Kerry's Drug Hearings: Can He Lift the C.I.A. Veil?

By Corn, David | The Nation, April 30, 1988 | Go to article overview

Kerry's Drug Hearings: Can He Lift the C.I.A. Veil?


Corn, David, The Nation


Seated before Senator John Kerry's Foreign Relations subcommittee, Michael Palmer, a drug trafficker turned contra supplier, recited the history of a DC-6 airplane he had used to ferry goods to the rebels as a State Department contractor. First, the plane had been piloted by him on smuggling trips. Then it was abandoned during a failed drug run and seized by U.S. Customs Service agents. Years later, Palmer bought it back from Customs and transferred it to Vortex, a Miami firm that employed Palmer and had the Federal contra supply contract. Then it was sold to an "American company" that "assisted the contras." What firm was this? Senator Kerry did not ask. Later on, Kerry explained he was "prohibited for obvious reasons" from tracing the plane's pedigree any further-a tip-off that Palmer had passed the aircraft to a C.I.A.linked business. That unasked question illuminates one daunting obstacle Kerry has confronted during his investigation and hearings into the drug trade's influence in Latin American politics: what to do when he runs into the Company.

After two weeks of public hearings, Kerry's subcommittee has thus far spotlighted narcothugs. Testimony showed Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega did business with the dealers; that Col. Jean-Claude Paul of Haiti cashed in on cocaine; and that the contras-to an as yet undefined extent-obtained financial support from traffickers or trafficking. Kerry, a Democrat, has brought before the television cameras the drug smugglers George Morales and Gary Betzner, who repeated their already publicized tales about flying weapons to the contras (specifically, to the Costa Rican spread of the C.I.A.-connected rancher John Hull) and picking up cocaine. Kerry has also played videotaped depositions of three former contra leaders of the Southern Front whose statements confirm that drug money helped some rebel forces and that, at the least, some contras assisted some drug runners. Karol Prado, the front's second in command, said the rebels provided fuel to pilots carrying drugs who landed at contra airstrips.

On the contras-and-drugs tie, Kerry has not yet broken substantial new ground. Morales and Betzner, for instance, first told their stories almost two years ago. More hearings lie ahead, and Kerry maintains he has only been laying a foundation. His challenge is to corroborate the accounts of the drug dealers-admittedly, convicted criminals-and to determine the degree to which U.S. officials, including those in the C.I.A., knew of or participated in the contra drug connection. Poking around intelligence affairs is not an easy task for a lone Foreign Relations subcommittee chair, who must fret over jurisdictional and political concerns. "The issue," says one Senate is how Kerry can get the maximum amount of information out without generating a political reaction that will cause everything to end up with the Intelligence Committee and closed hearings." In addition, Kerry is not free to disclose classified operations. To do so would jeopardize his own security clearance and invite the wrath of fellow senators and the intelligence community, thus endangering his entire investigation.

Kerry is engaged in a delicate balancing act, which, seen from the outside, can be quite frustrating. For instance, Morales claimed he was told by the rebels that he was engaged in a C.I.A. operation. And Octaviano Cesar, a former contra tied to the agency, testified that he was informed that the C.I.A. and U.S. military officials said it was O.K. to work with Morales "as long as we don't deal with the powder." Well, precisely who told Cesar that? On the videotaped deposition, Kerry doesn't ask.

Consider how Kerry hit the C.I.A. wall in examining Palmer. Palmer said the State Department had found him through the Yellow Pages, but more seems to have been involved. At the press table, it was widely expected that ambassador Robert Duemling of the State Department would tell the subcommittee that the C. …

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