The Consortium

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- It should be clear by now that for 12 years, from 1981-1993, the United States was governed by political leaders who merged the power of the state with criminality to a degree possibly unmatched in modern American history. That disturbing reality was underscored again this past month by an exhaustively researched series by Gary Webb in The San Jose Mercury-News.

Webb's three-part series, with supporting documentation, traced the "crack" epidemic that devastated Los Angeles and other U.S. cities to massive shipments of cocaine smuggled by elements of the CIA-organized Nicaraguan contra army in the early-to-mid 1980s. Danilo Blandon Reyes, a former contra leader and drug dealer, testified during a recent cocaine trafficking trial in San Diego that the smuggling was given a green light by the late Enrique Bermudez, who commanded the FDN, the largest contra force and the one most closely associated with the CIA.

"There is a saying that the ends justify the means," Blandon said. "And that's what Mr. Bermudez told us in Honduras, OK. So we started raising money for the contra revolution." Though Blandon was offered as a U.S. government witness, the Justice Department first obtained a gag order that blocked defense attorneys from inquiring about the CIA's role in dealing dope to the Crips and Bloods and other inner-city gangs.

But a wealth of other evidence, collected by federal drug agents and congressional investigators during the 1980s, corroborated that the Reagan-Bush administrations knew about the drug trafficking and mounted a determined cover-up to protect the contras from exposure. Senior administration officials apparently shared Enrique Bermudez's situational ethics. After all, President Reagan had hailed the contras as the "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." They could not be unmasked as drug dealers.

Published stories about contra drug trafficking were also not new. On Dec. 20, 1985 -- more than a decade ago -- The Associated Press published a story by Brian Barger and me reporting that all major contra factions had joined the drug trade. "Nicaraguan rebels operating in northern Costa Rica have engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist government, according to U.S. investigators and American volunteers who work with the rebels," our AP story read.

It was the first article alleging contra drug trafficking and it was sharply criticized by both the Reagan-Bush administration and the conservative media. The contras were already reeling from widespread charges that they engaged in rape, torture and murder of Nicaraguan civilians. The day our AP story ran, deputy State Department spokesman Charles Redman declared, "we are not aware of any evidence to support those charges" -- a claim Barger and I knew to be untrue. But Redman's denial was just the start of a cover-up by the "just-say-no" crowd.

Contra Probes

The contra-drug story -- and others we had written about Oliver North's secret contra supply operation -- did, however, attract the attention of a young U.S. senator, John Kerry, D-Mass., who instructed his staff to investigate. A federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Feldman, also was sniffing around in Miami and Costa Rica. He had uncovered allegations of gun-running and some hints of drug-trafficking by the contras.

But Feldman's probe drew a watchful eye from senior Justice Department officials in Washington. On a trip to Miami, Attorney General Edwin Meese III talked about the investigation with Feldman's boss, U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner. On April 4, 1986, another Miami prosecutor David Leiwant said he overheard Kellner saying that Washington had ordered him to "go slow" on the contra probe, a claim Kellner later denied.

At AP, Barger and I got wind of the federal investigation, too, and published a story disclosing that the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami was examining allegations of contra gun-running and drug-trafficking. The AP article prompted a front-page attack on our work by The Washington Times, a right-wing newspaper financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

But it was not just conservatives giving us trouble. The New York Times weighed in with an article knocking down our story. A reporter for the prestigious Times interviewed Meese's spokesman Patrick Korten who dismissed the contra allegations by claiming that "various bits of information got referred to us. We ran them all down and didn't find anything. It comes to nothing."

Despite those public declarations from Washington, Feldman and Miami-based FBI agents actually were finding a lot. On May 14, 1986, Feldman recommended to his superiors that the evidence of contra crimes was strong enough to take the case to a grand jury. Feldman's boss, Kellner, scribbled on the memo, "I concur that we have sufficient evidence to ask for a grand jury investigation."

But on May 20, Kellner met with his top aides and reversed the recommendation. Without telling Feldman, Kellner rewrote the memo to state that "a grand jury investigation at this point would represent a fishing expedition with little prospect that it would bear fruit." Kellner then signed Feldman's name to the memo, again without telling Feldman, and sent the memo to Washington on June 3. The doctored memo was then slipped to congressional Republicans who leaked it to the conservative media and used it to discredit Kerry, who was put under a Senate Ethics Committee investigation for his troubles. The contra cover-ups were under way.


Even after North's contra supply operations were exposed in October 1986, when one of his planes (which had been used to carry cocaine) was shot down, the allegations about contra drug trafficking continued facing Reagan-Bush denunciations and little interest in either Congress or the media. In July 1987, a spectator interrupted North's Iran-contra testimony by demanding that someone "ask about the cocaine." But the only response was a cursory review released by Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., which concluded that there was no truth to the contra drug charges.

