January 29, 1997

The Wall Street Journal

Mysterious Mena:
CIA Discloses,
Leach Disposes

By MICAH MORRISON

The word on Capitol Hill is that Rep. Jim Leach will soon wrap up his inquiry into the spooky goings-on at remote Mena in western Arkansas. For more than a decade, state and federal probes of supposedly government-related drug smuggling, gun running and money laundering at Mena Intermountain Regional Airport have hit a stone wall. But Mr. Leach already can claim some success: He kept the pressure on the Central Intelligence Agency until it completed a still-classified internal probe of the allegations; in a declassifed summary released in November, the CIA for the first time admitted that it had a presence in Arkansas.

The agency was not "associated with money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, or other illegal activities" at Mena, the report concludes. But the CIA did engage in "authorized and lawful activities" at the airfield: a classified "joint-training operation with another federal agency" and contracting for "routine aviation-related services."

At the center of the web of speculation spun around Mena are a few undisputed facts: One of the most successful drug informants in U.S. history, smuggler Barry Seal, based his air operation at Mena. At the height of his career he was importing as much as 1,000 pounds of cocaine per month, and had a personal fortune estimated at more than $50 million. After becoming an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, he worked at least once with the CIA, in a Sandinista drug sting. He was gunned down by Colombian hit men in Baton Rogue, La., in 1986; eight months later, one of his planes--with an Arkansas pilot at the wheel and Eugene Hasenfus in the cargo bay--was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of Contra supplies.

What had then-Gov. Bill Clinton known about CIA activities at Mena? Asked at an October 1994 press conference, President Clinton said, "They didn't tell me anything about it." Events at Mena, Mr. Clinton continued, "were primarily a matter for federal jurisdiction. The state really had next to nothing to do with it. The local prosecutor did conduct an investigation based on what was in the jurisdiction of state law. The rest of it was under the jurisdiction of the United States Attorneys who were appointed successively by previous administrations. We had nothing--zero--to do with it."

Mr. Clinton was right about federal jurisdiction, but wrong about Arkansas involvement. As reported on this page, local attempts to investigate Mena were tanked twice by the Mr. Clinton's administration in Little Rock, which refused to allocate funds. And in July 1995, a former member of Gov. Clinton's security staff, Arkansas State Trooper L.D. Brown, suddenly stepped forward claiming he had worked with the CIA and Seal running guns to the Contras--and cocaine back to the U.S. Mr. Brown says that when he informed the governor about the drug flights, Mr. Clinton replied, "that's Lasater's deal"--a reference to Little Rock bond daddy Dan Lasater, a Clinton crony later convicted on an apparently unrelated cocaine distribution charge.

The CIA report does not directly address the Lasater allegation. It says trooper Brown applied to the agency but was not offered employment and was not "otherwise associated with CIA." Barry Seal was associated with CIA, but only for "a two-day period" while his plane was being outfitted for the DEA's Sandinista sting. The CIA also says it found no evidence of tampering in earlier money-laundering prosecutions, as several Arkansas investigators have charged.

And what does the CIA say about Mr. Clinotn's knowledge of CIA activities at Mena? It gives its boss wiggle room that parses nicely with his statement that "they didn't tell me anything." In response to Mr. Leach's question about whether information was conveyed to Arkansas officials in the 1980s, the report states that "interface with local officials was handled by the other federal agency" involved in the joint Mena exercise, side-stepping the issue of what Mr. Clinton knew.

The Clinton White House has gone to great lengths to discredit the Mena story. It figures in the notorious White House conspiracy report and was denounced by former Whitewater damage-control counsel Mark Fabiani as "the darkest backwater of right-wing conspiracy theories." Beltway pundits tend to dismiss Mena as an excess of the Clinton critics. But in Arkansas the campaign is more vicious. With a passive press having long ago abandoned the field, Mena investigators such as former Arkansas State Police investigator Russell Welch and former IRS agent Bill Duncan were stripped of their careers after refusing to back away from the case. Mr. Leach's CIA report provides some vindication for the two Arkansans.

Mr. Leach's full report is not likely to resolve all the questions surrounding Mena, but it might provide important details about that "other agency" and related mysteries. In Arkansas, meanwhile, the Little Rock FBI office is following leads in a sensitive drug-corruption probe involving the Linda Ives "train deaths" case and allegations of Mena-related drug drops. The big drug-corruption question is what network encompassed the Barry Seal operation. The answer could come by following the money on some of the smaller questions, such as whether those CIA contracts for "aviation-related services" went to one of Seal's front companies at Mena. But in forcing an admission from the U.S. intelligence community, Mr. Leach already has performed an important service: He's demolished the notion that nothing happened at Mena.

Mr. Morrison is a Journal editorial page writer.

Copyright 1997 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduced with Permission