Who Knew and How High Were They?

CIA and Cocaine:Truth and Disinformation, Part 2

Revolutionary Worker #884, Dec. 1, 1996

For years, the truth was suppressed. Now everyone is talking about how the U.S. government ran cheap cocaine into the U.S.--in particular into the Black communities --- and used the money to arm their dirty contra war of assassination and sabotage against Nicaragua.

For ten years, government leaders have pointed their fingers at the inner city, accusing the people--especially the youth--of causing a "drug epidemic." These same rulers have sent armies of cops to invade the ghettos and barrios, brutalizing the people. They have crowded their new prisons with a whole generation of Black and Latino youth--all in the name of a so-called "war on drugs."

And now evidence is coming out that suggests that these lying hypocrites were themselves the behind-the-scenes "kingpins" all along--that they were involved in creating the so-called "crack explosion."

People are demanding answers: Who in the U.S. government was involved in the cocaine trade? Who knew about it? Who gave the orders? Who got the money? Why did the West Coast ring of contra drug dealers target the Black communities, South Central L.A. and Compton, for their cocaine shipments?

The CIA denies its agents were involved in the drug trade. And major newspapers like the Washington Post and L.A. Times have been admitting that some contras sold cocaine, but they claim that there is no evidence that the CIA itself knew about or approved this drug trade.

In this RW series, we are examining the charges, the cover-ups and the evidence.

"Who has the airplanes?"

Last week, in Part 1 of this series, we documented some of the ways the CIA was involved in transporting cocaine and hiring airplanes of private drug smugglers to supply their contra war against Nicaragua. In the early 1980s, as the CIA's contra war was first starting, the CIA-linked airline Southern Air Transport flew flights directly into Colombia to pick up loads of cocaine. Then, in 1984, a law was passed in the U.S. Congress that said the CIA could no longer provide arms directly to the contras. In response, the U.S. State Department and CIA set up deals with several major drug traffickers based in Columbia, Honduras, and Miami. Testimony to the Senate's Kerry subcommittee documented details of some of these deals--in which the State Department paid $800,000 to four different Miami-based cargo and money-laundering operations owned by major drug dealers. Cargo airplanes controlled by these drug traffickers were hired to secretly supply the contras in Honduras. Several pilots and other people involved in these operations testified that they flew weapons from U.S. bases to the contras and then flew back to the U.S. loaded with drugs. The CIA arranged for these flights to be protected against inspections by U.S. customs and drug enforcement agents. Customs officials estimated that in 1985 and 1986 alone, 50 to 100 CIA flights took off from or landed at U.S. airports without undergoing inspections. And, at the same time, U.S. government officials repeatedly intervened to protect these drug-smuggling networks from prosecution and investigation. These deals also involved using the money-laundering operations of the drug smugglers. And there is evidence that major drug smugglers were asked to directly contribute to the contras in exchange for protection: A witness at the drug trial of Panama's General Manuel Noriega claimed that Colombia's so-called "Medellín cartel" donated $10 million to the CIA's contra army. In short, this evidence suggests that the CIA and other U.S. government agencies encouraged and protected cocaine trafficking networks--and helped them open new channels for smuggling massive amounts of cocaine. In exchange, the CIA's contra army based in Honduras and Costa Rica secretly received funds and guns to use in their campaign to "destabilize" Nicaragua. Here, in Part 2, we examine who knew in high places.


"The special prosecutors who investigated the Iran-Contra scandal, for example, found excerpts in the diaries of then-Lt. Col. Oliver L. North indicating that from 1984 to 1986, when North ran a secret operation to maintain the contras, he received several reports of allegations that drug traffickers were attempting to use the contra airlift operation to ship cocaine. Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration said North never took the information to them. Those diary entries have been public since at least 1994."

"Examining Charges of CIA Role in Crack Sales," by Doyle McManus and Robin Wright, Washington Post

There is, as yet, no "smoking gun"--no document or tape--which proves that President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George Bush, or CIA Chief William Casey personally approved of drug-smuggling operations to finance the contra operations in the 1980s. But the trail of evidence leads right to key aides of these top officials--in particular Lt. Col. Oliver North knew about and protected the contra drug-smuggling operations.

