9/11 Drug Pilot Linked to Operation Blue Lightning

bkue3Elements of the U.S. Government took a surprisingly keen interest in controversial Guyanese drug pilot Michael Brassington during 2003 and 2004, when, according to interviews with former Customs Agents, Brassington was involved in—or the subject of—a secretive Miami-based U.S. Government operation.

“Whenever Brassington entered the U.S. a special team from Miami was supposed to come up,” stated former Fort Lauderdale Customs Agent James Sanders.

Brassington was  supposed to be met by Customs Agents from “Operation Blue Lightning.”

“Operation Blue Lightning is some kind of joint task force," Sanders explained. "I found out later,  from a chief inspector on the team,  that I wasn’t even supposed to inspect him.”

Official interest in Brassington’s activities in 2003 and 2oo4 is surprising… and suspicious, because before he was indicted in 2008—barely two weeks after the Bush Administration left office—he  regularly flaunted U.S. and international law with “seeming impunity.” 

A CIA 'rogue operation' in US Customs?

narc1So while the intent of Operation Blue Lightning’s interest in Brassington remains unclear, it is fair to ask: Was Brassington’s “special handling” by Operation Blue Lightning designed to impede criminal activity? Or to facilitate it?

Operation Blue Lightning clearly fits the description provided by a top DEA official in Miami when he informed us why the DEA had not mounted an investigation into the owners of two planes caught carrying over 10 tons of cocaine in Mexico’s Yucatan:

Because the two American drug planes belonged to a “rogue” operation in U.S. Customs, explained the DEA official. So the investigation properly belonged to the Office of Investigations in the Dept of Homeland Security.

But the existence of any federal investigation in the scandal is merely a matter of speculation, we soon learned. 

An official in the Dept. of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office said the Department’s practice is to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any internal investigation conducted by the Inspector General’s office.

Later, we learned that the lead FAA investigator on the case was called off and reassigned, under typically suspicious circumstances.

To this day Brassington has never been charged with drug trafficking.

As rookie Customs Agent James Sanders learned the hard way, Brassington was protected by top figures in the Dept of Homeland Security.

When they want to protect or cover something up, the government has a neat trick they sometimes use:

They “investigate” it. 
"The red light saved my life."

 Brassington goes on trial next month in Federal Court in Newark,  for putting the lives of passengers in danger in a near-fatal crash of a luxury jet at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey in February 2005.

The crash was so spectacular that it led all three evening newscasts. A Challenger luxury jet, which had come in from Vegas late the night before, hurtled off the runway and across a six-lane highway busy with morning rush hour traffic. More than 20 people were injured.

Authorities expressed amazement that nobody was killed.

The crash sparked a federal criminal investigation which turned up evidence of a pattern of illegal activity so egregious that former Inspector General Mary Schiavo of the U.S. Department of Transportation called Brassington’s charter company “Loophole Airlines.”

The responsible Federal agency, the FAA,  even came under rare criticism from another Federal agency, the NTSB.  According to the NTSB,  neither the pilot nor the co-pilot were rated to fly the flight they were flying. 

The flight attendant had no safety training.  She was a dancer at the Voodoo Lounge in Miami. When the plane caught fire she didn't know how to open the doors.

Dozens of drivers and passengers in cars driving along the highway next to Teterboro Airport are alive today—not because of action to safeguard passengers by the FAA or the NTSB—but because of the vagaries of traffic signals.

They were saved from death because they happened to be stopped at a red light. 

"Animal House…with badges and guns"

hearing3 Even for Miami, Operation Blue Lightning has a  highly-checkered past and a particularly sordid pedigree, which was exposed in a series of investigative articles in the Miami Herald during the late 80’s.

Ahern’s stint as head honcho was called a “Reign of Terror” in the Miami Herald.

The paper called the Miami Customs District, then led by Jayson Ahern, “Animal House with Badges and Guns.”

And even though he'd been in the thick of it personally,  amid widespread allegations of internal corruption, sexual antics, and serious security breakdowns which dogged him for years, Jayson Ahern rose to become (Acting) Customs and Border Protection Commissioner.

