Worse than Khashoggi? NRA President Oliver North’s Plan to Cover up Torture
The grisly murder and torture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has captured the world’s attention and drawn new scrutiny of Washington’s special relationship with the Saudi royal government, especially its apparent strengthening during the early tenure of President Trump. Trump has been seen to soft-pedal official rebuke of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, roundly believed by intelligence agencies to have ordered the killing.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a Republican White House work to cover up a brutal torture and murder. In fact, so far the Khashoggi affair doesn’t even appear to be the most egregious case. The Reagan White House still remains the gold standard when it comes to thick webs of criminality and cover-up, and it was during that grand symphony of criminality, Iran-contra, that Reagan’s men worked to cover up a horrific torture and murder ordered by one of their dark allies, Panamanian military dictator General Manuel Noriega.
Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a former physician and public health official in the Panamanian government, was a vocal political opponent of Noriega. There was a lot to oppose: Noriega, in addition to being a ruthless autocrat drawing both a presidential salary and, secretly, one as an important CIA asset, was also involved in narcotrafficking and money laundering for Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel. Noriega was one of the densest nodes of the criminal currents flowing through Cold-War Central America, and his opponents sought the sort of revelation that would sink the strongman. And in 1985, Spadafora, while in Costa Rica, encountered what looked to be incontrovertible evidence of Noriega’s work for the narcos. This was going to be what rid Panama of Noriega, he thought, and he traveled back to Panama City to publicly out the Panamanian leader as a drug-runner.
Spadafora never made it to the capital. He was abducted at the border by Noriega’s men and subjected to torture that rivals, in not exceeds, Khashoggi’s in nightmarish brutality. Journalist Gary Webb describes the torture: “The thigh muscles had been neatly sliced so he could not close his legs, and then something had been jammed up his rectum, tearing it apart. His testicles were swollen horribly, the result of prolonged garroting, his ribs were broken, and then, while he was still alive, his head had been sawed off with a butcher’s knife.” With a stomach full of swallowed blood from the beheading and testicles reportedly swollen to the size of mangoes, Spadafora was stuffed into a U.S. Mail bag and dumped in a river.
But the threat of revelation did not die with Spadafora. It was the next year, in June 1986, that the New York Times ran a front-page story exposing Noriega’s narcotrafficking. The June 12 Times exposé detailing Noriega’s drug crimes was followed the next week with another A1 revelation of Noriega’s involvement in the Spadafora murder. Very suddenly the walls were closing in on the general, and he made the call to White House for a lifeline. Noriega, a CIA man with a relationship with the former CIA director now in the White House, Vice President George H.W. Bush, knew that his handlers in Washington were the only ones left to “clean up his image,” as the phrase typically went.
Lt. Col. Oliver North was dispatched to meet secretly with Noriega in London. North is perhaps best known now for being president of the National Rifle Association, but before hawking legal guns North was one of the world’s premier purveyors of illicit weapons, by the planeful. North was Reagan’s point man in a massive illegal effort to arm a CIA-trained pro-capitalist guerrilla army in Central America while a Democratic congress explicitly forbade such assistance. These were the contras in the broader project eventually known as Iran-contra. The larger Iran-contra network stretched from Iran to Israel to Europe to Central and South America, with the White House in the center. North was the White House staff member designated to coordinate the criminal enterprise, wherein illegal arms sales to Iran would fund the similarly illegal arming of the contras, who worked to unseat a socialist government in Nicaragua.
After Noriega’s plea to the White House, it was decided that Reagan’s men might be able to somehow clear Noriega’s record if the Panamanian leader could lend assistance to the contras. North and Noriega met secretly in London in September. Noriega was clearly eager to have the White House scrub his rap sheet, so much so that one of his proffered quid pro quos North had to refuse. Noriega offered to assassinate the entire Nicaraguan leadership en masse. The White House was already in international disrepute for sowing American-trained death squads in Central America, and Washington had also drawn ire after the CIA placed underwater mines in civilian harbors in Nicaragua. The bloodbath Noriega proposed would have caused an untenable international uproar and could have sparked a much larger conflict. North demurred.
There was a reason Noriega could offer something as bombastic as the wholesale assassination of a country’s entire leadership. His shadowy lieutenant, considered by some to be the second-most powerful man in Panama, was Michael Harari, a former “legendary” operative in the Israeli Mossad. Harari had commanded covert assassination squads in Beirut against PLO leadership and was a famed operative in the international underworld of intelligence services.
Oliver North’s contemporaneous notes, later declassified, reveal the White House’s excitement at having both General Noriega and Harari at their service. North proposed another White House wish-list item that Noriega and Harari might be able to provide, a training camp for the Afghan mujahideen in the Americas. The mujahideen, many of them from the greater Middle East, were at the time fighting to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. A principal figure in the mujahideen was the Saudi Osama bin Laden, who oversaw much of the recruitment and training of Arabs coming to Afghanistan for the jihad. It was during this time, in 1986, that bin Laden was taking a more active role in recruitment and training, and it’s not unlikely that his role in the Afghan effort might have brought him to North and Noriega’s mujahideen training camp. In fact, the school would have been coming online right around the time that bin Laden and his associates would establish the first al Qaeda training camp. What we see in North’s notes from the Noriega meeting might well have been the beginning of al Qaeda in the Americas.
But no deal would be struck between Noriega and the White House, as a series of events in the next several months would bring Iran-contra crashing down. Both arenas of Iran-contra were exposed in quick succession. A downed American plane over Nicaragua in October began the unraveling of the Central American sphere, and a Lebanese newspaper in November would reveal the White House’s illegal arms sales to Iran. Oliver North’s infamous “shredding party” would soon follow. The contra resupply airfield in El Salvador, staffed from an underworld of terrorists, spooks and narcotraffickers, was effectively vaporized by the CIA. North explained in his memoir:
“First they had the little air force flown to a remote airfield. Then an enormous crater was dug with bulldozers. The planes were pushed into the pit, covered with explosives, and blown up. The remaining wreckage was saturated with fuel and them cremated. The fire burned for days. When the smoke finally cleared, the charred remains were buried.” North then jokes darkly: “One might call it the ultimate cover-up.”
And with documents shredded and planes incinerated, a “great plague of amnesia” swept through the White House and the CIA, North later wrote. Reagan would begin a disgraceful series of appearances before the American people to cover up Iran-contra. And in December 1989, the Berlin Wall a fresh pile of rubble and the calculus of the Cold War suddenly vanishing, President Bush sent troops into Panama City to apprehend Noriega for his drug trafficking. Much like Iraqi president Saddam Hussein the next year, Noriega was someone whose problematic tendencies were no longer lost in the exigencies of Cold War realpolitik. Others allege that Noriega knew too much, about Bush especially, and that is why 26,000 troops, several thousand past overkill, were deployed for a mission to arrest one man. But Bush and his men may have, in the end, saved Noriega, if unwittingly. The anger at Noriega, the fury that had animated Dr. Spadafora, only grew in Panama, and the former leader’s killing of Spadafora became something of a cause celebre that focused their anger. In 1993, with Noriega safe from Panamanian rage, a Panamanian court tried the general in absentia for Spadafora’s murder and found him guilty.
Whether intentional or not, it was arranged that Noriega never faced trial. It is doubtful that the Saudi crown prince will face justice. At some point, given the global centrality and power of the White House, the president’s unwillingness to pursue justice becomes obstruction thereof, and this is when complicity radiates out from the act itself to form a larger complex of participants. At some point the president becomes, in effect, the getaway driver, the participant whose function is the evasion of the law, no less integral to unpunished criminal success as the other actors.