General Noriega on the CIA, George Bush, William Casey, Gustavo Alvarez, Roberto D’Aubuisson, Oliver North’s role in Iran-Contra War, & Panama’s Refusal to Help Drug Pilots
Questions about Noriega and the Panamanian human rights record began being raised with the deterioration of Panamanian-U.S. relations, linked directly to the Reagan administration’s pursuit of its dirty wars in Central America. By the late 1980s, the United States had failed in its policy of arming the Nicaraguan Contras to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. U.S. intelligence officials who were close to the operations in Central America said Noriega was peripheral to these activities. Significanty, however, when Noriega was asked by Oliver North to participate in the dirty wars by mining Nicaraguan harbors, he says he refused. Intelligence officials deny that Panama or U.S. territory in the Canal Zone was used to train Salvadoran military or death squadmembers.
Why, after being the man the United States could count on, did I become the enemy? Because I said no. No to allowing the United States to run a school for dictators any longer in Panamanian territory. No to the request that Panama be used as a staging base for the Salvadoran death squads and the Nicaraguan Contras. Lots of no’s.
Combined with my defiance was lingering colonialism in the United States from conservatives like Reagan and Bush, who could not bear giving away the Panama Canal, especially to a leader who spurned their authority.
So they conspired against the man they couldn’t control; they made him into a “madman” and, what’s more, a man who dared to consort with communists! Then, when they found something even worse to call him, they used that too. They called him a drug dealer, selling drugs in North America to destroy the United States.
Three times, however, they tried to force me into an agreement in which I would get every possible personal assurance, money, protection and safe passage, as long as I would agree to exile and to leave the road clear for their control. I refused.
In the weeks prior to General Torrijos’ death, there was a delegation from the Nicaraguan Sandinista leadership. “Get out of the trenches,” he told one of the leaders. “Make it a political battle, the guerrilla war has been won,” he told his Nicaraguan guests, who were deferential because Torrijos was one of their oldest supporters. There also had been a visit by American General Vernon Walters.
Visit with William Casey at the CIA Headquarters
My visit to CIA headquarters that spring day was with a full understanding on both sides of what the relationship had been. I was still a colonel and head of G-2, invited by William Casey and on a courtesy visit at the behest of Torrijos.
There was, of course, always an air of intrigue on visits to CIA headquarters. The car pulled off the parkway after less than an hour’s drive. Security arrangements were made at the front gate, and then I was driven into the CIA grounds, directly to the imposing administration building. I recall crossing the threshold, looking in passing at the globe of the world inlaid in the floor of the venerable old headquarters and at the stars on the wall, representing the CIA agents killed in duty around the world. There was a lone receptionist seated in the large foyer; the cavernous dimensions of this empty space gave no outward projection of the espionage and intrigue one could imagine going on throughout the premises.
I was ushered into a morning of meetings with staff aides; Casey, I was told, would meet us just before lunch. We spent the morning in a series of chats that set the stage for what they were thinking about: inevitably, the talks revolved around the strategic importance of Panama and the Panama Canal and their plan for the United States to remain in Panama after the year 2000. I can remember only faces, not names, in these talks; at the CIA, I don’t think the use of names is a high priority. It may be Mr. Clark and Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, but I had little thought that these were the real names of the people I was talking to; the only surnames mentioned with any certainty during the morning were those of Colonel Noriega and Mr. Casey.
There was an informal air to these conversations, but certain themes were repeated for emphasis. “Colonel, the United States is concerned about the security of the region; with the Sandinistas, we are worried about Cuban and Soviet influence all around your government,” one of the anonymous men said.
“Colonel,” said another, “Panama and the Panama Canal are a choke point for transport and communications throughout the hemisphere. We know how important you are to us.”
As I reflected on these themes, it was clear that the United States was not talking about a little canal built three-quarters of a century eailier that was becoming obsolete and too small for the world’s greatest com- mercial fleets. What value, I thought, did a tiny canal built in 1904 have?
No, the Americans were talking about their dominion over a geo- graphical area that they saw as strategically vital, just as much now in the Cold War as it always had been. They were looking at a chess board. They controlled the pieces at an important stalemate: Panama was still the crossroads of the hemisphere. At the close of the century, the Americans saw Panama just as Teddy Roosevelt had seen it in 1904: this land was theirs and they wanted it all for their own.
In the late morning, I was ushered into the office of William Casey. He was not exactiy an imposing man, standing there, hunched over and handling himself like any other American businessman, but with the appearance of a kindly old grandfather. Still, I was impressed with him. He seemed to be a classic, old-style intelligence officer and I found a great kinship in that; here was a man who had been consumed by the process and the art of intelligence gathering.
While many of the morning meetings were with Spanish-speaking intelligence officers, a translator was always present. This was especially necessary with Casey — my knowledge of English did little good. He cocked his head as he spoke from a turned lip with words that tripped out in ways I couldn’t understand at all. And yet, with the help of translation, our chat, extending two hours or so over a luncheon in an adjoining dining room, was animated.
“Colonel Noriega,” he said, “we want to do everything we can to maintain the cooperation we have established with you and your country.”
“As do we,” I told Casey. “General Torrijos has asked me to tell you that he looks forward to a friendly, open relationship.” In addition, I told him, Torrijos asked me to describe our philosophy of openness that we should talk frequently and openly to avoid misunderstanding. “The CIA ends up being blamed for every little thing because of the aura of mystery that surrounds it,” I said. “We need to keep the lines open so we can change that.”
Casey was interested in hearing about the CIA role in the 1969 coup against Torrijos. I told him what I knew. He smiled when I talked about the mystery we ascribed to the spy agency. “I’d like to come to Panama soon and visit with the general,” he said. He wanted “a channel of communication with Cuba without any obligation.”
The chats were in part protocol, in part an early attempt to raise the key issues that Casey and the Reagan administration wanted to promote.
Central America, he said, was on the verge of being over-run by Communism. Panama was uniquely situated to observe events in Central America because our doors were open to all sides. The United States knew this and welcomed our openness and our help, he said.
I said little during this first briefing by Casey on the Central America plan. I never harbored any illusion that Washington really cared what I thought. It was a situation in which special foreign visitors, allies and potential allies are brought to the CIA for a briefing. The CIA representatives present their view of the world, ask polite questions of their guests and sit calmly and courteously when it’s the visitor’s turn to talk. This is what they call their foreign policy: supporting democracy worldwide. It is really a recipe for making sure that their own form of repression is being disseminated.
Casey gave no operations details of what was planned by the Reagan administration; instead, I got the party line, a general perspective of the struggle they had before them. Casey made it clear what he and Reagan and Bush thought the stakes were.
The CIA director came jauntily into the Panamanian embassy in Washington just before noon. It was December 8, 1976, about a month after the Republicans lost the presidential election. Torrijos knew that things would change with the arrival of President Jimmy Carter. He wanted our intelligence contacts with the new administration to be strong — he hoped my meeting witii Bush, besides putting to rest the nonsensical charges about the bombings, would serve as a bridge to Carter that would lend further progress to the Panama Canal negotiations.
