MENA INVESTIGATIVE REPORTERS
The LA story is important, but this website will focus on Mena as it is more connected to the boys' murders.
Two particularly important journalists have supported Linda for decades and have written extensively about Mena. They are Mara Leveritt, a liberal, and Micah Morrison, a conservative, again making the point that there is no room for political bias in responsible journalism. Their articles can be accessed from this page along with Daniel Hopsicker’s contributions to the Mena story.
Then there is the incomparable Sarah McClendon, an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist, and Washington, D.C. Press Corp member whose career spanned the terms of eleven U.S. presidents from FDR to Clinton. She asked the hardball questions, which gave credibility to emerging stories and confidence to reporters that were pursuing them. Here, she caused Clinton to fumble for an answer that is now well known to be an absolute fabrication.
I’ve spent more than thirty years as a working writer and editor, mainly in investigative journalism, usually on complicated and controversial stories. In November 2013, I joined Judicial Watch as their chief investigative reporter. It’s a new age in journalism and a new chapter for me. I’m excited to be working with a great team of Freedom of Information Act investigators and litigators focused on government transparency and accountability.
June 29, 1994
The Wall Street Journal
By Miach Morrison
MENA, Ark. — Reporters now trolling Arkansas are pulling up many stories that may have only fleeting relation to Whitewater or the Clintons, but are worth telling simply for their baroque charm. And none is more baroque than the tale of the Mena Intermountian Regional Airport, a site connected with aircraft renovation, apparent CIA operations and a self-confessed drug runner.
There is even one public plea that Special Counsel Robert Fiske should investigate possible links between Mena and the savings-and-loan association involved in Whitewater. The plea was sounded by the Arkansas Committee, a left-leaning group of former University of Arkansas students who have carefully tracked the Mena affair for years.
While a Whitewater connection is purely speculative, Mena certainly does seem a fruitful opportunity for thorough investigation, by Mr. Fiske or any other competent authority. It’s clear that at Mena Airport unusual things took place.
What the Arkansas Committee calls the “complex of events” surrounding Mena is the stuff of spy novels and thrillers, potentially including smuggling, CIA and Drug Enforcement Agency covert operations, money laundering and murder. There is no reliable evidence linking any of these events to Bill Clinton, except that he was governor of Arkansas when state and federal investigations of Mena were frustrated.
Mena is a good setting for a mystery. The pine and hardwood forests of the Ouachita Mountains surrounding it have long been an outlaw’s paradise, home to generations of moonshiners and red-dirt marijuana farmers. In 1981, cocaine smuggler Adler Berriman (“Barry”) Seal arrived on the scene, establishing a base of operations at Mena Airport. Mr. Seal’s record is well-known to law-enforcement officials; he often claimed to have made more than $50 million from his illegal activities.
Working out of a hangar at Rich Mountain Aviation, one of the local businesses that was turning Mena into a center for aircraft refurbishment, Mr. Seal imported as much as 1,000 pounds of cocaine a month from Colombia in the early 1980s, according to Arkansas State Police Investigator Russell Welch, who pursued the Seal case for over a decade. In 1984, Mr. Seal “rolled over” for the DEA, becoming one of its most important informants. He flew to Colombia and gathered information about leaders of the Medellin cartel, including drug kingpin Carlos Lehder, and testified in other high-profile cases.
He also flew at least two drug runs to Nicaragua, one of them entangling him in the Reagan administration’s anti-Sandinista effort. On a mission in mid-1984, Mr. Seal later testified, the CIA rigged a hidden camera in his C-123K cargo plane, enabling him to snap photos of several men loading cocaine aboard the aircraft — one of them allegedly an aide to Sandinista Interior Minister Tomas Borge.
Back at Mena, meanwhile, Mr. Seal’s business associate, Fred Hampton, the owner of Rich Mountain Aviation, purchased a land tract near the tiny backwoods community of Nella, 10 miles north of Mena, and cut a runway into it. Local law enforcement officials believe the land was purchased at the behest of Mr. Seal.
By 1984, reports were filtering in about odd military-type activity around Nella. “We had numerous reports of automatic weapons fire, men of Latin American appearance in the area, people in camouflage moving quietly through streams with automatic weapons, aircraft drops, twin-engine airplane traffic, things like that,” says former Internal Revenue Service Investigator William Duncan, who began investigating Mena in 1983. Residents of the countryside around Nella confirm reports of planes dropping loads in the mid-1980s. “But people don’t talk much about that around here,” said one local resident. “If you do, you might wake up one morning to find a bunch of your cattle dead.”
Mr. Duncan and Mr. Welch, the Arkansas State Police investigator, pressed forward with their probes of Mr. Seal and Rich Mountain Aviation. They suspected that Mr. Seal, despite his deal with the DEA, was continuing to import drugs and launder the money through local businesses and banks, possibly using the Nella airstrip as a base for drug drops.
In 1986, Mr. Seal’s wild ride came to an end. Three Colombian hitmen armed with machine guns caught up with him as he sat behind the wheel of his white Cadillac in Baton Rouge, La., and blasted him to his eternal reward. Eight months after the murder, Mr. Seal’s cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua. Aboard was a load of ammunition and supplies for the Contras. One crew member, Eugene Hasenfus, survived. With the crash, and the Iran-Contra affair surfacing, investigators started looking at the
Nella airstrip in a new light. Maybe Barry Seal was not just flying drugs into the U.S. Maybe he also was flying newly trained Contras and weapons out.
But if Mr. Seal’s odyssey was over, the long and frustrating journey for Mena investigators was just beginning. Messrs. Duncan and Welch believed they had pieced together information on a significant drug smuggling operation, perhaps cloaked in the guise of a covert CIA operation, or perhaps in some way connected to the intelligence community. Yet repeated attempts to bring the Mena affair before grand juries in Arkansas, Gov. Bill Clinton, and federal authorities all failed, meeting a wall of obfuscation and obstruction.
The “CBS Evening News,” one of the few national news organizations to take a serious and discriminating look at Mena, recently broadcast an interview with Charles Black, a prosecutor for Polk County, in which Mena is located. He said he met with Gov. Clinton in 1988 and requested assistance for a state probe. “His response,” Mr. Black said, “was that he would get a man on it and get back to me. I never heard back.”
Asked for comment, White House spokesman John Podesta cites a state government offer of $25,000 to aid a Polk County investigation, an offer long under dispute in Arkansas. “The governor took whatever action was available to him,” Mr. Podesta says. “The failing in this case rests with the Republican Justice Department.”
Following pressure from then-Arkansas Rep. Bill Alexander, the General Accounting Office opened a probe in April 1988; within four months, the inquiry was shut down by the National Security Council. Several congressional subcommittee inquiries sputtered into dead ends.
In 1991, Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant presented Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh with what Mr. Bryant called “credible evidence of gunrunning, illegal drug smuggling, money laundering and the governmental coverup and possibly a criminal conspiracy in connection with the Mena Airport.” Seventeen months later, Mr. Walsh sent Mr. Bryant a letter saying without explanation that he had closed his investigation.
Mr. Duncan resigned from the IRS after repeatedly clashing with his superiors over the Mena affair. Mr. Welch was given a number of strong hints that he should devote his energies elsewhere. “I believe there was a coverup of events at Mena,” Mr. Duncan says. “We don’t really know what happened out there. Every time I tried to follow the money trail into central Arkansas, I ran into roadblocks.”
But what, if anything, does Mena have to do with Whitewater? A small conspiracy-theory industry has grown up around the mysteries of Mena. In a new book, “Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA,” authors Terry Reed and John Cummings claim that Gov. Clinton and his inner circle, along with Lt. Col. Oliver North and the CIA, were involved in a conspiracy that included training Contras at Nella, sending weapons to Central America, smuggling cocaine into the U.S. and laundering funds through Arkansas banks. Little hard evidence is presented to back up these startling claims, yet the book should not be dismissed out of hand. Certainly, something was going on at Mena and Nella. And the authors raise the interesting question: What happened to all of Barry Seal’s cocaine money?
In an intriguing coincidence, while running Barry Seal as an agent, the DEA also was conducting an investigation into the drug-related activities of Little Rock bond dealer and Clinton supporter Dan Lasater. In October 1986, as Mr. Lasater was being charged in Little Rock with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, the DEA confirmed that he was the target of a drug-trafficking probe involving his private plane and a small airfield at the New Mexico ski resort Angel Fire, which Mr. Lasater purchased in 1984.
Mr. Lasater’s bond shop also executed a mysterious series of trades on behalf of Kentucky resident Dennis Patrick, who says he had no knowledge of the millions in trades reflected in his account in 1985 and 1986. It’s unclear what these trades represent, since Mr. Patrick’s confirmation slips show only paper transactions, with little money in or out. Yet it’s interesting to note that the hectic activity in the account came to an abrupt halt in February 1986 — the month Barry Seal was killed.
Of course, it all may be just a coincidence, and perhaps Gov. Clinton did not even know that drug smugglers, the CIA and the DEA were operating in his backyard. Perhaps he did not want to know. After all, as we have come to learn, Bill Clinton’s Arkansas was a very strange place.
Mr. Morrison is a Wall Street Journal editorial page writer.
Copyright © 1996 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced with Permission
The Wall Street Journal
OCTOBER 18, 1994
The Mena Coverup
By MICAH MORRISON
MENA, Ark. – What do Bill Clinton and Oliver North have in common, along with the Arkansas State Police and the Central Intelligence Agency? All probably wish they had never heard of Mena.
President Clinton was asked at his Oct. 7 press conference about Mena, a small town and airport in the wilds of Western Arkansas. Sarah McClendon, a longtime Washington curmudgeon renowned for her off-the-wall questions, wove a query around the charge that a base in Mena was “set up by Oliver North and the CIA” in the 1980s and used to “bring in planeload after planeload of cocaine” for sale in the U.S., with the profits then used to buy weapons for the Contras. Was he told as Arkansas governor? she asked.
“No,” the president replied, “they didn’t tell me anything about it.” The alleged events “were primarily a matter for federal jurisdiction. The state really had next to nothing to do with it. The local prosecutor did conduct an investigation based on what was in the jurisdiction of state law. The rest of it was under the jurisdiction of the United States Attorneys who were appointed successively by previous administrations. We had nothing – zero – to do with it.”
It was Mr. Clinton’s lengthiest remark on the murky affair since it surfaced nearly a decade ago, in the middle of his long tenure as governor of Arkansas. And while the president may be correct to suggest that Mena is an even bigger problem for previous Republican administrations, he was wrong on just about every other count. The state of Arkansas had plenty to do with Mena, and Mr. Clinton left many unanswered questions behind when he to Washington.
Anyone who thinks that Mena is not serious should speak to William Duncan, a former Internal Revenue Service investigator who, together with Arkansas State Police Investigator Russell Welch, has fought a bitter 10-year battle to bring the matter to light. They pinned their hopes on nine separate state and federal probes. All failed.
“The Mena investigations were never supposed to see the light of day,” says Mr. Duncan, now an investigator with the Medicaid Fraud Division of the office of Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant “Investigations were interfered with and covered up, and the justice system was subverted.”
The mysteries of Mena, detailed on this page on June 29, center on the activities of a drug-smuggler-turned-informant named Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal. Mr. Seal began operating at Mena Intermountain Regional Airport in 1981. At the height of his career, according to Mr. Welch, Mr. Seal was importing as much as 1,000 pounds of cocaine a month.
By 1984, Mr. Seal was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency and flew at least one sting operation to Nicaragua for the CIA, a mission known to have drawn the attention of Mr. North. By 1986, Mr. Seal was dead, gunned down by Colombian hitmen in Baton Rouge, La. Eight months after Mr. Seal’s murder, his cargo plane, which had been based at Mena, was shot down over Nicaragua with Eugene Hasenfus and a load of Contra supplies aboard.
According to Mr. Duncan and others, Mr. Clinton’s allies in state government worked to suppress Mena investigations. In 1990, for example, when Mr. Bryant made Mena an issue in the race for attorney general, Clinton aide Betsey Wright warned the candidate “to stay away” from the issue, according to a CBS Evening News investigative report. Ms. Wright denies the report. Yet once in office, and after a few feints in the direction of an investigation, Mr. Bryant stopped looking into Mena.
Documents obtained by the Journal show that as Gov. Clinton’s quest for the presidency gathered steam in 1992, his Arkansas allies took increasing interest in Mena. Marie Miller, then director of the Medicaid Fraud Division, wrote in an April 1992 memo to her files that she told Mr. Duncan of the attorney general’s “wish to sever any ties to the Mena matter because of the implication that the AG might be investigating the governor’s connection.” The memo says the instructions were pursuant to a conversation with Mr. Bryant’s chief deputy, Royce Griffin. In an interview, Mr. Duncan said Mr. Griffin put him under “intense pressure” regarding Mena.
Another memo, from Mr. Duncan to several high-ranking members of the attorney general’s staff in March 1992, notes that Mr. Duncan was instructed “to remove all files concerning the Mena investigation from the attorney general’s office.” At the time, several Arkansas newspapers were known to be preparing Freedom of Information Act requests aimed at Gov. Clinton’s administration.
A spokesman for Mr. Bryant, Lawrence Graves, said yesterday that he was not aware of the missing files or of pressure exerted on Mr. Duncan. In Arkansas, Mr. Graves said, the attorney general “does not have authority” to pursue criminal cases.
From February to May 1992, Mr. Duncan was involved in a series of meetings aimed at deciding how to use a $25,000 federal grant obtained by then-Rep. Bill Alexander for the Mena investigation. In a November 1991 letter to Arkansas State Police Commander Tommy Goodwin, Mr. Alexander urged that, at the current “critical stage” in the Mena investigation, the money be used to briefly assign Mr. Duncan to the Arkansas State Police to pursue the case full time with State Police Investigator Welch and to prepare “a steady flow of information” for Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who had received some Mena files from Mr. Bryant.
According to Mr. Duncan’s notes on the meetings, Mr. Clinton’s aides closely tracked the negotiations over what to do with the money. Mr. Duncan says a May 7, 1992, meeting with Col. Goodwin was interrupted by a phone call from the governor, though he does not know what was discussed. The grant, however, was never used. Col. Goodwin told CBS that the money was returned “because we didn’t have anything to spend it on.”
In 1988, local authorities suffered a similar setback after Charles Black, a Mena-area prosecutor, approached Gov. Clinton with a request for funds for a Mena investigation. “He said he would get on it and would get a man back to me,” Mr. Black told CBS. “I never heard back.”
In 1990, Mr. Duncan informed Col. Goodwin about Clinton supporter Dan Lasater, who had been convicted of drug charges. “I told Tommy Goodwin that I’d received allegations of a Lasater connection to Mena,” Mr. Duncan said.
The charge, that Barry Seal had used Mr. Lasater’s bond business to launder drug money, was raised by a man named Terry Reed. Mr. Reed and journalist John Cummings recently published a book— “Compromised Clinton Bush and the CIA” – charging that Mr. Clinton, Mr. North and others engaged in a massive conspiracy to smuggle cocaine, export weapons and launder money. While much of the book rests on slim evidence and already published sources, the Lasater-Seal connection is new. (Thomas Mars, Mr. Lasater’s attorney, said yesterday that his client “has never had a connection” with Mr. Seal.) But when Mr. Duncan tried to check out the allegations, his probe went nowhere, stalled from lack of funds and bureaucratic hostility.
Not all of the hostility came from the state level. When Messrs. Duncan and Welch built a money-laundering case in 1985 against Mr. Seal’s associates, the U.S. Attorneys in the case “directly interfered with the process,” Mr. Duncan said. “Subpoenas were not issued, witnesses were discredited, interviews with witnesses were interrupted, and the wrong charges were brought before the grand jury.”
One grand jury member was so outraged by the prosecutors’ actions that she broke the grandjury secrecy covenant. Not only had the case been blatantly mishandled, she later told a congressional investigator, but many jurors felt “there was some type of government intervention,” according to a transcript of the statement obtained by the Journal. “Something is being covered up.”
In 1987, Mr. Duncan was asked to testify before a House subcommittee on crime. Two days before his testimony, he says, IRS attorneys working with the U.S. Attorney for Western Arkansas reinterpreted Rule 6(e), the grandjury secrecy law, forcing the exclusion of much of Mr. Duncan’s planned testimony and evidence. Mr. Duncan also charges that a senior IRS attorney tried to force him to commit perjury by directing him to say he had no knowledge of a claim by Mr. Seal that a large bribe had been paid to Attorney General Edwin Meese. Mr. Duncan says he didn’t make much of the drug dealer’s claim, but did know about it; he refused to lie to Congress.
Mr. Duncan, distressed by the IRS’s handling of Mena, resigned in 1989. Meanwhile, the affair was sputtering through four federal forums, including a General Accounting Office probe derailed by the National Security Council. At one particularly low point, Mr. Duncan, then briefly a Mena investigator for a House subcommittee, was arrested on Capitol Hill on a bogus weapons charge that was held over his head for nine months, then dismissed. His prized career in law enforcement in ruins, he found his way back to Arkansas and began to pick up the pieces.
Mr. Duncan does not consider President Clinton a political enemy. Indeed, he feels close to the president – a fellow Arkansan who shares the same birthday – and thinks Mena may turn out to be far more troublesome for GOP figures such as Mr. North than any Arkansas players.
These days, Mr. Duncan struggles to keep hope alive. “I’m just a simple Arkansan who takes patriotism very seriously,” he says. “We are losing confidence in our system. But I still believe that somewhere, somehow, there is some committee or institution that can issue subpoenas, get on the money trail, find out what happened and restore a bit of faith in the system.”
Mr. Morrison is a Journal editorial page writer.
Copyright © 1997 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced with Permission
The Wall Street Journal
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
APRIL 7, 1995
The strange story of what was going on at an airport in Mena, Arkansas, 10 years ago is an embarrassment to both the Democratic governor who ran Arkansas in the 1980s and to the Republicans who ran the White House. But two dogged Arkansans, former Internal Revenue Service Investigator William Duncan and Arkansas State Police Investigator Russell Welch, have kept the story alive. For more than a decade, Messrs. Duncan and Welch have been stitching together evidence of Mena-related schemes to smuggle drugs, launder money and ship weapons, possibly involving both Arkansas law enforcement and the U.S. intelligence community.
