Twenty-three years ago, a complete unknown sprang into the international lime-light. His name was Eugene Hasenfus. Shot down Oct. 5, 1986, while kicking crated cargo to anti-government terrorists from a CIA plane over the back-country of Nicaragua, his capture by Sandinista militiamen led to the exposure of what would become known as the Iran-contra affair. Three other crewmen died in the crash, but Hasenfus, against orders, had borrowed his skydiver brother’s parachute and, luckily for him – his name in German means “rabbit’s foot” – it opened. He landed in a jungle where he would manage to evade a Sandinista militia patrol for less than 24 hours. Upon his arrival at the Managua airport, a Sandinista soldier smiled and asked the sunburned, grime-caked Hasenfus, “What now, Rambo?” With this auspicious event began what should have been the complete unraveling of the Reagan administration.
| José Fernando Canales, who shot down Hasenfus’s plane with a surface-to-air missile, leads his hapless captive through the jungle.
When it came to Central America, that administration, with its ex-CIA Vice President and neo-conservative hatchlings making their early moves to dominate U.S. foreign policy, no deceit was spared the American people. Whether it was Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua, we had your bold-faced lies, crafty lies, lies of the I-don’t-recall variety, revised memorandum lies, exaggerations, omissions, official misstatements, prevarications, phony redefinitions and historical revisions. Not to mention perjury.
From false cover stories about interdicting Sandinista arms shipments to Salvadoran rebels to denials about publishing how-to terrorist manuals, the Reagan-Bush administration observed no boundaries on fictional concoction. When, for example, the original leaders of the contras, the terrorist opposition to the Sandinistas, turned out to be too rough-edged for public consumption, a new set was selected and spit-shined into “freedom fighters.” They were helped in this by CIA-hired journalists in Honduras whose stories found their way back to the U.S. media, a place the CIA had been barred from putting journalists on the payroll since 1977. Various real journalists had for years been hearing hints of contra resupply missions, but they had repeatedly run into dead-ends and had been unable to find any major publications to publish their anonymously sourced, skimpily detailed stories. When queried about whether it was circumventing a congressional prohibition on aiding the contras, the White House denied, denied, denied.
Ultimately, sparked by Hasenfus’s capture and an anonymously sourced article in the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa, it was incontrovertibly shown that the government’s Central American policy had tendrils snaking all the way to Tehran, with huge profits from arms sales having accrued to ex-military and ex-CIA operatives. Several of the big dogs who engaged in this behavior necessitating those uncountable lies were pardoned by George H.W. Bush, who himself was a key player in the whole affair, but protected by “plausible denial.” One of those pardoned, neoconservative Elliott Abrams – who had been fined $50 and put on probation for his part in Iran-contra – was appointed Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy by George W. Bush in 2001.
You’d expect that officials with the moral calluses necessary for such lying would also have strong stomachs. On the contrary. Faced by encounters with the truth, administration always took a powder. Whether it was the World Court judging the legality of the CIA’s mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, or President Daniel Ortega criticizing Reagan at the United Nations, the administration ducked out the door. Every time one of the revolving-door ambassadors to Central America suggested diplomacy to resolve U.S.-Nicaraguan differences, the issue was avoided by replacing him. When journalists not on the CIA payroll, such as Ray Bonner, discovered massacres by death squads whose leaders had been trained in the United States, angry phone calls were made to their editors or publishers urging that they be removed from their assignments.
Hasenfus Joins Contra Resupply Effort
Having learned as a Marine how to kick guns and equipment out of CIA-owned Air America planes in Southeast Asia from 1960-65, the out-of-work Hasenfus signed up in June 1986 for the same duty over Nicaragua. His boss far up the secret chain of command was Lt. Col. Oliver North, who had also seen service in Vietnam as part of the infamous assassination program, Operation Phoenix. The colonel had a boss, too. After all, he worked for the National Security Council out of the White House basement. They called the contra resupply operation “Project Democracy.” Its planes were flown under the phantom front of Corporate Air Services, itself owned by the CIA’s Southern Air Transport based in Miami.
