The Consortium

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- The sudden uproar over a decade-old story -- cocaine smuggling linked to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels -- could reverberate with special intensity in Massachusetts, where the controversy has the potential for affecting the outcome of a close Senate race.

That race pits John Kerry, the Democratic senator who led the investigation into contra drugs, against Republican William Weld, the chief of the Justice Department's criminal division when the contra-drug allegations were emerging as a national issue and when the Iran-contra scandal broke in the fall of 1986.

In new testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Oct. 23, one of Kerry's former investigators, Jack Blum, fingered Weld as the "absolute stonewall" who blocked the Senate's access to vital evidence linking the contras and cocaine. "Weld put a very serious block on any effort we made to get information," Blum told a crowded hearing room. "There were stalls. There were refusals to talk to us, refusals to turn over data."

Weld has denied those charges and insisted that he conscientiously pursued the allegations. In that position, the governor has been helped by the main Massachusetts papers, particularly The Boston Globe, which have largely accepted Weld's word. Indeed, instead of digging into Weld's official drug-war actions in late 1986 and during 1987, the Globe has gone on the offensive against Kerry -- for sleeping at the homes of friends during his divorce a decade ago.

Yet, an investigation by The Consortium has uncovered new evidence that buttresses Blum's charge that Weld stonewalled the contra-cocaine allegations. Information also emerged revealing a cozy relationship between Weld and top Globe reporters in Washington during the mid-1980s.

A review of Weld's Justice Department phone logs and calendars, from fall 1986 to spring 1987, revealed Weld scheduling squash matches with the Globe's Bob Healy and speaking to the Globe's Steve Kurkjian far more than to any other journalist, even those who regularly covered the Justice Department. Kurkjian wrote the recent investigative story slamming Kerry's acceptance of friends' hospitality during his divorce.

More importantly, however, during the current Senate campaign, the Globe has given scant coverage to Weld's record of downplaying -- and trying to discredit -- the flood of contra-cocaine allegations that inundated his office in late 1986 and early 1987.

When Weld assumed control of the criminal division in September 1986, requests for contra-cocaine evidence already were pending from Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively. In support of Kerry's probe, Lugar and Pell were requesting information on more than two dozen names of individuals connected to the contra operation and suspected of drug trafficking.

'Just Stonewalling'

One of Weld's top deputies, Mark Richard, expressed concern about the Justice Department's failure to respond to that request, as the Reagan administration sought to shield the contras from negative publicity. "In the September [1986] time frame, a new assistant attorney general [Weld] comes on board," Richard testified in a deposition. "I must confess I was concerned. I was concerned not so much that there were going to be hearings [about contra-connected drug trafficking].

"I was concerned that we were not responding to what was obviously a legitimate congressional request. 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 to no end."

Richard said he raised his worries with Weld directly. "I impressed upon the new assistant attorney general that this, in my judgment, was an issue that had to be addressed. We had responsibility across section lines. ...To my knowledge, we just were not saying we're not going to give it. We're not saying we're going to give it. We're just not saying anything."

As part of the Reagan team, Weld continued to snub the Senate and its demands for action on the contra-drug issue. On Sept. 26, 1986, Kerry brought Weld an 11-page "proffer" statement from a female FBI informant who had told the senator that Colombian cocaine kingpin Jorge Ochoa had bragged about his payments to the contras. The informant, Wanda Palacio, also claimed to have witnessed the loading of cocaine onto CIA-connected planes twice in Barranquilla, Colombia.

Weld brushed aside the allegations, even though some of the woman's most important charges found powerful corroboration. Palacio had claimed, for instance, that one of the shipments was aboard a Southern Air Transport plane that landed in Barranquilla in early October 1985. When one of Oliver North's secret contra supply planes was then shot down over Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, Palacio identified a photo of the co-pilot, Wallace Sawyer, as one of the cocaine smugglers in Barranquilla.

'Diseased Blankets'

As it turned out, Sawyer's flight logs, which were recovered from the Nicaraguan crash, showed that Sawyer had flown a Southern Air Transport plane into Barranquilla three times in early October 1985, just as Palacio had alleged. [For more details, see The Consortium, Oct. 28, 1996, or The Nation, Oct. 21, 1996] Nevertheless, Weld would continue to reject Palacio's testimony. When asked about the Palacio case recently, Weld described the woman's credibility as equal to "a wagon load of diseased blankets."

But as internal Justice records reveal, Palacio was only one of many witnesses turned away when they linked the contras, the CIA and cocaine. The documents also show that under Weld's leadership, the criminal division continued to withhold information requested by the Senate in fall 1986.

