by Peter Dale Scott

If you read the May 13 New York Times, it appeared that nine months of controversy over a major Contra-drug story, published last August by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News, had finally been laid to rest. "Expose on Crack Was Flawed, Paper Says," read the dismissive headline. A Times editorial the next day claimed that Webb’s editor, Jerry Ceppos, had admitted in a column that Webb’s articles "had been poorly written." Three weeks later, the Times shifted its focus from the story to Webb himself, claiming that his "bare-knuckles" style and "penchant for self-promotion" had split the Mercury newsroom.

For a confused public, all this may have seemed like the last word. For those who had been following closely, Jerry Ceppos’ column of apology, and the Times’ one-sided oversimplification of it, were only further evidence of a dramatic cover-up, a whitewashing that does not stand up under scrutiny. The cover-up suggests further how frightened the establishment is of the truth behind the story: how U.S. law enforcement was subverted when it came to major drug-traffickers who were also Contra supporters, and how the CIA, by recurringly allying itself with the world’s biggest traffickers, has contributed to the increased flow of drugs into this country.

This fear has been enhanced by the rise of the Internet as a public grapevine, a cottage industry alternative press. Amid all the wild stories one can pick up out there in cyberspace, there is also abundant documentation of the big media’s own role in a CIA-drug cover-up that has been going on for several decades.

In 1986, for example, San Francisco Examiner reporter Seth Rosenfeld broke the story that Contra leaders and supporters had been behind the "Frogman" cocaine shipment seized in San Francisco. The big media ignored this story until after Webb repeated it last August. Instead they reported Reagan’s charge on television, made only a few hours after the Examiner story, "that top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking." (The DEA itself swiftly debunked this suspect allegation, saying that it had no evidence to implicate high-level Sandinista officials.)

But for almost a year the Internet has kept alive the series of stories by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury-News, alleging that a California drug ring supplied the cocaine for crack in Los Angeles’ black neighborhoods, and simultaneously channeled drug profits to the CIA-managed Contra Army in Central America.

The Webb Story and the Efforts to Rebut It

Webb focused on three figures. One was "Freeway Ricky" Ross, a black dealer who introduced L.A. and other cities to crack. A second was Daniel Blandón, a Nicaraguan who not only supplied Ross (and others) with his cocaine, but developed the concept of creating a mass market for crack. The third was Norwin Meneses, the head of the "Frogman" connection importing cocaine for Blandón. Webb charged that both Meneses and Blandón met regularly with Contra leaders, and by supplying them with drug earnings gained protection from law enforcement. (Blandón, by turning in Ross, ended up on the DEA payroll; Ross, the black, ended up with a life sentence. Meneses was eventually convicted for trafficking, but in Nicaragua, never in the United States.)

These allegations have been challenged vigorously by the "responsible" U.S. press: those papers, above all the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, who respond most swiftly to the needs and requests of their CIA sources.

For those who follow such matters, the special connection between these papers and the CIA is no secret. Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein once wrote in Rolling Stone that the CIA’s "relationship with the [New York] Times was by far its most valuable among newspapers, according to CIA officials. From 1950 to 1966, about 10 CIA officials were provided Times cover...[as] part of a general Times policy ... to provide assistance to the CIA whenever possible."

The situation at the Washington Post was hardly different. In 1988, the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham, said in a speech at the CIA’s Headquarters: "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."

Graham’s words came amid six years of extraordinary efforts by the Post to first suppress, and then contain, the explosive Contra-drug story. I was myself a witness in a secret Congressional hearing, of which the Post falsely reported the Chair as saying that "none of the witnesses gave any evidence that would show the Contra leadership was involved in drug smuggling." When the Chair, Congressman Rangel, wrote to complain that this was quite different from what he had said, the Post declined to print his letter. Thus it became possible for the words Rangel never uttered to become embalmed as "fact" in the official Iran-Contra Report from two other Congressional Committees.