On Tuesday, Mr. Welch was summoned to Little Rock to appear before the State Police Commission. A review panel had demanded his immediate transfer to Little Rock. The reason? Inadequate attention to paperwork and the “need for closer supervision,” says Wayne Jordan, a police spokesman. “It has nothing to do with” the Mena probe.
Repeated attempts to bring the Mena affair before state and federal authorities have failed. Mr. Duncan’s stubborn insistence on investigating Mena, detailed on this page October 18, resulted in the destruction of his career in federal law enforcement. So naturally, when his colleague Russell Welch finds himself in a disciplinary hearing before the State Police Commission, we think it at least worthy of public note regardless of the official explanation. One year short of qualifying for his pension, Mr. Welch’s transfer clearly would be tantamount to demotion and prelude to dismissal.
Mr. Welch tells us that his troubles started a little over a year ago, when he responded to inquiries from The Wall Street Journal and “CBS Evening News.” Until then, he says he had always received above-average ratings on his performance reviews and high marks from his peers. Suddenly, questions were being raised about his paperwork. On one occasion, Mr. Welch says his commander, Major Charles Bolls, the chief of the Criminal Investigation Division complained that Mr. Welch was “becoming like the two troopers” who provided the press with details on Governor Clinton’s alleged sexual misadventures. In February, a police panel persistently questioned him about whether he was writing a book about Mena.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Welch was notified of the administrative hearing and ordered not to work on his appeal during office hours. Among those rising to his defense was Charles Black, a former Mena-area public prosecutor who once had attempted to investigate the drug charges surrounding the airfield. Today Mr. Black is a deputy county prosecutor in Texarkana. Concerned about what was happening to Mr. Welch, who had no lawyer to represent him, Mr. Black went to Tuesday’s hearing in Little Rock.
There, Mr. Black got the opportunity to question Major Bolls. According to observers of the proceeding, Major Bolls grew agitated when questioned about the Mena investigation and denied that it had anything to do with the transfer. Mr. Welch, Major Bolls said, was “consumed” with Mena and needed to be brought to Little Rock “so we would know where he was and what he was doing.” By day’s end, Mr. Black had won a 30-day continuance and Mr. Welch was placed on paid administrative leave.
A conflict of interest most likely prevents Mr. Black from further involvement in the case. He told us, however, “I’m convinced that Russell’s activities in investigating Mena and talking to the media are playing a role in this whole mess.” Mr. Jordan, the state police spokesman, hints that Mr. Welch’s personnel file contains more damaging information and urges Mr. Welch to OK its release. At the least, Russell Welch clearly needs a lawyer, and a very tough one at that.
Mr. Welch’s new lawyer might want to talk to Linda Ives, who drove up to Little Rock for the hearing. In 1987, Mrs. Ives’s teenage son Kevin and his friend Don Henry were murdered near the railroad tracks south of Little Rock. She has waged a long campaign to prove their deaths are linked to drugs and Mena and a coverup. This troubling incident was reported by the Los Angeles Times in May 1992.
“That hearing was not about a trooper who didn’t do his job,” Mrs. Ives told us. “It was about a trooper who did his job only too well. Anybody who tries to tell the story is discredited and ruined.”
Copyright © 1997 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced with Permission
|The Wall Street Journal|
June 5, 1996
Edit Page Features
Arkansas Reform In Hands Of Huckabee, Starr
By MICAH MORRISON
In a stunning reversal for the political machine that has dominated Arkansas for decades, events in recent weeks have shoved the one-party state to the brink of historic reform. The May 28 resignation announcement of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, convicted of bank fraud with James and Susan McDougal, is only the most visible sign of the shifting of the tectonic power plates. A week earlier, primary voters pointedly rejected or forced into runoffs candidates linked to the ruling elite, for the first time in Arkansas history fielding a strong statewide slate of Republicans. Speculating that the GOP could displace the Democrats in “one-party rule,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorialized, “It may take some getting used to. Like an earthquake.”
Mike Huckabee is the young Republican lieutenant governor and Baptist preacher who will take the reins of state power when Mr. Tucker formally steps down. Mr. Huckabee said in an interview that he wants to be “a healer” for his state, but declined to discuss specific reforms before taking office. Yet in a sign perhaps of troubles ahead, Mr. Huckabee acknowledged he was “aware” of stories that state officials were shredding documents in anticipation of Gov. Tucker’s departure. “Anyone in a state agency or any state officer that would do something probably illegal — and certainly unethical — would have to be looked into,” Mr. Huckabee said.
Gov. Huckabee will have a lot to look into, but he’d better watch his back. A good early move would be to start cleaning up the cesspool that is Arkansas law enforcement. Above all, he needs to put his own people in control of the Arkansas State Police. In Arkansas, the state police function as a kind of gubernatorial Praetorian Guard. Pimping for then-Gov. Clinton, it appears, was the least of their sins.
Law enforcement officials say that the state police shut down cocaine probes into bond daddy Dan Lasater, chicken king Don Tyson and Roger Clinton before the investigations ran their course. There is abundant evidence that some members of the state police spent years undermining inquiries into alleged drug smuggling at Mena airfield, finally driving its own investigator, Russell Welch, out of a job. And in the controversial “train deaths” case, law enforcement officials seem to have thwarted investigations into apparent links between the murder of two teenagers, drugs, and a local prosecutor, Dan Harmon.
Mr. Harmon is under investigation for a second time by the state police and FBI for corruption. He was jailed Friday for assaulting Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Rodney Bowers, who tried to interview him about the probe. Mr. Bowers’s injuries aren’t serious, but the situation is painfully ironic. It’s widely believed in Arkansas journalistic circles that Mr. Bowers has not been encouraged to write all he knows about the train deaths and Mena cases, while his newspaper’s editorial page has expended much ink ridiculing stories on those subjects, particularly those by this writer.
On May 21 voters decided they’d had enough of Mr. Harmon, denying him a spot on the Democratic ticket in a run for sheriff of Saline County. The GOP slot was won by John Brown, a former detective who investigated the train deaths. Mr. Brown says if elected he will “fight public corruption in all forms” and pursue the case.
Voters also expressed their displeasure with Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Stodola of Little Rock, forcing him into a runoff for the Democratic nomination for Rep. Ray Thornton’s congressional seat. If elected, Mr. Stodola will become the de facto head of a diminished but still dangerous political machine. A longtime Clinton ally, Mr. Stodola last week signaled that he is still willing to play bully boy for the power elite when he restated his intention to use his prosecutorial powers to bring state insurance fraud charges against key Whitewater witness David Hale.
The message in any such Hale prosecution would be that new Whitewater witnesses are on notice that the state still has the power to punish them. This is not news to some of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s witnesses, such as Judge Bill Watt, whose pension was revoked, or former Madison S&L officer Don Denton, who friends say is in danger of losing his job at Little Rock airport.
Of course retribution is not news to Mena investigator Russell Welch. Nor is it news to Mr. Welch’s colleague, former IRS investigator Bill Duncan, whose career was destroyed because he pursued the truth in the Mena affair. Nor is it news to former local drug task force head Jean Duffey, who was run out of the state after investigating the train deaths and Mena. Nor of course is it news to the state troopers who came forward with stories of Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades, or to state police investigator J.N. “Doc” DeLaughter, whose career went down the drain after he started looking into Don Tyson and Dan Lasater.
Gov. Huckabee no doubt will be cautious about his dealings with Mr. Starr, but the two likely will establish some kind of quiet symbiotic relationship. Mr. Starr already is far down the road of liberating Arkansas from corruption. Mr. Huckabee’s Baptist roots should allow him to do no less. The new governor can be of enormous help by signaling that state employees cooperating with Mr. Starr will not suffer retribution; let the truth set them free. And while he’s at it, Mr. Huckabee should indicate that he’s serious about getting to the bottom of Mena and the train deaths. He could start by consulting Bill Duncan, Russell Welch, Jean Duffey, Doc DeLaughter, and maybe even Rodney Bowers, about whom he should name to head the state police.
Mr. Morrison is a Journal editorial page writer.
Reproduced with permission
January 29, 1997
The Wall Street Journal
Mysterious Mena: CIA Discloses, Leach Disposes
By MICAH MORRISON
The word on Capitol Hill is that Rep. Jim Leach will soon wrap up his inquiry into the spooky goings-on at remote Mena in western Arkansas. For more than a decade, state and federal probes of supposedly government-related drug smuggling, gun running and money laundering at Mena Intermountain Regional Airport have hit a stone wall. But Mr. Leach already can claim some success: He kept the pressure on the Central Intelligence Agency until it completed a still-classified internal probe of the allegations; in a declassifed summary released in November, the CIA for the first time admitted that it had a presence in Arkansas.
The agency was not “associated with money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, or other illegal activities” at Mena, the report concludes. But the CIA did engage in “authorized and lawful activities” at the airfield: a classified “joint-training operation with another federal agency” and contracting for “routine aviation-related services.”
At the center of the web of speculation spun around Mena are a few undisputed facts: One of the most successful drug informants in U.S. history, smuggler Barry Seal, based his air operation at Mena. At the height of his career he was importing as much as 1,000 pounds of cocaine per month, and had a personal fortune estimated at more than $50 million. After becoming an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, he worked at least once with the CIA, in a Sandinista drug sting. He was gunned down by Colombian hit men in Baton Rogue, La., in 1986; eight months later, one of his planes–with an Arkansas pilot at the wheel and Eugene Hasenfus in the cargo bay–was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of Contra supplies.
What had then-Gov. Bill Clinton known about CIA activities at Mena? Asked at an October 1994 press conference, President Clinton said, “They didn’t tell me anything about it.” Events at Mena, Mr. Clinton continued, “were primarily a matter for federal jurisdiction. The state really had next to nothing to do with it. The local prosecutor did conduct an investigation based on what was in the jurisdiction of state law. The rest of it was under the jurisdiction of the United States Attorneys who were appointed successively by previous administrations. We had nothing–zero–to do with it.”
Mr. Clinton was right about federal jurisdiction, but wrong about Arkansas involvement. As reported on this page, local attempts to investigate Mena were tanked twice by the Mr. Clinton’s administration in Little Rock, which refused to allocate funds. And in July 1995, a former member of Gov. Clinton’s security staff, Arkansas State Trooper L.D. Brown, suddenly stepped forward claiming he had worked with the CIA and Seal running guns to the Contras–and cocaine back to the U.S. Mr. Brown says that when he informed the governor about the drug flights, Mr. Clinton replied, “that’s Lasater’s deal”–a reference to Little Rock bond daddy Dan Lasater, a Clinton crony later convicted on an apparently unrelated cocaine distribution charge.
The CIA report does not directly address the Lasater allegation. It says trooper Brown applied to the agency but was not offered employment and was not “otherwise associated with CIA.” Barry Seal was associated with CIA, but only for “a two-day period” while his plane was being outfitted for the DEA’s Sandinista sting. The CIA also says it found no evidence of tampering in earlier money-laundering prosecutions, as several Arkansas investigators have charged.
And what does the CIA say about Mr. Clinotn’s knowledge of CIA activities at Mena? It gives its boss wiggle room that parses nicely with his statement that “they didn’t tell me anything.” In response to Mr. Leach’s question about whether information was conveyed to Arkansas officials in the 1980s, the report states that “interface with local officials was handled by the other federal agency” involved in the joint Mena exercise, side-stepping the issue of what Mr. Clinton knew.
The Clinton White House has gone to great lengths to discredit the Mena story. It figures in the notorious White House conspiracy report and was denounced by former Whitewater damage-control counsel Mark Fabiani as “the darkest backwater of right-wing conspiracy theories.” Beltway pundits tend to dismiss Mena as an excess of the Clinton critics. But in Arkansas the campaign is more vicious. With a passive press having long ago abandoned the field, Mena investigators such as former Arkansas State Police investigator Russell Welch and former IRS agent Bill Duncan were stripped of their careers after refusing to back away from the case. Mr. Leach’s CIA report provides some vindication for the two Arkansans.
Mr. Leach’s full report is not likely to resolve all the questions surrounding Mena, but it might provide important details about that “other agency” and related mysteries. In Arkansas, meanwhile, the Little Rock FBI office is following leads in a sensitive drug-corruption probe involving the Linda Ives “train deaths” case and allegations of Mena-related drug drops. The big drug-corruption question is what network encompassed the Barry Seal operation. The answer could come by following the money on some of the smaller questions, such as whether those CIA contracts for “aviation-related services” went to one of Seal’s front companies at Mena. But in forcing an admission from the U.S. intelligence community, Mr. Leach already has performed an important service: He’s demolished the notion that nothing happened at Mena.
Mr. Morrison is a Journal editorial page writer.
Copyright © 1997 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced with Permission
The Wall Street Journal
March 3, 1999
A Place Called Mena — Just Some Facts
By: Micah Morrison, a Journal editorial page writer.
Reacting to the Juanita Broaddrick story, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the Journal editorial page “lost me after they accused the president of being a drug smuggler and a murderer.” We made no such charges, of course. But we’ll give Mr. Lockhart a pass on the grounds of hyperbole; we have indeed reported stories about the seamy side of Bill Clinton’s Arkansas.
Most of our stories–as opposed to gamier Arkansas tales traded on the Internet–have revolved around Mena Intermountain Regional Airport in western Arkansas. Even as careful an observer as David Frum, writing in Commentary, criticizes “wild charges” including “drug-smuggling via Mena airport.” Since drug smuggling at Mena is established beyond doubt, a brief review of some facts seems in order:
- Mena was a staging ground for Barry Seal, one of the most notorious drug smugglers in history. He established a base at Mena in 1981, and according to Arkansas law-enforcement officials, imported as much as 1,000 pounds of cocaine a month from Colombia. In 1984 he became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, flying to Colombia and gathering information about leaders of the Medellín cartel. He testified in several high-profile cases, and was assassinated in Baton Rouge, La., in 1986.
- Two investigators probing events at Mena say they were closed down–William Duncan, a former Internal Revenue Service investigator, and Russell Welch, a former Arkansas State Police detective. They fought a decade-long battle to bring events at Mena to light, pinning their hopes on nine separate state and federal probes. All failed. And Messrs. Welch and Duncan were stripped of their careers.
- In 1986, Dan Lasater, Little Rock bond daddy and an important Clinton campaign contributor, pleaded guilty to cocaine distribution. The scheme also involved Mr. Clinton’s brother, Roger. Both Mr. Lasater and Roger Clinton served brief prison terms. Gov. Clinton later issued a pardon to Mr. Lasater.
- On Aug. 23, 1987, teenagers Kevin Ives and Don Henry were run over by a northbound Union Pacific train near Little Rock in an area reputed to be a haven for drug smugglers. Gov. Clinton’s state medical examiner, Fahmy Malak, quickly ruled the deaths accidental, saying the two boys had fallen into a deep sleep side by side on the railroad tracks after smoking too much marijuana. A second autopsy concluded the boys had been murdered and their bodies placed on the tracks. Despite public outcry, Dr. Malak remained medical examiner until just before Mr. Clinton’s presidential campaign.
- In 1990 Jean Duffey, the head of a newly created drug task force, began investigating a possible link between the train deaths and drugs. Her boss, the departing prosecuting attorney for Arkansas’s Seventh Judicial District, gave her a direct order: “You are not to use the drug task force to investigate public officials.” In a 1996 interview with the Journal, Ms. Duffey said: “We had witnesses telling us about low-flying aircraft and informants testifying about drug pick-ups.”
- Dan Harmon, who had earlier been appointed special prosecutor for the train deaths, took office in 1991 as seventh district prosecutor. Ms. Duffey was discredited, threatened, and ultimately forced to flee Arkansas. In 1997, a federal jury in Little Rock found Mr. Harmon guilty of five counts of drug dealing and extortion, and sentenced him to eight years in prison for using his office to extort narcotics and cash.
Mr. Lockhart to the contrary, we have never accused Mr. Clinton of a direct role in these events. Obviously, as governor for 12 years, he was ultimately responsible for Arkansas law enforcement. As president, he has commented only once about events at Mena. Asked about it during a 1994 press conference, he said that it was “primarily a matter of federal jurisdiction” and “they didn’t tell me anything about it.”
- In 1984, Seal flew his C-123K to Nicaragua in a Central Intelligence Agency drug sting of Sandinista officials. The CIA rigged a hidden camera in the plane, enabling him to snap photos of several men–including a high-ranking Sandinista–loading cocaine aboard the aircraft. In 1986, eight months after Seal’s death, his plane was shot down over Nicaragua with an Arkansas pilot at the wheel and a load of ammunition and contra supporter Eugene Hasenfus in the cargo bay.
- Three days after the 1996 presidential election, the CIA issued a brief report saying it had engaged in “authorized and lawful activities” at the airfield, including “routine aviation-related services” and a secret “joint-training operation with another federal agency.” The agency said it was not “associated with money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, or other illegal activities” at Mena.
The statement was issued in response to a probe by investigators for the House Banking Committee, directed by Chairman Jim Leach. His report has been often promised and often delayed. Yesterday Leach spokesman David Runkel said that Banking Committee investigators are “putting the finishing touches” on their report. “While there is an extraordinary story to be told, it’s unlikely that the president is going to be too severely embarrassed.” Whatever Mr. Clinton’s involvement as governor, something singular was going on at Mena. Perhaps Mr. Leach will yet shed some light on the mystery.
Guns, Drugs, CIA at Mena, Arkansas: Judicial Watch Demands Answers
JULY 22, 2019
BY Micah Morrison
The mysterious events surrounding Mena Airfield in remote western Arkansas during the gubernatorial reign of Bill Clinton have teased the popular imagination for more than three decades. Movies have been made, books have been published, hundreds of articles have been written. Many of the more baroque allegations emerge from the fever swamps of conspiracy theorists, but certain facts are indisputable. CIA and DEA activities flowed out of Mena in the Clinton years. Cocaine—a lot of it—flowed in. And for thirty years, every attempt to get to the bottom of events at Mena—federal, state, judicial, journalistic—has failed.