It should not be surprising that it is difficult to get hard evidence about who approved the drug trafficking: The contra supply operations were conducted by professionals in covert operations. Their methods were designed precisely to provide "plausible deniability" to the U.S. government and their superiors.

After two years of day-to-day involvement in the contra supply operation, North had boxes and boxes of his White House files shredded. He did this after a contra supply flight was shot down over Nicaragua and the secret operations started to become public. Despite this shredding, the following pieces of North's correspondence and notebooks survived. It is not possible to know the precise meaning of each note. But taken as a whole, these notations prove that the contra drug-for-guns operations were known inside the Reagan White House:

The White House "plans to seize all ... when Supermarket comes to bad end. $14M to finance comes from drugs."

North's notebook, July 12, 1985. "Supermarket" was reportedly a codeword for the "arms supermarket" that supplied the contras. $14M apparently
means $14 million.

"DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S."

Handwritten note by Oliver North,
August 9, 1985. Written after a meeting on contra aid with Robert Owen. Owen is a former aide of then-Senator Dan Quayle who started working as an operative for Oliver North in 1983.[1]

"`Popo' Chamorro is alleged to be involved in drug trafficking."

A message to Oliver North from U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis Tambs, dated March 28, 1986. Chamorro was a top contra leader.[2]

"No doubt you know the DC-4 Foley got was used at one time to run drugs...Nice boys the Boys choose."

Robert Owen, memo to Oliver North. February 10, 1986. Patrick Foley was a "former CIA operative" working for Summit Aviation, the CIA-affiliated company involved in supplying planes to the contras. "The Boys" apparently refers to CIA agents in Central America.[1]

Oliver North's notebooks record a meeting on September 10, 1985 with Colonel Steele, U.S. commander of the Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador, and former CIA officer Donald Gregg, of Vice-President Bush's staff, to discuss logistic support for the contras.[3] April 20, 1986 North was again in Ilopango, meeting with CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, U.S. base commander Steele, and several top contra leaders.[4]

White House Protection for Drug Smuggling Operations

During the 1980s, certain drug-smuggling operations received protection from investigation and prosecution. It is hard to imagine that the CIA could protect its supply planes from the U.S. Customs office and the Drug Enforcement Agency without high-level approval. And there is specific evidence that the White House officials and staff intervened to protect drug trafficking operations.

The Senate's 1989 Kerry report investigating contra drug-smuggling concluding that the Reagan administration had "delayed, halted or interfered" with anti-drug investigations when they got too close to contra-connected operations.

Reporter Joel Brinkley wrote in the New York Times (January 20, 1987) that Ilopango-based pilots who "covertly ferryed arms to the Nicaraguan rebels were smuggling cocaine and other drugs on their return trips to the United States, Administration officials said today. When the crew members... learned that Drug Enforcement Administration agents were investigating their activities, one of them warned that they had White House protection.... The flight crew member in El Salvador used Colonel North's name, officials said. The crew member's warning, made after investigators had searched his house in San Salvador for drugs, caused `quite a stir' at the Ilopango Air Base... Official concern increased in light of the recent disclosure that Colonel North had told the Federal Bureau of Investigation last October to stop investigating Southern Air Transport. Officials from several agencies said that by early last fall the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Guatemala had compiled convincing evidence that the contra military supply operation was smuggling cocaine and marijuana."[3]

In 1985, the DEA wanted to investigate an airstrip at Santa Elena, Costa Rica, that had been set up by North's contra supply operations. On January 20, 1986, North wrote a notation in his office records that "DEA will be briefed to leave hands off."[2]

If Lt. Col. Oliver North protected these operations from DEA investigations, it can only be because he saw them as important to his contra supply operations. He did more than "hear rumors" about "possible contra drug smuggling"--the contra drug operations were actively protected from within the Reagan White House.

