The new film, American Made, revives one of the most stunning stories of corruption, chaos and futility in the war on drugs. Participants in the scandal included Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. Only a handful of journalists – particularly Roger Morris, Sally Denton, Ambrose Evans Pritchard and Mara Leverett – took the story seriously and kept it alive. The Progressive Review reported their findings. Here are some our clips:
1992 – The Arkansas Gazette reported in 1987 that local, state and federal agencies were investigating a drug- smuggling ring that used the Mena airport as a base of operations from 1981 to 1986. The ring was allegedly run by Barry Seal, who became a DEA informant in 1984.
Long-time Washington correspondent Sarah McClendon wrote this February: “Col. Oliver North masterminded certain phases of the [Mena] operation, most of the time working under the alias of John Cathey. Also participating was Felix Rodriguez, Bush crony from CIA days, who used the alias of Max Gomez…
In a letter to the Arkansas Committee this January, former Polk County deputy prosecuting attorney Brent Haltom wrote: “I did.. .make an in-person request to Governor Clinton for any available state-level financial aid to assist in the local-level effort to investigate the rather wide array of illegal activities. To the best of my recollection, Governor Clinton’s verbal response was to the effect that he would have someone (not identified to me) check on the availability of financial aid and get word to me. “Thereafter, I never personally received any word or information, from anyone, that any amount of state funds was available. Quite frankly, even if I had been made aware that $25,000 was available, that specific amount would have been tantamount to trying to extinguish a raging forest fire by spitting on it.”
1993 – In September 1993, just two months after the death of Vince Foster, Clinton campaign security operative Jerry Parks was shot and killed in Little Rock in a gang style slaying. The story received virtually no attention save for a few journals including the Progressive Review. The murder remains unsolved. Now word comes that the man whom Park’s widow, Lois Jane Parks, later mArried – Dr David Millstein – has also been murdered by an assailant with a knife and police are investigating.
Ambrose Vince Pritchard – In the late 1980s Vince trusted Parks enough to ask him to perform discreet surveillance on the Governor. “Jerry asked him why he needed this stuff on Clinton. He said he needed it for Hillary,” recalled Jane. . .
Later, during the early stages of the presidential campaign, Parks made at least two trips to the town of Mena, in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas. Mena had come up in conversations before. Jane told me that Parks had been a friend of Barry Seal, a legendary cocaine smuggler and undercover U.S. operative who had established a base of operations at Mena airport. Parks had even attended Seal’s funeral in Baton Rouge after Seal was assassinated by Colombian pistoleros in February 1986.
One of the trips was in 1991, she thought, although it could have been 1992. The morning after Jerry got back from Mena she borrowed his Lincoln to go to the grocery store and discovered what must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars in the trunk. “It was all in $100 bills, wrapped in string, layer after layer. It was so full I had to sit on the trunk to get it shut again,” she said.
“I took a handful of money and threw it in his lap and said, ‘Are you running drugs?’ Jerry said Vince had paid him $1000 cash for each trip. He didn’t know what they were doing, and he didn’t want to know either, and nor should I. He told me to forget what I’d seen.”. . .
Contact with Foster was rare after he moved to the White House. But he telephoned in mid-July 1993, about a week before his death. He explained that Hillary had worked herself into a state about “the files,” worried that there might be something in them that could cause real damage to Bill or herself. The conversation was brief and inconclusive. Jerry told Vince Foster that there was indeed “plenty to hurt both of them. But you can’t give her those files, that was the agreement.” Jerry did not seem too perturbed at the time.
A few days later Foster called again. . .
“You’re not going to use those files!” said Jerry angrily. Foster tried to soothe him. He said he was going to meet Hillary at “the flat” and he was going to give her the files. “You can’t do that,” said Parks. “My name’s all over this stuff. You can’t give Hillary those files. You can’t! Remember what she did, what you told me she did. She’s capable of doing anything!”
“We can trust Hil. Don’t worry,” said Foster. . .
The rambler-style home of the Parks family was swarming with federal agents on the day after Jerry’s assassination. Jane remembers men flashing credentials from the FBI, the Secret Service, the IRS, and, she thought, the CIA. Although the CIA made no sense. Nothing made any sense. The federal government had no jurisdiction over a homicide case, and to this day the FBI denies that it ever set foot in her house.
But the FBI was there, she insisted, with portable X-ray machines and other fancy devices. An IRS computer expert was flown in from Miami to go through Jerry’s computers. Some of them stayed until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. The men never spoke to Jane or tried to comfort her. The only conversation was a peremptory request for coffee. . .
