Mena rides again 

DEA testimony that Oliver North requested cocaine profits be given to the Contras — plus nine other reasons why the inquiry's gathering steam.

A recent spate of activity is bringing Mena's little mountain airport near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border back into the limelight. This has happened repeatedly since 1982, when Louisiana police notified officials in Arkansas that one of the country's most wanted drug runners was moving his headquarters to Mena.

First there was the investigation, the expectation of indictments — and, to the amazement of many, the inaction. The plot thickened in 1986, when discovery of the Iran-Contra affair also revealed shadowy connections between Oliver North's gun-running operation to the Nicaraguan Contras and what appeared to be government-protected drug activity taking place at Mena.

In the late '80s, a Vietnam veteran in Fayetteville, disillusioned at what he saw as a betrayal by his government regarding Mena, began collecting information on the case and calling for full disclosure. A couple of national publications took interest, but even during Bill Clinton's campaign for president, when the issue presumably could have been used by either President George Bush or Clinton against the other, those missiles were never launched.

Since Clinton's election, however, the name Mena has gained national prominence — at least on late-night radio talk shows and among a computer-linked army of conspiracy buffs. Republicans looking under every rock in Arkansas for some dirt they can throw at Clinton are digging hard into the files of Mena. But among politicians, at least, the peculiar dance of approach and avoidance that always characterized discussion of Mena still dominates the floor.

A growing number of observers, however, now even including editors at the conservative Wall Street Journal, have concluded that national interests in this case supersede the partisan ones. "Mena cries out for investigation," the Journal said. "If some chips fall on the Republican side, so be it."

A couple of new developments are stirring the pot yet again. A lawsuit filed against two former members of the Arkansas State Police by former North Little Rock businessman Terry Reed, who alleges his own close involvement in events at Mena, is scheduled for federal court in Little Rock in September. Unconfirmed reports also suggest Whitewater Prosecutor Kenneth Starr may be dabbling on the fringes of the Mena controversy.

And in an article published this month in The American Spectator magazine, L.D. Brown, a former member of Clinton's Arkansas State Police security detail, claims that in 1984 he participated in two secret flights from Mena, on which M-16 rifles were traded to Nicaraguan Contra rebels in exchange for cocaine. Brown further claims that Clinton knew of the activity.

That announcement spurred Fort Smith lawyer Asa Hutchinson, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, to request a yet another congressional inquiry into long-standing allegations of money-laundering at Mena. Hutchinson was the U.S. attorney for the western district of Arkansas when investigators first presented evidence supporting those allegations. In an argument disputed by police investigators, Hutchinson claims he left office before the evidence was well established. Since he harbors political ambitions, he has an interest in clearing his name.

Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant, who defeated Hutchinson in a campaign laced with debate about the former U.S. attorney's supposed inaction, now argues that, "It's too late to bother with Mena." Bryant's critics suggest he wants to buffer Clinton, but he argues he only opposes what appears to be the endless, political "targeting of Arkansas" for federal investigations. In the political arena, Bryant isn't known as a friend of Clinton.

"If someone thinks we need to look at Mena," Bryant fumed, "I think they first need to look at the U.S. Department of Justice and all its agencies. The federal government was the one that, in my opinion, had the ultimate responsibility at Mena and it failed to do anything.


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