William Barr, the man you never knew — Part II

“Lawyers have an adage. ‘If the law is against you talk about the facts; if the facts are against you talk about the law; if the law and the facts are against you talk about the prosecutor.’ ”
— Lawrence C. Walsh, independent counsel, Iran-Contra investigation, 1986 to 1993

EDITOR’S NOTE: Second of two parts on U.S. Attorney General William Barr and his secret life with the CIA.


As independent counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation, silk-stocking lawyer Lawrence C. Walsh was initially revered for his mission to bring the rogues of the Central Intelligence Agency to heel for their role in trampling the U.S. Constitution. Despite being a self-described rampant Republican, Walsh’s unbiased reputation was unimpeachable.

Attorney General William Barr is taking Walsh’s adage to heart. Much like he did during the Iran-Contra investigation 34 years ago, Barr is using a razor-edged interpretation of the law to block all the grand jury testimony, most of the “secret” testimony, and the power of his office to bludgeon Congress into reluctant acquiescence as he prepares to deliver his version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Walsh failed to discover the truth about the Iran-Contra scheme, first because of the manipulations of Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a Ronald Reagan appointee, then by Barr, who had served under Thornburgh for two years.

Thornburgh was sworn in as attorney general on Aug. 12, 1988. President George H.W. Bush reinstated him in that role in 1989, and he served until 1991 when Barr took over. Walsh called Thornburgh a brilliant lawyer and Barr a “formidable administrator” who made it clear he was “outspokenly hostile toward us.”

Two men who felt Barr’s heat were civilian aviators contracted to the CIA. The more famous of the duo was Eugene Hasenfus, a former Marine who worked for the famous CIA airlines Air America in Southeast Asia and Southern Air Transport in Nicaragua. The other was Joseph Samuel Bynum of Illinois, who had been in the clandestine flying game since joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941 in order to get into World War II. Bynum never stopped flying into danger zones until he died more than 40 years later.

Eugene Hasenfus after his capture in Nicaragua by Sandinistas.

Hasenfus talked because on Oct. 5, 1986 the Fairchild C-123 Provider transport plane from which he was kicking cargo was shot down by a Nicaraguan private with a Russian-made antiaircraft missile. Hasenfus managed to bail out the back of the doomed airplane.

He was later captured while asleep in a hammock he fashioned from his parachute. Hasenfus told his captors he left Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador carrying 70 Soviet-made AK-47 rifles and 100,000 rounds of ammunition, rocket grenades and other supplies.

The Sandinistas made much of his identity card linking him to Southern Air Transport, a known CIA proprietary company. To make matters worse, logbooks were recovered from the crashed airplane that pointed directly back to the CIA. Hasenfus told his captors he was a member of the Contra resupply operation earning $3,000 per month — a princely sum in 1986.

He testified in captivity that the two Cuban American pilots killed on the flight, Max Gomez and Ramon Medina, were CIA agents and friends of George Herbert Walker Bush. Hasenfus revealed that the two men arranged clandestine arms shipments to the Contras when the CIA was legally banned from doing so.

A few days later he recanted much of what he said, claiming it was merely hearsay. The Nicaraguans sentenced him to 30 years in prison for terrorism and other charges, but pardoned and released him the same year.

The statements he made to the Sandinistas were disavowed by the U.S. government. After his return home, Hasenfus’ life was a living hell. Vilified by his former employers, cast out without pay or support and unable to find sympathy within the agency that had led him into the danger zone, he fell on hard times.

Hasenfus’ resupply mission was run by Lt. Col. Oliver North as part of his clandestine “Project Democracy” to aid the Contras. North was overseen by retired U.S. Air Force Major General John Singlaub, a former World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officer, a founding member of the CIA, and a retired major general in the U.S. Army.

According to Singlaub, looking for his own exoneration after the unlawful scheme was revealed, North and a retired Air Force major general named Richard Secord had mismanaged the operation and then  tried to blame it on him:

“. . . Ollie North’s grandiose self-image as a master covert operator, had come back to harm the Contra cause.”

Unlike Singlaub, North and Secord were eventually charged with lying to Congress. In 1990, Secord dropped a second appeal of his conviction for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. In a plea agreement with Walsh a year later, Secord plead guilty to a felony count of lying to congressional investigators and was sentenced to two years probation. North was sentenced to a three year suspended sentence, heavy fines and community service for lying to Congress. Two years later, his conviction was overturned on appeal.

Secord was later sued in U.S. District Court by Hasenfus, who sought damages from Secord  for negligence and breach of contract. His case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Unlike Hasenfus, Bynum walked away unscathed. He knew how the game was played. He had flown the “Hump” across the fierce Himalayas between Burma and China while resupplying nationalist forces fighting the communists and the Japanese. He delivered Nationalist Chinese spies into Red China aboard aging Civil Air Transport cargo planes after the communists prevailed. He dropped Belgian paratroopers into Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising, and piloted Israeli helicopters in the Sinai Desert during Israel’s 1967 and 1973 wars with its Arab neighbors.

On his deathbed, Bynum said he was questioned in Panama and at his home in Waxahachie, Texas by “Feds” from several agencies about his Contra missions. “They knew everything,” he claimed.

His base of operations from late 1979 until he returned home to Texas was in the province of Guanacaste, in northwestern Costa Rica. Even in 1979 when he surveyed the region’s secret air strips for possible CIA use, the region was known for its drug trafficking.

According to another former CIA contract pilot, Robert “Tosh” Plumlee, drug smugglers used the airstrip for years before Oliver North came looking for a staging area for arms flights into Nicaragua. Plumlee said he and three other pilots ran tons of cocaine into U.S. military bases on return trips from delivering weapons to Contra rebels in Central America. He told Congress the missions never stopped despite warnings from the Drug Enforcement Agency that he would be busted.

Bynum claimed he turned his back on the Contra operation when he discovered his plane was carrying what appeared to be cocaine to Bermuda and Florida. “The coke was bundled in wrapped packages inside big burlap bags. One bag burst in Florida and “government men in moon suits” cleaned up the airplane, he claimed.

Bynum’s story was inadvertently seconded long after his death by Phil Jordon, the former head of the DEA’s El Paso office. In 1993, Jordan told a Mexican newspaper there was a “consensual relationship between the Godfathers of Mexico and the CIA that included drug trafficking.”

Just before President George H.W. Bush’s term expired in 1992 he pardoned six indicted and already convicted conspirators, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and North for their roles in the Iran-Contra scandal.

William Barr was the attorney general who engineered the pardons of all six, including Weinberger, and used his influence to help get North’s sentence overturned. Some things just never change.

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