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How Elliott Abrams Helped To Spring A CIA-Connected Coke Trafficker

When U.S. policymakers needed to spring a convicted CIA-connected drug trafficker from doing hard time in federal prison, who did they call?

Trump’s infamous appointed special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, according to a September 1986 National Security Council email, written by NSC staffer Oliver North.

In a U.S. House Committee hearing on Thursday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) scorched Abrams for his covering up of the infamous El Mozote massacre and lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra conspiracy in the 1980s.

Her interrogation drew rebuke from Max Boot, the apostate conservative, and a chorus of right-wing media commentators. Boot described Omar’s comments as a “disgraceful ad hominem attack.”

Actually, the impertinent congresswoman from Minneapolis could have gone much further about Abrams’ untrustworthy behavior. One of the most revealing stories comes from an impeccably right-wing source, Oliver North, former Republican senatorial candidate and Fox News talking head.

The year was 1986. Abrams served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America under President Reagan. He was a 39-year-old lawyer and foreign policy polemicist who qualified as neoconservative royalty. (His wife was the daughter of Norman Podhoretz, the perfervid editor of Commentary magazine.) Even then his perennial scowl managed to make him look furtive and self-righteous at the same time.

The Iran-Contra conspiracy was in full swing. The conspiracy, permissively labeled “a scandal,” was a Reagan White House plot to subvert the U.S. Congress’ powers of the purse. North was the coordinator of what can fairly be described as an unconstitutional covert operation, while Abrams played the role of bagman.

To bypass the so-called Boland Amendment, Abrams took payments from the Sultan of Brunei, a petroleum potentate from South Asia, and passed them to the leaders of Reagan’s counter-revolutionary army in Nicaragua. When questioned under oath, Abrams lied. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of deceiving Congress.

As part of the conspiracy, Abrams also put in a good word for a convicted drug trafficker, General Jose Bueso Rosa. He was a Honduran general who had helped the U.S. government with “sensitive operations” in Central America. As Murray Waas and I wrote in the Washington Post, North did “a favor for a felon.”

So did Abrams.

As an episode of CIA-sanctioned drug trafficking, the Bueso story was typical. Bueso, it turns out, had helped put together a CIA-trained military intelligence unit known as Battalion 316, which served as death squad for U.S. policymakers. A Honduran government investigation found that Battalion 316 had captured, tortured and executed some 200 suspected leftists.

Bueso had also trafficked multi-kiloton shipments of cocaine. As CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz documented in Volume 2 of his report on contra drug trafficking, the agency did business with more than 50 suspected drug traffickers in the 1980s.

(Lazy reporters sometimes say that the CIA was cleared of the allegation. They didn’t bother to read the Sections 800-1148 of Hitz’s report, which detailed how the agency took no action against four dozen suspected traffickers who aided Reagan’s—and Abrams’—anticommunist crusade.)

Investigating the story for the Post, I spoke on background with law enforcement officials familiar with Bueso’s case. A wiretap had picked up Bueso repeatedly talking about shipments of “flour” into central Florida, they said. Given Bueso’s connections, no one in the Reagan Justice Department cared to make a big deal of his cocaine shipments, no matter how hefty. They just wanted a conviction that would put him out of business. Bueso got a generous plea bargain. He would only have to serve five years.

Bueso, however, was led to believe his American friends would save him from serving any time all.

In his September 1986 email, later uncovered by Iran-Contra investigators, North worried Bueso might “break his longstanding silence.” He might disclose unpleasant truths about death squads and CIA drug trafficking.

So North “cabal[led] quietly” with Abrams, as well as top Pentagon, CIA and Justice Department officials. A presidential pardon was out of the question, but transfer to a comfortable “Club Fed” facility was arranged.

At a time when U.S. prosecutors meted out 10-year sentences to young black men for the possession of a few ounces of cocaine, Abrams was part of a gang that thought a multi-kiloton trafficker should be treated leniently. Such was his advocacy of “human rights.”

Bueso got out of prison early—for “good behavior.” Abrams went on to a long career in U.S. foreign policy. Hundreds of thousands of black men remained in jails for years, if not decades.

