Written by Jerry Meldon, published in the Boston Phoenix on September 2, 1988
On a Saturday morning in August 1976, William Cottrell, Robert Kronsgard, and Donald Smith were driving to work at Iran's Dashan Tadah air-force base. Their car was making its way through a crowded Teheran neighborhood when it was blocked by Volkswagens and rammed by a VW bus. In a flash, the men inside were shot point-blank — and murdered — by masked gunmen firing automatic weapons.
The victims, all in their 40s, were employees of the Los Angeles-based Rockwell International Corporation, computer and communications experts assigned to a hush-hush $500 million electronic-surveillance project code-named "Ibex." Rockwell was the prime contractor.
|The shah became suspicious
The Rockwell engineers were not the only Americans murdered in Teheran in those years. One Air Force colonel was assassinated in 1975. Another had been gunned down two years earlier. All five homicides were pinned on members of the Islamic Marxist Guerrillas — the Mulaheedin — a score of whom were eventually executed by the shah's government for those alleged crimes.
But what was the motive for the Rockwell murders? The pat answer is that the Mujaheedinare terrorists whose enemies thenincluded all Americans, military and civilian, who propped up the shah's repressive infrastructure. Now comes a chilling, alternative hypothesis: the three men were actually murdered to keep them silent about kickbacks from the Ibex contract to corrupt American officials.
The source of this scenario is Gene Wheaton, a former Army and Air Force criminal investigator. He became Rockwell's security chief for Ibex in 1977 and stayed on in that position through the American evacuation of Iran in 1979. His investigations into the Rockwell murders continued after his employment with Rockwell terminated.
|Was North's network involved?
On June 23, two years after it was filed and four days before it was scheduled for trial, the two journalists' lawsuit was abruptly dismissed for lack of evidence by presiding judge lames L. King of the US District Court in Miami. Lawyers for the plaintiffs — who are affiliated with the Washington-based Christic Institute — have filed an appeal.
Before the case was dismissed, the plaintiffs' lawyers had deposed a number of interesting witnesses. However, Judge King limited the scope of discovery to the years 1982 through '86 to focus on the Iran-contra affair, a move that technically precluded questioning Wheaton about earlier events. The judge's ruling transformed Wheaton's deposition hearing into a tug-of-war between attorneys, with the plaintiffs' representative struggling to get Wheaton's version of the Ibex murders out in the open. In between the forensic sparring, Wheaton said enough in the depositions to prompt Secord to sue him for $6 million. (Secord earlier had sued Leslie Cockburn, author of a book on the Iran-contra affair. for $38 million.)
The Phoenix has obtained a copy of Wheaton's deposition. In it, he claims that his personal investigation has led him to conclude that the three Rockwell officials were murdered 12 years ago to cover up corruption — that is, kickbacks — in the Ibex deal.
In relating Wheaton's controversial allegations, the Phoenix does not seek to imply that it has either corroborated them or concluded that what Wheaton suggests is true. However, the seriousness of his allegations, their relevance to the Iran-contra affair, and Wheaton's credentials argue for their publication.
According to Wheaton's deposition, in 1985 he was drumming up business in Washington for an air-cargo firm of which he was vice-president. His contacts in northern Virginia's "spook" cornmunity led him to the office of Florida Republican Congressman Bill McCollum, an avid supporter of the contras who would later serve on the joint congressional Iran-contra committee. According to the deposition, Wheaton found himself in the midst of Oliver North's covert operations in support of "freedom fighters' worldwide.
Discussions with McCollum aide Vaughan Forest and with Robert Owen, a man who played Friday to Oliver North in the contra supply effort, focused on the Afghan Mujaheedin. When Wheaton suggested that his own firm bid for an air-supply contract, he stated in the deposition, he was told that he would have to take his marching orders from North's favored suppliers —Secord and his business partner, Hakim.
Wheaton was taken aback. Secord and Hakim were associated with what Wheaton perceived as a network of arms traders and Pentagon and CIA officials to whom Wheaton claims his investigations, beginning with the Ibex case, have consistently led him.
According to Wheaton's testimony "I told them [Forest and Owen] that these men had been involved in scandalous, publicly documented cases in the past, involving kickbacks on foreign military sales cases; on dealings with laundering large amounts of payoffs ... on military programs in the Middle East through Swiss bank accounts; and that these men had previously been involved with [former CIA agent] Ed Wilson — who is spending 52 years in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois...
"I told them I had been conducting a 10-, 12-year investigation on the assassinations of some Americans that were involved in programs that these people were involved in, and that I wasn't going to be involved in a program involving the Afghan freedom fighters or the contras, if I had to deal through those people.... I thought the US government was heading for a major embarrassment if they continued to deal with them."
That was a year before the Iran-contra scandal broke.
Wheaton was on the mark about a national embarrassment. However, his deposition offers no back-up for his more serious allegations regarding Ibex, other than his own credentials as an investigator. Whatever evidence Wheaton has, circumstantial or otherwise, he has convinced no enforcement authority to conduct an official investigation.