Judicial Watch has launched a new campaign for answers. The CIA “stonewalled the release of information now sought by Judicial Watch on the Mena Airport controversy,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. So last month, we filed a lawsuit seeking a long-hidden report by the CIA inspector general into events at Mena. The Judicial Watch lawsuit seeks the report of a November 1996 CIA investigation into “drug running, money laundering and intelligence gathering” at Mena. We’re taking other steps, too—Freedom of Information actions against the DEA, FBI, and Arkansas state institutions.
I first traveled to Mena in 1994, reporting for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. “Mena is a good setting for a mystery,” I wrote at the time. “The pine and hardwood forests of the Ouachita Mountains surrounding it have long been an outlaw’s paradise, home to generations of moonshiners and red-dirt marijuana farmers.” It was also just seventy miles south of the sprawling Fort Chaffee Army Base at Fort Smith, Arkansas. I didn’t make the connection then, but it seems significant now: if you’re going to secretly run arms to controversial U.S. allies, you’ll likely want some military support.
The mysteries of Mena revolve around a drug-smuggling pilot named Barry Seal. In 1981, Seal set up shop at Mena. He later claimed to have made as much as $50 million running 1,000 pounds of cocaine a month from Colombia. In 1983, the DEA arrested him on drug smuggling charges. Seal flipped, becoming a valuable government informant.
He gathered information on Medellin cartel kingpins and participated in at least two drug runs to Nicaragua, where the Reagan administration was ramping up operations against the Sandinista government. On one CIA-involved mission in 1984, a secret camera in Seal’s C-123 cargo plane snapped photos of an alleged Sandinista official loading cocaine aboard the aircraft. The photos quickly leaked, boosting Washington’s anti-Sandinista effort but likely putting a target on Seal’s back: to his drug-running friends in South America, there could be no question where the photos came from.
In Mena, meanwhile, things were getting stranger. A Seal associate cut a runway deep in the woods. Bill Duncan, an IRS investigator, told me that he had “numerous reports of automatic weapons fire, men of Latin American appearance in the area, people in camouflage moving quietly through streams with automatic weapons, aircraft drops, twin-engine airplane traffic.” Duncan, along with Arkansas State Police investigator Russell Welch, started digging into Seal and the Mena connection, suspecting a drug smuggling and money laundering operation. For their efforts, their careers were crushed.
In 1986, Colombian hitmen caught up with Seal in Baton Rouge, shooting him to death in his white Cadillac. Eight months later, Seal’s C-123 was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of ammunition and supplies for the anti-Sandinista Contra rebels. Documents and a surviving crew member tied the shipment to the CIA and the White House, dragging a Seal connection into the Iran-Contra affair.
The story took on a new life when Bill Clinton ran for president. And while Clinton would later correctly note that events at Mena were “primarily a matter of federal jurisdiction”—meaning that Republicans probably had more to lose than Democrats if the truth was exposed—it’s also true that a Clinton friend and supporter named Dan Lasater was under investigation for drug smuggling at the same time Seal was operating in Arkansas. Lasater went to jail for a cocaine connection, as did his friend, Roger Clinton, Bill Clinton’s brother.
In 1996, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach pressed the CIA for answers about its role at Mena. The CIA’s inspector general investigated and released a terse statement saying “no evidence has been found that the CIA was associated with money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling or other illegal activities at or around Mena.” There was, however, a classified “two-week exercise” and some contracting for “routine aviation-related services.”
In other words: nothing to see here, move on. And move on, the world did. But twenty-three years later, Judicial Watch says it is time for answers. We’re suing the CIA for the full inspector general report and we want documents from other agencies as well.
Ancient history? Maybe not.
The respected Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt recently outlined what appears to be a continuing effort to cover up the Mena affair. Leveritt has written convincing book-length studies of the Memphis Three case and the deaths of teenagers Don Henry and Kevin Ives, the Arkansas “boys on the tracks.” In “Who’s Afraid of Barry Seal?,” in the Arkansas Times, Leveritt wrote that “secrets… are still being carefully kept, especially in Arkansas.” In advance of the recent Tom Cruise movie about Seal, American Made, an official associated with the Arkansas Studies Institute, an affiliate of the University of Arkansas and the Central Arkansas Library—both state institutions—convinced Leveritt to write a book about Mena, as a tie-in to the movie.
Leveritt was reluctant at first, but soon warmed to the task and got to work. The book was to be called, “The Mena File: Barry Seal’s Ties to Drug Lords and U.S. Officials.” Leveritt knew the story well and had researched it earlier, writing about Seal’s murder and other related events. Suddenly, though, the Arkansas State Police were uncooperative. They could locate no files on Seal.
How could that be? “I knew the agency had an extensive file on Seal,” Leveritt wrote, “because I’d read it decades earlier, shortly after Seal’s murder. In fact, I still had a letter from the former director advising me, in case I’d planned to make copies, that the file held some 3,000 pages.”
Leveritt had in-depth knowledge of the travails of investigators Duncan and Welch, and state and federal officials, in attempting to get to the truth about Mena. Yet she pressed on with her writing and finished the book. An index was completed and the book was listed in the University of Arkansas Press catalog.
“But I was in for a shock,” Leveritt writes. The book was killed at the last minute.
No convincing explanation was offered for this act of censorship. Officials at the Arkansas Studies Institute suggested their concerns were legal and financial, associated with vetting the book, but Leveritt wasn’t buying it. She was an experienced writer and had prepared for the legal review. No one responded when she asked if “the newly arisen concerns might be political.”
In the Arkansas Times article, Leveritt pinned her hopes on the new Cruise movie, which opened in 2017 to good reviews. “Too many secrets have been kept for too long,” she wrote, “too much important history has been hidden, lost or destroyed. Let’s hope that Cruise’s high-powered version of Seal prompts an equally high-powered demand for disclosure of all government records on him, especially after his move to Mena.”
That didn’t happen. We’ll take it from here.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: email@example.com
Mysterious Mena: Death of a Patriot
February 1, 2019
BY Micah Morrison
I first met Russell Welch at a cheap motel on the outskirts of Mena, Arkansas, in the summer of 1994. It was a searing hot day and I had left the door open for some air and I heard a car slowly drive across the gravel and stop. I looked up and Russell’s gaunt shadow crossed the doorway.
He was no one’s idea of an Arkansas State Police investigator. Lean, with long brown hair and a handlebar mustache, soft-spoken, his face ravaged by anthrax that almost killed him in 1991, Russell had found himself on a case he never wanted and in the middle of a storm. The case was the investigation of drug smuggler Barry Seal and his activities at remote Mena Airfield in western Arkansas. The storm was Seal’s connections, real and imagined, to a network of government officials and their enablers, including the then-president of the United States, Bill Clinton.
Wall Street Journal editor Robert L. Bartley had sent me to Mena to figure out what was going on. CBS had been there before me. A legion of journalists and con men and grifters and government investigators would follow.
The Mena story is part of the cultural conspiracy landscape now. You can read about Judicial Watch’s latest investigation here, and find more background on the case here. Or you can watch the movie starring Tom Cruise. Or the other movie starring Dennis Hopper.
Russell believed that the conspiracy mischief that engulfed Mena was mainly due to Terry Reed’s book, “Compromised: Clinton, Bush, and the CIA.” It spins a vast, largely fictional tale about a drugs-for-money-for-guns conspiracy involving Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, infamous CIA operatives, Arkansas associates of the Clintons, Oliver North, Seal, Reed himself, Reagan Administration figures, the FBI, the Justice Department, members of Congress, criminals, Contras, cocaine cowboys, and a partridge in a pear tree.
But as Bartley recognized, most conspiracy theories contain a grain of truth, maybe even a few grains of truth. So he sent me down to Arkansas to look for it.
Russell Welch was not fooled. “From the very beginning, I have said that Reed was making stuff up,” Russell wrote me last year. “He was lying about Mena.” Russell had the details and the evidence on Reed.
Russell was the best kind of investigator—one who hates lies and is stubborn about the truth. He played by the book. It got him into trouble.
As the Arkansas State Police investigator based in Mena and tasked with monitoring Mena Airfield, Russell was assigned the Seal case around 1985, about the time one of Seal’s confederates was killed in a nearby plane crash. He quickly discovered that Seal had set up shop in Mena and was using the remote airfield as part of a smuggling network running cocaine from Colombia.
He also discovered that the Drug Enforcement Agency was already on to Seal. Seal had flipped and was cooperating with federal authorities.
Separately at Mena, and unconnected to Seal, other federal entities were running training exercises in the Ouachita Mountains and servicing aircraft used on clandestine missions at Mena Airfield. Judicial Watch disclosed last year that two of the federal entities were the CIA and the Defense Department.
“I did not want to investigate the Seal [case],” Russell wrote me. “I knew it was out of my league and the DEA should do the investigation.” But he was ordered to open a criminal investigation into Seal’s drug smuggling and money laundering.
“I started the criminal investigation,” Russell wrote. “I conducted it like any other investigation. I found that Seal had been [secretly] indicted in two different jurisdictions in Florida. He became a snitch for DEA Group 7 in Miami. His [immunity] period started in March of 1984. I knew that I had to keep my investigation focused on events prior to that. Anything that Seal…did after that date could have been part of a legitimate [DEA] investigation.”
Partnering with an IRS investigator, Bill Duncan, Russell compiled significant evidence of Seal’s drug smuggling and money laundering. “I did everything by the book,” Russell wrote. “When I finished the bulk of my investigation, there were no conspiracy theories floating around, yet. That started with Terry Reed.”
But the case developed by Russell and Bill Duncan went nowhere, killed by federal stonewalling and foot-dragging. A sinister conspiracy? Or something more mundane, like turf wars over witnesses and evidence? It was never entirely clear. But Russell and Bill persisted, and their careers suffered.
In 1986, Seal was murdered in Baton Rouge by Colombian gunmen. Later that year, a C-130 linked to Seal was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of guns for the Contra rebels, dragging a Mena interface into the Iran-Contra affair. In 1994, “Compromised” began to circulate, dragging the Clinton White House into the conspiracy.
Russell retired in 1996, but he never escaped the story. He was pursued by journalists, detectives, TV and documentary producers, authors promising book deals, conspiracy theorists, mooks, kooks, and menacers. For the most part, he kept silent, but he continued to work the case, taking notes, compiling evidence, documenting lies and discrepancies. He died in October, with his wife and his two sons at his side . He was 72. Let the record reflect that in addition to being a devoted husband and father and grandfather, Russell Franklin Welch loved to read and play the guitar, held a Master’s Degree in English, and served with distinction as an Army medic in the Vietnam War.
“The biggest regret in my life is not quitting law enforcement and spending more time with my children,” Russell wrote. “Seeing the hurt in their eyes, so many times, as I had to stop playing with them and go to work, was unbearable. Telling them that I would not be able to watch them at certain school functions, because I had to go to work, broke my heart. It still breaks my heart, and I think about it every day. While I was working on the Seal case, I was, also, conducting other investigations: murder, rape, robbery, and so on. I was busy all the time.”
That first day with Russell in Mena in the summer of 1994, we sat in the plastic chairs outside my motel room and talked a while. That case of anthrax that nearly killed him? The doctors never could figure out where it came from. One doctor had blurted out it was an infection caused by “military grade” anthrax, but Russell was cautious, not assigning blame, and later tests were inconclusive. Anthrax certainly caught the attention of Bartley at Journal, who brought it up with me many times over the years. And Russell had enemies. The Seal case. Murder, rape, robbery, and so on.
Later that day, we drove up into the Ouachita Mountains to take a look at one of Seal’s landing strips cut into the deep woods. I brought a metal detector, hoping to find some sort of journalistic treasure. Russell brought an AR-15 assault rifle. It crossed my mind that he could just shoot me and bury me in the mountains and be done with the troublesome Yankee. This was mysterious Mena, after all, and I was far from home. But you’ve got to know who to trust.
“Here,” Russell said, handing me the AR-15 and taking a camera from the trunk of the car, “let’s take a picture.”
I had a copy of that picture for years. So did Russell. That too is evidence.
Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reproduced with Permission.
Mara Leveritt has reported for almost three decades on police, courts and prisons. She is a past Arkansas Journalist of the Year, Laman fellow, and winner of the prestigious Porter Prize.
A contributing editor to the Arkansas Times, Mara has written three nonfiction books about crime and public corruption.
May 21, 1992
BY Mara Leveritt
Arkansas’s most notorious drug smuggler testified about his links to Colombia. His ties to Washington have yet to be explained.
State and federal officials monitored Seal’s activities almost from the day he moved his smuggling operation to this tiny airport at Mena.
It has been 10 years since cocaine smuggler Adler Berriman Seal moved his massive operation to Arkansas, and six years since Seal’s personal plane — the same one he used to run drugs — was shot down in Nicaragua, just months after Seal himself was murdered in Baton Rouge.
For years Seal had used his plane, which he based in Mena and affectionately called The Fat Lady, in the service of Colombian drug lords.
But when The Fat Lady went down in Nicaragua, she wasn’t carrying cocaine. She was loaded with military supplies for the Nicaraguan Contras. And the people paying for her flight were not Colombians; they were American covert operatives with direct ties to the office then-Vice President George Bush at the White House.
When U.S. officials embarked on their covert mission to assist the Contra rebels, they needed an up-and-running air cargo system; one that knew the routes between the U.S. and Central America, understood secrecy, and wasn’t averse to risk.
Such a system existed. It was made up of former U.S. military pilots and military and civilian intelligence agents, thousands of whom had been turned loose after the Vietnam war. They were, by and large, renegade adverturers; men like Barry Seal.
Their business was cargo — any cargo, to any destination. They worked for whoever paid. They developed ties with foreign drug lords and kept up ties with old buddies still in the U.S. government.
When Lt. Col. Oliver North began organizing the Contra shipments, he hooked up with this clandestine network. CIA chief William Casey recommended that North contact retired Army General Richard V. Secord, and it was Secord, acting as a for-hire contractor, who found pilots to make the secret air drops over Nicaragua. Such drops were a skill many pilots, including Seal, had already cultivated while making illegal drug flights into the United States.
The arrangement was an extremely compromising one; a situation that some officials here believe may explain the hands-off treatment accorded Seal during the years he operated in Arkansas.
While criticism has been leveled at Gov. Bill Clinton for his failure to adequately investigate Seal’s years at Mena, the more serious questions surrounding the case lead not to Little Rock, but Washington.
*Seal’s smuggling activities, which were among the largest in the nation’s history, were known for years to federal agents. But he was never stopped. Why?
*When Arkansas officials tried to investigate Seal and bring the smuggler to justice, federal officials thwarted them at every turn. Why?
*Why, after Seal turned informant, did federal agents put him in a position where he was certain to be murdered? They knew his former associates had put out a contract on his life. Yet, though he refused protection, they ordered him disarmed and set free. He said he felt like a sitting duck, which he was.
*And why does the Bush administration to this day refuse to cooperate with investigators trying to probe the relationship between the White House, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, and smuggler-operatives like Barry Seal?
In 1982, when police at the little town of Mena, on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, learned that a major international drug smuggler was using the city’s airport, they called in the Arkansas State Police and other more experienced investigators.
But the case was strange from the start. For reasons that no one at the time could fathom, it seemed there were forces in the federal government that did not want this particular smuggler stopped.
Police knew they’d stumbled upon a large-scale operation.
What they didn’t realize until much, much later was that the pilot they suspected was slipping back and forth between Mena and Central America was also flying in and out of Washington, D.C.
Barry Seal could fly anything. In the mid-’50s, as a high school student in Louisiana, he flew an airplane to out-of-town games while his classmates rode the bus.
During the ’60s, Seal flew for the 20th Special Forces Group of the Army National Guard, an elite combat unit whose members are often used for covert operations.
By the early ’70s, Seal, now a civilian, was the youngest commercial 747 pilot in the country. He lost his premier spot with TWA in 1972 when federal authorities in Shreveport caught him loading a transport plane with almost seven tons of plastic explosives.
That’s where the pilot’s life — and his association with the federal government — takes a murky turn.
When the explosives case made it to court, the judge declared a mistrial because of unspecified “government misconduct.” A second trial was scheduled, but before it began, a second judge dismissed the charges against Seal entirely.
The explosives, it turned out, were destined for Cuba, where they were to be delivered to anti-Castro Cubans trained by the CIA. When asked about the circumstances of the case later, a federal prosecutor acknowledged they did seem to suggest that Seal might have been working on a government job, flying as an independent contractor.
His commercial career ruined by the episode, Seal switched to smuggling marijuana. He advanced quickly in the aviation underworld, to the point that he was soon working for the Colombian cocaine cartel, directly under its leader, Jorge Luis Ochoa. A confederate described Seal as something like a vice president of the cartel, in charge of transportation.
Seal would later testify that in the early 1980s he made more than 100 illegal flights into the U.S., each carrying 600 to 1,200 pounds of cocaine. He estimated that in just two or three years he imported from $3 to $5 billion worth of the drug and that his income, in 1981 alone, was $25 million.
By the end 1982, Seal had moved the base of his operation from Louisiana to the small and mountain-cradled airport at Mena. An aircraft modification company there had built a special hangar for him where workers installed illegal “drop doors” and fuel bladders in several of his planes. At least nine aircraft were also rigged with sophisticated electronic systems, at a cost of about $750,000. Seal paid for the work in cash.
By then the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, the Arkansas State Police, the FBI, and the IRS were all aware of at least some of Seal’s activities. They knew, for example, that federal identification numbers were being altered on planes, that large amounts of unrecorded cash were flowing into a couple of local banks, and that informants were reporting drug shipments. What they didn’t know was how activities they were watching at Mena related to events even then beginning to unfold in Washington, D.C.
According to North, CIA Director William Casey suggested in 1984 that North organize a covert transportation system for supplying weapons to the Contras. North quickly had the operation running.
