man appointed by President Bush to head the Drug Enforcement
Administration has been an ally of the CIA and drug smugglers
in the past. His true job may be to manage the drug trade
so that the profits remain in the pockets of the CIA and Wall
Street. Here, veteran Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt tells
you the hidden history of Asa Hutchinson. - Special Presentation
from the May 31, 2001 issue of FTW]
Arkansas Times Cover Story -- 5/25/01, http://arktimes.com/010525coverstoryb.html
-- [reprinted with permission]
Asa and Me
- IÕve wondered for years: What does Hutchinson know about
ArkansasÕs biggest drug smuggler? And when did he know
By Mara Leveritt
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
countryÕs 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 HutchinsonÕs
district while he was federal prosecutor that he doesnÕt mention
in his speeches. Specifically, a man identified by federal
agents as "a documented, major narcotics trafficker"
was using facilities at an airport in HutchinsonÕs district
for "storage, maintenance, and modification" of
his drug-running aircraft, throughout most of HutchinsonÕs
The man was Adler Berriman "Barry"
Seal. For the last four years of his life - and throughout
HutchinsonÕs 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.
I wish now that I had gone after the DEAÕs
records on Seal, but I was working in the dark. I knew that
the FBI had been involved in SealÕs case, so I began with
what I knew.
The battle to obtain even those documents
has now taken longer than the length of time that Seal was
based at Mena. At first the FBI denied that it had any records
on Seal. When I produced photocopies of FBI memos relating
to the Seal investigation, the agency acknowledged that a
file existed. But, I was told, it probably would take years
to review it, and besides, thousands of applicants for other
files were already ahead of me.
ThatÕs when I wrote to two members of Congress,
asking for their help. Even though Hutchinson is not from
my district, I contacted him in hopes that, having been close
to the events, he would want to help clear the record. Again,
he responded politely.
He told me that it was always good to hear
from me, that he had contacted the FBI in my behalf, and that
he would be back in touch with me when the agency responded.
He included a copy of a federal guide to using the Freedom
of Information and Privacy Act, in the hope that it would
help in my "research efforts." He thanked me for
That was the last I heard from Asa Hutchinson
until a couple of years later, when I mentioned the incident
in a column. At that point, an aide to Hutchinson hastened
to apologize for the lack of follow up. But still, there was
no help on the Mena front coming from the Hutchinson camp.
Fortunately, Rep. Vic Snyder was more responsive.
In fact, Snyder and his staff made repeated attempts to persuade
the FBI to release the records I had requested. Finally, after
a personal visit from Snyder, the agency agreed to start releasing
some of its files on Mena. As a result, during the past two
years, I have received several hundred pages of reports relating
to Barry Seal. I have posted many of these pages on my website,
, and a new batch will be posted soon. The pages reflect the
intensity of activity surrounding Seal, even if, in true wartime
fashion, most of the details have been blacked out.
Many of the documents have been so heavily
censored that they have been rendered worthless. And hundreds
more were withheld altogether. Some of the redactions were
made, according to agency notations, to protect the privacy
of named individuals. Many others, however, are said to have
been made to protect "national security."
In an effort that my children predict IÕll
still be waging from beyond the grave, I am appealing the
national security exclusions. What, I ask, is the connection
between Seal and national security?
I have seen the rug of "national security"
grow larger by the year, and it concerns me that so many aspects
of this war on drugs are piously being swept under it. Too
often "national security" means "donÕt tell
the American people."
I believe that if this country is going to
fight a long and costly war, the warÕs leaders have an obligation
to report faithfully on its battles. The incidents that surrounded
Seal constituted a major battle. But the faithful report has
been missing. For more than 15 years, U.S. government officials,
including Hutchinson, who were close to the events have maintained
a stony silence.
Yet, despite the former prosecutorÕs unhelpfulness,
chunks of the story have emerged. And scoffs about Mena aside,
it is a remarkable one. The stakes with Seal were about as
high as they can get in a war. The story is replete with intrigue
and layers of betrayal. The losses it reflects were enormous.
