drug wars

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interview: oliver north


photo of oliver north

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.
When did you first hear about Barry Seal?

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.

when you're told to go brief a us senator on a covert operation, you do it...But hell, I wasn't the only one who briefed us senators on stuff that leaked 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 matter.

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 misplaced.

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 Nicaraguan resistance.

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, right?

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.

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