During the most violent years of the war in Nicaragua, a retired CIA agent – a man of many talents and pseudonyms whose given name is Felix Rodriguez – was the logistics officer for airlifts of weapons and supplies from the Ilopango air base, in El Salvador, to the jungle hide-outs of the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras. On October 5th, 1986, one of Rodriguez’s cargo planes, a Southern Air Transport C-123K, loaded with 10,000 pounds of ammunition, failed to return from a scheduled drop in Nicaragua. Fearing the worst, Rodriguez made a series of phone calls to Washington that evening. What was unusual was that Rodriguez did not notify anyone at the Defense Department or the CIA but rather attempted to get word about the missing plane to Donald Gregg, the national-security adviser for Vice President George Bush.
When Rodriguez failed to reach Gregg, he telephoned Gregg’s deputy, army colonel Samuel Watson. Watson relayed the information to the White House Situation Room, and an order was given to send U.S. aircraft toward the Nicaraguan border on a search-and-rescue mission. The following morning Rodriguez learned that Sandinista-government artillerymen had knocked the Southern Air plane out of the sky, killing the pilot and copilot. The third crewman, Eugene Hasenfus, had been captured. Again Rodriguez called Vice President Bush’s office with the news, and the search-and-rescue mission was called off.
The subsequent investigation of the downed cargo plane revealed for the first rime a connection between the office of George Bush and a clandestine campaign to arm the contras – during the 1984-86 period when the U.S. Congress had ordered a halt to CIA and Pentagon aid. In response to reporters’ queries, however, Bush’s press officers issued statements claiming that the phone calls from Rodriguez represented the only time that the vice-president’s office had played any role in the arms-supply campaign. Later Gregg expanded on the official denials in a deposition to the joint select committee investigating the Iran-contra affair. “We [Bush and Gregg] never discussed the contras,” Gregg testified. “We had no responsibility for it; we had no expertise in it.”
A ROLLING STONE investigation, however, has found that the denials of Bush and Gregg are part of a continuing cover-up intended to hide their true role in the Reagan administration’s secret war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Bush and Gregg were, in fact, deeply involved in a previously undisclosed weapons-smuggling operation to arm the contras that began in 1982, two years before the much publicized Iran-contra operation run by marine lieutenant colonel Oliver North and financed by the sale of missiles to Iran. This earlier operation, known as Black Eagle, went on for three years, overlapping North’s operation. The idea of both operations was to circumvent congressional restrictions on the CIA and the Pentagon. Although conceived by William Casey, the late CIA director, these operations were not sanctioned officially by the CIA or other government agencies. They were the instruments of a secret U.S. foreign policy carried out by men who constituted a kind of shadow government.
After meetings with Casey in the summer of 1982, Bush agreed to use the vice-president’s office as a cover for Black Eagle, according to a retired army covert operative assigned to Black Eagle. Gregg, a veteran CIA official, was assigned to work out of Bush’s office as the Washington liaison to Black Eagle operatives in Central America, coordinating financial and operational details. Gregg made regular status reports on Black Eagle to Bush, who relayed them to Casey. “Bush and Gregg were the asbestos wall,” says the career military man, who used the code name Lew Archer. “You had to burn through them to get to Casey.”
Felix Rodriguez, a close friend of Gregg’s since 1970, when they served together in Vietnam, had a unique soldier-statesman role in the Black Eagle operation: he not only handled airfield logistics for the arms airlifts to the contras but also traveled throughout Central America as a special envoy, authorized to negotiate with military commanders and even chiefs of state.
The ROLLING STONE investigation – based on congressional and court documents and more than fifty interviews with government diplomats, career military officers and intelligence agents, including key Black Eagle operatives – also found that General Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator indicted in the U.S. on drug charges early this year, played an important part in Black Eagle, making available his country’s airfields and front companies to the American operatives. In exchange, Noriega appropriated Black Eagle’s fleet of cargo planes to smuggle cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. on behalf of the notorious Medellín cartel of Colombia. Several of those involved with the operation contend that Bush and Gregg knew about Noriega’s use of Black Eagle for drug running and that nothing was done to stop it.
Noriega had been brought into the Black Eagle operation by agents of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. It had been Casey’s idea to use the Israelis to arrange for the acquisition and shipping of weapons to the contras as a way of distancing American officials and agents from the Black Eagle operation. The Mossad provided cover and gave the American operatives plausible deniability.
Late in 1985, after a falling-out and a near gunfight between Israeli and American operatives, the Black Eagle operation came to an end. By this time North’s operation, known as the Enterprise, and a third one, which was called the Supermarket, had been set up. The Supermarket smuggled weapons to the contras for about ten months in 1985, until North, consolidating his power in the shadow government, forced the operation out of business. North’s own Enterprise remained in business, with Rodriguez as a logistics officer, until the Southern Air plane was shot down.