The CIA was up to something at Mena, and that fact alone may explain everything else.

Arkansas Times

November 15, 1996

The CIA's shadow in Arkansas

By Mara Leveritt
    The CIA doesn't like to give up its secrets. So it's a coup of sorts when the citizens of this country and particularly of a state can wrest a little bit of information out of this huge but shrouded institution.
    Such a milestone occurred last week. In a report commissioned by Republican Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, chairman of the House Banking Committee, the CIA's inspector general's office acknowledged what some of us here in Arkansas have long suspected: that the CIA did have a hand in unusual activities in the little town of Mena. Specifically, the agency owned up to only four, fairly innocuous-sounding admissions:
  • That it conducted a two-week-long "joint training operation with another federal agency at Mena Intermountain Airport."

  • That it used the airport for "routine aviation-related services on agency equipment."

  • That L.D. Brown, a former Arkansas State Police trooper, was an applicant for employment with the agency in 1984 (as Brown has claimed), though his application was rejected near the end of that year.

  • That CIA personnel had had "limited contact" with Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal, a major drug trafficker and federal informant (who also, coincidentally, worked out of the airport at Mena before his murder in 1986).

   That's about the extent of what the CIA was willing to admit. And it's taken the agency a decade to get around to saying even that much. But, late and slim as they are, the acknowledgments arrive in this state like the clap of a sonic boom - one whose reverberations will continue for years.
    To understand the revelations' significance, we must remember what it's taken to get just this far. Attention was first focused on Mena in the early 1980s when officials from the Louisiana State Police notified state police in Arkansas that Seal, who’d been dogged out of Louisiana, was moving his base of operations up here. Russell Welch, an investigator for the Arkansas State Police, and William Duncan, an investigator for the IRS, began surveilling Seal, documenting evidence of his involvement in both drug-trafficking and money-laundering at the airport and through banks at Mena.
    The odd events that were occurring there only gained public attention slowly, as Welch and Duncan tried to bring their evidence to the attention of federal prosecutors. To the investigators' dismay, they found themselves blocked at every turn. No one in a position to act, it seemed, wanted to lay a hand on Seal or to even look too closely at what was happening at Mena. Despite the drumbeat of anti-drug rhetoric that was going on in the background, no action was ever taken against Seal while he was blatantly flying in and out of Arkansas.
    This led the investigators to suspect that they were fighting an invisible enemy; that for reasons they could not understand and that no one was bothering to explain, their efforts at law enforcement were being thwarted by other powers in the federal government. Fuel was added to these suspicions when Terry Reed, a self-described former CIA "operative," and Brown, who worked in the security detail for then-Gov. Bill Clinton, both went public with claims that they knew of CIA involvement at Mena.
    Brown's story is especially interesting. He says that while he was being considered for CIA employment, he was taken on two airplane rides from Mena to Honduras, where he claims to have witnessed Nicaraguan Contra rebels being given M-16 rifles in exchange for quantities of cocaine, which were then flown back to Mena. Brown says he was shocked and told Clinton what he'd seen, but that the governor seemed unsurprised. After Seal's murder, his personal airplane, the one he'd flown so often into Mena, was shot down in Nicaragua, a bit of nasty business that opened what is now known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
    Meanwhile, back in Arkansas, suspicion of CIA involvement at Mena began to grow, despite a pronounced reluctance by most of the media to question the federal inaction with regard to Seal's operation. Moreover, attempts to shake some information out of the FBI, the DEA, and the CIA were resolutely stonewalled until now, that is; until this little crack.
    Now we have confirmation that the CIA was up to something at Mena, and that fact alone may explain everything else. It suggests a reason why officials in so many administrations--Democrat and Republican, alike--have turned such a resolutely blind eye to apparently illegal activities at Mena. Yet last week's acknowledgments don't begin to approach an adequate explanation.
    In its report, the CIA said it found no evidence the agency had engaged in "money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling or other illegal activities at or around Mena." Maybe. But under the circumstances, we here in Arkansas might be forgiven if we laugh.


Reproduced with Permission
Copyright © 1996 Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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