The corruption of Col. James Hiett

When the commander of U.S. anti-drug efforts in Colombia got involved in drug running, Congress should have rethought its massive military aid bill -- but it didn't.

Published July 5, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

In two weeks, a retired Army colonel will stand for sentencing before Judge Edward Korman in the Cadman Plaza federal courthouse. The colonel's name has never been uttered on the Senate floor. You can rummage in vain for any mention of him in congressional committee testimony and reports.

Yet the case of Col. James Hiett, former commander of U.S. Army anti-drug advisors in Colombia, due to be sentenced in mid-July for covering up his wife's drug smuggling, has everything to do with the passage last week of more than $1 billion in military aid to Colombia. Hiett's case offers dark hints of what the United States is in for by turning the Colombian drug-war theater into a large-scale American military enterprise -- and it reveals, too, some of the costs of the drug war on America's own streets.

The Hiett scandal is already an international embarrassment to the United States, and its outlines have been widely reported. In the mid-1990s, while Hiett was still stationed in the United States, his wife Laurie Ann Hiett was treated in an Army hospital for drug addiction. Later Hiett was named by the Army to head the 200-strong battalion of military advisors in Bogotá. The couple went -- even though Laurie had lapsed back into addiction, snorting cocaine in front of her husband.

Soon she was buying cocaine through her Army-employed Colombian driver. By 1998 she was under investigation by the Army, not only for using drugs, but for shipping $700,000 worth of coke, wrapped in brown paper, to the United States in diplomatic mail. She handed some of the cash proceeds, collected on trips to New York, to her husband -- who proceeded to carefully spend the wad on household bills, to "dissipate," in his own word, the money trail. In May Laurie Hiett pleaded guilty to smuggling and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

That much was reported, in detail, on "60 Minutes" and elsewhere. Less well known, but revealed in her sentencing hearing last May, is how the Army worked to protect her husband. First, Army investigators tipped him off about their investigation, in particular their pursuit of a $25,000 roll of cash Laurie had handed him. Then, after his wife was arrested, those same Army investigators quickly cleared Hiett of any wrongdoing. It was only U.S. Customs Service director Ray Kelly who insisted on pushing the investigation further after his agents became convinced of the officer's complicity in his wife's actions.

You might think that an Army coverup of a minor-league scandal like an officer's drug-smuggling wife would worry a Congress about to plunge the American military far deeper into corruption-mired Colombia. But the issue never came up.

Of course, defenders of the Colombia aid package would argue that Hiett was an aberration. But they're wrong on two counts. First, what makes the Colombia mess such a quagmire is the utter corruption on all sides. Every faction -- left-wing guerrillas, right-wing death squads, corrupt Colombian military elements and, under Hiett at least, the U.S. Army -- has some involvement in the drug trade.

And Hiett's corruption itself is not necessarily that unusual. As former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay Robert White told Salon's Jeff Stein: "There's always been a fear of this by sensible people in the Pentagon. The legend is that the United States military is incorruptible, but that has proven not to be the case. There are quite a few instances of this corruption."

On "60 Minutes" and in a New York Times interview this spring, the Hietts received the kind of empathetic portrayal too rarely accorded substance-abusing households: the addict wife and the straight-laced officer-husband locked in compulsive denial.

One of the ironies of Col. Hiett's sentencing is that just last Wednesday the Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., to the Colombia drug-war bill which would have diverted much of that money into making effective drug-treatment programs widely available. "If Laurie Hiett had received adequate treatment back in 1995, Col. Hiett would not be in trouble today," points out Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank. "She is the perfect illustration of how the only real way to fight the drug war is to reduce demand for drugs, through good treatment."

However much sympathy Laurie Hiett's addiction deserves, the Hietts also neatly demonstrate the profound social inequity and inverted justice of the whole drug war. Judge Korman contrived to sentence Laurie Hiett to two years less prison time than called for in federal sentencing guidelines, and Col. Hiett himself was indicted for the smallest offense prosecutors could find on the books. Yet Laurie Hiett's "mule," Hernan Aquila, a Colombian-born resident of Queens whom she recruited to transport her coke after its arrival in New York, last month received a longer prison term than her employer for initiating the scheme.