With the help of the Little Rock Police Department the FBI ransacked the place, confiscating files, records, and 130 tapes of telephone conversations–without giving a receipt. “I’ve asked them to give it all back, but the police refuse to relinquish anything. They told me there’s nothing they can do about the case as long as Bill Clinton is in office.”. . .
I do not pretend to understand why Jerry Parks was murdered. But the indications that the Parks case is somehow intertwined with the death of Vincent Foster is surely compelling enough to warrant a proper investigation. Instead, nobody cares to learn what Mrs. Parks has to say.
1995 – One of the biggest stories in town has yet to be published. “The Crimes of Mena,” by Sally Denton and Roger Morris, is a well-documented account of drug and Contra operations in Arkansas during the 80s. It was finally pulled by the authors after eleven weeks of internal sturm und drang at the Washington Post. The paper’s bosses were split, with the Sunday Outlook section wanting to run with the piece but being overruled by higher-ups. In fact, Outlook was prepared to pay its highest price ever for the story. While portions of the Mena affair have been reported elsewhere (including here), the Denton/Morris piece is significant in two ways. First, it is based on more than 2000 documents from the files of ex-drug smuggler – and sometime intelligence asset — the late Barry Seal. This is the most extensive collection of evidence yet about the role of Arkansas as a sort of domestic narco-republic during the 1980s. Second, its appearance in the Washington Post would have provided credibility to the Mena story – necessary for those journalists and establishment figures who heel to the Post much as many right-wingers follow the lead of Limbaugh and Robertson. To have run the story would have marked a major turn in the Post’s take on Whitewater. As recently as last July, it published a lead Style section piece making fun of the Mena affair, saying “allegedly dark deeds at Mena have helped foster a cult of conspiracy that has taken root among some of Clinton’s more virulent opponents.” The Denton/Morris story tells of “literally hundreds of millions of dollars in drug profits” being developed by the Mena operation, of CIA involvement, and of nine different official investigations being stifled under two presidents (Reagan and Bush) and one governor (Clinton). The story does not directly implicate Clinton but raises deep questions. As one law enforcement official noted, Clinton may be the first president to have such close buddies who were targets of intense narcotics investigations. Yet in sum, Mena has much more in common with the multi-faceted and bipartisan corruption of the S&L scandal or BCCI than with a who-done-it. There may be no smoking gun here, only a shocking tale of how America’s political and intelligence establishment became partners with the international drug trade it was purporting to battle.
Why did the Post pass up this blockbuster? There are a number of theories. One is that it would have caused too much trouble for its pals at the CIA. Another is that the Post is still trying to keep the Clinton administration from drowning — and shrank from the prospect of causing it further damage. Perhaps it was a combination of motivations, including a realization of how the story would hurt Americans’ faith in their elite. In any case, it was a futile effort as this story will soon be published in a national magazine and Denton and Morris will finally get the credit the Post denied them.
Journalist Evans-Pritchard will describe the Arkansas of this period as a “major point for the transshipment of drugs” and “perilously close to becoming a ‘narco-republic’ — a sort of mini-Columbia within the borders of the United States.” There is “an epidemic of cocaine, contaminating the political establishment from top to bottom,” with parties “at which cocaine would be served like hors d’oeuvres and sex was rampant.” Clinton attends some of these events.
According to former CIA officials David MacMichael and Ray McGovern, Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who had trained Nicaraguan Contra pilots in the early eighties, and who is facing a long sentence after a federal drug conviction in Florida, makes his way to the White House’s National Security Council to make the following proposition to officials there. He would fly his own plane to Colombia and take delivery of cocaine. He would then make an emergency landing in Nicaragua and make it appear that Sandinista officials were aiding him in drug trafficking. Seal made it clear that he would expect help with his legal problems. The Reagan White House jumps at the offer. Seal’s plane is flown to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where it was fitted with secret cameras to enable Seal to photograph Nicaraguan officials in the act of assisting him with the boxes of cocaine.
On January 17, the U. S. Attorney for the Western District drops a money laundering and narcotics-conspiracy charges against associates of drug smuggler Barry Seal over the protests of investigators Russell Welch of the state police and Bill Duncan of the Internal Revenue.
In a letter to U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese, the Louisiana attorney general wrote, Barry Seal “smuggled between $3 billion and $5 billion of drugs into the U.S.”
The operation goes as planned. The photos are delivered to the White House, and a triumphant Ronald Reagan goes on national TV to show that the Sandinistas are not only Communists but also criminals intent on addicting America s youth.
