Meet the CIA: Guns, Drugs and Money
counterpunch.org · by
On November 22, 1996, the US Justice Department indicted General Ramón Guillén Davila of Venezuela on charges of importing cocaine into the United States. The federal prosecutors alleged that while heading Venezuela’s anti-drug unit, General Guillén smuggled more than 22 tons of cocaine into the US and Europe for the Calí and Bogotá cartels. Guillén responded to the indictment from the sanctuary of Caracas, whence his government refused to extradict him to Miami, while honoring him with a pardon for any possible crimes committed in the line of duty. He maintained that the cocaine shipments to the US had been approved by the CIA, and went on to say that “some drugs were lost and neither the CIA nor the DEA want to accept any responsibility for it.”
The CIA had hired Guillén in 1988 to help it find out something about the Colombian drug cartels. The Agency and Guillén set up a drug-smuggling operation using agents of Guillén’s in the Venezuelan National Guard to buy cocaine from the Calí cartel and ship it to Venezuela, where it was stored in warehouses maintained by the Narcotics Intelligence Center, Caracas, which was run by Guillén and entirely funded by the CIA.
To avoid the Calí cartel asking inconvenient questions about the growing inventory of cocaine in the Narcotics Intelligence Center’s warehouses and, as one CIA agent put it, “to keep our credibility with the traffickers,” the CIA decided it was politic to let some of the cocaine proceed on to the cartel’s network of dealers in the US. As another CIA agent put it, they wanted “to let the dope walk” – in other words, to allow it to be sold on the streets of Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
When it comes to what are called “controlled shipments” of drugs into the US, federal law requires that such imports have DEA approval, which the CIA duly sought. This was, however, denied by the DEA attaché in Caracas. The CIA then went to DEA headquarters in Washington, only to be met with a similar refusal, whereupon the CIA went ahead with the shipment anyway. One of the CIA men working with Guillén was Mark McFarlin. In 1989 McFarlin, so he later testified in federal court in Miami, told his CIA station chief in Caracas that the Guillén operation, already under way, had just seen 3,000 pounds of cocaine shipped to the US. When the station chief asked McFarlin if the DEA was aware of this, McFarlin answered no. “Let’s keep it that way,” the station chief instructed him.
Over the next three years, more than 22 tons of cocaine made its way through this pipeline into the US, with the shipments coming into Miami either in hollowed-out shipping pallets or in boxes of blue jeans. In 1990 DEA agents in Caracas learned what was going on, but security was lax since one female DEA agent in Venezuela was sleeping with a CIA man there, and another, reportedly with General Guillén himself. The CIA and Guillén duly changed their modes of operation, and the cocaine shipments from Caracas to Miami continued for another two years. Eventually, the US Customs Service brought down the curtain on the operation, and in 1992 seized an 800-pound shipment of cocaine in Miami.
One of Guillén’s subordinates, Adolfo Romero, was arrested and ultimately convicted on drug conspiracy charges. None of the Colombian drug lords was ever inconvenienced by this project, despite the CIA’s claim that it was after the Calí cartel. Guillén was indicted but remained safe in Caracas. McFarlin and his boss were ultimately edged out of the Agency. No other heads rolled after an operation that yielded nothing but the arrival, under CIA supervision, of 22 tons of cocaine in the United States. The CIA conducted an internal review of this debacle and asserted that there was “no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.”
A DEA investigation reached a rather different conclusion, charging that the spy agency had engaged in “unauthorized controlled shipments” of narcotics into the US and that the CIA withheld “vital information” on the Calí cartel from the DEA and federal prosecutors.