“Good to see you,” I told Bush, shaking his hand. “General Torrijos sends his regards.”
I was struck immediately by the fact that Bush came alone to the em- bassy; his driver, if he had one, aides and interpreter were not there. He carried no papers, not so much as a pen and pad of paper. Aha, I thought. No witnesses.
Bush was already well acquainted with Aquilino Boyd, whom he knew would do the translating for us. The three of us sat down in an anteroom of the embassy and engaged in a little chat before lunch.
Substance was humorously lacking. Bush needed to be assured that I was not going to spill the real story of the U.S. involvement in the bombings. Yet he needed to do so gently.
“So,” he said, “have you done a report on the bombings?” What he meant, I am sure, was “I hope you haven’t written a real report about what we did”.
“Yes, I wrote a report and sent it to General McAuliffe,” I told him. I understood this to mean Don’t worry, we’re not talking. It indicated that I had kept the information limited to what was already known, and directed the facts to the diplomatically proper channel — the corresponding U.S. military authorities.
“And he received the report?” Bush asked.
“Yes, I made sure of that,” I said.
Boyd never knew what to make of this conversation. After his contacts with the U.S. embassy, he had expected some fireworks. Instead, he heard neither recriminations from Bush nor complaints and denials from me about our role in the bombing. In addition, he knew that my mentioning of McAuliffe was strange. The head of the Southern Command had nothing to say about the National Guard’s role in the bombing. Yet Boyd would be the sole witness and would be able to tell other diplomats that there had been a meeting on the bombing,although, he might add, nothing important had taken place.
After this cryptic conversation, we were called to lunch and joined by our ambassador to Washington, Nicolas Gonzalez.
Bush was relaxed, happy and friendly during lunch. The only substance to our chat was when he asked solemnly, one soldier to another, if what he had heard was true: “Is Torrijos a communist?”
“I assure you he is not,” I answered. “It doesn’t mean anything; he’s no communist, he’s a Panamanian, and that’s as far as it goes.”
This was all light conversation in the course of lunch, and despite the nature of the question. Bush was at ease and relaxed, changing the subject frequenty.
“This embassy is one of the great old buildings of Washington,” he said. “I really wish I knew more about Panama and its history.”
“You’re always welcome to visit,” I said. “General Torrijos and I would be pleased to welcome you.”
“You know, I’m particularly interested in the Panama Canal,” the CIA director said. “How does it work?”
After Bush left, Boyd was clearly beftiddled. There was no mention of the U.S. criticism of Panama for allegedly planting the bombs in the Canal Zone, he said. What, then, was the purpose of the lunch. He had expected an angry meeting with charges and threats, not the diplomatic display he had witnessed.
I told him not to worry, that everything was just fine: Bush had gotten the message. Sometimes, among intelligence operatives, no more than a word or a glance is needed to have a full understanding.
All of my subsequent contacts with Bush were cordial, as was evident in a photograph that has been mightily suppressed by the U.S. government. The occasion was a courtesy call Bush was making as vice president in December 1983 at Omar Torrijos International Airport. I had been armed forces commander for only several months. The meeting was ostensibly intended to brief President Ricardo de la Esperilla on U.S. plans in Central America. In fact, I was attending to other duties and had not expected to see Bush. But on his arrival, I got a special request that Bush himself was asking to see me to pay his respects.
“General, it’s good to see you again,” Bush said when I arrived late at the VIP meeting room in the airport. Bush was ebullient and warm in his greeting, since I was the only person among the Panamanians he had met before.
We were paired up, the future president and future pariah, side by side. The visit lasted less than half an hour; then Vice President Bush pulled me aside. He congratulated me for having been named commander in chief and made a subtle reference to his request that the United States be allowed to use the Panama Canal Zone as a base for its counterinsurgency operations in El Salvador.
“I hope you’ll be supporting my old friends,” Bush said. “Our pilots are already chosen and ready to start flying.” Neither one of us realized it, but the pilots included such men as Jorge Canalias, Floyd Carlton Caceres, Cesar Rodriguez and Teofilo Watson, future cocaine traffickers transporting Contra weapons in exchange for cocaine. They would later accuse me of dealing drugs.
I was noncommittal. Bush and company left Panama and my memory of him is vague and distant. As they say about George Bush the man, the meeting was so unmemorable that it did not even cast a shadow. At the time, however, the Iran-Contra operation was already in full swing.
Later, El Salvadoran right-wing zealot and death-squad organizer Roberto D’Aubuisson — who was far too right-wing for me but with whom I maintained an ongoing debate about Central America — told me that Bush had flown to El Salvador to meet with him in San Salvador right after our Panama encounter. “He gave his blessing and a pledge of financial support to our operations,” D’Aubuisson told me, using the word “operation” as a substitute for what he was thinking about — his plan to murder thousands of political opponents and leftists in an anti-communist frenzy. Bush and the Americans knew very well that D’Aubuisson was the real power. They didn’t care, until successful protests in the late 1980s made it expedient for them to keep D’Aubuisson at a distance.
What we all know about George Bush is diabolical even without his dealings in Iran-Contra. Here is a man who, as a pilot in World War II, committed a war crime by shooting at lifeboats containing the survivors of two Japanese fishing boats he sank in the Pacific Ocean. The material is all on the record and, if the U.S. media weren’t so predisposed to worshiping their cold warriors, this truth, not my testimony, would have sunk Bush a long time ago.
I am fascinated by the way history repeats itself. Bush, proving his cowardice by attacking helpless lifeboat survivors in World War II, took just as cowardly a move in the invasion of Panama. I can see the young face of George Bush, dive-bombing a Japanese fishing boat, frightened, but hoping that others will see it as proof of his manhood. And then I can see the older, mature George Bush, on national television, speaking of the evil of Panama, ordering Stealth bombers to destroy a nonexistent enemy in Panama and manufacturing a mass version of his insecure vision of an evil empire challenging his manhood again. In English, they call it “the wimp factor.” I am sure that this man’s “wimp factor” will never allow him rest: once a wimp, always a wimp.
That is little solace to me, of course. But I can compare my emotional balance with his. I have a quality of measuring my emotional and mental reflexes in times of stress — during the invasion, under fire by guerrillas in the mountains, during a coup attempt, when I should have been killed. And I recognize stability within myself through times of trial, sensing only some natural rage at the grotesque figure of George Bush, sending brave, innocent American boys to kill so that he can defeat his cowardice. Yes, I resent the actions of a man within a system that can do what has been done to me. But I am also interested by the psychological profile it reveals. And I am committed to fight for historical truth, which still can rally me to victory.
I had been the U.S. contact person throughout the 1970s, and I was well known to everyone in the CIA; now, with Casey, the relations would become tighter. In 1983, when I assumed command, the CIA was pleased to have a direct connection with the leader of the Panamanian military. Even though I appointed my own G-2 intelligence chief, Casey came down soon after I assumed command to make it clear that his organization was happy to deal with me directly.
