Cocaine Politics

Book Review:

By Kathy Mitchell
February 1992; pages 14-15; Volume 3, No. 3
Cocaine Politics

By Peter Dale Scott and
Jonathan Marshall
Berkeley: University of
California Press
1991, 279 pp.


In the fall of 1991, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt another blow to the Christie Institute's five year attempt to hold Richard Secord, Costa Rican gunrunner John Hull and others accountable in court for the bungled assassination of Costa Rican guerilla leader Eden Pastora.

The Institute, a public interest law firm, filed a civil suit early in 1986, shortly before Iran-Contra became a public scandal. Dismissing the case in 1988 without a trial, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King of Miami leveled the Institute with nearly $1 million in legal fees and court costs, payable to former Army General John Singlaub, Secord, Albert Hakim and the rest of the gang.

For the national security administration, anti-communism superseded all other national security interests, including its much publicized war on drugs.

Despite more recent corroborating testimony before the Tower and Kerry Commissions, press coverage from Miami to California continues to accept King's judgment that the charges "were based on unsubstantiated rumor and speculation from unidentified sources with no first-hand knowledge."

Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, in their recent book Cocaine Politics, provide a carefully researched and meticulously documented analysis of the CIA's drug connections. This reviewer is not convinced that the Christies shouldn't be lashed for utter naivete, and for a woefully sloppy presentation of evidence. They seem shocked that a judge would throw their tractor-trailer full of papers out of court, although they pressed a trial without their most important witnesses. The press coverage of their suit has done little to deepen the public's knowledge of the CIA, while it has greatly discredited the evidence put forward by numerous other reporters from Miami to Los Angeles. Scott and Marshall let the Christies off lightly - and so they too must feel the scorn of a Polemicist.

Silencing the Opposition

However, they do remind us that the Institute is not guilty of bringing unfounded charges. The Institute filed suit in the spring of 1986, but by December its witnesses had been effectively silenced. The central witness, Jack Terrell, backed off from earlier sworn testimony on the advice of his lawyers, who feared that Terrell himself would be indicted by the Justice Department. King waived use of transcripts of his first sworn testimony, because they had been reprinted as a Christie Institute publication.

Terrell first testified as a defense witness in a Costa Rican libel suit sworn by John Hull against journalists Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan after they broke the story of the Pastora assassination attempt. The judge in that case dismissed all libel charges, and Terrell became a key witness in the Institute's counter charges. Brought to Washington from New Orleans by members of Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry's staff, then investigating the Contra gun-running cover-up centered in Miami, Terrell became an important witness for the Kerry Commission and source for press reports on CIA-drug connections. He also became a target for Lt. Col. Oliver North's National Security Council (NSC), as the book details.

Using the almost unlimited powers of his position as head of the secret counter-terrorism unit, the Operations Sub-Group (OSG), North placed Terrell under constant surveillance while attempting to prove that he had threatened to kill President George Bush, according to Scott and Marshall.

Documented with footnoted newspaper accounts, studies and interviews, the book describes the fate of other witnesses. Terrell's friend Joe Adams faced indictment by the FBI, although he was a witness in one of the Bureau's own cases. Steven Carr, who claimed to have actually seen cocaine during an arms transfer, was found dead in December 1986, amid press accounts, later proven false, that he had swallowed large amounts of cocaine. Three autopsies concurred that no cocaine had been ingested, although they could not agree on a cause of death. Jesus Garcia, another key witness for the Kerry Commission, stopped talking after a bomb exploded outside his family home.

With this unequal fight in mind, we see why the authors have taken such an uncritical stance on both the Institute and the Kerry Commission's report. They note that the report, "nearly unassailable, but incomplete," suffered from the constraints of time and "politics." Although Sen. Kerry's agreement with Senator David Boren, D-Okla., of the Intelligence Committee eliminated any serious investigation of CIA proprietary companies, they credit the Kerry Report for a number of significant findings - among them that John Hull, a "central figure in Contra operations on the Southern Front," was involved in cocaine trafficking. This book fills in many gaps in the Kerry Report, particularly surrounding the CIA. They might at least have mentioned that the report came out right after - rather than right before - the election of our CIA President, George Bush.

Invisible Border Agreements

Essentially an elaboration on the earlier, seminal work The Iran-Contra Connection, co-authored by Scott, Marshall and Jane Hunter, the new book paints a sensitive and plausible portrait of the Central American cocaine milieu, secured by its complex relations to the CIA, the National Security Council (NSC) and dozens of corrupt Central American officials.

In Central America, the protection available to traffickers who aligned themselves with the CIA, shaped and encouraged the drug trade, much as tariffs and border agreements shape other capitalist markets.

Scott and Marshall avoid simplistic conspiracy theories. They instead sketch out the framework that supported the inconstant and shifting alliances among drug lords, petty schemers, anti-communist civilians, international groups like the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) and U.S. covert operators.

