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Smoking Gun in CIA Drug Traffic Coverup

by Alexander Cockburn

Down the decades the CIA has approached perfection in the art of the "uncover-up"
In barely a twitch of the calendar, we'll be at the second anniversary of a newspaper series that stirred a huge uproar and saw a news reporter virtually drummed out of the trade.

And since, this summer, we've seen other reporters -- working for CNN and the Cincinnati Enquirer -- come under savage attack and their careers blighted, it's useful to see the aftermath of the firestorm provoked by Gary Webb's series, published in August of 1996, in the San Jose Mercury News, about the conniving of the CIA in the drug trafficking of Nicaraguan Contras. The drugs ended up in America's inner cities, such as South Central Los Angeles.

Amid furious denials by the CIA, its then-director, John Deutch, promised a thorough internal report. At the start of this year, after much delay, Inspector General Fred Hitz finally released the first of two volumes, heavily censored. A crafty pre-release propaganda operation in December 1997 by the agency yielded triumphant headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post (both of which had savaged Webb), claiming that the report entirely cleared the CIA of any questionable drug association with the Contras.

The censored first volume was made public at the end of January of this year and, far from being an exoneration, proved on close reading to buttress Webb's accusations. This brings us to the technique of the "uncover-up."

Down the decades the CIA has approached perfection in this art. The "uncover-up" is a process whereby, with all due delay, the agency first denies with passion then concedes in profoundly muffled tones charges levelled against it. One familiar feature in the "uncover-up" paradigm is the frequently made statement by CIA-friendly journalists that "no smoking gun" has been detected in whatever probe is under review.

But in Hitz's report, we find an admission that the CIA had successfully requested $36,800, siezed by the police, be returned to a gang of Nicaraguan drug smugglers (led by a Contra money-raiser), who had been busted in the "Frogman" case in San Francisco because the CIA had an "operational equity" in the gangs affairs. This is obviously a smoking gun.

If one was to look for another spectacularly smoking gun in the report, the account of Carlos Cabezas, a drug pilot who was making drug/arms runs between San Francisco and Costa Rica, is a suitable candidate. The report has to confront the fact that Cabezas told CIA investigators how he had gone to Costa Rica in the spring of 1982 with money for the Contras. He met there with Horatio Pereira and Troilo Sanchez, who were Contra leaders and also partners with the Contra/drug smuggler Norwin Menesses, head of the San Francisco gang.

In the company of these two, Cabezas recalled, was a curly-haired man who said his name was Ivan Gomez. Pereira identified Gomez to Cabezas as the CIA's "man in Costa Rica." Cabezas told the inspector general that Gomez said he was there to "ensure that the profits from the cocaine went to the Contras and not into someone's pocket."

Struggling with this damning statement, the inspector general concedes that indeed the CIA did have a "contractor" in Costa Rica using the name "Ivan Gomez." But, the inspector general bravely adds, though Cabezas' description of a man he had seen twice 15 years earlier was accurate to the extent that the CIA's contractor did indeed have dark curly hair, his overall appearance was "significantly different" -- ie, the "real" Ivan Gomez was shorter and slighter in build than Cabeza's memory of him.

In March of this year, the inspector general disclosed that his agency knew that "dozens of people and a number of companies connected in some fashion to the Contra program" were involved in the drug trade.

He said the CIA knew that drugs had been going back along the Contra supply lines into the United States and added: "Let me be frank. There are instances where the CIA did not in an expeditious or consistent fashion cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations."

Even more damaging was Hitz's revelation that in 1982 the CIA had signed a memorandum of understanding with Ronald Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith, freeing the agency from any requirement to report allegations of drug trafficking involving non-employees. The non-employees, according to Hitz (who refused to release the entire memo), were described as paid and non-paid "assets, pilots who ferried supplies to the Contras, as well as Contra officials and others."

None of this damaging material has been discussed by the journalists who savaged Gary Webb. And perhaps emboldened by their indifference, the CIA has now launched a repeat of its propaganda maneuver of last December. The second volume of the inspector general's report has yet to be released. On July 17, The New York Times published a news report by James Risen about it.

Acquisition of the report would seem to have been a scoop. But instead of describing the volume's contents, or quoting from it, the Times' story offered no direct quotes, spent only three paragraphs describing its contents and devoted much space to yet another attack on Gary Webb, replete with an unattributed quote from someone described only as "a US intelligence official," to the effect that the agency had clean hands.

If the CIA inspector general's second volume is anything like the first, we can expect it to be full of "uncover-ups." We have reached the curious position that the agency is actually being more forthright -- albeit deviously so -- than its journalist defenders. Webb, now out of the journalism business, no doubt laughs wryly at the irony.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 3, 1998 (

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