Bad company 

Arkansas's most notorious drug smuggler testified about his links to Colombia. His ties to Washington have yet to be explained.

It has been 10 years since cocaine smuggler Adler Berriman Seal moved his massive operation to Arkansas, and six years since Seal's personal plane — the same one he used to run drugs — was shot down in Nicaragua, just months after Seal himself was murdered in Baton Rouge.

For years Seal had used his plane, which he based in Mena and affectionately called The Fat Lady, in the service of Colombian drug lords.

But when The Fat Lady went down in Nicaragua, she wasn't carrying cocaine. She was loaded with military supplies for the Nicaraguan Contras. And the people paying for her flight were not Colombians; they were American covert operatives with direct ties to the office then-Vice President George Bush at the White House.

When U.S. officials embarked on their covert mission to assist the Contra rebels, they needed an up-and-running air cargo system; one that knew the routes between the U.S. and Central America, understood secrecy, and wasn't averse to risk.

Such a system existed. It was made up of former U.S. military pilots and military and civilian intelligence agents, thousands of whom had been turned loose after the Vietnam war. They were, by and large, renegade adverturers; men like Barry Seal.

Their business was cargo — any cargo, to any destination. They worked for whoever paid. They developed ties with foreign drug lords and kept up ties with old buddies still in the U.S. government.

When Lt. Col. Oliver North began organizing the Contra shipments, he hooked up with this clandestine network. CIA chief William Casey recommended that North contact retired Army General Richard V. Secord, and it was Secord, acting as a for-hire contractor, who found pilots to make the secret air drops over Nicaragua. Such drops were a skill many pilots, including Seal, had already cultivated while making illegal drug flights into the United States.

The arrangement was an extremely compromising one; a situation that some officials here believe may explain the hands-off treatment accorded Seal during the years he operated in Arkansas.

***

While criticism has been leveled at Gov. Bill Clinton for his failure to adequately investigate Seal's years at Mena, the more serious questions surrounding the case lead not to Little Rock, but Washington.

For instance:

*Seal's smuggling activities, which were among the largest in the nation's history, were known for years to federal agents. But he was never stopped. Why?

*When Arkansas officials tried to investigate Seal and bring the smuggler to justice, federal officials thwarted them at every turn. Why?

*Why, after Seal turned informant, did federal agents put him in a position where he was certain to be murdered? They knew his former associates had put out a contract on his life. Yet, though he refused protection, they ordered him disarmed and set free. He said he felt like a sitting duck, which he was.

*And why does the Bush administration to this day refuse to cooperate with investigators trying to probe the relationship between the White House, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, and smuggler-operatives like Barry Seal?

***

In 1932, when police at the little town of Mena, on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, learned that a major international drug smuggler was using the city's airport, they called in the Arkansas State Police and other more experienced investigators.

But the case was strange from the start. For reasons that no one at the time could fathom, it seemed there were forces in the federal government that did not want this particular smuggler stopped.

Police knew they'd stumbled upon a large-scale operation.

What they didn't realize until much, much later was that the pilot they suspected was slipping back and forth between Mena and Central America was also flying in and out of Washington, D.C.

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