True Lies?

Ken Bucchi says he was a drug-running spook. The CIA says hes an impostor

Photo by Jack GouldThe 1980s. The U.S. appetite for cocaine is insatiable. Everyone's snorting. Nancy Reagan's screaming, "Just say no!" The government decides to kick ass. Uncle Sam goes straight to the source: Central America. South America. Any America that's not North America. We go down there. A familiar face smiles back. The CIA's been there for years. "What took you so long?" The CIA had already hopped from one impoverished country to another. The CIA had already propped up one repressive regime after another. The CIA knows the drug trade. "Fight your silly Drug War," the CIA says. "Just don't fuck up our groundwork." Their groundwork. They know the coke flow is immense. Immeasurable. Unstoppable. The CIA knows about the money. Fuck Woodward and Bernstein! Don't follow the money. It leads back to the CIA. You think Joe Sixpack funds these dictators? Hah! There's enough lucre here to fund secret operations the world over. The Iranians need arms to fight the Iraqis. They helped put Ronnie Reagan in the White House. It's payback time. Drugs are seized before they enter the U.S. Drugs are sold to buy arms. Arms are exchanged for hostages. Drug seizures are celebrated as major victories in the sham Drug War. Drug proceeds that fund black ops are better celebrated in private. In the Star Chamber. Clink your glasses. We win. They lose. They can die. Must die. God bless the Americas.

Santa Ana resident Ken Bucchi says he was a contract soldier in the CIA Drug War. He says the Agency recruited him out of Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He says he endured rigorous training in a crater in the Nevada desert. He says his final exam was sinking drug boats in the Florida Keys. He says his graduation included bombing cocaine labs in Colombia. He says he met with then-CIA director William Casey, who is now rotting in Hell. Bucchi says they developed Operation Pseudo Miranda. He says deals were made with the "coke lords," even Pablo Escobar. Bucchi says Operation Pseudo Miranda would stop half the cocaine coming into the U.S. How? By agreeing to allow the other half to arrive at its destination unimpeded. He says the big, protected cartels like Medellin turned the CIA on to smaller, competing drug operations. He says the CIA set about crushing the competition. All in the name of Operation Pseudo Miranda. All in the name of Nancy Reagan's sham Drug War. All in the name of America.

I was at another newspaper seven years ago. Ken Bucchi called. His New England accent was as thick as chowder. He was living in Newport Beach. He'd just written a novel, CIA: Cocaine in America. A small "true crime" house published it. Would I interview him? Interviewing an author is about as fun as a root canal with a rusty nail and no Vicodin. Reading an interview of an author is even worse. But how many local guys claim to be spooks? It was worth at least a listen. He walked into the conference room. Tan. Slim. Athletic. Handsome. Early 30s. Casually dressed, but nice stuff—like you'd find in a Fashion Island men's shop. I listened. I'll admit it now if I didn't admit to readers then: his tale was mighty convoluted. So was CIA: Cocaine in America. The lead character in Bucchi's fictional book was really Bucchi. Obviously. The lead character hobnobbed with dangerous drug lords. The lead character boned a fellow CIA soldier who turned out to be a total babe once you stripped her down. The CIA babe later died in his arms. The lead character may have had a secret meeting with then-Vice President George Bush. May have? Well? Did you or didn't you? Don't know, Bucchi answered. The CIA often arranged meetings between contractors like Bucchi and impostors. He mildly apologized for the way some details were presented in CIA: Cocaine in America. "For storytelling purposes," he said, the publisher made him take a lot of literary license.

Sounded more like literary bullshit. Sounded like Ken Bucchi must be a nut. But something kept nagging at me. At the core of his story were fascinating details about an alleged CIA drug operation. Enough specifics to give Tom Clancy a boner the size and tensile strength of the Red October. How could someone make stuff like this up whole-cloth?

