drug wars

special reports
interview: jonathan winer


Winer was U.S. Deputy Ass't Sec'y of State for International Narcotics Matters 1994-1999. He previously worked as counsel to Senn John Kerry (D-MA) advising on foreign policy issues. He worked on the investigation into the Contras and cocaine trafficking. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
[What was the] situation going on in [Central America] in the mid-'80s that allowed for all hell to break loose?

Governments, under the best of circumstances...have a hard time keeping border controls working. Good governments have a hard time keeping drugs [guns, illicit migrants, stolen cars, illicit money] from crossing the border... Add in a civil war with paramilitaries and guerrillas and intelligence agencies helping their side move stuff and move people illicitly across the border, you wind up undermining the governments that are supposed to be protecting their people and their laws.

One of the things that happened in the 1980s is essentially the governments in Central America could not stop anyone or anything from crossing borders. That was exploited by gunrunners. It was exploited by Contras and guerrillas and left-wingers, right-wingers. It was exploited by drug traffickers--no doubt about it. And American policy makers could not and would not confront that.

Fred [Hitz] says there weren't regulations...in place. There was in fact a letter that didn't mention narcotics. And there wasn't clear instruction given to the troops in the field about what they should do if they ran into somebody who was running drugs.

If it's your job to check out food at the supermarket counter...you're not worrying about the person who's supposed to be stocking the shelves. It's not your job. With the CIA or the State Department or any part of the US government, you've got a particular mission to accomplish. If something's in the parameters of your mission, you're focused on it. Protecting the border, stopping drugs, was certainly not part of the mission.

Now, it was resisted being put as part of the mission because... it was going to undermine or restrict your effectiveness in carrying out your primary mission. Because you're always going to have drug traffickers, gun runners, people who are alien smugglers, other people who are in other businesses, as some of the kinds of people that you're going to be relying on to carry out a covert war. And that's true of any government anywhere--whether you're talking Afghanistan, Colombia, Southeast Asia, [or] Burma. These things tend to go together. Your operatives tend to be people who are involved in other illicit activities.

So there's a tension there. And if you're focused on winning an ideological war, you're probably not focused at the same time on the law enforcement consequences of what you're doing. And certainly, our government in the 1980s was not focused on that problem, [it] actively resisted being focused on that problem.

In terms of Central America?

Absolutely--and I would say in terms of Southwest Asia--Pakistan and Afghanistan as well.

In talking with Fred Hitz, his conclusion is there is no evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency or any of its field officers were involved in [or] promoted [narcotics trafficking] in any way.

Certainly as a matter of policy, the CIA has never promoted narcotics trafficking that I'm aware of. Certainly there wouldn't be any documents that would show that anyone was promoting drug trafficking. If you were allowing it to happen because there were other higher objectives, you'd be a fool to create a record showing that you were aware of it.

So when the Inspector General shows up ten years later and does his level best to get to the truth, he's going to be looking at the documentary record. Do you think that documentary record is going to say, "Today I allowed in a ton of dope to come into the United States, being pushed by such-and-such a guy, who's also an asset of mine because the guy is being very, very effective against the Salvadoran guerrillas or against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas"? You're not going to write that memo.

So what I think Fred Hitz was saying and what he wrote--what that report says--is there's no evidence. There's no records. Well, of course there aren't. But do I know for sure that US officials were working with people who were engaged in drug trafficking in the United States in the 1980s? Absolutely. There's no doubt about it. They were.

It wasn't that the CIA was looking the other way from dope.  It didn't see the dope.  It was looking at the problem of national security threatened by guerrillas, People, organizations, the infrastructure of all of these civil wars--right-wing, left-wing, I don't care about the ideology--were being fueled and funded in part by the drug trade. It's a very convenient [way] to fund that kind of war. And the assets find it convenient to work for governments because they're also engaged in criminal activity. If you're working for governments, you may be able to use them.

I interviewed people who were drug traffickers, major drug traffickers, who provided support for the Contras. There wasn't any doubt about it. I interviewed bunches of them. They were, at the same time, working with US government officials. Were they CIA employees? No. Did they get a check from the US government? Absolutely not. Were they all assets of the US government? Most of them weren't even assets. An asset is somebody who's getting some kind of payment, even though they're not getting their Social Security check and their retirement and so on. They were working alongside the US government for common objectives. And they were helping fund US government objectives in that period. Was the United States government the only government doing this then? Absolutely not...Other governments have done it...It is a recurrent theme of these, civil unrests, that drug traffickers get involved in the funding of the wars.

