Kornbluh Testimony (1996/10/19)


Testimony of

Peter Kornbluh
Senior Analyst
National Security Archive

October 19, 1996

Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald, members of the Black and Hispanic Caucus, and the Select Committee on Intelligence, I want to thank you for affording me the opportunity to both testify at, and be witness to, this important hearing.

The name of my organization, the National Security Archive, sounds like the type of government agency that might be involved in this scandal. I can assure you that we are not. We are a public interest documentation center, specializing in obtaining the declassification of internal national security documentation and making it available to Congress, to journalists and to concerned citizens to enhance the public debate over foreign policies that are conducted in our name but often without our knowledge.

The Archive--which is nonpartisan and does not take a position on legislation--often deals with documents that are classified TOP SECRET for national security reasons but that, in truth, have no real bearing on the security of our nation. Today, however, I am happy to have the opportunity to share with you declassified White House documents which indeed address a real and present danger to the national security of this country, to the security of our cities, of our households, and to the health, well- being and personal security of each and every citizen in this room-- the scourge of drugs.

Let me say at the outset that I cannot speak to, nor provide evidence for, the allegations that are stated and implied in the San Jose Mercury News stories. Internal U.S. government documents on the early years of the contra war that might shed light on the issues reported by Gary Webb have not been declassified. Hopefully, public pressure brought on the CIA, the Justice Department, the National Security Council and the Drug Enforcement Agency will result in the release of those documents.

But I can and will address the central premise of the story: that the U.S. government tolerated the trafficking of narcotics into this country by individuals involved in the contra war.

To summarize: there is concrete evidence that U.S. officials-- White House, NSC and CIA--not only knew about and condoned drug smuggling in and around the contra war, but in some cases collaborated with, protected, and even paid known drug smugglers who were deemed important players in the Reagan administrations obsessed covert effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Exactly two years ago this weekend, this issue came up during Oliver North's failed run for Virginia's U.S. Senate seat. The Washington Post ran an article which I have included in your packet suggesting that North had failed to give important information on the contras and drugs to the DEA. In response, Mr. North called a press conference where he was joined by Duane Clarridge, the CIA official who ran the contra operations from 1981 through mid 1984, and the former attorney general of the United States, Edwin Meese III. Mr. North called it a "cheap political trick...to even suggest that I or anyone in the Reagan administration, in any way, shape or form, ever tolerated the trafficking of illegal substances." Mr. Clarridge claimed that it was a "moral outrage" to suggest that a Reagan Administration official "would have countenanced" drug trafficking. And Mr. Meese stated that no "Reagan administration official would have ever looked the other way at such activity."

The documentation, in which Mr. North, Mr. Clarridge and Mr. Meese all appear, suggests the opposite. Let me review it here briefly:


Oliver North's own diaries, and internal memoranda written to him from his contra contact, reveal explicit reports of drugs trafficking.

On April 1, 1985, Oliver North was informed by his liaison with the contras, Robert Owen, that two of the commanders chosen by the FDN to run the southern front in Costa Rica were probably, or definitively "involved with drug running."

On July 12, 1985, Oliver North was informed that the contras were considering the purchase of arms from a supplier in Honduras. The $14 million that the supplier had used to finance the guns, "came from drugs."

On August 9, 1985, Oliver North was informed that one of the resupply planes being used by Mario Calero, the brother of the head of the largest contra group the FDN, was "probably being used for drug runs into [the] U.S."

On February 10, 1986, North was informed by his liaison Robert Owen that a plane being used to run materials to the contras was previously used to run drugs, and that the CIA had chosen a company whose officials had a criminal record. The company, Vortex Aviation, was run by Michael Palmer, one of the biggest marijuana smugglers in U.S. history, who was under indictment for ten years of trafficking in Detroit at the same time as he was receiving more than $300,000 in U.S. funds from a State Department contract to ferry "humanitarian" aid to the contras.

In not one of these cases, Congresswoman Millander- McDonald, is there any record of Oliver North passing this important intelligence information onto proper law enforcement or DEA officials. Out of the tens of thousands of documents declassified during the Iran-Contra investigations, there is not a telephone message slip, not a memo, not an e-mail, nor a letter.

We also know that Mr. North, who you remember thought it was a "neat idea" to use the Ayatollah Khomeini's money to fund the contras, was predisposed to use drug monies to fund the contras when they ran short of cash. In 1984, during a drug sting the DEA was attempting against leaders of the Medellin Cartel, he asked two DEA agents if $1.5 million in cartel money aboard an informants plane could be turned over to the contras. The DEA officials just said no.


The case of José Bueso Rosa demonstrates the lengths to which high White House and CIA officials were willing to go to protect an individual who fit the classic definition of a "narco- terrorist." General Bueso Rosa was involved in a conspiracy to import 345 kilos of coke into Florida--street value $40 million. Part of the proceeds were to be used to finance the assassination of the president of Honduras. I think most people in this room would agree that a major cocaine smuggler and would-be international terrorist such as General Bueso Rosa should be locked up for life. But because this general had been the CIA's and the Pentagon's key liaison in Honduras in the covert war against Nicaragua, North, Clarridge, and others in the Reagan administration sought leniency for him. As North put it in an e-mail message U.S. officials "cabal[ed] quietly to look at options: pardon, clemency, deportation, reduced sentence." The objective of our national security managers was not to bring the weight of the law down on General Bueso, but to "keep Bueso from...spilling the beans." By the way, he ended up serving less than five years in prison--in a white collar "Club Fed" prison in Florida.


