Sunday, December 08, 2013

Indiana Undercover: Dan Mitrione And The Birth Of Extraordinary Rendition

Dan Mitrione
The subject of extraordinary rendition became a hotly-debated topic during the U.S. government's war on terror following 9/11 after news reports brought to light the practice of the CIA transferring captured terrorist suspects to foreign detention facilities, such as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where they are considered to be outside the jurisdiction of the American criminal justice system and subjecting them to various forms of torture during interrogation. What you probably don't know is the early role a little-known police officer from Richmond, Indiana, Dan Mitrione, played in the CIA's earlier use of extraordinary rendition in various Latin America countries.

Mitrione was born in Italy in 1920 and his family later emigrated to the United States. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Mitrione began work as a cop for the Richmond police department in 1945. By 1955, he became the department's police chief. Mitrione came in contact with one of Indiana's most infamous residents, Rev. Jim Jones, while working as a Richmond cop. Jones began a sidewalk ministry in Richmond's black neighborhood when he was only 15 years old. It's unclear the nature of their relationship. Some believe that Mitrione counseled Jones as a police officer would counsel a child, while others believe Mitrione used Jones as an informant within Richmond's black community. Whatever their relationship, many years later Jones would be quoted as speaking very negatively of Mitrione to his followers at the People's Temple in Guyana. "There was one guy that I knew growing up in Richmond, a cruel, cruel person . . . a vicious racist." Mitrione and Jones would cross paths again later, but that's the subject of another post.

The FBI recruited Mitrione to work as one of its agents in 1959, but his career took a decidedly different path when he was assigned a year later to the State Department's International Cooperation Administration. From there he was sent to South America to teach public safety and police methods to local law enforcement officials. Although he operated under the auspices of International Development's Office of Public Safety, a predecessor organization for the Agency for International Development (AID), it is now widely accepted that he was actually working as an agent of the CIA. He was sent to several Latin American countries to teach "advanced counterinsurgency techniques," but his specialty was teaching local police how to torture political prisoners without killing them.

Mitrione spent most of the time from 1960-1967 working in Brazil. The American government was not happy with the leadership of Joao Gouart, a wealthy landowner who pursued policies to promote wealth redistribution, although he was anti-communist. The Johnson administration approved a CIA-led effort to oust Gouart, which was successful. It's not clear the extent of the role Mitrione played in the overthrow, but his work in Brazil for the CIA preceded and followed the successful overthrow of the government. He was also present in the Dominican Republic when the US intervened to overthrow the government there. Mitrione is credited with being the person responsible for the routine use of torture by police against political prisoners in pro-American countries in Latin America.  "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect," he once said. Mitrione allegedly used homeless persons to demonstrate torture techniques, including electrocution, who were executed once they had served their purpose.

In 1967, Mitrione was brought back to AID's office in Washington where he reportedly shared his experiences and expertise on "counterguerilla warfare." The Nixon administration sent him to work in Uruguay in 1969 where there was concern that leftists might repeat the success of Allende's rise to power in Chile, who was later deposed by a CIA-backed military coup in 1973. In Uruguay, it is believed that Mitrione helped the government fight leftists by: establishing a network of spies in high schools and universities; installing hidden cameras in terminals to monitor persons traveling to socialist countries; inaugurating police training courses in recruitment of informers, interrogation techniques; increasing the size of militias; inspecting all mail and publications from social countries; and use of explosives.

A leftist group in Uruguay, Tupamaros, kidnapped Mitrione on July 31, 1970, along with an associate, Claude Fly, who was later released. The kidnappers allegedly interrogated Mitrione about his and the U.S. government's past intervention in Latin America and demanded the release of 150 political prisoners. Nixon Secretary of State William Rogers sent secret cabals to the Uruguan government threatening to kill the political prisoners if Mitrione's life was not spared. President Nixon told officials to “spare no effort to secure the safe return of Mr. Mitrione.” The threats didn't work. Mitrione was found shot to death on August 10, 1970. The Uruguan government responded by releasing death squads to hunt down and kill the Tupamaros insurgents.

The Nixon White House gave full honors to mark Mitrione's passing. Secretary of State Rogers and Nixon's son-in-law, David Eisenhower, were dispatched to attend his funeral. Nixon released a statement through his press secretary Ron Ziegler,  describing Mitrione as a man who "devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere." Two of the nation's biggest celebrities at the time, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis, traveled to Richmond to put on a concert to raise approximately $20,000 to benefit Mitrione's family. A plaque in his honor can still be found hanging in Richmond's municipal building.