In February of that same year, Seal was indicted in Florida on federal charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. His reaction to the charge was interesting.
Freed on bond, the first thing Seal did was to hop into his Lear jet and fly to Washington, where he was given an immediate appointment with two members of then-Vice President Bush’s drug task force.
They in turn set up a meeting for Seal with officials of the Justice Department and DEA officials in Miami. As a result of those two meetings, Seal reportedly agreed to “turn”, become an informant, and gather evidence against his bosses in the cartel.
His smuggling operation, however, now supposedly under DEA control, remained intact. To preserve his cover, Seal continued to fly drug runs from Colombia to the United States.
What happened to the drugs brought into the country during the time he was working for the DEA is another unanswered question. Also unexplained is why no one in that agency notified law enforcement authorities here that Seal was now an informant working for the U.S. government.
Questions also linger about just whom in the federal government Seal was supposed to be serving. As early as 1983, there are indications that he was working for, or at least with, agents of the CIA.
Seal testified that in the summer of that year, CIA agents rigged a camera in the back of The Fat Lady,” which he used to take a blurred photograph that was purported to show Sandanista officials in Nicaragua helping local cocaine dealers load drugs into the plane. North described the arrangement with Seal in his book “Under Fire,” published last year. President Ronald Reagan later displayed the photograph on national television, in an effort to get Congress to authorize more help for the Contras.
At the time, however, all law enforcement officials here knew was that the drug runner seemed exceptionally cocky in the face of impending indictments.
In November of 1984 he told a Louisiana newspaper reporter, “If they indict me, it means that l go to court. It means that then I get to tell my side of the story. All of this and much, much more than you’re now hearing from me will be put out in the public eye. The Justice Department is not going to tolerate this. There’s no way they can indict me.”
As it turned out, Seal misjudged. He was indicted, but with his cover blown by the White House’ s release of the back-of-the plane photograph, he was able to work out an agreement to stay out of prison by testifing against members of the cartels.
Seal’s testimony in 1985 helped bring federal indictments against 11 men, including two cartel leaders who together were said to control 80 percent of the cocaine coming into this country from Colombia.
But his testimony was also remarkable in other ways. At a drug trial in Nevada in August of 1985, where Seal appeared in behalf of the government, he said he had worked for both the CIA and the DEA; that his gross income since March 1984, when he began informing for the DEA, had been more than $700,000; that in that time he’d brought more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine into the country; and that the DEA had allowed him to keep $575,000 for a single cocaine shipment.
DEA officials have never explained why, if, Seal’s claims were true, one of their informants was allowed to continue operating like a drug kingpin and earning a kingpin’s income.
One possibility was that Seal was indeed working for the CIA and the DEA, as well as for himself. A note in the Arkansas State Police file from Louisiana authorities suggests that they were beginning to theorize “that every time Barry Seal flies a load of dope for the U.S. government, he flies two [loads] for himself.”
But while Seal was working for the DEA, and possibly the CIA, state and even federal officials in Arkansas trying to investigate him were running into a series of brick walls.
Investigator William Duncan of the IRS, who was tracking money laundering at Mena, for one, complained to his superiors in Atlanta that he couldn’t get the U.S. attorney for the Western District, J. Michael Fitzhugh, to issue subpoenas he requested.
Equally frustrating was the fact that, although a grand jury had been called in the district to investigate Seal’ s activities, neither Duncan nor Russell Welch of the Arkansas State Police, the two prime investigators in the case, were ever called before it. Nor did Seal appear, though the jurors requested that he be subpoenaed.
Fitzhugh, a Reagan administration appointee, denied having stymied the investigation. But he has never explained why, in the nearly two years the grand jury met, the central figures in the case were never brought before it.
While officials could never produce Seal for the Arkansas grand jury, they had no trouble getting him to Washington.
In September of 1985, Seal appeared before the President’s Committee on Organized Crime, where he reportedly described his work both as a drug runner and as a U.S. undercover operative working for the CIA.
But Seal was not invulnerable. At the end of 1985, he faced charges in Florida and Louisiana, and had a $1 million bounty on his head, put there by the cartel. In exchange for Seal’s testimony against his former employers, the Florida judge reduced his sentence to six months on probation.
But the Louisiana judge tacked on an additional, fateful order. It barred Seal from carrying a firearm or employing body guards.
On top of that, the judge ordered him to report daily to a Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge at the same time every day for the length of his probation.
“He felt naked,” Seal’s lawyer later said, and he might as well have been.
On February 19, less than six weeks after the sentencing, the government’s most important witness against the Colombian cocaine cartels reported as ordered at the halfway house. As he started to get out of his car, six bullets ripped into the head, chest, and neck. He died instantly. Investigators here and in Louisiana were stunned. A month after the murder, William J. Guste, Jr., the attorney general for Louisiana, hand-delivered a letter to U.S. Attorney General Meese, demanding that the Justice Department “undertake a complete investigation with respect to the government’s relationship to and handling of informant Adler B. “Barry” Seal…”
Specifically, Guste wanted to know, “Why did the government expose its main witness to extermination?”
He also asked, “whether the drugs Seal had smuggled in his DEA operations were regulated and controlled; whether Seal was allowed to keep the profits of the DEA operations, whether there was an accounting of the money; and whether he was allowed to keep his former operation intact.”
“All of these questions,” Guste wrote, “cry for investigation. And law enforcement agencies and the public have a right to know the answers.”
Guste completed his last term as Louisiana attorney general this past January. Contacted at his law practice in New Orleans, he recalled that Meese had assured him that the investigation he’d requested had been undertaken.
But, Guste added, the results of that investigation, if any, never were divulged. “There was no public explanation ever given.”
If it weren’t for The Fat Lady, Seal’s story might have ended right there. But eight months after his shooting, The Fat Lady, in effect, sang.
The mystery of the man who named her, who called himself The Fat Man, started unraveling when the plane was shot out of the skies in October of 1986.
A Nicaraguan radio operator and a 1968 Air Force Academy graduate from Arkansas, William Cooper, died in the crash.
Another American civilian, Eugene Hasenfus, parachuted into the jungle and came out telling the world that he was working for the CIA, running guns and supplies to the Contras. At first, government officials categorically denied any U.S. government involvement with the flight. But those denials were also quickly shot down.
Subsequent Congressional hearings established that Hasenfus was working for an agent named Felix Rodriguez. A White House memo indicates that on at least one occasion Rodriguez met directly with Bush. Later reports suggested that during the height of the operation, Rodriguez may have been in daily contact with Bush.
Soon after the downing of Seal’s plane, Attorney General Meese conducted a three day investigation into the unravelling affair. He kept no notes of his interviews, involved no one from the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, and took no steps to prevent the destruction of documents.
North explained in his book that Seal’s plane had been purchased by Secord after the smuggler’s death, and he vehemently denied “the allegations that I or anyone else involved with the [Contra] resistance had a drug connection.”
But, despite such protests and Norah’s frenzied sessions with the document shredder soon after the plane’s downing, Seal’s connection with the White House is not so easily explained away. Just months before The Fat Lady was shot down, Sheriff A.L. Hadaway of Polk County felt he had enough evidence of the plane’s involvement in drug running to impound the aircraft at Mena. But, he later reported, DEA officials in Miami ordered him to leave it alone.
As the Contra hearings unfolded, the disgust of Arkansas law enforcement officials involved in the case mounted. Some began to sense a coverup within a coverup.
In early 1988, Joe Hardegree, then the prosecuting attorney for the district encompassing Mena, issued a press statement complaining that the drug-trafficking investigation here had been thwarted because of links between the criminals’ activities and the “private wars conducted by the Reagan White House.”
Hardegree said, “I have good reason to believe that all federal law enforcement agencies from the Justice Department down through the FBI to the DEA all received encouragement to downplay and de-emphasize any investigation or prosecution that might expose Seal’s activities and the National Security Council’s involvement in them” He added, “I believe that the activities of Mr. Seal came to be so valuable to the Reagan White House and so sensitive that no information concerning Seal’s activities could be released to the public.
“The ultimate result was that not only Seal but all of his confederates and all of those who worked with or assisted him in illicit drug traffic were protected by the government.”
The months following Hardegree’s outburst seemed to prove the prosecutor right. In the summer of 1988, the White House ordered the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency to refuse to turn over information sought by the General Accounting Office in its investigation into what had gone on at Mena.
Welch, of the state police, would later describe the investigation-cum-coverup as the strangest two years in his life. “It’s so bizarre I can’t begin to describe it,” he said, “twilight zone would be close.”
Others involved in the case, including Polk County Sheriff A.L. Hadaway, simply gave up on justice.
I can arrest an old hillbilly out here with a pound of marijuana,” Hadaway observed, “and a local judge and jury would send him away to the penitentiary, but a guy like Seal flies in and out with hundreds of pounds of cocaine, and he stays free.”
Hadaway will no longer discuss the investigation. In response to an inquiry by members of the Arkansas Committee, a Fayetteville group pressing for answers about Mena, Hadaway wrote, “The grand juries that took testimony about this incident did not return any indictments and the general public in the community where it occurred did not and do not give a damn about what occurred.
“I resigned and retired primarily because of the injustice in the federal system, and I have spent the last several years forgetting that this ever occurred.”
Last summer, at federal trial in Miami, family members of the crew shot down in Seal’s plane contended that the men worked for a group that was contracting with the U.S. government, and that their employers, Secord and Southern Air Transport, a Miami-based charter airline once owned by the CIA, should pay the families death benefits.
Secord’s attorney argued that principal figures at the White House, including Reagan and Bush, knew about the operation, and that the government owed the men benefits.
“We took the position that the employer was the president,” Secord’s attorney said, “that he was responsible for calling the shots.”
Duncan, who now works for the Arkansas attorney general, resigned from the IRS in disgust. He too was convinced that White House officials knew what was going on.
After years on the case Duncan said, “The evidence details a bizarre mixture of drug smuggling, gun running, money laundering, and covert operations by Barry Seal, his associates, and both employees and contract operatives of the United States intelligence services.”
Yet to this day, no explanation has ever been offered to justify that unholy alliance. And one of the men most tightly tied to it — a former head of the CIA, Oliver North’s ultimate supervisor, and the Commander in Chief in the war on drugs — is running again for president.
Reproduced with Permission
August 25, 1995
THE MENA AIRPORT:
Why Arkansas’s biggest mystery won’t die.
By Mara Leveritt
DEA testimony that Oliver North requested cocaine profits be given to the Contras — plus nine other reasons why the inquiry’s gathering steam.
BY Mara Leveritt
A recent spate of activity is bringing Mena’s little mountain airport near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border back into the limelight. This has happened repeatedly since 1982, when Louisiana police notified officials in Arkansas that one of the country’s most wanted drug runners was moving his headquarters to Mena.
First there was the investigation, the expectation of indictments — and, to the amazement of many, the inaction. The plot thickened in 1986, when discovery of the Iran-Contra affair also revealed shadowy connections between Oliver North’s gun-running operation to the Nicaraguan Contras and what appeared to be government-protected drug activity taking place at Mena.
In the late ’80s, a Vietnam veteran in Fayetteville, disillusioned at what he saw as a betrayal by his government regarding Mena, began collecting information on the case and calling for full disclosure. A couple of national publications took interest, but even during Bill Clinton’s campaign for president, when the issue presumably could have been used by either President George Bush or Clinton against the other, those missiles were never launched.
Since Clinton’s election, however, the name Mena has gained national prominence — at least on late-night radio talk shows and among a computer-linked army of conspiracy buffs. Republicans looking under every rock in Arkansas for some dirt they can throw at Clinton are digging hard into the files of Mena. But among politicians, at least, the peculiar dance of approach and avoidance that always characterized discussion of Mena still dominates the floor.
A growing number of observers, however, now even including editors at the conservative Wall Street Journal, have concluded that national interests in this case supersede the partisan ones. “Mena cries out for investigation,” the Journal said. “If some chips fall on the Republican side, so be it.”
A couple of new developments are stirring the pot yet again. A lawsuit filed against two former members of the Arkansas State Police by former North Little Rock businessman Terry Reed, who alleges his own close involvement in events at Mena, is scheduled for federal court in Little Rock in September. Unconfirmed reports also suggest Whitewater Prosecutor Kenneth Starr may be dabbling on the fringes of the Mena controversy.
And in an article published this month in The American Spectator magazine, L.D. Brown, a former member of Clinton’s Arkansas State Police security detail, claims that in 1984 he participated in two secret flights from Mena, on which M-16 rifles were traded to Nicaraguan Contra rebels in exchange for cocaine. Brown further claims that Clinton knew of the activity.
That announcement spurred Fort Smith lawyer Asa Hutchinson, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, to request a yet another congressional inquiry into long-standing allegations of money-laundering at Mena. Hutchinson was the U.S. attorney for the western district of Arkansas when investigators first presented evidence supporting those allegations. In an argument disputed by police investigators, Hutchinson claims he left office before the evidence was well established. Since he harbors political ambitions, he has an interest in clearing his name.
Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant, who defeated Hutchinson in a campaign laced with debate about the former U.S. attorney’s supposed inaction, now argues that, “It’s too late to bother with Mena.” Bryant’s critics suggest he wants to buffer Clinton, but he argues he only opposes what appears to be the endless, political “targeting of Arkansas” for federal investigations. In the political arena, Bryant isn’t known as a friend of Clinton.
“If someone thinks we need to look at Mena,” Bryant fumed, “I think they first need to look at the U.S. Department of Justice and all its agencies. The federal government was the one that, in my opinion, had the ultimate responsibility at Mena and it failed to do anything.
“We tried to find out what was going on there, and we never got a thing out of the federal government. I spent three years trying to get files from the Department of Justice, and all we ever got was a total run-around.”
In the months ahead, partisan politics will almost certainly drive some of the accelerating interest in Mena. But that’s a tricky gambit, one that could backfire in any direction.
The more powerful force demanding government disclosure of what went on at Mena arises from non-partisan sources. Law enforcement officials who’ve seen the system fail, a growing body of reporters who’ve researched the story and found it full of holes, and ordinary citizens who think they have a right to know if their government was helping to import cocaine — they are the forces who are keeping Mena alive.
They’ve become hooked on this story of guns, drugs, and international intrigue. And, so long as their questions remain unanswered, their numbers will continue to grow. Here’s why:
1. The smuggler was too colorful.
It’s not every crook-turned-federal-informant who gets gunned down by Colombian hit men, only to be resurrected in a made-for-TV movie and portrayed by Dennis Hopper. Barry Seal was that kind of guy.
A fat and swaggering pilot, he found a lucrative niche in the emergent business of flying cocaine into the United States. He was meticulous. He was crafty. And he apparently had connections.
In 1984, when federal agents were closing in with indictments, Seal flew from his base in Mena, Arkansas to Washington, D.C., where he met with two members of then-Vice President George Bush’s drug task force. After that meeting, Seal “rolled over,” and became a federal informant, under the supposed control of Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Miami.
But there’s more to Seal’s story than that. From the moment he turned, until his death in a hail of bullets in Baton Rouge, Seal appears at the center of ongoing contacts with the Medellin drug cartel, with the DEA, with the Central Intelligence Agency, and with Oliver North’s National Security Council at the White House. It’s enough for a TV movie.
2. The crimes were too big.
No one will ever know how much cocaine Seal and his pilots flew to the United States. As an informant Seal testified that in the two years before 1982, when he moved his operation to Arkansas, he made approximately 60 trips to Central America and brought back 18,000 kilograms. It’s believed his activity from 1982 to ’84 continued at at least as strong a pace.
After 1984, when he became a DEA informant, Seal testified, he smuggled 3,000 kilos into the U.S. What happened to that cocaine is unknown. What is known, as a U.S. attorney later noted in court, is that “Mr. Seal was a drug trafficker on a large basis — an extremely large basis — for a very long period of time.”
The cocaine Seal imported was sold for huge amounts of money, and that money had to be laundered. Investigators in Arkansas were able to trace some of it through illegal cash transactions at local banks in Mena. But the vast majority of it still has not been traced.
Finally, if the mounting evidence that officially sanctioned gun-running was taking place from Mena to Contra rebels is proven true, that was also a crime. And if it were established, as some Congressional testimony suggests, that White House officials were willing to use profits from drugs brought into the United States to buy arms to support the Contras, that — and the subsequent coverup — would be the biggest crimes of all.
3. Too much money was involved.
Seal once testified he grossed as much as $750,000 for one cocaine smuggling trip. He testified before the President’s Commission on Organized Crime that his organization alone involved the laundering of between $10 and $20 million.
It is known that Seal continued to import cocaine after he became a DEA informant — for the last two of the four years he was in Arkansas. But no one knows — or at least no one is saying — where any of that money went.
After Seal’s murder, the federal government tried to seize some of his assets for unpaid taxes. Here’s what the U.S. attorney in that case said: “The vast discrepancy between the income [Seal] received and the income he reported obviously show a great deal of unreported income as well as unspoken-for assets.
“Where did this money go? We found between $1.5 and $2 million worth of assets. Where is the other tens of millions of dollars? We don’t know. Obviously, something has happened to that money.”
4. The handling of the case was too bizarre.
Nothing about the investigation and attempts at prosecution of illegal activity at Mena conforms to normal procedure. Midway through his four-year stint in Arkansas, for example, Barry Seal became a DEA informant. But the investigators working the case in Arkansas — Russell Welch for the Arkansas State Police and William Duncan for the IRS — were never notified of that. Nor has anyone offered an explanation as to why, when informant-smugglers are supposed to be closely monitored, Seal’s assigned DEA handler never stepped foot in this state.
The role of the FBI in the case is unclear, as, indeed, is the role of the Arkansas State Police. Duncan, of the IRS, testified that prior to his appearance before a committee of Congress investigating Mena, he was instructed by superiors in the agency to lie and told he needed “to get the big picture.”
Another irregularity concerns the apparent reluctance of Hutchinson’s successor, U.S. Attorney Mike Fitzhugh, to let Welch and Duncan present evidence of money-laundering to a seated federal grand jury. They wondered about that for years.
