by Roger Morris
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Only hours before his gangland-style assassination, Seal had been making his habitual calls to Mena. After the killing, activities in the Ouachitas continued unabated, proving the operation went far beyond a lone smuggler. In October 1986 the Fat Lady was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of arms for the Contras. In the wreckage was the body of copilot Wallace "Buzz" Sawyer, a native of western Arkansas; detailed records on board linked Fat Lady to Seal and Area 51, a secret nuclear weapons facility and CIA base in Nevada. It would be the headline-making confession of the Fat Lady's lone survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, that would hasten a partial public airing of the Iran-Contra affair. Though the Mena operation remained largely concealed in the ensuing expose, records showed that there had been several calls around the time of the Fat Lady's ill-fated mission from one of the CIA conspirators in Iran-Contra to Vice President Bush's office in Washington and to operatives in western Arkansas.
"After the Hasenfus plane was shot down, you couldn't find a soul around Mena," remembered William Holmes, who now found that the CIA refused to pay him, reneging also on one of the last gun orders. The hiatus at Intermountain Regional was brief. By early 1987 an Arkansas state police investigator noted "new activity at the [Mena] airport," the appearance of "an Australian business [a company that would be linked with the CIA] and C-130s." At the same moment two FBI agents warned the trooper, as he later testified under oath, that the CIA "had something going on at the Mena airport involving Southern Air Transport [another concern linked to the CIA] ... and they didn't want us to screw it up."
Since the CIA is expressly prohibited by law from conducting any such operations within the US, the documented actions constituted not only criminal activity by the intelligence agency, but also suborned collusion in it by the FBI. In August 1987, eighteen months after Barry Seal's assassination, an FBI telex advised the Arkansas State Police that "a CIA or DEA operation is taking place at the Mena airport."
In the late 1980s, as intelligence sources eventually confirmed to the Wall Street Journal, a secret missile system was tested, CIA planes were repainted, and furtive military exercises were carried out in the Ouachitas. As late as the fall of 1991 an IRS investigative memorandum would record that "the CIA still has ongoing operations out of the Mena, AR airport . . . and that one of the operations at the airport is laundering money." When the story of those more recent activities leaked in 1995, the rival agencies behaved in time-honored Washington manner with the media, the CIA furtively explaining Mena as "a rogue DEA operation," the DEA and FBI offering "no comment."
Months before Seal's murder, two law enforcement officials based in western Arkansas -- IRS agent Bill Duncan and state police detective Russell Welch -- had begun to compile what a local county prosecutor called a "mammoth investigative file" on the Mena operation. Welch's material became part of an eventual thirty-five-volume, 3,000-page Arkansas State Police archive dealing with the crimes. Working with a US attorney from outside Arkansas, a specialist in the laundering or "churning" of drug proceeds, who prepared a meticulous presentation of the Mena case for a grand jury, including detailed witness lists, bookkeeping records from inside the operation, numerous other documents, and an impressive chain of evidence, Duncan drafted some thirty federal indictments on money laundering and other charges. "Those indictments were a real slam dunk if there ever was one," said someone who saw the extensive evidence.
Then, in a pattern federal and state law enforcement officers saw repeated around the nation under the all-purpose fraudulent claim of "national security," the cases were effectively suppressed. For all their evidence and firsthand investigation, Duncan and Welch were not even called to testify before appropriate grand juries, state or federal. At one point a juror from Mena had happened to see hometown boy Russell Welch, a former teacher, at the courthouse and "told the others that if they wanted to know something about the Mena airport," as one account described it, "they ought to ask that guy out there in the hall." But "to know something about the Mena airport" was not what Washington or Little Rock would want. Though the Reagan-appointed US attorneys for the region at the time, Asa Hutchinson and J. Michael Fitzhugh, repeatedly denied, as Fitzhugh put it, "any pressure in any investigation," Duncan and Welch watched the Mena inquiry systematically quashed and their own careers destroyed as the IRS and state police effectively disavowed their investigations and turned on them. "Somebody outside ordered it shut down," one would say, "and the walls went up." Welch recorded his fear and disillusion in his diary on November 17, 1987: "Should a cop cross over the line and dare to investigate the rich and powerful, he might well prepare himself to become the victim of his own government. ... The cops are all afraid to tell what they know for fear that they will lose their jobs."