“This is a story about an extreme miscarriage of justice. It involves the CIA, the US Army and a shitload of cocaine.”
“If you want to, you can question anything to death,” says director Eric Stacey, his melodic Californian drawl coming slow and steady down the line. “But my point of view is, if enough people are writing about the same thing from different backgrounds and perspectives, there’s got to be something to it.”
Stacey, who grew up in old Hollywood watching his father work alongside Hitchcock and Capra, is speaking about his filmAffidavit , currently posted on crowdfunding site USA Projects somewhere between a holocaust memorial made from six million toothpicks and Claud Zeeb’s Love Utopitility Vehicles (we’re not sure either). If made, Affidavit will dramatise the story of army private William Tyree Jr, currently serving a life term at a maximum security prison in Massachusetts for ordering colleague Erik Aarhus to kill his 22-year-old wife Elaine. Stacey believes he is innocent, and if the promise of a shitload of cocaine isn’t enough to entice, how about the CIA supporting Panamanian drug trafficking, army personnel deliberately withholding information that could free Tyree and widespread surveillance of the judiciary by intelligence services?
In 1980 the courts alleged that Elaine Tyree’s murder was financially motivated — Tyree, stationed at Fort Devens, had taken out life insurance policies in the months preceding his wife’s death. An affidavit allegedly penned a few months later by Colonel Edward Cutolo — in command at Fort Devens — recounts a far more sinister motive. It details his, Tyree’s, and CIA and Army personnel’s involvement in and knowledge of Special Forces missions enabling the transportation of cocaine from Colombia to Panama’s Albrook Army Airfield to help in the funding of, among other things, Manuel Noriega’s apparent fight against communism. It also recounts details of surveillance at Tyree’s home that would have exonerated the private.
It’s pretty incredible stuff, pointing the finger of blame at CIA officials including Edwin Wilson (later convicted of illegally selling arms to Libya), that may or may not have been operating with the agency’s direct knowledge. In the years 1975-76, according to Cutolo’s affidavit and Colonel James “Bo” Gritz’s book Called to Serve, operation Watchtower involved the erection of beacon towers to allow low-flying planes to operate undetected between Bogota and Albrook. Follow-up operation Orwell was allegedly an effort to monitor politicians, judges and churches in case word of Watchtower got out. Wired.co.uk has not seen an original copy of Cutolo’s affidavit, but has a photocopied version of a Colonel William Wilson’s affidavit verifying the facts. Wilson, a well-respected former Green Beret and investigator for the US Army Inspector General, spent five years investigating Cutolo’s affidavit, interviewing 200 people including former members of the CIA. Though Wired.co.uk cannot attest to the authenticity of the document, it appears to have been notarised by an officialcontracted by the State of Florida.
It’s such an extraordinary story that it’s easy to cry conspiracy theorist. In its historical context, however, it begins to sound less far-fetched. The alleged missions took place in the years preceding the Iran-Contra affair, an arms-for-hostages scandal that saw the US break an arms embargo with the Middle Eastern nation amid allegations of related funds being diverted to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, known as the Contras. An investigation, the John Kerry Committee report, found “foreign policy considerations [had] interfered with the US’s ability to fight the war on drugs”, US officials maintaining airstrips used in “covert Contra supply operations” were fully aware drug traffickers were also using the strips, and the State Department contracted four companies owned and operated by drugs traffickers “to supply humanitarian assistance to the Contras”. It does not go as far as saying the CIA was complicit, but the implication that it was routinely turning a blind eye to illegal activities to the benefit of US foreign policy — and detriment of US citizens as drug imports spiked — was clear.
Why then is Tyree’s story, just a few years before the Iran-Contra affair and a few years after Watergate, so hard to believe? Why, despite historical context and testimony, is it still so ridiculous to believe government is so at fault? Why is the conspiracy theorist sidelined in a world where our expectations of state morality have been so diminished?