And details like these popped up again. Two years after our interview. The San Jose Mercury News. Reporter Gary Webb's groundbreaking "Dark Alliance" series chronicled the real-life CIA connection to crack cocaine sales on the streets of South-Central LA. The OC Weekly's Nick Schou managed to piggyback onto Webb's coverage with assorted Orange County connections, including the story of a former Laguna cop busted for running coke out of his Mission Viejo domicile. But Webb has since been shit on. Heat came from other newspapers. The Los Angeles Times led the wolf pack. The Times didn't break the CIA-crack story, therefore it couldn't have happened. A Mercury News editor concurred. Webb's story was branded sloppy. He's now out of the biz.

Bucchi has since been shit on, too. But first we've gotta backtrack.

This much we know is true about Kenneth C. Bucchi: he did attend Murray State. Got a B.S. in criminology in 1984. Joined the Air Force a year later. His discharge papers say he was in aircraft maintenance. His discharge papers say he was a captain. That he was in for six years. That he received two Air Force commendation medals and an achievement medal. That he served in the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991. That he was discharged in '91.

He told me he left the service to become a private investigator. Two years later, he became a corporate investigator. Undercover. Why was he living in Newport at the time we first met? He was spying on employees for a local defense giant. Then he moved to Oregon to do the same thing at a paper plant. His experiences led to his first nonfiction book, Inside Job: Deep Undercover as a Corporate Spy. It hit the bookstore shelves, and the TV yakfests started calling. Bucchi made the rounds. He also did radio: National Public Radio, Howard Stern, John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten). During the Stern interview, Bucchi's CIA past came up. He told the shock jock that part of his training involved trying to keep a straight face while asking girls if they were wearing underwear.

The publisher of Inside Job is Granite Bay-based Penmarin Books, a small outfit with a big jones for the CIA. Publisher Hal Lockwood asked Bucchi if he had any other experiences worthy of a book. Bucchi mentioned Operation Pseudo Miranda. Bucchi showed Lockwood CIA: Cocaine in America. Lockwood looked at real documents Bucchi said backed up his story. What's that they say about truth being stranger than fiction? Lockwood wanted Bucchi's real-life CIA exploits on the printed page. Lockwood wanted Operation Pseudo Miranda: A Veteran of the CIA Drug Wars Tells All. It came out last year.

Bucchi made the media rounds again. Reluctantly. He didn't mind voicing his opinions on the latest spy incident in the news—and there have been a bunch, in case you haven't been paying attention. But talking about his own involvement in The Life bothered Bucchi. Fox called this past January. They wanted Bucchi to talk about Pseudo Miranda on the Jan. 29 The O'Reilly Factor. Blowhard host Bill O'Reilly hedged his bets on the air. "Now, once you put this in a book, they said you were a psycho," O'Reilly said. It had come out somehow, despite supposedly sealed military records, that the Air Force had tagged Bucchi as "delusional." Bucchi tried to offer O'Reilly his defense. "So you can prove it by these documents that you have," the host remarked. "And we've looked them over. But, you know, documents can be doctored." Fox had called the CIA and the State Department. No comment. A common response. From the time I first interviewed Bucchi in 1994 through his O'Reilly Factor appearance, no government agency ever publicly commented on his story. When he appeared on Fox News with former FBI directors a short time before O'Reilly to discuss the Robert Hanssen spy case, no one questioned the veracity of Bucchi's Drug War games. The closest he had ever gotten to official reaction was a couple of phone calls. Anonymous. Always women. Always late at night.


April 23: Bucchi tells CNN the CIA ran coke.
April 26: CIA says Bucchi never worked for the agency.
Photo by Jack Gould

"You're rubbing the Agency the wrong way."