But the Times has obtained a copy of a memo written in 1986 by an FBI agent in Hot Springs, notifying the agent in charge of the Little Rock office that Fitzhugh would be “withholding presentation” about the investigation at Mena from the grand jury. The memo is dated days before Seal’s murder, and a month before he was to come to Arkansas to appear before that same grand jury.
The agent in Hot Springs further reported that Fitzhugh “advised that he will not utilize Seal as a government prosecution witness in view of his lack of credibility in other mitigating circumstances.”
While the FBI was apparently well informed about Fitzhugh’s decision, Welch and Duncan say that they were not. It is but one of the inexplicable aspects of this case. Another is that in the months before his death, Seal was being used heavily as a government witness in cases both inside this country and out. What “mitigating circumstances” dampened his credibility in Arkansas, making Fitzhugh unwilling to use him, have yet to be explained.
5. Too much federal testimony implicates the CIA.
It’s expected that when Terry Reed’s civil lawsuit reaches federal court, he will present evidence in support of his claim that he worked with CIA operatives in Mena and Central America on missions that he later learned involved the import of cocaine to the U.S. Reed has made this claim in court before and the government has failed to present evidence refuting it, claiming that to do so would jeopardize national security. As a result, Reed won his earlier case.
But even without Reed’s current case, there is plenty of evidence that Seal was working for both the DEA and the CIA, while he was also in the employ of the Medellin Cartel. It was a mixture that got him killed.
Ronald J. Caffrey, a former chief of the DEA’s cocaine section, has admitted that the DEA coordinated with the CIA to have photographic equipment installed on Seal’s C-123 cargo plane for an undercover drug smuggling trip to Nicaragua. The plane had been based at Mena.
Ernest Jacobsen, Seal’s handler at the DEA, testified more specifically that Seal’s plane was flown to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, where the CIA installed a satellite navigation system.
6. The connection between drug-running at Mena and Oliver North’s support for the Contras is too strong to be dismissed.
In 1988, the DEA’s Caffrey told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime that he had been ordered by his superiors to brief North about Seal’s 1984 trip for the CIA to Nicaragua. Caffrey said he took copies of the pictures taken on the Seal mission and discussed plans for Seal to make another trip.
He testified that North asked if it would be possible to have some type of publicity about the mission, because there was a vote on aid to the Contras pending before Congress, and photos allegedly showing Sandinista officials helping to unload cocaine from Seal’s plane would be beneficial. Caffery said he told North publicity was out of the question because it would jeopardize Seal’s life and ruin the operation.
(Despite that warning, the photos purportedly taken from Seal’s plane subsequently did receive extensive publicity, as President Ronald Reagan held one of them up on national television in a move to dramatize his call for Contra funding.)
But the most startling testimony has come from Jacobsen, Seal’s DEA handler. In testimony in 1988, Jacobsen said that before Seal was to make his second covert flight to Nicaragua, he was given $1.5 million for the trip by Carlos Bustamante, an associate of Medellin Cartel leader Jorge Ochoa.
According to Jacobsen, when North heard of the money, he suggested that it be funneled to the Contras. The committee report noted: “As DEA officials testified…, Lt. Col. Oliver North suggested to the DEA in June, 1985 that $1.5 million in drug money carried aboard a plane piloted by DEA informant Barry Seal and generated by a sting of the Medellin Cartel and Sandinista officials, be provided to the Contras. While the suggestion was rejected by the DEA, the fact that it was made highlights the potential appeal of drug profits for persons engaged in covert activity.”
7. Evidence of a coverup is too persuasive.
For almost three years, a federal grand jury in the Western District of Arkansas considered questions about drug-running, money-laundering, and illegal airplane modification — all of which investigators believed were being conducted at the Mena airport. But Fitzhugh reportedly focused only on the drug-running allegations, the aspect of the case the jurors felt would be the most difficult one to prove about anyone except Seal, and he, by then, was dead.
According to statements from one of the jurors, Fitzhugh refused to consider the money laundering or conspiracy charges, for both of which the jurors believed evidence was substantial. “We asked him about it,” the juror said, “and it was like just blown off. We were never given a straight answer.”
Fitzhugh has denied having stymied the grand jury, but he has never explained why, in the three years it met, Welch and Duncan, the central investigators in the case, were never called to testify.
Since that time, several congressional committees have looked into the case and extensive files on it were presented to the Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. But Walsh ignored the matter, and other inquiries, frequently blocked by claims of “national security,” have failed to unravel the nature or extent of the government’s involvement with Seal.
The total lack of prosecution in what is acknowledged to be one of the biggest drug-smuggling rackets in U.S. history makes Seal’s 1984 claim to a newspaper reporter sound prescient: “If they indict me, it means I go to court,” he said. “It means that then I get to tell my side of the story. The Justice Department is not going to tolerate this. It’s never going to happen.”
8. The implications are too outrageous.
This month, Bryant, explaining why “it’s too late to bother” with Mena, said, “The statute of limitations has long since run out, most of the important players are now deceased, and Mena occurred during a Republican administration; the federal government was the one that, in my opinion, had ultimate responsibility.”
He’s right about the statute of limitations. But, although Seal’s dead, most of the legendary drug-runner’s associates — including Oliver North and officials in the NSC, CIA, and several agencies of the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments, as well as certain figures in Arkansas — remain alive and well and have walked away unscathed. That bothers people who believe that even at the highest levels of government there should be some accountability.
Moreover, all this took place during a time when the federal government was supposedly doing everything in its power to stem the flow of drug running and money laundering in the U.S. If evidence ever surfaced showing that government officials either knowingly tolerated the import of cocaine, or worse, cooperated in the smuggling to sponsor other illegal activities (then sought to cover up its tracks), the consequences predictably would be dire.
9. Too many questions linger.
Instead of diminishing with time, the questions surrounding Mena have increased. Here are a few of them:
What happened to the money Seal got while working as a DEA informant?
What happened to the cocaine he imported?
Why did Fitzhugh, in particular, depart so radically from custom and not allow Welch or Duncan, the two investigators who knew more about Mena than anyone else, to present their information to the grand jury?
Why didn’t the DEA have Seal’s handler in Arkansas, where he could closely monitor the smuggler’s activities, as required by agency regulations?
Why did the FBI not inform the investigators that Fitzhugh would be “withholding” from the grand jury the information they’d provided on Mena?
Why was Seal an acceptable government witness elsewhere, but not, apparently, in Arkansas?
Is L.D. Brown, who says Clinton knew about cocaine at Mena, telling the truth?
Why, when Arkansas State Police investigator Russell Welch confronted DEA officials in Washington, was he told, “Nothing ever happened at Mena”?
Why has the IRS never followed up with further investigation of what U.S. attorneys themselves have acknowledged was a massive money-laundering enterprise?
And, since Clinton has said that whatever occurred at Mena was a federal responsibility, why, now that he’s president, hasn’t he ordered a complete disclosure by every agency of the federal government that was involved with Barry Seal?
10. Too many people have gotten curious.
There was a time when the peculiar activities at Mena might have vanished, but that moment has long since passed.
The work Welch and Duncan did in their investigations has never been called into question. Though the men and their families have suffered for their involvement with the case, they continue to speak out. They see what’s happened as a travesty.
As a result, even before Clinton’s election as president, public interest in the bizarre story was beginning to spread. Now, news media from around the world have made the trek to Mena, only to encounter the same inexplicable saga, the same list of unanswered questions.
So, far from being outdated, this is a story, like the story of cocaine itself, that remains painfully current. It involves huge amounts of money, strong suggestions of government involvement, and the lives of thousands of people on the receiving end of Barry Seal’s distribution line. It also involves hope; hope that if a mess like this can be cleaned up, however belatedly, this country’s justice system has a chance of redeeming itself.
That’s why the inquiry into Mena has, in a sense, become a populist crusade. Future government investigations may or may not answer the nagging questions that remain. But as more and more Mena buffs log onto the Internet, accessing and exchanging information, and as new testimony continues to dribble out, some of it from aging participants who no longer have careers to protect, at least some answers will be discovered — some meaning to Mena will be found.
Reproduced with Permission
November 15, 1996
The CIA was up to something at Mena, and that fact alone may explain everything else.
The CIA’s shadow in Arkansas
By Mara Leverit
The CIA doesn’t like to give up its secrets. So it’s a coup of sorts when the citizens of this country and particularly of a state can wrest a little bit of information out of this huge but shrouded institution.
Such a milestone occurred last week. In a report commissioned by Republican Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, chairman of the House Banking Committee, the CIA’s inspector general’s office acknowledged what some of us here in Arkansas have long suspected: that the CIA did have a hand in unusual activities in the little town of Mena. Specifically, the agency owned up to only four, fairly innocuous-sounding admissions:
- That it conducted a two-week-long “joint training operation with another federal agency at Mena Intermountain Airport.”
- That it used the airport for “routine aviation-related services on agency equipment.”
- That L.D. Brown, a former Arkansas State Police trooper, was an applicant for employment with the agency in 1984 (as Brown has claimed), though his application was rejected near the end of that year.
- That CIA personnel had had “limited contact” with Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, a major drug trafficker and federal informant (who also, coincidentally, worked out of the airport at Mena before his murder in 1986).
That’s about the extent of what the CIA was willing to admit. And it’s taken the agency a decade to get around to saying even that much. But, late and slim as they are, the acknowledgments arrive in this state like the clap of a sonic boom – one whose reverberations will continue for years.
To understand the revelations’ significance, we must remember what it’s taken to get just this far. Attention was first focused on Mena in the early 1980s when officials from the Louisiana State Police notified state police in Arkansas that Seal, who’d been dogged out of Louisiana, was moving his base of operations up here. Russell Welch, an investigator for the Arkansas State Police, and William Duncan, an investigator for the IRS, began surveilling Seal, documenting evidence of his involvement in both drug-trafficking and money-laundering at the airport and through banks at Mena.
The odd events that were occurring there only gained public attention slowly, as Welch and Duncan tried to bring their evidence to the attention of federal prosecutors. To the investigators’ dismay, they found themselves blocked at every turn. No one in a position to act, it seemed, wanted to lay a hand on Seal or to even look too closely at what was happening at Mena. Despite the drumbeat of anti-drug rhetoric that was going on in the background, no action was ever taken against Seal while he was blatantly flying in and out of Arkansas.
This led the investigators to suspect that they were fighting an invisible enemy; that for reasons they could not understand and that no one was bothering to explain, their efforts at law enforcement were being thwarted by other powers in the federal government. Fuel was added to these suspicions when Terry Reed, a self-described former CIA “operative,” and Brown, who worked in the security detail for then-Gov. Bill Clinton, both went public with claims that they knew of CIA involvement at Mena.
Brown’s story is especially interesting. He says that while he was being considered for CIA employment, he was taken on two airplane rides from Mena to Honduras, where he claims to have witnessed Nicaraguan Contra rebels being given M-16 rifles in exchange for quantities of cocaine, which were then flown back to Mena. Brown says he was shocked and told Clinton what he’d seen, but that the governor seemed unsurprised. After Seal’s murder, his personal airplane, the one he’d flown so often into Mena, was shot down in Nicaragua, a bit of nasty business that opened what is now known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Meanwhile, back in Arkansas, suspicion of CIA involvement at Mena began to grow, despite a pronounced reluctance by most of the media to question the federal inaction with regard to Seal’s operation. Moreover, attempts to shake some information out of the FBI, the DEA, and the CIA were resolutely stonewalled until now, that is; until this little crack.
Now we have confirmation that the CIA was up to something at Mena, and that fact alone may explain everything else. It suggests a reason why officials in so many administrations–Democrat and Republican, alike–have turned such a resolutely blind eye to apparently illegal activities at Mena. Yet last week’s acknowledgments don’t begin to approach an adequate explanation.
In its report, the CIA said it found no evidence the agency had engaged in “money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling or other illegal activities at or around Mena.” Maybe. But under the circumstances, we here in Arkansas might be forgiven if we laugh.
Reproduced with Permission
Copyright © 1996 Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. All Rights Reserved
The Arkansas Times
June 6, 1997
Spooks with erasers
By Mara Leveritt
Did you read that the CIA now admits having destroyed its own records about its role in the 1953 coup in Iran? Well, what did we expect? The budget of the CIA is secret. The number of people it employs is a secret. Where it operates and what it does is a secret. And now we know that even big chunks of its history have been consigned to the black hole of oblivion.
News reports last week said that the agency is now trying to find out what other sensitive records were destroyed during the 1960s.
I love it when the CIA tries to find out something, especially something that it itself did. It’s always so difficult for them.
(I mean, we’re not asking them to do something hard, like gather the necessary documentation to renew their Arkansas car tags. Lord, if the CIA had to try to do that, they’d probably have to hire another 700 researchers — a number which, of course, they could never report, at salaries which they could never reveal, either. And then, the agency could never tell us whether they had found their tax records, assessment sheets, proof of insurance, and so forth. National security, you understand. We’d be left to guess and speculate.)
What we’re left to wonder about now is how many historical records the CIA has shredded — and presumably swallowed. Maybe every one of its gazillion unreported employees is required to chew up a certain amount of sensitive, shredded paper every week. Or maybe they have a big cook-out every Fourth of July, where they grill hamburgers over briquettes made of documents that might have reshaped our view of history, had they managed to escape the fire. Or maybe by now the CIA has developed a paper-eating bug that works its way through files, systematically seeking out and destroying any sensitive, embarrassing, or even criminal information.
Anything is possible. The point is, we’ll never know. It’s hard for the public even to ask, “Do you still have files on this episode?” or, “Where are your records on that?” because most of the time, we never found out in the first place in which this and that’s the CIA has been involved. We can only surmise.
Usually if events take a peculiar turn, or if a situation goes from bad to worse, or if the way is suddenly paved for some multi-national corporation to swoop in and start extracting resources from some third-worId country, we can pretty well be sure that we’re seeing the CIA’s handiwork. CIA officials now say that the Iran files and who knows how many others were apparently destroyed as part of a routine paring down of classified documents that were stored in CIA safes.
You can appreciate their problem. If almost everything you do is top-secret and potentially explosive, you’re going to want to store the records of those deeds in a highly secure safe. But even if you’re the CIA, the amount of space in your safes is limited. So what choice do you have?
You can’t just box up your records of liaisons with some of the world’s most unsavory characters and haul them to the attic. And what of those reports linking the CIA to torturers in the jungle? Even dry financial records, about the people to whom we paid money — and the services they performed for it could be a mite disturbing. You could hardly find enough safes for that kind of information.
So one could understand why the agency might come to think that frequent house-cleanings might be a good idea. It’s only our country’s need for an informed democracy that takes a beating in the process. That, and the right of future generations to have access to crucial archival records.
A CIA spokesman said last week that the agency no longer allows the destruction of historical documents. That news would come as some relief, if we could believe anything that comes out of the mouth of an agency that specializes in words like “disinformation” and “deniability.”
Not surprisingly, a former member of the CIA’s history staff disputed the spokesman’s contention, saying that the destruction of critical documents continues to this day.
This news might explain a lot about why the agency has not been able to tell us more about what went on in Mena, particularly as that related to the drug smuggler Barry Seal. Last year, the CIA told Congress that it could “find no evidence” that it knew that Seal, with whom it has admitted working, was actually a drug trafficker himself.
Well, duh. That’s the nice thing about evidence that’s been destroyed. It tends to be hard to find.
Reproduced with Permission
Copyright © 1996 Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Book by Mara Leveritt
The Boys on the Tracks: Death, Denial, and a Mother’s Crusade to Bring Her Son’s Killers to Justice
The Boys on the Tracks is the story of a parent’s worst nightmare, a quiet woman’s confrontation with a world of murder, drugs, and corruption, where legitimate authority is mocked and the public trust is trampled. It is an intensely personal story and a story of national importance. It is a tale of multiple murders and of justice repeatedly denied.
The death of a child is bad enough. To learn that the child was murdered is worse. But few tragedies compare with the story of Linda Ives, whose teenage son and his friend were found mysteriously run over by a train. In the months that followed, Ives’s world darkened even more as she gradually came to understand that the very officials she turned to for help could not, or would not, solve the murders. The story of betrayal begins locally but quickly expands. Exposing a web of silence and complicity in which drugs, politics, and murder converge, The Boys on the Tracks is a horrifying story from first page to last, and its most frightening aspect is that all of the story is true.
Mara Leveritt has covered this story since it first broke back in 1987. Her approach is one of scrupulous reporting and lively narrative. She weaves profiles and events into a smooth and chilling whole, one that leads the readers to confront, along with Linda Ives, the events’ profoundly disturbing implications. A powerful story reminiscent of A Civil Action and Not Without My Daughter, The Boys on the Tracks is destined to become one of the most powerful works published in 1999.
Daniel Hopsicker is a journalist, author and television producer. He is the author of Barry and the Boys: The CIA, the Mob and America’s Secret History (2001) a book about the CIA asset, Barry Seal, and Welcome to Terrorland: Mohamed Atta & the 9-11 Cover-Up in Florida (2006).
The Washington Weekly
May 12, 1997
The (Secret) Heartbeat of America
A New Look at the Mena Story
By DANIEL HOPSICKER
Everybody wants to be wanted, even television producers. So even though the little production company of which I am a part already has a business magazine television show up and modestly successful (Global Business 2000; don’t tell us you haven’t seen it) we wanted more. We had seen with our own eyes, for example, the sickening spectacle of what passes for entertainment these days: Tammy Faye Bakker at NATPE (television production convention) last year, peddling some talk show in syndication. And with one of the major studios distributing, yet!
We asked ourselves: have they no shame? In today’s America that is what is known as a rhetorical question. What is this woman famous for? And the answer (Her husband embezzled hundreds of millions from little old ladies who couldn’t afford it) was so depressing, we decided one day to offer up something of our own to add to America’s no-longer-all-that-rich cultural stew.
Then one night while eating Mexican down on Melrose we came up with it: “conspiracy: the secret history.” Remember “In Search Of” with Leonard Nimoy? Back in those more innocent times, nobody was running around in camouflage uniforms talking wildly about The New World Order. We wanted to do an “In Search of” for the paranoid ’90s.