In 1989 a subcommittee chaired by Senator John Kerry published a report documenting that the U.S. Government had contracted with known drug traffickers to supply the Contras. This important finding was minimized in the dismissive news stories published by the Post and the Times, while Newsweek, owned by the Post, wrote off Kerry as a "randy conspiracy buff."

The Post’s treatment of the Gary Webb story was in this tradition. The rebuttal of Webb was assigned first to Walter Pincus, a man who admits that he was once sent at CIA expense to two overseas conferences. (The Washington Times [7/31/96] once described Pincus as a journalist "who some in the agency refer to as ‘the CIA’s house reporter.’")

Pincus elaborately rebutted a number of allegations that Webb never made, such as "that the CIA helped start and played a major role in promoting the crack plague," or "that the CIA was behind Blandon" (Danilo Blandón, the Nicaraguan drug dealer in LA who gave drug profits to the Contras). (The issues raised by Webb had been of CIA knowledge and protection of the traffickers, not initiation of the project.)

More deviously, Pincus wrote that "Although Nicaraguans took part in the drug trade of that era, most of the cocaine trade then can be attributed to Colombian and Mexican smugglers… the Nicaraguans accounted for only a small portion of the nation’s cocaine trade....Blandon’s own accounts and law enforcement estimates say Blandon only handled a total of about five tons of cocaine during a decade-long career. a fraction of the nationwide trade of the 1980s, when more than 250 tons of the drug were distributed every year."

Both in detail and overall, these words were skillfully misleading. Although Blandón’s various accounts are confused, it takes a very biased reading of them to come up with an estimate of "a total of five tons" over a decade. Blandón testified that he supplied just one of his many customers, the LA crack king Ricky Ross, with an average of 50 to 100 kilos a week. That alone works out to a total of 2.8 to 5.7 tons a year, not a decade.

The larger deception here is through the implicit assumption (which Webb did not make) that all of the Contra drug supporters were Nicaraguan. As we shall see, some of the biggest were the top Colombian and Mexican smugglers whom Pincus tried to imply were irrelevant.

The debate still rages over the actual importance of Ricky Ross and hence of Blandón) in the rise of the crack market. Jesse Katz of the L.A. Times weighed in with a front-page article saying that Ross was only one of many "interchangeable characters," who was dwarfed by other dealers: "How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross."

It is clear that something, or someone, had intervened to help produce this verbal performance. Two years earlier, on 12/20/94, the same Jesse Katz had written a 2400 word article on "Freeway Ricky" Ross as "King of Crack… Key to the Drug’s Spread in L.A." His opening words then were: "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." As for crack, "Ross did more than anyone else to democratize it, boosting volume, slashing prices and spreading disease on a scale never before conceived." Katz estimated that Ross’s "coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than 500,000 rocks a day." Other journalists, now forgotten in today’s furor over the Webb stories, have written how Ross personally created the crack scene in other cities such as Cincinnati.

The unseen force that induced Katz to make this remarkable recantation has now reached Jerry Ceppos, Webb’s editor at the San Jose Mercury. Last October, in response to the Pincus article in the Post, Ceppos wrote a letter which the Post, once again, did not publish. In it, after making some of the points in my preceding paragraphs, Ceppos went on to point out that: "While there is considerable circumstantial evidence of CIA involvement with the leaders of this drug ring, we never reached or reported any definitive conclusion on CIA involvement....We reported that the men selling cocaine in Los Angeles met with men on the CIA payroll. We reported that they received fund-raising orders from people on the CIA payroll. We reported that the money raised was sent to a CIA-run operation. But we did not go further — and took pains to say that clearly."

Ceppos concluded by repeating the words of a Post editorial on 10/9/96: "For even just a couple of CIA-connected characters to have played even a trivial role in introducing Americans to crack would indicate an unconscionable breach by the CIA. It is essential know whether the agency contributed to this result or failed to exercise diligence to stop it."