Rep. Omar could have asked an even tougher question of Abrams, namely, “Does Trump’s policy toward Latin America today involve protection of drug traffickers as Reagan’s policy did in the 1980s?”

She was certainly justified in questioning his veracity.

“I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony you give today to be truthful,” she said.

You can watch the Omar-Abrams exchange here.

Jefferson Morley is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a reporter and editor in Washington, D.C., since 1980. He spent 15 years as an editor and reporter at the Washington Post. He was a staff writer at Arms Control Today and Washington editor of Salon.  His latest book is The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster, James Jesus Angleton (St. Martins Press, 2017).

This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

IMAGE: Elliott Abrams, photography by Gage Skidmore.

Worse Than Watergate? Worst Since Watergate? Trump Is Lying Again, Bigly

When Donald Trump insists that his Democratic rival’s private email server is “the worst scandal since Watergate” or even “worse than Watergate” — slogans that he screams at every rally — he depends on his followers to believe him blindly and on the media to let him spew unchallenged absurdities. He loves the poorly educated, by which he means the utterly ignorant, because they have no idea that he is lying to them.

But to anyone who remembers Watergate, or any of the real scandals that have roiled Washington in the following decades, understands why Trump’s claims are such a vile distortion of history. Those assertions are a classic example of the “big lie” — and can only continue to spew forth in an atmosphere of historical amnesia and media compliance.

The Clinton email “scandal,” as everyone knows by now, involves the use of a private email server and raised questions about whether Clinton had used that system in a way that violated federal secrecy laws. After a lengthy investigation, the FBI found that she had committed no intentional violations, that there had been no cover-up or attempt to conceal information from law enforcement, and that there was no plausible reason to file criminal charges against Clinton. As FBI director James Comey said last summer, in explaining why he would not indict her, “It wasn’t even close.”

Many other high-level federal and military officials had done much the same (or much worse), and the issue of whether she had exposed “classified” material boiled down in many instances to an ongoing argument between the State Department and other agencies over what must be labeled top secret.

Their bureaucratic wrangling was far less dramatic than Watergate, a saga that began with the discovery of a “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in a Washington hotel but soon exploded into a mind-blowing criminal operation at the highest levels in the White House, the Justice Department, the CIA, and the FBI itself. The term “Watergate” was journalistic shorthand for a series of criminal conspiracies based in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office, which included more burglaries, warrantless wiretaps, illegal spying, campaign dirty tricks, election tampering, money-laundering, and the use of thugs to assault antiwar demonstrators.

To conceal that vast felonious enterprise, the Nixon crew immediately implemented a cover-up scheme that relied upon still more crimes, committed by lawyers and officials who collected corporate bribes, and then handed out hush money in cash to the perpetrators. Unlike Clinton’s mundane email problems, that outbreak of presidential gangsterism represented a direct threat to the constitution, democracy, and the rule of law.

It is amusing, if your sense of humor is dark enough, to hear Trump babble about Watergate while flanked by all the grinning Nixon loyalists who have tried to excuse or erase that enormous crime against the republic over the past 40 years.

During those years, this country has seen plenty of turmoil in Washington over a wide variety of scandals, both serious and silly. In the latter category, by the way, are several controversies once expected to bring down Bill and Hillary Clinton, including a few with the “gate” suffix added for emphasis. (For a more complete treatment of all that nonsense, see The Hunting of Hillary– it’s available free here.)

Among the real scandals, however, were a series of remarkable rackets undertaken by officials of the Reagan administration that were — need I say this again? — a thousand times more troubling than anything Clinton ever imagined doing with an email server.

