About "The Crimes of Mena"
By Sally Denton and Roger Morris

The initial suppression of the Seal-archive story created a small tidal wave that surged along the internet, gave right-wing radio another conspiracy to caress, and made headlines from London to San Francisco.

After 11 weeks of line-by-line fact-checking, editing, and legal vetting, after the text had been laid out in final type, photos and artwork arrayed, contracts signed, and publication date fixed, at the last moment — on January 26, 1995 — Washington Post Managing Editor Robert Kaiser had put one more nervous hold on the article you now see in Penthouse. We pulled the piece in dismay and disgust. Even the Post's own ombudsman acknowledged "the uproar" over what she called "the story of the hour."

For us as authors, personally and intellectually, the de facto suppression and resulting sensation were at best a mixed affair. A little like Henry Miller's Tropic titles, banned in Boston, our article was, ironically, receiving more attention unprinted that it might have drawn had it appeared as scheduled. Yet in their inevitable self-justification, Post editors were also impugning us as journalists, and the still-invisible piece was inevitably caught up in wild speculation or anti-Clinton mania that in many ways obscured the deeper, wider importance of what we had reported.

This was, after all, the thoroughly documented story of an enormous crime — of billions of dollars in gunrunning and drug smuggling done with the apparent collusion and cover-up of the U.S. government. It raised ominous questions not only about Bill Clinton, but about presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush as well — not simply a single set of scoundrels, but a far larger culture of official lawlessness. And behind the sorry episode at The Washington Post was something nearly as sinister — the tragic inability or refusal of a major media institution to confront that malignant dark side of American life and governance, even when presented with unprecedented evidence.

It had all begun almost by accident. As a member of the Association of National Security Alumni, a group of onetime CIA, White House, and other officials devoted to reform in intelligence and foreign policy, Roger Morris had first read about Mena in the organization's newsletter, Unclassified, where an article early in the 1992 campaign summarized the fragmentary, largely undocumented accounts of Barry Seal's operation in western Arkansas in the eighties. By the spring of 1993, Morris had started a book on Bill and Hillary Clinton, including their Arkansas background, and had begun to gather a thick file on Mena. Trips and literally dozens of phone calls back and forth to Arkansas added significantly to the sources — many of them sworn, on the record, and previously unreported.

Still, the sheer detail and exact magnitude of the smuggling and money laundering lacked hard evidence. With the exception of a lone account by reporter Bill Plante with producer Michael Singer on the CBS evening news, and two Wall Street Journal editorial-page feature pieces by Micah Morrison — all in 1994, and drawing mainly on known sources and accounts — the story remained a silhouette, and largely on the disdained margin of American journalism. Most major papers and networks ignored the scandal. A few, like Time or The Post itself, had written about it only to ridicule the accusations.

Meanwhile, in summer 1993, Morris shared his bulging Mena files with a close friend and colleague, Sally Denton, whose book on drugs and political corruption in Kentucky, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, was seen by many investigative reporters as a small classic on its kindred subject.

Instantly recognizing the gravity of the material, familiar from her own experience with the censure or aversion of the general media to such reporting, Denton instantly offered to pursue the story herself while Morris concentrated on other aspects of his book. Over the next year, Denton scoured her considerable law-enforcement and underworld sources throughout the nation, calling in or sending packages of an ever-growing mass of new evidence. By late summer 1994, what we called the Seal archive was mostly gathered — more than 2,000 documents, from the smallest receipt to whole volumes of investigation, that left no doubt about at least the seminal crimes in Mena.

Last autumn, we first submitted a brief op-ed version of the piece to The New York Times, which promptly turned it down. This was essentially a Wall Street Journal subject that The Times had not pursued as reportage, op-ed editor Michael Levitas told Morris. While they had no reason to doubt the documentation or the import of the story, the great gray Times, for now, would pass.

Without hesitation, we went next to The Washington Post, obviously looking for much the same political impact and mainstream authority. Less than an hour after we had faxed a copy to the Post's Outlook section, Deputy Editor Jeffrey Frank called back with warm acceptance and support.

It was obviously an extraordinary article, Frank told us, and though it would have to be thoroughly checked and carefully steered through the paper, he would do all he could to see it published.

Over the next 11 weeks, from early November 1994 to late January 1995, there were repeated delays and postponements, most ascribed to the election aftermath, the new Congress, and the holidays. But Frank and his staff were steady in their editorial commitment and enthusiasm, something Denton saw firsthand in a visit in Outlook offices before Christmas.

Meanwhile, as the article was set in galleys, there were numerous faxes back and forth, shipments of documents, photos, and even still from videotape, and weeks of painstaking checking, editing, and legal review by the Post's in-house lawyers, carefully chosen to avoid any potential conflict of interest with attorneys the paper might share somehow with the Clintons.

"Just get everybody on board," Frank said Executive Editor Leonard Downie had told him. And Frank had done just that, as we patiently answered queries from any number of Post editors and reporters who had been remotely associated with aspects of the story — far more, we were told later, than to the usual Outlook piece. But then, we recognized that this was anything but usual.

At last, on January 25, it all seemed done. Everyone had signed off, we were assured. The galleys were in final form, the contracts signed, and publication was set for a major splash on Sunday the twenty-ninth. Often strained over the weeks of work and marshaling, Frank's own voice seemed audibly relaxed as we began talking about how we would respond to other media questions.

Then suddenly — literally at the last moment — as Outlook went to press on January 26, Frank was on the message machine saying Managing Editor Robert Kaiser had held the story yet again. At the same moment, we were being called by the London Sunday Telegraph, whose correspondent had been leaked an early version of the piece (by a source high up at The Post, we were told) and had learned even before we did that the story was being held once more. He was now planning to file his own dispatch on the whole episode, perhaps including the piece itself.

A bit desperate, we called Bob Kaiser directly, not to lobby further for the story — which Frank had told us would be in vain - - but to alert him to the disturbing news of the Telegraph leak. But even after Morris explained all that through a secretary, Kaiser refused to come on the line. "He doesn't want to talk to you," she said. Frustrated, furious, convinced that Kaiser was not dealing with the story professionally — and likely never would — we pulled it.

We still don't know why the story was suppressed, though rumors abound — of CIA compromises at The Post, of calls from the White House, or some imagined rivalry between Morris's book and a Clinton biography by a longtime Post reporter, soon to be serialized and, unusually, promoted in the paper.

Whatever the motives, however, the fact remains that once more, mainstream media had turned away from the dark side, perhaps dreading what it would find there and what it would have to do as a result, perhaps afraid of something of its own reflection.

As so often in the past, the public service of airing stores like Mena would fall to braver outlets, like Penthouse.

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