This is the story of the filming of the lead segment on that show.
Mena, Arkansas. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry: either you will, in which case the whole sordid mess has finally found the audience it so richly deserves, or you won’t, in which case you were probably better off not knowing anyway. Because after months of research, the one thing we can say with certainty about US Government drug policy is, “If you have to ask, you’re not allowed to know.”
The Mena story reeks of government hypocrisy on the subject of drugs. It’s the place mentioned when talk of Oliver North’s contra-guns-and-cocaine operation comes up (not often, in polite conversation, and we still wonder, wazzup wit that?) It’s where drug smuggler Barry Seal based planes that flew guns down to Central America, then drugs back, then guns down again, etc., with impunity, literally right under the noses of local law enforcement. If there is, in Bill Moyers’ legendary phrase, a “Secret Government,” a government that runs the other, more official one, Mena is a good place to look for it.
For Mena is what the ‘Clintongate’ scandals are all about, really; the commodities money was and is small potatoes, the Whitewater real estate deal simply par for the course in American political life. But around Mena swirls the smoke of real scandal: allegations of massive drug-smuggling with government complicity, whiffs of Oliver North’s illegal, unconstitutional and national soul-corroding Iran/contra/cocaine connection. And all flavored with spicy rumors of secret Swiss bank accounts, hastening murder by death.
That’s what makes Mena so important. If there’s to be a real Watergate-type Sam Ervin at-the-gavel scandal in the next four years, Mena is where it will be focused. So Mena is where we headed.
The market in opium, heroin, cocaine and marijuana in the United States of America generates a gross volume of business in excess of US $130 billion a year, making the importation, sale and distribution of drugs an enterprise that generates more revenue than any of the largest multinational corporations in the world. It makes the gross volume of illegal drugs in the United States greater than the gross national product of all but a dozen nations in the world.
It takes longer to get to Mena than it should; the map shows none of the slow winding curves that crawl back and forth through mountainous western Arkansas. From Little Rock to Hot Springs is a snap, then, just as you begin planning on lunch near the fabled Intermountain Regional Airport located in Mena, the road west recedes in front of you in torturous twists and turns, and before you’re there it’s late afternoon, and deep shadows are turning the landscape into a black and white picture with some sepia tinges where the setting sun hits the tops of bare white trees. It’s pretty, almost picture-perfect country; the question is: does it hide a secret that could bring down a government?
Because it’s here, in this town nestled below the dark emerald ridgeline of the Ouchita range, that the netherworld of crime intersects with that of our nation’s secret intelligence operations in a way that is perhaps more visible, if still indistinct, than at any time since the Kennedy ‘hits’ of the 60’s.
Once in Mena itself, you’re rewarded, first, with a feeling of being as far away from the rest of the world as, say, Nepal. There’s an almost eerie sense of being outside of the ordinary scope of everyday existence, a feeling that must have been felt by the renegades, bandits, moonshiners and civil war irregulars who have called these densely forested hillsides home. When we pull our dusty crew van piled to the top with video gear into the asphalt parking lot outside the Sun Country Motel (the biggest of three in town) its empty of cars. And there’s not much traffic on the main drag either.
We’re a typical electronic news-gathering crew: a writer/producer (me), a cameraman who’d really rather be a cinematographer, and a sound engineer, who’s already missing his girlfriend back in San Jose. And, as I check us in at the front desk (the gracious small town desk clerk showing no surprise at all at one more film crew pulling in) fatigue from the long travel day makes me wonder about our seemingly quixotic quest, our perhaps deluded, because self-funded, effort to shoot a pilot for a television show. (True story: the first producer I ever worked for in Hollywood had said to me, “Kid, anything worth making is worth making with other peoples’ money.” ) But we were passionate about this project, as all creative people have to be, or pretend to be, and besides, as one waggish agent put it, we were shooting “The X-Files, for real.”
And so we’ve driven this icy road to see for ourselves this place, without which Bill Clinton might be able to serve out his second term in peace. And also to meet The Man.
That’s because you can’t talk about “Mena” without mentioning Russell Welch, the legendary big-boned lawman who has been compared favorably with John Wayne in more than one retelling of this tale. Assigned to investigate drug smuggler Barry Seal in 1982, an assignment he never wanted and for which he felt himself outgunned, Welch had single-handedly fought the Dark Side forces (so well-hidden he was never even sure who they really were) to a standstill. He may not have stopped drug-smuggling through this airport, that may have been built expressly for “Special Ops,” but he sure slowed it down a tad. Or…did he?
That’s one of the questions we’ve come to ask him. His voice on the phone is gruff but friendly. He’ll be over to meet us at our motel in an hour. And so I rustle through my notes for the fifth time, trying to be as prepared as possible with the acknowledged facts, and knowing, at the same time, that except for the few Mena scholars out there, full knowledge of the case in all its frequently political perambulations is well nigh impossible.
The facts of the Mena story, already much reported in venues from CBS to the Wall Street Journal, have somehow failed to catch the nation’s attention. The reason, some analysts feel, is that the playing field on which the Mena story takes place has been incredibly muddied by political operatives of both the left and right, attempting to use the case for partisan advantage. Welch and the other players and eye-witnesses are chary, wary, and, in some cases, downright scared for their lives when microphones begin poking in their faces. And not, according to the story we’re about to hear, without good cause.
So we’re not holding out much hope of prying any new revelations from Mr. Welch. We just want to ask him some simple questions: “If drugs are the biggest industry in the world today, who’s the industry’s General Motors? And, who did he think had the bigger airline distribution system: Federal Express or Cocaine Unlimited?
We’ve decided not to go for the minutiae connected with Welch’s years-long thwarted probe into government complicity in drug-smuggling. Instead we’ll try to tell the story from a different angle, so as to not get bogged down in the already-cited recitals of things like the value of drugs imported by Mena figure Barry Seal, for example ($3-5 billion, according to one governmental body with some knack with figures, the IRS). Besides, the “Just-the-facts-ma’am” trap always ends in dry recitals of charges and counter-charges. Like the Robert McNamara-esque ‘body counts’ from the Vietnam war, it masks a bloody reality in statistics. And when in doubt, we turn to Mark Twain, who said, “There’s three kinds of liars: Liars, damn liars, and people that quote statistics.”
A tactic we think ‘might could work,’ as some say in this part of heaven, to tell the story of gun and drug-running in Arkansas in the 80’s, might be this: if you want to find the truth about possible US Government involvement in drug-smuggling in the ’80’s, you’ll have to look around the periphery, out of the corners of your eyes. Because, face it, these boys are pros. Give the devil his due. Trade craft is what they DO. And Plausible Deniability is their middle name(s).
So we’ve decided to look not for the smoking gun, but for the bent twigs. The local people, citizens, lawmen, and honest public officials, whose lives have been changed, in some cases lost, whose careers have been ruined, because of the invisible elephant of drug smuggling that came to squat over the Arkansas of the 1980’s. We would look for the casualties of friendly fire. What the Pentagon calls “collateral damage.” And we didn’t have to look far, to find a story with an extraordinary human dimension.
The Train Deaths
The Train Deaths, they’re called in Arkansas, and our first stop on our ‘conspiracy’ shoot in Arkansas had been right outside Little Rock, to visit the site of the murders of Kevin Ives and Don Henry, two high school students who were murdered in 1987.
Avenging their deaths has been a cause celebre for local citizens and news people for nine years. Its one of those small town cases where every one in town–except the people with the handcuffs–seem to know who was responsible for the murder of two youths whose presence complicated or compromised a drug and/or money drop. It took place in Saline County, in the bedroom suburbs of Little Rock, in an area where nearby neighbors had often registered complaints to police about low-flying aircraft– presumably on drug and money drops–that would buzz their homes at night with their lights off.
We had first learned of the story, as one finds out about so many non- establishment-sanctioned things these days, on the World Wide Web. (For a complete telling, check out www.idfiles.com, and, by all means, order the compelling documentary available from the site.)
Some people will tell you that, today, the Internet is the only free press in America. These same folks, probably, think that ever-growing press conglomerate Time Warner’s corporate slogan should be: “Bringing You the Finest in Cradle-to-Grave Thought Management.”
We don’t know about that. We confess to having less lofty ambitions when we first got online. 0ur first big project was to download some dirty pictures before the advent of the Communications Decency Act. A juvenile ambition, sure, but we found it to be a lot harder than we’d thought it would, and devoted what felt like several man-years to the attempt. It was our own mini-Manhattan Project, and it taught us more about computers than everything we’d learned before. (Never underestimate sex as a motive force; Freud was right.)
But juvenilia soon loses its excitement. The Internet, for us, had not. We had discovered a whole new world. Information was loose on Planet Three! And the story we discovered online, and soon became fascinated with, concerned two high school seniors, Don Henry and Kevin Ives, who were run over in the middle of the night by a Union Pacific train on August 23, 1987. All of the engineers on the train reported that the boys were lying motionless beneath a tarp, bodies laid out identically across the tracks, with almost military precision.
Despite this, the Arkansas State Medical Examiner ruled the deaths accidental. The mother of one of the two boys, Linda Ives, sensed foul play. So did others in the community. Almost immediately suspicions among the local citizenry focused on speculation that the boys’ deaths might have resulted from their stumbling upon a drug drop. Just what–in 1987–would have made the local population spring to such a conclusion?
This speculation leaped out at us as being more than slightly curious. “Death by Drug Drop” is not a common cause of death, at least not where we live. And the citizens of Saline County, where the deaths took place, seem anything but a conspiracy-mongering bunch. They live and work in mostly bedroom communities 30 minutes outside the State Capital of Little Rock, with all the anonymity of middle class people everywhere. They go to church. They pay their taxes. They mow their lawns. They sew.
Linda Ives is the mother of one of the slain boys. She graciously allows us to invade her well-kept suburban home with all the detritus–lights, camera, cables, donuts–a video crew brings along.
Today she speaks of the death of her son, and the crusade which has transpired, with a detachment borne of regular retelling of the tragedy. Still, her composure breaks at almost regular intervals, as the import of what she has to say sinks home. At those places her narrative loses its third person feel, and become a simple story of a mother losing a son.
“To be the mother of a boy killed in one of the most vicious and notorious murders in Arkansas was, and is, not something easy,” she begins slowly. “When this happened, in August of 1987, I was a teller at a local credit union. The very first thing we heard was that the boys had been shot, and then tied to the train tracks. Then we’re being told, no, the coroner is saying the boys consumed massive amounts of marijuana, then fell asleep on the tracks.”
The evidence pointing towards murder, and away from accidental death, was almost immediately apparent. “There were suspicions immediately in the community,” she continues. “We were hearing things from Kevin’s friends, and then from people who’d been at the scene. Everyone was saying that the ruling of ‘accidental’ death was just ridiculous. We got word from one of the paramedics at the scene that the boys blood wasn’t right, that it was dark and tar-like, that it indicated the boys had been dead for some time when the train arrived.”
And then there was the matter of the tarp.
“The engineer and crew on the train all said the boys had been under a tarp on the tracks. But the sheriffs office said there had been no tarp, that it had been an optical illusion. They even went so far as to tell us they had conducted tests on the boys clothes, and had found no fibers that would indicate they had been under a tarp.”
The deceit began to unravel, said Mrs. Ives, partly owing to the fact that her husband, Larry Ives, has been a Union Pacific engineer for 31 years. He knew the crew that had manned the death train well. “They (the crew) told Larry that they had even taken the sheriffs deputies back to where the tarp had landed,” she says grimly. “They pointed it out to them.”
“Later we found out that the sheriff’s’ had done no tests on the boys’ clothes; it was just another in a long string of lies.”
Thus the political education of a grieving mother began.
“At first we were just very confused, and frustrated with local law enforcement. We discovered that the first deputy on the scene immediately ordered it worked as an accident. When other officers showed up, they argued strongly that it should be treated as a crime scene. They were overruled by higher authorities. So, we learned that it had then been worked as an accident. Learned that the scene was never even roped off, and that the supposedly thorough investigation they told me had been done had left my son’s foot in a sneaker lying in plain sight for over two days.”
So Linda Ives began a struggle–still ongoing–to bring the boys’ killers to justice. For killers there are, or at least appear to be, in this story. And like so many of the monstrous sociopaths that have heavily sprinkled American society for the past thirty years (I’m thinking, now, just of the ones who conveniently kept diaries) these killers are still on the loose. They have never been brought to answer for their crimes, despite seven separate local, state, and federal investigations into the case.
“As a parent, when I would hear about the “drug problem,” I thought about local kids,” states Mrs. Ives. “You never think the “drug problem” concerns local law enforcement, and public officials. But slowly, over time, that’s what I came to believe.”
First there were the uncooperative state officials.
“We held a press conference, and laid out everything. The media was very supportive, and that, along with public outrage, helped get the case to a grand jury. But from state officials, we got absolutely no cooperation. We ran into brick walls everywhere.”
The stonewalling even included refusals to obey court orders to turn over documents and test results on the part of the Arkansas State Crime Lab.
“The Little Rock Crime Lab defied a court order to supply the things we were requesting in order to have a second autopsy done. So we called the State Attorney General’s Office. They said it was illegal for the crime lab to defy our court order, but that they would not intervene in any way. When I asked–given that they wouldn’t help enforce the court order–what recourse I had, they said, ‘none.’ “
But ‘murder will out,’ as the Bard said. The parents’ crusade resulted in a grand jury investigation, which ruled the deaths criminal. The second autopsy, done by a noted Atlanta forensic pathologist, showed that the face of one of the boys had been smashed in before death, and that his cheek still bore the imprint of a rifle butt. The other boy had been stabbed in the back.
All of which the State Medical Examiner, Dr. Fahmy Malak, had failed somehow to ascertain.
“There have been now a total of seven local, state, and federal investigations into the murders on those train tracks. And over the course of those seven investigations I’ve learned some amazing things,” Linda Ives states.
“We’ve learned the sheriff’s lied about testing for fibers on the boys clothes. We’ve learned that Don Henry was stabbed, that Kevin’s face was crushed with a rifle butt, that the weight of their lungs, filled with blood, was clear proof from the beginning that they didn’t die from the impact of that train.
“But the most amazing thing we learned was that Kevin and Don were killed because of a very large drug smuggling operation that involved public officials and public corruption, even in the murders themselves.
“There were witnesses to my son’s murder; witnesses who have passed FBI polygraphs, placing government officials on the train tracks with those boys before they were murdered. And this information is also corroborated by other witnesses.”
Mrs. Ives’ pauses, and we call a halt to shooting. My crew and I sit in stunned silence at what we have been hearing. Linda sees this, and smiles, almost for the first time. When we had arrived, we’d made much of the ‘small-town-y’ nature of the directions she had given us to her home, directions a little in the old ‘Turn left where the old Ben Franklin used to be’ school. Now the tables have been turned. Linda looks bemused at our cityboy naiveté.
“Its all true,” she states matter-of-factly. “Just ask Jean.”
The “Jean” she is referring to is Jean Duffey. Today Jean Duffey is a high school algebra teacher in a suburb of Houston Texas, a handsome woman with short-cropped brown hair, a woman who looks just like the soccer moms we heard so much about before the recent election. But six years ago she was the prosecuting attorney of a federally funded Drug Task Force in Saline County Arkansas, whose undercover agents began to come to her with revelations about the murders of the two boys.
And no soccer mom encounters I’d ever had prepared me for what she told us right at the beginning of our interview.
“The FBI has eyewitnesses to the slayings,” she tells us in that matter-of-fact tone affected by those who, for professional reasons, are forced to cultivate as much detachment as they can. “One witness at the scene even passed a polygraph. But still, to this date, nothing has been done. It’s been this way from day one, with seven separate investigations, each one stopped.”
The initial hue and cry by local citizens and the media, Duffey explains, was directed at the unbelievable verdict of the State Medical Examiner, who ruled the boys’ deaths accidental. This forced the second examination we’d heard about from Linda Ives. Remember? The one showing that one boy had been stabbed in the back, while the other’s face had been smashed in, bearing the imprint of a rifle butt?
Hearing this stomach-wrenching information related to us on camera for a second time in two days, I had a curious reaction. I felt slightly giddy. There was a disconnect between the events being related, and my reaction. I was tempted to ask: “What could Dr. Malak have been thinking about, that day those boys’ lifeless bodies crossed his examining room table? Lunch?”
Later I was to feel that my feelings were not as inappropriate as they appeared at first blush. How can one react in the face of what feels like sheer malignant evil? As I listened further, the threads of–dare I say it?–conspiracy–began to weave tighter, and I began thinking of Dr. Malak not as of someone merely incompetent, but as of someone both incompetent and sinister, sort of a backwoods Joseph Mengele.
“Fahmy Malak was bulletproof in Arkansas; he was completely protected,” states Duffey. “And that was true, even in the face of incredible adverse publicity from the media after the second examination showed how clearly ridiculous his ruling of accidental death was. We are way beyond the bounds of incompetence here; we are into criminal intent.”
So, I asked, was Dr. Malek an accessory to murder? Ever the prosecutor, Duffy considered her words carefully. “Accessory to murder,” she said slowly, “is different from conspiracy to cover up, which is what I believe Dr. Malak was involved in.”
But we are getting slightly ahead of ourselves. I ask how Ms. Duffey’s Drug Task Force came to be involved in the Train Deaths murder investigation.
“I had hired seven undercover investigators,” she explains. “Their job was to make drug buys, and work their way up the ladder to drug suppliers. That’s who we were after. But the connections began to lead almost immediately to public officials, who were either protecting the drug trade or actively involved in the drug trade themselves.”
“And the person whose name came up most often was also the person who had been the special prosecutor in the initial grand jury investigation into the Train Deaths, a nearly year-long proceeding that did nothing but establish that the cause of death was not accidental, but was indeed homicide.”
“His name is Dan Harmon. It became apparent almost immediately that Dan Harmon was a key player in the drug trafficking activity taking place in Saline county.”
