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The Charmed, Doomed Life of Barry Seal

Published: November 15, 2017
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Tom Cruise’s portrayal of drug-smuggler-turned-government-informant Barry Seal is a fast-paced visit back to the Reagan era’s shadowy world of the CIA, cocaine and secret wars, writes James DiEugenio.

By James DiEugenio

Barry Seal’s life has become the stuff of legend. And much of that legend owes itself to the manner in which his life ended. Seal was killed on the evening of Feb. 19, 1986, machine-gunned in his automobile by agents of the Medellin Cartel, his former employers. There were photos taken of his bullet-riddled body in his car.

A graphic for the movie, “American Made,” starring Tom Cruise as Barry Seal.

His violent and bloody death created headlines and nightly news stories throughout America. In fact, one can say that his murder gave him a higher profile in death than he had in life. And because of the unusual circumstances of his murder — more properly called an assassination — his life now has become the fodder of legend.

Because of all the legerdemain that has sprouted up about Seal, it is not easy to separate fact from fiction. The current film about Seal, American Made, does not even try. In fact, it attempts to expand legend into myth. It then plays that myth for fast-action scenes, tongue-in-cheek comedy, and a plot line that moves as quickly as bowling pins falling during a ten-strike. Whatever the failings of director Doug Liman’s movie, it is hard to imagine someone being bored by it.

Before assessing the virtues and faults of American Made, let us try and set up some kind of base line for who Seal was, what he did, and how he died. That way we will at least have some kind of basis to measure just how far Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli have tilted over into myth. At its start, the film says that it is based on a true story; but at the end it states that the characters are fictitious and any relation to real characters and events is coincidental. Talk about having it both ways.

American Made began as a script by Spinelli entitled Mena. Reportedly, in that version, the story was more heavily centered on the CIA operations from that infamous airport in Mena, Arkansas, during America’s war in the 1980s against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Because of that focus, the role of then-Gov. Bill Clinton was accented, and he was even depicted in a strip-club getting a lap dance.

As the story evolved, the focus changed into a more panoramic view of the 1970s and 1980s through Seal’s exploits. The picture begins with a montage of the late 1970s, with Jimmy Carter as president. It then picks up its story line when Ronald Reagan comes to the White House.

Cruise as Seal 

When we first encounter Seal — played by Tom Cruise — he is a TWA airline pilot who is a bit bored with his job. He picks up some extra cash by smuggling Cuban cigars into the country. A CIA officer named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches him in the airport lounge since he knows about this illegal activity. He tells the pilot he already has a file on him, and this is how he entices Seal to join up with their nascent efforts to militarize the struggle in Central America.

Actor Tom Cruise and the real-life Barry Seal, the subject of the movie, “American Made.”

With this opening, one can rightly say that Liman and Spinelli have already romanticized and aggrandized Seal’s character. Seal’s promising career with TWA ended in the summer of 1972 for something more serious than cigar contraband. He was involved in a conspiracy to ship explosives to Mexico using a TWA plane. Those explosives were reportedly headed for Cuba to be used against the Castro regime. Seal used his vacation time to arrange the deal. (Smuggler’s End, by Del Hahn, pgs. 31-37)

This is why he was fired by TWA; he did not, as the film depicts, leave on his own accord. But the introduction of the CIA character allows Liman’s film to depict CIA man Schafer helping set up Seal in what can only be called an Agency shell company for missions into Central America. And this is what the film says began Seal’s career in Central America. According to American Made, it started with reconnaissance missions on rebel groups, and Seal picking up intelligence reports from Panama’s Manuel Noriega.

In real life, the Schafer character never actually existed. But Seal had a connection with intelligence services as a pilot for the U.S. Army Special Forces division. (See the online essay “Air Cocaine” by Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn)

Seal joined TWA in 1964 and was fired over the explosives incident eight years later.  Since the 14,000 pounds of explosives were destined for Cuban exiles on the island, one has to wonder if, at the very least, the CIA knew about it, or perhaps even sanctioned it. After all, one of the excuses for not proceeding with the later trial of Seal was that it would “threaten national security interests.” (ibid)

By several accounts, after his termination Seal began his criminal career in the mid-1970s, smuggling small quantities of marijuana. He built up his business by purchasing a fleet of planes and recruiting several pilots. He quickly became a successful entrepreneur in the black markets of guns and drugs.

