Yet, over the past year, even as Kerry's heroism as a young Navy
officer in Vietnam has become a point of controversy, this act of
political courage by a freshman senator has gone virtually unmentioned,
even though -- or perhaps because -- it marked Kerry's first challenge
to the Bush family.
In early 1986, the 42-year-old Massachusetts Democrat stood almost
alone in the U.S. Senate demanding answers about the emerging evidence
that CIA-backed Contras were filling their coffers by collaborating with
drug traffickers then flooding U.S. borders with cocaine from South
Kerry assigned members of his personal Senate staff to pursue the
allegations. He also persuaded the Republican majority on the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee to request information from the Reagan-Bush
administration about the alleged Contra drug traffickers.
In taking on the inquiry, Kerry challenged President Ronald Reagan at
the height of his power, at a time he was calling the Contras the "moral
equals of the Founding Fathers." Kerry's questions represented a
particular embarrassment to Vice President George H.W. Bush, whose
responsibilities included overseeing U.S. drug-interdiction policies.
Kerry took on the investigation though he didn't have much support
within his own party. By 1986, congressional Democrats had little
stomach left for challenging the Reagan-Bush Contra war. Not only had
Reagan won a historic landslide in 1984, amassing a record 54 million
votes, but his conservative allies were targeting individual Democrats
viewed as critical of the Contras fighting to oust Nicaragua's leftist
Sandinista government. Most Washington journalists were backing off,
too, for fear of getting labeled "Sandinista apologists" or worse.
Kerry's probe infuriated Reagan's White House, which was pushing
Congress to restore military funding for the Contras. Some in the
administration also saw Kerry's investigation as a threat to the secrecy
surrounding the Contra supply operation, which was being run illegally
by White House aide Oliver North and members of Bush's vice presidential
Through most of 1986, Kerry's staff inquiry advanced against
withering political fire. His investigators interviewed witnesses in
Washington, contacted Contra sources in Miami and Costa Rica, and tried
to make sense of sometimes convoluted stories of intrigue from the
shadowy worlds of covert warfare and the drug trade.
Kerry's chief Senate staff investigators were Ron Rosenblith,
Jonathan Winer and Dick McCall. Rosenblith, a Massachusetts political
strategist from Kerry's victorious 1984 campaign, braved both political
and personal risks as he traveled to Central America for face-to-face
meetings with witnesses. Winer, a lawyer also from Massachusetts,
charted the inquiry's legal framework and mastered its complex details.
McCall, an experienced congressional staffer, brought Capitol Hill savvy
to the investigation.
Behind it all was Kerry, who combined a prosecutor's sense for
sniffing out criminality and a politician's instinct for pushing the
limits. The Kerry whom I met during this period was a complex man who
balanced a rebellious idealism with a determination not to burn his
bridges to the political establishment.
The Reagan administration did everything it could to thwart Kerry's
investigation, including attempting to discredit witnesses, stonewalling
the Senate when it requested evidence and assigning the CIA to monitor
Kerry's probe. But it couldn't stop Kerry and his investigators from
discovering the explosive truth: that the Contra war was permeated with
drug traffickers who gave the Contras money, weapons and equipment in
exchange for help in smuggling cocaine into the United States. Even more
damningly, Kerry found that U.S. government agencies knew about the
Contra-drug connection, but turned a blind eye to the evidence in order
to avoid undermining a top Reagan-Bush foreign policy initiative.
The Reagan administration's tolerance and protection of this dark
underbelly of the Contra war represented one of the most sordid scandals
in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Yet when Kerry's bombshell
findings were released in 1989, they were greeted by the mainstream
press with disdain and disinterest. The New York Times, which had long
denigrated the Contra-drug allegations, buried the story of Kerry's
report on its inside pages, as did the Washington Post and the Los
Angeles Times. For his tireless efforts, Kerry earned a reputation as a
reckless investigator. Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom Watch dubbed Kerry
a "randy conspiracy buff."
But almost a decade later, in 1998, Kerry's trailblazing
investigation was vindicated by the CIA's own inspector general, who
found that scores of Contra operatives were implicated in the cocaine
trade and that U.S. agencies had looked the other way rather than reveal
information that could have embarrassed the Reagan-Bush administration.
