Contras in Dixie
By Eric Guthey
Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, pp. 1-6
In 1984 an assassin’s bomb intended for Contra leader Eden Pastora killed eight people, including an American journalist, at the Contra outpost of La Penca on the southern front of the U.S.-sponsored war against Nicaragua.
Four years later, the shock waves of that explosion still reverberate along the southern front of another, even more secret war being waged against the democratic principles of the U.S. Constitution and the will of the American people.
Revelations of illegal activities in support of the U.S.-backed Contras continue to crop up in local communities around the South. The revelations contribute to the case that the Christic Institute, a Washington-based public interest law firm and policy center, has mounted in a Miami federal court against members of the criminal conspiracy it believes was behind the La Penca bombing, behind an extensive guns-for-drugs campaign, and behind the rest of the untold story surrounding the Iran-Contra affair.
* In Miami in 1986, convicted drug pilot Michael Tolliver landed a plane carrying 25,000 pounds of marijuana at the Homestead U.S. Air Force Base. Tolliver has testified before Congress that his action was part of a massive guns-for-drugs operation to resupply the U.S.-backed Contras.
* In Mena, Ark., local law enforcement officials are trying to shed light on a drug smuggling and Contra supply airstrip which they were told not to investigate because it was an official covert operation of the CIA.
* In Marietta, Ga., alleged arms merchant Gary Best continued until very recently to run the company he took over from local toymaker Robert Fletcher to use as a front for his illicit dealings. Fletcher says that Best, who has close ties to former major general and indicted Iran-Contra co-conspirator John Singlaub, threatened his
(Fletcher’s) life and forced him out of the company after he refused to become involved in arms smuggling to Angola.
* And in nearby Atlanta, Fulton County Chief of Detectives E.E. Nixon testified in early May concerning his aborted 1984 investigation into a warehouse allegedly containing C-4, the same type of plastic explosive that killed American journalist Linda Frazier at La Penca in the spring of that year. According to the Chicago-based weekly IN THESE TIMES, Nixon called off his investigation at the request of former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.
These and many other equally lurid goings-on point to the extent of the Iran-Contra affair–corruption which has penetrated local communities across the South and around the nation with drastic and lasting consequences. Largely glossed over by the President’s Tower Commission, by the Congressional Iran-Contra Committees, and even by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, the pattern of subversion and illegal activity that resulted in “Contragate” has been reduced in the public eye to little more than a problem of executive management style, an aberration on the part of otherwise well-intentioned “national heros.”
Christic Institute Challenges the Whitewash
Although still ignored for the most part by the mainstream press, the Christic Institute has been digging up the real story behind the Iran-Contra affair for over three years. Christic filed its federal civil lawsuit against several of the key figures in the scandal a full six months before Attorney General Ed Meese reluctantly released the story to the public.
The Christic Institute’s staff has since swelled from fifteen to over sixty members, all of whom work for no more than $15,000 per year. Christic’s main office in Washington, with a budget of more than $80,000 per week, now works exclusively on the Contragate suit. Christic funds its operations through private donations, through support from national church and peace groups, and through national foundation grants.
“When we filed the suit in May of 1986, a lot of people thought we were crazy,” says Sara Nelson, the Institute’s executive director. “They didn’t know these names, and they couldn’t imagine that there was this massive illegal military supply operation to the Contras.”
“Six months later the [Eugene] Hasenfus plane went down in Nicaragua,” Nelson recalls. “Our defendants’ names surfaced in Hasenfus’s business cards and telephone records. The press came to our office to find out what we knew. Then the Iran-Contra scandal broke, and there were more of our defendants–Albert Hakim, Richard Secord–in the middle of the Iran weapons sale.”
Christic has discovered that all of the principals in the Iran-Contra scandal also worked for the “Secret Team” or “Enterprise,” a covert, privately-funded, anti-communist organization made up of present and former U.S. military and CIA officials. According to Christic, members of the Secret Team, “acting both officially and on their own, have waged secret wars, toppled governments, trafficked in drugs, assassinated political enemies, stolen from the U.S. government, and subverted the will of the Constitution, the Congress, and the American people” for the past twenty five years.
“These are people who believe that they are above the
law, who are perfectly willing to lie to protect their programs, who think that their agenda is so important that our representatives do not matter and neither do we,” says Nelson. “We never voted for death squads. We never thought that this is what they were doing in our name. We believed them when they said ‘We are spreading democracy. We are fighting for freedom.’ But that is not what has been going on.”
