When did you first hear about Barry Seal?
North was a senior member of the National Security Council under President
Ronald Reagan and was responsible for the covert operations in support of the
Contra Nicaraguan rebels.
It was probably shortly before the operation or thereabouts when he was
enlisted to give us proof that the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was actually
involved in the trafficking of narcotics into this country.
You heard about this because you got a briefing?
Well, as the world now knows, I was deeply involved by that point in time in
assisting the Nicaraguan resistance and in various policy initiatives in
Central America. This was a clandestine operation undertaken to prove that the
Sandinistas, and indirectly the Cubans who were supporting the Sandinistas,
were involved in the trafficking of narcotics into the United States. You have
to remember that the accusation was being made that it was the Nicaraguan
resistance doing it. When in point of fact, we knew that the Sandinistas were,
and this is a guy who gave us, you know, an opportunity to prove it.
But the Seal case was a law enforcement case. It was a DEA case. It was not
an intelligence case. You weren't a law enforcement officer.
Well, the [National Security Council] doesn't have cases. The National Security
Council's real role is to coordinate the various activities of the government
of the United States in the furtherance of American foreign policy.
And before the DEA can complete its undercover operation with Seal, word
leaks that the operation has yielded a photo of Colombian drug lord Pablo
Escobar on a Nicaraguan airfield helping the Sandinistas load a plane full of
coke. It runs in the papers. Seal's cover is blown. You were the one who
briefed a congresswoman, who in turn told the press.
And I was told to brief her and I did so.
There's a general suspicion that you were the one who leaked it.
I think the allegation is unfair. I think it's based on erroneous reporting and
God only knows how many sources. I never briefed anybody on Capitol Hill, I
never talked to a reporter unless I was ordered to do so. That's number one.
Number two. When you're told to go brief a United States senator on a covert
operation, you go do it. And you trust the information isn't going to leak.
But hell, I wasn't the only one who briefed U.S. senators on stuff that leaked.
The people who are concerned ought not to point the finger at me. They ought to
start pointing the finger at the president of the United States and the chief
of staff of the White House and the people in the political directorate and
everywhere else, that when congressmen and senators start screaming for
information, the White House frequently goes and briefs on it.
Fromer DEA head Jack Lawn says that he was horrified because just a day
before he had given authorization to his people, who were operating undercover
with Seal, to go forward in their undercover operation.
I certainly don't blame him for that. I mean I was horrified. I think anybody
who even knew about the operation was horrified. But I would remind you again
there were lots of us who were horrified frequently by things that ultimately
appeared in the newspaper. And I'm certainly a willing witness to that, of
clandestine operations by the Reagan Administration that showed up in the
newspaper. Not just American newspapers, but in my particular case, one
overseas. I mean we were adamant that we wanted to show and demonstrate through
apprehensions and prosecutions the role of the Communist government in
Nicaragua in bringing drugs into this country. Processing plants that were set
up in Managua and its environs by the Sandinista regime to give them hard
currency. And their engagement in the narcotics trafficking into this country.
And the best way to do that wasn't in the Washington Times or the
Washington Post or anything else. The best way to do that was with
prosecutions. And there were Sandinista officials who were photographed
getting on and off that aircraft that Barry Seal was flying at the behest of
the U.S. government that proved that they were involved in that trafficking.
What is this like for guys like Tom Cash, a DEA man in the field at the
time. He said this is an example where those guys doing law enforcement don't
Let me tell you, I've been one of those guys out there in the field. I've been
one of the guys who was at the lower end of the totem pole. I know exactly how
they feel about it. I can remember as a young lieutenant being sent into the
DMZ in the divided Vietnam, from North Vietnam. And being told I couldn't take
any more than 15 people with me 'cause some jerk in Washington said that was
gonna be the policy. I know what it's like to be there. The fact of the matter
is that it was not in the case of the Barry Seal operation an effort to in any
way destroy their operation or put them in jeopardy. I understand it because I
spent most of my life in that kind of circumstance wearing a green uniform as a
U.S. Marine. The people in the field need to know that the government of the
United States has within it people who really do care about them. And
unfortunately, when cases like this happen, they're often left feeling holding
the bag and thinking nobody does.
So it wouldn't be absurd in your mind for someone to feel like here is our
law enforcement operation being sacrificed for some political gain?
Yeah. When guys put their lives on the line for those kinds of operations, be
it the kind I was on in Vietnam, or the kind they were on in Barry Seal's case,
they would hope that the stuff isn't gonna blow up in their faces. I can
understand how some of them might feel that somebody in Washington didn't care.
What I'm saying, I'm saying to you is if they're angry at me, their anger is
Where should their anger be directed?
Well, you know, I'm no fan of what goes on up on Capitol Hill. I'm no fan of
what goes on as stuff seeps out all over the place. I watched it happen time
and time again, where classified information would show up on the front pages
of America's newspapers and show up on shows like yours. So I'm certainly
sympathetic to those who say this place leaks like a sieve.
You understand the reason why some people have in fact pointed the finger at
you or people related to the Reagan Administration in a sense leaking the story
because it's to your ideological advantage to do that, regardless of whether
there's a law enforcement case.
No, I think that those who make the accusation miss the point. That the real
purpose of any of those activities, particularly a law enforcement activity,
was to prove that the Sandinistas were involved in that kind of trafficking.
And to go ahead with prosecutions on it. That's the best way of doing it. It
was certainly not to our advantage to have that story leaked before the
operation could be fully conducted.
Let me switch it then, to the Contras. The CIA Inspector General published
a report that primarily looks at the Contras and what went on in Central
America at that time. And the conclusion of the report is that a number of
people in the Contra organization were involved in drug trafficking.