Even after the CIA's admissions, the national press corps never fully
corrected its earlier dismissive treatment. That would have meant the
New York Times and other leading publications admitting they had bungled
their coverage of one of the worst scandals of the Reagan-Bush era.
The warm and fuzzy glow that surrounded Ronald Reagan after he left
office also discouraged clarification of the historical record. Taking a
clear-eyed look at crimes inside Reagan's Central American policies
would have required a tough reassessment of the 40th president, which to
this day the media has been unwilling to do. So this formative period of
Kerry's political evolution has remained nearly unknown to the American
Two decades later, it's hard to recall the intensity of the
administration's support for the Contras. They were hailed as courageous
front-line fighters, like the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, defending the
free world from the Soviet empire. Reagan famously warned that Nicaragua
was only "two days' driving time from Harlingen, Texas."
Yet, for years, Contra units had gone on bloody rampages through
Nicaraguan border towns, raping women, torturing captives and executing
civilian officials of the Sandinista government. In private, Reagan
referred to the Contras as "vandals," according to Duane Clarridge, the
CIA officer in charge of the operation, in his memoir, "A Spy for All
Seasons." But in public, the Reagan administration attacked anyone who
pointed out the Contras' corruption and brutality.
The Contras also proved militarily inept, causing the CIA to
intervene directly and engage in warlike acts, such as mining
Nicaragua's harbors. In 1984, these controversies caused the Congress to
forbid U.S. military assistance to the Contras -- the Boland Amendment
-- forcing the rebels to search for new funding sources.
Drug money became the easiest way to fill the depleted Contra
coffers. The documentary evidence is now irrefutable that a number of
Contra units both in Costa Rica and Honduras opened or deepened ties to
Colombian cartels and other regional drug traffickers. The White House
also scrambled to find other ways to keep the Contras afloat, turning to
third countries, such as Saudi Arabia, and eventually to profits from
clandestine arms sales to Iran.
The secrets began to seep out in the mid-1980s. In June 1985, as a
reporter for the Associated Press, I wrote the first story mentioning
Oliver North's secret Contra supply operation. By that fall, my AP
colleague Brian Barger and I stumbled onto evidence that some of the
Contras were supplementing their income by helping traffickers transship
cocaine through Central America. As we dug deeper, it became clear that
the drug connection implicated nearly all the major Contra
The AP published our story about the Contra-cocaine evidence on Dec.
20, 1985, describing Contra units "engaged in cocaine smuggling, using
some of the profits to finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist
government." The story provoked little coverage elsewhere in the U.S.
national press corps. But it pricked the interest of a newly elected
U.S. senator, John Kerry. A former prosecutor, Kerry also heard about
Contra law violations from a Miami-based federal public defender named
John Mattes, who had been assigned a case that touched on Contra
gunrunning. Mattes' sister had worked for Kerry in Massachusetts.
By spring 1986, Kerry had begun a limited investigation deploying
some of his personal staff in Washington. As a member of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry managed to gain some cooperation from
the panel's Republican leadership, partly because the "war on drugs" was
then a major political issue. Besides looking into Contra drug
trafficking, Kerry launched the first investigation into the allegations
of weapons smuggling and misappropriation of U.S. government funds that
were later exposed as part of North's illegal operation to supply the
Kerry's staff soon took an interest in a federal probe in Miami
headed by assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Feldman. Talking to some of
the same Contra supporters whom we had interviewed for the AP's
Contra-cocaine story, Feldman had pieced together the outlines of
North's secret network.
Warning to Ollie
In a panicked memo dated April 7, 1986, one of North's Costa
Rican-based private operatives, Robert Owen, warned North that
prosecutor Feldman had shown Ambassador Lewis Tambs "a diagram with your
name underneath and John [Hull]'s underneath mine, then a line
connecting the various resistance groups in C.R. [Costa Rica]. Feldman
stated they were looking at the 'big picture' and not only looking at
possible violations of the Neutrality Act, but a possible unauthorized
use of government funds." (For details, see my "Lost
History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press and 'Project Truth.'")
John Hull was an American farmer with a ranch in Costa Rica near the
Nicaraguan border. According to witnesses, Contras had used Hull's
property for cocaine transshipments. (Hull was later accused of drug
trafficking by Costa Rican authorities, but fled the country before
facing trial. He returned to the United States.)
