WASHINGTON Fifteen years ago, Eagle Aviation Service and Technology Inc. helped Oliver North run guns to Nicaraguan rebels in what would become known as the Iran-Contra affair.
Today, the company flies State Department planes on dangerous drug eradication missions in Colombia. The work of EAST, as the company is known, has received little attention, even as lawmakers scrutinize the use of contractors in the Latin American drug fight.
One lawmaker who wants to ban the use of private contractors for antidrug missions in the Andean region said EAST's work in Colombia merits scrutiny.
"I think this kind of questionable background of being involved in covert, unapproved missions does add another level of questioning: Who are these people and who is holding them accountable?" said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
EAST doesn't work directly for the State Department. For 10 years, it has been a subcontractor of DynCorp Aerospace Technology, the company hired by State to fly and maintain aircraft for counterdrug missions in Colombia.
EAST pilots spray herbicide on coca, the raw material for cocaine. They frequently face gunfire, sometimes from leftist guerrillas protecting drug traffickers. Three of its pilots have been killed in two crashes, neither blamed on gunfire.
The company also works for the Defense Department. In 1999 and 2000, EAST received more than $30 million under several Defense contracts, which included providing engineering, supplies, and other services for Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, according to Pentagon records.
Current and former State Department officials said EAST's Iran-Contra past has nothing to do with its Colombia work. "That was 15 years ago. The issue is what they're doing, not what they did," said Jonathan Winer, a former State counterdrug official.
Concerns in Congress about contractors have escalated since Peru's military fired on a plane of U.S. missionaries April 20. Contractors aboard a CIA-operated surveillance plane identified the plane as a possible drug flight. An American woman and her infant died.
EAST's president, retired Air Force Col. Thomas Fabyanic, declined to discuss the company's work. "EAST is a privately held company and therefore we are not obligated to release any information in that regard," he said in a telephone interview.
In the 1980s, EAST and its founder, Richard Gadd, helped North, then a National Security Council official, secretly supply weapons and ammunition to Nicaragua's Contra rebels at a time that Congress had banned the government from providing lethal aid.
North also arranged for another of Gadd's companies to win a State Department contract to deliver legal, humanitarian aid. That created what Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh called "a rare occasion that a U.S. government program unwittingly provided cover to a private covert operation."
Revelations of the Contra arms operation and that it had been partly funded by weapons sales to Iran led to convictions of top Reagan administration officials.
Gadd testified in the Iran-Contra case under a grant of immunity from prosecution, and neither he nor EAST was accused of illegalities.
DynCorp declined to say how much it pays EAST as part of its five-year, $170 million contract with the State Department for antidrug operations.
Fabyanic said his company was prohibited from discussing its Colombia operations under the terms of the contract with DynCorp.
Asked if EAST's role in Iran-Contra should be considered significant to its Colombia work, Fabyanic answered: "Why would it be?"
DynCorp spokeswoman Charlene A. Wheeless said her company checked out EAST's background before contracting it and found no wrongdoing.
"We feel strongly that EAST is a reputable company," she said. "They do a great job for us as a subcontractor. We feel that they act responsibly."
In his Iran-Contra testimony, Gadd said EAST was one of several companies he formed after retiring in 1982 as a lieutenant colonel from the Air Force, where he specialized in covert operations.
In the 1980s, the Contra rebels were trying to topple Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. The Reagan administration backed the Contras, viewing the Sandinistas as a Marxist threat to Central America. Democrats who controlled Congress believed the United States should stay out of the conflict and barred U.S. officials from providing lethal aid.
North turned to retired Gen. Richard Secord to set up a private arms pipeline to the Contras. Secord hired Gadd in 1985 to oversee the weapons delivery.
Through EAST, Gadd helped acquire planes to carry arms and ammunition from Portugal to Central America, and to make airdrops directly to Contra fighters. EAST also built an airstrip in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border.
EAST received $550,000 for its covert work, according to Walsh's final report.
"If you view the whole operation as somehow illegitimate and illicit, then anybody who participated in it could, you might say, have been involved in doing something wrong," former Iran-Contra prosecutor Michael Bromwich said.
But Gadd and his associates "thought they were working for the White House," Bromwich added.
On the Net:
Federation of American Scientists link to Iran-Contra report: http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/walsh/
State Department narcotics control bureau: http://www.state.gov/g/inl/narc/
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press