Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: For link to the San Jose Mercury news story and summary, see " CIA Funded Contras With Crack Sales" in an earlier Albion Monitor..]

The CIA, Crack, and Not-So Crack Journalism

by Daniel Brandt
Public Information Research

(AR) SAN ANTONIO -- The frenzy over the story about the CIA and crack in Los Angeles has turned into a media war.

Two things are going on: the story itself, and the reaction to the San Jose Mercury News by the mainstream media. The second is beginning to drown out the first. This is unfortunate, since many in high places would like to see the first story disappear altogether. If this happens, the larger story behind the first story will recede as well.

This larger story is the one that needs to be investigated.

Former DEA agents accuse the CIA of complicity in the drug trade, profiteering and double-dealing .. this is the story that needs to be investigated by Congress

First of all, let's introduce Economics 101 into the equation -- something which reporters on both sides have failed to do because they don't own library cards. After 1980, according to economist and author R.T. Naylor of McGill university, prices of cocaine dropped dramatically. In Medellin, a kilogram of pure cocaine was selling for $20,000 in 1982; by early 1984 the FOB price had dropped to $4,000. This was due to the fact that Bolivia began refining cocaine locally after 1980, and Peru and Paraguay expanded production and refinement.

When it comes to assessing the changes in price and availability of crack in Los Angeles during the 1980s, the role of the CIA in the cocaine coup in Bolivia in 1980 is at least as significant as the actions of dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon.

The CIA's support for this coup, and their protection of major South American dealers, is covered by former DEA agent Michael Levine in his 1993 book, "The Big White Lie: The CIA and the Cocaine/Crack Epidemic -- An Undercover Odyssey." Celerino Castillo III, another former DEA agent who worked out of Guatemala and was in charge of El Salvador, has also written about cocaine and the contras in El Salvador with coauthor Dave Harmon in "Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras and the Drug War."

Both former DEA agents accuse the CIA of complicity in the drug trade. It's a story of CIA profiteering and double-dealing, or at a bare minimum, a story of CIA toleration of such behavior among their assets, and then protecting these assets against the DEA's attempts to bring them to justice. This is the story that needs to be investigated by Congress.

Until this story is sketched in more detail, it seems silly to concentrate on the activities of one dealer in Los Angeles.

The contra-cocaine story is ten years old, but has never been properly investigated

The San Jose Mercury News deserves credit for reviving this issue. Until now the issue was killed and buried by the mainstream media, and apparently forgotten in the public imagination. But the way in which the Mercury News revived it created more of a straw man than a Frankenstein -- a bit too easy to knock down.

It's primarily a question of emphasis: Were the activities of Oscar Danilo Blandon a manifestation of prior CIA misdeeds in this area, as well as of general economic factors that affected the price of cocaine, or was Blandon the cutting edge of a problem that would not have existed without him?

In packaging the story for the Mercury News, reporter Gary Webb "went Web." In earlier decades, we might have said he "went Hollywood," but it amounts to the same thing. He turned a complex series of interre- lated global events into a clean, compelling regional story. Then he implied that the cart belonged in front of the horse. We end up with an imputed scandal and something resembling modern journalism, with book and movie rights close behind. But we still don't have responsible historical analysis.

Then something happened that could only happen in American journalism. Our mainstream press, with all the resources at their command, loudly accused Gary Webb of shoddy journalism, and used equally shoddy journalism to make their point.

Walter Pincus at the Washington Post has CIA connections that go back 37 years, and the Post's own CIA connections go back further, so everyone expected mere propaganda from them. We weren't disappointed.

But then Doyle McManus, a Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was the point man in a four-week effort that involved 25 Times reporters. Their three-part series appeared on October 20, 21, and 22. Nowhere is Michael Levine or Celerino Castillo mentioned, and while the declining price of cocaine is referred to at one point, the reasons behind this decline are not.

Yet McManus on Tuesday accused the Mercury News of "profoundly bad journalism" on the Charlie Rose PBS show, and keeps complaining about Gary Webb's book and movie contracts. McManus says that he hates to sound like an apologist for the CIA, because he's spent a lot of his career investigating the CIA.

In almost the same breath he admits that the contra-cocaine story is ten years old, but has never been properly investigated. So what has McManus been doing for ten years? Charlie didn't ask.

Charlie Rose seemed agitated that the Mercury News could do so well with this story, without first clearing it with the elite East Coast media savants

It would be more interesting to hear from McManus about the sort of pressures that were brought to bear on the Los Angeles Times to come up with this series. Who issued the marching orders? Who dictated the spin? How high did it go? But as mere consumers of spin, not producers, we are not allowed to know such things.

Another interesting tactic was tried by the New York Times on October 21. A front page effort by Tim Golden made the case that the gullibility evidenced by the widespread interest in the Mercury News story is a problem specific to blacks.

The reaction was immediate from some readers, who pointed out that it's not a black problem at all, but a problem that all people legitimat- ely have with unresponsive government in general, and unrestrained CIA operations in particular.

Then Charlie Rose trotted out Jack White of Time magazine to say much the same thing that Tim Golden said. White is apparently a light-skinned African-American, judging from his television appearance. The big boys learn fast: you don't use someone with a "Tim Golden" byline to argue that the problem lies with black perceptions. Or maybe you do, because however you dress it up, it still effectively plays the race card, which conveniently functions to sidestep the real issue.

Another angle by the mainstream press betrays something that can only be described as jealousy. The Mercury News has the most sophisticated Web site of any newspaper, while the mainstream press muddles along with a so-so presence on the Web.

With a daily circulation of 300,000 newspapers, the Mercury News hit rate on its Web site was running from 600,000 to 700,000 per day before the story, and as many as 860,000 per day once interest in the story picked up.

The CIA-crack story alone, which was investigated for a year, includes pictures, documents, and sound clips; downloading only the text files results in a 225-page printout. More importantly, the story was picked up everywhere around the country, and Congress and the CIA director were forced to announce investigations.

Charlie Rose seemed agitated that the Mercury News could do so well with this story, without first clearing it with the sort of elite East Coast media savants and political fixers that he usually fondles on his show. He invited the Washington correspondent for Wired, John Heilemann, to apologize for the sins of Silicon Valley.

Compared to Jack White and Doyle McManus, Heilemann was refreshingly lucid. He patiently explained that the technology of the Web was more or less neutral, and not responsible for the manner in which the Mercury News chose to use it.

While the sort of clout demonstrated by the Mercury News cannot be ascribed to the Web site directly, as opposed to the compelling nature of the story itself, it has the big boys worried. Freedom of the press for those who can afford to own the presses is precisely what they've always supported. But this story suddenly raises suspicions that the Internet has changed the equation in support of democracy.

Unless regional newspapers agree to mild-mannered, regional-int- erest Web sites, all the resources that the elites have invested in mon- opolizing the Daily Spin could end up spinning down the drain. The CIA and their mainstream friends cannot let this happen. That's the second aspect of this continuing episode -- one which makes it potentially a bigger story than even the Mercury News bargained for.

Daniel Brandt is the founder and president of Public Information Research in San Antonio, Texas, a nonprofit organization that publishes NameBase

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor October 26, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page