Perhaps most importantly, despite their successful play for public and judicial sympathy, the Hietts are actually part of a much larger picture of how the drug war persistently ensnares and corrupts drug-law enforcers, their families and their close associates.

In that sense, the case is a novelty only because Col. Hiett was wearing U.S. Army green instead of street-cop blue. His story, for instance, has deep resonance in the neighborhoods of New Haven, Conn., where I live, and where every few years a high-ranking cop ends up ensnared, one way or another, in the trade.

One veteran officer's son becomes a heroin addict and gets killed in a gang vendetta. The city's top uniformed cop moves in with a coke-addled petty thief and ends up dealing out of the police department's evidence locker. A narcotics detective is accused of conspiring with a dealer in covering up the murder of a former alderman-turned-addict.

My friend John R. Williams, a New Haven criminal defense lawyer who has handled drug cases (and the occasional corrupted cop) since the 1970s, recognized the Hiett pattern immediately. Col. Hiett, says Williams, "was part of an operation in which drugs and drug profits are everywhere -- the moral norm." The policies that officers like Hiett are supposed to enforce, Williams says, bear no relationship to the reality they see every day: informants paid in drugs, family members who use drugs and drug agents who sell drugs. The constant denial, the distance between reality and policy and the huge profits that result "makes cynicism endemic, makes it only a small leap from selective enforcement to selective participation."

The city's former Police Chief Nicholas Pastore agrees: Hiett was caught not just by his wife's addiction but by the impossible contradictions of policy. "You see this gradual slide into a morality in which the rules have a constantly shifting meaning."

This, then, is what Congress is buying with its $1 billion entry into Colombia's drug-drenched civil war: the Hiett enterprise on a massive scale, with the Pentagon as major stockholder. Diplomatic pouches and military planes as drug pipelines; pilots, drivers and returning officers as couriers; and an American partnership with a Colombian military already profoundly mired in drug trafficking, paramilitary violence and human-rights abuses.

Like the drug war as a whole, the Colombian operation is an inescapable briar patch. Every act of interdiction raises the price of coca even higher, making it ever more profitable for farmers and smugglers. "Our own repressive apparatus," says Sterling, "is what will make the market attractive and draw people like Mrs. Hiett further into the trade."

It is not only U.S. drug policy reformers who make this point. In May, Alejandro Gertz Merero, the police chief of Mexico City, called for policies that end "the economic interest in drug trafficking," instead of increasing the street value of drugs with enforced scarcity.

The $1.6 billion plan originally proposed by President Clinton (the final version is now being negotiated by the House and Senate) called for spending $512 million on two Colombian military battalions, purchasing 63 helicopters and spending more than $200 million on drug interdiction in Colombia.

All this to a sustain Colombian military operations about which Human Rights Watch recently revealed "detailed, abundant, and compelling evidence of continuing close ties" to "paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations." Human Rights Watch estimates that half of all Colombian battalions are involved with the notorious paramilitaries -- a partnership, despite the real crimes of the country's guerilla movement, responsible for most of country's 37,000 civilian killings since 1985. It is, as Sterling puts it, a "massive intensification" of the American military's involvement in the corruption-generating drug war.

Which brings us back to Col. Hiett and his sentencing in Brooklyn. The Hiett case leaves many questions in its wake. Why did the Army move so fast to cover up his complicity? How widespread is drug-related corruption already among U.S. military personnel and their households in Colombia? What are the relationships between tainted U.S. military officials like Hiett and their Colombian counterparts?

These are questions that the soft-landing plea bargains accorded Col. Hiett and his wife were designed to forestall, and which Congress should have asked before giving a final rubber stamp to the Colombia quagmire.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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