Disingenuous denial has long been a specialty of the Central Intelligence Agency. Back in 1971, one of John Deutch’s better known predecessors as director of intelligence, Richard Helms, addressed the American Newspaper Editors Association at a moment when the Agency had been accused of infiltrating new organizations and of running a domestic spying operation for President Richard Nixon. The nation, Helms told the assembled editors, “should take on faith that we too are honorable men, devoted to her service.” Helms was scarcely in hostile territory, any more than was John Deutch in the New York Times, the venue for his article asserting the innocence of the CIA. More than any other director, Helms was part of the Georgetown circuit, on close terms with such journalists as Joseph Alsop, James Reston, Joseph Kraft, Chalmers Roberts and C. L. Sulzberger. Helms would often boast of his days as a reporter for United Press, during which he had gotten exclusive interviews with Adolf Hitler and the ice-skater Sonja Henie.
Less than two years after his denials to the Newspaper Editors Association, Helms went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was grilled about the Agency’s involvement in Watergate. In response, he lied brazenly about Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy’s ties to the CIA. Though the chairman of the committee, Sen. William Fulbright, was rightly incredulous, Helms was not formally put on the spot.
This wasn’t the first time Helms, who led the Agency from 1966 through 1972, had lied, nor was it his most devious statement. Throughout the Vietnam War, Helms had withheld from Congress crucial information on the troop strength of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF, aka Viet Cong) developed by a young CIA analyst named Sam Adams. Adams’s numbers showed that support for the NLF in South Vietnam was much greater than the military’s estimates, so strong, indeed, that the war seemed to be unwinnable. Helms, however, sided with the military and sought unrelentingly to hound Adams out of the agency.
Later in 1973 the dapper spook again gave false testimony to Congress, this time about the CIA’s part in overthrowing Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. Of course, support for the coup against Allende was undertaken at the insistence of American corporations such as ITT and Anaconda Copper. The Agency is reported to have sent a drug smuggler to Santiago with a cash payment for a Chilean hitman endeavoring to assassinate Allende. In 1977 the Justice Department, headed by Carter appointee Griffin Bell, reluctantly charged Helms with perjury. The former CIA director took the advice of Washington superlawyer Edwin Bennett Williams and entered a plea of no contest. He was fined $2,000 and received a suspended sentence.
There were other historical counterpoints to Deutch’s protestations. In 1976, at one of the most fraught moments in the Agency’s relationship to Congress since its inception, Director William Colby (who had earlier blown the whistle on Helms’s lies about Chile) went before the Select Committee on Intelligence being run by Senator Frank Church of Idaho. This time the mood of Congress was sharper, prompted by Seymour Hersh’s exposés in the New York Times of domestic spying and also by charges that the CIA had been running an assassination program overseas.
Yes, Colby said, the possibility of using assassination had been entertained at the Agency, but at no time had it ever reached the level of successful practical application. As for domestic spying, there had been programs of mail surveillance and the like, but they were far from the “massive” operations alleged by Hersh, and they had long since been discontinued.
Colby was being typically modest. The CIA, through Operation CHAOS and similar programs, had compiled files on more than 10,000 Americans and kept a database with more than 300,000 names in it. It had wiretapped the phones of American reporters, infiltrated dissident groups and tried to disrupt anti-war protests. It spent $33,000 in support of a letter-writing campaign in support of the invasion of Cambodia.
As with the charges of complicity in drug running, the CIA’s role in assassination is one of those topics gingerly handled by the press or Congress from time to time and then hastily put aside, with the habitual claim that the CIA may have dreamed of it, thought about it and maybe even dabbled in it, but had never actually gone successfully all the way. But, in fact, the Agency has gone all the way many times, and we should look at this history in some detail since the pattern of denial in these cases strongly parallels the CIA’s relationship with the drug business.
There’s no dispute that the CIA has used assassination as a weapon lower down the political and social pecking order, as no one knew better than William Colby. He had, by his own admission, supervised the Phoenix Program and other so-called “counter-terror” operations in Vietnam. Phoenix was aimed at “neutralizing” NLF political leaders and organizers in rural South Vietnam. In congressional testimony Colby boasted that 20,587 NLF activists had been killed between 1967 and 1971 alone. The South Vietnamese published a much higher estimate, declaring that nearly 41,000 had been killed. Barton Osborn, an intelligence officer in the Phoenix Program, spelled out in chilling terms the bureaucratic attitude of many of the agents toward their murderous assignments. “Quite often it was a matter of expediency just to eliminate a person in the field rather than deal with the paperwork.”
