by Gary Webb
In August 1996, a San Jose Mercury News reporter named Gary Webb broke the
story of his life, a three-part series titled "Dark Alliance." Webb's story
documented the exploits of a Nicaraguan drug ring that sold cocaine on the
streets of the U.S. to finance a CIA-backed war against the Sandinista
At the time, Webb had no idea that "Dark Alliance" would also be the last story of his 20-year career. But in the months that followed, Webb found himself the target of a vilification campaign led by the mainstream press, especially The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Those papers had suddenly found themselves in the awkward position of having been scooped on a well-documented story both had dismissed as rumor more than a decade earlier.
The anti-Webb campaign reached its zenith in May 1997, when Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos published a mea culpa and backed away from Webb's story. Then he transferred Webb to the Mercury News' remote Cupertino bureau, forcing him to leave his wife and children hundreds of miles away. In Cupertino, the Mercury News ordered Webb to file copy on such pressing local concerns as a constipated police horse.
At first, Webb fought the transfer through the Mercury News' writers guild; he ultimately resigned from the newspaper and-after taking a job in Sacramento with the California legislature-wrote a book that could do justice to his story, which had been heavily condensed and edited in the original series.
Part of the criticism facing Webb from the start was that he had never sought official CIA comment for his story. It was untrue: the agency had stonewalled Webb's repeated (and documented) attempts through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain insight into the agency's side of the story. The CIA has also refused to comply with several FOIAs filed by the Orange County Weekly, one of the few publications to pursue local follow-ups to Webb's story.
New evidence suggests Webb was right from the start. As a result of the controversy over "Dark Alliance," the CIA was forced by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee to review its records on contra drug dealing. The agency's new report -- which was released in two volumes over the course of this year and reviewed by Webb in the following story -- contradicts every major point The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have asserted about Iran-contra drug running since the term entered America's public consciousness more than 10 years ago.
Among other things, the CIA now acknowledges that as early as 1981 it had information showing that the contras were planning to deal drugs in the U.S. -- and did nothing to stop it. The reason, according to the CIA report, was technical: because the contras weren't considered agency "employees," the CIA didn't have to act on such information. The report also shows that the CIA deliberately misled Congress on what it knew about the problem -- by giving "incomplete briefings" to Congress during a series of crucial Iran-contra hearings in 1987.
For Webb and anyone else who dared doubt the CIA's dismissal, this report, however belated, is a vindication that couldn't come from a more appropriate or powerful source.]
January 1987, a little item appeared in the gossipy "Washington Talk"
column of The New York Times that probably left many readers scratching
their heads. Under the small subhead "The Contras and Drugs," the paper
quoted an unnamed U.S. senator saying the committees investigating the
Iran-contra scandal were considering a probe into reports of drug
trafficking by the CIA's Nicaraguan contra guerrillas.
Almost as an aside, the blurb noted that some senators were concerned that "any official inquiry on this topic and how much, if anything, American officials knew about it would create such an uproar that it could derail the main thrusts of the Senate inquiry: to sort out the Reagan administration's secret arms sales to Iran and diversion of profits to the contras."
Since The New York Times had printed nothing about drugs and the contras until then, a reader would have been justified in wondering why this strange new issue suddenly had the power to send the entire Iran-contra investigation careening off its narrow rails.
Now we know, thanks to a recently declassified CIA Inspector General's report. The sale of missiles to the Ayatollah Khomeni, it seems, wasn't the real scandal of the Iran-contra affair. It was the sale of cocaine to American citizens.
Though hacked and shredded to about half its original length for alleged national- security reasons, the 361-page CIA report paints such a damning picture of official malfeasance that it is now obvious why neither Congress nor the Reagan administration wanted the issue of contra drug dealing aired in 1987. Had these secret cables surfaced during the firestorm of controversy then raging over Iran-contra, it is likely neither the CIA nor the Reagan administration would have survived the conflagration.