April 20, 2001. CIA-contract employees are flying a U.S. plane in the skies above Peru. They're tracking small aircraft. They spot a single-engine Cessna. Must be a drug runner. They radio for a Peruvian fighter jet. The jet shoots the plane down. Holy shit! It wasn't a drug plane! It was a missionary plane! An American woman and her baby perish in the crash. The same American public that couldn't give two shits about that region before suddenly wants answers. CNN wanted Ken Bucchi to provide them. He was in the Rolodex as a former CIA contractor. He was in the Rolodex as having fought in the Drug War. He was in the Rolodex as being media-savvy. He apparently wasn't in the Rolodex for being "delusional." That wasn't important right now. The public demanded to know how such a horrific incident could happen? Bucchi was booked on the April 23 CNN afternoon newscast. He laid out the shady ways the government works in the southern hemisphere. Anchor Stephen Frazier was appalled. Bucchi reasoned with him. Pseudo Miranda may have let half the drugs in, but at least no missionary planes were shot down back in the day. Bucchi did so well that he was held over for that evening's telecast of The Point With Greta van Susteren. Among the other three guests was Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), one of the nation's leading critics of the CIA. Bucchi said the CIA purposely distances itself from contractors like those who sicced the Peruvian Air Force on what was thought to be a drug plane. Meanwhile, the CIA takes the credit for stopping 60 percent of the drugs coming out of Peru. "Does anybody in America today feel like 60 percent of the drugs came off their streets?" Bucchi asked. Waters found those words revelatory. Like they came from on high. "Ken, I want to thank you for being the clearest voice that I have ever heard coming out of the CIA or any related agency about what is going on in this Drug War," she said. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Someone was not amused. CNN got a call from the CIA. The Agency said Ken Bucchi was an impostor. The Agency said Ken Bucchi never worked for the CIA. The Agency said Ken Bucchi never was a CIA contractor. Van Susteren went on the air April 25. "I have a secret agency of the government telling me one thing and a citizen telling me another. I've seen and heard falsehoods from both before. Both positions are aired on CNN." Bucchi says that after Van Susteren read the statement, he got a call from a guy he knew from a secret CIA base in Arkansas who offered to confirm their shared experiences with CNN. Bucchi says he told him not to bother because his life would be turned upside down.

April 26. CIA spokesman Bill Harlow released what was apparently an unprecedented statement ("Apparently" because Harlow did not return phone calls seeking clarification):

On April 23, 2001, CNN aired a program during which they interviewed an individual named Kenneth Bucchi, whom CNN described as a "former CIA narcotics agent." During the program, Bucchi alleged that the CIA "basically had a complicit operation, a quid pro quo, if you will, with the drug lords of Colombia and essentially, what we [the CIA] did is put the lion's share of the market in small cash in drug lords' hands. . . .

CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said the following in response to this allegation:

"Bucchi never worked for or was affiliated with the CIA in any way; he was neither an employee nor a contractor at any time. Bucchi's account of an operation supposedly working with the drug lords of Colombia is complete and utter nonsense—it is fiction."

Harlow added that while the CIA usually declines to say whether or not a person has ever worked for the Agency, "this one has just gone too far."

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz pounced on the story. "CNN's Very Secret Agent: CIA says man's story is phony." Kurtz played up Harlow's prime directive while introducing Bucchi's defense this way: "In a rambling interview . . ." He quoted Bucchi saying he can't prove he worked for the CIA, that he can't prove he wasn't delusional. Then the coup de grace: Bucchi used an "expletive."

Fucking Kurtz! Lockwood was livid. How could the Washington Post—the vaunted Washington Post—put out such one-sided trash? How could they take the CIA response at face value while ignoring Bucchi's facts? Hal Lockwood checked those facts. Fox News checked those facts. They were solid. Bucchi says Kurtz snipped his quotes. Bucchi says Kurtz ignored his documents. Bucchi says the great Howard Kurtz—who loves going on TV to blast TV for rushing to put people on the air without thorough background checks—relied on just one source for his story: the most secretive spy agency in the world.

Those Bucchi facts? The Air Force branded him delusional for running around and talking about Pseudo Miranda. So Bucchi sought Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) documents to back up his claims. Turns out the DEA was in on the operation. Bucchi filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. But the DEA's initial response in November 1990 says the DEA has no records on a Kenneth C. Bucchi nor an Operation Pseudo Miranda. Then Bucchi showed up on the witness list for Manuel Noriega. The pock-marked Panamanian dictator was being tried in this country for drug trafficking. Bucchi filed another FOIA request in 1991. This time, the DEA responded with seven reasons it could not release information on Bucchi or Pseudo Miranda, including "national security."

