Asa Hutchinson and I share a passion for the subject of drugs. As a crusading member of Congress, he talks a lot about them. As a reporter focused on crime, my writing centers on them. Hutchinson wants to intensify this country's war on drugs. I think three decades of failure have proven the war a disaster.
Now President George W. Bush has nominated Hutchinson to head the DEA, the biggest drug-fighting squad in the world. But before Hutchinson assumes that post, there are some questions about high-level cocaine trafficking in Arkansas while he was a U.S. attorney here that he should be required to answer. The questions have hung about for years, but so far he has managed to dodge them.
They relate to the period from 1982 to 1985, when Hutchinson served as the federal prosecuting attorney for western Arkansas. He speaks often of that time.
"During the 1980s, our nation declared a war against drugs," he proclaimed in a 1997 speech to the House. "I was in that battle as a federal prosecutor. It was during that time that our families, our communities, and our law-enforcement officials mobilized in a united effort to fight this war."
In another speech he observed, "I have seen the drug war from all sides — as a member of Congress, as a federal prosecutor, and as a parent — and I know the importance of fighting this battle on all fronts."
But some strange things happened in Hutchinson's district while he was federal prosecutor that he doesn't mention in his speeches. Specifically, a man identified by federal agents as "a documented, major narcotics trafficker" was using facilities at an airport in Hutchinson's district for "storage, maintenance, and modification" of his drug-running aircraft, throughout most of Hutchinson's tenure.
The man was Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal. For the last four years of his life — and throughout Hutchinson's term as U.S. attorney — his base of operations was Mena, Arkansas.
In 1982, the year that Hutchinson took office as U.S. attorney and Seal moved to Mena, federal officials were already aware that he controlled "an international smuggling organization" that was "extremely well organized and extensive." Agents for the DEA, FBI, U.S. Customs, and IRS were watching him. They brought Hutchinson evidence that Seal was "involved in narcotics trafficking and the laundering of funds derived from such trafficking."
I knew none of this in the early 1980s. At the time, this was highly secret information, known only to a handful of state and federal investigators and a few politicians, including U.S. Attorney Asa Hutchinson.
My interest in the relationship between Seal and Hutchinson was piqued as I became aware of how heavily drug prosecutions fell on street- and mid-level dealers, while smugglers like Seal, who imported drugs by the ton, rarely ended up in prison. So when rumors surfaced about Seal and his organization, and how they had managed for years to avoid prison, even though the extent of their activities was well known to drug authorities, I wanted to know more.
But getting the story has not been easy. In the early 1990s, I asked Hutchinson about Barry Seal and his associates at Mena. Hutchinson provided no information, and politely dismissed the complaints that had arisen by then about his failure to prosecute Seal. He said he had already resigned as U.S. attorney by the time the matter arose.
Even then I knew better than that. Ignoring sidelong glances from some of my peers, who already equated drug smuggling at Mena with reports of life on Mars, I began collecting official accounts of what had happened there. My main thrust was an attempt to acquire, through the federal Freedom of Information laws, all the documents relating to Seal that were generated by the FBI.
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