Long Island Press
Last March, on the first day of the 9/11 Commission hearings, commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste opened his remarks with sharp criticism of the current White House and the delays in processing the commissioners' security clearances. Ben-Veniste, who first came to prominence as a Watergate special prosecutor from 1973 to 1975, was counsel for the Democratic minority on the Senate Whitewater committee. Today he is a major attorney with a top firm in D.C.
But what makes Ben-Veniste such an intriguing player on the 9/11 Commission (The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) is his experience with rogue drug-running CIA operatives. Ben-Veniste defended Barry Seal, the notorious smuggler who flew C-123 military cargo planes filled with cocaine into Mena, Arkansas on behalf of the contras.
Al Qaeda's lead 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, was allegedly partying with CIA-connected pilots while he got his flight training in fall/winter 2000 at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., where two of the other 9/11 hijacker pilots trained. Atta wasn't acting much like a holy martyr: He wore jeans and sneakers, played video games, bought himself a red Pontiac and was said to be a hedonist. The Press posed the question to Ben-Veniste: If Atta belonged to the fundamentalist Muslim group, why was he snorting cocaine and frequenting strip bars?
"You know," said Ben-Veniste, as he smiled a little. "That's a heck of a question."
Follow the Drugs
The source of this information about Atta and cocaine is Amanda Keller, Atta's American ex-girlfriend, according to Daniel Hopsicker, an investigative journalist who has spent two years researching Huffman and its ties to the CIA. It took Hopsicker a year, but he tracked Keller down. Like many other witnesses who knew Atta, Keller says she has been harassed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Keller has not been called as a witness by the 9/11 Commission.
Hopsicker's self-published book, Welcome to Terrorland, details his investigation of what he calls the "Venice flying circus." Through interviews with Keller, Hopsicker has drawn a private picture of Atta, a psychopath Keller says dismembered a litter of kittens in her apartment when she dumped him.
Hopsicker is still researching the three Huffman-trained 9/11 pilots, who he says had financial, drug-trafficking and military intelligence ties to the U.S. government. He is developing suspicions that Atta and the entire school were involved with Osama bin Laden in heroin trafficking. Hopsicker reports that on July 25, 2000, the DEA in Orlando discovered more than 30 pounds of heroin inside a Learjet owned by Wally Hilliard, owner of Huffman Aviation. Earlier that month, on July 3, Atta and Marwan Al- Shehri had started flight lessons at Huffman. Hopsicker claims it's not a coincidence that Atta was allegedly importing heroin with Hilliard's help, selling Afghanistan's notorious opium and heroin to finance the Taliban. Hilliard would not be interviewed for this story.
"The apparatus that Osama bin Laden set into place along with the CIA back in the '80s, still exists," Hopsicker says. "The FBI is protecting an operation set in place back in the '80s...a money-laundering device to funnel money to the Afghan Mujahedeen and to flood this country with heroin."
Military Money Makers
Outlandish? Yes. Impossible? Certainly not, given the documented histories of narcotics trafficking by the U.S. military intelligence. If true, this puts the story on a par with the alleged Vietnam War-era heroin-exporting operation coming out of Laos and Cambodia, or the connection between the Nicaraguan Contras, the CIA and crack cocaine, as alleged in 1995 by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News.
But wait, weren't the Taliban famous for accepting a gift of $43 million in U.S. funds�four months before 9/11�to help outlaw opium crops and suppress their heroin trade? Yes, but old habits die hard, and heroin was the Taliban's cash cow. William Bach of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Enforcement Affairs suggested in October 2001 that the Taliban made more than $40 million in 1999 taxing opium farmers. UN satellite photos showed that opium cultivation grew by 50 percent in 2000, according to Reaping the Whirlwind, a well-received book by Michael Griffin, identified in his book as a former information consultant for UNICEF in Afghanistan.
That the Taliban made money from drugs is no surprise. But according to Hopsicker, the Venice operation was "protected" by top officials in the same U.S. government that created the Taliban (when the Taliban were known as the Mujahedeen, fighting the Soviets). Hopsicker says that when low-level DEA agents burst into Hilliard's plane on July 25, an embarrassed DEA higher-up was sitting in the co-pilot seat.
The Larger World
Hopsicker says that federal agents stated in court that Hilliard's planes made at least 30 weekly trips to Venezuela before the bust in July, but that Hilliard claimed innocence, saying the planes were leased to others. Hopsicker adds that neither Hilliard nor his business partner, Diego Levine-Taxar (the Learjet's pilot), did any time for the heroin. Instead, two low-level traffickers were incarcerated, Hopsicker says.
A web of larger corporate connections links Wally Hilliard to a much bigger world than that of small-town Venice, Fla. It has been reported that Hilliard did business with Myron Du Bain, who worked alongside late ex-CIA director John McCone on the boards of several banks. Du Bain was chairman of the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company in 1981 when the company announced plans to acquire Employers Health, an insurance company cofounded by Hilliard, who was chairman. The deal collapsed and Employers Health was later acquired by another company.
Du Bain later became CEO of Amfac Parks and Resorts, (now Xanterra Parks and Resorts), which owned the Silverado Resort in the Napa, Ca., wine country. Researcher Lois Battuello contends that Silverado often hosted Iran/Contra heavyweights Ollie North, Rob Owen and George H.W. Bush for golf and cocktails.
Follow the Money
Battuello worked at United California Bank (UCB) when Du Bain was on the board, right after former CIA director McCone served as chairman. She tells the Press that UCB had been on the brink of collapse, "under the weight of highly irregular loans." UCB had been known as John McCone's "piggy bank" and with Du Bain on board, they "attempted to recover monies looted and missing" by Saudi arms dealers (such as Adnan Khashoggi) and former CIA personnel.
After the 9/11 planes slammed into American landmarks, Battuello began to see a possible connection between the terrorists, their flight school, owner Wally Hilliard and his associate Du Bain. She left her comfortable Napa Valley home and went hunting for the truth. In Florida, she says, she found cab driver and Navy veteran Bob Simpson, who had driven Mohamed Atta around on multiple occasions. Simpson told Battuello that Rudi Dekkers, president and CEO of Huffman, was hanging out in nightclubs with Atta and other Saudis as recently as August 2001. According to Keller, Atta's ex-girlfriend, Dekkers and Atta did cocaine and went to strip clubs together quite a bit.
Hopsicker went looking for more on Dekkers, a Dutch citizen. Did the Huffman CEO have any prior arrests in Sarasota County, Fla.? Sgt. Michael Treanor, of the Venice Police Department, frustratedly told him they wouldn't be able to answer that question. Two of his detectives had removed all of Dekker's files and loaded them onto a plane for the FBI. One of those detectives, now promoted to Sergeant, was Tom McNulty. McNulty tells the Press, "I seized the files with the FBI because of some contacts I have in this area." But McNulty won't confirm or deny Hopsicker's reporting that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was involved in the seizure of Dekkers' files.
Will any of this information find a place in the 9/11 Commission's official report, due out in July? Don't get your hopes up.