More facts? Noriega's flamboyant lead attorney Frank Rubino was on Larry King Live around this time. The host asked about the connection between Pseudo Miranda, the Panamanian leader, the Bush administration CIA and some fellow named Ken Bucchi. "Oh, if we had about two hours, I'd love to sit down and tell you what the connection is, but obviously, this is something we've discussed with our client," Rubino said. "It's an area of great interest to us."

More: Carlos Lehder was the Colombian transport guru of the Medellin cartel. He's at a theater near you. In Blow, he's the basis for the fictional character who partnered with George Jung, the American coke dealer portrayed by Johnny Depp. Bucchi says he wrote to Lehder seeking confirmation of the CIA's quid pro quo drug operation. Bucchi produced a letter whose return address says it's from Lehder inside an Illinois prison. "The topics and Pseudo Miranda program are very much intelligence affairs of the United States anti-drug proyects [sic]. I, Carlos Lehder, as a foreigner, shall not and must not involve myself in any internal affairs of your great nation, just as I disaprove [sic] of foreigners doing so in my country."

That "delusional" tag? Bucchi says Carl Bernstein called his air base for an interview about Pseudo Miranda. Air Force brass caught wind of it. They're still picking the shit out of the fan. Bucchi was hauled before the Top Guns. He offered to dodge any sensitive questions from the legendary journalist who helped break Watergate. Command reasoned that would be interpreted as "he's hiding something." Plausible deniability was in order. Trash the source. Bucchi's a nutbar. Wrap him up in a mental condition. The government would have to pay Bucchi, then just 30 years old, a full medical retirement for life. But it was a small price to pay to keep his records forever sealed due to a medical condition. Bucchi fought back. He could be the first person in history to try to prevent the military from doling out full retirement benefits. To Bucchi, it was a small price to keep from being forever labeled "delusional." His attorney, Major Miles D. Wichelns, got it in the official record that an Air Force psychiatrist refused to diagnose Bucchi as delusional. The same psychiatrist ordered the Office of Special Investigations to look into Bucchi's claims about Pseudo Miranda. The top dogs would not be denied. They took the case to D.C., where (Bucchi claims) a military board was supposed to determine whether his constitutional rights had been violated. Instead, the board reinstated his classification as "delusional." Case closed. No appeal. And just to make sure, the government tied it up in a bow: national security.

Is Ken Bucchi a nutbar? He admits he has no hard evidence that he worked for the CIA. Apparently, the Agency does not give pay stubs to spooks. No one involved in Pseudo Miranda knew their colleagues' real names (Ken Bucchi was Anthony Vesbucci). Wouldn't the Air Force notice Captain Bucchi missing from his post? He explained he often worked at a base in San Antonio, Texas, for days at a time. He says that, from there, he would be ferried by Air Force planes to his CIA missions, which would last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. "If I had to do anything that would take longer, I'd be put on 'temporary duty.' Everything was done so above board, I didn't think anything of it." Don't ask, don't tell.

So finally you have the crux of this spy tale: the same secrecy that the CIA uses to protect itself from scrutiny makes Bucchi's claims no more outlandish than your average political assassination, toppled government or inner-city crack cocaine operation.

"If you look at [whistleblowers] who've been on Primetime Live, 60 Minutes, all these shows, the military always uses 'delusional' to describe the person," Bucchi says. "It's very effective. Once they label you delusional and a reporter hears that, the media backs away. That's why you never see stories on the CIA. If I was on that side, I would use the same thing. If those DEA documents came out, you'd see a million stories on the CIA."