HereÕs a gram of what happened:
Early in 1984, after years of painstaking
investigation, law enforcement agencies, including the DEA,
were ready to prosecute Seal. But Seal called upon political
connections, and they let him become an informant rather than
go to prison. The price of SealÕs last-minute deal with the
U.S. government was that he was to betray his Colombian allies,
toppling the leadership of the Medellin cartel.
But the government lost on the deal. The
plan to use Seal to rout the cartel ended in murder and failure.
Not only was Seal exposed, and then assassinated, but members
of his "extensive" organized crime operation evaded
The fiasco left many law enforcement officers
whoÕd worked on the Seal case feeling that theyÕd been betrayed.
IÕve interviewed some of them, and their disillusionment is
In 1992, I spoke with Jack Crittendon, a
sergeant with the Louisiana State Police. He told me that
10 years earlier, in early 1982, he and his partner were building
a case against Seal when they were notified that DEA officials
in Miami were on the verge of indicting Seal. Armed with that
information, Crittendon and his partner confronted Seal at
a steak house in Baton Rouge.
"We told him weÕd like for him to turn
around and cooperate with us and with the DEA and with the
U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge," Crittendon recalled. "We
were looking across the table at him. Now, the man had a mind
for business. With his mind, he could have been the head of
a Fortune 500 company. It just so happened that his business
was smuggling. We told him we wanted the cartel. He said heÕd
have to give it some thought."
Ultimately, Seal rejected the Louisiana proposal.
Crittendon recalled, "We said, ŌThatÕs fine with us,
but wherever you go, theyÕre going to be after you.Õ And,
in fact, it was shortly after that, he turned up in Mena,
Seal was being watched so closely that state
and federal officials in Arkansas, including Asa Hutchinson,
knew of his move to Arkansas, almost from the moment his first
aircraft arrived. They also knew that Seal had formed a business
relationship with Rich Mountain Aviation, an aircraft modification
company headquartered at the Mena airport.
Soon after SealÕs move to Mena, U.S. Attorney
Hutchinson called a meeting at his Fort Smith office to coordinate
local surveillance. Among those attending were an Arkansas
DEA agent, a U.S. Customs official, and U.S. Treasury agent
William C. Duncan.
DuncanÕs job was to investigate money laundering
by the Seal organization. By the end of 1982, he had gathered
what he believed to be substantial evidence of the crime.
Duncan and an Arkansas State Police investigator,
who was also monitoring SealÕs enterprise, took their evidence
to Hutchinson. They asked that the U.S. attorney subpoena
20 witnesses theyÕd identified to testify before a federal
grand jury. To DuncanÕs surprise, however, Hutchinson seemed
reluctant. Ultimately, Hutchinson called only three of the
20 witnesses the investigators had requested.
The three appeared before the grand jury,
but afterwards, two of them also expressed surprise at how
their questioning was handled. One, a secretary at Rich Mountain
Aviation, had given Duncan sworn statements about money laundering
at the company, transcripts of which Duncan had provided to
Hutchinson. But when the woman left the jury room, she complained
that Hutchinson had asked her nothing about the crime or the
sworn statements sheÕd given to Duncan. As Duncan later testified,
"She basically said that she was allowed to give her
name, address, position, and not much else."
The other angry witness was a banker who
had, in DuncanÕs words, "provided a significant amount
of evidence relating to the money-laundering operation."
According to Duncan, he, too, emerged from the jury room complaining
"that he was not allowed to provide the evidence that
he wanted to provide to the grand jury."
Hutchinson left the U.S. attorneyÕs office
in October 1985, to make what turned out to be an unsuccessful
bid for the U.S. Senate. His successor, J. Michael Fitzhugh,
appeared no more zealous than Hutchinson to pursue information
regarding Seal. As a result, neither Seal nor his associates
in Arkansas were indicted.
