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.