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Courage Under Fire

As a young senator, John Kerry spearheaded courageous investigative work on the Contra drug scandals, shedding light on the hypocrisy of the Reagan/Bush administration.
 
 
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There is a general lack of attention to Presidential candidate John Kerry's 20-year record in the Senate in this election. Using his background as a state prosecutor in Massachusetts, Kerry launched his Senate career conducting investigations from his perch as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Commmittee. Kerry spent almost all of his first term (1984-1990) in the Senate investigating the Iran-Contra drug scandal in Nicaragua, the role of the Panamanian government in drug trafficking and the corrupt activities at the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI).

Former Associated Press reporter Robert Parry recently highlighted some of Kerry's work in the Contra scandals in his new book, " Secrecy and Privilege," which explores how the two George Bushes have risen to the pinnacle of political power. AlterNet spoke with Parry, who covered the Contra drug scandal in the mid-1980s for the Associated Press, about Kerry's investigative work in the Senate.

There's a passage in your book that details a part of John Kerry's career in the Senate – his investigations into the Central American Contra scandals in the 1980s. You show that Kerry stayed firm under pressure from his colleagues, the White House and the mainstream press. Could you start by painting the background on the Contra affair?

In the early to mid-1980s, the war in Nicaragua was underway, and the Reagan/Bush White House was determined to support the Contras – these insurgents who were fighting against the Sandanistas, the leftist government that had taken power in Nicaragua. The Contras were developing a pretty unsavory reputation for human rights violations, and some of the activities that the CIA made to back the Contras at the time were clearly in violation of international law.

The U.S. Congress, beginning in 1984 and going on for the next couple years, voted to restrict or prevent U.S. military assistance that would go to the Contras in Nicaragua, and Reagan signed on to it with some protest. But the White House tried to circumvent it soon after. They turned to Oliver North who was then a Marine officer, serving on the National Security Council and also working with office of Vice President George H.W. Bush and some of the CIA people that he had surrounded himself with, going back to his days when Bush was CIA director. There was an effort to run a secret operation to provide various kinds of assistance to the Contras — money, in some cases helping them to get guns and other kinds of armaments to carry on the war, which Congress had effectively tried to block.

You were covering this as a reporter at the time?

Yes, I was at The Associated Press at the time, and we were beginning to investigate this. I did an early story mentioning Ollie North in 1985. We were digging into this secret operation which the White House was denying it existed. In doing so, we also began stumbling on to evidence that the Contra units had turned to drug trafficking to help fill the void of money that the CIA had stopped providing.

The only person in the Congress who showed any imagination or strong interest in these criminal activities that were going on underneath the nose of the U.S. government was Senator John Kerry, who was serving his first term. Kerry had heard about this through his family connections in Massachusetts, and he took an interest. He turned his staff loose on looking into the Contras. Working through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they pressed the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide information about this that was available. The Reagan/Bush administration tried to block Kerry's inquiries at every turn.

And the media started to attack Kerry.

Right. Led by South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon's newspaper, the Washington Times, the conservative news media began attacking John Kerry. Some of the allegations were that he was off on some wild tangent, that this was all crazy, that he was wasting government money. Later on, as the evidence built up that there really was something going on, the Washington Times started attacking Kerry with the tack that he and his staff were "obstructing" the investigations of wrong doing that the Reagan/Bush administration supposedly wanted to carry out. Kerry's early investigative work involved piecing together how Ollie North's secret operation was working, and that then spun off into looking at the drug trafficking that was running up through Central America.

Essentially, some of the trafficking cartels were using the Contras as a "cover" – I'm not sure the cartels particularly cared about the Contras one way or the other, but they understood that if they got close enough to the Contras and worked with them, the U.S. government would not want to expose those smuggling routes and smuggling connections. So that made sense for the drug cartels, and we now know of course that the U.S. government did turn a blind eye to some of these drug shipments.

But this wasn't public knowledge at the time, was it?

No, this was unknown at the time, and John Kerry did some pretty courageous work as an investigator exposing some of these dirty dealings. Kerry eventually put out a report which was widely criticized by the Washington press corps, which didn't really want to believe any of this. The New York Times and The Washington Post and others sort of poo-poohed Kerry's allegations and suggested that they weren't well founded. Newsweek, at one point in its "Conventional Wisdom Watch," referred to John Kerry as a "randy conspiracy buff," and he got a negative image by the national press corps, because he was pursuing these allegations, which many of the media outlets were not able to confirm. At The Associated Press, we were able to confirm some of Kerry's claims and we ran some stories about them, but our stories were not taken very seriously either at the time.