La Penca and the Contragate Lawsuit
Christic filed its $17 million civil lawsuit against twenty-nine members of the Secret Team on behalf of American journalist Tony Avirgan and his wife and fellow journalist, Martha Honey. In 1984, Avirgan had been covering Eden Pastora’s La Penca press conference for ABC News when he was severely injured by the failed attempt to assassinate the Contra leader. On a recent, nationally televised episode of the PBS series, FRONTLINE, Avirgan recounted how the wounded Pastora was spirited away in the only boat available at the remote river outpost, and how the rest of the victims of the attack lay on the floor for a full nine hours before help arrived. That same night, the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, falsely reported that no Americans had been injured in the bombing, and refused to offer any assistance. FRONTLINE quoted George Jones, the deputy in charge of the embassy, as elating at the time, “We are not in the rescue business.”
After Avirgan recovered from his injuries, he and Honey began to investigate the bombing, fully expecting to find that it had been carried out by the Sandinistas. But every piece of information they uncovered led them to believe that the operation had been launched from the Costa Rican ranch of American millionaire John Hull, an alleged member of the Secret Team and now a defendant in the Christic lawsuit. Honey and Avirgan discovered that the Secret Team had decided to eliminate Pastora because he refused to follow CIA directives or to associate himself with other Contras who had been part of Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard, members of which had murdered Pastora’a father.
Honey and Avirgan also uncovered substantial evidence that Hull’s ranch was being used as a trans-shipment point for cocaine entering the U.S. and arms coming back to the Contras.
In 1985, after Honey and Avirgan published their findings, Hull sued them for criminal libel in a Costa Rican court. According to a sworn affadavit [sic] from Christic Institute general counsel Daniel Sheehan, who defended Honey and Avirgan, several witnesses for the defense were kid-
napped and tortured on Hull’s ranch. According to a member of the Costa Rican Rural Guard, one of their key witnesses wee executed there as well. A Costa Rican judge threw Hull’s case out of court.
The allegations by Honey and Avirgan about Hull’s drug smuggling and arms dealing activities in support of the Contras have recently received independent confirmation from Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) during hearings on the Contra-drug connection. On Frontline, Hull still denied any wrongdoing but said, “If it were within my power, people like [Senator Ted] Kennedy and Kerry would be lined up and shot tomorrow.”
Other defendants in the Christic lawsuit include retired general Richard Secord; Robert Owen, Oliver North’s private courier; Contra leader Adolfo Calero; and Thomas Posey, head of Civilian Materiel Assistance (formerly “Civilian Military Assistance”), an ultra-right wing group involved in supplying the Contras out of Decatur, Ala. Christic asserts that the Secret Team is headed by defendant Theodore Shackley, who served as CIA Deputy Director in charge of worldwide covert operations under the agency’s former director, George Bush.
Christic has refrained from naming any present members of the U.S. government in its suit in order not to bring the Justice Department into the case on the aide of the defendants.
In testimony before the Iran-Contra committees, Robert Owen called the charges against him “scurrilous.” In an article in the ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, Shackley called members of the Christic Institute “practitioners of character assassination through legal terrorism” whose charges amounted to “rubbish.”
But defendants in the Christic lawsuit participate in character assassination of their own. During the Iran-Contra hearings, former CIA operative Glenn Robinette testified that Richard Secord paid him more than $60,000 in funds diverted from the Iranian arms sales to carry out a smear campaign against the Christic Institute.
In the December 1987 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine, retired major general John Singlaub said in a funding appeal, “If I were back in Vietnam in a firefight, then I’d ask for an airstrike to blow the bastards away. But to win this fight we need money. To fight the damned Christic Institute lawsuit takes money.”
Christic’s lawsuit charges the twenty-nine defendants with violating the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO Act. Under the statute, Christic’s lawyers must prove that each defendant committed two offenses contributing to the conspiracy within a ten-year period. But Christic asserts that the Secret Team has been committing terrorist acts from positions both within and outside the government for the last twenty-five years.
Christic Focuses on the South
Although the Christic Institute wants to see the members of the Secret Team brought to justice, it also views the lawsuit as an opportunity to inform the American people of the crimes being committed in the name of their country. “If we don’t speak out and say we want to know about all this–as long as they can keep these things covert–then we can’t begin to correct the injustice and the immorality that is going on under our noses,” says Sara Nelson. For this reason the Christic Institute devotee half of its efforts to getting out the word about their lawsuit and about the illegal dealings of the Secret Team.
We can uncover the facts and conclude them in a court of law and resolve the debate about what is true and what is not,” Nelson says. “But it is going to take a massive public education and organizing campaign if we are going to develop a groundswell of pressure on our institutions to get them to do their part in solving these problems.”
