Iran-Contra’s Unasked Questions, or The Case of the $400,000 Hamburger

<i> Jefferson Morley is Washington editor of The Nation magazine. </i>

The curious case of the $400,000 hamburger proved of little interest to the congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra affair. The world’s most expensive burger strongly suggested that the Contra rebels in Nicaragua--the Reagan Administration’s favorite foreign policy cause--were deeply involved with drug smugglers. Congress shrugged. Why?

But first the business of the expensive burger. Octaviano Cesar, a leader of the Contra movement, admitted to administrators from the CBS news show “West 57th St.” that he traveled to the Bahamas in 1985 to meet with a man named George Morales. Cesar says they met to have a hamburger.

That luncheon in the Bahamas was noteworthy for the institutional affiliations of the two men. Morales, now behind bars, was the Miami distributor for the infamous Colombian cocaine cartel. Cesar was, according to Administration officials and himself, closely linked to Central Intelligence Agency operatives in Central America. When Cesar left the Bahamas, he signed a U.S. Customs declaration saying that he was returning to the United States with $400,000 in cash--money he did not have before meeting Morales.


The Iran-Contra report does not explore why Morales paid so much for lunch with the Contra leader. The committee report, to its credit, does include intriguing new information about the role of drug traffickers in Reagan Administration policy. Despite the weight of evidence, though, the committee shied from systematically probing this explosive issue. The most persuasive explanation for the committee’s refusal to look into the drug issue is timidity.

Admittedly, the committees had many other complex leads to follow, both in the Middle East and in Central America. And committee members could perhaps be excused for doubting allegations that officials of the most vocally anti-drug Administration in recent U.S. history was winking at drug traffickers.

But consider the questions that Congress did not ask:

--Why was Lt. Col. Oliver L. North so eager to help a convicted felon named Jose Bueso Rosa, who is deeply implicated in the planning of a multimillion-dollar cocaine deal?

Bueso Rosa, a former Honduran military officer, was charged along with several other men in November, 1985, with plotting to assassinate the president of Honduras. The plot was to be financed by a shipment of several hundred pounds of cocaine into the United States. After plea-bargaining, Bueso Rosa was sentenced to five years in April, 1986.

North tried hard to spring Bueso Rosa from jail, according to the Iran-Contra report. North met at least twice with Justice Department officials to plead for leniency for Bueso Rosa. North also warned then-National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter that Bueso Rosa might “break his long-standing silence about the nic (Nicaraguan) resistance and other sensitive operations.” Poindexter told North, “You may advise all concerned that the President will want to be as helpful as possible to settle this matter.”

The Bueso Rosa affair is bowdlerized in the Iran-Contra report. Rosa is never mentioned by name and there is no mention of the cocaine-smuggling scheme in which he was implicated.

--Why did Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams give humanitarian aid funds to a Miami shrimp-importing firm under investigation for drug smuggling?

The company, called Ocean Hunter, was under investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 1986. During the first six months of 1986, Ocean Hunter received $231,587 in U.S. government funds for its services as a “broker” in Contra-related business. North’s personal liaison to the Contras, Robert W. Owen, was in charge of the Ocean Hunter account.

--Did Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA operative who worked for North’s secret Contra aid network, receive money from a representative of the Colombian cocaine cartel?

Ramon Milian-Rodriguez (no relation to Felix) is a former Panamanian lawyer now serving time in prison on drug-related charges. Last June he told the Senate subcommittee that he gave Rodriguez $10 million in behalf of the cocaine cartel.

“The cartel figured it was buying a little friendship,” one source quoted Milian-Rodriguez as testifying. “They figured maybe the CIA or DEA will not screw around so much.” Milian-Rodriguez, who laundered hush money in behalf of Cuban burglars jailed in the Watergate scandal, also says he laundered $200,000 a month for the Contras. He told Leslie Cockburn, a producer for “West 57th St.,” that he never delivered less than $50,000 to them at a time. Cockburn’s book, “Out of Control,” examines harmonious relations between the Contras, drug smugglers and the U.S. intelligence community.

While testimony from a convicted criminal must be treated skeptically, Milian-Rodriguez’s charges are not as improbable as they might sound. He was once the business partner of one of the corporate directors of Ocean Hunter. And Felix Rodriguez, to whom he says he gave the drug cartel money, was for several years the business partner of one of the men plotting to smuggle cocaine in the Bueso Rosa case.

The Iran-Contra committee questioned Felix Rodriguez--but not about the testimony of Milian-Rodriguez. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee though, has subpoenaed Milian-Rodriguez for public questioning in January.

--Was retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, a key operative in the secret Contra war, planning to use his profits from the Iranian arms deal to go into the business of processing opium for narcotics purposes?

The committee report demonstrates that Secord and his associates wanted to engage in the “bulk manufacturing of opium alkaloids.” Opium alkaloids are used as the starting product in the manufacture of heroin. Perhaps Secord has an innocent explanation for this curious business venture. In any case, the report does not reveal whether Congress ever asked for it.

One explanation is that the Iran-Contra committees were too dense to understand the implications of these revelations to explore the issue. Another explanation is that congressmen skirted the drug issue because they were afraid of what they might find upon further investigation. It is difficult to say which possibility is more disturbing.