The paper trail to the top Crack and the contras

Three DTC views on the controversy over the C.I.A., its allies and drug dealing

November 17, 1996|By PETER KORNBLUH

With the scheduled visit of CIA Director John M. Deutch to the community of Watts last week, the controversy continues to swirl around allegations in the San Jose Mercury News linking CIA-backed contras to Nicaraguan drug smugglers involved in the proliferation of crack in California. But the premise of those articles - that U.S. officials would actually tolerate the flow of drugs into the cities of America - is fully supported by available evidence.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, my organization, the National Security Archive, obtained the declassification of thousands of pages of secret White House documents, including e-mail messages sent between various Reagan administration officials and Oliver North's handwritten notes on meetings and phone calls regarding the contra war.

Those records revealed a sad and shocking truth: U.S. officials - White House, National Security Council and CIA - not only knew about and condoned drug smuggling during the contra operations, but in some cases collaborated with, protected and even paid known dope traffickers who were deemed important players in the Reagan administration's obsessed covert effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

To be sure, former Reagan officials have denied this. When the issue came up during North's failed run for the Senate from Virginia, he called a press conference. North was joined by Duane Clarridge, the CIA official who ran the contra operations from 1981 through mid-1984, and by former Attorney General Edwin W. Meese III.

North called it a "cheap political trick I to even suggest that I or anyone in the Reagan administration, in any way, shape or form, ever tolerated the trafficking of illegal substances."

Clarridge said that it was a "moral outrage" to suggest that a Reagan administration official "would have countenanced" drug trafficking.

And Meese stated that no "Reagan administration official would have ever looked the other way at such activity."

A review of documentation, however, indicates that U.S. officials looked the other way and worse.

Knowledge of trafficking

North's own diaries and internal memorandums to him from contra contacts reveal explicit reports of drugs trafficking:

On April 1, 1985, North was informed by his liaison with the contras, Robert Owen, that two of the commanders chosen by the National Democratic Front (FDN) to run the southern front in Costa Rica were probably or definitively "involved with drug running."

On July 12, 1985, North was informed that the contras were considering the purchase of arms from a supplier in Honduras. The $14 million that the supplier had used to finance the guns "came from drugs."

On Aug. 9, 1985, North was informed that one of the resupply planes being used by Mario Calero, the brother of the head of the FDN, the largest contra group, was "probably being used for drug runs into the U.S."

On Feb. 10, 1986, Owen informed North that a plane being used to run materials to the contras was previously used to run drugs and that the CIA had chosen a company whose officials had a criminal record.

The company, Vortex Aviation, was run by Michael Palmer, allegedly one of the biggest marijuana smugglers in U.S. history, who was under indictment for 10 years of trafficking in Detroit at the same time he was receiving more than $300,000 in U.S. funds from a State Department contract to ferry "humanitarian" aid to the contras.

In not one of these cases is there any record of North's passing this important information on to proper law enforcement officials.

Out of the tens of thousands of documents declassified during the Iran-contra investigations, not a telephone message slip, not a memo, not an e-mail, nor a letter has appeared that would indicate that North took any steps to bring these drug smugglers to justice.

Protection for smugglers

Not passing along intelligence on contra-related drug smuggling was one way of protecting the personnel needed in the covert war. In other cases, U.S. officials sought to interfere in the process of justice.

The case of Gen. Jose Bueso Rosa demonstrates the lengths to which high White House and CIA officials were willing to go to protect an individual who fit the classic definition of a "narco-terrorist."

Bueso was involved in a conspiracy to import 345 kilos of cocaine into Florida - with a street value of $40 million. Part of the proceeds were to be used to finance the assassination of the president of Honduras.

But because this general had been the CIA's and the Pentagon's key liaison in Honduras in the covert war against Nicaragua, North, Clarridge and others in the Reagan administration sought leniency for him.

As North put it in an e-mail message, U.S. officials would "cabal quietly to look at options: pardon, clemency, deportation, reduced sentence."

The objective of our national security managers was to avoid bringing the weight of the law down on the general in order to keep "Bueso from spilling the beans."

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