10 U.S. Government Scandals You Probably Forgot About

10 U.S. Government Scandals You Probably Forgot About

Ah, the U.S. federal government! When properly funded and run, it can efficiently dole out money for public goods like healthcare, roads and highways, college educations, and other indispensable amenities that average Americans relies on. It makes laws, regulates industries, and helps to maintains social order, all while supposedly responding to the whims and voices of the American public. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work anyway.

But governments can also be creepy, and America’s is no exception. That is, there are parts of the government that seem to get into trouble just as much as they help us out. Maybe it’s because they’re shadowy bureaucracies with little to no meaningful oversight and limitless access to money and power. Or maybe it’s just because the people running them are arseholes. Who knows?

At any rate, the government does seem to get into trouble more often than not. Here’s a quick review of some of recent scandals you may have forgotten about.

The CIA’s Endless Attempts to Kill Fidel Castro

Photo: STIG NILSSON/AFP, Getty Images
Photo: STIG NILSSON/AFP, Getty Images

By the mid-1960s, the U.S. government was getting pretty good at “taking out” foreign leaders that didn’t share its global ambitions.

But Fidel Castro, the socialist leader of Cuba, was crafty, and the agency just couldn’t nail that furry little rascal. Not that it didn’t try. By some accounts, the CIA tried to kill Castro 638 times. The plans reportedly involved feeding him an exploding cigar, gifting him a poison pen, and enlisting a girlfriend to murder him, among many other bizarre plots. The CIA even reached out to the mafia to get a little help to no avail. In an effort to make Cuba look bad, America’s Joint Chiefs notoriously plotted to commit terrorist attacks in U.S. cities and blame them on the Castro regime, thus provoking war. Classy!

News of many of these plots wouldn’t emerge until decades after the fact, but they still caused quite a stir when they did. Pro tip: partnering with organised crime is never a good look, even when you really, really need to kill somebody!


Photo: Central Press, Getty Images
Photo: Central Press, Getty Images

Amidst the Watergate scandal and every other shady thing happening amid Richard Nixon’s administration, it was easy to miss a 1976 influence-buying scandal involving South Korea. It turned out that an unassuming South Korean businessman named Tongsun Park had been bribing close to a dozen members of the U.S. Congress. Park was allegedly connected to the South Korea’s intelligence agency, and the conspiracy was an effort to gin up support for the Asian country in the American government. In 1977, Park was hit with a fat stack of federal charges, including influence bribery and failure to register as a foreign agent, but his charges were dropped after he agreed to testify at federal grand juries that led to criminal charges against a number of congressmen.

CIA Agent Edwin P. Wilson Goes Rogue, Maybe

Photo: Associated Press file photo, AP
Photo: Associated Press file photo, AP

Edwin P. Wilson was a longtime CIA agent who decided to go into business for himself and become a mercenary during the 1970s. Throughout the decade, Wilson was repeatedly tied to shady activities in Africa, including arms dealing and the provision of training to terrorists.

In 1982, Wilson was arrested and charged with illegally selling explosives to Libya. He claimed that he was working with the CIA at the time and had its tacit approval; the government disavowed these claims. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to decades in prison. But in 2003, Wilson’s lawyer seemed to pull documentation from thin air that convinced a federal judge that the CIA had, in fact, lied and that Wilson had been working for the government at the time that he sold the explosives. He was released from prison a year later.

Of course, Wilson is accused of doing a whole bunch of other bad stuff, including plotting to murder his wife and two federal prosecutors — so, ya know, even if he was selling weapons to terrorists “with permission,” he still might not be someone you’d want to have a beer with.

The Nugan Hand Bank Affair

1976 photo of former CIA director William Colby, who worked for the Nugan Hand bank.  (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS, AP)
1976 photo of former CIA director William Colby, who worked for the Nugan Hand bank. (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS, AP)

Nugan Hand was a bank in Australia that, during the 1970s, was deeply involved in illicit cash flows.