Every flight into Nicaraguan airspace added a $750 bonus to Hasenfus’s $3000 monthly salary. He had already made 10 trips. On the 11th, however, when a teenage anti-aircraft crew fired their Soviet-made surface-to-air missile and turned the plane into scrap, they killed pilot William Cooper, co-pilot Wallace Blaine Sawyer – both U.S. citizens – and radio operator Freddy Vilches, a Nicaraguan. Hasenfus hit the silk and escaped with his life.
Within a day of his capture, every executive branch niche-clinger in Washington had disavowed any link to the downed mercenary and his plane’s cargo of 60 collapsible AK-47s rifles, 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, several dozen RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots. Secretary of State George Shultz said the aircraft “was, for all we know, a plane hired by private people, apparently some of them American. … They had no connection with the U.S. government at all.” Yep. A maverick operation. Ring up retired Major General John Singlaub, some officials told reporters, fingering the right’s leading privateer. Singlaub denied it was his plane. And soon the scheme was being reported for what it was, a CIA and NSC operation from top to bottom, flown out of Honduras and El Salvador. As would also soon become known, the operation was financed by selling weapons to Iran as part of an arms-for-hostages deal with the ayatollah’s regime.
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams was the only member of the administration who stood up for Hasenfus, without conceding that he worked for the government. He gamely praised him as an American hero. In the months ahead, it was a label Ronald Reagan would pin on Lt. Col. North.
But just as there had been no Fawn Hall on board to shred the C-123’s incriminating documents before they fell into Sandinista hands, there would be no Hasenfus doll. No Eugeneburger. No lucrative book contracts. No movie producers nosing around. No calls to run for high office. In short, none of the trappings of late 20th Century herodom.
| Gene Hasenfus at his trial in November 1986.
Instead, the Sandinistas, following the example of their Yankee tormentors, coaxed every pint of public relations juice they could from their prisoner, finding him guilty of terrorism, violation of Nicaragua’s public security laws and conspiracy. The Reagan administration ridiculed the proceedings before the People’s Anti-Somocista Tribunal as a judicial parody. At the time, the court had tried 243 people without a single acquittal. But no court anywhere could have found Hasenfus innocent. At the end of the trial attended by Hasenfus’s wife and brother came the first hints that he would be shown mercy. One of the nine comandantes of the Sandinista leadership, Daniel Ortega’s brother Humberto, called Hasenfus a “father” and “common citizen” who himself was a victim of the “irrational and unjust policy of the U.S. administration.”
Pleas for a pardon (aided by a swap for Sandinista soldiers held by the contras) were made by former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell and Senator Chris Dodd. On a visit to Nicaragua, Dodd told President Ortega that Hasenfus would be helpful in the congressional investigation of illegal arms sales to Iran funding illegal arms deliveries to the contras. “I think he’s got something to say. He expressed a willingness to talk to members of the staff and the members of those committees,” Dodd said. “I think it would be worthwhile to get him home.” So after he had served just 32 days of his 30-year sentence, the Sandinistas packed up their propaganda windfall and sent Hasenfus back to Marinette, Wisconsin, in time to enjoy Christmas with his family, a lucky fellow indeed.
Hasenfus Falls on Hard Times
But expenses from the trial put his house at risk to the bank. On the phone in the months after his return, you could hear the stress in his family’s voices. He’s didn’t feel so lucky those days. So he sued his ex-employers – retired Major General Richard Secord and Secord’s partner, Albert Hakim, as well as three companies, including Corporate Air Services. He sued the government and lost.
So what happened? Why didn’t someone in the network of millionaire contra donors bail Hasenfus out? Could it have been because he told the truth?
