Bush's Heroin Connection
Summary: A mysterious political deal in which former Pres. George Bush granted a last-minute commutation to a Pakistani drug smuggler named Aslam P. Adam is discussed. The strange affair raises questions about the former commander in chief's commitment to his war on drugs and threatens to embarrass his party.
By Eric Nadler
While Washington ponders the vagaries of Whitewater, a more mysterious--and more recent--political deal continues to escape attention, a curious intrigue from George Bush's presidency that raises questions about the former Commander in Chiefs' commitment to his war on drugs and threatens to embarrass his party. This fall whenever Democrats are accused of being soft on drugs, they would be wise to tell this story.
On Jan. 18, 1993--two days before the end of his administration--George Bush signed a paper granting executive clemency to a heroin trafficker serving time in a North Carolina prison. It was one of the most puzzling mercies bestowed by a chief executive in the 206 years of presidential clemencies. Several days later, the inmate, a slight 32-year-old Pakistani named Aslam P. Adam, was taken from Butner Federal Correctional Institution by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and brought to Atlanta for deportation proceedings. The next day, he was chauffeured to an airport, where he boarded the first of a series of flights that eventually took him home to Karachi, forever banned from re-entering the U.S. It was a joyous family homecoming for Adam, who had already served nearly eight years after federal narcotics detectives caught him holding approximately $1.5 million worth of heroin. "God bless Bush, God bless Bush," Adam's elderly mother gushed to visitors after her youngest child's return. "God bless Bush."
The shortening of Adam's sentence--he had about 47 years left but was eligible for parole in 1995--took place without fanfare, lost among a dozen other final days' mercies bestowed upon mostly white-collar criminals, four of them banking-law violators from Texas, one of Bush's home states.
These presidential blessings were bestowed quietly. Unlike the controversial Christmas Eve pardons of former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra figures, this clemency was not accompanied by a White House press release. And the Justice Department made no announcement this time around, releasing information only after a reporter inquired.
The strange affair got two lines in the Washington Post. The TV networks and the New York Times were silent. Yet this kind and gentle maneuver raised eyebrows in other quarters.
In North Carolina prosecutors fumed; in Washington drug-war liberals voiced astonishment; and everywhere in the world Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents openly wondered what it was that Bush was smoking. Insiders familiar with the presidential-pardon process said that this executive action--opposed formally by federal prosecutors and the DEA--was unusual, to say the least. "It's one of the most bizarre things I ever heard," says William von Raab, the former head of the U.S. Customs Service, whose agents had snared Adam. "I waas absolutely shocked when this fellow got out," says a former official of the U.S. Parole Commission. Even then- Pakistani ambassador to the United States Syeda Hussain was taken aback at Adam's commutation. "I wish I had been as effective with President Bush as Mr. Adam," she told the Charlotte Observer, the only media outlet to ask a few questions.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that George Bush was not free and easy with his clemencies. To the contrary, the 41st president was almost a Puritan in this arena. He issued far fewer pardons (criminal record expunged) and commutations (jail terms or fines reduced) than any president before him had in this century. He averaged a niggardly 19 clemencies a year, compared with Ronald Reagan's 51, Jimmy Carter's 142, Gerald Ford's 169, Richard Nixon's 166 and LBJ's Texas-size 229. Bush turned down more than 1,000 requests for clemency during his term. Adam's was only the third commutation he granted. But this one was by far the hardest to rationalize. After all, George Bush was a cheerleader for "zero tolerance," a heated anti-drug crusader given to labeling drug pushers "domestic terrorists" and their wares "the gravest threat facing our nation." Indeed, during Bush's four years in office, more than 400,000 Americans were sent to federal, state and local prisons for drug-related crimes. Right now, 655 people are serving life sentences in federal prison for drug-related offenses. And this was a crime involving heroin, a drug that Adam's sentencing judge, a Reagan appointee nicknamed Maximum Bob Potter, called "poison" seven years earlier when he denied Adam's attempts to get his sentence reduced.
Obtaining definitive answers in the case of Aslam P. Adam is not easy. First off, George Bush has refused to answer any questions about the Adam affair. Neither would the man who formally pushed the release, former White House counsel Boyden Gray. Also refusing comment is the attorney in Gray's shop who handled pardons, Mark Paoletta. Only the pardon attorney's office over at the Justice Department has gone on the record, arguing against common sense--that this case was routine and that clemency was justified (first-time offender, harsh sentence). Asked whether she encountered any behind-the-scenes politicking, Margaret Love, the U.S. pardon attorney, huffed, "Not a trace; not a whiff."
I went to Pakistan for some answers. I found the Adam residence in Clifton, a fashionable section of the sprawling port city of Karachi. A servant answered the door of a comfortable two-story dwelling surrounded by a small garden. She calmly took my card and asked me to wait. After several minutes she returned to tell me that Adam "doesn't want to talk to any reporters." Adam refused to answer my correspondence as well, telling acquaintances later on that he was "amused" by an American magazine's interest in his case. Pakistani police sources I contacted checked his record and reported that the American bust was his only offense and that Adam was not a well-known figure among the nation's drug barons. One U.S. official stationed in Pakistan told me that American narcotics cops stationed there are keenly aware of the case, but they say Adam himself was a pawn in a larger game. As the official puts it: "This guy was not a heavyweight, but he sure as hell had some pull somewhere."
Indeed. Back in the United States, documents obtained by ROLLING STONE from the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) confirm that Adam had some significant political juice behind him. His early release was endorsed by his warden, J.T. Hadden, as well as by Michael Quinlan, then the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Coincidentally or not, these unusual recommendations to free a convicted dope trafficker were issued around the time that the office of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms took an interest in the case. Such endorsements are "rare," says an executive-branch source with direct knowledge of the matter. "The precedent of releasing heroin pushers is not something that cautious corrections bureaucrats usually push, and they did it in writing, for God's sakes." Hadden told me that his position was based solely on the merits of the case, but he felt compelled to add, "During my tenure as warden, I rarely have been asked to provide a recommendation for executive clemency."
Is it a citizen's right to know why the president released a convicted heroin supplier? The Justice Department doesn't think so. It still refuses to release many pages of material that would explain the decision, citing "intra-and interagency confidential deliberative communications pertaining to agency and presidential decision making."
Given the silence, tales of political shenanigans are a natural. After all, this is George Bush, the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency to become president, a devout fan of covert action, a key player in the Iran-Contra and Iraqgate imbroglios. And this is Pakistan, one of the world's largest producers and exporters of refined heroin. A 1992 report commissioned by the CIA quotes one source as estimating the Pakistani share of the world's narcotics trade at about $120 billion a year. The intelligence study noted that "heroin is becoming the lifeblood of Pakistan's economy and political system. Those who control the production and international transport of heroin are using their resources to purchase protection, gain access to the highest political circles in the country, and to acquire a substantial share in the banks and industries sold to private investors...Narcotics money now fuels the political system."
Evidence has emerged over the past few years that suggests a connection between Pakistan's narcotics barons and the funding of the nation's renegade nuclear-weapons program. "The fact that heroin dealers can have a tremendous amount of influence on a corrupt government with nuclear weapons is very, very disturbing," notes Jack Blum, a former investigator for the Senate foreign-relations committee and an expert on the international drug trade. "Bush's pardon sent the wrong signal to the wrong people at the wrong time."
Even the prosecutors in the Adam case don't have a clue about why he got off. "It is certainly mysterious," says Ken Andresen, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Adam. "This move by President Bush as he was on the verge of leaving office strikes me as exceedingly peculiar, given his strong rhetoric regarding his efforts to fight crime in general and drugs in particular. There must be something more at play here than is readily apparent."
Another law-enforcement source speculated in the Charlotte Observer in March of 1993 that "the Drug Enforcement Administration or the CIA wanted something from Pakistan--and what they wanted will never see the light of day."
Who is Aslam P. Adam? The Justice Department has refused to release a photograph of him, but prison records say that he was born Nov. 19, 1960, in Karachi, where he lived most of his life. He stands 5 foot 5 inches, weighs 125 pounds and has brown eyes, black hair and a scar over his right eyebrow. Adam is the youngest son in a middle-class family. His father owned the Sind Flour Mills, the largest in town, and his mother's uncle had an interest in a large tea plant. Adam told his jailers that he completed high school and worked six years for his brother, who ran an auto dealership. His pay was between $35 and $40 a month--a pittance compared with the cash being tossed around by members of the drug mafia who, during the 1980s, turned Adam's hometown into a violent and lawless metropolis, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. In the spring of 1985, Adam, who said he was learning how to make gold jewelry from a friend who owned a jewelry shop, decided to visit his sister Roshan Parekh, a resident of Charlotte, N.C. It was his third trip to the United States in seven years.
It was also his last. Adam's misfortune began on April 30, 1985, when U.S. Customs mail specialist Barton Flax, working at JFK International Airport, in New York, discovered 506 grams of 72 percent pure heroin in a tubular package addressed to "Mr. John, P.O. Box 668086" in Charlotte. The DEA was notified. Authorities sent the package on and staked out the Charlotte post office. On May 7, Adam walked into the sting, removed his tube from his post-office box and was heading away when the narcs moved in and arrested him. Adam had been in the United States less than a month. He told the police that he had no idea what was in the package, that he was a jeweler and thought this was a jewelry catalog.
The cops told him to tell it to the judge, who in this case was Robert D. Potter, the man who sentenced evangelist Jim Bakker to 45 years. A profile in the Charlotte Observer described Potter as "a gentleman who dispenses justice with a heavy hand--especially to drug offenders." His average sentence in drug cases was 10.61 years, twice the national average, according to federal statistics unearthed by the paper. Potter listened to Adam's plea and on Aug. 14, 1985, gave him 55 years. (Potter refuses all comment on the Adam case today but told the Observer last year that "I didn't know anything about [the commutation] until I saw it in the paper.")
Adam began his appeal almost immediately. He pursued several different tracks: First his lawyers argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict, but his appeal was turned down in April 1986. Then Adam contacted the DEA and told them that yes, he was a willing smuggler who was promised $25,000, half of which he would get from a "Mr. Farooq" in New York for delivering the heroin. He said he withheld the identity of his Pakistani connection out of fear for his parents' safety back home.
His team marched back to court, asking Judge Potter for a sentence reduction, claiming he had given up the name of his connection. But on Feb. 6, 1987, Judge Potter--after conferring with the DEA--ruled that Adam's information "apparently [had] been of little use," refused to reduce his sentence and lectured the convict: "There are people...in this country and other countries [who]...see unlimited streets of gold with drugs...I suppose [you] intended to return with some money, a good bit of money made on the broken lives, broken bodies and broken minds which this poison would create in this country."
Next, Adam's lawyer John Stokes filed a petition to set aside the long jail term, arguing in part that Adam should have been deported instead of getting heavy time. But on April 7, 1989, U.S. magistrate Paul Taylor said no: "Deportation of a Pakistani national back to the very country from which the heroin was shipped...defies all logic and makes a mockery of the laws which were designed to prohibit drug importation and punish serious offenders."
The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals denied Adam's last court maneuver on March 29, 1990.
Adam acclimated himself to life at Ashland Federal Correctional Institution, in Kentucky, and Butner, in North Carolina, where he was transferred in 1987. The next year, a family friend wrote to then North Carolina governor James Martin, who reportedly forwarded the letter to the office of Sen. Jesse Helms. Helms' office says that it routinely followed up, asking prison authorities about the case and wondering if Adam could simply be deported. According to the Charlotte Observer, K.M. Hawk, the warden at Butner, wrote Sen. Helms on Feb. 22, 1988, to say that the request to send Adam to Pakistan wouldn't work because the U.S. had no treaty with that country for transferring offenders.
Helms' office told the Charlotte Observer in March 1993 that it closed the case in 1988. But FOIA documents reveal that the senator's staff stayed on the case for at least part of the next year as Adam's family and friends turned to the Oval Office for relief. After Adam filed an official petition for executive clemency, the pardon attorney's office canvassed the federal bureaucracy (prosecutors, corrections) for its stance on the case. On Aug. 2, 1989, Butner's new warden, J.T. Hadden, surprised some by endorsing the clemency to his superiors. Hadden, writing to his regional director, Jerry Williford, stated that "our belief is that Mr. Adam is an appropriate candidate for executive clemency and recommend his sentence be reduced to time served and proceed with deportation....While we recognize the seriousness of the offense and the precedent such an action would set, we support this petition for executive clemency."
Helms' office forwarded a letter from Hadden explaining his recommendation to Adam, along with a personally signed note featuring a smiling picture of the senator and the typed greeting: "I am sure that the endorsed response will make you happy."
Why was Helms, a staunch advocate of harsh drug penalties, politicking for a foreign drug smuggler? A member of the foreign-relations committee, Helms is an energetic ally of the Pakistani government's and has carried its water on many issues. Was he doing a personal favor for some friend? Helms' staffers deny doing anything special for Adam, arguing that the senator's correspondence were typical "buck letters," handled by a low-level office worker who reviewed all federal clemency requests from North Carolina inmates. "Senator Helms never heard of this guy," insists his press secretary.
Adam's mother, Fatima, came to the United States in the late '80s to plead the case personally and met with then U.S. Pardon Attorney David Stephenson. He has said that he didn't pursue the case after he learned that the prosecutor and sentencing judge objected to releasing Adam early. "It's not good to be recommending clemency in the case of drug offenses," he told the Charlotte Observer. "That's the general rule."
The case was still kicking around when Margaret Colgate Love, a former assistant to then deputy attorney general and ex-CIA counsel William Barr, replaced Stephenson, who retired in 1990. In an interview, Love noted that the Adam petition was one of 868 petitions for commutation reviewed by her office in 1992. She determined "this was not a high-risk case" and recommended clemency on purely humanitarian grounds. Even though prosecutors continued to protest, Judge Potter suddenly softened his stance, telling Love that while he couldn't endorse reducing Adam's sentence, "If he is to be deported to Pakistan immediately upon release, I will not object to the acceleration of parole eligibility."
Love, who pushed the case up the line, insists that she was not surprised when the clemency was granted in the final hours of the Bush regime. "There's not really a story here," she says. "Why are you so interested in this?"
It can be said that the Bush family is emerging as one of the most powerful political families in America. With two Bush sons currently campaigning for governor's spots in Texas and Florida, the former president cannot be counted on for candor in this matter. At the very least, though, Republicans should be forced to confront this mysterious affair as they prepare for the 1996 race against an opposition they will try to label as soft on drugs. And as we all want to know, what's Rush gonna say about this one?