The Rise And Fall of Dan Mitrione, Jr.
The dark legacy of Dan Mitrione, unfortunately, didn't end with his deserved execution by the leftist guerillas in Uruguay. The American people would still have to endure the painful and tragic harm his influence had over at least two other infamous Hoosiers, Jim Jones and Dan Mitrione, Jr. Mitrione's ties to Jones will be saved for discussion in a later blog post. Mitrione's namesake would follow in his father's footsteps and pursue a career in the FBI following his father's killing after studying international affairs at the University of Maryland and serving his country in the Vietnam War.

When the younger Mitrione joined the FBI, he held a dark secret. His motive for joining the agency was to avenge the death of his father, who he believed had been assassinated by people within the U.S. government, according to his own words in a 1999 interview with the New York Times. He planned to track down his father's killers and terminate them.

Mitrione worked in the FBI's organized crime section, working in Tampa, New York and Puerto Rico before receiving an assignment in Miami in 1981. Mitrione told his superiors in Miami that he wanted to focus on international drug smuggling. As luck would have it, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush established with much fanfare the South Florida Drug Taskforce, which put Miami on the front lines of the Reagan administration's War on Drugs. Congress gave the FBI jurisdiction over narcotics cases for the first time, and Mitrione would land a leading role in Operation Airlift, the FBI's first foray into the drug war.

According to investigative journalist Bob Norman, Mitrione relied heavily on a drug smuggler turned informant, Hilmer Sandini, for Operation Airlift. Norman described Sandini's as being old enough to be Mitrione's father and bearing a striking resemblance to him. According to other agents, Mitrione referred to Sandini as the "old man" and he referred to him as "son."

Norman's depiction of Sandini is reminiscent of Whitey Bulger, the recently convicted organized crime figure who also worked as an FBI informant at one time. Sandini had a long rap sheet that traced back to his early years as a teen-ager in Chicago. The FBI utilized Sandini as an informant despite its knowledge that he was likely responsible for numerous killings while working as a "white-collar grafter." Sandini killed a Coral Springs restaurant owner, Harold Shatz, about the same time he began working as an informant for Mitrione, a crime he wouldn't be convicted of committing until 1987.

Mitrione began working undercover with Sandini at a car rental agency in Ft. Lauderdale, Globe Rentals, which was owned by a reputed mob member, Frank Esposito, to launch Operation Airlift. Esposito suspected "Danny Micelli," the alias used by Mitrione, of being a cop. Soon after he confronted him, Esposito was gunned down in his office, taking care of Mitrione's problem. Mitrione knew that Sandini had killed Esposito but played down his connection to the killing to his superiors in order to keep the undercover operation going.

Norman goes into great details about the great gig Sandini and Mitrione had going for themselves with little supervision by the FBI. Mitrione was put up in a posh ocean-front condo. The two spent a great deal of time partying, chasing prostitutes and spending a lot of money they were making for themselves right under the FBI's nose through Operation Airlift, while allowing large shipments of cocaine to be smuggled into South Florida from Columbia through Jamaica and the Bahamas.

The drugs were smuggled into Miami and Fort Lauderdale on boats. Sandini and Mitrione arranged for the distribution of the drugs to other parts of the country out of the office they operated at Fort Lauderdale's Executive Airport. Mitrione worked the front office, while Sandini worked in the back office like a godfather figure. Interestingly, their Columbian drug smuggling contact, Luis Bernardo Sanchez-Castro, a retired military colonel, served as Vice President Bush's personal escort during a fact-finding mission in Columbia in the early 1980s.

An internal investigator at the FBI began to get suspicious that something was going awry with Mitrione's Operation Airlift. To appease him, Mitrione and Sandini stole 200 kilograms of a Columbian drug shipment in Memphis and delivered it to the bureau, which then turned it over to the Fort Lauderdale police department. The department's police chief staged a fake press conference claiming to have used drug-sniffing dogs at a parking lot to carry out the largest drug bust in the city's history. What the FBI didn't know at the time was that Mitrione and Sandini had stolen 42 kilos for themselves before turning over the cocaine, a skim that netted each guy about one million dollars. Mitrione spent the money on boats, cars and expensive trips, while Sandini started stashing the money in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.