On April 10, 1986, Barger and I reported on the AP wire that the U.S.
Attorney's office in Miami was examining allegations of Contra
gunrunning and drug trafficking. The AP story rattled nerves inside the
Reagan administration. On an unrelated trip to Miami, Attorney General
Edwin Meese pulled U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner aside and asked about the
existence of this Contra probe.
Back in Washington, other major news organizations began to sniff
around the Contra-cocaine story but mostly went off in wrong directions.
On May 6, 1986, the New York Times relied for a story on information
from Meese's spokesman Patrick Korten, who claimed "various bits of
information got referred to us. We ran them all down and didn't find
anything. It comes to nothing."
But that wasn't the truth. In Miami, Feldman and FBI agents were
corroborating many of the allegations. On May 14, 1986, Feldman
recommended to his superiors that the evidence of Contra crimes was
strong enough to justify taking the case to a grand jury. U.S. Attorney
Kellner agreed, scribbling on Feldman's memo, "I concur that we have
sufficient evidence to ask for a grand jury investigation."
But on May 20, less than a week later, Kellner reversed that
recommendation. Without telling Feldman, Kellner rewrote the memo to
state that "a grand jury investigation at this point would represent a
fishing expedition with little prospect that it would bear fruit."
Kellner signed Feldman's name to the mixed-metaphor memo and sent it to
Washington on June 3.
The revised "Feldman" memo was then circulated to congressional
Republicans and leaked to conservative media, which used it to discredit
Kerry's investigation. The right-wing Washington Times denounced the
probe as a wasteful political "witch hunt" in a June 12, 1986, article.
"Kerry's anti-Contra efforts extensive, expensive, in vain," screamed
the headline of a Washington Times article on Aug. 13, 1986.
Back in Miami, Kellner reassigned Feldman to unrelated far-flung
investigations, including one to Thailand.
The altered memo was instrumental in steering Senate Foreign
Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., away from holding
hearings, Kerry's later Contra-drug report, "Law Enforcement and Foreign
Policy," stated. "Material provided to the Committee by the Justice
Department and distributed to members following an Executive Session
June 26, 1986, wrongly suggested that the allegations that had been made
were false," the Kerry report said.
Feldman later testified to the Senate that he was told in 1986 that
representatives of the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement
Administration and the FBI had met "to discuss how Senator Kerry's
efforts to get Lugar to hold hearings on the case could be undermined."
Mattes, the federal public defender in Miami, watched as the
administration ratcheted up pressure on Kerry's investigation. "From a
political point of view in May of '86, Kerry had every reason to shut
down his staff investigation," Mattes said. "There was no upside for him
doing it. We all felt under the gun to back off."
The Kerry that Mattes witnessed at the time was the ex-prosecutor
determined to get to the bottom of serious criminal allegations even if
they implicated senior government officials. "As an investigator, he had
a sense it was there," said Mattes, who is now an investigative reporter
for Fox News in San Diego. "Kerry was a crusader. He was the consummate
outsider, doing what you expect people to do. ... At no point did he
Years later, in the National Archives, I discovered a document
showing that the Central Intelligence Agency also was keeping tabs on
Kerry's investigation. Alan Fiers Jr., who served as the CIA's Central
American Task Force chief, told independent counsel Lawrence Walsh's
Iran-Contra investigators that the AP and Feldman's investigations had
attracted the hostility of the Reagan-Bush administration. Fiers said he
"was also getting a dump on the Senator Kerry investigation about
mercenary activity in Central America from the CIA's legislative affairs
people who were monitoring it."
Negative publicity about the Contras was particularly unwelcome to
the Reagan-Bush administration throughout the spring and summer 1986 as
the White House battled to restore U.S. government funding to the
Contras. In the politically heated atmosphere, the administration sought
to smear anti-Contra witnesses cooperating with Kerry's investigation.
In a July 28 memo, initialed as read by President Reagan, North
labeled onetime Contra mercenary Jack Terrell as a "terrorist threat"
because of his "anti-Contra and anti-U.S. activities." North said
Terrell had been cooperating "with various congressional staffs in
preparing for hearings and inquiries regarding the role of U.S.
government officials in illegally supporting the Nicaraguan resistance."