He had worked with two CIA agents, Hasenfus said, one of whom he knew as “Max Gomez,” but who was actually Felix Rodriguez, a CIA operative who had been involved in the 1961 fiasco known as the “Bay of Pigs,” wore Ché Guevara’s watch taken from the guerrilla leader’s body in Bolivia in 1967, and in 1986 had become the liaison between the contras and North. The other went by the nom de guerre of “Ramon Medina.” His real name was Luis Posada Carriles, who, with Orlando Bosch, had planned the 1976 bombing of a Cubana plane carrying a fencing team to Venezuela. Seventy-three passengers and crew died. Hasenfus also told his captors that he knew more than 30 other people working for the resupply mission based at the Salvadoran Air Force Base in Ilopango.
In the view of the contra resupply network, it was bad enough that Hasenfus admitted to the world that he was working for the CIA, just as he had done in Vietnam earlier. But then he admitted that he was only doing it to pay his bills, not for patriotic reasons. Most unheroic.
If he had wanted sympathy from the promoters of the contra war he should have lied, just as they had done. Or, as his handlers who told him not to wear a parachute had apparently intended, he should have gone down with the plane. For telling the truth about his mission and his paltry pay, they turned their backs on him. Lt. Col. North, on the other hand, lied under oath, criminally obstructed a congressional committee, destroyed public records to foster a cover-up, and accepted money under the table. He wrapped himself tightly in the flag and emerged a heroic icon who continues nearly a quarter-century later to rake in the dough.
Despite the adverse effects of the Iran-contra affair whose exposure Hasenfus helped catalyze, deceit remained alive and well on U.S. Central America policy. In October 1987, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, one of the original neoconservatives, gave a speech in Managua condemning the Sandinistas and reiterating what a high value she and the Reagan administration placed on democracy. She embraced opposition leaders, some of whom were still engaged at the time in blowing up schools and health clinics.
Six years previously, she was in Argentina praising and toasting the generals of that country’s oh-so-democratic military junta. They were at the time running their “dirty war” against dissidents, dropping them from helicopters into the Atlantic and adopting out their orphaned children to families friendly to the regime. She made no call for democracy. Hugged no opposition leaders. Shortly afterward, the CIA began paying some Argentine “specialists” to train the contras in more efficient killing. And soon. Lt. Col. North and the basement junta were dipping into the treasuries of sheikhs, sultans, ayatollahs and assorted other lovers of democracy to underwrite the contra campaign of sabotage and assassination in the name of undefined Nicaraguan freedom.
That murderous, unscrupulous effort didn’t quite live up to the administration’s wild fantasy of driving the Sandinistas back into the hills. But it nonetheless turned beautiful, impoverished Nicaragua into a garrison state where bullets were easier to come by than beans and the ideals of a flawed but hopeful revolution were shredded in mutual atrocities, vendettas and recrimination. Today, still suffering the after-effects of the U.S.-sponsored contra war as well as government and private corruption, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, and Daniel Ortega, the fiery comandante who, with his fellow revolutionaries stormed out of the hills in 1979 to topple Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s dictatorship, is again the freely elected president, just as he was when Hasenfus came floating down in his parachute. These days, Ortega is far less fiery, except when he is pushing draconian anti-abortion laws.
And Hasenfus himself? On Friday, I called the number listed for him to see if he would reminisce for a few moments. A man answered.
“Is this Eugene Hasenfus?”
“My name is Timothy Lange, and I’m an editor at …”
Hasenfus’s lawsuits failed and then he faded into his old life in small-town Wisconsin. On July 10, 2000, he was accused of indecent exposure in Brookfield, Wisconsin. On June 1, 2002, he killed a bear without a license and fined $260. He was accused of lascivious behavior a second time in January 2003, after exposing himself in the parking lot at Woodman’s grocery store in Howard, Wisconsin, and received probation. He was accused a third time on May 25, 2005, after exposing himself in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Marinette County, Wisconsin. This violated his probation, and he was forced to serve jail time in Green Bay, Wisconsin, until December 17, 2005, the 19th anniversary of his release from a Sandinista prison.
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Source material was taken from my personal accounts in 1986-87, my hard-copy clip files, the Wisconsin Circuit Court Web site and here, here, here, here and here.
Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, widely known as the Walsh Report, named for independent Counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh.