Arkansas Drug Exposé Misses the Post
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Washington
The London Sunday Telegraph
January 29, 1995

It might almost be called The Greatest Story Never Told. The article was typeset and scheduled to run in today's edition of The Washington Post.

It had the enthusiastic backing of the editors and staff of the Sunday Outlook section, where it was to appear after 11 weeks of soul-searching and debate.

Lawyers had gone through the text line by line. Supporting documents had been examined with meticulous care. The artwork and illustrations had been completed. The contract with the authors had been signed. Leonard Downie, the executive editor of the newspaper, had given his final assent.

But on Thursday morning the piece was cancelled. It had been delayed before --- so often, in fact, that its non-appearance was becoming the talk of Washington --- but this time the authors were convinced that the story was doomed and would never make it into the pages of what is arguably the world's most powerful political newspaper. They have withdrawn it in disgust, accusing the Post of a cover-up of the biggest scandal in American history.

In stark contrast, the managing editor, Robert Kaiser, left a message on my answering machine saying that there was really nothing to "this non-existent story". In a subsequent conversation, he dismissed the article as a reprise of rumours and allegations. "I am confident that it doesn't have any great new revelations," he said.

Others are less confident. A copy of the article passed to The Sunday Telegraph --- not, it should be stressed, by its authors --- appears to be absolutely explosive.

Based on an archive of more than 2,000 documents, it says that western Arkansas was a centre of international drug smuggling in the early 1980s --- perhaps even the headquarters of the biggest drug trafficking operation in history. It asks whether hundreds of millions of dollars in profits made their way "into criminal laundering in Arkansas's notoriously free-wheeling financial institutions and bond houses."

The activities were mixed up with a US intelligence operation at the Mena airport in Arkansas that was smuggling weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras.

Bill Clinton is not specifically accused of involvement, but he was Governor of Arkansas at the time. The piece also notes that some of his prominent backers had been the subject of extensive investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, and had been assigned files in NADDIS --- the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Intelligence System.

The article makes clear that the alleged scandal is not confined to the activities of the Arkansas political machine and Mr Clinton. It embraces the highest levels of the federal government over several years.

"For three Presidents of both parties --- Messrs Reagan, Bush and Clinton --- the old enduring questions of political scandal are once again apt," the article concludes. "What did they know about Mena? When did they know it? Why didn't they do anything to stop it?"

It is clear that The Washington Post took the article extremely seriously. It was to be run at full length --- roughly 4,000 words, taking up several pages in an almost unprecedented spread across the Sunday Outlook section.

The authors, Dr Roger Morris and Sally Denton, were told that they were being offered the highest fee ever paid for a contribution to Outlook. They are veteran investigators with established reputations. Morris worked for the National Security Council staff at the White House during the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. He has taught at Harvard and has written a series of acclaimed books on foreign policy.

Denton is the former head of new agency UPI's special investigative unit, and is the author of the Bluegrass Conspiracy, which exposed the involvement of Kentucky political and law enforcement figures in an international arms and drug smuggling ring.

Their research is concentrated on the activities of Barry Seal, a legendary smuggler who operated from a company called Rich Mountain Aviation in the Ouachita Mountains west of Little Rock.

They have his bank and telephone records, invoices, appointment books, handwritten notes, personal diaries and secretly-recorded conversations, as well as extensive police records and surveillance reports.

Among other allegations they make are:

  • Seal was using his fleet of aircraft to export weapons to Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil in addition to the Nicaraguan Contras.
  • The planes were carrying cocaine back up to Arkansas on the return journey for sale in New York, Chicago, Detroit, St Louis and other cities.
  • Seal had ties to the CIA and felt that he could smuggle with impunity.
  • Nine separate attempts to investigate Mena, by both state and federal authorities, were stymied. "Over the entire episode looms the unmistakable dark shape of US government complicity in vast drug trafficking and gun-running," the article says.

The broad picture is not new to readers of The Sunday Telegraph, which published a story making some of the same points on October 9 last year. The Wall Street Journal has also done original reporting on the subject.

      "It is engraved on the consciousness of the world by now that Arkansas is a corrupt one-party state. What is less well known is that it is also a major point for transshipment of drugs coming from Latin America and the Caribbean. In the mid-1980s it was perilously close..."

            -The Sunday Telegraph
              October 9, 1994

Morris and Denton have added fresh evidence but the real political importance of the piece is the fact that it was going to run in The Washington Post. The Post still sets the agenda in Washington and guides many US press and TV reporters on what they are supposed to think.

Up to now, the Post has conducted no more than desultory investigation of the Mena affair and its reporters have persistently treated it as a ludicrous conspiracy theory.

The treatment of the article by Morris and Denton will fuel claims from both Left and Right that The Washington Post is engaged in active suppression of the news to protect either Clinton or the CIA or both.

"It's down to naked politics now," Morris told The Sunday Telegraph. "We've jumped through every hoop. We've given them everything they've asked for. They can't say the story's not credible now."

In the end the Mena story is going to come out, with the courts doing the work of the press. A lawsuit in Arkasas is being used to determine the role of both Clinton and the US federal government in dirty tricks linked to Mena.

The case has already reached a crucial phase. A high-powered team of lawyers has issued subpoenas to key witnesses who will be compelled to testify under oath. Sworn depositions will rain down like confetti over the next few months.

And if the great American newspapers do not want to cover it, the radio talk shows certainly will.

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