The Consortium

By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

On June 29, 1983, Colin Powell's spit-polished shoes clicked through the Outer Ring power corridors of the Pentagon. Powell had returned from a two-year sojourn through austere Army bases in Colorado and Kansas, where he had earned the general's star that his mentor, deputy defense secretary Frank Carlucci, had promised.

Powell was again in the terrain he knew best, his professional home: Washington, D.C., what he often called "Ground Zero." He also was back to his future, once more on the fast track to success.

But Powell had returned to an administration courting danger, caught up in its anti-communist passions. President Reagan's men were at war around the world against what they considered Moscow's surrogates, as well as battling those in Congress whom the White House viewed as communism's fellow-travelers.

At the Central Intelligence Agency, the aging director William J. Casey was pressuring the Soviet Union on all fronts, even through wars that pitted desperately poor peasants and rival tribes against one another. Whether in Angola or Mozambique, in Nicaragua or Guatemala, in Lebanon or Afghanistan, Casey was spoiling for fights: to finish off the Cold War in his lifetime.

While Casey plotted at CIA, a disengaged Ronald Reagan snapped to attention when battlefield maps were put before him, with pins representing Nicaraguan contras outmaneuvering other pins for the Sandinistas. Reagan, the onetime war-movie actor, and Casey, the onetime World War II spymaster, loved the game of international conflict and intrigue.

But many of their fiercest battles were fought in Washington. Liberal Democrats, led by old political warhorse, House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, thought that Reagan and Casey were excessively zealous, maybe even a bit crazy. Democrats, as well as some Republicans, suspected, too, that Casey, the mumbling dissembler, was treating Congress like Fifth-Column agents-of-influence slipped behind his lines to disrupt his operations.

Still, the hub of any American military activity -- whether overt or covert -- remained the Pentagon. It was from the Defense Department that the special operations units were dispatched, that the military supplies were apportioned, that the most sensitive electronic intelligence was collected. All these military responsibilities were vital to Casey and Reagan, but came under the jurisdiction of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

The Defense brass favored greater caution because Congress held the strings to the Pentagon's bulging purse. Maybe Casey could blow off a senator or offend a congressman, but the Pentagon could not detonate too many bridges to its rear.

Into that political war stepped Brig. Gen. Powell, whose new job was military assistant to Secretary Weinberger. It was a position that made Powell the gatekeeper for Weinberger. Top Pentagon players quickly learned that Powell was more than Weinberger's coat holder or calendar keeper. Powell was the "filter," the guy who saw everything when it passed into the Secretary for action and who oversaw everything that needed follow-up when it came out.

Powell's access to Weinberger's most sensitive information would be a mixed blessing, however. Some of the aggressive covert operations ordered by Reagan and managed by Casey were spinning out of control. Like some mysterious gravitational force, the operations were pulling in the Pentagon.

Already, the Democrats were up in arms over military construction in Honduras, which Reagan insisted was temporary, but which looked awfully permanent. U.S. military advisers in El Salvador were training a brutal army which slaughtered political opponents and unarmed villagers. In Costa Rica, the U.S. embassy's "mil-group" was a bustle of activity as Washington tried to push neutralist Costa Rica into the Nicaraguan conflict.

Around all these initiatives were U.S. military officers and non-commissioned trainers who were responsible to Pentagon authority. The officers reported to the Southern Command in Panama and Southcom reported to the Pentagon, where at the end of the information flow chart sat the Secretary of Defense and his "filter," Colin Powell.

Yellow Fruit

This expanding super-nova of covert operations began to swallow the Pentagon a few months after Powell's return. On Sept. 1, 1983, an Army civilian, William T. Golden, stumbled onto billing irregularities at a U.S. intelligence front company in suburban Annandale, Va., which was handling secret supplies for Central America.

The supply operation fell under the code name "Yellow Fruit," an ironic reference to the region's banana republics. The billing irregularities seemed modest at first, the doctoring of records to conceal vacation flights to Europe. But Golden began to suspect that the corruption went deeper.

By October 1983, Yellow Fruit had turned thoroughly rotten, and the Army began a criminal inquiry. "The more we dig into that," said Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, then vice chief of the U.S. Army, "the more we find out that it goes into agencies using money, procuring all sorts of materiel."

Reacting to the scandal, Thurman implemented new secret accounting procedures for supporting CIA activities. "We have tried to do our best to tighten up our procedures," Thurman said.

But the muck of the Central American operations was oozing out elsewhere, too, as Casey recruited unsavory characters from the region to carry out his bidding. One of the worst of these allies was Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega, whom Casey found useful funnelling money and supplies to the Nicaraguan contras.

In September 1983, Powell traveled with Weinberger on an inspection of Central America. They were accompanied by an eager Marine Major from the National Security Council staff, named Oliver North. "From the moment we were airborne, he started worming his way into Weinberger's presence," Powell wrote in his memoirs, My American Journey.

Powell was even more contemptuous of Noriega, "an unappealing man, with his pockmarked face, beady, darting eyes, and arrogant swagger." Meeting Noriega, Powell claimed to have "the crawling sense that I was in the presence of evil." There was also intelligence that Noriega was working with Colombian drug traffickers, but Powell has made no claim that he sought Noriega's ouster from the U.S. payroll. "Cold War politics sometimes made for creepy bedfellows," Powell rationalized.

Powell's retrospective disdain for Noriega also does not square with the enthusiasm some of Powell's Pentagon friends expressed for the Panamanian at the time. Powell's pal, Richard Armitage, the assistant defense secretary for inter-American affairs, hosted a Washington lunch in November 1983, honoring Noriega. "Pentagon officials greeted Noriega's rise to power with great satisfaction," noted author John Dinges.

Growing Troubles

Noriega's visit coincided with another growing political problem for the Reagan administration, the refusal of an angry Congress to continue funding the contra war. The rebel force was gaining a reputation for brutality, as stories of rapes, summary executions and massacres flowed back to Washington. Led by Speaker O'Neill, the Democratic-controlled House capped the CIA's contra funding at $24 million and threatened to ban contra aid altogether.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Reagan's policies were encountering more trouble. Reagan had deployed Marines as peacekeepers in Beirut, but also authorized the USS New Jersey to shell Islamic villages in the Bekaa Valley, an action that killed civilians and angered the Shiite Moslems.

On Oct. 23, 1983, Islamic militants struck back, sending a suicide truck bomber through U.S. security positions and demolishing a high-rise Marine barracks. A total of 241 Marines died. "When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American 'referee' had taken sides," Powell wrote quite sensibly.

U.S. Marines were withdrawn to the USS Guam off Lebanon's coast. But Casey ordered secret counter-terrorism operations and the Shiites targeted more Americans. Another bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy and killed most of the CIA station. Casey dispatched veteran CIA officer William Buckley to fill the void. But on March 14, 1984, Buckley was spirited off the streets of Beirut to face torture and eventually death. The scene was set for the Iran-contra scandal.

Back at the Pentagon, Colin Powell might have felt at ease in the familiar environs of Washington. But the cautious bureaucrat was working in what might look, from a high-altitude bomber, like a giant five-sided bulls-eye. Washington was indeed about to become "Ground Zero."

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

Return Colin Powell Legend Series Index

Return to Archive Index Page

Return to Consortium Main Menu.