But I was under no illusions: neither Panama nor I was ever central to the game being played by the Americans; we, in turn, never allowed Panama to become a pawn in that game. Their Central American plans started to go too far. We viewed their support for the Salvadoran military and the crazed war they organized against the Sandinistas as irresponsible and unbalanced; this was not our battle and we thought it was wrongheaded.
Moreover, we supported the Sandinista revolution and understood the nationalist aspirations of the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador. With the advent of their war, the United States began to make demands that we could not meet and applied more pressure than we could tolerate. Up until then, I had been Mr. Yes — the man on whom the Americans could always depend; now I had started to become known as Mr. No. And Mr. No, the Reagan administration decided, had to be destroyed.
Yet I am convinced that history would have been altered and the December 20, 1989, invasion of Panama never would have taken place if Casey had lived. Casey had the power and the inclination to defend me against the conspiracy that was developing against me, spurred on by Panamanian opponents and their friends in Washington.
Casey knew what was going on in Panama. The drug trial would not have worked if he were alive, because I would have had him as a living testament and defender; he knew the truth about all the charges against me. He knew the truth about the Spadafora killing and the drug pilots flying for Bush’s contras.
Neither the Americans nor their allies ever understood why we would not help them: it was not in our strategic national interest to do so, it was not our belief that communism was about to overrun Latin America; it was not our intention to oppose liberation movements.
We weren’t interested in helping the Americans in that way. Strategically, it made no sense. We didn’t want to be the handmaidens of the Americans, and everybody in the region knew, whether they understood it or not, that this was our position. Because of this, our relations at times were strained with the closest U.S. allies — the Salvadorans and Hondurans and the Contras — because they knew that we had a different way of looking at the United States.
I had this argument many times with many different people. Three are worth mentioning: General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez of Honduras, Captain Roberto D’Aubuisson of El Salvador, and a lieutenant colonel from the United States named Oliver North. I was fascinated by all three — Alvarez because of how naive he was and because of what happened to him; D’Aubuisson because of his one-track mind on annihilating communism as if it were a disease; and North because of all the power he professed to have.
General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez of Honduras
Alvarez was Honduran military commander from January 1982 until March 1984; he presided over dramatic growth in the U.S. military presence in Honduras. He was assassinated in Honduras in January 1989.
Alvarez’s attempts to provoke a war proved his undoing. The United States wanted the Contras to overthrow Nicaragua and they wanted to act as an unseen player in that game. They did not seek a highly visible, overt approach, and that was what Alvarez was leading them toward. Eventually this meant that Alvarez, for reasons very different from the U.S. interest in getting rid of me, became a problem. I refused to help them in Nicaragua — Alvarez wanted to do too much.
So suddenly, one fine day, there was a coup in Tegucigalpa, coming from the quarter where one would least expect it: Alvarez’s closest friends, fellow officers in the Honduran air force. The United States helped plan and instigate the coup. The armed forces seized their commander, tied him up and sent him packing out of the country, to Costa Rica.
The moment chosen for the uprising against Alvarez was important. The United States had been hosting a mini course on military intelligence and operations at Fort Gulick, one of its military bases in the former Canal Zone. Among those attending the course were a number of Alvarez’s key men. I remember giving the closing speech and later at- tending a reception for them at the Hotel Continental that evening. All of us were unaware of the trouble brewing back in Honduras.
The news came out the following morning, with word that General Walter Lopez was the new head of the Honduran armed forces. Later the same day, I received a message from Costa Rica: Alvarez wanted to talk to me.
When the phone hookup was finally made, the man on the other end of the line was an Alvarez who sounded in a far different frame of mind than the man I knew: alternately bitter, defeated, tearful, without hope, then violent, grasping for possibilities, beseeching me for support.
“What can I do for you?” I said finally, unable to think of anything that could unseal his fate.
“Manuel Antonio, call General [Paul] Gorman for me,” he said, referring to the head of the U.S. Southern Command. “I haven’t been able to reach him, but Manuel Antonio, please, tell General Gorman, tell him, tell him about what they have done to me, tell him that I am in hiding here in Costa Rica, tell him everything I have told you.”
I did in fact get in touch with Gorman.
“Oh, yes, yes, we know about that, we know about that, thanks for the call,” Gorman said, dismissing the whole matter and promptly changing the subject. I could see that Gorman indeed knew a lot about Alvarez’s fortunes, and that nothing was likely to change.
All of this would be inconsequential except for the fact that not many days later I had a visit from a CIA agent, obviously aware that I was in touch with Alvarez.
“Alvarez is going to the United States,” the agent said. “Please send him this money through the BCCI account.” The gift was a large quantity of cash. I sent it to Alvarez and he went to live in exile in the United States.
I was fascinated by the whole process, but I just couldn’t understand the Americans. They thought everything would be made all right with money. It was beyond cynicism; it was disconnected from reality: “Let’s send something to pacify him, to take care of him and his wife and children — and to keep him quiet. He’s done his job for us. And now it’s over.”
Years later, the Americans tried the same thing with me; two million dollars seemed to be the going price for a military commander to give up his nation’s sovereignty. Alvarez was in the back of my mind — and all the money they could offer me wasn’t enough to get me to leave Panama. It wasn’t the only time they tried.
Captain Roberto D’Aubuisson of El Salvador
The case of Roberto D’Aubuisson was far more complex, but boiled down to the same thing. Never mind morality — a foreign contact is useful when and if he matches up with U.S. policy objectives. D’Aubuisson had been a hard-line major in the Salvadoran army, so radically anti-communist, so extreme in his hatred of anyone even suspected of being on the left and so open about it that he was expelled from the corps for the sake of appearance. But, inside or outside the institution of the Salvadoran armed forces, D’Aubuisson was a military force to be reckoned with and he was always close to the United States. Although for public consumption D’Aubuisson was condemned and shunned by the U.S., privately he was embraced and never condemned by any key policy maker.
He came to Panama several times and we would have long talks, which were unavoidably and inevitably political. He was a tough, wiry, energetic man, anti-communist to the bone and oppressively military in manner. He walked and stood ramrod straight; even in informal situations, he was always stiff and starched, his pursed, tight lips ready to launch into a tirade.
It was evident that his principal reason for coming to Panama was not to meet with me, but to hold strategy sessions at the Southern Command. Panamanian intelligence was able to monitor what was going on at such events, even though we weren’t invited in. There would be planning meetings with U.S. and Salvadoran officers, and sometimes Argentina would send up a military group to analyze the situation. In such settings, D’Aubuisson was frequently the protagonist. He would present his analysis of tactics and how things were going in the war. And he was given intelligence briefings by U.S. officials in return.
On one visit to my house, he brought whiskey and became increasingly loud and argumentative as the night wore on.
“Look, Manuel Antonio,” he said. “You have the communists from El Salvador wandering around Panama all the time. I don’t understand how you people here can give protection to these communists.”