By 1978, Seal made a key business decision: he shifted from marijuana to cocaine. Cocaine was less bulky and had a higher profit margin. At this point, with several pilots working for him running several planes across the border into Central America, Barry Seal became a wealthy man. It is not possible to make a serious estimate of how much he was really worth, but he later pegged his wealth at $50 million. But more than one investigator later said that $50 million was considerably below the actual figures the Seal operation generated. (ibid)

Meeting the Cartel

In December 1979, Seal was arrested in Honduras on suspicion of drug smuggling, and he was convicted of arms smuggling. Liman’s film briefly depicts this incident as something like an overnight stay. In fact, Seal was in prison for eight months.

Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in a scene from “American Made.”

It is not easy to determine when Seal actually met up with the members of the Medellin Cartel in Colombia and became a key pilot. But almost every commentator says the association came after this prison incident. The film places the prison term while Seal was already doing business with Medellin.

To give a differing example: Roger Reaves was a major cocaine smuggler who was working with the Medellin Cartel when he first met Seal on a plane leaving Honduras after Seal was released. Reaves invited Seal to his home in California and became very impressed with his flying skills. He offered to sub-contract out some of his work for the cartel, which, at that time, consisted of the Ochoa brothers, Carlos Lehder and Pablo Escobar. (Reaves, Smuggler, pgs. 293-298.  Reaves is not depicted in the film.)

Differing from the film, Reaves wrote that it was Seal, not CIA officers, who wanted to move the drop point for the incoming shipments of cocaine from Louisiana to the small airfield in Mena. This 1982 move was likely based on the fact that Seal was a Louisiana citizen with a residence in Baton Rouge, and was therefore well known to law enforcement in the Bayous. A second likely reason is because Seal thought it would be easy to buy anonymity in a small town like Mena.

There is little doubt that the CIA followed Seal to Mena. For, as the film shows, Mena doubled as a training base for the Contras, the American-backed rebels trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. (Jim Naureckas, FAIR, October 10, 2017)

It was with this operation, subsidized by the CIA – shipping arms down to the Contras, bringing back tons of cocaine for Medellin – with which Barry Seal redefined the word wealth in the world of smuggling. He further expanded his fleet and pilot corps, since each flight was packed with between 200-500 kilos of cocaine. That kind of load would capture multi-millions on the street, and Seal was paid at least $2,000 per kilo. As the film depicts, banks had to build new deposit rooms for the rest of their clients, while dedicating their regular deposit repositories solely to Seal’s massive holdings.

Government Protection

Somehow, Seal managed to acquire protection for his operation. As a Senate investigation led by Sen. John Kerry noted in 1989, Seal’s associates at the Mena airport were targets of grand jury probes into narcotics trafficking. But even though there was evidence sufficient for an indictment on money laundering charges, and despite the willingness of state and federal officials to proceed, the cases were dropped.

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush with CIA Director William Casey at the White House on Feb. 11, 1981. (Photo credit: Reagan Library)

Kerry’s investigation concluded that the “apparent reason might have revealed national security information.” (ibid) That usually means CIA involvement. Another indication of such involvement is the uncovering of a Customs official’s report where he explains that a drug inquiry into a pilot had to be cancelled because he “works for Seal and cannot be touched because Seal works for the CIA.” (ibid)

Seal’s operations also provided work for some local citizens. For instance, automatic pistols were made in Fayetteville by a gunsmith named William Holmes, who later testified that the CIA asked him to make 250 pistols for Seal. Holmes described the smuggler as “the ramrod of the Mena gun deal.” (St. Clair and Cockburn.)

But in 1983, Seal’s world began to crumble. Operation Screamer was an undercover sting that caught Seal shipping 200,000 Quaaludes into a Fort Lauderdale airport, a key incident that is not depicted in the film. American Made simply states that because the Contra resupply effort was not going well, the CIA decided to pull the plug on Seal’s Mena operation.

Seal quickly understands he is being made the fall guy and tries to get everything out. While doing so he is caught by at least four teams of agents: FBI, DEA, state and local police. This scene, with flashlights piercing the darkness and its Keystone Kops overtones, is pure Hollywood invention to create both humor and drama. But, admittedly, it makes for better cinema than a Quaalude bust.