But what's important in this whole thing is that our policy has always been
consistent, in one, opposing Communism, and number two--certainly in the Reagan
Administration--doing what we could to staunch the flow of drugs into this
country. There's no inconsistency in that policy. The fact that the Congress of
the United States initially, and then President Reagan separately, decided to
support the Nicaraguan resistance, and that there were individuals within the
resistance who were doing illegal things, is not inconsistent. When I was
handed the responsibility of handling the Nicaraguan resistance is, I don't
want to deal with those people. And I don't believe that the CIA, when they
were handling that operation, ever had a policy of turning a blind eye toward
narcotics trafficking by anybody. And unfortunately you've got members of
Congress up there who want to beat the drum and blame the problem of narcotics
in America on the Nicaraguan resistance. And that's just not the case.
To what extent were you worried about drug getting mixed up in Contra
efforts and in effect jeopardizing the offensive?
Heck, yeah. I think everybody involved was. And that's why in any meeting
that I had with these guys, I would constantly remind them that this would be
intolerable. It would destroy their own effort. I'm talking now of dealings
that I had to have with the leaders of the Nicaraguan resistance. And I would
remind them, I said, "Look. If somebody in your organization's breaking U.S.
law, you're asking for people to come after you. So make damn sure it's not
happening." And I don't to my recollection going back 12, 15 years now, I don't
know of anybody that was involved with the leadership. I mean the bottom line
is we, our whole effort--not just mine, but everybody engaged in this effort,
from the Pentagon to the CIA to the State Department to the National Security
Council staff--everybody wanted those guys to succeed by doing the right thing.
That included, included human rights issues, it included narcotics issues, if
you will, breaking U.S. laws on money, the whole thing. [We were] trying to
make sure that they did the whole thing the right way.
So you made sure they knew better than to get caught?
Not just saying, "Don't get caught." It's "Don't do something wrong." There's
a big difference between those two things. It's one thing to say don't commit
atrocities on the battlefield. It's another thing to say don't get caught doing
atrocities. The same thing applies when it comes to narcotics. Don't let
somebody in your organization be doing this kind of thing. 'Cause otherwise it
will jeopardize your opportunities for success. That was my message to the
But it's seemed at times that conflicts between law enforcement and
political agendas are inevitable. For instance, if there had been drug dealing
among Contra supporters, we might not have heard about it because Congressional
critics back home would run rampant with it.
I don't think there ever oughta be a question of concern on the part of
anybody--a citizen, a member of Congress, a person who works for the government
of the United States--that somehow our policies are in conflict with one
another. If we have a foreign policy that says we're gonna oppose the spread of
Communism, that's not inconsistent with the policy of we're not gonna tolerate
the flow of drugs into this country.
Let me give you a modern example. Right today we've got a foreign policy that
says we're gonna support democracy, not just in this hemisphere but elsewhere.
And we have a policy that says we're not gonna tolerate drugs. I just wrote an
op-ed about the inconsistency of having a foreign policy that says that but
does nothing, in a place called Colombia. And if you look at Colombia today,
you have a country that is basically about to succumb to a narco-terrorist
threat, that doesn't have the resources sufficient to battle it on its own. The
end result is $75 million worth of drugs coming into this country, and people
spending in Baltimore, Maryland, right up the road, a million dollars a day on
their habit. And you don't have any way of having the Colombian government stop
it. Because the government of the United States hasn't given them sufficient
resources to do it.
That's not a conflict in policy. It's a conflict over scarce resources. Now, I
can argue that the Clinton Administration hasn't done enough to support the
Colombian National Police, which I don't believe are corrupt. The Clinton
Administration would tell you, "We're not gonna give the stuff to them until
they can prove that they'll carry out those operations without abuses of, of
human rights." And I would suggest to you that the same kind of thing goes all
the way back into the 1980s. I do not see that the government of the United
States is complicit, because that's what you're suggesting, that the government
of the United States or agencies of the government, or entities or even
individuals, were somehow complicit in the, in the movement of massive
quantities of narcotics into this country.
You just made up the allegation. I'm not suggesting to you that the
government of the United States was complicit in moving massive amounts of
narcotics. I'm saying to you that it makes sense that in the world as it
exists, particularly Central America during this period of time, there was a
lot of drug trafficking going on.
And it still is.
Not just by Sandinistas...
It still is.
By all kinds of people.
And you were dealing in the middle of it.
In a world--
We're just talking about the world you were dealing in. Wasn't that a
dangerous world where that kind of thing could happen very easily because of
what you were trying to do?
The world I was dealing in was so dangerous that my family and I were named for
an assassination attempt. Not just once but several times. The world was so
dangerous that the government of the United States--that refused to provide
even a security system for my house before I went to Teheran--eventually put 35
federal agents to live on my two acres of Great Falls and protect my family and
me non-stop until I retired from the Marines. And they spent millions of
dollars protecting us. That's how dangerous the world was I dealt in..
It demonstrates the type of people that you were surrounded by,
Well, yeah, but most of the folks who have to deal in that kind of a world,
undercover DEA agents, undercover FBI agents, undercover intelligence officers
of the government of the United States, don't end up with their names and faces
and addresses plastered all over every newspaper in the land, and they don't
have to worry about the press being out there in front of their house every
morning and every night for nine straight months. There was a difference. And
quite frankly, I don't think that the way it was handled was particularly
appropriate for a guy who has a wife and four lovely little kids trying to grow
up in Great Falls, Virginia.
drug warriors ·
$400bn business ·
npr reports ·
teacher's guide ·
tapes & transcripts ·
pbs online ·
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation.