By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — After months of controversy, the House International Relations’ Committee hearing into the ties between the IRA and Colombian rebels resolved none of the issues presented.
The leading representatives from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. State Department, pointing to the upcoming trial in Colombia of three Irishmen accused of helping the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and citing difficulties involving classified information, were circumspect in answering questions relating to the charges presented by the HIRC report of high-level IRA collusion with the rebels long known to support their cause with drug trafficking.
DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson and Mark Wong, a State Department counterterrorism expert, told the committee in a packed room that they had no evidence linking the IRA and international drug trafficking, though Wong acknowledged that there had been an recent increase in sophistication in rebel’s use of explosives and urban terror tactics similar to those used by the IRA.
But Colombia General Fernando Tapias, who followed the American government officials at the witness table, testified that the IRA had trained FARC.
The majority of members present at the hearing balked at the lack of or low quality of the intelligence assembled by the HIRC staff. But most left shortly after the general began giving his testimony. The few conservative House members who voiced support for the findings also support the Bush administration’s request that the U.S. military be allowed to expand its role in Colombia.
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The committee’s report asserted that the IRA and the FARC have had well-established links since at least 1998, and that up to 15 IRA members visited the former FARC safe haven. Three IRA men with backgrounds in explosives and dealings in Latin America were initially held on traveling on false passports and have since been indicted on charges of having trained FARC guerillas. Colombian officials said they were found to have explosive residues when apprehended last August.
General Tapias could not identify several other alleged IRA members who he contended had been in the region. Two others, he said, slipped away before apprehension.
James Edward Walker and John Francis Johnston were accused by the Colombians of entering the former FARC controlled territory in April of last year, and were described in documents provided to the committee as “members of the IRA.”
Neither U.S., Irish, British, or Irish officials have been able to finalize any identification of the additional alleged Irishmen.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams’s refusal to testify before the hearing was endorsed by a majority of the members of the committee present on Wednesday.
In an extraordinary turn of events, the primary member of the U.S. House of Representatives who in fact initiated the inquiry, excoriated the committee staff for a bungled investigation.
“There is just no evidence to support the premise for this hearing,” Rep. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat, said, adding that the quality of the investigation “besmirched several who are innocent.”
The chairman of committee, Henry Hyde, Republican of Illinois, went against a majority of the members of his own committee in proceeding with the hearings, a committee insider said. There was only tepid endorsement of the committee’s report, that included far-ranging accusations of extensive IRA/FARC collusion, after a nine-month investigation.
“Everyone told them not to go forward with these hearings because the facts just weren’t apparent on just what went on down there [in Colombia] with these three guys,” said one senior staff advisor to a committee member.
“Believe me, with the way people feel after Sept. 11, even the most diehard Irish republican supporter with a whole load of Irish-American constituents would have lashed out at those three in Bogota if there was even a scintilla of evidence that they were there because the Provos sent them — that just didn’t get established in the committee’s investigation.”
Adams’s most fervent supporter on Capitol Hill, Rep. Peter King of New York, angrily shook his finger at the first panel of witnesses from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and State Department counterterrorism expert.
“You have no credible evidence, no names, no witnesses who will directly testify that there is any evidence to link Sinn Fein to the FARC,” he said, referring to the IRA’s political wing. “This is wrong and to do this while there is a peace process in place in Northern Ireland is irresponsible.”
The DEA’s Hutchinson, was grilled repeatedly on whether he concluded that Sinn Fein or the IRA had anything to do with international drug trafficking.
“Do you have any credible evidence of the IRA being involved in international drug trafficking?” King asked.
“No,” Hutchinson answered.
Following his appearance, however, Hutchinson said, “There is a growing body of evidence that shows the IRA has worked to help train the FARC, and that is troubling.”
What the committee’s members and chairman did agree upon was that the issue will not be put to rest any time soon. The International Relations committee will revive the issue of an IRA component in the global terrorism and international drug trafficking in a future hearing considered “classified” and therefore not open to the public.