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Hiring Bad Guys: Who Else Does Covert Work?

September 22, 1996|Joseph Finder | Joseph Finder, who writes frequently on intelligence matters, is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Zero Hour" (William Morrow)

BOSTON — A series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News last month alleged that the CIA was somehow involved in a scheme to sell crack cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs in the 1980s to finance the Contras in Nicaragua. After it appeared, both Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) demanded an investigation and the Congressional Black Caucus demanded, and got, a meeting with CIA Director John M. Deutch.

What's most interesting about the series, however, is its implicit notion that intelligence agencies shouldn't have any truck with the world's bad guys. It's an assumption that reveals how little some people seem to understand how the intelligence business actually works.

The issue of whether the CIA should be allowed to deal with disreputable, even immoral, characters came to light recently: The CIA kept on its payroll a Guatemalan army colonel named Julio Roberto Alpirez, who may have been involved in the 1990 murder of an American and the 1992 torture-murder of a Guatemalan rebel leader married to an American. The uproar in the United States was enormous. The CIA seemed to be covering up heinous murders to protect one of its clandestine sources. This was an unpleasant, thoroughly tangled business, and seemed a classic example of CIA perfidy.

So what was the truth? The President's Intelligence Oversight Board this summer issued a rare public report on the matter (normally, its findings are kept classified), concluding that Alpirez probably didn't order the murder of the American nor was he present during the killing, but was involved in covering it up. It found, further, that CIA officials were not complicitous in the murder. But the report did find that the CIA paid insufficient attention to allegations of human-rights abuses in Guatemala, and--most serious in official terms--it failed to notify Congress properly. Not keeping congressional oversight committees "fully and currently informed" is a violation of the agency's statutory obligation. The report concluded, though, that the CIA didn't intend to mislead Congress--it was just trying to protect sources.

Yet, in October 1991, long before the whole tawdry affair became public knowledge, the CIA notified the Justice Department of allegations that Alpirez was involved in the death of an American. Justice ruled that Alpirez wasn't prosecutable in the United States; there wasn't enough evidence. Shortly thereafter, my sources tell me--before the scandal became public knowledge--the CIA decided to terminate its relationship with Alpirez. There was debate within the agency over whether to pay Alpirez money he was owed--and it was decided that he would be paid.

What did the CIA get out of this unhappy relationship? Fairly substantial intelligence on the Colombian drug cartels. The White House report found that the CIA intelligence-gathering successes in Guatemala were "at times dramatic" in reducing the flow of illegal-narcotics trafficking.

Was it worth it? It's a tough, even gruesome, calculus: Paying a nefarious character for his intelligence on narcotics trafficking and terrorism in the region, and, in the process, seeming to condone torture and murder there. There's no question that the CIA's hands weren't exactly clean.

But it's not quite the same thing as the CIA's being "involved" in murder in Guatemala, as many press reports had it. Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) thundered that U.S. taxpayer money was used by the CIA to pay Guatemalan torturers and murderers. And, strictly speaking, he's correct. Guatemala, like Honduras and a number of other countries around the world, is a nasty place. Its military teems with murderers and torturers. Its human-rights record is reprehensible. So if the CIA recruits an informant in the Guatemalan military, he's unlikely to be an upstanding citizen.

And the Guatemala business is only the most recent example of the CIA's involvement with thugs around the world. The examples--those we know about, anyway--are legion. The agency kept Panama's Manuel A. Noriega on the payroll for years because they thought he'd help overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and defeat the insurgency in El Salvador. Noriega kept his end of the bargain: He allowed Panama to be used for training and resupplying the Nicaraguan Contras and for training Salvadoran military officers. And when the U.S. government decided Noriega had become more of a liability than an asset, the agency terminated its relationship with him--but only under protest. The agency insisted it was getting useful intelligence.

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