(As late as 1989, according to records IÕve
received, FBI agents in Little Rock were still expecting that
some of SealÕs associates would be indicted. Only after Sen.
Dale Bumpers inquired into the status of the case, and calls
were made to FitzhughÕs office, did the agents learn that
the grand jury had disbanded the previous summer without issuing
the expected indictments.)
In 1991, Treasury agent Duncan was questioned
under oath about the Seal investigation. Asked what conclusions
he and his superiors at the IRS had drawn, Duncan answered
matter-of-factly, "There was a cover-up."
"I had found Asa Hutchinson to be a
very aggressive U.S. attorney in connection with my cases,"
Duncan said. "Then, all of a sudden, with respect to
Mena, it was just like the information was going in, but nothing
was happening, over a long period of time. But, just like
with the 20 witnesses and the complaints, I didnÕt know what
to make of that. Alarms were going off...
"We were astonished that we couldnÕt
get subpoenas. We were astonished that Barry Seal was never
brought to the grand jury, because he was on the subpoena
list for a long time. And there were just a lot of investigative
developments that made no sense to us."
Asked to elaborate, Duncan explained, "One
of the most revealing things was that we had discussed specifically
with Asa Hutchinson the rumors about National Security [Administration]
involvement in the Mena operation. And Mr. Hutchinson told
me personally that he had checked with a variety of law enforcement
agencies and people in Miami, and that Barry Seal would be
prosecuted for any crimes in Arkansas. So we were comfortable
that there was not going to be National Security interference."
Duncan also said he found it "very strange"
that he saw so few signs of the DEA at Mena while Seal was
headquartered there. "We were dealing with allegations
of narcotics smuggling [and] massive amounts of money laundering,"
Duncan said in his deposition. "And it was my perception
that the Drug Enforcement Administration would have been very
actively involved at that stage, along with the Arkansas State
Police. But DEA was conspicuously absent during most of that
Duncan did not know while he was investigating
Seal that, about a year and a half after SealÕs move to Arkansas
- and about midway through HutchinsonÕs term as U.S. attorney
- the smuggler had changed his mind about becoming a federal
informant. In March 1984, with charges filed against him in
Florida and others pending in Louisiana, Seal was desperate
to make a deal. But the U.S. attorney in Fort Lauderdale was
more inclined to prosecute than to let Seal roll and become
an informant. The talks had reached an impasse.
Not everyone charged with drug crimes can
bargain effectively with the U.S. government. But Seal had
some advantages. For one, he had financial resources. According
to his own account, by 1984 he had already earned between
$60 and $100 million smuggling cocaine into the U.S. He could
hire his own lawyers.
Perhaps more important, it appears, he had
cultivated some important connections. Stymied in his negotiations
in Florida, Seal flew his personal Lear jet to Washington,
D.C., where he met with members of a White House task force
on crime headed by the elder George Bush. At the time, the
current presidentÕs father was vice president under President
There is no indication that then Vice President
George Bush was present at the meeting with Seal. But the
meeting was important, nonetheless. Where Seal had failed
in Florida, he now succeeded in Washington, as members of
the task force backed his offer to become a federal informant.
Days later, in the presence of Justice Department
officials, Seal signed an agreement to cooperate with the
DEA. The problem for Duncan and other investigators working
in Louisiana and Arkansas was that the deal was kept a secret.
Contrary to law enforcement protocols, they were not informed
of the change in SealÕs status.
Seal lived for 23 months after he cut that
deal. They are months shrouded in mystery. Questions that
have festered for years remain to this day unanswered.
Why were Duncan and other investigators assigned
to follow Seal not notified that he was now a confidential
government informant? And what was the DEAÕs role with regard
to Seal? How close was the supervision of this high-level
criminal turned critically-important informant? After Seal
became an informant, did he continue to smuggle drugs - and
keep the money he made from them - as he later testified in
court that he did?