Bucchi takes pride that his story elicited an unprecedented response from Spy Central. "The fact that the CIA violated its own policy of not responding to whether someone was a contract agent compels them to respond to all such inquiries in the future lest they be asked what difference the present question poses vs. mine. That is how badly they wanted to shut me up. That establishes more clearly than I ever could the gravity of their role in the Drug War," he said. "Has the CIA ever done anything on par with Operation Pseudo Miranda that was unethical, illegal or immoral? If so, show me where they admitted to it. Does the fact that they have never willingly admitted to any such operation mean they've never conducted one? Can anyone make up a CIA story and get Langley to comment on record about its falsehood? I've seen all kinds of people on TV claiming to have worked for the CIA and claiming that the CIA was involved in the Kennedy assassination, but not once have I heard the CIA defend themselves and call assassination theorists liars or quacks. Is that because claiming the CIA-killed-Kennedy story has not 'gone too far?' Boy, do they have a false sense of priorities."

He's come up with several reasons why his case so spooked the spooks. CNN is on in bars and lounges and hotel rooms the world over. Maxine Waters apparently went back to Washington and raised holy hell. Then there was the biggest threat of all, the message Bucchi was trying to get across to viewers. This is it: the CIA makes pacts with government leaders and drug lords to control who is in power—and who is not—in Central and South America. Whoever has the arms has the power. The CIA gets to decide who gets the arms under the guise of the Drug War. America would not have even known of a CIA role down there had it not been for the missionary plane mishap. "There are probably other Peruvian families who have been shot down over the years that we do not hear about," Bucchi said. "We don't do that within our own borders because Americans would be outraged over people being mistakenly shot down, so we fight our battles on other borders."

He pitched this opinion to CNN's van Susteren: "We could save a lot of money if the government just went to Colombia and asked, 'How much for all the cocaine?' It's not that farcical. The cost would be tremendous, but it would still be less than what we are spending now for the Drug War. But then we would not be able to justify giving weapons to governments. If we bought it all, the drug dealers would have the same amount of money as the people in power. The CIA doesn't want leftist guerrillas or Pablo Escobars having the same power as the people they help put in power."

He's unsure whether that message will ever get through. "The media is mostly to blame," he said. "They shouldn't put their tails between their legs so quickly. They dismissed me so easily, but they won't be able to dismiss those people who were shot down as easily. If the media just believed me for a second, it would be easier to understand what happened in Peru."

Bucchi lives in the shadow of the Tustin air base hangers. He's got a wife and a couple of kids. His 40th birthday is just around the corner. Life's not so bad. He gets 50 percent of his military pay for the rest of his life. "I should for the shit they put me through," he interjected. He would even have all his medical and dental bills paid were he not afraid to return to a military base to visit a clinic. If put under anesthesia, "I probably wouldn't leave alive," he figured. He'd surrender all the pay and benefits "the moment they admitted I'm not delusional and, subsequently, confessed the truth about Pseudo Miranda."

He's now a pencil-pushing government bureaucrat. Personnel officer for the city of Los Angeles' Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). How does a guy jump from being a maintenance officer in the Air Force to a corporate investigator for a defense giant to a bureaucrat for a major city's redevelopment agency? Contacts. Former military contacts. Former CIA contacts. Truth is stranger than fiction. But don't worry, LA: he doesn't plan on writing a book that casts the CRA as a shadowy government entity (even if it is). Instead, he's writing treatments and screenplays for Hollywood. The Rock writers Douglas Cook and David Weisberg got Universal Pictures to fork over the high six figures for their pitch for Dixie Cups, which is based on Bucchi's Operation Pseudo Miranda. Bucchi got a fee that will mushroom into big bucks if that picture becomes a go. Meanwhile, he's working on his own movie scripts and says he has sold a couple of pilots to the networks. Should Hollywood come calling, will he give the city his notice? "Yeah," he said, "obviously, I'd leave in a heartbeat." But no more books or scripts about his life in The Life. "I don't buy all this New Age psychology about confronting your past. Some things are better left in the past. Repressed memory is a good safety mechanism the brain pulls."

The CIA shit on Ken Bucchi, on the notion of an Operation Pseudo Miranda. But Bucchi may get the last laugh. Millions of Americans could line up around blocks to see a fictionalized version of his alleged Agency exploits on the Silver Screen. Finally, someone will believe it really happened.

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