The CIA, the Contras and Crack Cocaine: Part II

Anatomy of a Cover-up, Part IIDennis Bernstein and Robert KnightThe mainstream press in the U.S. -- including The New York Times and Newsweek magazine just last week -- have leveled searing criticism toward the recent series of reports in the San Jose Mercury News called "Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion." Those articles, which suggest the Central Intelligence Agency actually helped start the 1980s crack epidemic in the U.S. by condoning drug dealing by Nicaraguan exiles associated with the American-backed Contra rebels, have been called "explosive" and "unsubstantiated."Yet, even as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos admitted the articles should have stated that no evidence of C.I.A. complicity has been found, the tentative connections that were uncovered in that series have led to a deeper understanding of the U.S. government's role in fueling the Contra war with drug sales.As multiple investigations and hearings gear up to answer charges raised by the San Jose Mercury News, it is useful to examine how public officials and covert operators collaborate to suppress such serious information.Perhaps the central player in the events of a decade ago is now a talk-show host. And on his show, Lt. Col. (retired) Oliver North has boasted that he's "the most investigated man on earth." North appears fond of bragging that the government spent tens of millions of dollars to investigate him on various Iran-Contra charges -- and came up empty handed.North is half-right. Tens of millions were spent on at least a half-dozen congressional and Justice Department investigations into various illegal Contra activities. But the unfortunate fact remains: a mother lode of evidence was discovered, then dutifully covered-up by Reagan Administration officials, CIA infiltrators and sympathetic pro-Contra members of Congress.Classic cover-up techniques are old and familiar. For the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection they include the invocation of "national security," the limiting of testimony by narrow questions, limited mandates for investigative bodies and, in the case of the select Iran-Contra Committee hearings, the appointment of a CIA connected lead investigator.Exactly a decade ago, after months of revelations about secret arms deals, congressional leaders announced an investigation into North's National Security Council network. From its inception, however, the thoroughness of the Iran-Contra Select Committee was suspect.For starters, the Democratic chairs of both committees -- Sen. Daniel Inoue and Rep. Lee Hamilton -- assured the public that the investigation would not be "another Watergate." Inoue told reporters that the country wasn't "ready" for another government-rattling shake-up. Having thus declared their limits, the committee chairs turned to an investigator who could fulfill that mission.A SPY FOR ALL SEASONSAs senior investigator, the Democrats hired Thomas Polgar, a former CIA station chief who was stationed in Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. Polgar had been witness to 20 years of covert foreign policy, and in his intelligence reports to Congress on the war, had chronicled a rosy version of activity in Vietnam.Polgar had also served as a consultant to George Bush's task force on terrorism, which included several figures in the Iran-Contra scandal, including North.Of the six investigators and 13 lawyers hired by the original Iran-Contra committee, Polgar was the only one with such a prominent CIA background, and it was Polgar who was sent to Costa Rica to investigate CIA involvement in illegal Contra operations.While in Costa Rica, Polgar neglected to interview key suspects and sources. One of the more extraordinary omissions was his failure to interview CIA and North operative John Hull, who, as last week's story reported, had been identified by numerous U.S. and Costa Rican officials, as well as Contra and drug operatives, as being involved in drug trafficking.Another key actor in the cover-up was the House Select Committee chair Lee Hamilton. It was Hamilton who drafted a letter to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, saying he hoped Costa Rica would be handling Hull's case "in a manner that will not complicate U.S.-Costa Rican relations."Hull was ultimately indicted. North and the U.S. ambassador working with him were deemed "persona non grata" by Costa Rican authorities. However, Hull never appeared before the Iran-Contra committee, and to this day, has never been indicted in this country.STONEWALLING THE OTHER COMMITTEESEven before the joint Iran-Contra committees were formed, three other committees were already examining charges that North's secret Contra arms network was funded by illegal drug sales with the knowledge of the Central Intelligence Agency.The House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, chaired by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), had already contacted the U.S. Customs Agency to conduct background checks on several individuals or companies allegedly associated with the Contras.On June 23, 1986, Customs commissioner William Rosenblatt confirmed in a letter to Rangel that 24 out of the 38 investigations indicated the individuals or organizations showed drug-related connections or activities. Rangel concluded that the findings warranted "further investigation about possible tie-ins between the Contras, the individuals carrying out the Contra supply mission and drug smuggling activities."The Narcotics committee requested further information from the Justice Department and the DEA, but neither cooperated.The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime had also discovered what chairman William Hughes (D-N.J.) termed evidence of "potential official involvement in...gunrunning and narcotics trafficking between Florida and Central and South America." But like Rangel, Hughes was also stonewalled. "There would appear to be substance to the allegations," Hughes said during a 1987 press conference, "that the Justice Department either attempted to slow down or abort one of the ongoing criminal investigations."By far the most