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During this heyday, the CIA was one of Florida's largest employers, through several dozen front companies, a secret navy later estimated to be one of the largest in the Caribbean, and private airlines. Once it shut down JM/WAVE, Miami was awash in thousands of people with covert military training, not to mention money-laundering skills, just as the drug trade began to flourish. For about ten years beginning in the mid-Seventies, Miami was wide open -- a border town whose major import/export business was the well-laid scam, practiced by lawyers, bankers, politicians, and real estate developers, as well as the more overtly criminal elements such as drug traffickers. Large amounts of unexplained cash flowed in and out of the downtown financial sector. Flash and cash determined the social hierarchy and the place picked up its Miami Vicereputation.
Of course the CIA was still here, and the same ask-no-questions-tell-no-lies atmosphere that made Miami a haven for lawless profiteers, also made a perfect cover for off-the-books political operations. Faced with an uncooperative Congress in the early Eighties, the CIA financed much of its illegal aid to the Nicaraguan contras via the same Miami characters and fronts used to harass Castro. Some of these characters were also in the business of moving cocaine back from Central and South American countries, and delivering arms shipments and secret agents there. During the same period, guys like Sarkis Soghanalian, a major arms dealer with winter quarters in Miami Beach, sold weapons to Nicaragua and helped arm Saddam Hussein in his fight against the ayatollahs of Iran. He did this, he has claimed many times, with the approval of the Reagan and Bush administrations and the CIA.
Miami today may not be as wide open as that, but it remains a place of intrigue. We've got Venezuelan businessmen plotting the overthrow of Hugo Chavez from Key Biscayne, relatives of deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza running popular restaurants all over the county, and the ever-present octogenarian exilio commandos endlessly plotting the violent overthrow of Fidel Castro over cafecitos in Little Havana. And as we discovered post-September 11, this end of Florida is also a haven for Middle Eastern terrorists. So Smith can be forgiven his paranoia.
The Association of Former Intelligence Officers was formed in Virginia in 1975, around the time the CIA began to get the congressional thumbscrews for some of its bloodier exploits. Today it claims around 3500 members and a mission of promoting a "better understanding" of the role effective U.S. intelligence plays in this country's security. Thomas Spencer, who's on the board of the national group, founded the Miami chapter a year and a half ago. James Angleton, Jr., chief financial officer for the United Teachers of Dade, is the current president of the chapter. There are about 50 members so far. Spencer frequently gives talks about national security issues to various business and civic organizations in town. "It's unbelievable the stuff that goes on here today and historically," Spencer says. "We've got representatives from every intelligence agency in the world, on one side or the other."
For AFIO, he brings in speakers like federal judge and ex-naval intelligence officer A. Jay Cristol, and Rear Adm. James "Jay" Carmichael, commander of the local Coast Guard district. Besides being a great place to pick up the latest spy spin and conspiracy tales, the AFIO lunches aim to bring together the somewhat amorphous local intelligence community. "We're generally speaking to the choir and they know it," Spencer admits. "It's primarily a networking thing." Spencer says he's got aspirations to start scholarships for local students who want to enter an intelligence field, and fund intelligence programs at a local university.
Overall the local AFIO offers a mix of goofy boosterism (like raffling off coffee mugs and ball caps with the logo on them) and ideological affirmation. The guest speakers are a pretty sober lot, but the real fun is at the tables. At a lunch at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel, Comandanta Leona introduces me to Major Bob, a retired Army pilot who spent five years with the CIA in the Seventies. With a smooth bald head, glasses, crisp dark suit, and large gold and diamond ring on one hand, he looks like a younger version of Dr. No. Nowadays he's a security consultant and runs an antique shop in Pembroke Pines with his wife. "The scariest man I know," says Leona, only half-joking. "You should write about him."
"My life is not for publication," Bob protests. Then, switching gears, Bob tells me if I join the group, he'll send me the nifty AFIO e-mail newsletters. "You like conspiracy theories? I'll send you one of those sites, too."
There's no shortage of conspiracy chatter, mixed in with real bits of intelligence. At one lunch, the dapper former commissioner of a small town in South Florida reveals that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and his redneck cohorts had contacts with "Arabs." "I was part of the [Oklahoma City] investigation," says a guy I'll call Ari. "I have seen the photographs." At another lunch, I learn that al Qaeda is working with Chechen rebels, and still finding money for its operations. A gruesome speculation is made about a Navy SEAL killed by al Qaeda in March. "Reports were ... he was shot in the hands, feet, they cut off his ears, mutilated his organs, then finished him off execution-style," one guy says. The news flash in December? The U.S. is going to take some new toys into Iraq in February, for a quick war. "It'll be a 72-hour war," claims one ideologue. I also hear that South Florida is a more dangerous place to live than New York, Detroit, or San Francisco because of the high concentration of potential terrorists and their sympathizers hiding here. Look for biological warfare in produce departments and computer hackers in banking systems, for a start.
Then there is my favorite, the real reason Fidel Castro is still in power. Smith throws this one at me casually, to see if I'll take the bait. I can't even hazard a guess:
"What isthe reason?" I demand.
"You think I'm going to tell you that?" he scoffs.