Recently, Christic has stepped up its public education and organizing campaign in the South. “We hope that we can bring out some of this information here
and that other groups will continue to work with it,” says Christic’s Director of Southern Outreach, Tennessee native Jenny Yancey.
“The biggest issue here in the South is moving people to feel that they have the power to do something,” says Yancey. “And this information is power.”
The Christic Institute has a strong history of legal action on behalf of local communities and individuals in the South. Dr. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Council sits on the Christic board of advisors. Christic conducted the investigation and successful lawsuit against the Kerr-McGee nuclear power plant in Oklahoma on behalf of Karen Silkwood, who died mysteriously while trying to go public about her massive exposure to radiation at the plant. In 1985, Christic won a verdict against four Klansmen, two members of the American Nazi Party and two members of the Greensboro, N. C., Police Department for the murder of five anti-Klan demonstrators.
Christic also successfully defended Stacey Lynn Merkt of Brownsville, Texas, the first Sanctuary Movement worker arrested for harboring Savadoran refugees, and Eddie Carthan, the first black mayor elected in the Mississippi Delta since the Reconstruction, who had been falsely accused of murder. Christic attorneys worked on behalf of defendants in the Reagan Justice Department’s unsuccessful prosecution of civil rights activists in the Alabama Black Belt [see SOUTHERN CHANGES, May/June, 1985]. Most recently, Christic South’s office in Durham, N.C., provided legal and organizing services to the residents of Keyesville, Ga., where a fifty-year ban on self-government had left black residents with out such basic services as plumbing, sewers, a fire department or a school. In elections held last January, Keyesville residents elected their own town council and installed Emma Gresham, a black retired school teacher, as mayor.
In April, Nelson and Yancey traveled to Atlanta for four days of speaking engagements and organizing meetings. On Wednesday, April 21, Nelson spoke at a service at the Cathedral of Faith, a black Pentecostal church in south Atlanta. A few weeks before a six-year-old child had been shot in both legs in south Atlanta, caught in the crossfire of a crack-related shootout. Nelson emphasized that the Reagan administration’s obsession with the Contras has severely aggravated the drug problem in America’s inner cities, because administration officials have been at the very least looking the other way so that drug money could be used to fund the Contras. Dr. Jonathan Greer, pastor at the Cathedral of Faith, drove the point home in a rousing sermon.
“It’s not the folks out here that are the problem,” Greer said of the increased drug-related crime in Atlanta and other cities. “It’s the folks in Washington. They speak out against drugs, but they’re just playing a game. They tell us ‘Just Say No’–but they say ‘yes’ behind the scene because the money’s right!
“All the politicians come in here saying ‘We’re going to beef up our protection and round up the dealers.’ Well, I say start downtown! START IN WASHINGTON! Because if you can get that cleaned up, you won’t have to worry about down here!”
Nelson also spoke at a conference on theology, peace and politics held at Emory University and the Carter Presidential Center, and participated in a panel at the conference of the National Alliance of Third World Journalists at Clark College. She and her husband, Christic’s general counsel Daniel Sheehan, met with television executive Ted Turner to discuss the progress of their lawsuit and its coverage in the media.
Meanwhile, Yancey discussed with local organizers strategies for spreading the message about the Christic lawsuit. Yancey, fellow Christic staffer Eva Berkham, and the small group of organizers, which included representatives from area churches, a student Central America network, Pledge of Resistance, and Clergy and Laity Concerned, discussed advertisements, petition, leaflet and letter-writing campaigns, contacting local politicians for support, and a possible vigil in front of the Federal Building. Christic and the various Atlanta groups will try to coordinate their activities around the week of May 30, the fourth anniversary of the La Penca bombing.
Christic efforts come at a crucial time. Judge Lawrence King in Miami has placed certain severe restrictions on Christic’s lawyers, setting an early June 29 trial date and stipulating that Christic must prove ten years of illegal activity on the basis of only a four-year discovery period.
An obvious reason for Christic’s interest in Atlanta is the upcoming Democratic National Convention. Christic’s members see the election year as an opportunity to encourage voters to press for the kinds of change that might put an end to the state-sanctioned terrorism carried out by the Secret Team. “We want to keep working with people between now and the elections to raise these questions and get them into the debates so that the candidates are forced to come to grips with this,” says Nelson.