That was Ceppos in 1996. In May 1997, sounding like one of Stalin’s victims in the show trials of the 1930s, Ceppos revised his tune even more dramatically than Jesse Katz. "We fell short of my standards," he wrote in the San Jose Mercury. Reversing himself, he now wrote that the original Webb story on crack and the Contras "strongly suggested high-level C.I.A. knowledge of that connection." "I feel that we did not have proof that top C.I.A. officials knew of the relationship," he added, converting his original defense of the article into an attack on it.

Interestingly, however, Ceppos did not, as the Times claimed, admit that the series was "poorly written." He still claimed that it was "important work" that "solidly documented disturbing information...worthy of further investigation;" and had been "right on many important points." The shortcomings he now admitted referred less to content than to the manner of presentation. "If we were to publish today," he said, the series "would state fewer conclusions as certainties."

Even some who endorse the importance of the series have agreed that the ambiguities in the evidence were greater than Webb admitted. Particularly controversial was his estimate that Meneses and Blandón supplied millions in drug profits to the Contras, a claim which remains debatable even though Webb supported it with Blandón’s court testimony and sheriffs’ affidavits. Ceppos now points to the figure of millions as no more than "our best estimates."

Webb strongly disagrees. Since the series appeared, both he and the British network ITV have interviewed Carlos Cabezas, a convicted member of Meneses’ network, who now talks of having delivered Meneses’ drug profits to a CIA agent in the contra logistics network by the name of Ivan Gómez. (Others have confirmed Gómez’ CIA status.) Cabezas told Webb that in 1982 these profits had amounted to between $4 and $5 million, confirming Blandón’s own figures. Webb wrote up the story, but so far Ceppos has declined to publish or even edit it.

At this point we do not know what induced Jerry Ceppos to change direction. (He declined to be interviewed for Tikkun, saying through a representative that he preferred to let his column "speak for itself.") It is however easy to identify one powerful and interested force in the propaganda battle of the last year: the CIA operatives responsible for the Contras.

One technique used by the L.A. Times to rebut the Webb story was simple and straightforward. Citing a "former CIA official" named Vince Cannistraro, the L.A. Times reported that "CIA officials insist they knew nothing about Meneses’ and Blandón’s tainted contributions to [Adolfo] Calero or other contra leaders." In another news story, Cannistraro was even more categorical: "I have personal knowledge that the CIA knew nothing about these guys [Blandón and Meneses]. These charges are completely illogical."

One might have thought that, in a lengthy three-day series, the L.A. Times could have mentioned that Cannistraro had actually been in charge of the CIA Contra operation in the early 1980s (the Meneses-Blandón period), before moving on to supervise the covert program of CIA aid to heroin-trafficking guerrillas in Afghanistan. (Tikkun readers may recall Cannistraro as the former CIA "expert" who, within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing, told a TV audience that the act was obviously the work of Arab terrorists.)

If a journal presents a suspect as a credible source, it is clear that that it is looking for the opinion, "not guilty." (The L.A. Times did not cite Noriega, or for that matter O.J. Simpson, as sources to establish their innocence.) And it would not have taken much research for the L.A. Times to show that, on this point, Cannistraro may have been lying.

One need only go to the lengthy attacks on Webb by Tim Golden in the New York Times. Though in sum Golden was also hostile to Webb’s allegations, his articles specified that DEA had notified the CIA about Meneses’ drug-trafficking activities. Golden referred also to "intelligence reports on Norwin Meneses," his Contra contacts, and his involvement in arms and drug smuggling. "’We knew about him, and he obviously knew some people who were contras,’ one official said." Golden does not identify the agency of this official, but it would have been unusual for intelligence of this nature not to have reached the CIA.

Overall, Golden’s reports in the New York Times are as biased as those of Pincus and Katz. He wrote that "Reports of Mr. Meneses’ links to the Nicaraguan rebels are not new," even though his own article belittling them was the first mention of them ever in the New York Times He wrote of the 1986 account of Meneses by Seth Rosenfeld in the San Francisco Examiner that "the most significant contribution by Mr. Meneses that the newspaper could find was a $5,735 tab he was said to have helped pay at a 1984 dinner" in honor of Adolfo Calero. In fact the core of Rosenfeld’s story concerned $36,020 of drug profits seized from Meneses’ organization, which the U.S. Attorney, in an unusual corroboration of a Contra-drug connection, ordered returned as belonging to the Contras. (Recently the New York Times has conceded that, as Rosenfeld also reported, the organization also sent the Contras a truck and other supplies.)

Finally, with twisted logic, Golden derided Webb’s claim that Blandón and Meneses "met with CIA agents" at the same time they were selling drugs. Golden conceded that Contra leader Adolfo Calero had met "on as many as four visits" with Meneses, and also that Contra military commander Enrique Bermúdez had met with Meneses and Blandón. Ignoring Calero, Golden then wrote that "Although Mr. Bermúdez, like other contra leaders, was often paid by the C.I.A., he was not a C.I.A. agent." This is technically correct. However Calero, about whom Tim Golden is so eloquently silent, was a CIA agent, according to more candid histories of the Contras. (Webb also alleged that Meneses met with other CIA agents as well, such as the drug pilot Marcos Aguado.)

The Bigger Story: Subversion of Law Enforcement to Protect Traffickers

These quibbles should not obscure the most important points made by the Webb stories, which cannot be refuted. Two of these, conceded now for the first time by the "responsible" press, are that earlier press dismissals of the Contra-drug connection had been wrong, and that the CIA had knowledge of this connection. As Walter Pincus conceded in his attack on Webb, "Even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that these covert operations involved drug traffickers." (Journalist Robert Parry has pointed out that the use by one Contra faction of cocaine profits to buy a helicopter was noted in a 1985 CIA National Intelligence Estimate.)

An equally important point, ignored in all the attacks on Webb, is that Meneses and Blandón, while they were supporting the Contras, were immune from government prosecution. Jack Blum, former counsel to the Kerry Subcommittee investigating the matter, has focused on this point: "If the question is "Did the CIA sell crack...? the answer is a categorical no. If you ask whether the United States government ignored the drug problem and subverted law enforcement to prevent embarrassment and reward our allies in the contra war, the answer is yes." Referring to his own experience, he recalled how the Justice Department "fought giving us access to essential records and to witnesses in government custody."

Even the Washington Post’s own ombudsman was able to see the issue avoided by Walter Pincus. In an assessment published by the Post, she asked: "Did the U.S. Government play any role in supporting or condoning drug smuggling into the United States?" And she concluded with a rebuke that is hard to disagree with: "A principal responsibility of the press is to protect the people from government excesses. The Post (among others) showed more energy for protecting the CIA from someone else’s journalistic excesses."

And in thus protecting the CIA over the years, one might add, the press helped strengthen the immunity enjoyed by the traffickers themselves. Time after time, it proved impossible for government prosecutors to go after important traffickers, protected by the CIA, of whom the public knew nothing at all.

One can think of many reasons why the "responsible" press should have so risked their credibility in their zeal to rebut Gary Webb. One is to protect their own past record of complicity in covering up the bigger Contra-drug story. Another is a real establishment concern at the anger of black communities and leaders, when they learned that drugs reaching their communities were imported by traffickers who enjoyed protection against arrest. Both the New York Times and the Post tried to discount this as black paranoia, or what the Post called "an inclination, born of bitter accept as fact unsubstantiated reports or rumors about conspiracies targeting blacks."

But in truth the facts should make any citizen angry, angry not only at the Contras and the CIA, but at the "responsible" press for their complicity in covering up an intolerable situation. For Gary Webb, however fallibly, has focused the nation’s attention on a CIA-Contra-drug connection that is bigger, by far, than he and the Mercury ever implied.

