Total Coverage: The CIA, Contras, and Drugs

The CIA-coke connection was detailed long before Dark Alliance -- and the evidence keeps coming

| Tue Aug. 25, 1998 2:00 AM EDT

You may have seen the headline last month on the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES. (Then again, you may not have, since it ran in a small box on the bottom-left corner.) It announced, "CIA Says It Used Nicaraguan Rebels Accused of Drug Tie." The beginning of that story read:

"The CIA continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations they were trafficking in drugs.... [T]he agency's decision to keep those paid agents, or to continue dealing with them in some less formal relationship, was made by top officials at headquarters in Langley, Va."
In other words, top officials at the CIA knew the agency was working with Contra drug traffickers and didn't do anything about it. But the story, even with that shocking headline, quickly disappeared. None of the other major papers, news magazines, or TV networks reported the NEW YORK TIMES' findings.

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How did it come to this? The paper of record running a story, perhaps leaked purposely by the CIA itself, that admits what many have charged for years...and then the story disappears as quickly as it came.

A look at the twisted history of the CIA/Contra/cocaine story:

If you've heard about the CIA/Contra/crack allegations, it's probably because of Gary Webb, who in August 1996 authored several stories for the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS. Titled "Dark Alliance," the series linked drug smuggling by CIA-trained Contras to the crack epidemic that has ravaged America. It never actually said the CIA knew about the drugs, but it did strongly imply it (the logo for the series -- yes, it had a logo -- showed a person smoking crack, superimposed over the CIA seal.)

The series ignited a firestorm of controversy. And the major papers, specifically the NEW YORK TIMES, LOS ANGELES TIMES, and WASHINGTON POST, all ran lengthy pieces questioning the accuracy of Webb's reporting. (These stories were themselves criticized for being hell-bent on proving Gary Webb wrong, rather than attempting to follow up on his stories.) Even Webb's own editor retreated from the story's conclusions.

But the story of the CIA-funded Contras trafficking coke isn't new. And neither is the surprising lack of media interest in getting to the bottom of it:

  • Contra supporters dealing cocaine to fund their army was actually first reported in 1985, in an article by Robert Parry and Brian Barger of the ASSOCIATED PRESS. After interviewing DEA, Customs, and FBI officials, the article said there was evidence the Contras were importing drugs into the U.S. to support their war effort. No other newspapers followed up on the story. As would be the case in the future, though the press ignored the allegations, the Reagan administration didn't. The Justice Department contacted the editors at the AP and politely asked them to remove references in that story that connected Contra drug-smuggling to John Hull, a CIA "asset" in Costa Rica.

  • But information on Contra/drug connections kept coming. In 1987, the allegations eventually led to a Senate investigation (anybody remember that one?) led by John Kerry (D-Mass.). Among the juicier moments:
    Senator KERRY: What did you do with those drugs?
    Mr. MORALES: Sell them.
    Senator KERRY: What did you do with the money?
    Mr. MORALES: Give it to the Contras.
    Senator KERRY: All right.
    But did the Kerry committee report find that the U.S. knew about Contra coke-dealing? Here's an excerpt from the executive summary:
    [I]t is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.

    What was the response when the Kerry Committee report was released? According to a Lexis-Nexis search, only four major papers reported the committee's findings -- none on the front page. The NEW YORK TIMES' story, tucked away on Page 8, did mention one of the committee's more interesting findings: "The State Department paid $806,401 between January and August 1986 to four companies that distributed humanitarian aid to the contras but 'were owned and operated by narcotics traffickers.'"

    But if the media weren't biting, the Reagan administration was keenly interested in the committee findings. Jack Blum, the lead investigator for the committee, complained that the administration obstructed the investigation. The report itself complains of pressure from the executive branch: "...officials in the Justice Department sought to undermine attempts by Senator Kerry to have hearings held on the [Contra drug] allegations."

  • Oliver North's diary contained at least two extraordinary entries:

    From a July 12, 1985, meeting with Richard Secord, North's boss in the Reagan administration:

    "$14M to finance came from drugs."
    This entry, which was given in part to the Kerry Committee, was first reported in NEWSWEEK. North claimed he did nothing wrong and said the Kerry Committee was "just playing politics and dragging out wild charges."

    And this entry on Aug. 9, 1985, which was submitted as part of the Iran-Contra special prosecutor report:

    "Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S."
    North claimed he told the DEA about this plane. In 1994, the WASHINGTON POST decided to verify North's claim. The POST interviewed top law officials, from the DEA, Customs, State Department, CIA, and White House, including some who had meetings with North at the time of the diary entry. Each one said that North did not pass the information on to them.

  • North's diaries weren't the only evidence of Contra drug involvement that came out as a result of the Iran-Contra hearings. CIA Central American Task Force Chief Alan Fiers testified during the hearings: "With respect to [drug trafficking by] the Resistance Forces...it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people."

