How the Mainstream Media Kept the Lid on CIA-Contra Drug Story

by Joel Bleifuss

An August 18, San Jose Mercury News investigative reporter Gary Webb began a three-part series describing how contra-connected Nicaraguan drug dealers sold tons of cocaine to street gangs in South Central Los Angeles and then turned the profits over to the ClA's contra army. The Nicaraguans, Webb wrote, supplied much of this cheap cocaine to dope dealer Ricky "Freeway Rick" Ross, who "turned the cocaine powder into crack and wholesaled it to gangs across the country."

One profoundly troubling aspect of this burgeoning scandal is how the mainstream news media have chosen to cover-or not cover-this story. That the contras were smuggling drugs is outrageous, but that has been reported in the alternative press, including In These Times, for years. (See "Is North network cocaine connected?" December 10, 1986.) That the Reagan and Bush administrations tried to cover up their knowledge of these operations is also old news. (See "A key witness dies; a controversy lives on," December 24, 1986.) Nonetheless, the nation's newspapers of record, particularly the Washington Post, have failed to give the story broader exposure. Over the past decade, the Post has covered the contra-cocaine connection only when it could not be ignored.

Perhaps there is a method to the madness. Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, the newsletter of the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), covered Iran-contra for In These Times. "In the `80s, to say `Contras' and `drugs' together marked you as a radical conspiracy theorist," says Naureckas. But now, he adds, "the story has gone from `That's ridiculous,' to `everybody knows about it,' without ever being news in between."

On April 14, 1989, the Post devoted one brief story to the final report of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, headed by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), which found that contras were involved in drug trafficking and that government agencies

were aware of that involvement. After trivializing the report's findings, Post reporter Michael Isikoff concluded that claims of drug trafficking by high-level contras "could not be substantiated."

The Post had nothing more to say on the subject until the fall of 1991, when Gen. Manuel Noriega went to trial on drug-trafficking charges in Miami. Isikoff then wrote: "Allegations that the federal government worked with known drug dealers to arm the contras have been raised for years, but congressional investigations in the late 1980s found little evidence to back charges that it was an organized activity approved by high-level U.S. officials."

That assertion was soon contradicted by the U.S. government's own witnesses against Noriega. In October, Floyd Carlton Caceres testified that his smuggling operation flew U.S. guns to the contras in Nicaragua and brought cocaine into the United States on the return flight. However, federal Judge William Hoeveler, sustaining all objections from U.S. prosecutors, refused to allow Noriega's defense lawyer to press Caceres further on the subject. At one point, Hoeveler snapped, "Just stay away from it."

And in November, convicted Colombian drug lord and government witness Carlos Lehder told the court that an unnamed U.S. official offered to allow him to smuggle cocaine into the United States in exchange for use of a Bahamian island that he owned as part of the contra supply route. Lehder went on to testify that the Colombian cartel had donated about $10 million to the contras.

At this point, the Post finally took notice. "The Kerry hearings didn't get the attention they deserved at the time," its editorial concluded. "The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention."

How does one square this editorial with Isikoff's dismissive coverage of Kerry's findings two years earlier? If, as the Post says, "the Kerry hearings didn't get the attention they deserved," why did the paper's editors at the time bury their one little story about Kerry's report on page 20?

While the Post acknowledged, albeit belatedly, the credibility of the Kerry investigation's findings, it ignored the contra-cocaine connection story until Webb's exposé began making waves the paper could not ignore. On October 4, the Post devoted two full pages to Webb's story. In their analysis, reporters Walter Pincus and Roberto Suro acknowledge that the contras were trafficking cocaine, but they dismiss Webb's thesis that the Nicaraguan drug dealers' operations were key to the spread of the crack epidemic. Pincus and Suro report that in the `80s, investigators and journalists found "that a few contras, and some of the rebels' suppliers and supporters, were involved in drug smuggling." This assertion, however, contradicts Alan Fiers, the CIA's Central American expert, who testified at the Kerry hearings, "With respect to [drug trafficking] by the resistance is not a couple of people, it is a lot of people."

Pincus and Suro also report that contrary to Webb's assertions, their own investigation found that "the available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras...played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States." As for Los Angeles drug dealer "Freeway Rick" Ross, Pincus and Suro write, "The mere idea that any one person could have played a decisive role in the nationwide crack epidemic is rejected out of hand by academic experts and law enforcement officials."

In a December 20, 1994 issue of the Los Angeles Times, reporter Jesse Katz drew the opposite conclusion:

If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick...He was a favorite son of the Colombian cartels... whose singleminded obsession was to become the biggest dope dealer in history.... He transformed a curbside operation at 87th and Figueroa into the Wal-Mart of cocaine. While most other dealers toiled at the bottom rungs of the market, his coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than 500,000 rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars.
Pincus and Suro approvingly quote Kerry: "There is no question in my mind that people affiliated with, on the payroll of and carrying the credentials of the CIA were involved in drug trafficking while involved in support of the contras, but it is also important to note that we never found any evidence to suggest that these traffickers ever targeted any one geographic area or population group." In other words, we should be comforted by the fact that while the CIA may have allowed its contra army to smuggle drugs into U.S. cities, the agency was an equal-opportunity criminal that never deliberately targeted the African-American community.

Pincus and Suro go on to explain: "The CIA knew about some of these activities and did little or nothing to stop them, according to accounts from then-senior CIA officers and other government officials." But the two reporters conveniently fail to explore the evidence Webb cites that shows the CIA interfered with attempts by law enforcement officials to curtail the contras' drug operation. Pincus and Suro ignore the fact that during Ross' trial earlier this year, government prosecutors obtained a court order that prevented defense lawyers from questioning former contra and drug smuggler Oscar Blandon-one of the government's key witnesses-about his ties to the CIA. Assistant U.S. Attorney L. J. O'Neale, in his petition to the court to forbid all mention of the CIA, explained that Blandon "will admit that he was a large-scale dealer in cocaine, and there is no additional benefit to any defendant to inquire as to the Central Intelligence Agency."

As a Washington Post reporter on national security issues, Pincus failed to break any of the major stories of the scandal-plagued Reagan and Bush administrations. In fact, during this period, the Post, the New York Times and other mainstream periodicals sought to protect the country's national security apparatus from a thorough housecleaning.

In 1987, for example, editors at Time suppressed an article that examined the contra-cocaine connection. According to the November 1991 Extra!, a senior editor at Time told the reporter who had written the piece, "Time is institutionally behind the contras. If this story were about the Sandinistas and drugs, you'd have no trouble getting it in the magazine."

Perhaps the Post is institutionally behind the CIA. The paper's October 9 editorial on the contra-crack connection again acknowledges the Kerry committee findings that "the CIA had dealings with drug pushers." The Post then goes on to explain: "Cold War inhibitions then current kept Americans from mustering the appropriate outrage."

That statement would be more accurate if "Americans" was replaced with "Post editors." In November 1988, in the middle of the Iran-contra scandal, Post owner Katharine Graham spoke to a gathering of senior CIA employees at the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters. "We live in a dirty and dangerous world," she said. "There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows."

This story is reprinted with permission from the Oct. 28, 1996 issue of In These Times. This magazine is published biweekly by the Institute for Public Affairs, 2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647. Subscriptions $36.95/year. Call 1-800-827-0270.

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This story was published on December 5, 1996.