“And how do you know anything about it?” I asked.
“I have my own sources of information here, who tell me that the guerrilla commanders are always coming and going, whenever they want.”
“Come on,” I told him, “we’re actually helping San Salvador by let- ting them come in,” I said, making a joke. “At least when they’re in Panama, they’re not causing you any trouble. They’re probably here partying. Life is different in Panama.”
D’Aubuisson would not be deterred. He could be set off quite easily and would just flip. If you ever tried to break away from the constant theme of tactics in fighting the guerrillas and how to win the war, he would jump right back on the same track.
“No, no, no,” he said crazily, almost jumping into the air. “They are directing the guerrilla war from here. This is their base of operations; they direct their operations and raise money and weapons in Panama. And this is where they have their contact with the Cubans.”
What he said was not true. Panama was not providing support to the FMLN. He was saying that allowing them to come to Panama was tantamount to our supporting the war effort. Yes, the Salvadoran guerrillas came to Panama, but so did the leaders of many other guerrilla movements. So did their opponents, like D’Aubuisson himself The leaders of these movements were very careful: they knew and we told them explicitly that this was open territory and that the world’s intelligence services were all here, wandering around. But the rule was that nothing was to happen in Panama, that each of them was responsible for their own security, and we wanted no funny business; that this same warning would serve for every other country as well.
“Look, what are you telling me here?” I said. “Everybody is free to come and go in Panama. But nobody is launching any operations. We don’t permit it.”
“Esta jodido, pues — that’s fucked up,” he said. “Toss them out or give them to me. Hand them over to me and nobody will ever know what happened.”
The subject illuminated the personality of the man; his prosecution of the war was like a psychosis. And his attitude also foreshadowed what he was really doing. The United Nations, capping off years of human rights reports, said D’Aubuisson controlled paramilitary death squads until the day he died and was responsible for thousands of deaths of noncombatants throughout the 1980s. While D’Aubuisson never said so directly, he talked about “hitting the Marxists from all directions,” saying, “The communists are like vermin, they must be exterminated,” and if necessary, he would do so in a “scorched earth” campaign. These were the very words he used. And when he spoke, his eyes glistened with the ardor of what he was saying.
“Just let anyone try to stop us,” he said. “They’ll see what happens.” He went as far as to talk about his military branch, separate from the political section of the ARENA — National Republican Alliance — party, which he had founded. “We have supporters getting and-guerrilla defensive training,” he would tell me.
When he talked about tactics, it was about his pride in his organization and intelligence capacity, in maintaining better files on people than even the Salvadoran military had. He said that his intelligence was based on his connections with the United States — he never said with what part of the U.S. government, he simply said the USA, and referred at times to exchanging information and keeping tabs with U.S. officials.
He felt himself empowered by U.S. policy, as did the Central American presidents, with whom — excluding, of course, Nicaragua — he had a more far-reaching relationship than has ever been told to do what he wanted with a perfect sense of mission. That was what he said when- ever I met him. I once asked him if he feared international sanctions.
No, he said, because he had his flanks covered — by the knowledge that the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency knew exactly what he was doing. He saw himself to be operating with the blessing of the United States, and he said he had the green light “to wipe out Marxist- Leninists,” as he always put it.
One time I remember trying to tease him into something.
“You’re like pure black coffee,” I said, “like a cup of black espresso, too strong, much too strong. You need a little bit of cream to balance things off You’re too extreme about this. Why don’t you try talking with the other extreme. Why don’t you talk to the Cubans, with Fidel’s people?”
“Sure, I can talk with them and debate with them, no problem,” D’Aubuisson said. “I’m not afraid to talk to them. I’m not afraid to talk to Fidel.”
I remember very well the day that I introduced him to several members of the Cuban embassy in Panama. I had convinced D’Aubuisson to meet with the Cubans to discuss Central America.
The Cubans told the Salvadoran death squad leader that both sides should try to defuse the situation in El Salvador to end the bloodshed.
While they supported the FMLN, the Cubans told D’Aubuisson, they saw them as an independent, autonomous force with their own principles and ideals. They also spoke to D’Aubuisson about self-determination for El Salvador.
I doubt that D’Aubuisson ever understood what they were talking about. It never reached the level of negotiations, but with such an extremist, even a talk like this seemed to be worth something. The Cubans ended up inviting him to Havana, and he said that he would be willing to go. But as far as I know, it never came to anything.
This was at the peak of the political violence — the disappearances and death squad activity in El Salvador. D’Aubuisson came more and more often, and it was no shopping trip to the duty-free zone, where so many tourists go in Panama City to buy perfume and wristwatches. He was coordinating his operations with the Southern Command.
Eventually, we caught them in the act — D’Aubuisson and the Southern Command, in violation of the Panama Canal treaties, began covert training of Salvadorans on Panamanian territory.
Early in 1985, the Salvadoran operations were heating up. Planes loaded with supplies were shuttling back and forth from the United States to the U.S. bases and then on to El Salvador. One day, about two dozen men arrived at Howard air base, Salvadorans without visas, traveling as military, saying they were going to a training course. The only problem was that the School of the Americas, the U.S. training center for police and military from Latin America, had been withdrawn from Panama, and the United States was not authorized to conduct military training for foreigners in Panama anymore. So what were they doing? Our officer on duty at Panama immigration let them come through, but reported it up the line. We presented a diplomatically worded complaint to the Salvadoran military: why were they sending personnel to Panama without getting visas? It was a question of reciprocity at the very least — Panamanians needed visas to go to El Salvador; the opposite was also true.
The complaint was filed and nothing happened. Then another group arrived, and they were denied entry. This time the generals at the U.S. Southern Command got involved, requesting entry for the Salvadorans, saying they were coming for a training course and asking for a visa. Retroactively, the Salvadorans also applied for visas at the Panamanian embassy in San Salvador, saying that they were on a group tour and that they were going to the Canal Zone.
Our intelligence branch had no trouble in finding out that these Salvadorans were traveling with fake documents. If you have a passport that says your name is Captain Garcia, it isn’t too hard to find out in San Salvador that there is no Captain Garcia in the armed forces, no matter how hard you try to pretend. We were able to find out about it through our secret channels. Our operatives in the American zone told us this was actually a top-secret training session, combining instruction in intelligence, explosives, counterinsurgency, demolition training, sharpshooting, etc. The training courses were so specific that they lasted only three weeks at a shot. This was not general instruction. People came for their intended purpose, catered to each individual: snipers took sharpshooter training, explosives specialists took demolition training, intelligence operatives took intelligence training. Then they went on their way, back to El Salvador, for a little “freedom fighting.” The United States trained the death squads at the U.S. Southern Command.
Despite all their money and friends of convenience like Alvarez and D’Aubuisson, the Americans just weren’t doing too well with their wars in Central America. Early on it was clear to most in the CIA that I was not willing to help the Contras. Nevertheless, the Americans had for years come to me for help and advice, and when things started going badly for them in Central America, they tried it again.