1987, the CIA report shows, the agency was sitting on six years' worth of
reports from field agents, station chiefs, informants, assets, private
citizens and some of the contras themselves, all indicating that Ronald
Reagan's "freedom fighters" were shipping planeloads of cocaine and
marijuana into the U.S. The Justice Department's files likewise bulged with
evidence of contra drug running, including eyewitness testimony from inside
informants. Ditto for the State Department. The CIA had briefed Vice
President George Bush personally.
"Allegations of drug trafficking continue to plague our operations," CIA headquarters grumbled in a July 1986 cable to its agents in Costa Rica.
In many cases, the allegations were far from vague. The CIA knew the tail numbers of the drug-running planes, the names of the pilots and their criminal histories, the hangars they were using, the airbases they were flying in and out of, the names of the distributors and wholesalers-in short, just about everything one needed to know. And it was little wonder, since many of the traffickers were working with the CIA or the Justice Department in some fashion.
A prime example was international drug kingpin Norwin Meneses, a California-based contra who supplied the South-Central crack market with tons of cocaine powder during the 1980s and early 1990s. A 1988 FBI cable shows that the Bureau knew Meneses was working for the DEA and believed he "was, and may still be, an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency." At the time, the FBI was unsuccessfully seeking his indictment on federal cocaine-trafficking charges.
According to the report, the CIA not only failed to act against the Contra traffickers but also, deliberately or otherwise, misled others who were investigating them. The agency repeatedly sent false reports to U.S. attorneys, U.S. Customs and other federal agencies, assuring them that the CIA had no record of men and companies who were plainly listed in CIA files as being involved with drugs.
Most important, the declassified cables show the CIA knew exactly what it was doing and was fully aware of how the American public would react if word of its shenanigans ever surfaced.
"There is a very real risk that news of our relationship with [Alan Hyde], whose reputation as an alleged drug trafficker is widely known to various agencies, will hit the public domain-something that could bring our program to a full stop," CIA headquarters nervously cabled its agents in Honduras in July 1987. Six years later, the CIA report says, the agency was still protecting Honduran trafficker Hyde in an effort to keep the CIA's relationship with drug dealers during the contra war under wraps.
"A March 11, 1993, cable discouraged counternarcotics efforts against Alan Hyde because 'his connection to the CIA is well-documented and could prove difficult in the prosecution stage,'" says the report, which was posted on the CIA's Web site in early October.
Among other things, the declassified cables reveal:
A former station chief in Central America told CIA inspectors that he became aware of drug-trafficking allegations against the contras "fairly early" during his assignment.
"Early traces revealed these folks should be treated carefully. Some were scoundrels," he acknowledged. But the fact that the CIA did nothing about it "had to be considered in the context of [then-CIA director] William Casey's overriding political objectives," the station chief added. "Yes, there is derogatory stuff, and we would be careful in terms of counterintelligence and operational security, but we were going to play with these guys. That was made clear by Casey and by [Latin American division chief Dewey] Clarridge."
One of the most jarring examples of the agency's studied indifference to contra drug dealing came during an interview it conducted in 1987 with a particularly unsavory CIA asset working with the contras in Costa Rica. Moises Dagoberto (Dago) Nunez, a Bay of Pigs veteran, ran a shrimp fishery in Puntarenas, Costa Rica; the CIA report laconically describes the fishery as a "seafood company that was created as a cover for laundering drug money." The DEA's office in Costa Rica had been getting reports "for two or three years" that Nunez's company was shipping cocaine to the U.S., but because Nunez was one of the DEA's informants there, nothing was done. The drug loads definitely weren't shrimpy. In January 1986, DEA agents in Miami intercepted 400 pounds of coke concealed in a crate of yucca that was destined for Vidal's employer, Ocean Hunter.
Despite its fragrant background, Nunez's company was awarded a no-bid U.S. State Department contract in early 1987 to funnel "humanitarian aid" to the contras. Soon, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and the National Security Council (NSC) began laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars through the shrimp company's bank accounts, just as the Medellin Cartel had done.