aggressive of the three congressional committees was John Kerry's Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations. His pushing paid off, as Kerry found significant evidence of Contra-connected drug smuggling.Among the scores of witnesses called to testify before Kerry's subcommittee was convicted drug smuggler George Morales, who gave detailed testimony linking four known Contras and southern front coordinator Hull. Morales also testified that two Contra leaders, Octaviano Cesar and Marcos Aguado, had approached the drug smuggler after his 1983 indictment, identified themselves as representing the CIA and asked his help in arming the Contras.A WELD IN THE CONTRA PIPELINEBefore Kerry went public with his findings, he attempted to get the Justice Department to act on evidence of U.S. involvement in Contra drug trafficking. On Sept. 26, 1986, Kerry met with Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weld, the head of the Justice Department's criminal division.Kerry gave Weld an 11-page sworn statement from FBI informant Wanda Palacio that directly implicated the CIA in drug trafficking. According to the minutes, Kerry asked Weld to read the statement and left the room. According to Jonathan Winer, a Kerry aide who took minutes of that meeting, Weld "read about a half page and chuckled." Weld never acted on the Palacio statement or on any other evidence gathered by Kerry.Miami-based attorney John Mattes, a former federal public defender, supplied some of the information discussed at the 1986 meeting with Weld. To this day, Mattes is confounded that Weld chose not to act, noting that "Weld claims he followed up with an investigation. But there is, however, no record that while Weld was the chief prosecutor for the U.S., that so much as one Contra-related narcotics trafficker was brought to justice."THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCHDespite the Reagan-Bush Justice Department's strategic inaction in prosecuting Contra-connected drug operations, legal actions were taken against some disillusioned Contra supporters who spoke out against the drugs and corruption.On June 28, 1988 a Federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, handed down indictments against 13 pro-Contra mercenaries for conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from direct, private involvement in foreign wars.A key target of the indictment was former Contra-trainer, Jack Terrell. Months before the Iran-Contra scandal erupted, Terrell, a U.S. citizen, voluntarily provided the Miami U.S. Attorney, the FBI, Congress, and journalists with information about the grittier aspects of the illegal Contra network. As an investigator for the International Center for Development Policy, Terrell had prepared an exhaustive list of the major and minor players in the Contra secret war.However, after Terrell appeared on a June, 1986, CBS news-magazine show, National Security Advisor John Poindexter wrote a memo to President Ronald Reagan terming Terrell a "terrorist threat" because of his public allegations about the Contra network's alleged human-rights abuses, drug-running and arms smuggling.Poindexter also suggested that Terrell might be a foreign agent for the Nicaraguan government, threatening to assassinate the President."This is the ultimate reward you get for talking," Terrell said in an interview after he was indicted. "When you blow the whistle, when you talk against the policy and start exposing corruption....then the administration's policy starts falling apart and people start falling off the wall like Humpty Dumpty. Then they go after you with everything they got."It turns out that Terrell had been attracting concern for a while. Eighteen months earlier, Robert Owen, a former aide to then-Senator Dan Quayle, wrote North a memo stating that Terrell "knows too much and it would do no one any good if he went to the press. He has to be finessed out."He was.EXPOSING THE COVER-UPOther "narrow questions" are being applied to discredit the Mercury News series, with official assertions that the intelligence community as a whole did not condone converting drug sales for Contra support.But the broader evidence of a pattern of Contra-cocaine operations presented in Part One of this series, along with the cover-up methods detailed here, offer a behind the scenes look at the questionable and possibly illegal connections between the CIA, drug traffickers and arms dealers.The Mercury News series also prompted emergency hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee. On Oct. 23, 1996, Jack Blum, former Kerry committee counsel, testified that the 1986 investigation headed by Weld put up an "absolute stone wall" between the Justice Department and the Kerry investigation."There were stalls, there were refusals to talk to us, refusals to turn over data," said Blum. "Weld put a very serious block on any effort to get information."During the recent testimony, Blum also described just how common it was to selectively prosecute those who, like Terrell, alleged Contra or CIA involvement in the drug trade."One of the favorite techniques of various people in this operation was, whenever there was someone they didn't like, to label him a 'drug trafficker.'"Today, the Justice Department and the CIA are again investigating the CIA-Contra-cocaine allegations. Yet, on Sept. 13, 1996, the nation's highest law enforcement official, Attorney General Janet Reno, stated flatly that there's "no evidence" at this time to support the charges. And a week earlier, on Sept. 7, director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, stated his belief that there's "no substance" to allegations of CIA involvement.Some may remember Deutch as the official who recently testified to Congress that U.S. troops were not exposed to chemical weapons in the Gulf War. Now that it has been disclosed by government officials that at least 15,000 men and women actually may have been exposed to toxins during that war, those who are struggling to prove the government has minimized and denied the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection have evidence of yet another orchestrated cover-up.

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