The Ghosts of Clinton Past in Mena
Almost exactly 16 years ago, the national press descended on Little Rock as it became apparent that the governor of Arkansas might secure the Democratic nomination in the presidential contest of 1992. An inconvenient little question cropped up about what then-Gov. Bill Clinton knew about an airfield outside of the Ozarks town of Mena where drug trafficking and covert military support for the Contras allegedly took place.
Now the former president’s wife is locked in a tough fight with a charismatic African-American candidate for the Democratic nomination. More than six years after 9-11, the details of the Iran-Contra affair, in which Lt. Col. Oliver North funneled money to the Contras on behalf of the Reagan administration in violation of US law for the purpose of destabilizing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, have dissipated like so much mist in our nation’s historical amnesia.
Maybe we should consider what this obscure episode in 1980s Cold War history might say about Hillary Clinton’s sense of expediency and will to power. If the former first lady and her husband were willing to look the other way as illegal drugs were flown into Arkansas and the Constitution was subverted, what might that say about her commitment to justice, transparency and democracy? Then again, illegal activities go on in every state in the union, innocently overlooked by governors and their spouses who find themselves preoccupied with more mundane matters such as literacy and children’s healthcare.
Mark H. Swaney, then president of a campus group called the Arkansas Committee that defined its mission as “preserving human rights and constitutional law,” was among a group of students who wanted to make sure Mena became a household word as the primary season of 1992 unfolded.
“By January ’92 we knew what almost no one else knew, which is that Bill Clinton, far from wanting to investigate a Republican scandal in his state, had reasons to fear an investigation into the activities at Mena,” Swaney told me recently. “The Mena operations were not started by Clinton, and weren’t conducted by him, he simply took advantage of them through his friends.”
The first part of the story is uncontroversial.
“Mena was the base of operations for Barry Seal in the early eighties, and Barry Seal was a major drug trafficker,” said Swaney, who is now employed with the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville as a research associate. “During that time Barry Seal was operating in several capacities. He was operating in his own capacity importing drugs. He moved them from where they were produced to the United States. He was operating in the capacity of a DEA informant. He was used in that capacity to inform on various people the Reagan administration didn’t like [such as] the Sandinistas.”
A third part of Seal’s job description was harder for some to believe.
“He was involved in funding, financing and supplying the Contra army in the years he was in Mena in direct contravention of the Boland Amendment,” Swaney said. “This last part is the part that was never acknowledged, that was botched by the mainstream media, and probably still won’t be acknowledged.”
“Allegations of Connections Between CIA and the Contras in Cocaine Trafficking to the United States,” a report prepared by the CIA’s Office of Inspector General and released in April 2007, acknowledges that the agency took no action in response to allegations of drug trafficking by Mario Calero, the brother of a prominent Contra leader and the rebel group’s purchasing agent in New Orleans.
Still, the CIA recognized that Calero posed a liability for the agency’s objectives in Nicaragua, as outlined in this November 1986 cable from headquarters: “Mario Calero has one of the most seamy reputations of all the people involved in the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance. Rightly or wrongly, he is seen as being up to his knees in corruption.”
Swaney told me he has come to regard reporters with wariness.
Time magazine’s Richard Behar came to Little Rock, and unable to corroborate the claims of Contra drug trafficking in Mena, he characterized the whole thing as little more than a chimera in an April 1992 piece entitled “Anatomy of a smear.” But even Behar had to acknowledge that “there are so many unanswered questions about what was going on at Mena. In 1988 a federal grand jury that had investigated the affair for three years failed to return indictments, leading some state law-enforcement officers to grumble that the case had been scuttled by higher-ups in Washington. Clinton says the state has done everything it can to solve the mystery. But Charles Black, a deputy state prosecuting attorney, says when he asked the Governor to provide financial assistance so the state could conduct its own grand jury investigation in 1988, Clinton never got back to him.
Correspondence between the Arkansas Committee and various state officials presents the future president in a somewhat more duplicitous light.
“We have been concerned for some time about significant criminal activities in the Mena, Arkansas area,” Swaney wrote to Gov. Clinton in July 1991. “These activities which have occurred and continue to occur involve drug and gun smuggling, money laundering, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.”
Col. Tommy Goodwin, director of the Arkansas State Police, followed up five months later with Tom Brown, treasurer of the Arkansas Committee, writing, “We have no documentation concerning Governor Clinton’s commitment to expend money from his emergency fund to share expenses with Polk County to empanel a grand jury for the purpose of investigating the Mena Airport situation. As I told you by phone, this was a verbal commitment made to me in his office to be relayed to appropriate authorities.”
That commitment was never honored, according to a letter from Black to the committee.
“I never personally received any word or information, from anyone, that any amount of state funds was available,” Black wrote. “Quite frankly, even if I had been aware that $25,000 was available, that specific amount would have been tantamount to trying to extinguish a raging forest fire by spitting on it.”
Black told me he thinks the Mena airport was one of the biggest criminal cases never prosecuted in US history.
“The basic suspicion was that the federal government was involved in international drug smuggling,” he said. “Congress had outlawed aid to the Contras. They were allegedly financing their support by drug smuggling. It contaminated both parties.”
Black said he doesn’t think the Mena episode should reflect poorly on Hillary Clinton. Back in 1982, Black and his father served as co-coordinators of Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial campaign in rural Montgomery County. He met with Hillary in his office, and more than 20 years later recalls her intelligence. He’s already cast an early vote for Hillary in the Arkansas primary.
Not so with Mark Swaney, who stopped voting for Democrats a long time ago and got involved with the Green Party. He has some kind words for Democrats Dennis Kucinich, who’s already dropped out of the race, and Mike Gravel, a non-entity at the back of the pack. Clinton’s the last Democrat to whom he would consider giving his vote.
“Hillary Clinton is just like her husband,” Swaney said. “Their political motives are the same, which is personal ambition. They’ll lie. They have no morals. They don’t believe in anything.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.