The controversy surrounding the bank blew open in 1980, when Frank Nugan, the bank’s founder, was found shot dead in the back of his Mercedes-Benz on an isolated stretch of road. An autopsy later ruled Nugan’s death a suicide, though questions remained about his death. At the time of his death, his bank was insolvent and had also been accused of all assortment of nefarious things, including being affiliated with drug running, arms smuggling, and covert operations. After his death, his partner, Michael John Hand, a former Green Beret and CIA affiliate, disappeared for several decades before turning back up again in 2015.

The twists and turns of the case are difficult to untangle, but basically, the bank was found to have employed a large number of current or former U.S. intelligence and military officials — including former CIA Director William Colby, who worked as legal counsel for the bank. The CIA was accused of using the bank for various nefarious purposes but subsequent investigations failed to turn up definitive dirt on the agency. It certainly made it look bad by association, however.

The Iran-Contra Scandal

Photo: CHRIS WILKINS/AFP, Getty Images
Photo: CHRIS WILKINS/AFP, Getty Images

Surely you’ve heard of this one, but maybe you forgot the details.

To refresh: In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s administration blatantly broke the law to carry out a secret military campaign in Nicaragua. It was the time of the Cold War, and the small Central American nation had recently gone socialist. The CIA spent the early Reagan years trying to overthrow the leftwing Sandinistas by funding and arming rightwing rebels known as “Contras,” but they did so much creepy stuff (read: distributing a manual on how to murder people with a big knife) that between 1982 and 1984 Congress passed legislation — the Boland Amendment — that forbid the U.S. from providing any more support.

But Reagan, ever the fervent anti-Communist, could not let it go, so top White House officials just ignored the new law and started finding secret ways to send the rebels money and equipment. This ultimately led to a host of deeply illegal activities, the most well-known of which involved breaking a federal arms embargo to sell weapons to Iran (with help from Israel) and then using the illicit cash to buy guns for the war in Latin America. We know that the Contras were also selling drugs at the same time that they were collaborating with the White House and that Oliver North, a top aide, knew about it — which basically made him an accomplice to drug trafficking (at the very least).

However, there are reports of other, even more unsavoury activities being used as cash grabs. Whether those misdeeds ultimately involved the CIA flying planeloads of crack cocaine to the U.S. and then pushing the drugs out into urban neighbourhoods to gin up quick profits is up to your own imagination to decide. We don’t know and we will probably never know. The full scope of the illegal activities that helped generate the funding for the war has largely been lost to the sands of time.

The BCCI Scandal

Enjoy this great picture of John Kerry, who formerly chaired the Kerry Commission into claims of government-related drug smuggling.  (Photo: ROBERT GIROUX/AFP, Getty Images)
Enjoy this great picture of John Kerry, who formerly chaired the Kerry Commission into claims of government-related drug smuggling. (Photo: ROBERT GIROUX/AFP, Getty Images)

The Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI, was a Pakistani bank established in 1972 that came to be known by the nickname the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals,” due to its penchant for shady clients. During the decades after its founding, BCCI became a global hub for illicit activity and housed accounts for pretty much every kind of unsavoury personage you could think of: drug traffickers, terrorists, and foreign spies all called it home. Who else had an account there? Our friendly neighbourhood intelligence agency, the CIA!

Being a BCCI client turned out to be not a great look for the agency, after American journalists caught wind of all the malfeasance going on at the bank — of which there was a lot. In their 1993 book on the scandal, journalists Jonathan Beatty and S.C. Gwynne wrote that…

BCCI was the largest criminal corporate enterprise ever, the biggest Ponzi scheme, the most pervasive money-laundering operation in history, the only bank — so far as anyone knows — that ran a brisk sideline business in both conventional and nuclear weapons, gold, drugs, turnkey mercenary armies, intelligence and counterintelligence, shipping, and commodities from cement in the Middle East to Honduran coffee to Vietnamese beans.

While the CIA admitted to having a relationship with BCCI, it claimed that their usage of the financial institution was totally above board. Rumours swirled at the time that the agency had actually used the bank for pretty creepy stuff. A Washington Post story from the period notes:

Lurid rumours and allegations have suggested that the agency used the bank for covert operations, secret deals and even unauthorised “off-the-shelf” dirty trick schemes which could be perpetrated without repercussions for the agency by using a “black network” of thugs and assassins run out of the bank’s head office in Pakistan.