The initiative came from the man known as the greatest of the true believers, Oliver North. In North’s view, I was no different from men like Alvarez or D’Aubuisson, mere operatives who did his dirty work. North was a user of men. He would be the one to find friends of convenience, pay them off and discard them when their work was done. Like Alvarez, he also wanted to be the conqueror on a white horse. He wanted to be an American hero.
While I had two meetings of note with Oliver North — and I could see that he was indeed the brash, self-assured man people now know him to be — I had no idea at the time of the scope of his enterprise. I had to assume that the impetus for his searching me out came from the White House and CIA men I had dealt with over the years.
His first overture developed under unexpected circumstances. In 1985, Lieutenant General Robert Schweitzer, the director of the Inter- American Defense College in Washington, DC, invited me to give the institution’s commencement address. The college brought in officers from Latin American militaries throughout the hemisphere — excluding Cuba, of course. The officers study and attend lectures for an entire term. This was the second time I had given a speech at the college and it was a pleasure to do so.
I thanked the general for his invitation, went to the commencement, gave my speech, sat through some formalities and went to a brief reception. This was all followed by an evening event, a gala party on a ship cruising the Potomac.
I was standing on the deck with a colleague when General Schweitzer called me aside.
“General Noriega, I’d like you to meet a colleague of ours. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the United States Marine Corps,” Schweitzer said, excusing himself politely after the introduction so North and I could talk.
I was surprised by the introduction and by North’s presence, since I didn’t think he had anything to do with the college staff. That was true, he said. He had heard that I would be attending this evening cruise and had sought out an invitation especially for the purpose of meeting me.
North may not have remembered, but I had met him several other times — in 1983, when he had accompanied Bush, and another time the same year when he had traveled to El Salvador with then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. On that occasion, I remember that the head of the U.S. Southern Command, General John Galvin, and I had agreed that we would give Weinberger the opportunity, as an old soldier from World War II, to review the troops. Weinberger had been touched by the gesture and reacted emotionally to the opportunity.
One other point: Weinberger apparently had been accompanied by another aide whom I just can’t remember seeing — Colin Powell. If he had been there, Powell was far in the background, although he said in his autobiography that at this courtesy visit — at which we didn’t ex- change a word and at which I was paying honors to his chief — that I was “evil.”
North got down to business. He described himself as being at the helm of the Contra supply effort. “We’re in a war here, General. My orders come directly from President Reagan and Vice President Bush,” he said, emphasizing his important, central role in all of this. North had apparently gotten to the cruise ship sometime before I did, and he was many drinks ahead of me. It had made him loose and talkative. It was evident that he wanted to leave me with the impression that he was not just any lieutenant colonel, but a special one, a man who even had the ability to give commands and do things that men of higher rank, even generals, could not do.
He made references to needing to get to know me, to having heard about my good work for the United States, and talked about how he was having problems in Miami because of allegations that people working for him on behalf of the Contras were also flying drugs. He spoke for a while like that, insisting that we would need to get to know each other. He was quite insistent and said that he would keep in con- tact with me and also with the Panamanian military attache, who was standing nearby. I didn’t say much, listened politely, and after a while we broke off. That was that. The whole thing left me a bit surprised his brashness, his having sought me out — and I was wondering whether the whole thing was the word of a braggart who had had one drink more than he should have.
I brought up the matter in passing at a meeting during the same U.S. visit with William Casey at CIA headquarters. “Is it true what North says about his work with the Contras?”
“Oh, yes,” said Casey. “It’s true. North is who he says he is.”
I had no direct contact with North for a year or more after that. Then he approached me for help. In the summer of 1986, I got a call from Joaquin Quinones, a Cuban American who would contact me on behalf of the National Security Council. I had met Quinones through Pigua Cordobez, a Panamanian businessman; he was a political ally of Bush, a diplomat of some kind who had sought unsuccessfully the post of U.S. ambassador to Panama. Quillones was represented to me as a messenger from the White House. At our first encounter, he had said that he was impressed by our military forces and that Vice President Bush was very much interested in Panama. Quinones, like North and all the other envoys I met, told me that Bush was handling the Contras business directly.
Some time afterward, Quinones came to Panama for a visit. He told me that Oliver North was visiting Iran and Israel and would be interested in meeting with me. They knew that I had a trip scheduled to Europe, so they suggested that North meet me on his return leg in England. I said that I had no problem meeting with him.
The meeting was at the Victoria Gardens, a hotel I was staying at close to the Panamanian embassy. I was accompanied by a young diplomat assigned to the embassy, named Jorge Constantino. I remember that we got together with the Americans at the left side of the lobby, toward the rear; there’s a kind of alcove where they serve coffee. It’s an isolated and private spot where you feel like you’re in a room by yourself
I recognized North easily from our previous meeting in Washington. He was disheveled, as were the men who accompanied him. He had the look of someone who had been traveling all night. He hadn’t shaved and you could tell from his breath that he had been drinking. Richard Secord and John Singlaub were there too. They were both re- tired military men whom I hadn’t met before, but whom I recognized later when the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded. Singlaub, I recall, described himself as chief of operations for the team; he gave me his card. Both men also looked unkempt; their clothing had the creased look of people who had been on the road.
I did have some forewarning of what this was all about, thanks to Mike Harari, my Israeli contact, a former Mossad officer based in Panama City. Harari had given me a general briefing about what they were up to, that they had been on a mission to the Middle East, including Iran. There was a story of a ship that had left Israel supposedly carrying food or candy or some nonsense like that. Of course, it was really carrying weapons to Iran.
I knew the possible reasons for this meeting after my previous contact with North. At the time, the U.S. Congress was ready to stop any covert operation that cost too much, took too long or in which Americans were liable to be killed. What the American government needed were intermediates who could handle clandestine operations on their behalf.
I am convinced that these were not freelance operations — both Bush and Reagan were always completely tuned in to and briefed on what was going on. Everything was handled at a distance by men like Dwayne “Dewey” Clarridge, who was the CIA regional chief for Latin America. Along with North, John Poindexter, Nestor Sanchez and others at the National Security Council, these men promoted a clear Reagan administration policy. The underlings always made sure to tell me they were asking for my help “in the name of President Reagan” or “in the name of President Bush.” The president, they would say, “has authorized us to start supporting the military against the guerrillas in El Salvador and to launch attacks against Nicaragua.” The problem for them was, we never agreed to participate in any of it.
Quinones was also there, acting as translator. The atmosphere was quite cordial and respectful. North had a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense way of talking. He got right to the point, addressing me with the professional air of one military man speaking to another. He said he was worried that the Contras were not showing much combat ability and the United States was having trouble providing them with economic aid.
It was time for Panama to take a leading role in supporting the Contras, he said. In return, “There will be a clean slate; we’ll forget about all the bad stuff we’ve heard,” he said, referring to the political charges being planted in Washington by Panamanian opposition leaders. “We’ll just forget about it.” He made it sound like he was offering Christmas presents to an obedient child.
