you keep some of the profit for you, and some of the profit we will help the contra revolution, you see. Meneses was trying to convince me with the contra revolution to get me involved in drugs. Give a piece of the apple to the contras and a piece of the apple to him.”

Blandon accepted Meneses’s proposal and “assumed the money he had given Meneses was being sent by Meneses to the contra movement. However, Blandon stated that he had no firsthand knowledge that this was actually occurring,” the House report said.

Though Blandon claimed ignorance about the regular delivery of cocaine cash to the contras, other witnesses confirmed that substantial sums went from Meneses and other drug rings to the contras. A Justice Department investigation discovered several informants who corroborated the flow of money.

One confidential informant, identified in the Justice report only as “DEA CI-1,” said Meneses, Blandon and another cohort, Ivan Torres, contributed drug profits to the contras.

Renato Pena, a money-and-drug courier for Meneses, also described sharing drug profits with the contras, while acting as their northern California representative. Pena quoted a Colombian contact called “Carlos” as saying “We’re helping youbecause with this drug thing. We’re helping your organization a lot.”

The Justice report noted, too, that Meneses’s nephew, Jairo, told the DEA in the 1980s that he had asked Pena to help transport drug money to the contras and that his uncle, Norwin Meneses, dealt directly with contra military commander Enrique Bermudez.

The Justice report found that Julio Zavala and Carlos Cabezas ran a parallel contra-drug network. Cabezas said cocaine from Peru was packed into hollow reeds which were woven into tourist baskets and smuggled to the United States. After arriving in San Francisco, the baskets went to Zavala who arranged sale of the cocaine for contra operatives, Horacio Pereira and Troilo Sanchez. Cabezas estimated that he gave them between $1 million and $1.5 million between December 1981 and December 1982.

Another U.S. informant, designated “FBI Source 1,” backed up much of Cabezas’s story. Source 1 said Cabezas and Zavala were helping the contras with proceeds from two drug-trafficking operations, one smuggling Colombian cocaine and the other shipping cocaine through Honduras. Source 1 said the traffickers had to agree to give 50 percent of their profits to the contras.

The House report made no note of this corroborating evidence published in the DOJ report.

The broader contra-cocaine picture was ignored, too. The evidence now available from government investigations over the past 15 years makes clear that many major cocaine smuggling networks used the contra operation, either relying on direct contra assistance or exploiting the relationship to gain protection from U.S. law enforcement.

Sworn testimony before an investigation by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, in the late 1980s disclosed that the contra-drug link dated back to the origins of the movement in 1980. Then, Bolivian drug lord Roberto Suarez invested $30 million in several Argentine-run paramilitary operations, according to Argentine intelligence officer Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse.

The Suarez money financed the so-called Cocaine Coup that ousted Bolivia’s elected government in 1980 and then was used by Argentine intelligence to start the contra war against Nicaragua’s leftist government. In 1981, President Reagan ordered the CIA to work with the Argentines in building up the contra army.

According to Volume Two of the CIA report, the spy agency learned about the contra-cocaine connection almost immediately, secretly reporting that contra operatives were smuggling cocaine into South Florida.

By the early 1980s, the Bolivian connection had drawn in the fledgling Colombian Medellin cartel. Top cartel figures picked up on the value of interlocking their operations with the contras. Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans played a key matchmaker role, especially by working with contras based in Costa Rica.

U.S. agencies secretly reported on the work of Frank Castro and other Cuban-American contra supporters who were seen as Medellin operatives. With the Reagan administration battling Congress to keep CIA money flowing to the contras, there were no high-profile crackdowns that might embarrass the contras and undermine public support for their war.

No evidence was deigned good enough to justify sullying the contras’ reputation. In 1986, for example, Reagan’s Justice Department rejected the eyewitness account of an FBI informant named Wanda Palacio. She testified that she saw Jorge Ochoa’s Colombian organization loading cocaine onto planes belonging to Southern Air Transport, a former CIA-owned airline that secretly was flying supplies to the contras. Despite documentary corroboration, her account was dismissed as not believable.

Another contra-cocaine connection ran through Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, who was recruited by the Reagan administration to assist the contras despite Noriega’s drug-trafficking reputation. The CIA worked closely, too, with corrupt military officers in Honduras and El Salvador who were known to moonlight as cocaine traffickers and money-launderers.

In Honduras, the contra operation tied into the huge cocaine-smuggling network of Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros. His airline, SETCO, was hired by the Reagan administration to ferry supplies to the contras. U.S. government reports also disclosed that contra spokesman Frank Arana worked closely with lieutenants in the Matta Ballesteros network.

Though based in Honduras, the Matta Ballesteros network was regarded as a leading Mexican smuggling ring and was implicated in the torture-murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.

The CIA knew, too, that the contra-cocaine taint had spread into President Reagan’s National Security Council and into the CIA through Cuban-American anti-communists who were working for two drug-connected seafood companies, Ocean Hunter of Miami and Frigorificos de Puntarenas in Costa Rica. One of these Cuban-Americans, Moises Nunez, worked directly for the NSC.

In 1987, the CIA asked Nunez about allegations tying him to the drug trade. “Nunez revealed that since 1985, he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National Security Council,” the CIA contra-drug report said. “Nunez refused to elaborate on the nature of these actions, but indicated it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC.”

The CIA had its own link to the Frigorificos/Ocean Hunter operation through Felipe Vidal, a Cuban-American with a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker. Despite that record, the CIA hired Vidal as a logistics coordinator for the contras, the CIA report said. When Sen. Kerry sought the CIA’s file on Vidal, the CIA withheld the data about Vidal’s drug arrest and kept him on the payroll until 1990.
These specific cases were not mentioned in the House report. They also have gone unreported in the major news media of the United States.

Now, with the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committees joining with their Republican counterparts, the official verdict on the sordid contra-drug history has been delivered ­ a near full acquittal of the Reagan administration and the CIA. The verdict is justified as long as no one reads what’s in the government’s own reports.

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