Again, just rumours! As with much of the Iran-Contra allegations, the nature of the agency’s real relationship with the bank is something that will probably never be known.

The ATF’s Secret Slush Funds

The ATF building, circa 2008.  (Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP, Getty Images)
The ATF building, circa 2008. (Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP, Getty Images)

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is supposed to track down and arrest people who illegally sell alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. But the agency got in deep trouble in 2017 when outside investigators discovered a slush fund at one of its offices in Vermont. Even more bizarre, it turned out that the money in the fund was generated using the illegal sales of cigarettes — the very thing that the ATF was supposed to be policing. ATF agents apparently used this fund to finance secret missions and also to buy themselves a wide variety of nice things, including at least one trip to Las Vegas and NASCAR tickets, among other things. They got into trouble when people found out what had been going on.

The Fat Leonard Scandal (2013-Present)

Photo: Alexi J. Rosenfeld, Getty Images
Photo: Alexi J. Rosenfeld, Getty Images

The “Fat Leonard” affair is an ongoing scandal involving Glenn Defence Marine Asia, a Thailand-based logistics contractor for the U.S. Navy. In short: the company’s CEO, Leonard Glenn Francis (also rudely known as “Fat Leonard” because of, you guessed it, his weight), spent years bribing top Navy officials in the U.S. Seventh Fleet in exchange for classified information about U.S. ship locations and other sensitive information. Leonard used lavish gifts, food and alcohol, and, naturally, hookers, to bribe Navy officials for the information.

Eventually, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into the accusations, and ended up charging 34 different Navy officials and contractors in connection with the bribery scheme. It is now considered the worst corruption scandal in the Navy’s history.

The Commerce Department’s Secret ‘Gestapo’

Photo: ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP, Getty Images
Photo: ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP, Getty Images

When you think of bizarre government coverups, you don’t tend to picture the U.S. Commerce Department. Nevertheless, according to a Senate report put out last year, a little-known security unit within the department was responsible for years of bizarre investigations targeted at the agency’s own employees. The unit, known as the Investigations and Threat Management Service, was apparently tasked with trying to root out foreign espionage. The unit then targeted government employees of Middle Eastern and Chinese heritage, looking for evidence that they were working for a foreign enemy. According to the report, the unit…

“lacked internal policies defining the scope of its investigative authorities for most of its existence, which allowed it to become what whistleblowers described as a ‘gestapo.”’As a result, the unit investigated employees across the Department of Commerce and within the ITMS by designating them as threats to critical assets, often without reasonable suspicion that the subject posed a particularized threat or maintained connections to hostile foreign actors.”

The creepy unit’s activities included breaking into employees’ offices to rifle through their personal documents and also monitoring their social media posts. It was subsequently shut down after the Congressional investigation into its activities.

The Ongoing Deaths and Mayhem at U.S. Military Bases

Photo: Logan Mock-Bunting, Getty Images
Photo: Logan Mock-Bunting, Getty Images

Unfortunately, what’s going on at U.S. military bases today makes the events of A Few Good Men look like a fun trip to Disneyland by comparison. It’s not exactly clear why, but droves of soldiers are dying at bases every year, and many of the deaths have yet to be explained. A fair number of them are suicides, others are violent attacks, they sometimes involve drugs, and some are just bizarre.

In one case at Fort Bragg, a young recruit’s decapitated head was discovered on a North Carolina beach not long after a night of camping with his fellow soldiers. Those soldiers are now facing court martials. In another terrible case, a soldier killed his pregnant wife just days before she was due to give birth, then shot himself. Even when foul play is admitted in these cases, it’s hard to tell what exactly happened or why soldiers seem to be killing each other or dying in such high numbers. At Fort Bragg, for instance, a recent report showed that at least 44 soldiers had died at the base in 2020 alone. At Fort Hood, meanwhile, 39 soldiers died or went missing during the same year, leading to a Congressional investigation and the dismissal of large portion of the base’s leadership. It’s not clear that’s had much of an impact, however.

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