Apr 19, 1988

So Sue Me | by Jerry Meldon | The Village Voice Book Review, April 19, 1988


Out of Control: The Story of the Reagan Administration’s Secret War in Nicaragua, the Illegal Arms Pipeline, and the Contra Drug Connection. By Leslie Cockburn. Atlantic Monthly Press, $18.95.


            The $38 million lawsuit Richard Secord recently laid on the publishers of Out of Control should make it clear that this is a book worth reading. And now that Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh has indicted Secord and friends, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is continuing its hearings on the narcotics traffic from Central America, this book by CBS producer Leslie Cockburn will serve as a handy guide to the dramatis personae.

            Cockburn and her duly acknowledged partners at CBS, Jane Wallace and Ty West, are members of an all too tiny group of journalists who pierced the establishment media barrier on the Reagan team’s Central American intrigue, before the Iran-contra scandal broke in November 1986. In the months that followed, Cockburn’s West 57th broadcast team doggedly pursued the contra drug connection. The narcotics angle was long shunned by both Congress and the media. “Perhaps,” Cockburn writes, “the truth is so shattering that it produces a collective refusal to accept it.” Or a search for scapegoats.

            During the past two months, the Reagan administration has been painting Noriega of Panama as the evil emperor of drugs. But though Noriega is certainly a consummate thief, his recent indictment in Miami, 20 years after his kleptocratic tendencies became known, is more a convenience than a crusade. For if Washington truly wanted to clean house, it could start with the skeletons in its own closet. According to Cockburn:

·         Ramón Milian-Rodriguez, a Cuban exile convicted in December 1985 on 60 counts of racketeering and laundering of narcotics money (to the tune of a cool $200 million a month), “in the mid-1970s … arranged for the covert delivery of ‘$30 to $40 million,” from the CIA to Anastasio Somoza.”

·         The same Milian-Rodriguez was invited to Reagan’s 1981 inauguration “in recognition of the $180,000 in campaign contributions from his clients (the cocaine cartel)…”

·         Milian-Rodriguez told CBS he had laundered a $10 million contribution from the “Colombian cocaine cartel to the ‘freedom fighters,’ at the behest of a CIA veteran and key figure in the White House contra supply network.”

·         George Morales, legitimate recordholder for the fastest New York-Miami powerboat run, facing an indictment in 1984 for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine, was persuaded by another CIA operative to donate $250,000 quarterly to the contra cause.

Cockburn explores the sleaze in depth. On the notorious corruption of the contra leadership, she defers, at one point, to colorful soldier of fortune Jack Terrell: “[The contras] hold not an inch of dirt. The only progress they’ve made is in purchasing condominiums.” Such pithy quotes spice up the sordid history of the Reagan team’s covert efforts to build a southern front in Costa Rica when support for the contras was officially banned by the Boland amendment. There is a wealth of anecdotes, names, and facts, and it gets a bit out of control in the absence of an index.

That the truth Cockburn tells does indeed matter is proved by the elaborate efforts by the Reagan Administration to keep it under wraps. Attorney General Ed Meese and the Justice Department have repeatedly intervened to stymie federal investigations into gun- and drug-running operations by and for the contras, and to block the untimely issuance of indictments prior to congressional votes on contra aid.

Many will scoff that such information, had it been available all along, would hardly have fazed an America eating out of Ronald Reagan’s hand. But even the cynical—perhaps they especially—will derive pleasure and satisfaction from knowing the sordid history has all been recorded here. For that, at the very least, we are indebted to Leslie Cockburn.