Cover-up alleged on Miami contra probe
In his testimony before the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair, which begins today, Attorney General Edwin Meese III will probably be asked about a possible Justice Department cover-up of one aspect of the affair. The alleged cover-up, which reportedly took place at least eight months before Mr. Meese's public disclosure of the scandal last November, involved an investigation by the United States attorney's office in Miami into a secret resupply network for the contra rebels seeking to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
Questions about the possible cover-up gathered momentum over the past two weeks because of the testimony of former national-security adviser John Poindexter to the Iran-contra committees and the testimony elsewhere on Capitol Hill of a Florida attorney named David Leiwant.
Mr. Leiwant, who testified in closed session last Thursday before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, is a lawyer in the appellate division of the US attorney's office in Miami. In addition to his congressional testimony, Leiwant has told his story to at least one US senator and ranking Senate staff aides, as well as to John Mattes, a Miami public defender.
Amid allegations that the Justice Department and US attorney in Miami Leon Kellner's office orchestrated a cover-up, activities by Mr. Kellner and an aide, Jeff Feldman, are being looked into by the House subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. William J. Hughes (D) of New Jersey.
Leiwant, according to both Senate sources and Mr. Mattes, told them that on April 4, 1986, that he was called into Kellner's office while Feldman was briefing Kellner on the trip that the assistant US attorney had just made to Costa Rica. Leiwant stated that in Costa Rica, Feldman had uncovered the general pattern of allegedly illegal arms shipments from the US to the contras. Feldman also discovered the outlines of Oliver North's private aid network. According to testimony in the Iran-contra hearings, Feldman showed then-US Ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis Tambs a rough organizational chart of the network.
Leiwant told Mattes and Senate sources that Feldman said he believed he had enough evidence to convene a grand jury. But Leiwant further said, according to the sources, that Kellner told Feldman that the US attorney had just been on the phone with important people in Washington, implying that these people were high Justice Department officials.
Kellner reportedly said to Feldman: ``Don't you understand that we're under a lot of pressure from Washington to go slow on this thing? Aren't you aware that there's a vote on this [US government aid to the contras] coming?''
According to Senate sources, Leiwant told the senator and staff members that the overheard conversation clearly indicated to him, as a lawyer, that Kellner was engaged in a ``cover-up'' at the behest of ``Washington,'' which he understood to refer to Justice Department officials.
In fact, no grand jury was convened in Miami to investigate the matter until late November 1986, after the Iran-contra affair was disclosed by Meese and after last year's congressional elections.
Leiwant's interpretation of the conversation between Kellner and Feldman is strengthened by an incident during Admiral Poindexter's testimony to the Iran-contra panel on July 21.
Rep. Peter Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey stated that, according to Poindexter's log books, the then-national-security adviser had been briefed on March 24, 1986, by then-Deputy Attorney General Lowell Jensen about the Miami gun-running probe. Congressman Rodino then produced a classified memo, which he handed to Poindexter's lawyer.
This memo came from Mr. Jensen and was addressed to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark Richards. Poindexter's lawyer emphasized that the admiral's name was not in the memo, and then proceeded to read part of it.
The lawyer stated that the memo said: ``Please get on top of this. LOJ [Jensen] is giving a heads-up to the National Security Council. He would like us [the Justice Department] to watch over it and call Kellner to know what is up.''
Both the April 4 date of the conversation between Kellner and Feldman and the March 24 briefing of Poindexter assume a special significance when put into the context that both the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had received a great deal of information about the existence of a private network run by Oliver North, gun shipments out of the US to the contras, and possible corruption and drug activities among the contras. This information emerged between January and March of 1986 from two main sources.
First was information developed by public defender Mattes in connection with his defense of a Miami Cuban, Jesus Garcia. Mr. Garcia claimed that he ran guns for the contras, and he provided much information on possibly illegal arms shipments to the contras and the private resupply network.
On the basis of Garcia's information, Mattes, accompanied by members of the staff of Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts (who were already investigating these matters) traveled to Costa Rica. Through multiple interviews on this trip, Mattes came up with much evidence about the existence of the contra resupply network and various arms activities centering around the ranch of US farmer John Hull, who has publicly admitted to receiving CIA money. Mattes also says he uncovered strong evidence of National Security Council connections to all this activity.
Back in Miami, Mattes and his assistant, Ralph Maestri (who now works for the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime), briefed members of Kellner's staff in the presence of FBI officials on March 14, 1986. According to Mattes, he and Mr. Maestri were accused by Kellner's officials of inventing a wild story, and they were threatened that unless they stopped the investigation they would see the ``inside of a grand jury.''
In March 1986 the FBI also received information from Jack Terrill, who was, according to both his own statement and knowledgeable Senate sources, hired by the CIA to organize Miskito Indian resistance to the Sandinistas. After a disagreement over CIA strategy, Terrill came to Miami and started speaking to one or two reporters, members of Senator Kerry's staff, and FBI agents.
That same month Terrill told the Monitor that he had just been interviewed by FBI agent Kevin Currier and Mr. Currier's superior, George Kiszynski. Terrill's story about possibly illegal gun shipments to the contras, the private resupply network, irregular activities around John Hull's farm, and connections to the National Security Council paralleled the revelations arising from Mattes's defense of Jesus Garcia.
Mr. Kiszynski's and Currier's names emerge frequently when charges of an FBI cover-up are made. For instance, one alleged FBI informant, Hilda Coutin, whose husband is in jail for illegal gun and cocaine possession, says that she and her husband gave Kiszynski and Diostada Diaz, a Miami police official working closely with him, much of the same information that Garcia and Terrill provided. (In addition, Mrs. Coutin speaks of heavy drug corruption among Cubans associated with the contras in Costa Rica.)
Kiszynski has publicly denied receiving information from Mrs. Coutin. However, a friend of Mrs. Coutin, who had gone down to Costa Rica to support contra activities, told the Monitor that over a period of several months, he was in the Coutins' gun shop regularly. The friend says that he would see Mr. Diaz come into the shop once or twice a week and not buy arms, but rather go into a back room with the Coutins and spend half an hour or so with them. According to the friend, the Coutins told him at the time that they were giving information to Diaz and Kiszynski regularly.