Now retired in Miami, Rodriguez, who says his CIA career was always fueled by a hope to unseat Fidel Castro, also has special relationships with both of this year's presidential candidates. George W. Bush sends him a White House Christmas card each year. The president's father counts Rodriguez as an old friend; Bush Sr. worked with him during the mid-1980s, when Rodriguez ran the operation to arm the Contras for the Reagan administration.
Democratic nominee John Kerry, though, isn't so cozy with Rodriguez. In 1986, the then-rookie senator formed a committee to investigate Iran-Contra. In 1987, the so-called Kerry Committee alleged that Rodriguez had helped steer $10 million from the notorious Medellín cocaine cartel to the Contras. The committee concluded that trafficking was rampant in the rebels' effort.
The Miami man squared off with Kerry during a closed congressional hearing. He told the Massachusetts senator point-blank that the allegation was a damned lie and, for good measure, added that he had no respect for him.
That was some 17 years ago, but Rodriguez's hatred for Kerry -- and his closeness to the Bush family -- has driven Rodriguez from the CIA shadows onto the open political stage. He's railed against Kerry on Cuban radio in South Florida and in the October edition of Soldier of Fortune magazine. He also jumped at the chance to join the Vietnam Veterans for Truth, an anti-Kerry group that invited Rodriguez to speak at a nationally televised September 12 rally at the Capitol.
At the sparsely attended event, the storied spook began with some words on Vietnam, where he flew assassination and assault missions (and flights with CIA-backed Air America, which has been tied to the heroin trade). He portrayed his time there as if he were dropping food and medicine from his combat helicopter. "I never saw any atrocities that Senator Kerry claims we did in Vietnam," Rodriguez told the crowd in his thick Cuban accent. "We helped the Vietnamese people."
Then he turned his attention to Central America, referring to Kerry's accusation and noting that his nemesis ultimately backed off the allegation against him. "That was one more lie from Senator Kerry," he triumphantly told the gathering.
But who, really, is lying? Rodriguez maintains that he saw no hint of drug trafficking while he was running the Contra operation in El Salvador and Honduras. "I never saw any indication of that at all -- it was all a great fabrication," he said during a telephone interview last week. "That all came from Senator Kerry's committee. It came from those people that didn't want to help the Nicaraguan resistance, people like Kerry, who wanted to hurt Vice President Bush, who was going to win the presidency."
It's a familiar -- and absolutely untenable -- refrain from the Reagan and Bush administrations that continues to this day: The narcotics ties to the Contra operation were a politically motivated myth. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was then a congressman, played a key role in the disinformation campaign. He led the effort to squelch various Iran-Contra investigations, especially when it came to drug allegations. And George W. Bush? Well, he seems to have no qualms about Iran-Contra, since he has hired several of the scandal's central figures -- including Elliott Abrams, Otto Reich, and John Negroponte -- to serve under him.
Though it has been largely ignored, this historic battle between Kerry and the Bush family not only provides a revelatory subtext to this election but also indicates how much the two men running for president dislike each other. (I can hear Dubya now: "That man tried to put my daddy in jail!").
History clearly favors Kerry's side -- and he may even have been right about that $10 million in cartel money. Rodriguez, at the time, was the government's key man in El Salvador, where he was conducting counterinsurgency missions against leftist rebels. But his main job was the Contra operation. He claims to this day that he wasn't paid for his efforts, a contention about as shaky as H.W.'s famous excuse that he was "out of the loop" on the Contra affair. Rodriguez also worked in Honduras, where the Contras trained in the mountains, and at another shipping point in Costa Rica (which has been repeatedly tied to the drug trade).