Seal is scheduled to testify at the trial of Jorge Ochoa Vasques. But on February 19, 1986, shortly before the trial is to begin, Seal is murdered in Baton Rouge gangland style by three Colombian hitmen armed with machine guns who attack while he seated behind the wheel of his white Cadillac in Baton Rouge, La. The Colombians, connected with the Medellin drug cartel, are tried and convicted. Upon hearing of Seal’s murder, one DEA agent says, “There was a contract out on him, and everyone knew it. He was to have been a crucial witness in the biggest case in DEA history.”
According to the London Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “Seal was probably the biggest importer of cocaine in American history. Between 1980 and his assassination in 1986, his team of pilots smuggled in 36 metric tons of cocaine, 104 tons of marijuana and three tons of heroin, according to a close associate of Seal. The sums of money involved were staggering. At his death, Seal left a number of operational bank accounts. One of them, at the Cayman Islands branch of the Fuji Bank, currently has an interest-earning balance of $1,645,433,000. ”
Roger Morris & Sally Denton, Penthouse Magazine – Seal himself spent considerable sums to land, base, maintain, and specially equip or refit his aircraft for smuggling. According to personal and business records, he had extensive associations at Mena and in Little Rock, and was in nearly constant telephone contact with Mena when he was not there himself. Phone records indicate Seal made repeated calls to Mena the day before his murder. This was long after Seal, according to his own testimony, was working as an $800,000-a-year informant for the federal government.
Roger Morris & Sally Denton, Penthouse Magzine – Tax records show that, having assessed Seal posthumously for some $86 million in back taxes on his earnings from Mena and elsewhere between 1981 and 1983, even the l.R.S. forgave the taxes on hundreds of millions in known drug and gun profits over the ensuing two-year period when Seal was officially admitted to be employed by the government.
Roger Morris & Sally Denton, Penthouse Magazine – Arkansas state trooper Larry Patterson [would later testify] under oath, according to the London Sunday Telegraph, that he and other officers “discussed repeatedly in Clinton’s presence” the “large quantities of drugs being flown into the Mena airport, large quantities of money, large quantities of guns,” indicating that Clinton may have known much more about Seal’s activities than he has admitted.
1996 – Jim Leach of the House Banking Committee is reported running into stonewalling on the grounds of “national security” as he investigates drug smuggling and money laundering out of Mena, Arkansas. As Insight magazine points out in its January 29 issue, there have been nine separate federal and state probes over the last decade that “have managed to establish that Mena was indeed the center of a brazen narcotics-trafficking operation.
1997 – In his book, The Secret Life of Bill Clinton, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard quotes an ex-drug pilot as saying that he once brought a Cessna 210 full of cocaine into eastern Arkansas where he was met by a state trooper in a marked police car. “Arkansas,” he said, “was a very good place to load and unload.” Later Evans-Pritchard wrote:
“n my first visits to Arkansas, I could smell that something was wrong. The place reminded me of Central America, a sort of anglophone Guatemala, where a corrupt and violent political machine operated behind the scenes. People dissembled in interviews, instinctively. The deeper I looked, the clearer it became that the Dixie Mafia had a foothold in official Arkansas, and that intimidation was part of the culture.
“Dissident members of the Arkansas State Police provided me with stacks of confidential reports showing that one of Mr. Clinton’s biggest financial backers during his assent to power . . .had been under investigation for international drug-trafficking. . .
1997 – Progressive Review editor Sam Smith interviews Billy Bear Bottoms, pilot for Barry Seal, who, until he was murdered, was considered by some the biggest illegal drug importer. Bottom thinks this is inflated but says that Seal “testified in a trial in Las Vegas that he had made about 50 trips of 300 kilos each. His transportation fee was $5,000 per kilo. We actually only made about 25 trips.” The transportation fee alone works out to $1.5 million a trip or $75 million for 50 trips; half that for 25. [That would be about $2.7 million a trip in today’s dollars
1999 – From “Partners in Power” by Roger Morris: “[Key investigators] Duncan and Welch watched the Mena inquiry systematically quashed and their own careers destroyed as the IRS and state police effectively dissolved their investigations and turned on them. ‘Somebody outside ordered it shut down,’ one would say, ‘and the walls went up.’ Welch [a state trooper] recorded his fear and disillusion in his diary on November 17, 1987: ‘Should a cop cross over the line and dare to investigate the rich and powerful, he might well prepared himself to become the victim of his own government. The cops are all afraid to tell what they know for fear that they will lose their jobs.'”
1999 – Bill Duncan: An IRS investigator in Arkansas who drafted some 30 federal indictments of Arkansas figures on money laundering and other charges. Clinton biographer Roger Morris quotes a source who reviewed the evidence: “Those indictments were a real slam dunk if there ever was one.” The cases were suppressed, many in the name of “national security.” Duncan was never called to testify. Other IRS agents and state police disavowed Duncan and turned on him. Said one source, “Somebody outside ordered it shut down and the walls went up.”