“We live in an information wilderness,” political documentary maker Eugene Jarecki tells Wired.co.uk, “and so conspiracy theorists have been made a laughing stock by government and their friends in the media, because of course it’s a good idea to marginalise critics and turn them into people that shouldn’t be taken seriously. What better way to undermine them? Donald Rumsfeld referred to the information wilderness as information asymmetry — his goal was to maintain information asymmetry over his adversaries, but who were his adversaries? Was it Al Qaida, the Iraqi people? I think the real answer, in part, is the American people.”
Jarecki has spent his career challenging the status quo and asking uncomfortable questions. The subject matter of his films — racially and socially-motivated US drug policy in The House I Live In, and the US government routinely misleading the public into war in Why We Fight — could have seen him marginalised as a conspiracy theorist. But with credentials like two Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prizes to his name, Jarecki’s musings have more sway than an imprisoned army private’s.
He argues that a government-induced information wilderness inevitably breeds theorists like himself and Stacey: “When you have an information asymmetry, no wonder you’re made to feel ridiculous hypothesising about what’s going on. When we’re deprived of the information necessary to understand what our government is doing, we’re left to hypothesise about the particulars of a story like the Iran-Contra.”
There are plenty of examples of US government involvement, to some degree, in enabling drug trafficking (see George Washington University’s National Security Archives). But over the years stories have gained little traction. In 1996 investigative reporter Gary Webb published a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News on Contras smuggling cocaine to LA and the CIA turning a blind eye to ensure funds trickled back to the rebel group (which, since the Boland Amendment was passed, Reagan could no longer openly financially support). “His allegations have never been undermined in any meaningful way by those in power,” comments documentary-maker Jarecki, yet Webb’s publishers backed away from the story as controversy stirred. If it wasn’t for the internet, Webb said, his story might not have reached so many people, having been published by a local newspaper. Webb struggled to find work again over the years, before his suicide in 2004.
“There’s no question the mainstream media is reluctant to write about events well documented, and incidences of wrongdoing involving official agencies and drug trafficking,” Jonathan Marshall, author of Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America, told Wired.co.uk. “And that reluctance helps breed speculation. It lends credence to the idea that there is some suppression of truth going on. It’s partly because there’s a well-deserved feeling that mainstream media and official investigations have not adequately pursued legitimate stories; it opens the door for conspiracy theorising.”
Jarecki argues the US government has repeatedly used “threats” to national security to pursue any interest it sees fit — this agenda is widely picked up in the press, and perpetuated by sidelining tales of “rare” wrongdoings. In the case of Watchtower and Orwell, both fit nicely into the anti-communist interest of the day.
“National interest becomes a relevant and guiding term in the shaping of public policy,” he says. “Reagan had a personal agenda to be an anti-communist, that made him see Iran-Contra activities as a no-holds bar approach to preventing the spread of communism — he believed it was so worthy one would stop at nothing to pursue it, even violating the principles of democracy supposedly to defend it. When US Congress blocks him from being involved with the Contras because of their human rights violations, in an act that symbolises the great disconnect between what the public wants and what Reagan wants, he figures he’ll get money elsewhere.”
So if an individual like Stacey senses there is something awry, an injustice or a false truth, how do they relay it in a meaningful way? Moreover, how can it have any affect on a public opinion already so under duress by ideological propaganda?
Kendrick Oliver, reader in American History at the University of Southampton, suggests an inherent problem in communication is that “truth tellers” believe it is simply enough to do just that: speak their truth.
“The Vietnam My Lai massacre happened in March 1968 and was revealed in November 1969. It was a subject of major headlines with visual content of atrocities. But it didn’t change opinion. By that point in the Vietnam war those opposed were opposed — people continued to support the war and a President persevering the reasons: communism. You assume if you throw content in the direction of an audience then like a magic bullet it will affect consciousness and opinions, balance and consensus. I’m less certain that’s the case.”