...In recent polls 72% of African Americans believe that the CIA introduced crack into their community. And many other people outside of the African American community have taken it as common knowledge that the CIA is "involved in drug trafficking."

To say the CIA introduced crack into any part of the United States is obscene. It is so grossly wrong. It is so unfair. It is so untrue.

Rather, when you have governments engaged in covert activity, they wind up weakening the infrastructure of other governments--the capability of governments to stop crime from taking place. And they also simultaneously empower some of the criminals with whom they will inevitably come into contact. They feel a little looser, a little easier, about moving the dope in the United States.

They're strengthening the criminals' infrastructure and weakening the governmental infrastructure--not because they want drugs to come to the United States. It's an invisible, hidden artifact. They're not even seeing it. So it has never been an intention, as far as I'm concerned, of anybody in the CIA or anybody in any other US government agency to facilitate movement of dope in the United States. Nor is it fair to suggest that they did it. They didn't. Rather, other foreign policy objectives had the unfortunate byproduct...of making it a bit easier, strengthening some of those forces.

Now, it's always temporary and short term, because the people who play in this dope game wind up getting killed. They wind up getting indicted. They wind up in bad shape most of the time. So eventually it all plays out anyway, and they get caught in the grind of intelligence, law enforcement, fratricidal drug trafficking, rivalries and wars.

But according to Fred Hitz, when an agent in the field wants to hire, let's say, an airline in Honduras--

That's right.

--they have to notify Washington--


--and then Washington vets that relationship by allegedly running the names of the individuals involved and the company through indices here in Washington.

Yes. Since when? Did he tell you since when?

No. This was in operation then.

I was in the Congressional branch then. I wasn't in the Executive branch. All I can tell you is I pulled indictments of drug traffickers from US Customs, from court records, from State Department records, a variety of other sources--showing these people to be indicted drug traffickers or under investigation for having moved massive amounts of dope--who had contracts with the US government. I proved they had contacts with the US government. There's no question about the fact that they did.

Now [there are] three possibilities. They did the check poorly, incompetently, and didn't find it. They did the check and found it and lied about it. Or, they didn't do the check.

I personally find the second possibility--they did the check and lied about it--very, very unlikely, because that creates risk and danger. So if it was done, it was done poorly.

The question comes down to, as Fred would put it, knowledge. Did [CIA] Washington headquarters have knowledge that they were dealing with drug traffickers in order to support the Contra war?

When and where and who? The CIA never knows anything. The State Department never knows anything. The White House never knows anything. Individual people in particular locations know things at particular times. So you'd have to go down from that broad generality to look at the facts of particular cases. In particular cases evidence came up and typically when that happened, as Fred Hitz documents in his report, the system would then not really deal with the information very well. They'd say, "Well, it's not proven. Go back and get more information." And then nothing much would happen one way or the other.

Sometimes there were people, about whom there were allegations of drug trafficking, working with the US government for years after those allegations first surfaced. In other cases, there were people about whom there were allegations of drug trafficking, whose relationship was severed with the United States after it came up.

You can't say that anything systematically happened yes or happened no. It was very ad hoc. There wasn't a clear policy until much later in the 1980s--1988, '89--when the CIA absolutely tightened up its control a lot. And you saw real pressure being put to bear--"We don't want drug traffickers." And that absolutely happened by about 1988, '89, maybe a little bit earlier.

So you're agreeing that the CIA was not in the business of trafficking. Its agents weren't fostering trafficking directly. Is that correct?

The CIA was certainly not in the business of trafficking. As to agents--

Was it just looking the other way?

It not a matter of looking the other way. It's what you're looking at...CIA was looking at other things at that time. It wasn't that it was looking the other way from dope. It didn't see the dope. It was looking at the problem of national security threatened by guerrillas, threatened by Communism. That was its focus. That was its mission...Dope [was] not on the radar screen. It got politicized later. And it got politicized later partly during Iran-Contra and right afterwards. And then there was a focus...

