MIAMI -- In this city, where intrigue seems to lurk behind every palm tree, the covert operation that tainted Ronald Reagan's presidency has been reduced to a contract dispute over such things as vacation pay.
Eugene Hasenfus, the small-town freight handler who inadvertently exposed the Iran-contra affair after his arms supply plane was shot down over Nicaragua in October 1986, has gone to court -- as might any worker trying to recover lost salary and benefits. Of course, Hasenfus is seeking damages too.
Already in the trial, which began last week, there have been exotic references to secrecy agreements, depictions of cash handed over in a brown paper bag and a promise from Hasenfus's lawyer, Brian Strange, to bring to light new details of the scandal.
Gone from the denouement of the Iran-contra affair are the lofty issues of national security and covert illegal operations that absorbed Washington during the final years of the Reagan presidency. In their place are the stuff of a first-year law school course: the fine print of the contract Hasenfus signed when he hired on to help secretly supply arms to the Nicaraguan contras.
The native of Marinette, Wis., is seeking unspecified damages from former Air Force major general Richard V. Secord -- who organized the network that supplied the rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinista government and was convicted of a felony in connection with the coverup -- and Southern Air Transport, the former CIA-owned airline that provided mechanics, some aircraft and other essential services to the secret operation.
Hasenfus says he did not receive his $3,000-a-month salary for the three months he spent in a Nicaraguan prison after his capture. He says he did not get the $700 hazardous duty pay he was due for the fateful mission on Oct. 5, 1986, during which he parachuted out of a C123-K cargo plane after it was hit by a missile. The plane crashed, killing the two pilots and one other on board. Hasenfus claims he did not get his vacation pay and was forced to fly a dangerous mission at high noon, instead of under the protection of darkness.
He also charges he was misled into believing the supply effort -- a covert operation arranged to get around a congressional ban on supplying the contra rebels -- was a patriotic campaign to fight communism, and that he was subjected to unnecessary risks because the aircraft used during were "dilapidated" with substandard equipment.
Except for the witness list -- which contains the names of fired White House aide Oliver L. North, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Elliott Abrams, and Felix Rodriguez, the ex-CIA agent known as Max Gomez -- the lawyers in this case could be arguing the merits of, say, an automobile accident suit.
The significant questions asked in this courtroom are about the details of Hasenfus's employment, not about workings of the supply operation, which arranged to sell weapons to Iran and then diverted the profits to the contra effort. That turf was plowed in the congressional hearings and the criminal trials.
Here, the lawyers are dickering over such issues as who paid the bill at the Holiday Inn when Hasenfus visited Miami for what would be called, in other occupations, a job interview; and, when Hasenfus returned to the United States, how he filled out the forms for unemployment compensation.
In one typical exchange, for example, Southern Airlines lawyer Robert C. Beckman began a series of questions about Hasenfus's status as an independent contractor. "Looking at Exhibit 6, your 1986 tax returns, please turn to Schedule C."
Beckman then asked, "What does it say on the line where you're to list your principal business or profession?"
"Air freight specialist," Hasenfus replied. In the murky world of undercover missions, he is known as a "kicker."
Southern Air's lawyers said the airline had nothing to do with Hasenfus or the others making airdrops over the Nicaraguan jungle. The company that employed the 49-year-old former Marine to kick the neatly wrapped bundles of arms out of the cargo door was Corporate Air Services Ltd., as the contract said.
On cross examination, Southern Air's team of lawyers zeroed in on the freelance soldier's lack of hard evidence and extracted an admission that he had no receipt showing that Southern Air paid for his room at the Holiday Inn during his visit there in the summer of 1986. The airline's lawyers then bored in to establish that Hasenfus had no Southern Air employee ID badge and that when he filled out the unemployment paperwork, he had listed Corporate Air Services as his employer.
"The fact statement reads like a Robert Ludlum novel, unrelated to the record," the airline protested in a pre-trial brief.
For his part, Secord said he did not hire Hasenfus and had nothing to do with the quality of the aircraft Hasenfus rode during the missions. In fact, his lawyers asserted, Secord saw Hasenfus for the first time in his life during jury selection.
But in his suit, Hasenfus claims Corporate Air Services was a front for Southern Air Transport. That's why he used the name on his paperwork. "You had to follow the front," Hasenfus explained.
Another pilot in the operation, brought in to bolster this theory, testified that he asked the man who recruited him "if this was a CIA company that was going to vanish if I got shot down. He said no."
As the first witness, Hasenfus was clearly more comfortable testifying about his adventures. When he was recruited in the summer of 1986 for flights over Central America, he was an unemployed construction worker, back in his hometown, with a wife and three children.
But as a young man, he had romped on secret missions in the skies over Laos and Cambodia for CIA-backed Air America. The flights over Central America, a buddy from Air America promised, would be just like the old days. "It was secrecy, to be kept within ourselves," Hasenfus testified. "I signed this agreement only as a cloak, a front for Southern Air Transport."
He described his visit to Southern Air's headquarters in Miami, the early missions, the push in early fall to deliver a warehouse full of arms, and how he parachuted out of the cargo door after the plane was hit.
At times, Hasenfus's testimony took on a Rambo-esque tone, such as when he described cutting the cuff from his trousers to wrap around his forehead as he maneuvered through the banana leaves in the jungle. "To keep the sweat out of my eyes," he said.
U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins was less than impressed with Hasenfus's tales, and at one point interrupted, pressing his lawyers to get on with their case.
Hasenfus was captured, tried, sentenced to 30 years in prison and released in December 1986 to the United States. He claims in the suit that his employers "abandoned" him after he was shot down -- despite the fact that somehow Griffin Bell, attorney general in the Carter administration, was hired to represent him at the Managua trial and his wife, Sally, was given a bag containing $6,000 in cash by someone Hasenfus believed to be associated with his employers.
A stickler for contractual language, Southern Air's lawyer noted Hasenfus could make no drops while in prison. "You did stop providing the services called for, didn't you?"
The defense lawyers argued in their opening statements that Hasenfus knew the risks of soldiering and had accepted them. "This is a case about consequences," said Thomas Spencer, Secord's lawyer. "War and the consequences of war. Soldiering and the consequences of soldiering. Politics and the consequences of politicking."
But a spectator in the last row of the courtroom said the case was not about war at all, but about money. The man showed up the day the former CIA agent testified and seemed familiar with that line of work.
At one point, the man leaned over to another spectator.
"This case is really very simple," he said. "The guys on this side of the room are mercenaries," he explained, gesturing to the defense table. "And the guy on that side is a mercenary. They're all mercenaries. What the jury will want to know is who made the most money. If they think the guys on this side of the room made more money, they're going to tell them to give some of it to him."