Those killed outright in Phoenix operations may have been more fortunate than the 29,000 suspected NLF members arrested and interrogated with techniques that were horrible even by the standards of Pol Pot and Mobutu. In 1972 a parade of witnesses before Congress testified about the techniques of the Phoenix interrogators: how they interviewed suspects and then pushed them out of planes, how they cut off fingers, ears and testicles, how they used electro-shock, shoved wooden dowels into the brains of some prisoners, and rammed electric probes into the rectums of others.
For many of the Phoenix raids the agency employed the services of bandit tribes and ethnic groups, such as the Khmer Kampuchean Kram, the KKK. The KKK was comprised of anti-communist Cambodians and drug smugglers who, as one Phoenix veteran put it, “would kill anyone as long as there was something in it for them.” The KKK even offered to knock off Prince Sihanouk for the Americans and frame the NLF for the killing.
These American death squads were a particular favorite of Richard Nixon. After the My Lai massacre, an operation with all the earmarks of a Phoenix-style extermination, there was a move to reduce the funding for these civilian killing programs. Nixon, according to an account by Seymour Hersh, objected vociferously. “No,” Nixon demanded. “We’ve got to have more of this. Assassinations. Killings.” The funds were promptly restored, and the death toll mounted.
Even at the senior level of executive action Colby was being bashful about the CIA’s ambitions and achievements. In 1955 the CIA had very nearly managed to assassinate the Chinese Communist leader Chou En-lai. Bombs were put aboard Chou’s plane as he flew from Hong Kong to Indonesia for the Bandung conference. At the last moment Chou changed planes, thus avoiding a terminal descent into the South China Sea, since the plane duly blew up. The role of the CIA was later described in detail by a British intelligence agent who defected to the Soviet Union, and evidence recovered by divers from portions of the plane, including the timing mechanisms for two bombs, confirmed his statements. The Hong Kong police called the crash a case of “carefully planned mass murder.”
By 1960 Rafael Trujillo, president of the Dominican Republic, had become irksome to US foreign policy makers. His blatant corruption looked as though it might prompt a revolt akin to the upsurge that had brought Fidel Castro to power. The best way to head off this unwelcome contingency was to ensure that Trujillo’s political career cease forthwith, which in early 1961 it did. Trujillo was gunned down in his car outside his own mansion in Ciudad Trujillo. It emerged that the CIA had provided guns and training to the assassins, though the Agency took care to point out that it was not absolutely 100 percent sure that these were the same weapons that ultimately deposed the tyrant (who had been originally installed in power by the CIA).
At about the same time, CIA director Allen Dulles decided that the leader of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was an unacceptable threat to the Free World and his removal was “an urgent and prime objective.” For assistance in the task of banishing this threat the CIA turned to its own Technical Services Division (TSD), headed by that man of darkness, Sidney Gottlieb. Gottlieb’s division housed a horror chamber of labs whose researches included brain-washing, chemical and biological warfare, the use of drugs and electro-shock as modes of interrogation, and the development of lethal toxins, along with the most efficient means of applying these to the victim, such as the notorious poison dart gun later displayed before the cameras by Senator Frank Church.
In Lumumba’s case Gottlieb developed a bio-poison that would mime a disease endemic to the Congo. He personally delivered the deadly germs along with a special hypodermic syringe, gauze masks and rubber gloves to Lawrence Devlin, the CIA chief of station in the Congo. The lethal implements were carried into the country in a diplomatic pouch. Gottlieb instructed Devlin and his agents how to apply the toxin to Lumumba’s toothpaste and food. However, the CIA’s bio-assassins couldn’t get close enough to Lumumba, so the “executive action” proceeded by a more traditional route. Lumumba was seized, tortured and murdered by soldiers of the CIA’s selected replacement, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Lumumba’s body ended up in the trunk of a CIA officer who drove around Lumumbashi trying to decide how to dispose of it.