  • In 1991, the University of California Press published "Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America." The book, written by Peter Dale Scott, an English professor, and Jonathan Marshall, then the economics editor for the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, contained what is still the most detailed and extensive evidence of Contra drug dealing and potential connections to the CIA. The book, mostly based on testimony from the Kerry Committee and other publicly available sources, got nice write-ups in the book review sections of many papers. No major news organizations followed up on the reporting in the book.

    E-mail the Expert:


    From: Gary Webb
    Date: Fri, 24 Jul 1998 22:22:06 EDT
    To: umansky@motherjones.com
    Mime-Version: 1.0
    Subject: Re: CIA/coke NYT article

    >Do you feel vindicated?

    The second CIA report not only vindicates me, but all the other reporters and activists who have been trying to bring this to the public's attention for the last 13 years. It also proves that, once again, the CIA lied to the American public and was assisted in this effort by our national news media, which denigrated anyone who challenged the official denials.

    The "Dark Alliance" Controversy

    The story mostly stayed out of the media for the next five years. Then Gary Webb and the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS released "Dark Alliance." In many ways, the series didn't advance the CIA/Contras/drugs story. But it did make one stunning allegation: The Contras' drug-smuggling operation bore major responsibility for a public-health epidemic in America.

    "The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America..."
    The other papers skewered Webb for, among other things, suggesting that CIA headquarters knew of the Contras' drug dealings. His own paper backed away from that suggestion too. Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS, wrote in an editor's note that "[T]he story was right on many important points." But, he said, the story was wrong to imply CIA knowledge of Contra drug-dealing. (Yes, that's the very knowledge the CIA just admitted to the NEW YORK TIMES last month.)

    Ironically, it was the title and graphic of the story -- "Dark Alliance" and a picture of a crack pipe superimposed over the CIA logo -- that most strongly implied a direct CIA connection to drug dealing. And titles and graphics are rarely the responsibility of the author.

    The best wrap-up of both Webb's story and the big papers' responses to it appeared in the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, in an article by Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive. He agreed with the major papers' assertions that Webb's feature contained hyperbole and overstatement. But he also pointed out that the major papers' rebuttals had similar problems. He concluded that, by attacking Webb's story rather than following leads, "The mainstream press shirked its larger duty; thus it bears the larger burden."

    The New Evidence

    Both the Justice Department and the CIA launched investigations as a result of the "Dark Alliance" series. The results, so far, have dislodged new evidence that gives credence to Webb's account, some of it shocking:

  • The CIA decided to separate its findings into two reports. The first, with the snappy title "Volume I: The California Story," mostly vindicated the CIA, with one interesting exception: The CIA acknowledged that it had contacted the U.S. Attorney General's office in San Francisco and asked if money seized in a drug bust -- the largest bust in California history at the time -- could please be returned to the defendant. The money, the CIA said, wasn't part of a drug operation; it belonged to the Contras. According to CIA cables released as part of the report, "[T]he United States Attorney was most deferential to our interests."

  • The Justice Department report, meanwhile, delayed for months because of an "ongoing investigation," was finally released in July. Its scope was limited to finding out whether any Justice Department investigations or prosecutions were affected by the supposed connections between the CIA, the Contras, and drugs. It agreed with the CIA: The intelligence agency had intervened in a drug case in the U.S. on behalf of the Contras.

  • But the most shocking new revelation doesn't appear in any report. Rather, it came up during CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz's presentation to Congress of the first CIA volume.

    During his testimony, Hitz revealed for the first time a very special agreement that the CIA had with the Justice Department: The CIA did not have to report if its non-employee agents, paid or unpaid, were dealing drugs. The secret agreement, which remained in place from 1982 to 1995 (when Janet Reno rescinded it), was not mentioned in the CIA report, nor was a copy made public; Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) later obtained a copy of the agreement and provided it to the MoJo Wire (see "A Tainted Deal").

    In other words, it wasn't just incompetence or lack of interest that led the CIA to ignore the fact that their operatives were dealing drugs: It was policy. Almost no major media reported the existence of this agreement. The only exception was the WASHINGTON POST, which mentioned the agreement on Page A12, in the sixth paragraph of a five-hundred-word story.

  • The second volume of the CIA report is still classified, and according to the CIA, there are no plans to release it. But that doesn't mean we can't get a peek. Remember that NEW YORK TIMES article mentioned at the very start of this story?

    The article, written by James Risen, relies on an unnamed source for information about the second CIA report; it is unclear whether Risen saw the report himself. When the MoJo Wire called Risen to ask whether he saw the report or relied on a source to describe it to him, Risen said he'd "rather not say."

    The story summarizes the report by saying, "no clear guidelines [were] given to field officers about how extensively they should investigate [drug] allegations." What the story never mentions, inexplicably, is the one set of clear guidelines that have been reported: The agreement between the CIA and the Justice Department that said the CIA didn't have to report its operatives, even when it knew they were guilty of drug-running.