He said he wanted us to set up a commando operation to plant bombs, mine Nicaraguan harbors. “What we need is a few spectacular acts of sabotage.” I remember Quinones translating the words “spectacular” and “sabotage.” North continues to maintain that the proposal to conduct sabotage operations in Nicaragua came from Noriega. Notebooks seized during the Iran-Contra affair make cryptic remarks about proposals by Noriega. But an authoritative CIA source says that Noriega never made such an offer. “He was seldom thought of” when it came to helping the Contra effort, “rarely asked and never provided any help whatsoever.”
Sabotage, sabotage, sabotage — he repeated it more than once. He took out a piece of paper with a laundry list of things he wanted done: blowing up high-tension lines, acts of terror- ism in Managua, mining the harbor. And he cast the Panamanian military as his last hope. He had nothing else. The Contras had not been able to do anything.
“There’s money in it for you and for Panama,” he kept saying; “money to develop military projects, for more weapons, for whatever you need.”
I thought North’s proposal was ridiculous and never even considered it, not even for an instant.
“Look, the answer is that we just can’t do this,” I said. “I think you should face reality. The Contras have lost their opportunity, if they ever had one. The capacity of the Sandinista forces has grown and they are far superior in strategy and defensive posture. They have learned very fast. Their tactics are from the Soviet military, essentially a Soviet defense.”
North betrayed no particular emotion as I analyzed the military situation, but his interest was piqued by my mention of the Russians.
“I need to get more information about this so I can pass it on,” he said. “Give me an analysis and make it a good one. Explain everything you’ve told me about the Contras and the Sandinistas and the Soviet defense doctrine. I need to show something like that to Reagan and Bush, at least, because I’m responsible for what is happening.”
He seemed to be taking what I had to say in terms of one military man talking to another. His attitude appeared to be: okay, you’re not helping me on the ground, but we need a good military analysis of the situation. We need your expertise. This is the first time I’ve heard this.
I sent the document to him through Quiiiones and I remember hearing no more about it until the discovery of the Contra scandal. Quinones called me to say that the report was among the documents shredded in North’s office. It was a more detailed version of what I said just a few months later in Tokyo before a group of diplomats attending a meeting of the Japan-Panama Friendship Association. In a carefully worded rebuke of U.S. policy, I said that we supported a regional settlement to the civil wars of Central America. “We face . . . the undeniable fact that the political and military crisis in Central America is being prolonged and, along with it, the economic crisis of the region is growing more acute,” I said. “And the insistence on a strictly military solution undermines social programs, because the more that is spent on arms, there are fewer economic resources for hospitals, schools, low-cost housing and highways. In reality, what is happening in Central America, casting aside all literary adornments to explain it, is that the region is simply becoming an experimental battlefield for new military doctrines and concepts. …”
It was evident from everything I knew and from what was confirmed by meeting with him that North was trying to juggle a hundred chess pieces to try to make the Contra and Iran deals work. I only knew about one piece — me. I think he and his confidantes, men who also included Elliott Abrams, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for inter-american affairs, and John Poindexter, were grasping for anything that would work; the Contras were not making any progress, the Honduras front was too visible and weak; the Southern Front was collapsing; there was limited money to finance the war. Perhaps Panama could make the difference. And when I refused, one has to conclude that the real reaction was vindictive, angry, filled with calls for revenge against the pawn who wouldn’t play along. North pretended to his superiors that I was the one who had sought this meeting, that I was the one who offered to infiltrate Nicaragua and take up arms.
Just before North’s unsuccessful 1994 campaign for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, I broke my silence with the news media and was inter- viewed about this subject on television in the United States. I repeated the story and told everything I knew. I am certain that my words helped him lose.
Abrams pleaded guilty on October 7, 1991, to two federal counts of lying be- fore Congress, as a result of investigations by Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh into illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
The American establishment saw Panama’s refusal to participate in their wars as the height of obstinacy. They grew angry. While a con- spiracy of revenge against me began to germinate, they were forced to work around us when it came to their Central American operations. We could not control what the United States did at its Southern Command headquarters in Panama, although it was obvious that they were supporting the base’s efforts in the region. At times, however, we were able to interfere. Meanwhile, we watched the United States mount operations to support the death squads in El Salvador and to mount counterrevolutionary operations against the Sandinistas from both sides of Nicaragua — Costa Rica and Honduras.
There was no greater contrast in the way two countries behaved, dealing with U.S. pressure to support the Central American efforts. By the end of the Bush era, the leader of one of the countries was a prisoner of war; the other won the Nobel peace prize.
Because of its strategic importance, Costa Rica replaced Panama as a mecca for intelligence and counterintelligence. Yet Costa Rica also basked in its international image of neutrality, being one of the few nations in the world that has no army. Costa Rica was boiling with all sorts of U.S. intelligence operations, issuing a license for example, so that a broadcast station called Radio Impacto could interfere with Panamanian radio during our election campaign. The Costa Rican government also was backing the Contra cause, although it didn’t want this to be known.
The Costa Rican government allowed itself to be used by the United States to stage operations against the Nicaraguan government. This was something Panama had no intention of doing. With Costa Rican acquiescence in the form of direct authorization from its president, the CIA built an airstrip near the border with Nicaragua, with the help of an American expatriate named John Hull. From Hull’s ranch, the United States armed the Contras’ Southern Front, providing these Nicaraguan rebels with documentation, refuge, and storage of arms and, of course, looking the other way if they made money on the side with the trans-shipment of drugs within their arms operations.
Hull and his airstrip, we believed, were involved in providing logistical support for the infamous case of La Penca, the bomb attack on Eden Pastora at his jungle hideout on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Pastora was known as Commander Zero, the Sandinista fighter who split with his Nicaraguan rebel comrades after the July 19, 1979, overthrow of Anastasio Somoza. After breaking off from Managua, Pastora went into exile in Costa Rica and started forming his own group of guerrillas, which became known as the Southern Front.
Pastora survived the bomb attack on his headquarters, although an American reporter who had been interviewing him was killed. Pastora came to see me in Panama several weeks before the attack. He realized that he would always be a target for attack, although he gave no indication that he suspected there was an ongoing plan to kill him. I have read reports charging that an Argentine mercenary was brought in to kill Pastora, by the Sandinistas or the CIA or both, using the attacker as a double or even triple agent. Our investigation into the matter was in- conclusive, although we found evidence that John Hull and the CLA. had some knowledge of the event. While the Sandinistas had no use for Commander Zero and would have been willing to kill him, it was John Hull and Oliver North’s partner, Joe Fernandez, the CIA station chief in Costa Rica, who had the greater motive. Killing Pastora was perfect, because it would cast blame on the Sandinistas, it would take away a loose cannon the CIA could not control and it would, perhaps, create a martyr to the Contra cause. They failed, although thanks to Costa Rica, the operations of Hull and the United States to subvert Nicaragua and Panama went on unimpeded.
