Drugs, Contras, and the CIA:

Press Covers for the Agency's Honor

          On August 18 of this year the San Jose Mercury News launched a three-part series on how the Nicaraguan contras had financed their war by sales of cocaine in the United States, later processed into crack and sold on the West Coast. The newspaper's reporter, Gary Webb, also inferred that the CIA was knowledgeable of this trafficking.

          Neglected for weeks by the mainstream press, the Mercury News's stories created an uproar in black communities ravaged by crack. Maxine Waters, who represents South Central Los Angeles in the U.S. Congress, lined up with Jesse Jackson, Jr. and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to demand investigations of the CIA by the Justice Department and the Inspector General's office.

          Black radio talk show host Joe Madison of Washington, D.C., devoted 12 straight days to the story. Dick Gregory led a protest march on the capital. The Mercury News vigorously promoted its investigation on the Internet, where nearly 100,000 people a day dipped into its findings. The stories were also taken by the Central American solidarity networks as vindication of what they had long asserted. Some remembered the banner unfolded during the Iran/Contra hearings: "Ask about cocaine."

          At the official level, CIA Director John Deutch said that the CIA had most certainly not been involved, but simultaneously ordered an internal review, thus avoiding public enquiry. At the semi-official level, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, the newspaper's media critic, attacked the Mercury News's stories as fatally flawed. On October 2, Kurtz published a rambling assault, loaded with criticism of everything from the logo on the reprints of the Mercury News's series (showing a black youth lighting a crack pipe over the seal of the CIA) to Webb's use of the (entirely accurate) phrase "the CIA's army" to describe the Contras. He said Webb was a headline-grabber and then made the outlandish assertion that all previous "investigations failed to prove that the CIA condoned or even knew about" Contra drug trafficking.

          Kurtz's attack was a preamble for a full-scale assault two days later. On October 4, the Post ran a 5,000 word attack by Robert Suro and Walter Pincus; a 1,500-word essay on black conspiracy-mongering by Michael Fletcher; a sidebar by Pincus on the history of "drug allegations" against the CIA; and a 1,000-word piece in the style section by Donna Britt, essentially about black paranoia.

          The Suro/Pincus piece was a curious and in many ways comical attempt at demolition of Webb's story, adopting the hallowed technique of avoiding the overall thrust of the Mercury New's assertions, while concentrating with manic intensity on some particular facet. Thus Suro and Pincus devoted many paragraphs to Webb's claim that Contra drug trafficking played a crucial role in the evolution of the crack epidemic in the U.S. Challenging the Mercury New's characterization of Nicaraguan trafficker Danilo Blandon as "the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California," Suro and Pincus wrote that "Blandon's own accounts and law enforcement estimates say Blandon handled a total of only about five tons of cocaine during a decade-long career."

          As a demolition job, this leaves much to be desired. Imagine if the Post had been dealing with a claim by Mayor Marion Barry that during his term "only 10,000 pounds of crack had been handled by traffickers in the blocks surrounding his offices." Concentrating their fire on Blandon's precise stature as a drug czar, Suro and Pincus had very little to say about the CIA's actual role, beyond endless condescension about wild claims made by paranoid rumor mongers.

          Suro and Pincus attacked Webb's journalistic integrity by asserting that he had planted questions for an attorney to ask Blandon in a drug case. (Webb tells us he thought it was the only way of getting statements on the record out of the Nicaraguan.) But Pincus's own credentials merit at least a passing word. Back in 1968, when stories about the CIA's penetration of the National Student Association had been broken by the magazine Ramparts, Pincus wrote a rather solemn exposé of himself in the Post detailing in a confessional style how the Agency had sponsored three trips for him: to Vienna, Accra, and New Delhi, where he had acted as an observer at conferences. It was clearly an apprenticeship, in which--as he well knew--Pincus was being assessed as officer material. He evidently made a good impression because the CIA asked him to work further. Pincus says he declined. So the Mercury News would have been entitled to scoff at the attack on their work written in part by a former CIA asset.

          In their eagerness to play up their trail-blazing expose, Webb and the Mercury News did themselves a disservice by failing to mention the abundant investigations over the past decade detailing the CIA's role in drug smuggling throughout Central America. Indeed, from the earliest days of the Agency, there has been a perfectly understandable alliance with drug smugglers, whether in Sicily or Southeast Asia or Afghanistan. The CIA needs local criminals for its purposes. Criminal associations market drugs. Drug money is hard to trace. All of these are vital building blocks for an outfit like the CIA. The story has been vividly and meticulously documented in such work as Alfred McCoy's Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. There were no vague hypotheses or nebulous conspiracy mongering in McCoy's work. With risks to himself far greater than anything ever experience by Pincus, McCoy got names, dates, and places.

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