The mysterious events surrounding Mena Airfield in remote western Arkansas during the gubernatorial reign of Bill Clinton have teased the popular imagination for more than three decades. Movies have been made, books have been published, hundreds of articles have been written. Many of the more baroque allegations emerge from the fever swamps of conspiracy theorists, but certain facts are indisputable. CIA and DEA activities flowed out of Mena in the Clinton years. Cocaine—a lot of it—flowed in. And for thirty years, every attempt to get to the bottom of events at Mena—federal, state, judicial, journalistic—has failed.
Judicial Watch has launched a new campaign for answers. The CIA “stonewalled the release of information now sought by Judicial Watch on the Mena Airport controversy,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. So last month, we filed a lawsuit seeking a long-hidden report by the CIA inspector general into events at Mena. The Judicial Watch lawsuit seeks the report of a November 1996 CIA investigation into “drug running, money laundering and intelligence gathering” at Mena. We’re taking other steps, too—Freedom of Information actions against the DEA, FBI, and Arkansas state institutions.
I first traveled to Mena in 1994, reporting for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. “Mena is a good setting for a mystery,” I wrote at the time. “The pine and hardwood forests of the Ouachita Mountains surrounding it have long been an outlaw’s paradise, home to generations of moonshiners and red-dirt marijuana farmers.” It was also just seventy miles south of the sprawling Fort Chaffee Army Base at Fort Smith, Arkansas. I didn’t make the connection then, but it seems significant now: if you’re going to secretly run arms to controversial U.S. allies, you’ll likely want some military support.
The mysteries of Mena revolve around a drug-smuggling pilot named Barry Seal. In 1981, Seal set up shop at Mena. He later claimed to have made as much as $50 million running 1,000 pounds of cocaine a month from Colombia. In 1983, the DEA arrested him on drug smuggling charges. Seal flipped, becoming a valuable government informant.
He gathered information on Medellin cartel kingpins and participated in at least two drug runs to Nicaragua, where the Reagan administration was ramping up operations against the Sandinista government. On one CIA-involved mission in 1984, a secret camera in Seal’s C-123 cargo plane snapped photos of an alleged Sandinista official loading cocaine aboard the aircraft. The photos quickly leaked, boosting Washington’s anti-Sandinista effort but likely putting a target on Seal’s back: to his drug-running friends in South America, there could be no question where the photos came from.
In Mena, meanwhile, things were getting stranger. A Seal associate cut a runway deep in the woods. Bill Duncan, an IRS investigator, told me that he had “numerous reports of automatic weapons fire, men of Latin American appearance in the area, people in camouflage moving quietly through streams with automatic weapons, aircraft drops, twin-engine airplane traffic.” Duncan, along with Arkansas State Police investigator Russell Welch, started digging into Seal and the Mena connection, suspecting a drug smuggling and money laundering operation. For their efforts, their careers were crushed.
In 1986, Colombian hitmen caught up with Seal in Baton Rouge, shooting him to death in his white Cadillac. Eight months later, Seal’s C-123 was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of ammunition and supplies for the anti-Sandinista Contra rebels. Documents and a surviving crew member tied the shipment to the CIA and the White House, dragging a Seal connection into the Iran-Contra affair.
The story took on a new life when Bill Clinton ran for president. And while Clinton would later correctly note that events at Mena were “primarily a matter of federal jurisdiction”—meaning that Republicans probably had more to lose than Democrats if the truth was exposed—it’s also true that a Clinton friend and supporter named Dan Lasater was under investigation for drug smuggling at the same time Seal was operating in Arkansas. Lasater went to jail for a cocaine connection, as did his friend, Roger Clinton, Bill Clinton’s brother.
In 1996, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach pressed the CIA for answers about its role at Mena. The CIA’s inspector general investigated and released a terse statement saying “no evidence has been found that the CIA was associated with money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling or other illegal activities at or around Mena.” There was, however, a classified “two-week exercise” and some contracting for “routine aviation-related services.”
In other words: nothing to see here, move on. And move on, the world did. But twenty-three years later, Judicial Watch says it is time for answers. We’re suing the CIA for the full inspector general report and we want documents from other agencies as well.
Ancient history? Maybe not.
The respected Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt recently outlined what appears to be a continuing effort to cover up the Mena affair. Leveritt has written convincing book-lengthstudies of the Memphis Three case and the deaths of teenagers Don Henry and Kevin Ives, the Arkansas “boys on the tracks.” In “Who’s Afraid of Barry Seal?,” in the Arkansas Times, Leveritt wrote that “secrets… are still being carefully kept, especially in Arkansas.” In advance of the recent Tom Cruise movie about Seal, American Made, an official associated with the Arkansas Studies Institute, an affiliate of the University of Arkansas and the Central Arkansas Library—both state institutions—convinced Leveritt to write a book about Mena, as a tie-in to the movie.
Leveritt was reluctant at first, but soon warmed to the task and got to work. The book was to be called, “The Mena File: Barry Seal’s Ties to Drug Lords and U.S. Officials.” Leveritt knew the story well and had researched it earlier, writing about Seal’s murder and other related events. Suddenly, though, the Arkansas State Police were uncooperative. They could locate no files on Seal.
How could that be? “I knew the agency had an extensive file on Seal,” Leveritt wrote, “because I’d read it decades earlier, shortly after Seal’s murder. In fact, I still had a letter from the former director advising me, in case I’d planned to make copies, that the file held some 3,000 pages.”
Leveritt had in-depth knowledge of the travails of investigators Duncan and Welch, and state and federal officials, in attempting to get to the truth about Mena. Yet she pressed on with her writing and finished the book. An index was completed and the book was listed in the University of Arkansas Press catalog.
“But I was in for a shock,” Leveritt writes. The book was killed at the last minute.
No convincing explanation was offered for this act of censorship. Officials at the Arkansas Studies Institute suggested their concerns were legal and financial, associated with vetting the book, but Leveritt wasn’t buying it. She was an experienced writer and had prepared for the legal review. No one responded when she asked if “the newly arisen concerns might be political.”
In the Arkansas Times article, Leveritt pinned her hopes on the new Cruise movie, which opened in 2017 to good reviews. “Too many secrets have been kept for too long,” she wrote, “too much important history has been hidden, lost or destroyed. Let’s hope that Cruise’s high-powered version of Seal prompts an equally high-powered demand for disclosure of all government records on him, especially after his move to Mena.”
That didn’t happen. We’ll take it from here.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: email@example.com