I am particularly offended by the public image of then Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won a Nobel prize for his work in “consolidating peace” in Central America. Actually, Arias sold out to Washington and was able to win peace only with Panamanian help. We were repaid for this help with treachery when Arias had the gall to support and endorse the U.S. invasion of Panama.
I first met Arias when he was running for president. His predecessor and patron. President Luis Monge, had contacted me and asked that Arias be afforded the same warm relations that Costa Rica had enjoyed with Panama during many administrations. In particular, it became obvious that Arias needed money for his presidential campaign, and more money after he was elected for what he said were political campaign debts. We gave his successful presidential campaign thousands of dol- lars and then continued to give him money after that. He would occasionally call my secretary, Marcela Tason, when he needed money, and he insisted that Marcela deliver it to him personally at his home. We asked for and expected nothing in return. This was support for an ally with whom we shared a common border.
When Arias became the major force in trying to arrange a Central American peace accord, he was stymied until I personally appealed to the Sandinista government to hear him out. On one specific occasion, I remember Arias came to Chiriqui. We met at the home of Dr. Jorge Abadia, a prominent Panamanian politician. Arias asked for our help in organizing the “Esquipulas Two” Central American peace conference. During a news conference there, he applauded and praised my work in that regard. Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, and his brother, Humberto, the defense minister, considered Arias to be a moral and ideological weakling. With my repeated and persistent intervention, they finally agreed to sit down and talk with the other Central American countries. Arias won the Nobel peace prize, then he allowed the United States to place antennas in Costa Rican territory to spy on Panama; he allowed American operatives to base themselves in Costa Rica to spy on us. The United States pressured him to drop his friendship with Panama and side with them against us. He was never a mediator or a peacemaker. He was for sale; he had become just another Central American president, like all the others dependent on the demagoguery of George Bush’s new world order.
Hugo Spadafora & his Drug Pilots/Terrorists
Over the years, I got to know Hugo Spadafora well and helped advance his career when I could. I saw him rise from youthful informant to vice minister of health to the head of a Panamanian brigade that volunteered to help the Sandinistas overthrow Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. As the Sandinista march to victory gathered strength, Spadafora and the Victoriano Lorenzo brigade were there. History found Spadafora marching toward Managua and the eventual victory of the Sandinistas along- side Commander Zero from the south. But Daniel Ortega and Tomas Borge and the main column of the Sandinistas were advancing from the other direction, and they beat Zero to Managua. That broadened the animosity between Eden Pastora and the rest of the Sandinista leadership. Spadafora was left on the short end. As the Americans began organizing the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, Spadafora was there too.
Spadafora worked with the Contras. As he also established arms- dealing contacts in Central America, inevitably he brushed shoulders with both the American establishment on one side and drug dealers on the other, both trading arms for drugs.
At this point, Spadafora’s intrigues already were a mixture of ideology and criminality, dependent only on the singular goal of making money. Having set up base in San Jose, Costa Rica, he made a slow transition from rebel fighter to businessman and wheeler-dealer.
U.S. journalist Martha Honey reported on the BBC that she had tea with Spadafora in Costa Rica two days before he was killed. She said that he was collecting funds and men for the Nicaraguan contras and that he was connected to suspicious people who could have been involved in an internal drug trafficking dispute among several factions. Another journalist, Leslie Cockburn, said that her sources indicated that Spadafora could have been killed because of a dispute among various drug trafficking groups.
Speaking about Colombian intelligence: in my conversations with agents and officials from the Colombian Department ofAdministrative Security, DAS — their combined equivalent of the FBI, CIA and DEA — I was told that their agencies saw persistent links between the U.S.-created Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the Colombian drug dealers. “Americans know what the Contras are doing, that they’re working with the Colombian narcos,” one Colombian drug agent told me. The problem was that without investigative assistance from the United States or some other government, they could not prove their case. They knew that it was politically impossible for one branch of the U.S. government to investigate another — which is essentially what would need to happen for such a charge to be proved. But they did see what was going on.
Lies about Noriega begin
There were three main reasons for the Panama invasion, which had nothing to do with legitimate security interests: the wimp factor, that is. Bush’s desire to counteract a growing image of weakness and protect his approval ratings, Panama’s failure to help the United States with Iran- Contra and the right-wing U.S. concern that the United States would soon lose influence over the operations of the Panama Canal, with Japan waiting in the wings.
Questions about Noriega and the Panamanian human rights record began being raised with the deterioration of Panamanian-U.S. relations, linked directly to the Reagan administration’s pursuit of its dirty wars in Central America. By the late 1980s, the United States had failed in its policy of arming the Nicaraguan Contras to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. U.S. intelligence officials who were close to the operations in Central America said Noriega was peripheral to these activities. Significantly, however, when Noriega was asked by Oliver North to participate in the dirty wars by mining Nicaraguan harbors, he says he refused. North has claimed that the offer to participate in Central America was a Noriega initiative. North’s own associates, however, reject this. “I love Ollie,” one associate said. “But he knows that the idea was his alone. Noriega refused to go along with it.”
“Unfortunately, the problem with Ollie is that you can never believe anything he says,” said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA deputy regional director who was second in command to North on the National Security Council.
The story of the Noriega meeting with North in London was further complicated when special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh released copies of North’s notebooks, which indicate that Noriega was the source of the offer. There are opposing views on the significance of these note- books, which indicate a detailed contact with Noriega regarding the Panamanian leader having offered to take action.
Canistraro and other U.S. intelligence officials said that offer would have been out of character. “That’s the Ollie North factor. Ollie having discussions with people and exceeding his brief was a common thing. That happened a lot. He was doing all sorts of strange, curious things. We know that now. I would tend to believe Noriega.”
Rumor and raw intelligence about Noriega and drugs carried more weight than persistent information linking Nicaraguan Contra weapons shipments to drug flights in Honduras and charges of drug corruption in El Salvador’s military. Panama was a convenient target and a good escape valve to divert attention, because Reagan and Bush administration prestige was involved.
The United States was pumping billions of dollars into El Salvador and Honduras to fight Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and El Salvadoran guerrillas, looking the other way while the Salvadoran military trampled human rights in its country and keeping up the funding to the Nicaraguan Contras in their CIA-orchestrated effort to overthrow the Sandinistas.
Abrams and the Reagan administration, more than 100,000 deaths later in El Salvador and 50,000 deaths later in Nicaragua, were cynical enough to imply that their policy succeeded. “We were not playing to win, we were playing for a tie, and that’s what we got,” said one well placed U.S. participant in the U.S. Central American operations.
Central Americans left: Abrams and the rest of the administration out of the real solution to Central American problems. Where Abrams conspired repeatedly and secretly to foment a U.S.-led invasion of Nicaragua, the Central Americans waged peace. Noriega was friendly both with the Costa Rican president Oscar Arias and with the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, convincing the reticent Ortega that meeting with Arias on what would become known as the Contadora Peace Plan was a good thing. Contadora, an island off the coast of Panama, was the venue for the first Central American meeting to find a solution to the regional civil wars of the 1980s.