1999 – Russell Welch: An Arkansas state police detective working with Duncan. Welch developed a 35-volume, 3,000 page archive on drug and money laundering operations at Mena. His investigation was so compromised that a high state police official let one of the targets of the probe look through the investigative file. At one point, Welch was sprayed in the face with poison, later identified by the CDC as anthrax. He would write in his diary, “I feel like I live in Russia, waiting for the secret police to pounce down. A government has gotten out of control. Men find themselves in positions of power and suddenly crimes become legal.” Welch is no longer with the state police.
1999 – Jean Duffey was head of a joint federal-county drug task force in Arkansas. Her first instructions from her boss: “Jean, you are not to use the drug task force to investigate any public official.” Duffey’s work, however, led deep into the heart of the Dixie Mafia, including members of the Clinton machine. The local prosecuting attorney, Dan Harmon issued a subpoena for all the task force records, including “the incriminating files on his own activities. If Duffey had complied it would have exposed 30 witnesses and her confidential informants to violent retributions. She refused.” Harmon issued a warrant for her arrest and friendly cops told her that there was a $50,000 price on her head. She eventually fled to a secret address in Texas. The once-untouchable Harmon was convicted in June 1997 of five counts of racketeering, extortion and drug dealing.
2001 – In 1984, a Clinton bodyguard, state trooper L.D. Brown, applied for a CIA opening. Clinton gave him help on his application essay including making it more Reaganesque on the topic of Nicaragua. According to Brown, he met a CIA recruiter in Dallas whom he later identified as former member of Vice President Bush’s staff. On the recruiter’s instruction, he also met with notorious drug dealer Barry Seal in a Little Rock restaurant, later joining Seal in flight to Honduras with a purported shipment of M16s and a return load of duffel bags. Brown got $2,500 in small bills for the flight. Concerned about the mission, Brown consulted with Clinton who said, “Oh, you can handle it, don’t sweat it.” On second flight, Brown found cocaine in a duffel bag and again he sought Clinton’s counsel. Clinton allegedly said to the politically conservative Brown, “Your buddy Bush knows about it” and of the cocaine, “that’s Lasater’s deal.”
2001 – In 1985, Clinton established the Arkansas Development Finance Authority that would become, in the words of one well-connected Arkansan “his own political piggy bank.” Though millions of dollars were funneled to Clinton allies, records of repayments would be hazy or non-existent. . . Later, an investigator found evidence of an electronic transfer of $50 million from the Arkansas Development Financial Authority to a bank in the Cayman Islands.
2001 – In 1989 Terry Reed filed a civil action against Buddy Young, chief of the Clinton security detail and later a top FEMA official. Reed argued that he had been framed after trying to pull away from his involvement in the Iran-Contra machinations. . . One estimate was that ten million dollars were passing through Mena every week. Patterson said the matter was repeatedly discussed in front of Clinton by his bodyguards. Patterson said the governor had “very little comment to make; he was just listening to what was being said.” Reed’s case unraveled when the state judge ruled that no evidence regarding Mena, the CIA, Dan Lasater, the Arkansas Development Finance Agency, or the Clintons would be permitted.
2009 – As one examined the story, it was clear even back then that there were major ties to other major scandals such as BCCI and the savings & loan crisis, forerunners of current mass fiscal manipulation gone awry. The state of Arkansas was laundering money in Grand Cayman, which had a population of 18,000, 570 commercial banks, one bank regulator and a bank secrecy law. Foreign investors helped to set up a bank in a small town near the major drug center at Mena. One secretary told told an IRS investigator that she was ordered to obtain numerous cashier’s checks, each in an amount just under $10,000, at various banks in Mena and surrounding communities, to avoid filing the federal currency transaction reports required for all bank transactions that exceed that limit. Bank tellers testified before a federal grand jury that in November 1982, a Mena airport employee carried a suitcase containing more than $70,000 into a bank. “The bank officer went down the teller lines handing out the stacks of $1,000 bills and got the cashier’s checks.”
With a few exceptions like Roger Morris, Sally Denton, Mara Leverett and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, reporters haven’t wanted to touch it and have spent their efforts instead creating a benign Clinton myth. Clinton was – like a typical prohibition era politician – a beneficiary and peripherally complicit at the very least through studied indifference, but in a sense he was really just part of the background. He was a window into the real story: how a huge part of the American economy – created by the crudely misnamed War on Drugs – operated in just one state.