When it came to Fidel Castro, the Agency has spared no effort across a quarter of a century. Colby admitted to the Church committee that the agency had tried and failed to kill Castro several times, but not nearly as often as its critics alleged. “It wasn’t for lack of trying,” Colby observed. “Castro gave McGovern in 1975 a list of the attempts made on his life – there were about thirty by that time – as he said, by the CIA. McGovern gave it to me and I looked through it and checked it off against our records and said we could account for about five or six. The others – I can understand Castro’s feeling about them because they were all ex-Bay of Pigs people or something like that, so he thinks they’re all CIA. Once you get into one of them, then bingo! – you get blamed for all the rest. We didn’t have any connections with the rest of them, but we’d never convince Castro of that.”
Five or six assassination plots is a sobering number, especially if you happen to be the intended target of these “executive actions.” But even here Colby was dissembling. He certainly had the opportunity to consult a secret 1967 report on the plots against Castro by the CIA’s Inspector General John S. Earman, and approved by Richard Helms. The CIA had in fact hatched attempts on the Cuban leader even prior to the revolution. One of the first occurred in 1958, when Eutimio Rojas, a member of the Cuban guerrillas, was hired to kill Castro as he slept at a camp in the Sierra Maestra.
On February 2, 1959, Cuban security guards arrested Allan Robert Nye, an American, in a hotel room facing the presidential palace. Nye had in his possession a high-powered rifle equipped with a telescopic scope, and had been contracted to shoot Castro as he arrived at the palace. A month later Rolando Masferrer, a former leader of Batista’s death squads, turned up at a Miami meeting with American mobsters and a CIA officer. There this deadly conglomerate planned another scenario to kill Castro outside the presidential palace.
The agency tried to devise a way to saturate the radio studio where Castro broadcast his speeches with an aerosol form of LSD and other “psychic energizers.” Another plan called for dousing Castro’s favorite kind of cigars with psychoactive drugs. The doped cigars were kept in the safe of Jake Easterline, who headed the anti-Cuba task force in the pre–Bay of Pigs days, while he tried to find a way to deliver them to Castro without risking “serious blowback” to the Agency. The ingredients for both of these schemes were developed in the labs of Sydney Gottlieb. In 1967, Gottlieb told Inspector General Earman of another scheme in which he was asked to impregnate some cigars for Castro with lethal poisons.
During Castro’s trip to New York for an appearance at the United Nations in 1960, CIA agents attempted to pull off what is referred to as the “depilatory action.” The plan was to place thallium salts in Castro’s shoes and on his night table in the hope that the poisons would make the leader’s beard fall off. In high doses, thallium can cause paralysis or death. This scheme collapsed at the last minute.
By August 1960, the elimination of Castro had become a top priority for the leadership of the CIA. Allen Dulles and his deputy Richard Bissell paid Johnny Roselli, a Hollywood mobster and buddy of Frank Sinatra, $150,000 to arrange a hit on Castro. Roselli swiftly brought two more Mafia dons in on the plot: Sam Giancana, the Chicago gangster; and Santos Trafficante, the overseer of the Lansky/Luciano operations in Havana. Initially, the CIA recommended a gangland style hit in which Castro would be gunned down in a hail of machine-gun fire. But Giancana suggested a more subtle approach, a poison pill that could be slipped into Castro’s food or drink. Six deadly botulinum pills – “the size of saccharin tablets” – were cooked up in the CIA’s TSD labs, concealed in a hollow pencil and delivered to Roselli. On February 13, 1961, only a month after JFK’s inauguration, Trafficante took the botulinum pills to Havana and gave them to his man inside the Cuban government, Jorgé Orta, who worked on Castro’s executive staff and owed the mobsters large gambling debts.
