Go to Destination: Scandal!

Drug Buy Set Up For Bush Speech

DEA Lured Seller to Lafayette Park

By Michael Isikoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Sept. 22, 1989; Page A01

White House speech-writers thought it was the perfect visual for President Bush's first prime-time address to the nation -- a dramatic prop that would show how the drug trade had spread to the president's own neighborhood.

"This is crack cocaine," Bush solemnly announced, holding up a plastic bag filled with a white chunky substance in his Sept. 5 speech on drug policy. It was "seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House . . . . It could easily have been heroin or PCP."

But obtaining the crack was no easy feat. To match the words crafted by the speech-writers, Drug Enforcement Administration agents lured a suspected District drug dealer to Lafayette Park four days before the speech so they could make what appears to have been the agency's first undercover crack buy in a park better known for its location across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House than for illegal drug activity, according to officials familiar with the case.

In fact, when first contacted by an undercover DEA agent posing as a drug buyer, the teenage suspect seemed baffled by the agent's request.

"Where the {expletive} is the White House?" he replied in a conversation that was secretly tape-recorded by the DEA.

"We had to manipulate him to get him down there," said William McMullan, assistant special agent in charge of DEA's Washington field office. "It wasn't easy."

White House and DEA officials said they did nothing improper in their efforts to help Bush illustrate how widespread the local trade is. A senior White House official said the DEA was never asked to manufacture an arrest for the president's speech.

According to DEA officials, the suspect had been the target of a three-month undercover investigation before the White House request and had sold crack to agents on three previous occasions in other parts of the city.

DEA officials said yesterday they have held off on arresting the suspect in hopes that he would sell a larger amount of crack to undercover agents and could be charged with a more serious offense.

"We were negotiating for a kilogram of crack and we were trying to identify his organization," said McMullan. "We were going to make that undercover buy anyway. What difference does it make where it happened -- whether it was in front of the White House . . .or in front of the Supreme Court?"

DEA had planned to make an arrest this week, but the attempt fell through when the suspect failed to show up for a scheduled meeting with a DEA undercover agent. Another attempt will be made next week when a federal grand jury is expected to return indictments against him and possibly some of his confederates, said DEA spokesman Mario Perez.

Kevin Zeese, a defense lawyer who specializes in drug cases, said DEA's efforts to maneuver the suspect to the area around the White House may enable his lawyer to argue that he was a victim of "outrageous government conduct."

This would not help his defense against the three earlier crack sales, Zeese said. Nevertheless, "I think it's disgusting," he said. "The situation is not bad enough that they have to create a false situation? It's the government creating a hoax so they can rev up the war effort."

As described by White House and DEA officials, the trail that brought crack to the White House began last month in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the president was on vacation and preparing for the speech that would unveil his anti-drug program. The idea of the president holding up crack was included in some drafts and Bush quickly approved. "He liked the prop," said one White House aide. "It drove the point home."

Officials said that communications director David Demarest, who oversees the speech-writers, then asked Cabinet affairs secretary David Bates to contact the Justice Department about getting the drugs. Instructions to Justice were to find some crack that fit the description in the speech, not to go out and arrest someone just for the speech, aides said.

But little crack is actually sold around the White House, especially in Lafayette Park, according to local law enforcement officials.

"We don't consider that a problem area," said Maj. Robert Hines, commander of criminal investigations for the U.S. Park Police, which patrols the park. "There's too much activity going on there for drug dealers . . . . There's always a uniformed police presence there."

Hines said there have been about a half dozen arrests for marijuana possession in the park this year, but no record of any crack dealing in the park "except for that DEA buy."

The Justice Department official who got the White House call -- Richard Weatherbee, a special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh responsible for drug policy -- phoned James Millford, executive assistant to DEA Administrator Jack Lawn. On Aug. 25, Millford called McMullan in the Washington field office.

"Do you have anything going on around the White House?" McMullan recalled Millford saying.

"I don't know about the White House," McMullan said he replied, but said there was an undercover buy his agents were hoping to negotiate "four or five blocks away."

"Any possibility of you moving it down to the White House?" Millford asked, according to McMullan. "Evidently, the president wants to show it could be bought anywhere."

Millford did not return phone calls from a reporter. Frank Shults, chief public affairs spokesman at DEA headquarters, confirmed that Millford called McMullan and asked if there were any active cases near the White House. The location of undercover buys "are highly negotiable between the buyer and the seller," he said. "That vicinity was as logical as any other location."

At that point, the undercover DEA agent called the suspect and attempted to set up a meeting to buy crack in Lafayette Park. But making arrangements proved difficult. At first, the suspect seemed not to know what or where the White House was, McMullan said. When finally told it was the residence of the president, he replied, "Oh, you mean where Reagan lives."

The meeting came off as planned. At about 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 1, the undercover agent met the suspect and purchased three ounces of crack from him for about $2,400, according to the DEA. Another DEA agent who was hiding nearby took color photographs of the transaction, McMullan said.

But there was one more worry for the DEA: Since the suspect had not been arrested, there was always the possibility that he would see Bush holding up the crack on television, figure out what was going on and flee.

When Bush gave his speech on the evening of Sept. 5, McMullan and the undercover agent were both at the White House. The undercover agent stood in the Oval Office to maintain "chain of custody" over the crack -- a legal phrase that refers to the government's requirement that it prove any drugs presented in court as evidence are the same drugs used in the crime.

Meanwhile, McMullan was in a Secret Service command post, worried that the suspect would be tipped off by Bush's speech.

"If there was a problem, we were going to take the guy right away," McMullan said. But, "he had absolutely no idea what went on."

Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Co.

Back to top