Oliver points to The Death Of Others, by Executive Director of MIT’s Centre for International Studies John Tirman, in which the research scientist highlights the indifference demonstrated by the American public to the death toll of “those we fight and those we fight for”. Tirman wrote the book after a press release sent out by his department revealing civilian casualties in Iraq stretched to the hundreds of thousands, made no splash whatsoever. “He subsequently wrote this book on American responses to reports of civilian casualties from World War I to the Vietnam War and found more or less the same thing,” says Oliver. “There are arguments it’s to do with American frontier ideology, but I don’t know too many examples where a nation anywhere has been called to conscious. There’s a pattern, whether it’s indifference or an unwillingness to spend one’s time thinking about these things.”
For this reason, Oliver does not believe Affidavit can have the effect its creator is hoping for. “It sounds like a noble gesture, and I hope it gets made, but I do wonder whether it will find an audience or whether the audience will just be the usual suspects that like to listen to these things. So it won’t actually make much of a difference.”
Nevertheless, he continues, “There’s a need for these films to be made to hasten a kind of accounting; to make the public more aware of the things government has been doing behind the scenes”.
Aside from finding an audience, director Jarecki believes Stacey’s project may also struggle to find funding due to its conspiracy theory rhetoric. “There’s nothing wrong in what I read in the suggestions of Affidavit, but there is if you read it as someone being asked for crowdfunding.”
“You have to walk very carefully, because it’s become easy to be marginalised as a conspiracy theorist if you try to define what the wizard’s doing behind the curtain. It’s almost like you’re looked down upon if you express your democratic right — no, obligation — to ask questions about the running of your government. Information asymmetry is designed to leave those of us who critique the system in a state of looking ridiculous. We are not ridiculous.”
Trouble is, even those in the know are skeptical about the “truths” behind the affidavits. Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — whose book on US involvement in Golden Triangle drug cartels the CIA attempted to quash — does not hold much stead in Tyree’s claims. “Personally I’m skeptical about the agency having direct involvement,” he told Wired.co.uk. “It’s not how they work. Usually they have a mission to affect a certain outcome with minimal intrusion, working with operatives to create a favourable climate such as a change of government. They disappear completely, knowing assets are in place.”
Cocaine Politics author Marshall agrees: “I’ve covered that period and not seen any independent verification of Watchtower or any event mentioned here. I would be very cautious before I put much faith in it. In my view there was direct involvement with people in drug trafficking, but the CIA was not involved directly with drug trafficking. It’s not as if the CIA has a small budget. There’s ample legitimate material out there, and I’m sure there’s many things we don’t know, but it’s important to be scrupulous checking new claims.”
Sources have disputed that Tyree was ever a member of the Special Forces (though both Cutolo and Wilson’s affidavits point to his record being expunged to remove evidence of Watchtower and Orwell), turning the army private into something of a comic figure and common liar. Others have likewise been ridiculed for their theories. Colonel Bo Gritz for instance, who also claims he worked on Watchtower, went on to carry out dubious Rambo-style rogue trips to rescue US POWs in the 80s, thought to still be held in Vietnam and Laos. The missions were resoundingly seen as a farce and a failure. If that weren’t enough to discredit the soldier of fortune, he also fears the implementation of a New World Order and was a candidate for Vice President of the extremist US Populist Party (of which former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was also a member). But William Shatner reportedly bought the rights to his life story, so it can’t all be bad…
Nevertheless, if Wilson’s affidavit is accurate, the facts are damning. It states that the courtroom Tyree’s case was held in was bugged (claims separately corroborated and in point 17 of this appeals court document dismissed because nothing worthwhile was taped), witnesses admitted they were coached in testimony by investigating officer Chief William Adamson and Tyree’s attorney did not raise the fact that his home was searched without a warrant (this meant no inventory was taken and a diary Elaine allegedly kept containing details of Watchtower and Aarhus’ criminal activities was never recovered).
