The Crack-UP

What the CIA knew about the drug trade, in its own words

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 government.

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 OC 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.

In 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.

By 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.

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