Now, were individuals seeing it in particular occasions? Yes. Did they systematically work to correct it when they saw it? No. Did they sometimes work to correct it when they saw it? Yes. Did they sometimes ignore it? Yes. Ad hoc.

...Everybody says that [their greatest] fear [was] somebody they were doing business with getting busted while they were working on the Contra war...That's why they wouldn't play with dope dealers.

... I've worked with a lot of great people [in the CIA] who wouldn't want to have their institution's reputation ever sullied. But there are also people in the field who've got practical problems to solve everyday, and they're not worried about what Washington thinks. So what's happening in Washington and what's happening in the field are not always congruent. And you have to remember ... in the 1980s... there was a privatization of foreign policy which happened under Bill Casey. Casey set up operations that were outside formal chains of command, outside the structure of the government and funded by foreign government sometimes, among other sources. It's what Iran-Contra was all about a long time ago now.

The result was that there were some people who were clearly working for the US government, working for the NSC for example, who were drug traffickers. They weren't working for the CIA.

Oliver North...categorically denies that anybody in his off-the-books operation was trafficking in drugs.

He is either misinformed or lying. Oliver North's diaries are filled with references to drug trafficking and people associated with his enterprise drug trafficking--filled with it. He fought Senator Kerry in the Senate for years when Kerry was trying to get that information declassified, so everybody could see it. We were never able to get all of that information unclassified. The information we finally got declassified--it took years--shows dozens of references to drug trafficking by people associated with his network.

I can tell you as a categorical fact that at least one person working directly for the North Secord Enterprise was a significant dope dealer and was working in business with significant dope dealers out of Miami. Absolutely no doubt about it, absolute certainty from law enforcement records that I got way back when I was investigating for the US Senate.

It happened. It's true. And he can deny it. People deny all kinds of inconvenient things. Oliver North can say, "I never hired or worked with any drug traffickers." His organization did. [Moses] Nunez, Louis Rodriguez, Francisco [Charas] were part of a group called Ocean Hunter, [a] seafood businesses, flash-frozen shrimp. It's been over ten years--hard to remember the details.

They were in the CIA report.

Not only the CIA report. I had them drug trafficking up to New Bedford, Massachusetts, my home state. The biggest marijuana shipment ever intercepted in Massachusetts was their organization. They were working for Ollie.

...Glen Robinette was the retired CIA guy working for the North Secord Enterprise--was directing this guy. And you had the CIA at one point interview Nunez I believe. That's in the Hitz report somewhere--though you have to go back and check the report and see what's in it.

It's not true. He's either got a selective memory or he's not telling the truth. I can't tell you which. He'd have to search his own conscience on that.

Well, just for the record, let me ask you about the MOU. It's a document between Casey and William French Smith.

Right. That's early...[It's] very important to know how early that is. It was not Reagan II. It's Reagan I, long before the drug wars had gotten politicized, long before people had come to recognize that there might be a connection between the infrastructure of civil war and the infrastructure of dope trafficking.

...There's a follow-up, if you will, "cover your ass" letter in which William French Smith says, "Oh, we left out narcotics. But we all know that's not really going to be a problem because there's a fine relationship between the DEA and the CIA."

Right. We had a guy, Michael Palmer, we put before the world during Senator Kerry's hearings, who worked with the CIA and the State Department while he was under investigation by two or three different offices of the DEA and two or three different offices of Customs. And eventually he wound up doing a sting operation, I think on behalf of Customs, while he was under investigation by the DEA. And you had Customs and DEA firing shots at one another on an airfield as he came in with a dope shipment.

What Palmer was doing is essentially ticket punching--in which he would get as many US government agencies as he possibly could hiring him in order to make it impossible for anybody to go after him. Now, the relationship with the DEA and CIA was so good because the guy was working for the CIA while he was under massive investigation by the DEA as one of the major pilots involved in trafficking dope up from Colombia. That's how good the relationship was. That's historic record. That's fact. That's Palmer's own testimony before the US Senate in 1988.

Okay. So to you, this was in a sense a conscious loophole.

I wasn't there. I have no idea what was in Casey's mind or William French Smith's mind. I think the facts speak for themselves...

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