Wilson argues the case against Tyree was largely circumstantial, and on reading the details this seems partially true. The prosecution highlights Tyree’s changing story, witnesses saying he talked about having his wife killed and the fact Adamson thought he was “emotionless”. Wilson also points out that Tyree was, unusually, given an honourable discharge: “We do not recall one case during our military careers in which we have seen this type of discharge given to a soldier convicted of murder.” There are plenty of hairy details in between, though, that call to question its authenticity. For instance, Tyree’s commanding colonel Cutolo conveniently alleges in his affidavit that Watchtower was implemented under the authority of CIA operative Thomas Clines, the same operative who would later be found to be deeply entrenched in the Iran-Contra affair. Clines involvement in the scandal occurred years after Cutolo allegedly penned the affidavit in 1980. However, copies of it online are purported to have emerged in 1990, giving Tyree or any sympathisers a decade to put together a false affidavit naming those who had already had their reputations tarnished or linked to 80s scandals.
I, like anyone else confronted with shady government doings in a world where information is everywhere and easily accessible, remain skeptical. If there haven’t been several books and news reports written about it, it’s hard to trust. Only when it has that body of work behind it, and public acknowledgement, does it seem tangible enough to grab hold of.
People also abide by the formulas and structures built to sustain them: the government sustains my way of life; I trust the government. But it is also part of the human condition to cast that formula aside and question everything the moment a personal slight is experienced. The death of a parent makes one question the things they took for granted; in war, death makes us question everything as we inevitably search for reasons. Colonel Wilson knew this better than most, his part in the My Lai Massacre investigation revealing what atrocities may be committed, and concealed, in the name of preserving public opinion. Around 400 unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered on that March day in Vietnam. But just one lieutenant, William Calley, was convicted, his life sentence lifted two days later by President Nixon before being adjusted to three and a half years house arrest. Nixon, and the army, utterly negated Wilson’s investigative efforts, efforts of the press, and the deaths of those 400 people. Culpability was washed over, military law rendering those no longer in the service untouchable and the US President stepping in to singlehandedly pardon the only individual charged. The press’s ability to let these things pass, is ever present today. Former Guatemalan ruler Efraín Ríos Montt is currently standing trial for the brutal genocide of the indigenous Mayan population 1982-3, and mainstream news items give fleeting mention to Reagan’s support for the dictator.
For Stacey, the betrayal of authority was closer to home, if a lot less gruesome.
Midway through our interview, the director assures me he is not simply a man obsessed with conspiracies. “I watched the Masters yesterday,” he says softly, “I like to go fishing… It’s odd, I really don’t know why I’m committed to this kind of film.” He pauses quite suddenly then, an afterthought: “My father was killed on a movie set in 1969 and there was a coverup by the studio of the circumstances because they wanted to avoid a costly lawsuit… The more I found out about that, I guess the deeper my feelings for this kind of corruption and duplicity were established.”
For Stacey, it might be about righting a wrong and shedding light on an undeniably shady part of US history. But it’s also about telling people, it’s ok to question; it’s ok to make use of your democratic right to interrogate your government. You may not have a law degree or a voice among lobbyists, but you still have a voice and it’s ok to use it.
“I’d just like to open the door for projects to question the status quo,” he says. “Twenty years ago or more there were a number of films that cast the CIA as a sort of evil empire. And since then we’ve come full circle to mainstream press not even mentioning conspiracies, except to ridicule them. It’s important mainstream film audiences become open to questioning what may or may not be true.”
Affidavit may also provide Stacey with a little peace of mind. As assistant director his father worked alongside filmmaker Frank Capra, famed for capturing small town USA nostalgia on screen. He also produced seven “information films”, readying the US public for war at the behest of the Pentagon. Today, Stacey hopes to ready the US public to question the lengths we go to perpetuate that small town idealism, at home and abroad.
Eric Stacey is seeking $75,000 (£50,000) in funding to produce the film. Crowdfunding closes 22 May at midnight.