Along with the pills, Trafficante also delivered a box of cigars soaked in botulinum toxin, which kills within hours. The cigars were prepared by Dr. Edward Gunn, chief of the CIA’s medical division. Gunn kept one of the cigars in his safe as a souvenir. He tested it for the Inspector General in 1967 and found it to have retained 94 percent of its original level of toxicity. The cigar was so deadly, Gunn said, that it need only be touched, not smoked, in order to kill its victim.
Trafficante later reported back that the pills and cigars weren’t given to Castro because “Orta got cold feet.”
In April, Roselli approached his CIA handlers with a new plan, demands for $50,000, and a new batch of pills. This time the operation would be carried out by Trafficante’s friend Dr. Manuel Antonio de Varona, leader of the anti-Castro Democratic Revolutionary Front. Verona and Trafficante had met through Edward K. Moss, the Washington, D.C. political fundraiser and influence peddler. Moss was pushing the cause of the Cuban exiles on the Hill, and he was sleeping with Julia Cellini, sister of the notorious Cellini brothers, Eddie and Dino, who were executives in Meyer Lansky’s gambling operations in the Caribbean. Varona smuggled the botulinum pills to a waitress at a restaurant frequented by Castro. But, according to CIA man Sheffield Edwards, the scheme failed when the Cuban leader suddenly “ceased to visit that particular restaurant.”
These mobsters are often referred to in CIA documents as the Havana gambling syndicate, after the casino hotels they ran there during the Batista regime. But the Mafia dons were also involved in a much more lucrative venture – drugs. Havana had become the key transfer point into the United States for much of the heroin produced by Lucky Luciano and by the Corsican syndicates in Marseilles. Lansky, who was Luciano’s money man in the States, offered to put out a $1 million contract on Castro’s head shortly after the revolution.
Over the next year, in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the CIA targeted Castro through its Executive Action Capability program, code-named ZR/RIFLE. This operation was headed by William “the Pear” Harvey, a former FBI man whom some suspected of being J. Edgar Hoover’s mole inside the CIA. Harvey, one of the real characters of the Agency’s formative years, was known for wearing his pistols to work at the office, slumbering through staff meetings and for his special animus toward Robert Kennedy, who he called “that little fucker.”
It was in late 1961 that Sam Giancana approached his CIA contact, a D.C.-based private detective named Robert Maheu, with a personal problem – he suspected his girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire, one of the McGuire Sisters singing group, of having an affair in Las Vegas with comedian Dan Rowan, of Rowan and Martin. In return for his assistance in the Castro assassination plots, Giancana wanted the Agency to bug Rowan’s Vegas hotel room. Rowan’s phone was duly wiretapped, but the recording device was discovered by a hotel maid, who informed the police. The Vegas police turned the matter over to the FBI, which wanted to prosecute Giancana for wiretapping. Ultimately, Robert Kennedy had to be told of the affair in order to call off the FBI.
Years later, Richard Bissell, the CIA’s deputy director for plans and architect of the Bay of Pigs disaster, said he regretted some of the Cuban ventures. Bissell told Bill Moyers, “I think we should not have involved ourselves with the Mafia. I think an organization that does so is losing control of its information. I think we should have been afraid that we would open ourselves to blackmail.” Moyers asked Bissell if it was only the association with the mobsters that troubled him, not the capability of the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders. Bissell replied: “Correct.”
Robert Kennedy, for one, didn’t share Bissell’s squeamishness. Kennedy, who was obsessed with the elimination of Castro, told Allen Dulles that he didn’t care if the Agency employed the Mob for the hit as long as they kept him fully briefed. Robert Kennedy would go to his grave defending the Agency. “What you’re not aware of is what role the CIA plays in the government,” RFK told Jack Newfield of the Village Voice shortly before his assassination. “During the 1950s, for example, many of the liberals who were forced out of other departments found a sanctuary, an enclave, in the CIA. So some of the best people in Washington, and around the country, began to collect there. One result of that was the CIA developed a very healthy view of Communism, especially compared to State and some other departments. They were very sympathetic, for example, to nationalist, and even socialist governments and movements. And I think now the CIA is becoming much more realistic, and critical, about the war, than other departments, or even the people in the White House. So it is not so black and white as you make.”