What were some of the specifics in Kerry's investigations?

Kerry's report came out in 1988 or 1989, and he was able to lay out that the Contra operations on both the Honduran and Costa Rican sides of the border with Nicaragua had become implicated in the cocaine trade, and that a number of groups that were helping – for instance, the Honduran military, and the Panamanian government – also were implicated in the cocaine trafficking. So his report came out, and it was pretty much buried deep inside the newspapers.

Kerry then branched off from there to do some more work on the Panama element, which were more widely accepted, which showed that Manuel Noriega was involved in drug trafficking involved in various ways. That in turn led Kerry to look at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), on which he also did some remarkable work in terms of showing how this Middle Eastern bank intersected with some of the drug trade, terrorist groups and with intelligence agencies, including the CIA. This exposed this whole arena of influence peddling and accepting corrupt money. The trouble with the BCCI investigation for Kerry was that it was a bipartisan investigation – it was a bipartisan scandal, and Kerry took a lot of hits from both sides, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress were upset with him for looking into some of that.

Editor's note: For more on Kerry's BCCI investigations, read John Baskin and David Sirota's article, " Ahead of His Time."

So Kerry went through these investigations, which were really quite historic in terms of their import, but Kerry got nothing out of it terms of credit from the press or public. It wasn't really until 1998 that the CIA inspector general, Frederick Hitz, did reports about the Contra drug activity – it was in the context of later allegations that emerged about the Contra's involvement with crack cocaine. While Hitz dismissed the more extreme allegations that some were making about the CIA and its involvement in the crack epidemic, Hitz's reports did confirm virtually everything that John Kerry had said back in the late '80s. So, while Kerry was vindicated, no one really noticed, and it didn't help Kerry politically. But these were important investigations.

Was Kerry acting on his own when he conducted these investigations? Did he have any allies in the House or Senate, or was it principally Kerry and his staff working alone?

I think Kerry was certainly leading the way. But there were some Republican and Democratic senators who supported his efforts. There was a subcommittee in Foreign Relations that John Kerry was on that provided some assistance and cover. There were also some Republicans who were opposed to drug trafficking – the war on drugs was a big issue then – and some helped Kerry with some leeway in pursuing these investigations.

Some of the Democratic Senators were giving him some assistance. Sen. Robert Byrd was giving Kerry some advice, and providing him some of his staff experts who moved over to join Kerry's staff during the time, people like Dick McCall. I think that some of those efforts may have limited Kerry from going much further in his investigations. I think there was a certain amount of, "You've done some good work here, but don't go too far." So I think he was reined in by having these these grey beards in the Senate being there at his side. But Kerry was the driving force, these other folks may have given him some assistance here and there, but he was the one who pushed it.

He didn't make a big deal out of it.

Maybe it was because Kerry was new to Washington and didn't realize that his career wouldn't advance as long as he pursued investigations like these. The sad thing is that since his reports weren't taken seriously in the 1980s when he released them, he essentially never brought it up after.

It was one of those things that a politician should be proud of. It was hard work, it was dangerous politically – he got a lot of heat for it – and Kerry followed up on his work. He probably pulled a few punches in what his reports said, but basically he saw it all through. All Kerry got was ridicule. That's what the smug Washington media gave him for his work, and Kerry didn't push it back in their faces.

What you've said here in this interview is something that the public does not really know about John Kerry.

Yeah, I think it's a sad little chapter. But in a way I think that's who Kerry is – or at least part of who he is. Kerry has always had this duality where he wants to be the accepted insider, but he also wants to be the rebel outsider. He has this "I want to do what I think is right" attitude, but he also has this more cautious side. You know, "my political career will be toast if I go this way."

You can certainly see that in his career: Kerry will charge out and do this heroic stuff that stands for a lot of the best principles about what our government is supposed to be about, then he'll get whacked around the neck and head for a while, and he will be told by the grey beards to be more cautious if he still wants to have a career. But I think everybody deep down is that way. Journalists are that way, everybody who has a job is that way.

It's sad that shortly after he did these investigations, in his election campaigns, he never brought up the Contra drug stuff, at least that I ever heard of. He mentioned the Noriega stuff a little, I think, and he might have mentioned his work on BCCI. But Kerry put aside and didn't talk about the Contra drug story, which is probably the most heroic of them all, because it went head on into this hypocrisy of the Reagan/Bush administration, which was waging a "war on drugs" while it was doing this Contra war that implicated the U.S. government in this drug trafficking, and caused them to look the other way.

Jan Frel is AlterNet's political editor.