On the other hand, one can imagine how suspicions that emerged from his investigations one decade ago have grown stronger with each year's press revelations on the Wilson affair and, ultimately, the Iran-contra scandal.
Apparently, according to the deposition, the only one of "those people" associated with Wilson who was personally contacted by Wheaton was Rafael "Chi Chi" Quintero — a Cuban-exile veteran of the CIA-sponsored 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. A longtime CIA contract agent, Quintero assumed a key role in the covert supply of arms to the contras, for which he was paid by Hakim's Stanford Technology Corporation (STC).
According to Wheaton: "My primary interest in Chi Chi was trying to work something out to see if we could get him some sort of immunity for his past sins, particularly in the area of assassinations ... if he would ... tell all... I was interested in the Rockwell assassinations, but I had come up with a list of 20-something people that had ... met untimely deaths after they were either subpoenaed or became whistle-blowers, involved with this inner network since 1971....
"I gave him a general briefing on documents I had discovered and witnesses I had uncovered, which led me firmly to believe that the Rockwell managers were murdered because of a skim off the Ibex contract rather than by a typical terrorist attack."
Quintero, according to Wheaton, refused to comment on any murders.
Besides Quintero, Secord, and Hakim, in his deposition Wheaton named as "those people" Thomas Dines, Theodore Shackley, and Eric Von Marbod. The first two were high-standing CIA officers and the third a similarly ranked Pentagon official. Each resigned in the late '70s in the wake of press reports of the escapades of former CIA agent Wilson. Wilson is serving half a century in prison for, among other things, shipping explosives to Libya.
According to Wilson, and associates of his interviewed by author Peter Maas for his book Manhunt, Wilson, Shackley, Von Marbod, and Richard Secord were silent partners of Clines in EATSCO (Egyptian American Transport Services Company), a company founded in 1979 while Von Marbod and Secord were still Pentagon officials. The Justice Department later determined that EATSCO overcharged the Pentagon $8 million on a contract to ship arms to Egypt — a contract that had been awarded by Von Marbod.
Shackley, Clines, Secord, and Von Marbod have all denied Wilson's allegation. Whereas the first three names appeared regularly as the press delved into the Iran-contra affair, Von Marbod's remained obscure. However, Von Marbod was already a controversial figure in Iran by the time of the 1976 Rockwell murders.
Back in the mid '70s, Von Marbod headed the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Iran. Secord headed the MAAG group's Air Force mission. One of MAAG's assign-ments was to authorize and coordinate Iranian purchases of arms from US contractors, of whom the shah was only too willing a customer. But eager as the shah was to buy, he grew wary of MAAG's motives. Ul-timately he concluded that some members of MAAG were in bed with the arms merchants.
According to a 1977 Washing-ton Post article by Bob Woodward, by early 1976 the shah had cut off meaningful relations with top Pentagon officials in Iran and asked that Von Marbod in particular be fired.
|Richard Helms sounded a warning
The US ambassador to Iran, former CIA director Richard Helms, told one visitor, according to the Post article, that he had never seen ... so many people out of control in the Pentagon." In July 1976 Helms sent George Bush, then CIA director, a hand-written note asking Bush to send top CIA officials to Iran so they could hear the corruption allegations firsthand.
Helms wrote to Bush one month before the murder of the three Rockwell officials connected with Ibex — a project Woodward described as a "case study in the kind of intrigue and under the table dealing which characterized the U.S. arms merchandising program."
Richard Secord's and Albert Hakim's exact roles in the Ibex project are unclear — and Wheaton's deposition offers no concrete evidence to support their involvement in it. A 1981 Computerworld article did report that Hakim had sold mobile-communications intercept equipment deployed in the project.
Notably, Hakim's Stanford Technology Corporation had employed former CIA agent Frank Terpil for eight months in 1976, according to a former STC official cited in that same Computerworld article. It was Terpil who introduced Wilson to Libyan officials, a move that put Wilson on the path to solitary confinement in the Marion, Illinois, federal pen.
Terpil is currently a fugitive. In 1979 he was sentenced in New York in absentia to 50 years in prison. The charges included the attempted sale of 10,000 machine guns to undercover policemen posing as Latin American revolutionaries.
In his sworn deposition, Gene Wheaton reports an intriguing conversation he had with John "I.W." Harper, who had preceded Wheaton as chief of security for the Ibex project. Wheaton says Harper told him, "Frank Terpil was in Teheran the day of the Rockwell assassinations.... I.W. personally met him at Tripoli Airport when he flew into Tripoli, Libya, after coming from Teheran.... Terpil [told] him ... the Rockwell matter had been taken care of."
There has been no public reaction to Wheaton's shocking allegation — other than Secord's $6 million lawsuit. The Justice Department — which under Ed Meese has been out to lunch on matters such as these — will almost certainly leave the Ibex murder case closed.
A major source of the back-ground information in this article is The Iran-Contra Connection, by Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter (South End Press, Boston, 1987).