By 1963, Robert Kennedy’s friend Desmond Fitzgerald had taken over the Cuba operations from Harvey. Fitzgerald wasted little time in going after Castro. One of Fitzgerald’s first schemes was to have James Donovan, then negotiating the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, unwittingly deliver as a gift to Castro expensive scuba-diving gear. Sid Gottlieb treated the lining of the suit with a Madura fungus and implanted tubercle bacilli – a lethal concoction. At the same time Fitzgerald had been reading up on deep sea clams and had asked Gottlieb’s lab to rig some exceptionally attractive specimens with high explosives. The clams would then be dropped in an area were Castro frequently dived and rigged to explode when lifted.
In November 1963, the CIA’s Desmond Fitzgerald was in Paris to meet Rolando Cubela, an anti-Castro Cuban who is referred to in CIA documents as AM-LASH. Fitzgerald portrayed himself as an emissary of Robert Kennedy and asked Cubela for help in killing Castro. On November 22, Cubela was given a ballpoint pen rigged as a syringe filled with deadly Blackleaf-40, a high-powered insecticide composed of 40 percent nicotine sulfate. As the Inspector General’s report dryly notes, “It is likely that at the very moment President Kennedy was shot a CIA agent was meeting with a Cuban agent in Paris and giving him an assassination device for use against Castro.”
Fidel Castro was not the only target. There were also repeated attempts to assassinate his brother Raúl and Che Guevara. The CIA’s J. C. King pleaded with Allen Dulles to adopt a plan that would kill Fidel, Raúl and Che at the same time, “as a package.” Ultimately, Che, whom the Agency chased around the globe, was tracked down in the jungles of Bolivia. Present at his execution in 1967 was the CIA’s Fé1ix Rodríguez, an old Cuba hand who would later become a central figure in the Contras’ drugs-and-weapons operations at Ilopango air base in El Salvador.
Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, was reviled by many inside the Agency for purging some of the old guard. But Turner wasn’t really much of a reformer, and he had his own problems with truth-telling. In 1977, as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by investigative journalist John Marks, the CIA was forced to disclose the existence of seven boxes of information on the Agency’s twenty-year research program into psycho-active drugs and behavior modification, known as MK/ULTRA.
The discovery of the records by the Agency’s archivist came as a something of surprise to the CIA’s leadership, since Richard Helms in his last days as director had ordered the destruction of all of the MK/ULTRA documents. When Turner briefed congressional committees and the press, he insisted that the program had been phased out in 1963 and had only involved drug experimentation. In fact, MK/ULTRA and a host of similar projects persisted until at least 1973 and involved a quest to develop techniques for mind control, including electro-shock and psychosurgery. The CIA wanted to create a kind of “Manchurian candidate,” a roster of chemically and psychologically programmed assassins and spies.
Turner, who talked of bringing about a new openness at the Agency, quickly proved he was no friend of free speech when he attempted to suppress the publication of Decent Interval, a book by former CIA officer Frank Snepp. The CIA claimed Snepp had violated his employment agreement by not submitting the book to the Agency for approval prior to the publication. The CIA’s lawyers subsequently won a suit requiring Snepp to hand over all of his royalties to the government.
For pure thuggishness and criminality, it’s hard to find a better specimen than William Casey, the CIA’s director during most of the Reagan years. Casey went straight from the management of Reagan’s campaign into CIA headquarters at Langley, where he brought in some of the top public relations firms in the nation to advise him on how to sell his two pet projects, the Contras and the Afghani mujahedin, to a dubious American public. Casey called this work “perception management,” but it was really a domestic propaganda campaign, a psy-ops for the home folks.
On December 4, 1981, Reagan signed Executive Order 12333 on assassinations. It reads, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the U.S. government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassinations.” This legal restriction didn’t deter the new CIA leader, who at that very moment was busy advocating the elimination of Desi Bouterse, the leader of Suriname, a South American country that had entered in “the Cuban orbit.”