In August 1986, FBI and Secret Service agents hauled Terrell in for
two days of polygraph examinations on suspicion that Terrell intended to
assassinate President Reagan, an allegation that proved baseless. But
Terrell told me later that the investigation had chilled his readiness
to testify about the Contras. "It burned me up," he said. "The pressure
was always there."
Beyond intimidating some witnesses, the Reagan administration
systematically worked to frustrate Kerry's investigation. Years later,
one of Kerry's investigators, Jack Blum, complained publicly that the
Justice Department had actively obstructed the congressional probe. Blum
said William Weld, who took over as assistant attorney general in charge
of the criminal division in September 1986, was an "absolute stonewall"
blocking the Senate's access to evidence on Contra-cocaine smuggling.
"Weld put a very serious block on any effort we made to get
information," Blum told the Senate Intelligence Committee a decade after
the events. "There were stalls. There were refusals to talk to us,
refusals to turn over data."
Weld, who later became Massachusetts governor and lost to Kerry in
the 1996 Senate race, denied that he had obstructed Kerry's Contra
probe. But it was clear that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was
encountering delays in getting information that had been requested by
Chairman Lugar, a Republican, and Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, the
ranking Democrat. At Kerry's suggestion, they had sought files on more
than two dozen people linked to the Contra operations and suspected of
Inside the Justice Department, senior career investigators grew
concerned about the administration's failure to turn over the requested
information. "I was concerned that we were not responding to what was
obviously a legitimate congressional request," Mark Richard, one of
Weld's top deputies, testified in a deposition. "We were not refusing to
respond in giving explanations or justifications for it. We were
seemingly just stonewalling what was a continuing barrage of requests
for information. That concerned me no end."
On Sept. 26, 1986, Kerry tried to spur action by presenting Weld with
an 11-page "proffer" statement from a 31-year-old FBI informant who had
worked with the Medellin cartel and had become a witness on cartel
activities. The woman, Wanda Palacio, had approached Kerry with an
account about Colombian cocaine kingpin Jorge Ochoa bragging about
payments he had made to the Nicaraguan Contras.
As part of this Contra connection, Palacio said pilots for a
CIA-connected airline, Southern Air Transport, were flying cocaine out
of Barranquilla, Colombia. She said she had witnessed two such flights,
one in 1983 and the other in October 1985, and quoted Ochoa saying the
flights were part of an arrangement to exchange "drugs for guns."
According to contemporaneous notes of this "proffer" meeting between
Weld and Kerry, Weld chuckled that he was not surprised at allegations
about corrupt dealings by "bum agents, former and current CIA agents."
He promised to give serious consideration to Palacio's allegations.
After Kerry left Weld's office, however, the Justice Department
seemed to concentrate on poking holes in Palacio's account, not trying
to corroborate it. Though Palacio had been considered credible in her
earlier testimony to the FBI, she was judged to lack credibility when
she made accusations about the Contras and the CIA.
On Oct. 3, 1986, Weld's office told Kerry that it was rejecting
Palacio as a witness on the grounds that there were some contradictions
in her testimony. The discrepancies apparently related to such minor
points as which month she had first talked with the FBI.
Two days after Weld rejected Palacio's Contra-cocaine testimony,
other secrets about the White House's covert Contra support operations
suddenly crashed --literally -- into view.
On Oct. 5, a quiet Sunday morning, an aging C-123 cargo plane rumbled
over the skies of Nicaragua preparing to drop AK-47 rifles and other
equipment to Contra units in the jungle below. Since the Reagan
administration had recently won congressional approval for renewed CIA
military aid to the Contras, the flight was to be one of the last by
Oliver North's ragtag air force.
The plane, however, attracted the attention of a teenage Sandinista
soldier armed with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. He aimed,
pulled the trigger and watched as the Soviet-made missile made a direct
hit on the aircraft. Inside, cargo handler Eugene Hasenfus, an American
mercenary working with the Contras, was knocked to the floor, but
managed to crawl to an open door, push himself through, and parachute to
the ground, where he was captured by Sandinista forces. The pilot and
other crew members died in the crash.
As word spread about the plane crash, Barger -- who had left the AP
and was working for a CBS News show -- persuaded me to join him on a
trip to Nicaragua with the goal of getting an interview with Hasenfus,
who turned out to be an unemployed Wisconsin construction worker and
onetime CIA cargo handler. Hasenfus told a press conference in Managua
that the Contra supply operation was run by CIA officers working with
the office of Vice President George Bush. Administration officials,
including Bush, denied any involvement with the downed plane.