Duffey pauses, remembering. “About three months after we were up and running, one of my undercover investigators asked if he could open the Trains Deaths case, which was, at that point, two-and-a-half years old, and perhaps Arkansas’ most famous unsolved mystery. It had been featured twice on the TV program, and people who were possible witnesses were turning up dead.”
“I asked him why he thought that we should get involved. ‘Two reasons,’ he told me. ‘First, because its drug related. And second, because we can solve it.’
“Why, I asked him, did he think we could solve a crime that other investigations had been unable to? Because, he said, the other investigations were cover-ups. No real investigation had yet been conducted thoroughly and forthrightly.”
Duffey’s Drug Task Force investigators proceeded to develop startling evidence that had previously been ignored. First, on the drug-related aspect of the crimes.
“One of the first things my investigator did was to interview people living in the vicinity of where Kevin and Don were murdered. He discovered that drug drops had been rumored in that area over the six months before the boys murders, that citizens had filed reports of low-flying aircraft buzzing over in the middle of the night with their lights turned off.
“When a citizen made one of these complaints, an officer would go out and take a report, and then do nothing. No investigation was done. These reports were sitting in the sheriff’s office when Kevin and Don were murdered. But the connection between the planes and the deaths was not made.”
Duffey allows herself a wry smile “I found it very hard to believe that my undercover officer could see the obvious, while no one else could.”
Duffey continues speaking in her prosecutorial monotone, telling how a confessed drug dealer had testified that she had, as part of her participation in an “officially” sanctioned drug ring, picked up cocaine that had been ‘dropped’ on the train tracks in the same vicinity.
Apparently, cocaine was raining from the darkened night skies over Arkansas.
“The system kept me from prosecuting,” she continues. “Our Drug Task Force was actually doomed from the beginning. On the very day I was appointed to head the drug task force, Gary Arnold, my boss, walked into my office, stared at me hard, and instructed me not to use the Drug Task Force to investigate any public officials.”
There was a massive cover-up, Duffey states in an even tone. “My drug task force was shut down cold. Because we were getting too close. We were not allowed to get there.”
What happened next? “I got smeared,” says Duffey. “There was a massive smear campaign against me, led by Dan Harmon, who fed misleading and untrue information to the local papers.”
So Jean Duffey’s career began to follow a familiar trajectory, one often seen in those who refuse to look the other way. Doug Thompson, a local reporter on the main Little Rock paper, the Arkansas Democrat, led a campaign against her, while being fed information by the man who would later became the focal point of suspicions.
And, at that point, Duffey says, she realized she could do no more, and took the case to the US Attorney.
And the smear campaign? The one that ran courageous and crusading prosecuting attorney Jean Duffey right out of state? What about it?
Duffey almost smiles. “Today I realize, after working with the FBI for eighteen months beginning in March of 1995, what the basis was for Dan Harmon’s viciousness. I now know that Dan Harmon was on the tracks with the boys the night that they were murdered.”
This was the point during the shooting of this story at which I began to feel like the Greek Chorus at an outdoor play. I was thinking of a writer from the heartland of America. I was thinking of Kurt Vonnegut, who gave us a refrain so constantly-repeated that it seemed to have become a mantra in the 60’s. ‘So it goes,’ his characters would say. ‘So it goes.’
But I started this tale in Mena, and the alert reader may be forgiven for asking, how does Mena connect with two unfortunate murders which, let’s grant for the sake of argument, may well have been committed in the course of drug smuggling activities in Arkansas, and may well have involved corrupt officials?
- What does Mena have to do with the Train Deaths, events that occurred half a state away?
Well, this, for starters: if the drug smuggling in Mena, Arkansas was widespread and pervasive, it would still just be the tip of the iceberg, albeit a very big tip. What Russell Welch, acknowledged as the expert in Arkansas drug smuggling, even by his drug-smuggling foes in those times, such as Barry Seal’s brother-in-law Bill Bottoms, (who has lately discovered a highly vocal mission to portray Mena as a myth) could tell us, was simple: was Mena an anomaly, an isolated incidence in an isolated place?
Or did what happened there bespeak a larger corruption of the Arkansas bodily public in those heady years of the 80’s, years before the American public at large began to wonder whether the drug policy of its government was Just Say NO…or Just Fly Low.
After all, cocaine had never been known to rain from the skies anywhere I lived during the 80’s. And I lived in Los Angeles.
We were on a journey, we now realized, to see the Wizard. But we had two brief stops first.
Our first stop was to visit with the reporter whose fingerprints are all over the case, Doug Thompson of the Arkansas Democrat, the state’s main paper, since it bought its competition. It’s located in a handsome gray stone building near the heart of Little Rock.
Thompson seemed happy to see us, and agreed to talk, but not on-camera. “Of all the TV people who have been down here to cover Mena,” he told me. “You’re the first one to stop by to see me. And my name’s on all the clips.”
Indeed it was. Thompson is a burly affable man, easy to like. He had covered the Train Deaths through most of its permutations, over almost a seven year span. But his easy manner seemed at odds with what Jean Duffey had told us about him, that she had been hounded out of state at least partly by his coverage of her. We asked about his role.
“Driving that woman out of state is the thing I’m proudest about in my years at this paper,” he stated. “Did you know, while she ran the task force, her 18-year old daughter used her mother’s position to obtain a drivers’ license stating she was 21?”
I did my best to look shocked. Shocked! And I was. As soon as he retailed this innocuous-enough but still faintly scurrilous piece of information, I became uneasily aware of being in the presence of someone who might not turn out to be a disinterested information broker to the out-of-state truth-seeker.
An 18-year old girl procuring fake ID did not seem like a capital crime to me. Maybe it is to you. But it did strike me as just the sort of thing someone attempting to prove a point might dredge up. Suddenly it seemed an agenda had reared its ugly head.
“She’s crazy, Jean is,” he continues. “Jean Duffey and Dan Harmon are both crazy, they both belong in a lunatic asylum, just in separate wings.”
Ah-Hah! The plague-on-both-your-houses defense. We smiled. Doug smiled. Later, when we did stand-up on our story, on the sidewalk just outside the paper’s offices, security guards stood uneasily just inside the main door.
The Art Of Disinformation
That left just one stone left unturned. Billy Bob “Bear” Bottoms is a genuine Louisiana piece of work, as anyone with two nicknames can be safely assumed to be. He is also the former brother-in-law of Barry Seal, and one of his drug pilots during the 80’s, as well as a former US Navy pilot.
Lately Bob Bottoms seems to have discovered a new vocation: destroyer of what he calls the “Mena Myth,” first in a Penthouse article, widely quoted by debunkers of the San Jose Mercury News “Dark Alliance” series on the CIA, the Contras, and Cocaine. And then he has surfaced suddenly to become a highly visible presence at those meeting grounds on the Internet where topics like these are bandied about, inspiring heated discussion in forums and information lists like CIA/Drugs and alt.current.events.clinton.whitewater (Yes, there really is such a ‘place.’ Isn’t cyberspace grand?)
The clear consensus about Bottoms was that he was, at some third party’s behest, supplying disinformation to lead investigators seeking an intelligence agency hand in drug smuggling in Arkansas off the scent. He admitted smuggling massive amounts of drugs (and had the newspaper clippings to prove it). And he also admitted to working for the DEA for six years (more clippings). What he didn’t admit was to ever having gotten caught smuggling drugs, a fact which normally precedes contrition in drug smugglers. On this point most knowledgeable observers see a hole in the bottom of Mr. Bottoms curriculum vitae.
We were also warned about the dangers of meeting with him. A dispatch reached us alleging that Bottoms has been known to plant drugs on innocent people and then turn them in.
So when we arrived for our meeting, at a hotel in Baton Rouge, we eyed him a bit nervously. But he has a disarming smile, and intelligent blue eyes to go with a brown bomber jacket, jeans and a heavily-weathered if handsome face.
The thrust of Bottoms’ argument is that Mena was a small airfield from which a small drug operation took place over a small period of time during the 1980’s. Period. During our conversation over breakfast, we took no notes, but gauged, as best we could, the man.
And to our chagrin, we found we liked him. He seemed more a swashbuckling type than the kind of sleazeball we’ve all seen in movies like “Scarface.”
He made much of the fact that several of the principals in the Mena story, including, most notably, Terry Reed, were liars, people for whom he shared, along with Russell Welch, a fine contempt. He had even posted to the Internet his correspondence with Welch, from which one could glean a wary mutual respect.
I took two things from our inconclusive encounter. First I realized what true ‘babes in the woods’ most of us would-be truth-detectors must appear to people schooled in the arts of dissemination, as Bottoms has been. And, second, I wanted, despite the chill temperature, to crawl under our crew van to check for packages that weren’t there before.
Russell Welch arrived unannounced and without ceremony at our motel in Mena. He looked every inch the undercover investigator he no longer is: alert green eyes, slightly slouched, nondescript clothing. The man seems born to skulk.
What he agreed to do with us was this: go to dinner, but not eat dinner, at a local place called the Cutting Board, which served hamburgers the size of small flying saucers. Or of small fedoras, if you’re one of the few who has not yet seen (or been aboard) a saucer. He would talk to us, he said, but not with cameras present.
At this point, perhaps a word or two about Russell Welch for those of you tuning in late might be in order. Although hundreds of thousands of words have already been written about him, his story is not yet a well-known one.
Trooper Russell Welch of the Arkansas State Police was assigned to investigate drug smuggler Barry Seal in the early ’80’s. Seal had made the small Interregional Mountain Airport in Mena his home field. Thinking this not an entirely peachy idea, the State Police put Welch on the case.
Seal had been in Special Forces in the 60’s. In 1972, as a TWA pilot, he had been arrested for smuggling explosives for anti-Castro Cubans. Seal’s C-123K cargo plane, “The Fat Lady,” was procured by Seal from Air America, the known CIA subsidiary.
After Seal ‘sold’ the plane, it crashed in 1986, with Eugene Hasenfus on board. This marked the first public exposure of Oliver North’s secret contra war, set up in contravention of a Congressional Act, the Boland Amendment, which made such activity illegal.
There has been much talk about interference in Welch’s investigation, and about prosecutions which were subverted. Welch himself has been quoted to this effect. He had his career ruined by his seemingly quixotic quest to bring drug smuggling to a halt at the Mena airport. He is either a pitiful Dudley Do-Right, or an American hero of the first order.
After spending the briefest possible amount of time with him, I’m clear about where I come down on that question. I’d name my kid after him, had I one to name.
From this brief outline, several things should be clear to any meathead with the slightest hint of gray matter beneath his cap. A secret government operation was run out of this remotest possible outpost of the Empire. A “Bamboozle in the Boondocks.” Some of it involved drugs.
And nobody bothered to let Trooper Welch in on the joke.
The punch line was not too funny for Russell Welch. He ‘contracted’ anthrax, the military warfare biological agent variety. His doctor told him someone had sprayed it in his face. Then an FBI agent was about to arrest him for illegal wiretapping, but a local sheriff dissuaded him, on the grounds that Welsh had been in the hospital dying of anthrax at the time. (If you’re not Welch, some of this seems funny.)
Finally, Welsh retired from the Arkansas State Police. Alive. But not through lack of trying.
Today Welch is an understandably wary man. At dinner he outlined for us the way things went at Mena.
“The whole method of smuggling was an excellent system that Seal’s men had been carefully instructed in. Flying back, they would ‘kick drugs’ at a previously unknown spot. After the drugs were ‘kicked,’ the coordinates of the spot were given to a ground or a helicopter crew and they would then go to a remote area and pick them up. Then the planes would land back in Mena, and they would be clean.”
Welch pointedly mentions that Barry Seal was neither the first nor the last drug smuggler to call Mena home. We coaxed him, “So you’re saying there were smugglers here before…“
“Sure. Oh yeah. Before Seal and after Seal. And I assume there are smugglers here right now.”
Be still my beating heart… This is the first reference I’ve heard to current drug smuggling out of Mena Arkansas. Russell grins. He’s got a good sense of humor. “Its legal here.”
He goes on to relate a story about a local radio station with a Howard Stern wanna-be who had announced one morning that the big news that day was that the local prosecuting attorney had legalized cocaine out at Mena airport. You could tell Welsh was trying to be funny, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“Did it come as a surprise to you,” we asked him, “when the CIA finally admitted that they had conducted training at Mena?”
“That was something you knew?”
“Yeah, that was commonplace. But long long ago.”
“Are they telling everything?”
“No they’re not,” Welsh answers slowly. “They just mentioned this one two-week operation they had here, which I suspect was testing of an airplane. They had some top-secret spy plane out there, and the deputies caught them, and everyone at the airport knew what was going on, word got around, and so they eventually went to the local sheriff and gave him one of those little coins that they give to people who discover them.”
Here’s news! Coins! Ferret out a black op somewhere, and you’ll get a commemorative medallion.
“When the deputies drove up on them at the airport one of them swept the area with his flashlight and saw people standing around wearing those labsuits that look like spacesuits. It caused a bit of fear.”
Welsh is grinning again. “Part of that operation’s still here.”
But that’s it. Nothing more is clearly forthcoming. We change our tack. “The FBI tried to frame you for an illegal wiretap?”
“Yeah. Fortunately I was in the hospital dying at the time and muffed their case up a bit.”
“You were dying of anthrax, correct?”
“Yeah. That’s what I was diagnosed and treated for.”
“How did you find that out?
Welsh doesn’t grin this time. “Doctor says, ‘you’re dying,’ or words to that effect…”
We ask him about Bill Bottoms, and get another taste of reality, covert-style.
“Old Billy Bottoms is a liar. But Billy tells a lot of truth. Billy Bottoms is who he says he is.”
Ah. The art of disinformation.
“One of the biggest things Billy Bob is doing wrong is not saying in posts that he’s limited, that he doesn’t know everything. This operation with Barry Seal isn’t the limit of what took place here. Barry Seal was very limited. Barry is a cocaine smuggler, he got busted, he rolled over, he got burned and then he got killed. Barry Seal wasn’t in charge of nuthin.’
“From 1984 on, Barry Seal is trying to stay out of prison. Struggling to keep his importance, struggling with Billy Bottoms’ buddy Jake Jacobson that he (Bottoms) stayed with after Seal was dead, begging him for something to keep him important. Something that will keep him important in the DEA’s eyes, and then they dumped him in July of ’84, and that’s when he really started struggling–he’s trying to help them find Pablo Escobar.
And when Duncan and I interviewed him in December of ’85, he was a scared desperate man. He wasn’t in charge of nothing. He is trying to stay alive. He knew a contract was out on him then. He talked about it. He’s trying to stay out of prison. And he’s scared to death of Arkansas. Because he wasn’t protected; he was protected everywhere, except at the state level in Arkansas.”
“Was that because of you?”
“Because of me. He talks about it in the transcription of my and Duncan’s interview with him. It was almost a defeatist attitude. Like, I’m a dead man anyway. And two months later, he was a dead man.”
Welsh was passionate now, and he went on to talk about the numerous congressional subcommittees, “every subcommittee that’s been through here–four or five of them–are independent hotshot investigations to expose everything–and all they end up exposing is witnesses.”
He mentioned the name of one, relating how she had been exposed to peril after being assured of something he referred to as “a congressional umbrella.” He snorted derisively. “I’m not sure that there is such a thing. They dumped her, they forgot about her, but she was exposed for what she did.”
Welch stands angrily. We’re uncertain what comes next. Its getting late. Maybe we’ve had our interview. “C’mon,” Welch says. “I’ll give you a tour of the airport.”
Midnight ride to Mena
We have no tape recording of what follows, so paraphrases are inexact. Even if we had been carrying a recorder, Welch pulled the old trick of cranking the radio up in his car as he drove us around the outside of the Interregional Mountain Airport.
But we caught, clearly, the gist of what he had to say. Mena is not about just things that went on in the early 80’s. Mena is about things that are going on right now.
“See that hangar?” he would say, pointing out this, or that building looming in the darkness. “That’s owned by…” And then there would be an anecdote.
“That’s owned by ______, who today owns almost half the airport,” he said at one stop on our tour. “He doesn’t exist in history back past a safe house in Baltimore in 1972.”
Or: “That hangar’s owned by ____ ___ . He smuggled heroin through Laos back in the Seventies.”
Or: “That hangar’s owned by a guy who just went bankrupt. So what’s he do? Flies to Europe for more money. Don’t tell me crime don’t pay!”
He shows us a half dozen lumbering Fokker aircraft parked on an apron. “The DEA’s been tracking those planes back and forth to Columbia for a while now.”
It goes on like this for a while. At the end, he seems spent, but satisfied. He looks over across the car seat at me. “You know how many nights I spent out here in the dark, watching planes take off and land?” he asks softly.
Then he tells me one of his secrets. He illustrates by getting out of the car, and walking over to a parked plane. As he exits, I notice a revolver lying on the drivers’ seat he’s just vacated. It seems that one of Trooper Welch’s few pleasures, back in those days when he was attempting to bring drug smugglers to heel, was, when the call of nature overcame him on his lonely night vigils, to relieve himself on the side of a plane that flew drugs in and out of American airspace with impunity.
It seems a perfect gesture. They may get you in the end, but, fuck it–piss on ’em. A rebel gesture, purely American. As American as–well, lets save that for the big close. Trooper Welch’s eyes grow solemn, even in the dark.
“I could tell you what’s going on, but when you leave here, I’m still here with my family. And just the fact that you’re going to do a television show, that may not even mention me or anything you got from me…just the fact that you’re going to do it is gonna cause me a bunch of shit. It always has, and it always will. Its gonna cause me problems that you can’t even define.”
The Missing Drug Drop
We had made our pilgrimage to Mena. And we felt duly chastened by what we think we learned. But the tale we set out to tell, after all, was a little story that should belong to its two main protagonists, Linda Ives and Jean Duffy.
Linda Ives, mother of one of the slain boys, has made a crusade out of finding his killers and bringing them to justice. She thinks she’s fulfilled the first of those two objectives. Its the second one she wonders about.
“This is not just a case of local corruption,” she says with quiet determination. “We knew that early on because the state police just weren’t doing their job. Then there were Federal investigations, and we were promised indictments would come out of them. But they were shut down too.
