ARKANSAS TIMESJULY 5, 1996
Filegate and Mena
I have before me three letters from the FBI. Let's take the most recent one first.
It came to me last week from J. Kevin O'Brien, chief of the agency's Freedom of Information and Privacy Act Section in Washington. I had written to the FBI last August requesting a list of all the records they had pertaining to drug smuggling, money laundering, and gun running at Mena, Arkansas. Local offices aren't allowed to release such information.
It took almost a year, but finally O'Brien responded. He wrote, "A search of the indices to our central records system files at FBI Headquarters revealed no record responsive to your FOIPA request."
No record. None at all. Zero. Zip. Nada.
That's amazing, considering that the IRS developed a huge file on money laundering at Mena. The DEA has an even bigger one relating to drug running at the airport. Tommy Goodwin, the former head of the Arkansas State Police, told me the investigation into Mena was the biggest one his agency ever conducted. And over the years, Congress itself has held hearings relating to activities at Mena.
But, if O'Brien is to be believed, the poor, befuddled folks at the FBI were entirely out of the loop. One wonders what in the world they were doing. (Investigations for the White House, perhaps.)
Of course I'm being snide. I happen to know perfectly well, as I suspect Mr. O'Brien does, that the FBI developed quite a bit of information about Mena throughout the 1980s. I know this in part because of the other two letters that now lie before me, both on FBI letterheads.
One is a copy of a memo dated Feb. 5, 1986, from Special Agent Thomas W. Ross, of Hot Springs, to the special agent in charge of the Little Rock Office It's subject, as noted at the top of the page, is "Mena, Arkansas; Narcotics."
The memo outlines communication Ross had had with J. Michael Fitzhugh, the acting U. S. attorney for the western district of Arkansas regarding "currency transaction report (CTR) violations [money laundering}" and "narcotics-conspiracy violations."
Ross explains that Fitzhugh said he had reviewed "the extensive investigation conducted in this matter," and had requested that "this investigation be expedited." Thus, Ross concludes, "Within the following month, writer will devote the majority of investigative time to above matter."
How is it that I, a mere reporter, have a copy of this correspondence between two agents in my files, but, if the agency itself is to be believed, it's nowhere in their own?
Does the FBI think we're all drooling fools out here?
Apparently so. I say that because the other letter before me is a copy of one sent in 1991 by this same Kevin O'Brien to Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant. At the time, Bryant was interested in Mena, and had submitted an FOI request of his own.
What this letter suggests is that attorneys general get more out of the Justice Department than journalists or ordinary citizens óbut not much. Contrary to what O'Brien told me this month, he told Bryant in 1991 that his agency had located "sixty (60) documents, totaling 208 pages" concerning Mena.
But, he told Bryant, "A11 60 documents concern an FBI investigative matter which remains pending in our New Orleans Division. Therefore, all 208 pages are denied in their entirety..."
Frankly, even 60 documents totaling 208 pages sounds a little slim to me, for an investigation into a drug-running operation the DEA has characterized as one of the biggest in U.S. history, and a gun-running operation that was directly linked to the Iran-Contra scandal. A couple of hundred pages is considerably less than what the FBI generated on law-abiding visitors to the White House. Obviously, something is seriously amiss. Why did O'Brien report finding 60 documents relating to Mena in 1991 and "no record" at all today?
Barring gross incompetence of the sort the White House blames its troubles on, it seems to me that only one of two answers is possible for the FBI:
Either O'Brien is flat-out lying or the records have been destroyed.
Either answer amounts to an out rage. Apologies will no longer suffice. It's time for the Clinton White House and the FBI to start showing good faith.
A full and complete interagency disclosure about what went on at Mena would be a dandy place to start. Until that happens, we might as well expect that as citizens we are more likely to be investigated by the FBI than to be given honest answers.