Our hopes for an interview with Hasenfus didn't work out, but
Sandinista officials did let us examine the flight records and other
documents they had recovered from the plane. As Barger talked with a
senior Nicaraguan officer, I hastily copied down the entries from
copilot Wallace "Buzz" Sawyer's flight logs. The logs listed hundreds of
flights with the airports identified only by their four-letter
international codes and the planes designated by tail numbers.
Upon returning to Washington, I began deciphering Wallace's travels
and matching the tail numbers with their registered owners. Though
Wallace's flights included trips to Africa and landings at U.S. military
bases in the West, most of his entries were for flights in Central and
Meanwhile, in Kerry's Senate office, witness Wanda Palacio was
waiting for a meeting when she noticed Sawyer's photo flashing on a TV
screen. Palacio began insisting that Sawyer was one of the pilots whom
she had witnessed loading cocaine onto a Southern Air Transport plane in
Barranquilla, Colombia, in early October 1985. Her identification of
Sawyer struck some of Kerry's aides as a bit too convenient, causing
them to have their own doubts about her credibility.
Though I was unaware of Palacio's claims at the time, I pressed ahead
with the AP story on Sawyer's travels. In the last paragraph of the
article, I noted that Sawyer's logs revealed that he had piloted a
Southern Air Transport plane on three flights to Barranquilla on Oct. 2,
4, and 6, 1985. The story ran on Oct. 17, 1986.
Shortly after the article moved on the AP wires, I received a phone
call from Rosenblith at Kerry's office. Sounding shocked, the Kerry
investigator asked for more details about the last paragraph of the
story, but he wouldn't say why he wanted to know. Only months later did
I discover that the AP story on Sawyer's logs had provided unintentional
corroboration for Palacio's Contra-drug allegations.
Palacio also passed a polygraph exam on her statements. But Weld and
the Justice Department still refused to accept her testimony as
credible. (Even a decade later, when I asked the then-Massachusetts
governor about Palacio, Weld likened her credibility to "a wagon load of
In fall 1986, Weld's criminal division continued to withhold
Contra-drug information requested by the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee. According to Justice Department records, Lugar and Pell --
two of the Senate's most gentlemanly members -- wrote on Oct. 14 that
they had been waiting more than two months for information that the
Justice Department had promised "in an expeditious manner."
"To date, no information has been received and the investigation of
allegations by the committee, therefore, has not moved very far," Lugar
and Pell wrote in a joint letter. "We're disappointed that the
Department has not responded in a timely fashion and indeed has not
provided any materials."
On Nov. 25, 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal was officially born when
Attorney General Edwin Meese announced that profits from secret U.S.
arms sales to Iran had been diverted to help fund the Nicaraguan
The Washington press corps scrambled to get a handle on the dramatic
story of clandestine operations, but still resisted the allegations that
the administration's zeal had spilled over into sanctioning or
tolerating Contra-connected drug trafficking.
Though John Kerry's early warnings about White House-aided Contra
gunrunning had proved out, his accusations about Contra drug smuggling
would continue to be rejected by much of the press corps as going too
On Jan. 21, 1987, the conservative Washington Times attacked Kerry's
Contra-drug investigation again; his alleged offense this time was
obstructing justice because his probe was supposedly interfering with
the Reagan administration's determination to get at the truth. "Kerry's
staffers damaged FBI probe," the Times headline read.
"Congressional investigators for Sen. John Kerry severely damaged a
federal drug investigation last summer by interfering with a witness
while pursuing allegations of drug smuggling by the Nicaraguan
resistance, federal law enforcement officials said," according to the
The mainstream press continued to publish stories that denigrated
Kerry's investigation. On Feb. 24, 1987, a New York Times article by
reporter Keith Schneider quoted "law enforcement officials" saying that
the Contra allegations "have come from a small group of convicted drug
traffickers in South Florida who never mentioned Contras or the White
House until the Iran-Contra affair broke in November."
The drift of the article made Kerry out to be something of a dupe.