By SealÕs own account, his gross income in
the year and a half after he became an informant - while he
was based at Mena and while Asa Hutchinson was the federal
prosecutor in Fort Smith, 82 miles away - was three-quarters
of a million dollars. Seal reported that $575,000 of that
income had been derived from a single cocaine shipment, which
the DEA had allowed him to keep. Pressed further, he testified
that, since going to work for the DEA, he had imported 1,500
pounds of cocaine into the U.S.
Of course, Duncan and other investigators
knew nothing of all this. They had no idea in 1984, as they
monitored SealÕs occasional appearances at Mena, that the
smuggler was also flying between meetings with high-level
U.S. officials and the cocaine lords of Central America. Between
March 1984 and February 1986, records indicate that Seal flew
repeatedly to Colombia, Guatemala, and Panama, where he met
with Jorge Ochoa, Fabio Ochoa, Pablo Escobar, and Carlos Lehder
- leaders of the cartel that at the time controlled an estimated
80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States.
Compounding the mystery around Seal are questions
that arose during this period about his relationship with
the CIA. Were the connections extensive, permeating his career?
Or were they limited to one event, as the CIA maintains? I
know that some of the records in SealÕs FBI file - ones IÕve
been denied on grounds of national security - originated with
the CIA. So the questions remain.
What we do know is that, in June 1984, CIA
technicians installed hidden cameras in SealÕs C-123K at FloridaÕs
Homestead Air Force Base. The next day, Seal flew to Nicaragua,
where the CIA-installed cameras captured images of cocaine
being loaded onboard the plane. Two months later, at the height
of the Reagan administrationÕs effort to get congressional
funding for the Nicaraguan Contras, those photos were leaked
to the media. Administration sources identified the blurry
figures as leaders of the Sandinista government, who were
opposed by the Contra rebels.
The leak exploded SealÕs cover, revealing
to his associates in the Medellin cartel that he was now cooperating
with the U.S. government. It ruined Seal as an informant just
three months after heÕd made the deal. And it set him up for
How much of this Hutchinson knew at the time,
he has never said. What is known is that at the end of 1984,
Seal was indicted in Louisiana, and in January 1985, he pled
guilty to drug charges there. His usefulness now limited to
courtrooms, for most of 1985, Seal made appearances at federal
drug trials, where he testified as a government witness against
others in his trade. He helped in several prosecutions, though
none in Arkansas.
SealÕs most important court appearance was
to come in 1986, when he was scheduled to testify at the trial
of Jorge Ochoa Vasques. But in February of that year, shortly
before the trial was to begin, Seal was ambushed in Baton
Rouge and killed in a hail of bullets. Upon hearing of SealÕs
murder, one stunned DEA agent lamented, "There was a
contract out on him, and everyone knew it. He was to have
been a crucial witness in the biggest case in DEA history."
Why was Seal not protected? There are no
good explanations. SealÕs status as an informant was destroyed
by the decision to leak his photos. And he was gunned down,
ending his ability to testify, when he showed up for an appointment
that a federal judge had ordered him to keep.
After SealÕs murder, the attorney general
of Louisiana wrote to U.S. Attorney Edwin Meese, requesting
answers to some of the bigger questions about the governmentÕs
relationship with Barry Seal. William J. Guste Jr. asked Meese
why "such an important witness" had not been given
protection. Guste also wanted to know how Seal had been "supervised,
regulated and controlled" after agreeing to work with
The Louisiana attorney general asked, "Was
Seal allowed to work in an undercover capacity in Arkansas
and Louisiana without notification to Louisiana and Arkansas
officials?" And, "How were the contraband drugs
he brought into the United States while cooperating with the
DEA regulated and controlled?
"Was SealÕs drug smuggling organization
allowed to remain intact during and after the time of his
cooperation with the government? If so, why?
"Was he permitted to keep hundreds of
thousands of dollars which he made while working for the DEA
by actually smuggling drugs into he United States? How was
such money accounted for?"