Those delays finally prompted an angry response from Lugar and Pell, two of the most mild-mannered members of the U.S. Senate. On Oct. 14, 1986, the two senators complained 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. "This has led to concern about Justice's willingness to provide information, its responsiveness to our requests and its readiness to cooperate with our investigation. We're disappointed that the Department has not responded in a timely fashion and indeed has not provided any materials."

That bipartisan volley caught the Justice Department's attention, but Weld continued to drag his heels. Weld called two meetings which bogged down over peripheral issues, according to Weld's deputy, Richard. "I remember being frustrated because he [Weld] was spending so much time on one [fraud] case," Richard explained in a sworn deposition.

Though still not forthcoming with the Senate, Weld was getting nervous, the records reveal. On Oct. 16, 1986, he sent a memo to another assistant, Victoria Toensing, ordering her to "get me a copy of Sen. Kerry's stmt re DOJ not investigating Nicaragua." By Nov. 6, another memo indicated that Weld had opened a special "Nicaragua" file. He wrote in still another memo that "Nicaragua is front burner."

By Nov. 11, Weld was lamenting in writing to his staff that "delay looks awful." He wanted to know where court records from a major San Francisco contra-cocaine criminal case were. That was the so-called Frogman case which had caught Norwin Meneses, a Nicaraguan contra fund raiser, smuggling cocaine by sea into the Bay Area. The federal prosecutor had returned $36,020 seized in that case when one of the defendants submitted letters from contra leaders who insisted that the money was really their property.

Though the Frogman case records were among the files sought by Congress, a former Kerry investigator told The Consortium that Weld's office never delivered those records to the Senate.

Just Saying No

According to other internal Justice Department documents, Weld continued to just say no when it came to Senate requests for advancing the contra-cocaine inquiries. Later in November 1986, Weld personally edited a letter to Kerry denying federal protection to Wanda Palacio, the woman who claimed to have witnessed Medellin cartel cocaine shipments connected to the CIA and the contras. "The Department ... does not provide protection for an informant," the letter read. "It protects a person providing information who agrees to become a witness." But by rejecting Palacio as not credible, Weld had blocked her attempts to become a federal witness.

Into 1987, Weld and his criminal division continued the pattern of failing to follow leads from other potentially valuable CIA-cocaine witnesses, such as George Morales who alleged before the U.S. Senate that the Colombian cartel had given a ton of cocaine which the contras smuggled into the United States through Costa Rica.

But a blind eye toward contra cocaine allegations was apparently common inside the Reagan administration. In May 1987, the U.S. attorney for northern Indiana notified the Justice Department that an FBI agent in Illinois had decided that one convict "was not used in a drug prosecution in Springfield, Ill., because he allegedly told the agents that he had offloaded arms in Nicaragua." The teletype, found among Weld's records on file at the National Archives, did not explain why the Nicaraguan connection would exclude use of the witness in a drug case.

Meanwhile, in 1987 and again in 1988, the CIA insisted that it had conducted investigations into the allegations of contra drug smuggling and had found no evidence implicating the contras or the spy agency. Even today, those CIA reports are being cited by mainstream newspapers as they seek to refute new allegations by The San Jose Mercury News that contra cocaine trafficking fueled the crack epidemic that swept American cities in the 1980s.

But at the Oct. 24, 1996, hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz conceded that the first CIA probe had lasted only 12 days. The second probe took only three days before concluding that "all allegations implying that the CIA condoned, abetted or participated in narcotics trafficking are absolutely false," he said.

Hitz also acknowledged that in the past two months he has been unable to collect the large volume of relevant documents that would allow him even to begin a credible investigation. Hitz's admission directly undercut the reliability of the previous CIA probes, which the mainstream media had relied on heavily to attack the Mercury News story.

Friends in High Places

Weld's friendships with key Washington journalists also helped him fend off contra-cocaine damage to his reputation in the late 1980s. Not only was Weld pals with prominent Boston Globe writers, he had a close personal relationship with Newsweek bureau chief Evan Thomas and other influential members of the press corps from the Harvard alumni set.

That story of a pro-Weld press remains pretty much the same today. The Globe hits Kerry for alleged decade-old ethical lapses after his marriage break-up, while Weld escapes any serious scrutiny over whether he shirked his public duty to enforce criminal drug smuggling laws for political reasons.

Weld also has been one of the chief beneficiaries from the big-media attacks on the Mercury News contra-crack series. Over the past two weeks, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times joined The Washington Post in bashing that series, while continuing to accept the CIA's word about little or no contra drug trafficking. The new attacks, however, contained many of the same biases and factual shortcomings as did the Post articles. [See The Consortium, Oct. 28 for more details.]

Still, the public confusion over the validity of the contra-cocaine charges has limited the damage to Weld's strong Senate campaign. The result on Nov. 5, therefore, could be the removal of Kerry, the chief contra-drug investigator, and his replacement with the Reagan official who kept the stonewall in place.

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

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