The United States first rejected, then grudgingly went along with the Central American peace process. But Abrams and company, so identified with the anti-Nicaraguan cause, were incensed. They aligned with a small group of Panamanian antimilitary elite bankers and businessmen to lash out at Noriega as having locked Panama in the grip of military repression.
Dwayne “Dewey” Clarridge, the retired CIA chief for Latin America, shed light on several points. He said that there was never any evidence linking Noriega to the Spadafora death. “It’s ridiculous, I would have known about it, but I didn’t because there was no evidence and no intercept.”
The entire affair, he said, including the drug charges against Noriega, were “a travesty.” In the case of Oliver North’s charges that Noriega offered to attack targets and assassinate Nicaraguan Sandinista leaders, he subscribed to the theory that one of the many unofficial intermediaries used by North’s makeshift Contra operations was broker- ing a deal to convince North and Noriega to work together. Noriega said the intermediary, Joaquin Quiiiones, a Miami-based Cuban exile, was his constant pipeline to North. But Quiiiones, who died in 1990, was never on the NSC staff and apparently was bartering influence between the two men.
Noriega’s drug conspiracy indictment was mostly the work of the U.S. attorney in Miami, Leon Kellner, and an honorable, tough-minded assistant U.S. attorney named Richard Gregorie, whose single-minded goal of halting drug dealing ruffled feathers in Washington when he suggested before Congress that politics and lack of commitment from policy makers was blocking progress in the campaign to stop cocaine trafficking in the United States.
While Kellner’s goals were largely political, Gregorie was uncompromising. Gregorie’s campaign to investigate the drug business in Miami, in cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, coincided with intense efforts in Washington to fund the Contras. It has been widely reported, but not widely documented, that many of the pilots, clandestine airstrips, contract air lines and operatives working with the effort to fund the Nicaraguan Contras were also showing up in reports on drug investigations. Men like Floyd Carlton Caceres and Cesar Rodriguez, both later implicated in the Noriega case, were transporting drugs for the Medellin cartel and guns-for-hire in Central America.
But the Contra wars were not on Gregorie’s watch. He was chasing the drug dealers who were poisoning the streets of America; every individual off the street was a small victory in that war. If the victory against the tons of drugs coming into this country involved using evidence linking Noriega to the crime, all the better.
Gregorie never was told about how close his investigation into the drug business came to the heart of Iran-Contra. “If that were true, if the government was hiding behind a smokescreen the whole time that I was investigating drugs, and they knew that the men I was interviewing were also working for them, then that would be a major scandal,”
Gregorie said in an interview. “But nobody ever told me that and if that was true, I was kept in the dark.”
Noriega’s G-2 investigators provided evidence that helped in the apprehension of Carlton, Bilonick, and dealer Steven Kalish. The men were operating through a company called DIACSA, a private plane dealership that worked alongside Bilonick’s Inair at Paitilla Airport, with two State Department contracts totaling $41,130 to fly humanitarian aid to the Contras.
But the larger questions about Carlton had not been revealed: that he was employed by the United States in the Contra arms-smuggling pipeline and that his activities were known both to Noriega and to the United States. That connection, blocked from revelation at the drug trial, made it unlikely that Noriega would choose this known clandestine U.S. operative as his partner in cocaine dealings.
At the trial. Judge Hoeveler angrily blocked attempts by Noriega’s lawyers to delve into Carlton’s pro-Contra arms smuggling. Rubino hit Carlton with a series of questions about his gun-flying activities, asking if they were ordered by Oliver North. Hoeveler sustained prosecution objections and grew testy as Rubino persisted. “Just stay away from it,” he snapped.
Rubino also produced a tape transcript in which Carlton lashes out at Noriega for having him imprisoned and seizing his airplane. Carlton acknowledged the conversation, which took place at the time he was in U.S. custody testifying before a Senate foreign relations subcommittee.
“Do you remember referring to General Noriega, saying, ‘That bastard took my airplane’?” Rubino asked. “Did you say . . . you were going to ‘thank’ General Noriega and then start laughing … Is not this your opportunity to get your revenge?”
Carlton appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee with a bag over his head to prevent identification and possible reprisal by drug traffickers. Reprisals or not, the employ of such men in the drug trials of the 1980s was a spectacle that fed the frenzy about how to fight a supposed drug war. A supposition in the war was the naive notion that men like Carlton, Bilonick and Noriega’s other accusers had turned state’s evidence for some purpose higher than getting out of jail. Carlton, Bilonick and Kalish, like many of the witnesses against Noriega, served only brief jail terms. U.S. prosecutors measured the testimony of these felons and thieves, not against the truth, but against whether their ver- sions of events could be contradicted easily. They looked into the limpid eyes of these trusty prisoners and found what they saw to their liking.
Documents released by the CIA, State Department and Defense Department at the start of the Clinton administration revealed that Ronald Reagan and George Bush had reliable information that D’Aubuisson, who died of cancer in 1992, was a founder of the Salvadoran death squads, responsible for tens of thousands of political murders in El Salvador. Specifically, the CIA provided information to then-Vice President George Bush that D’Aubuisson, later the speaker of El Salvador’s National Assembly, masterminded the 1979 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Bush and the Reagan administration contended they had no such information.
Intelligence officials deny that Panama or U.S. territory in the Canal Zone was used to train Salvadoran military or death squadmembers. But those denials may not settle the issue. Secret and compartmentalized U.S. operations in Central America during the 1980s took the concept of plausible deniability — the art of being able to lie because no witnesses could prove otherwise — to new levels of cynicism. Interviews with well-placed U.S. military personnel indicated constant efforts to deceive the American public about the relationship between the Salvadoran military, paramilitary forces and U.S.advisers and trainers.
But those denials may not settle the issue. Secret and compartmentalized U.S. operations in Central America during the 1980s took the concept of plausible deniability — the art of being able to lie because no witnesses could prove otherwise — to new levels of cynicism. Interviews with well-placed U.S. military personnel indicated constant efforts to deceive the American public about the relationship between the Salvadoran military, paramilitary forces and U.S.advisers and trainers.
Panama certainly was used to circumvent other congressional mandates on El Salvador, such as the limit on the number of U.S. advisers in the Central American country. The military and the CIA played loose with the concept of “in country,” ferrying people in from outside El Salvador for the day and having them spend the night elsewhere. They similarly disregarded other provisions, such as the rule that U.S. advisers not carry rifles nor operate in the field against Salvadoran rebels.
In 1985, The New York Times published a front-page story detailing armed U.S. C-I30 reconnaissance overflights of Salvador operatingout of Howard Air Force Base in Panama; the newspaper printed a photograph of one such plane, painted black and without any military markings. Independently, sources claimed that the fifty-caliber machine-gun fittings onboard these planes needed frequent replacement because of overheating from intense firefights. A key U.S. adviser told me that the United States manipulated the use of Panamanian and Honduran territory to make it appear they were complying with stated congressional controls on participation in the Salvadoran civil war.