WASHINGTON -- A House subcommittee chairman strongly suggests Oliver North may have been the source for a news report that ruined a federal 'sting' operation designed to catch the kingpins of Colombia's cocaine cartel.
But others are taking issue with that suggestion, insisting a number of officials could have released the sensitive information that led to the article in The Washington Times July 17, 1984.
The newspaper reported that officials in Nicaragua's Soviet-backed Sandinista government were allegedly linked to the Medellin cocaine cartel, a revelation that forced the Drug Enforcement Administration to kill the undercover sting because of risks to the agents involved.
A former DEA official testified to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime Thursday that North, as a White House National Security Council aide, attended at least two briefings on the sting operation in late June 1984 -- and had reason to release the information because President Reagan was trying to stop legislation that would cut off all U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
By linking the Sandinistas with drug traffic, according to this theory, aid to the rebels accused of human rights violations might seem more palatable.
'There is no doubt about (North's) interest in getting the story out,' said Frank Monastero, the former assistant DEA administrator, who nonetheless would not accuse him directly of the news leak.
Subcommittee Chairman William Hughes, D-N.J., came closest to pinning the disclosure on the now-retired Marine lieutenant colonel indicted on criminal charges in the Iran-Contra scandal.
'The only people who had reason to leak this were Oliver North and the CIA,' Hughes declared. 'It has been consistent that those were the two who wanted to get it out.'
North and his lawyers offered no immediate comment on the matter.
DEA Agent Ernst Jacobsen, involved in the undercover operation, testified to the subcommittee that the attempt to apprehend the top four leaders of the Medellin cartel came to an abrupt halt when the Times report appeared.
Jacobsen, speaking from behind a screen to protect his identity, listed the targets of the aborted sting as Carlos Lehder, Jorge Ochoa, Pablo Escobar and Gonzolo Rodriguez-Gacha -- the chief exporters of cocaine to the United States.
Lehder, arrested subsequently, was tried and has been sentenced to prison in Florida, but the Medellin cartel continues its booming business.
'We were in the middle of the most significant investigation of my career. We had a chance to arrest all the cartel members,' Jacobsen said. In addition to derailing the sting, he noted, the news report also jeopardized the life of convicted drug smuggler Barry Seal, an informant who posed as a pilot in the operation. Seal was assassinated by Colombians in 1986 in Baton Rouge, La.
Pressed to name the source of the leak, the agent finally responded, 'I heard that the leak came from an aide in the White House.'
Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., was one of those protesting the attempt to finger North. He told colleagues, 'The bottom line of all this is we don't know who leaked this. No one has been able to tell us.'
North -- fired from his White House job Nov. 25, 1986, with the exposure of the Iran-Contra scandal -- kept extensive notebooks about his covert dealings, particularly on behalf of the Nicaraguan rebels.
A portion of a North notebook distributed at Thursday's hearing showed he had extensive knowledge of the DEA sting before the Times story was published.
Moreover, the notebook also indicates he made or received a telephone call from Federico Vaughan, a key Sandinista official linked to the cartel, July 12, 1984. Hughes said investigators traced the phone number given as Vaughan's Managua residence and found the U.S. Embassy has rented the house since 1985.
Those dual dislosures raise the possibility that Vaughan may have worked in fact for the U.S. government as part of a ploy to frame the Sandinistas.
Jacobsen said the DEA sting began in early 1984 when Seal told the agency he would help nab the kingpins and seize up to 6,600 pounds of cocaine. During a visit to Colombia to arrange the deal, one Medellin leader told Seal the cartel had a paved airstrip in Nicaragua that could be used for refueling.
The CIA then got involved in the sting, hiding cameras in a plane ultimately used for a June 1984 drug run, Jacobsen said. The cameras allowed Seal to snap pictures at the airstrip of the drug kingpins and the Sandinista officials.
When the pictures were developed in the United States, Jacobsen said Seal learned the CIA wanted to leak them to the news media to show the Sandinistas were involved in drug smuggling. DEA officials believed they convinced the CIA to withhold the pictures, but a few weeks later the Times report appeared.
Despite its collapse, the sting operation was able to lead to 11 indictments and five convictions, mostly of Americans.