DEA reports from the 1980s give us a glimpse of this bigger story: those drug-traffickers supporting the Contras to gain CIA protection included not just Norwin Meneses and Daniel Blandón but some of the DEA’s top targets at the time.

The Real Contra-Drug Connection

In 1982 the DEA prepared a top-level secret intelligence memo, listing twenty Major Cocaine Violators in Colombia and the United States. The memo focused attention on a single four-man consortium which, the DEA believed, accounted for a major share (perhaps a third, perhaps more than half) of all the cocaine moving between the two countries. (M228)

By 1985 the DEA had come to believe that the most important smuggler of the four was a Honduran by the name of Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, the link between the Colombians and the dominant Guadalajara drug cartel in Mexico. In that year Newsweek published official estimates that Matta alone was responsible for one third of the cocaine reaching the U.S. (5/15/85).

By this time the DEA had another reason to want Matta: it believed that Matta, along with other Guadalajara cartel members, was responsible for the murder in Mexico of its own agent, Enrique Camarena. After 1986 it also knew exactly where Matta was, living comfortably in Honduras, a country almost completely dominated by the United States.

Yet until 1988 Matta remained untouchable. Indeed, as the Kerry Committee documented, when the DEA Office in Honduras began to identify Matta as its principal target, the response of the US Government was to close down that office. Then, in April 1988, Matta was picked up while jogging and quickly flown (some said, "kidnapped") to the United States.

There was no mystery as to what had changed. One month earlier, on March 7, the Christian Science Monitor had noted that the U.S. faced a dilemma, whether to go after Matta (who had many friends in the Honduran military) or to placate Honduran displeasure at the on-going Contra presence in that country. And in that same month U.S. support for the Contra war ended, Congress voted (twice) to suspend military aid, North was indicted, and a truce was declared in Nicaragua.

The two questions, Matta and the Contras, were indeed closely related. Matta was not only one of the world’s leading cocaine traffickers, he was also one of the leading Contra supporters. His airline, SETCO, was used by the CIA and State Department to ship aid to the Contra camps, at the same time that it was listed in Customs and DEA computers for suspected drug-smuggling.

Matta was not alone in buying himself immunity by the simple device of supporting the Contras. So did his Guadalajara associate, Angel Félix Gallardo, who moved to the top of the DEA’s Wanted list after Matta’s arrest. Félix, who was wanted both for Class I trafficking and for Camarena’s murder, escaped arrest for another year, until after the election of a new Mexican President. Witnesses and documents in Félix’s trial alleged that the Guadalajara cartel had supplied the Contras with arms, cash, and even a training camp on a drug ranch near Vera Cruz.

The Honduran military who protected Matta also included some who supported the Contras, and who became involved in drug-trafficking. Two of their drug shipments in late 1987 totaled over 6.7 tons, the largest drug shipments seized up to that time. One Contra-supporting general, José Bueso Rosa, plotted to use cocaine proceeds to finance the assassination of the Honduran President. Although the State Department called this the most significant case of narco-terrorism to date, Bueso Rosa was given lenient treatment because of his Contra support. Oliver North then intervened energetically to reduce his sentence even further.

CIA aid for the Contras in Costa Rica was channeled chiefly through the tightly-controlled Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador, a base where the real power was exercised by a U.S. Colonel responsible for Contra support. The local DEA Agent at the time, Celerino Castillo, has since charged that two hangars there under CIA and Oliver North’s control doubled as depots for major cocaine shipments. Castillo claims that his documented reports on Ilopango to DEA in Washington were never acted on. Certainly a number of known drug traffickers flew regularly in and out of Ilopango, a drug plane given over to the Contras and CIA was stationed there, and Ilopango allegedly served as a base for American drug networks such as the notorious Company, which served the entire United States.