His Contra-cocaine witnesses were depicted as simply convicts trying to
get lighter prison sentences by embroidering false allegations onto the
Iran-Contra scandal. But the information in the Times story was patently
untrue. The AP Contra-cocaine story had run in December 1985, almost a
year before the Iran-Contra story broke.
When New York Times reporters conducted their own interview with
Palacio, she immediately sensed their hostility. In her Senate
deposition, Palacio described her experience at the Times office in
Miami. She said Schneider and a "Cuban man" rudely questioned her story
and bullied her about specific evidence for each of her statements. The
Cuban man "was talking to me kind of nasty," Palacio recalled. "I got up
and left, and this man got all pissed off, Keith Schneider."
The parameters for a "responsible" Iran-Contra investigation were
being set. On July 16, 1987, the New York Times published another story
that seemed to discredit the Contra-drug charges. It reported that
except for a few convicted drug smugglers from Miami, the Contra-cocaine
"charges have not been verified by any other people and have been
vigorously denied by several government agencies."
Four days later, the Times added that "investigators, including
reporters from major news outlets, have tried without success to find
proof of ... allegations that military supplies may have been paid for
with profits from drug smuggling." (The Times was inaccurate again. The
original AP story had cited a CIA report describing the Contras buying a
helicopter with drug money.)
'Ask About the Cocaine'
The joint Senate-House Iran-Contra committee averted its eyes from
the Contra-cocaine allegations. The only time the issue was raised
publicly was when a demonstrator interrupted one hearing by shouting,
"Ask about the cocaine." Kerry was excluded from the investigation.
On July 27, 1987, behind the scenes, committee staff investigator
Robert A. Bermingham echoed the New York Times. "Hundreds of persons"
had been questioned, he said, and vast numbers of government files
reviewed, but no "corroboration of media-exploited allegations of U.S.
government-condoned drug trafficking by Contra leaders or Contra
organizations" was found. The report, however, listed no names of any
interview subjects nor any details about the files examined.
Bermingham's conclusions conflicted with closed-door Iran-Contra
testimony from administration insiders. In a classified deposition to
the congressional Iran-Contra committees, senior CIA officer Alan Fiers
said, "with respect to [drug trafficking by] the Resistance Forces [the
Contras] it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people."
Despite official denials and press hostility, Kerry and his
investigators pressed ahead. In 1987, with the arrival of a Democratic
majority in the Senate, Kerry also became chairman of the Senate
subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations. He
used that position to pry loose the facts proving that the official
denials were wrong and that Contra units were involved in the drug
Kerry's report was issued two years later, on April 13, 1989. Its
stunning conclusion: "On the basis of the evidence, it is clear that
individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug
trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug
trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves
knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug
traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government
had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring,
or immediately thereafter."
The report discovered that drug traffickers gave the Contras "cash,
weapons, planes, pilots, air supply services and other materials."
Moreover, the U.S. State Department had paid some drug traffickers as
part of a program to fly non-lethal assistance to the Contras. Some
payments occurred "after the traffickers had been indicted by federal
law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers
were under active investigation by these same agencies."
Although Kerry's findings represented the first time a congressional
report explicitly accused federal agencies of willful collaboration with
drug traffickers, the major news organizations chose to bury the
startling findings. Instead of front-page treatment, the New York Times,
the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all wrote brief accounts
and stuck them deep inside their papers. The New York Times article,
only 850 words long, landed on Page 8. The Post placed its story on A20.
The Los Angeles Times found space on Page 11.
One of the best-read political reference books, the Almanac of
American Politics, gave this account of Kerry's investigation in its
1992 edition: "In search of right-wing villains and complicit Americans,
[Kerry] tried to link Nicaraguan Contras to the drug trade, without
turning up much credible evidence."
Thus, Kerry's reward for his strenuous and successful efforts to get
to the bottom of a difficult case of high-level government corruption
was to be largely ignored by the mainstream press and even have his
But the Contra-cocaine story didn't entirely go away. In 1991, in the
trial of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega for drug trafficking,
federal prosecutors called as a witness Medellin cartel kingpin Carlos
Lehder, who testified that the Medellin cartel had given $10 million to
the Contras, a claim that one of Kerry's witnesses had made years
earlier. "The Kerry hearings didn't get the attention they deserved at
the time," a Washington Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991 acknowledged.
"The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan
engagement to fresh public attention."