“Who has the power to shut down a federal investigation?” she demanded.
“We too had heard about Barry Seal’s operation dropping drugs and cash around the state. We made contact with a pilot who claimed to have many times flown the drop at the place where my son died. Local law enforcement was in charge of securing those drops, he told us.
“And just prior to Kevin and Don’s deaths a drop at that location had gone missing…so local law enforcement was on Red Alert. They were waiting for somebody to try to steal their next drop. And Kevin and Don happened by. Several witnesses place two police officers beating up two boys at a little grocery store right by where they found the boys’ bodies…
“I believe that Kevin and Don were grabbed by these two officers, interrogated, and subsequently killed.”
“These two officers, whom I believe to be Kirk Lane and Jay Campbell, are Pulaski County narcotics officers. They are good friends with (former Clinton friend and convicted drug distributor) Dan Lasater, and have flown in his jet many times.
“I believe the reason these investigations have gone nowhere is because of the connections of the two officers seen beating and kicking those boys, Kirk Lane and Jay Campbell, to Dan Lasater, and on up to Bill Clinton, and I also believe these connections filter down to the criminals and thugs that are public officials to this day here in Saline county.
“I believe that the evidence is overwhelming that Bill Clinton knew what was going on in Mena Arkansas and made no effort to investigate or eradicate it.”
In a more measured but no less impassioned way Jean Duffey largely concurs.
“Did you ever in your wildest dreams while you were in law school,” we asked her, “entertain the idea that the U.S. Government condoned smuggling drugs?”
“No,” she responds. ” I did not.”
“Who is responsible, ultimately, for those boys’ deaths? Where did the chain of command end?”
She hesitates. “In my opinion, I believe it began with the CIA smuggling drugs, so whoever was giving the command might be who is ultimately responsible.”
“Is there any explanation you can think of for seven thwarted investigations into the Train Deaths other than government complicity in drug smuggling in Arkansas?”
“Absolutely no other explanation.”
“Was Barry Seal a big enough drug smuggler to conduct a drug smuggling operation that involved drug drops near those train tracks with the regularity to provoke citizen complaints about low flying aircraft?”
“But you clearly believe the people responsible for those two boys’ deaths were working for someone else?”
“And that they were involved in a criminal enterprise of surprising scope and sweep?”
“Where does that lead you to speculate?”
“As a prosecuting attorney I had to stick to the facts. But prior to getting to a jury I’m allowed to speculate, and process all the information I have from whatever direction it comes. What in my opinion has been involved is a CIA or rogue CIA operation, conducted by the CIA or CIA operatives. To smuggle drugs into the United States from South America, using Barry Seal’s drug smuggling operation in Mena.
Duffey stopped a moment, surprised, I believe, at the thoughts she was voicing. Then she continued. “I believe there is a possibility that Oliver North was involved with the National Security Council; that Oliver North was working for….
A noise startled her. She stopped. I called for the cameraman, in some exasperation, to stop tape. Jean looked at me, and although we had been having a conversation for over an hour now, it was as if she saw me for the first time.
“I have not talked about this before,” she protested.
“But everyone else has,” I answered.
“I’m not the one to answer questions about Oliver North smuggling drugs in the Iran/Contra affair,” she stated tentatively.
Then, I witnessed something that felt extraordinary. I watched as she let herself go… Her voice grew stronger as she continued: “Again, sticking to the facts, I know that when North was before Congress in the Congressional Hearings about the Iran/Contra affair, two questions came up about Mena Arkansas. And both times, the investigation went into closed door session…
“Now, if Oliver North had not been involved in Mena, wouldn’t he have simply said, ‘No, I don’t know anything about Mena?”
“Why did the committee go behind closed doors? That’s a fact that can’t be ignored.”
“This is an opinion now I’m asking for,” I told her. “If Oliver North, or someone on Oliver North’s level, had not been involved in Mena, there would not have been a Mena, would there?”
“That’s a reasonable assumption that I would have to agree with.”
“And if there had been no Mena, there would have been no train track deaths either, would there?”
She blinked. I wasn’t sure if she knew where I was leading with these questions, but she sensed it was somewhere she wanted to think very closely about first.
“That’s not as clear cut,” she said slowly. “There could still have been the murders.”
“Let me try it this way,” I said. “Was even a powerful drug smuggler like Barry Seal big enough to have conducted a drug smuggling operation with the regularity to provoke citizen complaints about low flying aircraft?”
“Probably not. And in fact, it wasn’t until the time frame after Oliver North got involved in Mena that there was so much drug activity, low flying planes, over those train tracks.”
I took a deep breath. “So, does it seem at all possible to you, that if Oliver North had not been charged with flying guns to the contras and bringing back cocaine that could be then sold to finance the contra war,that those two boys might still be alive today?”
There was a long silence. Then, almost in a whisper, she replied. “It seems apparent that they would be.”
The Secret History
So, we’d stared into the Heart of Darkness. The Heart of Darkness had stared right back.
Allegations and speculation are not proof. The truth, indeed, is still out there.
But, for what little they’re worth, here are my speculations about our journey into the secret history of our life and times.
I don’t believe that the ‘drug smuggler’ Billy Bob Bottoms is any more a drug smuggler than you or I. I believe him to be a paid representative of the government of the United States of America acting under the doctrines of plausible deniability. Why? Just a hunch. I liked him too much. He was a Navy pilot. His brother in law Barry Seal was a Special Op guy. These were our best and our bravest men.
Here’s what I would like to know. Who convinced men like Bear Bottoms that what they were doing was in the best interests of our country? What valid reasons might there be for our country’s national security apparatus to be involved in the drug industry? Unless someone steps forward to make the argument for why this might be in our national interest, I’ll wonder.
And here’s what I’ve learned. Some things we’ll never know for sure. The opposition’s way too good for that. For example, I’m convinced, to the depths of my heart, that there was a coup d’etat in the United States of America in 1963. That the bad guys never got caught. And that, chances are, they still run things.
I will never, as long as I live, forget our ‘Midnight ride to Mena,’ seated beside tour guide and American hero Russell Welch. I’m convinced that what I saw there that night was a fully functional and operational secret government installation.
By that, I do not mean a secret installation of the government of the United States of America. Unh-uh. What I believe I saw, and what I believe exists in Mena, Arkansas today... is an installation of the secret government that runs the government of the United States of America.
And here’s what I suspect: that today, long after Oliver North has become nothing but a minor league radio DJ… and long after the contra war is just a fading memory of yet another minor league war, our government–yours and mine–is going about the lucrative worldwide business of drug production and distribution.
It’s the secret heartbeat of America. And it’s as American as apple pie.
All rights reserved.
[Daniel Hopsicker has now finished the TV documentary mentioned in this story, as well as a book. A tape of the documentary as well as a pre-publication version of the book are available through the Washington Weekly web site at http://www.federal.com.]
Published in the May 12, 1997 Issue of The Washington Weekly. Non-commercial reposting permitted with this message intact.
Aug. 18, 1997
The Washington Weekly
CIA Linked To Seal’s Assassination
George Bush’s Personal Phone Number Found in Seals’ Trunk
By: Daniel Hopsicker
“The biggest drug smuggler in American History was a CIA Agent.”
That’s the mind-boggling conclusion of a 6-month investigation into the life and death of Barry Seal, a pivotal figure of the Iran/Contra ’80s. Seal’s C123 military cargo plane figured prominently in two of the biggest and least-understood events of the decade, the Sandinista ‘drug- sting’ operation, designed to be the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Incident’ in a US- Nicaragua war, and the downing, six months after Seal’s assassination, of his beloved Fat Lady cargo plane over Nicaragua, with Eugene Hasenfus onboard, precipitating what came to be known, mistakenly, as Iran/Contra.
We have learned that the official cover-up of Seal’s CIA affiliation began before his body was cold.
Until now, the ‘official version of events’ retailed the popular legend of Barry Seal’s assassination, with Seal being gunned down by Colombians on a Medellin cartel hit.
Three Colombians were convicted of his murder, and while their cartel connections have been revealed to the world, their connection to Oliver North’s Enterprise has not. The ‘shooter team’ was armed by somebody with long experience with shooter teams, Miami CIA asset Jose Coutin, whose Miami gun shop also supplied weapons to the Contras.
They are part of what we call the Secret History; that is, that history of our life and times in which lone gunmen do NOT play any significant role.
Speculation has long been that Seal was assassinated, not on cartel orders, but at the behest of the CIA. But unless the Medellin cartel was giving orders to the FBI, which confiscated and then withheld evidence in Seal’s capital murder investigation in Baton Rouge Louisiana of February 1986, the ‘conspiracy theorists’ among us may turn out to be right: the CIA ordered the hit on Seal.
The Medellin ‘hit’ story has always had one big flaw: who would dare to kill one of the CIA’s own? Recall, for example, what the KGB did in Lebanon in the 80’s when one of their agents was kidnapped in the Bekaa Valley: if you didn’t hear that grisly story of Russian-retaliation-via- human-dismemberment, you were fortunate.
So a cartel hit on a CIA Agent is a dubious proposition. But the Medellin Cartel fulfilling the contract has always made a certain sense, at least to those who understand that the most important doctrine of American Foreign Policy is not the Monroe Doctrine, but the Doctrine of Plausible Deniability.
When, for example, the Gambino Family (to cite another organized crime syndicate) finds it necessary to enforce discipline by ‘splashing’ one of their own, they may contract it out to another ‘outfit.’ But woe betide the organization that takes it on itself to kill one of their own without permission.
Our investigation, with some of its evidence presented here for the first time, proves that the biggest cocaine smuggler in American History, Barry Seal, was a CIA Agent. So, would the Medellin Cartel risk the wrath of the CIA to kill Seal?
Other than those whose cars get waved through the checkpoints at Langley Virginia, there has been only one person until today in a position to find out. And he had his doubts about the cartel-hit cover story, as well.
His name is Sam Dalton, and he was the New Orleans attorney who represented the Colombian hit men who killed Seal in the penalty phase of their trial. Sam Dalton subpoenaed the CIA about what he suspected was its complicity in Seal’s assassination in a court of law.
The “conspiracy theorists” among us (you know who you are) were right
.”We were trying to subpoena the CIA because we felt like they had documents, exhibits, and evidence that would indicate complicity in Seal’s assassination,” Dalton says slowly.
Through discovery, his investigation gained access to something more valuable than gold, the contents of the trunk of Barry Seal’s Cadillac on the night he died, and discovered that a cover-up was underway before Seal’s body had grown cold in the Baton Rouge morgue.
“The FBI went into the Baton Rouge Police Department and literally and physically seized the contents of that trunk from the Baton Rouge Police. In fact, the Baton Rouge Police probably would have had to draw their guns to keep possession of that trunk,” Dalton says today, in an explosive interview on the just-released 2-hour TV special “The Secret Heartbeat of America.”
His voice slows further, his words growing more deliberate. “And, actually, by law, the Baton Rouge Police should have done that, but they didn’t.”
Why didn’t they? What was there about Barry Seal that led the FBI and the CIA to refuse to cooperate with state officials in the most publicized assassination in Louisiana history?
Dalton wanted to know. And so he began a legal battle to gain access to the evidence seized. Even he sounds surprised that he was, eventually, at least partly successful.
“They (the CIA and FBI) wouldn’t even honor the subpoena,” he states, about the demands of the trial judge for the return of the seized evidence.
But then a wild card entered the picture, as wild cards often do in America, even today, in the form of a courageous state judge. “It wasn’t until a state judge really backed them up, and threatened to hold them in contempt, that they partially complied.”
Dalton described the brinkmanship necessary to gain access to what the defense should have had as a matter of course during discovery.
“If it hadn’t been for a good state judge, with enough courage to back the federal government up,” Dalton stated, “we’d have never gotten inside that trunk. He (the judge) made them give us that trunk back.”
And when the FBI finally did turn over the contents of the trunk they had obviously ransacked it first, Dalton says. “Some of the things that had been in it we didn’t get back.”
Then Dalton’s voice turns positively gleeful. “But they had missed a few things that indicated just how valuable that trunk was. Because that’s where that phone number was. That’s where we found George Bush’s private phone number. “
“They were regularly talking to each other very seriously over what was probably a secure phone,” he states.
“Barry Seal was in direct contact with George Bush.”
Barry Seal and George Bush? Could they have been, secretly, one of Washington’s Fun Couples of the ’80’s?
Lewis Unglesby is today one of the most powerful and well-known attorneys in Louisiana. But back in 1986, he was just a 36-year-old lawyer who represented Barry Seal, and who, Unglesby himself admits, was made by Seal to operate on a “need-to-know basis.”
“I sat him down one time,” recalls Unglesby, talking about his relationship with Seal, “and said: I cannot represent you effectively unless I know what is going on. Barry smiled, and gave me a number, and told me to call it, and identify myself as him (Seal.)
I dialed the number, a little dubiously, and a pleasant female voice answered: ‘Office of the Vice President.'”
“This is Barry Seal,” Unglesby said into the phone.
“Just a moment, sir,” the secretary replied. “Then a man’s voice came on the line, identifying himself as Admiral somebody, and said to me, ‘Barry, where have you been?'”
“Excuse me, Sir, “Unglesby replied, “but my name is Lewis Unglesby and I’m Barry Seal’s attorney.”
There was a click, Unglesby relates. The phone went dead. “Seal just smiled when I looked over at him in shock, and then went back to treating me on a need-to-know basis.”
(The Admiral in question might well have been Admiral Daniel Murphy, assigned to work in the Office of the Vice President, from which numerous reports state Contra operations were masterminded.)
But this is not just a case of (yet another) official cover-up of the murder of a quasi-public official, Barry Seal. There is strong evidence that the murder was not just covered-up, but orchestrated by the very same people who later trooped dutifully up Capital Hill to lie to the United Stages Congress about what became known as the Iran/Contra. Scandal.
Consider, for example, the simple mathematics of the hit team. Seven people were arrested in connection with Seal’s assassination. But only four men were charged with the crime, and only three were convicted. The fourth Colombian charged, although presumably guilty at the least of conspiracy to commit murder, was extradited to Columbia.
And what are we to make of the evidence of George Bush’s personal phone number in Seal’s possession at the time of his death? Is this some historical anomaly, upon which experts will eternally disagree? What was George Bush’s knowledge and involvement in cocaine smuggling under the pretext of national security carried out in Mena Arkansas?
The complete answer waits another day, but consider this: pretend that your unlisted phone number had been found with the body of the biggest drug smuggler in American History. What sort of questions might the police ask you?
The story of Barry Seal, drug smuggler, is well known today, at least in its outlines. What hasn’t been known before now is much about the story of Barry Seal, CIA Agent.
We spoke with one of the three government witnesses in the penalty phase of the Colombians’ trial whose testimony was so damning about Seal’s activities on behalf of the federal government that two jurors attempted to change their verdict to ‘not guilty.’
In our television special, Sam Dalton has this to say about this man: “If all our government people were as courageous as he was, we wouldn’t have the problems today in this country that we have.”
Ten years ago, this man knew as much about Barry Seal’s drug-smuggling activities as anyone alive. Today this man holds an important and sensitive government position requiring anonymity, and thus requested anonymity when we interviewed him.
Attorney Sam Dalton offers another bombshell. “Lieutenant ______ caught Seal smuggling drugs red-handed at the docks, and the DEA and the CIA showed up, and told the state police to butt out, and took over the operation.” Its not known if the DEA or CIA ever made efforts to charge Seal for this crime, but we wouldn’t bet on it.
“Barry’s involvement in Contra re-supply began way before the commonly accepted date of 1983,” this source told us in a matter-of-fact tone. We asked him of his knowledge of Seal’s CIA connections. “Barry’s been a spook since 1971,” he stated calmly. “In fact, Barry goes all the way back to the Bay of Pigs.”
Ten years ago, honest state law enforcement officials in affected states like Louisiana and Arkansas were outspoken in their condemnation of what they saw as officially-sanctioned drug smuggling in Mena Arkansas.
Yet, ten years ago, the cocaine continued to flow.
Today, courageous San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb has been relegated to writing obituaries in Cupertino, California for his refusal to “get with the program.”
But others have stepped forward to continue the fight to expose the scandal that swirls around the CIA, the Contras, and cocaine, and particularly on the Mena, Arkansas front on this battleground to know the truth.
Today, new sources like Sam Dalton are coming forward with forthright testimony to add to the voluminous evidence and testimony that already exists, testimony ranging from US Congressmen (former Ark. Rep. Bill Alexander) to state police (Arkansas State Criminal Investigator Russell Welch), to former drug pilots, that have testified that the CIA operation Barry Seal set up in Mena was used, and is still being used, to smuggle drugs with official sanction into the United States of America.
Today, all this is already known.
And today, the cocaine continues to flow.
[A video tape version of the TV documentary is available for purchase. For more information, see the Washington Weekly web site at http://www.federal.com/aug11-97/ad.html]
Published in the Aug. 18, 1997 issue of The Washington Weekly. Copyright © 1997 The Washington Weekly (http://www.federal.com). Reposting permitted with this message intact.
Book by Daniel Hopsicker
"Barry & 'the Boys': The CIA, the Mob and America's Secret History"
Based on the author’s three-year-long investigation, this account exposes the story of lifelong CIA agent Barry Seal, the most successful drug smuggler in American history, who died in a hail of bullets with George Bush’s private phone number in his wallet. Revealing Seal’s active role in many of the nation’s most notorious scandals—including the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and the Iran-Contra Affair—and featuring primary documents previously unseen by the public, this unique history explores the Faustian bargains made by the U.S. government and the secret pasts of some of today’s politicians.”
Book Cover Photograph
This photograph was taken in a nightclub in Mexico City on 22nd January, 1963. It is believed that the men in the photograph are all members of Operation 40. Closest to the camera on the left is Felix Rodriguez. Next to him is Porter Goss and Barry Seal. Tosh Plumlee is attempting to hide his face with his coat. Others in the picture are Alberto ‘Loco’ Blanco (3rd right) and Jorgo Robreno (4th right).