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35 years later, American Made movie tells part of the story of US Drug Policy, the CIA and Barry Seal

October 3, 2017

This past weekend, the Hollywood version of what pilot and drug runner Barry Seal did for the CIA in the 1980s, opened in movie theaters across the country.

If you go see the film, there are some things you should keep in mind, as Hollywood is prone to sensationalize real-life events, especially when Tom Cruise is involved. Before we talk about the role of Barry Seal and his relationship to US government agencies, it is important to point out what the black community has been telling us for years, which was something like, we don’t have the planes and the boats to bring these drugs into the US, this was always done by white people, yet it has had devastating effects in the black community.

Barry Seal was an airplane pilot who started transporting drugs into the US in the mid-1970s. He first began by bringing in marijuana, but that eventually evolved to cocaine. Seal was eventually murdered in 1986, by what were believed to be hitmen hired by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

It is important that we put the role that Barry Seal played as a drug smuggler for the CIA in solid historical context. Seal was engaged in the bulk of his drug smuggling work during the Reagan administration, which was eventually confronted by the Iran-Contra affair. This guns, for drugs, for hostages scandal underscores many of the same dynamics that Barry Seal was involved in. You can read details about the Iran-Contra scandal through the declassified documents that were put together by the National Security Archives.

Another important historical context to acknowledge is the fact that there was a major investigation by the US Senate, which produced a report released in 1989. This investigation and report admitted that various US agencies were either fully aware of or deeply involved in facilitating the drug trade during the 1980 in Latin America. 

However, there are two independent books I wanted to talk about that also shed a great deal of light on this topic and the role that Barry Seal played in drug smuggling for the US government in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The first book is the scholarly work done by Peter Dale Scott and Johnathan Marshall, which produced the book, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America. Barry Seal’s involvement with illegal drug smuggling and his relationship to the  DEA and CIA is cited throughout the book, but we will reference one section that has the most details on pages 98 – 102.

“In March 1983, after a DEA investigation, Barry Seal was indicted in Fort Lauderdale for a shipment of 200,000 Quaaludes. Through 1983 and 1984 Seal attempted to beat the indictment by offering to become an informant for the DEA’s Miami Field Division. His offers were refused. Then, after his conviction in February 1984, Seal found a more sympathetic audience for his problem, who arranged for Seal to stay out of jail and in the cocaine business: in March 1984, while out of jail on an appeal bond, Seal flew his Lear jet to Washington and telephoned Vice President Bush’s office; and he spoke on the street to staff members of the vice president’s South Florida Task Force.

The Task Force’s DEA liaison sent Seal to DEA’s Washington headquarters, which then found a supervisor, newly posted to the Miami Field Division, who reversed previous DEA policy and agreed to handle Seal as an informant. Less than a month later, on April 6, 1984, Seal flew to Colombia for a drug shipment that soon led to one of the White House’s bigger propaganda efforts against the Sandinistas: photographs allegedly linking them to the Medellin cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar.

The CIA was certainly involved in the preparations for Seal’s trip to Nicaragua: it was the CIA that provided the cameras for Seal’s C-123K cargo plane in 1984. It was the CIA that provided the disputed description of Seal’s Nicaraguan contact, Frederico Vaughan, as an aide to Nicaraguan Interior Minister Borge. It was certainly Duane Clarridge, the CIA’s Latin American Division Chief in charge of the Contras, who was responsible for Oliver North’s learning, the very day of Seal’s return with the film, that the photos show Vaughan and Nicaraguan interior troops. General Gorman claimed three days later that the US now had firm proof of Sandinista drug trafficking; and DEA officials soon learned to their dismay that Clarridge and North had somehow obtained the Seal photos. Within weeks both the story and the photos had been made public, and the DEA had to break off the Seal flights to Nicaragua.

The second book worth referencing on Barry Seal’s role in the US/CIA/DEA drug operations in the 1980s was journalist Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.

While working for the San Jose Mercury News, Gary Webb had discovered the CIA/Contra connection in California in the mid-1990s, while investigating the crack cocaine epidemic within the Black community. He wrote a four-part series for the San Jose Mercury News, which eventually became the book, Dark Alliance. 

The wrecked C-123K in which those flight logs were found had a history of involvement with cocaine, the Medellin cartel, and the CIA. It was the same plane Louisiana drug dealer Barry Seal used in a joint CIA-DEA sting operation in 1984 against the Sandinistas. In that case the CIA had taken Seal’s plane – which he’d recently obtained through a complicated plane swap with the cartel – to Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio and outfitted it with hidden cameras. Then Seal, who was working as a DEA informant, flew the aircraft to an airfield in Nicaragua and snapped pictures of men loading bags of cocaine into his plane.

One of Seal’s grainy, almost indistinguishable photos was later shown on national TV by President Ronald Reagan the night before a crucial vote in Congress on Contra Aid. “This picture, secretly taken at a military airfield outside Managua, shows Frederico Vaughan, a top aide to one of the nine commandantes who rule Nicaragua, loading an aircraft with illegal narcotics, bound for the United States,” Reagan announced. “No, there seems to be no crime to which the Sandinistas will not stoop – this is an outlaw regime.”

After the president’s remarks were uncritically spread across the country by the national media, both the DEA and the Justice Department admitted there was no evidence, other than Barry Seal’s claims, to support Reagan’s accusations.

A 1988 congressional investigation raised troubling questions about whether or not the Seal sting was even a real sting. It produced evidence suggesting that the whole episode had been stage-managed by Oliver North and the CIA as a domestic disinformation operation. Among other things, the House Judiciary Committee investigation revealed that the alleged Sandinista official named by Reagan, Frederico Vaughan, may have actually been working for the US government. Committee chairman William Hughes of New Jersey told reporters that “subcommittee staff recently called Vaughan’s number in Managua, Nicaragua and spoke to a domestic employee who said the house belonged to a US Embassy employee,” and that his investigators were told the house had been “continuously rented” by the United States since 1981.

Four DEA officials testified before Hughes’s committee that they’d received pressure from North and the CIA to leak the news of Vaughan’s involvement with drugs to the press. They also said North wanted to take $1.5 million in drug profits Seal had collected from the Medellin cartel and give it to the Contras. When the DEA refused to to either, the DEA officials testified, the story was leaked by the White House to the rightwing Washington Times, which was supporting the Contras both financially and editorially.

Therefore, don’t be misled by the sensationalized version of this story as depicted by Tom Cruise. In fact, if you wanted to watch a Hollywood film that more accurately tells the story of US drug policy in the 1980s and 90s, watch the 2014 film Kill the Messenger, which is about  journalist Gary Webb and what he uncovered. One of the things that this film does, which is so important, is to link the crack-cocaine epidemic within the black community with the US government role in facilitating drugs coming into the US.

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