Still, stories continued to percolate about contra cocaine trafficking. I even learned that Vice President Bush's national security aide Donald Gregg, a former CIA officer, had helped organize a pre-Oliver North contra-aid network that had included a drug-tainted enterprise called the Arms Supermarket. In May 1988, when I was working at Newsweek, I wrote an article that cited government documents and high-level administration officials confirming that the Arms Supermarket "was financed at least in part with drug money."

Bush, who had been chief of Reagan's drug task force, was then running for president and claiming that he had been "out of the loop" on Iran-contra. So his aides harshly attacked the Newsweek story. Internally, Newsweek senior editors, who shared a real-politick view of fighting leftists in the Third World, took Bush's side and throttled any further investigation of the vice president's unsavory contra drug connections. The Washington Post, Newsweek's sister publication, didn't help by joining in the ridicule of the contra drug stories. My Newsweek career came to an end in 1990.

In the following years, official Washington effectively committed the contra-drug story to the loony bin of conspiracy theories. Even when Panama's Manuel Noriega was tried on drug charges in 1991 and witnesses implicated the contras, too, that evidence drew almost no public attention. To recognize the contra drug trafficking would mean, of course, re-examining the role of then-President Bush as well as exposing the incompetence of the elite Washington news media.

Recently, however, I discovered documents in the National Archives that shed more light on who was behind the drug-linked contra operations. The papers were a series of flow charts showing who was responsible for the secret support of the Nicaraguan contras at different phases. The chart, unsigned but apparently prepared by a Reagan-Bush insider, described how Bush and Gregg took the lead in arranging off-the-books support for the contras after Congress cut off CIA funding in 1984.

A Mystery Market

One chart described "Max Gomez," whose real name was Felix Rodriguez, a CIA-trained Cuban exile, as the Bush-Gregg man on the ground in Central America. "Max Gomez" pulled in another former CIA Cuban exile named, Mario Delamico, who held "a position of authority with Honduran officers and the FDN [contra] camp," the chart said. Delamico, in turn, set up the "Arms Warehouse/Supermarket" in Honduras, with a corrupt Honduran officer, named "Col. Aplicano."

The chart noted that "the 'Arms Warehouse' was started with seed money of approximately $14 million from the CIA. Later, it was believed that funds relating to narcotics traffic found its way into the inventory in the warehouse." Though the chart matched with the earlier suspicions about Bush's team, the information apparently was never seriously pursued during the Iran-contra investigations, which wound down in 1993.

When President Bush lost re-election in 1992, whatever scant media interest in the crimes of that era evaporated. Unlike other countries which have sought to achieve some accounting for official crimes of the Cold War, the United States seems determined to forget the past. The Clinton administration and congressional Democrats, such as Lee Hamilton, have joined in whitewashing other evidence that Reagan and Bush had presided over an era of extraordinary criminality.

For instance, Clinton prosecutors ignored credible evidence -- including a sworn affidavit from Reagan national security aide Howard Teicher -- so they could reject allegations that the Republicans had helped arm Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. For his part, Hamilton hid documentary evidence that Reagan's 1980 campaign had colluded with Iranian terrorists to stymie President Carter's efforts to free 52 American hostages. (See The October Surprise X-Files: The Hidden Origins of the Reagan-Bush Era.)

Other Crimes

There has been no serious follow-up on a host of other Reagan-Bush crimes either: the support for Central American death squads; the cover-up of the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador; collaboration with Noriega; protection for the heroin trade of another CIA-backed group, the Afghan mujahadeen; Ferdinand Marcos's alleged multi-million-dollar pay-offs to Ronald Reagan; the BCCI affair; the savings-and-loan plundering and a hundred other economic rip-offs that enriched the few and left the nation trillions of dollars in debt.

So it was not entirely surprising that Gary Webb's remarkable story about contras and crack caused not a ripple of official reaction. The disclosures were not even mentioned in the nation's two leading papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. After all, since both prestige papers had blown the story in the 1980s, they weren't eager to admit their screw-up now.

Apparently confident that the Republican crimes will continue to go unchallenged, GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole (who played a prominent role in the Iran-contra cover-up) even had the audacity to attack Clinton on the rise in drug use among teen-agers. Going still further, Dole pledged that as president, he would involve the CIA in the war on drugs.

Still, the elite of Washington seem content to turn a blind eye on the dark history of the 1980s. Presumably, the sanitized history is safer for the careers of those -- Republican, Democrat, journalist and bureaucrats -- who protected a criminal enterprise at the very heart of national power.

Copyright (c) 1996

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