Consider the Iran-contra affair, if you remember the constitutional tumult that transfixed the nation for almost two years. In August 1985, Ronald Reagan authorized the first of several secret arms shipments to Iran, a lunatic deal that Republicans would have denounced as high treason if enacted by a Democratic president. The monetary proceeds from those arms sales were then used illegally to aid “contra” rebels in their attempt to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

After a Lebanese newspaper exposed that outrageous crime, Reagan lied to the entire nation and authorized a wide-ranging cover-up. According to the final report of the special prosecutor who spent years investigating Iran-contra:

“In the Iran initiative, President Reagan chose to proceed in the utmost secrecy, disregarding the administration’s public policy prohibiting arms sales to nations supporting terrorism. He also chose to forgo congressional notification under the National Security Act and the Arms Export Control Act…

“When the Iran initiative was exposed on November 3, 1986, the president convened a series of meetings with his top national security advisers and permitted the creation of a false account of the Iran arms sales to be disseminated to members of Congress and the American people.”

Among the dozen or more figures who were indicted and/or convicted of serious crimes by the Iran-contra special prosecutor were two of Reagan’s national security advisors, top officials of the CIA, and the secretary of defense. It was a little more serious than Hillary’s damned emails.

But the scandals of the Reagan era ranged well beyond that dirty arms deal, in almost every direction. The attorney general was implicated in an influence peddling scheme at the Pentagon. The corruption uncovered at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was rampant and lucrative — as Trump could have learned from Paul Manafort, his former campaign chief, who was among the sleazy lobbyists who profited most heavily from the HUD practice of rigging multi-million-dollar contracts to favor Republican developers. Several top officials and a number of civilians were convicted of felonies including bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice.

Under Reagan, several scandals erupted at the Environmental Protection Agency, where Republican officials sold policy decisions to corporate lobbyists, misused Superfund and other federal money to reward their political cronies, lied and covered up their misdeeds.

The Reagan administration also endured major corruption scandals at the Pentagon as well as in the savings and loan industry (and the subsequent crooked bailout under George H.W. Bush), which was among the largest thefts of assets in US history up to that time.

So is Hillary’s email server starting to look a bit…small? As smart as he is — or as he constantly tells us he is — Trump ought to be able to work this difference out for himself. So should any literate American with a functioning brain.

But just because Hillary’s email controversy is insignificant, don’t assume that we won’t have a scandal to rival Watergate and Iran-contra, perhaps someday soon. At this very moment, evidence is mounting of an attempt by an adversarial nation to influence an American presidential election, in possible collusion with agents of a presidential candidate whose rhetoric, campaign personnel, and business affairs enmesh him with that country’s authoritarian leadership.

A plot by a foreign power to rig an election in tandem with US political operatives? Yes, that would be worse than Watergate.

IMAGE: Richard M. Nixon resigning the presidency as he faces impeachment for Watergate crimes, August 9, 1974. File photo, Wikimedia Commons.

Book Review: ‘Dreamland: The True Tale Of America’s Opiate Epidemic’

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones; Bloomsbury (384 pages, $28.00)

First declared by President Nixon, the war on drugs was always already political. Nixon aide John Erlichman later commented on its origins:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

A decade later, President Reagan announced that illicit drugs were a national security threat. “We’re making no excuses for drugs—hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” Announced three weeks before the 1982 midterm elections, Reagan’s initiative both intensified and militarized the drug war.

Not all drugs were bad, of course. The Reagan administration lavished benefits on Big Pharma, and Congress passed laws that extended patent protections and monopoly rights for brand-name drugs. But even with illegal narcotics, the Reagan administration applied a double standard. As we know from the Kerry Committee report of 1989, CIA officials knew that Nicaraguan drug dealers were selling powder and crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Nobody lifted a finger to stop it. They also knew that the profits supported the Nicaraguan contras, whom the Reagan administration actively (and illegally) aided in their efforts to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.

As the drug war dragged on, it netted users who didn’t fit Erlichman’s description. A decade ago, we learned that Rush Limbaugh abused Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller also known as hillbilly heroin. He was arrested but served no jail time; Palm Beach prosecutors dropped the charge after Limbaugh agreed to continue his treatment. “I actually thank God for my addiction to pain pills,” he told Fox News in 2009, “because I learned more about myself in rehab than I would have ever learned otherwise.” In particular, he realized he had been trying too hard to be liked in his personal life. But after seven weeks of treatment, he emerged with “zero feelings of inadequacy.” Limbaugh’s skirmish in the drug war turned out to be a voyage of personal growth and self-discovery.