According to Norman, a DEA agent had discovered that Mitrione had gone bad with Sandini and alerted his superiors at the FBI but they refused to take any action against him. Mitrione became paranoid that Sandini was turning on him and planted a powerful explosive device under Sandini's car two days after the last time he spoke to him at a race track. As luck would have it, the bomb failed to detonate but investigators were able to trace the bomb to Mitrione after it was discovered. Fearful of being arrested for the attempted bombing, Mitrione checked himself into a mental hospital. Eventually, the FBI started an investigation of Mitrione, which led to him confessing to his role in the drug-smuggling operation. Mitrione was never charged with placing the bomb under Sandini's car, although he had failed a lie detector test when questioned about it.

Mitrione pleaded guilty to narcotics and bribery charges. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. According to the New York Times, Mitriones' illegal drug smuggling work included trips to Panama, Pittsburgh and Kokomo, Indiana in furtherance of the operation. "On one occasion, Mitrione drove a truck loaded with cocaine between Kokomo, Ind., and Miami to be distributed," the Sun-Sentinel reported. Isn't Grissom Air Reserve Base located in Kokomo? If he was stopped by authorities with drugs, he would merely flash his FBI badge and be released. According to Norman's reporting, nobody was charged in the killing of Gary Weaver, a local bar tender who worked for Sandini and Mitrione who disappeared without a trace in the Bahamas while working for them. Weaver's wife believes the FBI knew what happened to her husband but covered up his killing to limit the fallout from the Operation Airlift debacle that had already given the agency a black eye.

If you accept the fact that the CIA is responsible for most of the drug trafficking into this country, one can't help but wonder whether the young Mitrione's illegal operation had the assistance of the CIA, particularly given George H.W. Bush's role in establishing the operation. Bush , of course, is an old CIA hand whose career with the agency dates back to at least the 1950s when he established Zapata Offshore Oil, a CIA front company.

The reported trips by Mitrione to Panama add to the intrigue since, at that time, Panama's President Manuel Noriega was reportedly on the CIA's payroll and involved in drug smuggling. During Bush's first year in office as President, he ordered an invasion of Panama, which led to Noriega's capture and detention by U.S. forces as a prisoner of war before being transferred to Miami to stand trial on charges brought against him by the federal government  for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, which is a bit ironic given that he committed those crimes as an agent of the CIA and Bush was once his boss as CIA Director.

The 1988 Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations concluded: "The saga of Panama's General Manuel Antonio Noriega represents one of the most serious foreign policy failures for the United States. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Noriega was able to manipulate U.S. policy toward his country, while skillfully accumulating near-absolute power in Panama. It is clear that each U.S. government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellin Cartel (a member of which was notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar." The Bank of Credit and Commerce International ("BCCI") laundered much of Noriega's drug money, as well as funds for the CIA-backed Contras fighting to overthrow Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Osama bin Laden's CIA-backed Mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan to drive the Russians out.

Given Mitrione's father's role as a CIA agent, it would not be unthinkable that he, too, worked for the CIA. There's also little information about the time Mitrione, Sr. spent in the Navy prior to becoming a Richmond police officers. I wouldn't be surprised if he had worked for the OSS in some capacity. It's hard to imagine he just got plucked out of a small Midwestern city's police department to work for the CIA by chance.

The 1972 film, "State of Seige," is a spot-on depiction of Mitrione's work in South America and the events surrounding his kidnapping and assassination. The movie is very well done. A full length version in Spanish with English subtitles is available on YouTube, which I've embedded below.

4 comments: said...

For 'extraordinary rendition' the proper term is kidnapping.

Gary R. Welsh said...

The victims of the torture involved both people from within and without the country who were taken as political prisoners and subject to torture. They really weren't being held on legitimate criminal charges or afforded fair trials. I'm not going to make that differentiation. We were basically laying the groundwork for our future endeavors into this treacherous area using people in Latin American countries as guinea pigs.

Flogger said...

Extraordinary Rendition revealed the true hypocrisy of the USA. Kidnapping and torture is a true description of Extraordinary Rendition. Another euphemism is Terminate with Extreme Prejudice another word for killing.

The Political Elite goes out of it's way to constantly reassure us we are a "Nation of Laws." As we have seen in the last 50 years or so, our Ideals codified into Law, are false fronts.

A group of CIA people were tried in an Italian Court for Extraordinary Rendition, found guilty in absentia, but the US never returned them to serve out their sentences. Contrast this with the rabid attempts to bring Snowden back to the USA to stand trial.

Anonymous said...

snowden is a republican leak appointed to scare US citizens...Patriot Act was made my Bush and others..Spins...