Likewise, Casey and his underlings were superintending the production of an assassination manual for the Nicaraguan Contras called Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare. The manual, which reads like an update of the Phoenix Program, called for the use of violence “to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets such as court judges, police and state security officials, etc.” It advised the Contras to develop “shock troops” to infiltrate Sandinista rallies. “These men should be equipped with weapons (knives, razors, chains, clubs, bludgeons) and should march slightly behind the innocent and gullible participants.” In an echo of the Mafia operations against Castro, the manual also called for the Contras to hire organized crime figures to carry out many of these delicate operations. “If possible,” the manual advised, “professional criminals will be hired to carry out selective ‘jobs.’” Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare wasn’t just an academic exercise: it was put into action. Twice the agency sent teams to assassinate Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel d’Escoto, a Catholic priest. On one occasion the would-be assassins tried to poison him with a bottle of Benedictine liqueur spiked with thallium, a favorite toxin of the agency. CIA agent Michael Tock was arrested by the Sandinistas for his role in one of the plots. When the New York Times finally got around to running a story on the murder manual, Reagan himself came to his old friend Casey’s defense, dismissing the matter as “much ado about nothing.”
Casey also put a $3 million bounty on the head of Sheikh Fadlallah, a Lebanese Shi’ite. Casey paid for the Saudis and a British arms technician to put a bomb in a car outside the mosque where Fadlallah was overseeing religious observances. They detonated it on March 8, 1985, at a moment when the bombers assumed that the shiekh had emerged. In fact he had dallied to talk with some of his congregation inside the mosque. The bomb killed 80 people, many of them schoolchildren, and wounded 200. The CIA and Saudis later paid Fadlallah a $2 million bribe not to retaliate.
The following year Casey took personal
control of an effort to kill Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, an obsession of the Reagan men. Casey’s deputy, Robert Gates, developed a plan for a US/Egyptian military takeover of Libya, a bold move that would “redraw the map of North Africa.” In the end, Casey went after Qaddafi himself. The Libyan leader’s movements were closely tracked in early April 1986 with the assistance of the Israeli Mossad. A pretext for a move against Qaddafi was confected in alleging Libyan responsibility for a bomb set off in the La Belle nightclub in Berlin that killed an American soldier, Sergeant Kenneth Ford. On April 14, nine F-111s were sent to attack Qaddafi’s compound with a payload of thirty-six laser-guided 2,000-pound bombs. The raid was timed to narrowly precede the evening news and a news release had been prepared to announce that Qaddafi’s death had been an accidental byproduct of this “act of self-defense.”
But the Libyan leader escaped, though two of his sons were maimed and his daughter and a hundred nearby residents were killed by the strikes. There were immediate denials that the Libyan ruler had been personally targeted. “There was no decision to kill Qaddafi,” Casey mumbled. “There are dissident elements inside Libya. They might have seen their chances to rise and launch a coup. I’m sorry that didn’t happen.” Casey later said that the raid on Libya was meant to send a message. “Like Castro and Ortega got the message when we hit Grenada, this attack will scare the hell out of Qaddafi.”
In subsequent years no CIA director has quite matched the appalling Casey. After Casey the job went to William Webster, who promptly certified Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega as an ally in the drug war. Webster, who spent much of his time on the tennis court, looked on as the collapse of the Soviet Union confounded half a century of CIA intelligence analysis. Bush’s choice to head the Agency was Casey’s deputy Robert Gates, who barely survived a contentious confirmation hearing after senators were told by Iran/Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s investigators that Gates probably lied to Congress about his knowledge of the Iran/Contra arms deals. Gates stood by as CIA-trained thugs overthrew the government of Haitian president Jean Baptiste Aristide and replaced him with a gang of military officers headed by Gen. Raoul Cédras. Gates’s CIA called Cédras one of the most promising “Haitian leaders to emerge since the Duvalier family dictatorship was overthrown in 1986.” Cédras and his colleagues proceeded to slaughter their political enemies and make millions from the drug trade.