The CIA and the NSC, dedicated to the suppression of communism wherever it might arise, have formed alliances to support Afghani guerrillas and Chilean dictators, Peruvian land-owners and Contra rebels, with or without the permission of Congress, as the book notes. Changes in the individual players have done little to change the shape of a game driven by a consistent, hard-line ideology. For the national security administration, anti-communism supersedes all other national security interests, including its much publicized war on drugs.

Scott and Marshall note that according to a GAO study the Afghan border was not a major heroin supplier for the U.S., and the drug was virtually unknown in Pakistan, until the Afghan war. By 1984, the area supplied 50 percent of the heroin sold in the U.S., and Pakistan boasted 650,000 addicts. In Central America, the protection available to traffickers who aligned themselves with the CIA, shaped and encouraged the drug trade, much as tariffs and border agreements shape other capitalist markets. Skills acquired as a CIA field operator could be transferred to drug smuggling. One former CIA commando claimed in 1982 that his trainees "were actively sought out by other people in the drug trade because of their expertise."

CIA veterans from operations in the Congo, the Bay of Pigs and elsewhere parlayed their CIA contacts into protection traded for tips on their rivals. One CIA/Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation, DEACON, attempted to use CIA drug "assets" for a broad spectrum of both political surveillance and drug investigation. In fact, drug enforcement always took a backseat in such partnerships. While the operation busted no drug runners, it did prompt an official review suggesting that the DEA begin to regulate "the level of drug trafficking permissible for an asset."

As the 1970s wore into the '80s, the distinction between the DEA and the CIA blurred even further. In Mexico for example, according to the book, the CIA required the DEA to turn over a list of its contacts and formally coordinate operations. Its most important political contact, Miguel Nazar Haro, head of the Direccion Federal de Seguridad (DFS), found protection through the CIA for both drug smuggling and auto theft as long as he supplied political intelligence.

Clearly the NSC and the CIA did not lack vision. Articulated by World Anti-Communist League leaders like Singlaub, and disseminated by the Moonie-controlled daily, the Washington Times, the untimely anti-communist message rang out. Americans, however, were unconvinced, requiring Reagan's NSC to enforce its vision at the expense of an exploding number of cocaine-addicted American children.

By the time he left the DFS in 1982, Nazar had successfully rationalized and centralized the drug market as a protected government operation. No longer dependent on his personal influence, the connections between the CIA, the DFS and drug traffickers continued once the new Mexican administration came to office.

The DEA, meanwhile, constantly lost the larger struggle to set intelligence priorities. Cocaine Politics carefully documents the complete withdrawal of the DEA from its field office in Honduras in 1983, after a two-year investigation into Honduran government drug trafficking. DEA field officers found high-level government collusion with a known trafficker who turned the country into a center for Central American cocaine trade from 1982-84. The same trafficker, however, also ran SETCO, the CIA's Contra-supply airline. The authors quote a DEA agent, who told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, "The Pentagon made it clear that we were in the way. They had more important business." Newly appointed DEA section chief Ed Heath withdrew the entire Honduran field office, claiming a funding problem.

At its best, the book connects CIA and NSC priorities with the governmental and covert structures they helped create. Structural continuity allowed different cartels and individuals to assume control of the drug market during different phases of American policy. For example, as Congressional support for the Contras waned - and the NSC assumed "unofficial" relations with the same networks - the government officials gave up some of their competitive edge to private marketers.

At its worst, Cocaine Politics slips occasionally into a Who's Who of the underworld that is probably most useful as a desk reference. At times the multilayered references connecting foreign government officials (or their relatives or their business partners) to drug runners (or their CIA trainers or their relations or their business partners) to members of the U.S. national security apparatus (or former members or their trainees or their relatives or their business partners) can be distracting. In some instances, detailed relationships might have been better explained in a footnote.

With over 60 pages of footnotes, the text does provide hundreds of sources for information on the various traffickers. The footnotes also contain elaborate support for their general thesis that the War on Drugs was none other than the same old war on Central America, painted in more palatable colors.

From the Military Review, they quote in one footnote. "Those church and academic groups that have slavishly supported insurgency in Latin America would find themselves on the wrong side of the moral issue. Above all, we would have the unassailable moral position from which to launch a concerted offensive effort using Department of Defense (DoD) and non-DoD assets ... Instead of responding defensively to each insurgency on a case-by-case basis, we could act in conrt with our allies ... Instead of debating each separate threat, we can begin to see the hemisphere as a whole and ultimately develop the vision that has been sorely lacking."

Clearly what the NSC and the CIA did not lack was a vision. Articulated by World Anti-Communist League leaders like Singlaub, and promulgated by the Moonie-controlled daily paper the Washington Times, the rabid and untimely anti-communist message was unmistakable. The American people, however, were unconvinced by the mid-80s, requiring Reagan's national security administration to enforce its vision at the expense of an exploding number of cocaine-addicted American children. Cocaine Politics provides important documentation for the war on people behind the war on drugs.