Albion Monitor /Commentary

CIA Again Silences the Press

by Alexander Cockburn

It may not come as great comfort to Gary Webb, but no doubt in another 30 or 40 years the CIA will release documents showing that the agency did indeed connive at contra drug smuggling
There are some things you aren't supposed to say in respectable journals of news and opinion. You can't say the CIA tried to assassinate foreign leaders. You can't say that U.S. citizens engage in torture or were present during massacres or death squad activities. And you can't say the CIA has ever been involved in the drug trade.

The CIA has just released a tiny fraction of the documents it somehow omitted to destroy regarding the 1954 coup in Guatemala against the democratically elected, left-leaning government of Jacobo Arbenz, which was the prototype for many subsequent coups in Latin America installing brutal military regimes. The CIA was intimately involved, just as it was in most of those that followed. The Arbenz overthrow started a horrifying cycle of state-backed violence in Guatemala that saw hundreds of thousands of peasants and labor organizers slaughtered across the next generation.

The new documents show that the CIA, urged to plot the coup by the Eisenhower administration, trained assassins to kill at least 58 left leaders in Guatemala and to instigate a psychological war of death threats, including phone calls -- preferably between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The agency now claims that none of these people was killed and that the entire murder plan was scrapped. But the spirit of trust is not enhanced by the Agency's decision to delete the names of all the intended targets. If the names had been left unconcealed, it would be the work of a day to discover whether any or all of the designated 58 ever made it into 1955.

Known CIA murder attempts can be traced to at least as early as the Bandung Conference of the mid-1950s, when the agency made a strenuous effort to blow up the Communist Chinese leader Chou En-Lai by putting a bomb on his plane. The bomb went off as planned and the plane fell into the South China Sea; Chou, having dallied in Hong Kong, escaped, though of course everyone on that plane died.

The most recent known episode of assassination of leading opponents as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy came with the efforts in 1993 to dispatch Mohammed Farah Aidid of Somalia. Said efforts were approved by Bill Clinton from his vacation home, the former residence on Martha's Vineyard of Robert McNamara.

Back in the late 1970s, Raymond Bonner of The New York Times got into a lot of trouble, first for reporting that U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops had apparently perpetrated an appalling massacre at El Mozote and second for quoting a source as alleging that a U.S adviser had been present during a brutal interrogation session. On the latter episode, Bonner ended up apologizing and saying he should have had more sources.

When Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News published his famous series on the CIA-backed Contras and drug smuggling last August, his soundly-based allegations got a good national airing on talk radio and in the virtual chat rooms of the Internet. But as soon as it looked as though his story would turn critical on national television, the elites counter-attacked. Webb was the victim of virulent attacks in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

But it did at least appear that the San Jose Mercury News was standing by its man Webb. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a letter to The Washington Post defending the stories. But then, at the turn of the year, Ceppos took leave to battle prostate cancer. Two months later he returned, according to one colleague, a "changed man." This spring, Ceppos informed Webb that he was going to make a public self-criticism for having published the "Dark Alliance" series of articles, which he intended to characterize as flawed.

On May 13 Ceppos ran his column in the Mercury News. There was nothing of substance in his criticisms and indeed they were largely culled from a follow-up commentary done on Webb's work by another Mercury journalist, whose own criticisms had been rebutted by Webb.

The reception given Ceppos' letter in the elite press differed markedly from the reaction to the original series. The New York Times immediately called it a "courageous gesture," gave an entirely misleading account of the procedures at the Mercury News and then concluded piously that this saga should not deter public confidence in investigative reporting. In The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz, who launched the first attack on Webb, patted himself on the back, saying that by taking responsibility, Jerry Ceppos made the first step toward redeeming the bloodied reputation of the Fourth Estate.

The renewed attack on Webb must have the CIA beside itself with joy since the latest spate of stories have all roundly alleged that there was never any evidence of agency collusion in the drug business. Thus were forgotten in a breath such investigative triumphs as Al McCoy's "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia," Leslie Cockburn's "Out of Control" and the 1989 Senate investigation by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, which conclusively established that the CIA was not only "aware" of drug trafficking but had abetted it.

It took 43 years for the CIA's murder plan in Guatemala to come to light, and even now, the assassinations supposedly didn't take place. It may not come as great comfort to Gary Webb, a fine reporter now enduring an outrageous campaign of smears, but no doubt in another 30 or 40 years the CIA will release documents showing that the agency did indeed connive at contra drug smuggling. That's not hard to believe. Perhaps it isn't even hard to believe the savaging Webb has gotten for raising matters already soundly buttressed by a Senate Committee. After all, there are some things you just aren't meant to talk about in respectable circles.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor June 17, 1997 (

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