With Clinton eventually came MIT academic and defense contractor John Deutch and his passionate defense of the Agency as the redoubt of honorable folk. Deutch was in more or less permanent denial during his tour at the Agency. Not only did he disclaim CIA involvement in the drug trade, but with equal heat he denied any Agency role in the murders in Guatemala of American Michael DeVine and rebel leader Efraín Bámaca. DeVine was kidnapped and beheaded in 1990. Bamaca was captured, tortured and killed in 1992. Both assassinations were ordered by Col. Julio Roberto Alpírez, who was on the CIA payroll. When State Department official Richard Nuccio attempted to investigate the matter, Deutch revoked his security clearance. Deutch also helped conceal information collected by his own analysts that more than 100,000 soldiers had been exposed to chemical weapons during the Gulf War and instead helped concoct the ruse that the Gulf War illnesses were merely the result of psychological stress.
In 1997 George Tenet assumed the helm of the Agency after Anthony Lake was forced to withdraw after failure to fully disclose his stock holdings in oil companies with a financial interest in Agency actions. Tenet is best known for his efforts to secure the assassination of Saddam Hussein. For this task Tenet employed a group known as the Iraqi National Accord. Failing to get anywhere near Saddam himself, this group took the easier road of leaving bombs in cinemas in Baghdad, killing a large number of people.
As such vignettes remind us, the Central Intelligence Agency is exactly what one would expect of an organization with a mandate stretching from the collection and analysis of intelligence data to the undertaking of subversion, manipulation of elections, assassination and the running of secret wars. Lying is part of the job description at the CIA, where falsehoods are regularly peddled to allies, the press, other federal agencies and Congress. “We’d go down and lie to them consistently,” says former CIA officer Ralph McGehee. “In my 25 years, I have never seen the agency tell the truth to a congressional committee.”
Agency officials have scant fear of being slapped on the wrist over their prevarications à la Helms. Joseph Fernández, CIA station chief in Costa Rica during the secret war against Nicaragua, lied about his role in channeling money and weapons to the Contras in violation of US law. So did Deputy CIA Director Clair George. Neither did time. “We’ve created a class of intelligence officers who can’t be prosecuted,” concluded Iran/Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.
Organizations such as the CIA require immersion in criminal milieus, virtually unlimited supplies of “black” or laundered money and a long-term cadre of entirely ruthless executives (some of them not averse to making personal fortunes from their covert activities). The drug trade is an integral part of such a world. The zones of primary production of opium and coca have fallen in contested zones of the Cold War: Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Andean countries. The drug distribution networks again passed through such contested territories as Afghanistan, Vietnam and Central America. The drug traders – from rural warlords in Laos to the Thai police and Honduran generals – were similarly of enormous interest to any intelligence agency. The drug money involved is both profuse and off the books.
The drug milieu is also, in its various stages of production and transmission, inevitably associated with organized violence, from enforcers to paramilitaries to guerrilla supervisors to military detachments to generals commanding their slice of the trade. All of these areas are once again central to the concerns of an organization such as the CIA. And the drug traders (unless they operate as an arm of government, as in Mexico) are often in opposition to the ruling power, a situation that is of paramount interest to a body such as the CIA.
From the perspective of the drug lords, an alliance with or employment by the CIA is equally fruitful. They can use CIA services to suppress their rivals and protect their turf. CIA proprietaries, such as Air America, can be used to provide access to international markets. And, despite Deutch’s protestations to the contrary, the CIA has repeatedly suppressed criminal investigations of its operatives by the US Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI.
Given these areas of mutual interest it is not surprising that since its inception the Central Intelligence Agency has been in permanent collusion with narco-traffickers, assisting their safe passage, protecting their activities, rewarding drug lords, hiring them for covert missions and using money derived from these operations for other activities. The fact that these drugs end up in American veins has never deterred the Agency and, given the hue of the skin often covering those veins, has perhaps even been seen as a positive outcome.
This essay is adapted from Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press.
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