In a July 1989 report, the congressional investigation by the Costa Rican legislature charged that Oliver North, Robert Owen, North's boss, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, one-time ambassador to Honduras Lewis Tambs, former Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, and CIA station chief Joseph Fernandez were responsible for the drugs-for-guns smuggling network in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican report said that "certain American authorities had permitted the shipment of cocaine to the United States through Costa Rica, with the objective of channeling illegal funds to the Nicaraguan counter-revolution."

In 1990, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias signed the order banning these top U.S. agents and officials from Costa Rica. This action received little coverage in the U.S. media.[2]

Who Oversaw "The Enterprise"

In these operations, North was fine-tuning the secret supply network that the CIA had set up between 1981 and 1984. After 1984, a law had been passed forbidding the CIA from directly arming the contras. The Reagan administration continued its contra supply operations anyway, but moved the operations from the CIA headquarters into the Reagan White House--so the operation would be protected by White House legal immunity and so the CIA would not technically be in violation of the law.

In 1984, sections of the contra supply network were "privatized" by hiring the air fleets of drug smugglers and other mercenaries. The supply effort, now called "The Enterprise," was coordinated by Reagan's National Security Council in the White House basement--where Lt. Col. Oliver North played a key role in the day-to-day activities. However, this "Enterprise" remained, at heart, the same CIA operation it had always been.

Bob Woodward reported on the relationship between William Casey, Director of Central Intelligence, and Oliver North: "[Casey] had become a guiding hand, almost a case officer for North. When the Colonel had arranged the secret supply operation for the contras in 1984, it was Casey who had almost drawn up the plan, instructing North to set up a private entity to be headed by a civilian outside the government. It was to be non-official cover for a covert operation that was as far removed from the CIA as possible.... As North's activities became increasingly risky and compartmented, Casey was one of the few who knew."[5]

It seems likely that then-Vice President George Bush was also closely involved in directing and approving the activities of Oliver North and the CIA agents involved in the contra supply.

In March 1985, as dozens of CIA-protected flights were landing at U.S. bases, North wrote in his notebooks, "VP distressed about the drug business." This suggests that then-Vice President George Bush knew about drug trafficking that was then threatening to break into public view.[4] Bush claims he knew nothing about contra drug trafficking before February 1988.

In January 9, 1986, North wrote in his notebook, "Felix talking too much about the VP connection." Felix Rodriguez was a CIA agent in Central America with close ties to Bush. Rodriguez played a key role in organizing the contra supply operations and working out deals with various drug smugglers.

In this period, George Bush was put in charge of all U.S. covert operations by a presidential directive, NSDD 159, that Reagan signed on January 18, 1985. NSDD established a top secret coordinating committee for covert activities that only became publicly known during investigations of Oliver North and the contra supply network. This presidential directive was so secret that only eight copies were made.

Professor Christopher Simpson sums up his research into this oversight committee: "The solution attempted in NSDD 159 was to establish a small coordinating committee headed by Vice President George Bush through which all information concerning U.S. covert operations was to be funneled. The order also established a category of top secret information known as Veil, to be used exclusively for managing records pertaining to covert operations. The system was designed to keep circulation of written records to an absolute minimum while at the same time ensuring that the vice president retained the ability to coordinate U.S. covert operations with the administration's overt diplomacy and propaganda."[6]


Part 3 of this series will examine claims in the media that no CIA agents have been linked to cocaine trafficking. It will examine the activities of CIA operatives connected with the contra supply effort. RW's previous articles on the CIA's involvement in cocaine trafficking are available on the Internet at:



[1] In contempt of Congress--the Reagan Record on Central America edited by Joy Hackel and Daniel Siegel, Institute for Policy Studies, 1985

[2] "The Contra-Cocaine Connection," Amy Lang, Convergence, publication of the Christic Institute, Fall 1991

[3] "CIA and Drug Trafficking by Contra Supporters," Affidavit by Peter Dale Scott, Ph.D., September 30, 1996

[4] Washington's War on Nicaragua, Holly Sklar, South End Press

[5] Veil--The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, Bob Woodward, Simon and Shuster, 1987

[6] "George Bush Takes Charge: The Uses of `Counter-Terrorism,' " Christopher Simpson, CAQ, Fall 1996

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