In March 1987, as the Iran-contra scandal was convulsing the public, CIA agents "questioned Nunez about narcotics-trafficking allegations against him. Nunez revealed that since 1985, he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National Security Council. Nunez refused to elaborate on the nature of these actions, but he indicated it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC," according to the CIA's recently released report.
In other words, North -- the man who would soon emerge as the hero of the Iran-contra hearings -- and the Reagan White House had been in cahoots with drug traffickers.
After first instructing its Costa Rican agents to follow up on Nunez's heart-stopping revelations, CIA headquarters changed its mind and quickly slammed on the brakes. "The next day," the Inspector General wrote, "a Headquarters cable stated, 'Headquarters has decided against . . . debriefing Nunez.' The cable offered no explanation for the decision."
But Louis Dupart, the CIA's compliance officer for the contra project, had one. "The agency position was not to get involved in the matter," he told CIA inspectors. "It had nothing to do with the agency but with the National Security Council. It was someone else's problem."
That sentiment was echoed by the CIA's Central American Task Force chief Alan Fiers. "My recollection is that because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to [North's] Private Benefactor program . . . a decision was made not to pursue this matter, but rather to turn it over to Judge Lawrence Walsh, the Independent Counsel for Iran-contra," Fiers said.
The issue of drugs and the NSC never arose during the congressional Iran-contra hearings or during North's later trial for lying to Congress. Nor does it appear from Walsh's files that any great effort was made to settle the question. In an interview, Walsh recalled that his prosecutors spent little, if any, time investigating North's links to drug traffickers because it was outside the very narrow confines the courts had put on his probe.
The CIA report also makes it clear that the congressional committees charged with overseeing the CIA were "not taken" with the contra drug issue, either. In fact, some staffers helped the CIA keep the information bottled up. One of the most striking aspects of the CIA report is just how much drug-related information the CIA did reveal to Congress and how little of it leaked out to the public.
So where was the watchdog press while the Reagan administration, Congress and the CIA were scrambling to keep a lid on the contra drug connection? Dishing out the official story as fast as it could be manufactured. "For all the charges and countercharges," Los Angeles Times reporters Doyle McManus and Ronald Ostrow authoritatively reported on Feb. 18, 1987, "the DEA says it has yet to find a credible drug case against the contra organizations."
now -- nearly 12 years later -- can we fully appreciate what an astounding
lie that was and how eagerly it was swallowed by a gullible Washington,
D.C., press corps. At the time McManus was writing his story, dismissing the
issue as the combined fantasies of dopers and contra-haters, the DEA was
sitting on information from several reliable informants-eyewitnesses on the
U.S. government's payroll-who reported that the contras were selling drugs
in Los Angeles and San Francisco with the CIA's connivance.
In one case, a contra official who was part of Blandon's South-Central drug ring, Ivan Torres, told an undercover DEA operative that "CIA representatives are aware of his drug-related activities and that they don't mind. He said they have gone so far as to encourage cocaine trafficking by members of the contras because they know that it is a good source of income." Torres reported receiving "counterintelligence training from the CIA, and he had avowed that the CIA 'looks the other way' and in essence allows them [contras] to engage in narcotics trafficking as long as it is done outside the United States."
That 1987 DEA report corroborated information the drug agency had received two years earlier from another member of the Blandon/Meneses cocaine ring, Renato Pena, the FDN's military representative in San Francisco. In 1985, Pena told the DEA that "the CIA was allowing the contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them, and keep the proceeds." Pena told CIA inspectors that "Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon told him they were raising money for the contras through drug dealing and that Blandon stated that the contras would not have been able to operate without drug proceeds. Meneses allegedly told Pena that contra leader Enrique Bermudez was aware of the drug dealing."
Ironically, these recently declassified reports are still secret to most Americans. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, has yet to write a word about the CIA report's release. In a recent Internet posting, McManus said the Times was thinking about writing something "in the not-too-distant future that puts all the newly available evidence into perspective."
Albion Monitor November 26, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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