In keeping with Liman’s choice of Hollywood tinsel vs. reality, once Seal is detained, he is  taken to the state attorney’s office in handcuffs with about 14 agents around him. The local Arkansas attorney is eager to indict him. But she then gets a call from Gov. Clinton. After taking the call, she walks outside and Seal, who is caught with enough evidence to put him away forever, is set free. The implication in Liman’s film is that Clinton then referred Seal to the White House and Vice President George H.W. Bush’s drug task force.

In reality, Seal was indicted — there was no saving phone call from Clinton or anyone else. After the indictment, it was Seal who approached the DEA offering to turn informant in return for a suspended sentence. His offer was refused and Seal was convicted and faced ten years in prison.

The Danger Zone

At this point, some have surmised that he got some advice from the CIA, for he initiated a call to Vice President Bush’s task force on drugs. (See St. Clair and Cockburn) From there, he was referred to the Miami office of the DEA and worked with two agents for the rest of his life: Ernst Jacobsen and Robert Joura, who are not in Liman’s film.

Grainy undercover photo supposedly of Nicaraguan official Federico Vaughan moving a load of cocaine from Barry Seal’s plane in 1984.

There is little doubt that Seal was one of the most important, if not the most important, informer the DEA ever had. They thought so highly of him that they paid him $800,000 per year. To use just one example among many: it was Seal’s work that helped convict Norman Saunders, prime minister of the Turks and Caicos Islands, on drug smuggling charges.

The most famous incident Seal was involved in was a sting operation against the Sandinista government. The idea was to show that somehow the Sandinistas were involved with transshipping drugs through Nicaragua for the Medellin Cartel. Seal had his plane outfitted with automatic cameras as he unloaded a large cargo of cocaine on a Nicaragua runway.

The camera took rather grainy and indistinct photos that appeared to show Seal, Pablo Escobar and a man named Frederico Vaughan, who was allegedly an assistant to a Sandinista cabinet member. In reality, the delivery did not take place at a military base as the Reagan administration claimed, and Vaughan was, to say the least, a very mysterious personage. Some even suspected he was a CIA double agent, in part, because he was calling his American drug contacts from a phone located at either the U.S. or other Western embassies. (Later, the DEA acknowledged that – except for this flight flown into and out of Nicaragua by the U.S. government – there were no other known cases of illicit drugs transiting Nicaragua during the Sandinista reign in the 1980s.)

Blowing Seal’s Cover

But the incident capsized Seal’s life because the White House was so eager to smear the Sandinistas with this ersatz proof of their supposed drug dealing with the Medellin Cartel that the information was promptly leaked to the media with a front page story in The Washington Times in July 1984. The Reagan administration milked the story for all it was worth, with President Reagan going on TV to accuse top Sandinistas of “exporting drugs to poison our youth.” But this exposure ended Seal’s value as a DEA informant while also making him a marked man in the eyes of the Medellin Cartel.

Former White House aide Oliver North.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the film does not do a good job spelling out how this all played out, and its full range of dark overtones. Many have long suspected that the man who leaked the information about Seal’s Sandinista sting was White House aide Oliver North, who was overseeing the Contra war.

Liman depicts that Sandinista-sting as part of Seal’s downfall, but discounts the machinations around Seal’s two trials, one in Florida and one in Louisiana. By this time, Seal had begun to distrust the DEA and had expressed his doubts in a filmed video segment on a Baton Rouge television station.

The judge in the Florida Operation Screamer case cooperated with the DEA and those charges were suspended. But there was a second case in Louisiana, which in keeping with the film’s fable, Liman has taking place in Arkansas. This charge was over marijuana importation, and some believe it was manufactured by Louisiana authorities with the help of a dubious witness.

Seal had decided to plead guilty, thinking the judge would go along with the precedent in Florida and simply suspend the charges. But the smuggler was taken by surprise when Judge Frank Palazola sentenced him to probation, a $35,000 fine, and six months of community service at a local Salvation Army in Baton Rouge. The judge also refused to let Seal have armed bodyguards. And the judge refused to let Seal secretly serve the community service out of state. (See the 1986 special, Murder of a Witness, WBRZ TV, Baton Rouge)

This decision, which made Seal in his own words a “clay pigeon,” plus the failure of Attorney General Edwin Meese to intercede has caused decades of controversy over Seal’s murder. In keeping with its comic overtones, the film does not raise any of these serious issues.