Kerry's vindication in the Contra drug case did not come until 1998,
when inspectors general at the CIA and Justice Department reviewed their
files in connection with allegations published by the San Jose Mercury
News that the Contra-cocaine pipeline had contributed to the crack
epidemic that ravaged inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s.
(Ironically, the major national newspapers only saw fit to put the
Contra-cocaine story on their front pages in criticizing the Mercury
News and its reporter Gary Webb for taking the allegations too far.)
On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page story,
with two more pages inside, that was critical of the Mercury News. But
while accusing the Mercury News of exaggerating, the Post noted that
Contra-connected drug smugglers had brought tons of cocaine into the
United States. "Even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that
those covert operations involved drug traffickers," the Post reported.
A Post editorial on Oct. 9, 1996, reprised the newspaper's assessment
that the Mercury News had overreached, but added that for "CIA-connected
characters to have played even a trivial role in introducing Americans
to crack would indicate an unconscionable breach by the CIA."
In the months that followed, the major newspapers -- including the
New York Times and the Los Angeles Times -- joined the Post in
criticizing the Mercury News while downplaying their own inattention to
the crimes that Kerry had illuminated a decade earlier. The Los Angeles
Times actually used Kerry's report to dismiss the Mercury News series as
old news because the Contra cocaine trafficking "has been well
documented for years."
While the major newspapers gloated when reporter Gary Webb was forced
to resign from the Mercury News, the internal government investigations,
which Webb's series had sparked, moved forward. The government's
decade-long Contra cocaine cover-up began to crumble when CIA inspector
general Frederick Hitz published the first of two volumes of his Contra
cocaine investigation on Jan. 29, 1998, followed by a Justice Department
report and Hitz's second volume in October 1998.
The CIA inspector general and Justice Department reports confirmed
that the Reagan administration knew from almost the outset of the Contra
war that cocaine traffickers permeated the CIA-backed army but the
administration did next to nothing to expose or stop these criminals.
The reports revealed example after example of leads not followed,
witnesses disparaged and official law-enforcement investigations
sabotaged. The evidence indicated that Contra-connected smugglers
included the Medellin cartel, the Panamanian government of Manuel
Noriega, the Honduran military, the Honduran-Mexican smuggling ring of
Ramon Matta Ballesteros, and Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans.
Reviewing evidence that existed in the 1980s, CIA inspector general
Hitz found that some Contra-connected drug traffickers worked directly
for Reagan's National Security Council staff and the CIA. In 1987,
Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veteran Moises Nunez told CIA investigators
that "it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement
in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed
at the direction of the NSC."
CIA task force chief Fiers said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not
pursued then "because of the NSC connection and the possibility that
this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program
[Oliver North's fundraising]. A decision was made not to pursue this
Another Cuban-American who had attracted Kerry's interest was Felipe
Vidal, who had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s.
But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics officer for the
Contras and covered up for him when the agency learned that he was
collaborating with known traffickers to raise money for the Contras, the
Hitz report showed. Fiers had briefed Kerry about Vidal on Oct. 15,
1986, without mentioning Vidal's drug arrests and conviction in the
Hitz found that a chief reason for the CIA's protective handling of
Contra-drug evidence was Langley's "one overriding priority: to oust the
Sandinista government ... [CIA officers] were determined that the
various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent
effective implementation of the Contra program."
According to Hitz's report, one CIA field officer explained, "The
focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war."
'Something So Dark'
This pattern of obstruction occurred while Vice President Bush was in
charge of stanching the flow of drugs to the United States. Kerry made
himself a pest by demanding answers to troubling questions.
"He wanted to get to the bottom of something so dark," former public
defender Mattes told me. "Nobody could imagine it was so dark."
In the end, investigations by government inspectors general
corroborated Kerry's 1989 findings and vindicated his effort. But the
muted conclusion of the Contra-cocaine controversy 12 years after Kerry
began his investigation explains why this chapter is an overlooked --
though important -- episode in Kerry's Senate career. It's a classic
case of why, in Washington, there's little honor in being right too
soon. Yet it's also a story about a senator who had the personal honor
to do the right thing.
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has written
a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com. More details on Kerry's Contra-Cocaine investigation can
also be found in Parry's Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press &
'Project Truth,' which can be ordered at