Manuel Noriega was at one time also a Contra supporter, and his initial drug indictment was for shipments with pilots who were at the same time flying aid for Contra camps in Costa Rica. Some of these were Cuban American drug traffickers from Miami, whose airline, listed in DEA computers, also received State Department contracts for flying Contra support. Significantly, the U.S. Government only turned against Noriega in 1987, after he in turn had shifted his attention from the Contras to the incipient Contadora peace process in Central America, named after a Panama island under Noriega’s control.

Finally, to quote from a 1991 Washington Post editorial, "What is one to make of the riveting assertion, made by a convicted Colombian drug kingpin at Manuel Noriega’s Florida drug trial, that the Medellín cartel gave $10 million to the Nicaraguan contras? Carlos Leader is a key prosecution witness; the U.S. government cannot lightly assail his credibility." Another cartel figure, Ramón Milián Rodríguez, also testified under oath that the Medellín cartel had given millions to the Contras.

The overall picture is clear, and devastating. It would appear that, from Colombia through Mexico, all of the major known traffickers at this time doubled as Contra supporters. Indeed, because this drug milieu was still relatively integrated, one could say that the basic Central American drug network simply became a major part of the Contra support network.

The Contra-Drug Story and the Hopes for U.S. Democracy

One can agree with Ceppos’ admission that the Gary Webb articles are not immune to criticism. Nevertheless, as Peter Kornbluh pointed out in the Columbia Journalism Review, the Mercury News managed to "revisit a significant story that had been inexplicably abandoned by the mainstream press, report a new dimension to it, and thus put it back on the national agenda where it belongs." He added that the mainstream press "faces a challenge in the contra-cocaine matter not unlike the government’s: restoring its credibility in the face of public distrust over its perceived role in the handling of these events."

The problem of the "credibility gap" has been an increasing concern of serious politicians since the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War. Much of the concern about the Webb series has focused less on the much-battered image of the CIA, than on the increasing alienation of black civic leaders. Many of these have for some time been convinced that government covert operations have continued since the days of Hoover’s COINTELPRO to target ethnic neighborhoods.

Some of the media rebukes to Webb and the Mercury have implied that that the story would have died, had it not been for what the Post dismissed as black paranoia. Others have pointed to the role of the San Jose Mercury’s website, which because of the story has been "hit" by up to one million viewers a day. More than one critic has contrasted the rationality of the traditional media with the ability of Web surfers to believe anything: even that the CIA had been involved with drug traffickers.

The efforts of the mainstream media to defend the credibility of the CIA may well be successful in the short run. The Webb story, which has now outlasted any previous CIA drug story, is still one which nearly all members of Congress are reluctant to embrace too closely.

In the long run, the press overkill applied to the Webb story may do more to increase alienation than to reduce it. The chief victim may turn out to be the public’s faith, revived by Watergate, frustrated by Iran-Contra, in the ability of the mainstream media to criticize our aging institutions at all.

In psychological warfare, a form of warfare which the CIA takes pride in practicing, the aim is not to persuade one’s opponents. (That is traditional politics). The aim is to neutralize them. TV images of a CIA Director being shouted down in South Los Angeles do more to sustain than threaten the CIA in an increasingly polarized but white-dominated society. Those who wish to de-legitimize the concerns of the Webb story find it convenient to list it among the exotica of the Internet—along with tales of space aliens, fluoridation horrors, and conspiracies to spread the AIDS virus.

What we see threatened here is politics itself. If there ever was an issue worthy of serious political consideration, it is the larger story of tolerated drug-trafficking which Gary Webb began to expose. But Congress is clearly scared of this issue, and scared of the CIA. One can hardly blame them, as long as the responsible media continue to treat the Contra-drug story as a "conspiracy theory" born out of ghetto paranoia.

The result is a national dementia. We continue to marginalize rational discussion of our collective drug crisis, even as drugs, licit and illicit, play a larger and larger role in dividing the different levels of our more and more stratified society.

 Decorative Rule


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