A Fast-Paced Adventure

Despite these shortcomings, the film is exceptionally well made. Liman did a lot of thinking beforehand, because although the picture is fast paced, there is little, if any, wasted motion. This extends all the way down to brief animated sequences with maps to demonstrate American foreign policy in Central America.

President Reagan meets with Vice President George H.W. Bush on Feb. 9, 1981. (Photo credit: Reagan Presidential Library.)

In addition to the animated sequences, the film skillfully inserts documentary news scenes of Ronald and Nancy Reagan preaching “Just say not to drugs”; stop action shots of Seal trying to find hiding places for his accumulating cash; and a steadicam scene, the camera arcing widely around Seal as he is introduced by the CIA to the empty expanse of Mena.

All of these devices — and more — are edited with a sure, supple hand into a kind of waterfall of forward motion. I don’t think sitting through this film could bore anyone. As pure entertainment, taken on its own terms, it’s as tasty as eating your favorite candy bar.

And that description fits the performance of Tom Cruise. The first time I saw Cruise was in his second film in 1981, Taps, a leaden-footed pretentious dud of a film about a student rebellion at a military academy. But I waited around past the end to catch the casting list because I was impressed with his performance in the film’s most unattractive role as a psychotic sniper. Cruise took possession of that part, to the point that he overshadowed the likes of Sean Penn and George C. Scott.

As far as acting goes, Cruise’s subsequent films didn’t fulfill that promise, but his talent peaked out again in 1989 for Oliver Stone in Born on the Fourth of July. Since then, his career has largely been a series of actor-star turns, which are heavier in the star quality than the acting.

In this film, unlike in the World War II drama Valkyrie, for example, he does try to capture his character’s voice and its southern twang. He gives us Seal’s good nature and some humor, but that’s about it. Seal was a complex, multi-layered individual who was very hard to figure out because he was so involved in deception, even self-deception. Cruise only gets the surface.

It’s instructive to compare American Made with an earlier film version of Seal’s life, a 1991 HBO television film entitled Doublecrossed. That film did not have anywhere near the budget that Liman and Cruise had. But director Roger Young’s effort is a much more straightforward telling of Seal’s smuggling career than American Made. It includes many important points and personages that the current film leaves out. It does not have the sheer entertainment value this film has, but one understands the complexities of Seal’s life more than one does with American Made. And one can at least ask the proper questions about his assassination.

Hiding the Contra Crimes

At the end of the American Made, we see that Doug Liman dedicated the picture to his deceased father, attorney Arthur Liman, who was the Senate’s chief counsel to the 1987 Iran/Contra investigation, which is probably why, near the end, the CIA character Schafer suggests to his CIA boss that the way to get funding for the Contras is to sell arms to Iran. At the very end, the film notes the plane that took Seal out of Nicaragua after the staged drug sting was the same plane that was shot down over Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, exposing Oliver North’s illegal Contra supply operation.

Journalist Gary Webb holding a copy of his Contra-cocaine article in the San Jose Mercury-News.

During those congressional Iran-Contra hearings, a protester screamed for the panel to “ask about the cocaine” before being dragged out of the proceedings. Unfortunately, neither Arthur Liman nor the members of Congress did, leaving the issue of the Reagan administration’s collusion with cocaine traffickers largely unexplored.

Despite news articles by The Associated Press and the investigation by Sen. Kerry, the Contra-Cocaine scandal became one of Official Washington’s dirty secrets treated by the mainstream news media as a kooky conspiracy theory. The story was finally revived by journalist Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, but the result was a fierce counterattack against Webb spearheaded by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, resulting in the destruction of Webb’s career and contributing to his eventual suicide in 2004. But one result was a belated admission by the CIA’s inspector general that, indeed, CIA officers were aware of the Contras’ cocaine trafficking but chose to look the other way and protect these CIA clients. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Sordid Contra-Cocaine Saga.”]

Doug Liman tips his hat to this disturbing reality ever so briefly when he has the Contra political leader Adolfo Calero meet with Seal and Ochoa and mention Calero’s role in drug smuggling for the Contras.

If you want to be entertained about a serious subject then American Made is your film. If you wish to learn something more definitive about Barry Seal, see Doublecrossed. If you want to be educated about the whole sordid Reagan intervention in Central American, rent Kill the Messenger, the fine film that Jeremy Renner made about the tragedy that befell Gary Webb when he dared revive the ugly story of the CIA’s complicity in the Contra-cocaine network.

James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.

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