It is the documentation on U.S. relations with another Latin American general, General Manuel Noriega in Panama, that most clearly demonstrates the shameless attitude of the highest U.S. national security officials toward major drug smuggling into our cities. General Noriega is currently serving 40 years in prison for narcotics trafficking. All of us in this room remember that General Noriega's involvement with the Medellín Cartel was so significant that President Bush ordered the U.S. military to invade Panama to arrest him, at the cost of American lives, Panamanian lives and hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 1989 invasion of Panama was codenamed Operation Just Cause. But in 1986, when U.S. officials had the same evidence of Noriega's career as the Cartel's man in Panama, the Reagan administration appeared to have another kind of "Just Cause" with Gen. Noriega.

Shortly after the New York Times published a front page story titled "Panama Strongman Said to Trade in Drugs, Arms, and Illicit Money," General Noriega contacted Oliver North with a quid pro quo proposal: help him "clean up his image" and he would have his covert agents undertake major sabotage operations against economic targets inside Nicaragua.

Instead of telling Noriega that he should rot in jail--as most everybody in this room would have done--Oliver North supported this quid pro quo proposal; indeed North even wanted to pay General Noriega one million dollars, yes, one million dollars in money diverted from the sale of arms to Iran, to carry out these sabotage operations (which the contras would have then taken credit for). In one of the most striking, and candid, electronic mail messages ever written inside the White House, North wrote to his superior, National Security Adviser John Poindexter that

"You will recall that over the years Manuel Noriega and I have developed a fairly good relationship....The proposal sounds good to me and I believe we could make the appropriate arrangements."

And Admiral Poindexter authorized North to jet off to London to meet secretly with Noriega and work out the details on U.S. help to "clean up his image" and collaboration in the covert war. As Poindexter declared in his electronic response: "I have nothing against Noriega other than his illegal activities."


Representative Millender-McDonald and other members of the panel, this is but some of the documented evidence we have of the attitudes and actions of high U.S. officials toward narcotics trafficking and traffickers during the covert war against Nicaragua. While these records do not address the issue of who knew what, when, here in California, they do demonstrate a rather shocking pattern of government behavior that demands an accounting.

The key question, it seems to me, is how that accounting can, and should take place over both the short and long term future. Allow me to conclude with several brief recommendations:

First, members of Congress should call on the President to authorize his Intelligence Oversight Board to conduct a six month inquiry into the questions of official knowledge, tolerance, and complicity in drug trafficking during the covert operations against Nicaragua during the 1980s. With all due respect to the inspector general of the Justice Department and the CIA, an internal investigation is not likely to result in the public disclosure of information required to lay this scandal to rest. The Intelligence Oversight Board is a far more independent body, and far more likely to conduct a thorough investigation that can be declassified along with supporting documentation for a public accounting.

Second, while you, and other Representatives patiently wait on CIA director John Deutch to complete his internal review, you should demand that the CIA immediately declassify a previous internal investigation and report that the agency completed in 1988. This report is already known to exonerate the CIA of wrongdoing. But declassifying it, and all the files on which it was built, is likely to give us a far greater sense of CIA awareness of contra/drug operations, and the action or inaction of Agency officials in the face of this awareness over the course a many years. If the CIA doesn't have anything to hide, it should have no problem releasing this documentation. Its refusal to do so up till now, I suggest to you, should set off the alarm bells throughout the halls of Congress.

Third, a number of files should be released by the Justice Department immediately. Those include files that were not turned over to the Senate Subcommittee chaired by John Kerry in 1987 and 1988, particularly the files related to the so-called Frogman case in San Francisco. Similarly the Justice Department should release its never-filed indictment against Norwin Meneses and all of the supporting prosecution files that went into drafting that indictment, as well as all records relating to why that indictment was never filed and is now locked away in a vault in San Francisco.

Fourth, all DEA investigative records on Meneses and Danilo Blandón should be declassified immediately. In the case of Blandón, the DEA must also release the files on his informant status, including documentation on the deliberations to make him a high- paid informant. The U.S. intelligence community just devoted considerable resources to addressing the scandal of the CIA paying a known torturer and assassin in Guatemala as an informant. Having a major California drug dealer on the U.S. payroll as an informant strikes me as demanding at least as an equal accounting.

Finally, let me say that although the National Security Archive takes no position on legislation, I would personally hope that the political and social organization and mobilization that has been generated by public concern and the commitment of individuals like Rep. Millender-McDonald, Rep. Maxine Waters, Senator Barbara Boxer and others, will address the broader debate over the future of covert operations and intelligence reform. When you think about it, all of the CIA's major covert wars--in Indochina, in Afghanistan, and in Central America--have had as their byproducts drug trafficking and addiction. As the issue we are addressing here today suggests, all too often, covert operations conducted against some obscure enemy abroad have returned home to haunt the very people whose security they are ostensibly designed to protect.

This scandal provides an opportunity--and a challenge--for the American public to protect themselves from their protectors so that five, ten, or twenty years from now, we will not be sitting again in this gymnasium attempting to redress future crimes of state.

Thank you.