“It’s important that we don’t blow this year,” says Georgia Robeson, one of the Atlanta organizers working with Christic. “It’s essential that George Bush does not become the leader of this country–because he does know more about all of this than he has admitted.” Indeed, press reports continue to indicate that Bush’s chief advisers met with members of the Secret Team on several occasions. These reports, along with all of the other evidence that has come out about the Iran-Contra scandal, push the “plausible deniablity” of Bush, Reagan, and other top administration officials ever further into the realm of fiction.
Local groups in New Orleans also plan to make the Christic message heard during the Republican National
Convention later this summer. “There are many things in the planning stage–including major demonstrations–and certainly the Iran-Contra drug connection will be an important part of the issues raised,” says Ted Quant of the Institute of Human Relations at Loyola University in New Orleans. Quant is particularly concerned about the Christic Institute’s evidence that the Secret Team and the CIA have been involved in drug running to benefit the Contras.
There’s been a tremendous drug problem, particularly among the young people in our community,” says Quant. “Then we learn through Christic that a tremendous amount of the drugs in our community were actually flown in by the CIA. That means our kids are being used as cannon fodder for the Administration policy of trying to overthrow another country that is trying to establish a decent life for its children as well.”
The South presents “fertile ground” for “the type of paramilitary program that you see with the Iran-Contra affair,” Quant says. “The South has a history of support for this sort of paramilitary behavior going back at least to the Ku Klux Klan–and the role of extra-legal terror has continued until recent times. We know for example that the Klan has often traded its white robes for paramilitary garb to allign [sic] itself with the fight against Communism.”
Quant has witnessed first-hand the disastrous effects that the successful exploitation of this right-wing brand of Southern nationalism has had in the New Orleans community. “In a way the South has been treated as sort of a second-rate colony by these people–a place where they can dump these drugs to finance this war.”
The Scandal of the Eighties
The Iran-Contra Committees brushed aside a horrifying story of state-sponsored terrorism by focusing on the question of whether the president knew what was going on. But as Noam Chomsky writes in his book THE CULTURE OF TERRORISM, Reagan is “largely a creation of the Public Relations Industry,” and the question of what he knew retains significance only “in the world of imagery and illusion in which ideologists must labor to maintain the pretense that the public determines policy guidelines by voting for the chief executive.” The scores of conflicting and erroneous statements that have come out of Ronald Reagan’s mouth about the Iran-Contra scandal serve to confirm his irrelevance to real issues in the real world. Whether or not Reagan knew what went on, it happened–a secret government waged wars, murdered at least one American citizen and many others abroad, flooded the country with drugs, and flouted the will of the American people. A president with any degree of competence would have to be held responsible.
The defense of choice around the White House these days adheres to the revised slogan “Just say I don’t know”–a defense in which Administration officials are proud of the fact that they kept themselves uninformed or, better still, that they haven’t been indicted yet. George Bush’s continued assertions that he stayed “out of the loop” as far as the Iran-Contra affair was concerned illustrate just how far the Reagan gang will go to insult the intelligence of the American people. Recent press reports indicate that Bush may try to manipulate the debates before the election in order to avoid being confronted with his complicity in the Iran-Contra scandal and the operations of the Secret Team. He must not be allowed to do so. And the Democratic candidates must be carefully questioned as well–to make sure that, if elected, they will put an end to such threats to the Constitution and to the people’s right to know how their country is being governed.
On May 2, Oliver North addressed the graduating class at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Falwell likened North’s current legal trials to the sufferings of Christ, and the teary-eyed patriot said that he wore the accusations against him as “a badge of honor.” The heart of the Iran-Contra scandal is that very perversion of the American dream, where a U.S. marine can become a terrorist, and a terrorist can become a national hero of Christ-like proportions. Such a display of misplaced values thrives on ignorance–ignorance of what North did, ignorance of what those like him have been doing for years. By insisting that they just didn’t know, Reagan and Bush proudly uphold this ignorance as an example for the American people.
If Americans need to ask themselves whether patriotism means remaining ignorant of what goes on in their names, Southerners need to wonder why a figure like Oliver North receives such a sunny reception in Dixie. Capitalizing on traditional Southern support for quasi-religious nationalism and militarism, North depends upon Southerners to remain unaware of the facts, to buy into the slogans of gung-ho symbolism, to look the other way while right-wing ideologues conduct paramilitary operations in our own back yard.
For More Information
“Contragate Affidavit” by Daniel Sheehan, $10; LA PENCA REPORT by Avirgan and Honey, $8; Contragate Video: “The Shadow Government,” $20. Order from Christic Institute, 1324 N. Capitol St., NW., Washington, DC 20002.
Eric Guthey is a student in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University.