Shifting Within Party To Gain His Footing
Kerry's office became a magnet for tips from critics of Reagan's Central America policy, and he pursued them into a netherworld of mercenaries, shady financiers, pilots and drug dealers with links to the network supplying the anti-communist Nicaraguan contra rebels. As in his youth, he ended up in direct confrontation with a Republican president. White House aides accused him of peddling wacky conspiracy theories, and some Democratic leaders warned him to back off. An aide recalled one Democratic senator telling Kerry: "People think you're out of your mind."
But the investigations have withstood scrutiny. Well before the White House admitted it, Kerry and three staff investigators accused a then-obscure White House aide named Oliver L. North of covertly coordinating military aid to the contras in defiance of a congressional ban. When the Iran-contra scandal broke, however, Senate Democrats did not appoint Kerry to a bipartisan investigative committee, a slight publicly attributed to his junior status but privately to his reputation for controversy and confrontation.
Kerry nonetheless continued his contra-drug probe as chairman of a Foreign Relations investigative subcommittee. In a 1988 report, the panel documented that covert networks supplying arms to the contras with the blessing of U.S. officials were also bringing narcotics to American cities at the height of the urban drug epidemic. (A decade later, a CIA inspector general's report concluded the same.) The subcommittee also documented Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's relationship with the Medellin cartel at a time that Noriega enjoyed U.S. support as a valued ally.
Kerry was unusually active in the probes, according to Jack Blum, a veteran congressional investigator who worked for him. "We had 300 pages of documents for one of our first hearings; we prepared a script of questions for him," Blum said. "He went through all 300 pages, and the next day, he's whacking away at witnesses off the documents on his own. He had phenomenal capacity to focus."
Kerry shifted his focus to international money laundering after learning that Noriega had spirited a fortune in drug proceeds out of Panama through the auspices of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which his investigators found to be a money haven for criminal enterprises worldwide.
In the process, they discovered that a Washington bank headed by Democratic elder statesman Clark Clifford was in fact a shell controlled by BCCI. Again, some in Kerry's own party were displeased. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Democratic fundraiser Pamela Harriman personally called to object. "What are you doing to my friend Clark Clifford?" staffers recalled fellow senators demanding of Kerry. The investigation continued.
BCCI collapsed under the weight of criminal prosecutions in 1991 and 1992. Fraud indictments against Clifford were set aside, because of his failing health.
Years before money laundering became a centerpiece of antiterrorist efforts, including the USA Patriot Act, Kerry crusaded for controls on global money laundering in the name of national security.
"He saw it as the dark side of globalization -- an infrastructure that parasitically latches onto the global financial system, carrying illegal drugs, arms trafficking, people smuggling and terrorism," said Jonathan Winer, a lawyer who learned the subject as an investigator for Kerry and went on to specialize in it for the Clinton State Department.
White House Trashes Kerry
Kerry's two early forays into foreign policy -- in Nicaragua and the Philippines -- showcased very different sides of his political character.
Flying to the front lines of Nicaragua's civil war in early 1985, Kerry was on the network news within hours of returning home, touting a proposal to "stop the killing" -- a ceasefire offer from Marxist leader Daniel Ortega, conditioned on the United States dropping support of the contra rebels. He appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" that weekend, saying his experiences as a Vietnam veteran compelled him to seek peace. On the Senate floor, he declared himself ready -- despite the Cold War backdrop -- to test the Marxist leader's good faith.
It all came to naught when Ortega, as if to validate the White House view of him as a puppet of the Politburo, flew to Moscow the next day to receive a $200 million loan from the Soviet Union. The White House trashed Kerry and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who had traveled with him, as dupes, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a Central America expert, asked, "Where did my colleagues think [Ortega] was going to go? Disney World? The man is a Marxist."
At almost the same time, Kerry began a very different mission to the Philippines to explore Marcos's alleged human rights violations.
As a member of the Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had official standing. He also had a personal connection, with roots in his aristocratic -- as opposed to activist -- past. Kerry's mother was descended from the Boston Brahmin Forbes family, which made a fortune in the China trade, and Kerry's cousin, William Cameron Forbes, had been governor-general of the Philippines when it was a U.S. protectorate.
"I had always been intrigued by his linkage, and it kind of sparked my own interest to know what was happening and the legacy of all his involvement," Kerry said. "And I found out to my chagrin that you had this abusive dictator and his wife who were leading it awry and abusing our money and principles."
Kerry got an audience with Marcos in Manila and pressed him to release political prisoners and to investigate the 1983 murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.
"Five hours we spoke together, and I grilled him," Kerry said. "And Imelda Marcos was so intrigued by me and my presence there that she invited me to breakfast. I will never forget this extraordinary -- surreal -- breakfast meeting as she talked to me about what they were doing and how important it was and gave me books with Marcoses in them and illustrations of God, and it was just amazing. Weird. All of which convinced me even more as I took a tour of the palace that this has to change."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company