He was a real Teflon Don.

“They were out of control and everyone knew they were out of control, no question about it,'' the paper quoted a Customs investigator. “That group had a lot of power, and Customs did everything it could to make the case go away – merits of the complaint be damned,'' the investigator said.

“The truth of the matter was not the concern, everyone in Customs knew the truth. The concern was for saving face.”

Somebody really loved Jay Ahern. Proving the point: although by all accounts the cocaine trade boomed during the 1980’s, Ahern was among an elite group of Miami inspectors lauded in news reports for achieving "success" in the war on cocaine smugglers.

Great press. No convictions. Some people have all the luck.

And like a bad penny resurfacing again and again, after 9/11 Ahern’s Contraband Enforcement Team was brought back and rechristened "Operation Blue Lightning."

And Jayson Ahern was the man behind the firing of rookie Customs Agent Sanders, after the  "complaint" by solid citizen(!) Michael Brassington.

Nixon would be proud. 

A DEA look-out… and friends in high places

jamesliefsanders3In an exclusive interview in the upcoming “New American DrugLords” documentary, James Sanders,  a former Customs Agent in Fort Lauderdale, FL, told how he had been on duty, and in charge, late on a Tuesday night at the International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, when Brassington flew in. 

While Customs Agent Sanders was still examining his narcotics record in the computer, Brassington began brandishing a letter from a top official in the U.S. Dept of Homeland Security which seemed clearly designed to smooth his re-entry into the U.S. 

“I was looking at Brassington’s narcotics record on the computer,” says Sanders, still incredulous at the memory, “when he handed me a letter from Washington!”

 Confused, Sanders phoned Supervisor Norm Bright at Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose name appeared in Brassington’s file, and was told that he was to treat Brassington as a “grave threat to national security.”

Brassington was flying in on a plane (N60S) suspected of being used for money laundering. 
His passenger,  Anthony Cirillo, was flagged in the computer for having been on suspicious flights.
Pilot Brassington himself had a “DEA look-out,” Sanders told us.
Mohamed Atta. Remember him? 
N351WBThis was a consequence of Brassington’s having
flown as co-pilot on a Lear jet (N351WB) 
that was busted by DEA agents at Orlando 
Executive Airport in July of 2000 carrying 
43 lbs. of heroin. 
The Learjet belonged to Wallace J. Hilliard, 
owner of the Venice Florida flight school
where Mohamed Atta was then learning to fly. 
Before being busted, the Learjet had flown, with Brassington as co-pilot, on 39 weekly drug flights between Florida and Venezuela. 

Yet, despite these incriminating facts, two career Customs officials with checkered histories in Miami, Thomas Winkowski and just-retired Acting U.S. Customs Commissioner Jayson Ahern, intervened on Brassington’s behalf after he wrote a letter of complaint to Ahern, then the third highest ranking official in U.S. Customs.

Rookie Customs Agent James Sander’s encounter with Guyanese drug pilot Michael Brassington ended up costing him his job

There at the inception

bush22The first newspaper mention of Operation Blue Lightning was back in the spring of 1985, when  United Press International called it "an unprecedented assault  that rousted drug smugglers from  island sanctuaries in the Bahamas into a massive military trap that netted $100 million in drugs, boats and planes."

And a familiar figure from the government was on hand at the inception of Operation Blue Lightning…

''I wish I could be with you to announce the spectacular results of Operation Blue Lightning,'' said Vice President George Bush at the news conference announcing the haul.

Bush said the seizure of cocaine and marijuana ''that won't reach our city streets to corrupt the minds of our citizens and line the pockets of drug smugglers is a significant achievement.''

Alas, statements by Presidents named Bush concerning drug trafficking cannot be taken at face value very often…  Almost two decades later Bush's son George W Bush will announce the U.S. plans to get the world’s leading heroin trafficker dead or alive.

His name was Osama bin Laden. Anybody remember him?


Facebook Comments

Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.