While the Limbaugh story played out, many American cities were experiencing large increases in the use of black tar heroin imported from Mexico. These weren’t cities previously associated with that drug; rather, they were places like Salt Lake City, Boise, Charlotte, Portland, and Columbus. For years, local law enforcement noticed unarmed dealers making home deliveries in small quantities. Even when they made arrests, the cases were minor and often led to deportation. And because police officers rarely communicated with their counterparts in other mid-size cities, they failed to see the larger pattern.

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As Sam Quinones shows in Dreamland, the Oxycontin and heroin stories were closely linked. A Los Angeles Times reporter, Quinones learned that black tar heroin wasn’t produced or distributed by violent Mexican cartels; rather, he traced it to the tiny state of Nayarit and its ranchero culture. The opium was grown locally, and tight-knit families sent wave after wave of polite farm boys to deliver balloons of heroin to white suburbanites in the United States. The service was excellent, and users learned that they could maintain a daily heroin habit for the price of a six-pack of premium beer.

The Xalisco Boys, as law enforcement called the Nayarit operators, spread quickly across the American west. They thrived, it seemed, in every city serviced by US Air out of Phoenix. In reading about them, I was reminded of an ironic passage from T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel, The Tortilla Curtain. In describing coyotes, a nature writer also commented on the influx of Mexican immigrants:

The coyote is not to blame—he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of opportunities available to him … The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where life is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable.

Eventually the Xalisco Boys moved east across the Mississippi River. By that time, Big Pharma had aggressively marketed OxyContin for chronic pain relief. Its campaign hinged on industrious self-delusion. Distorting a stray remark in a prestigious medical journal, one pharmaceutical firm persuaded American doctors that Oxycontin and other opiates weren’t addictive. That claim contradicted everything those doctors learned in medical school, but many went along with the program. Between 1997 and 2002, OxyContin prescriptions soared from 670,000 to 6.2 million. One 2004 survey indicated that 2.4 million Americans used a prescription pain reliever non-medically for the first time within the previous year; that was more than the estimated number of Americans who tried marijuana for the first time. Once patients were well and truly hooked on opiates, many switched to black tar heroin, which was cheap and easy to acquire. In effect, American pharmaceutical firms opened up new markets for the Xalisco Boys, who delivered heroin like pizza to America’s suburbs.

Dreamland is a tale of two artificial and highly permeable membranes. One separates legal and illegal drugs, the other Mexico and the United States. Quinones is perfectly positioned to tell that double story. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, he became a crime reporter in Stockton, a mid-size city in the Central Valley that was struggling with gangs and a crack cocaine epidemic. (After Stockton became Ground Zero for the subprime mortgage crisis, Forbes magazine described it as “one of America’s most miserable cities.”) In 1994, Quinones traveled to Mexico, where he planned to study Spanish for three months. He stayed for a decade working as a freelance reporter. What Quinones learned there informed his first two books about immigration, the border, ranchero culture, and the drug trade. He eventually returned to California and worked for the Los Angeles Times until last year.

Quinones brings all of his considerable talent and experience to bear on this sprawling story. Few American journalists can match his narrative skills or crime chops, which he combines with an ever rarer understanding of Mexican culture. His description of Nayarit is especially evocative; you can see practically hear the bandas playing at the feria, taste the cerveza, and feel the crisp new Levis the drug operatives brought home by the dozens.

Toward the end of Dreamland, Quinones shows how some American communities began enforcing their drug laws differently when they realized that their white, middle-class neighbors and family members were the perps. It was a reminder, if any were needed, that the war on drugs has always been a civil war. When will we bind up the nation’s wounds and care for those who have borne the battle?

Endorse This: Pardon A Turkey For Iran-Contra?

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The presidential pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey might just be the strangest ceremony that Americans have. But what was it really basted (er, based) on?

Click above to watch a special TV segment from last year, on the true history —and the dark side — of this silly tradition. Then share this video!

Video via Up w/Steve Kornacki/MSNBC.

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