Guste wrote, "All of these questions
and others that will undoubtedly develop cry for investigation.
And law enforcement agencies and the public have a right to
know the answers." In 1994, Guste told me that Meese
never responded to the letter. If Asa Hutchinson, who worked
under Meese, made any similar inquiries, they have never come
Fifteen years have now passed since Barry
SealÕs murder, and the still unanswered questions remain as
haunting as ever. Bill Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas
during SealÕs tenure here, dismissed the questions during
his campaign for the presidency as entirely a federal matter.
Once he gained the White House, a spokesman ridiculed questions
about Seal and Mena, calling them "the darkest backwater
of conspiracy theories."
But these questions do not deserve such a
brush-off. They deserve answers. Yet, even at this late date,
instead of providing them, President Bush plans to install
Hutchinson, the tight-lipped and loyal drug warrior, as head
of the DEA.
While Hutchinson (and others) have remained
mum about the deals and questions, politics and bungles that
surrounded Barry Seal, the peculiarities that marked SealÕs
case have not escaped mention entirely. In 1988, the Senate
Committee on Foreign Relations issued a report prepared by
its Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International
Operations that exposed the seriousness of the Seal disaster.
That report read in part:
"Law enforcement officials were furious
that their undercover operation was revealed and agentsÕ lives
jeopardized because one individual in the U.S. government
- Lt. Col. Oliver North-decided to play politics with the
The report continued: "Associates of
Seal, who operated aircraft service businesses at the Mena,
Arkansas airport, were also targets of grand jury probes into
narcotics trafficking. Despite the availability of evidence
sufficient for an indictment on money laundering charges and
over the strong protests of state and federal law enforcement
officials, the cases were dropped. The apparent reason was
that the prosecution might have revealed national security
information, even though all of the crimes which were the
focus of the investigation occurred before Seal became a federal
When I wrote to Hutchinson in 1995, he might
have referred me that report. But he didnÕt. Now that Hutchinson
is in line to head the DEA, I think he should be required
to address the long waiting questions about Seal. And a few
more questions to boot.
Among them: What are the limits on secrecy
when it comes to fighting this war? What should be the DEAÕs
relationship with the CIA? How heavily should narcotics investigators
be allowed to rely on drug-criminals-turned-snitches - people
like Barry Seal - for activities that are kept from public
review and for testimony resulting from deals?
What explanation is owed to law enforcement
officers, many of whom risk their lives, only to see their
efforts wasted - not purposefully undermined - as they were
in the case of Seal?
What about all the inmates who are serving
time in prisons for drug law violations that were insignificant
compared to SealÕs? What does Hutchinson say to them? And
to the American people?
Like most drug warriors, Hutchinson speaks
often about "messages." He resists changing even
marijuana laws, saying that to do so would send the "wrong
message." He opposes calling the war on drugs anything
but a war, arguing that to change the terminology sends "the
I share his respect for messages. So IÕd
like to hear how he interprets this one:
In 1994, when I asked the head of the DEAÕs
office in Little Rock what had actually transpired with Seal,
the agent answered obliquely that "no conclusion was
determined." When I asked what in the world that meant,
he explained, "Sometimes that is the conclusion: that
there can be no conclusion."
IÕd like to know: Would that answer satisfy
Hutchinson? It does not satisfy me. --
Copyright ©2000 Arkansas Times Inc.
-- Mara Leveritt has worked at the Arkansas Democrat
and the Arkansas Gazette before becoming a weekly columnist
and senior editor at the Arkansas Times. In 1996, she left
full-time newspaper work to write "The Boys on the
Tracks," published by St. MartinÕs Press in 1999. Kirkus
called the book "a wrecking-ball tale of tragedy, malfeasance,
and machine politics," and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
said it " lures you in and holds you hostage until
the end." In 2000, "The Boys on the Tracks"
was awarded the Booker Worthen Prize by the Central Arkansas
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