Picks and Pans Review: Out of Control

updated 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Leslie Cockburn

"Follow the money" became the battle cry of the Watergate investigation. A banner unfurled by protesters at last summer's televised hearings on the Iran-contra affair—"Ask about Cocaine"—may well provide the thread that finally unravels the whole cloth of Reagan Administration activities in Central America. While Congress was reluctant to pursue such an inflammatory issue in public at the time, at least two congressional committees had taken evidence in closed session of extreme coziness between the contra resupply operation and the international drug trade. Now a federal grand jury in Miami has put the question squarely on the front page, indicting Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega on drug-trafficking charges amid allegations from one of his former associates that Oliver North was no stranger to the general's ability to move arms and drugs and money around the region at will. In fact, as Cockburn clearly documents in this book, North's determination to keep cash flowing to the contras quickly led him into Central America's heart of darkness. Despite the fact that he lionized the contras in his televised testimony, North discovered early on, Cockburn writes, that he was backing a corrupt lot with little taste for combat. In 1986 Robert Owen, North's man in Central America, was advising his boss that Fernando "El Negro" Chamorro was a suspected drug runner; other contras were rumored to be reselling U.S.-supplied arms on the black market, ironically enough, to leftist rebels in El Salvador. And part of the generous CIA stipends paid to contra leaders—as much as $10,000 a month—would later be found in overseas bank accounts and Miami condos. Cockburn, a television producer who, along with correspondent Jane Wallace, covered the contra beat for CBS from 1984 to 1987, has written a fast-paced journalistic account of the whole "initiative," combining her own reporting on the ground in Central America with the revelations embedded in such user-unfriendly tomes as the Tower Commission Report. While the senators split hairs about the Boland Amendment, Cockburn actually talked to the foot soldiers of the sprawling contra operation. There were such people as Michael Tolliver, a pilot she quotes as saying that he was encouraged to return from his gun-runs into Central America with a cargo of pot and then was allowed to offload it at Florida's Homestead Air Force Base. Cockburn cites plenty of documentation, and as this sordid business continues to reveal itself on the front pages, you'll want Cockburn's book handy. You sure can't tell these players without a program, and this one, in addition to including the names and numbers, is a chilling read. (Atlantic Monthly, $18.95)

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