We start out.... with an intriguing question that remains unresolved to this day. Why did the U.S. government in 1972 intercept a load of plastic explosives destined for anti-Castro Cubans in Mexico, when a decade before it was the CIA that funded these Cuban exiles in their failed Bay of Pigs invasion?
Well, the pilot who was caught with the plastic explosives was Barry Seal, and William Bottoms offers an intriguing explanation. At the time, Seal was a pilot for TWA. He had joined TWA at twenty-six, one of the youngest pilots in the history of TWA. As an adventurer, however, he did covert operations on the side.
In 1972, Seal was arrested by Customs in New Orleans. His DC6 was loaded with seven tons of plastic explosives. "He was hired by Carlos Marcello," says Bottoms. Marcello was a renowned New Orleans Mob Boss who had been under official investigation in connection with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Bottoms claims that Seal was set up by the government: "Barry said it was because Castro had one of our hijacked airliners, the hijackers, and the ransom. So, the government set the whole thing up from beginning to end. It was a ploy to get Castro to think we were interdicting in his favor so he would give America the airliner back."
Seal was charged with conspiracy, but the judge threw out the case when the government wanted to protect the identity of its informant.
A law enforcement source familiar with the case confirms that it was Marcello's deal. "Charges were dropped because they couldn't go to court without burning their snitch."
Even though the case was dismissed, the publicity cost Seal his job with TWA. "Seal was bitter because he felt he was entrapped besides working for a worthy cause," says Bottoms. It was then Seal started full time on his clandestine work, officially using the title of "airline broker."
Marvin Lee: When Barry Seal was released from a Honduran prison in 1980, you started working together. Can you tell some of the details? Which aircraft did you use, where were they based, and which landing strips did you use?
William Bottoms: I was released from active duty in June 1980. In August of 1980, Barry Seal was released from prison after spending eight months in a Honduras jail. We began operating together. We were together until his murder in Baton Rouge.
After we connected, Barry and I went on our first three air smuggling flights together. I performed the rest of the flights. Barry stayed in Baton Rouge maintaining periodic HF radio checks with me, and to receive and send on the cocaine when I arrived with it.
It was in 1981, and the first three quarters of 1982, that most of the smuggling activity took place. We used a Beech 18, a Piper Seneca and very quickly upgraded to a new Seneca (used once), and just as quick to a Piper Panther Navajo. Barry purchased another Panther Navajo soon after. Initially we used various landing sites in Louisiana to off load the merchandise. These were a cane field near White Castle, Opelousas, Hanks Field, and New Roads.
Soon we were exclusively using airdrops and, once empty, the plane would be returned to various places.
A friend of Barry's set him up in early 1981 by allowing him to sell Quaaludes in Florida to a federal undercover agent named Beasley (Operation Screamer). Operation Screamer didn't turn over any indictments until early 1983. Between that time is when Barry brought all of his loads into Louisiana. Once the Operation Screamer indictments came out, Barry started moving his aircraft up to Mena, because Louisiana started heating up for him. Nothing of any real significance happened at Mena Airport. Barry spent most of 1983 and early 1984 with lawyers because of the Florida indictments.
By mid-1984 he was working as an informant. He flew a Lockheed Lodestar to Colombia, a Cessna back as far as Nicaragua before an engine was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, the C123 "fat lady" to Nicaragua and back twice, each for the DEA.
Barry orchestrated, and I flew the flight to Bolivia for the DEA that was started in late 1984 and netted Norman Saunders, Prime Minister of Turks and Caicos. Barry was busy with lawyers and trials after the Saunders case, until the time of his murder in Baton Rouge February 19, 1986.
Marvin Lee: The air strip in Nella, about 10 miles north of Mena, was registered in your name. What was the strip used for?
William Bottoms: The strip was never registered in my name. Fred Hampton owned the property. During my many visits to Mena we became friends somewhat. We had similar outdoor interests and were close to the same age. He told me about Nella, how beautiful it was nestled in the Ozarks and took me there. It was unbelievably beautiful. The ideal retreat. I was strictly interested in the property as a personal getaway.
We decided to become partners and we built the small landing strip on the property. Because of trees on one end, you would have to take off away from the trees and up the side of a mountain, and land towards them. The landing strip was not suitable for anything but a short field capable small airplane.
I later purchased all of the property from Hampton, but he never got around to transferring the title to me. Barry knew nothing of this deal. Nella was never used for any clandestine activity by Barry or myself.
Marvin Lee: Did you ever meet Richard Brenneke, Donald Gregg, Dan Lasater, or Oliver North?
William Bottoms: No.
Mena investigator Russell Welch of the Arkansas State Police has a secret FBI telex dated August 1987 that informs him that "a CIA or DEA operation is taking place at Mena airport." Welch further states that "There was a covert operation here at Mena. It did use the strip at Nella for a period of time. The operation that I'm referring to didn't start until around late 1986 or 1987. Although it took place at Nella there was no other connection to Barry's name, until Terry Reed came along." Barry Seal was killed in 1986.
As for the amounts of cocaine smuggled into Arkansas by Seal, Welch found a period of time from April 12, 1982 to March 24, 1984 where Barry Seal was running his own smuggling operation, smuggling for himself and the people that were working for him. They were bringing a planeload of cocaine for the Medellin drug cartel, 250 - 350 kilos of cocaine, into Arkansas approximately every other week.
A declassified summary of the CIA inspector General investigation of Mena was released Friday [November 8]. It, too, confirmed clandestine activities at Mena. One was a joint training operation at the airport between the CIA and another federal agency. In addition, the CIA contracted with businesses at the airport "to perform routine aviation-related services on equipment owned by the CIA."
The summary also confirms that L.D. Brown was a candidate for CIA employment in 1984. It said the agency decided that December not to hire him. Brown has claimed that on two occasions, while a candidate for CIA employment, he flew guns and drugs with Barry Seal.
Barry Seal was also involved in a top secret NSA operation based at Mena. Author R. Emmett Tyrrell has obtained documentary evidence of operation "RAPPORT" that used Seal and his C-123K "fat lady" to spy on the Sandinistas. The NSA installed nuclear radiation detectors in the "fat lady" that would allow detection of Soviet-made nuclear missiles in Nicaragua as Seal flew over the country. That gave Seal status as a CIA asset, and Customs and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowed Seal to leave and enter the country without inspection.
A July 1995 editorial in the Wall Street Journal reveals even more clandestine activities at Mena. Citing reliable sources in the intelligence community, the editorial says that an AWACs- Patriot system was tested there, CIA contract planes were repainted, and the area was included in a counterterror exercise run out of the nearby Fort Chafee.
[Printed in the October 28, November 4 and November 11, 1996 issues of the Washington Weekly]