Cocaine, contras and the CIA

Alan Maass recounts the background to a movie about reporter Gary Webb and the slander campaign against him for exposing the 1980s contra-cocaine connection.

Jeremy Brenner (left) as Gary Webb in Kill the MessengerJeremy Brenner (left) as Gary Webb in Kill the Messenger

POLITICAL SCANDALS are often remembered in history along with the people who exposed them.

The Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation is synonymous with Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who wrote the first articles that started unraveling it. Whistleblower Edward Snowden laid bare the secrets of the Big Brother surveillance state in the 21st century, and independent journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras helped him tell his story to the world.

But when the "media watchdogs" bark at the people doing the exposing instead of the crimes they expose, it's a double scandal--there's the wrongdoing itself and the media's shameful role in covering it up or explaining it away.

There's usually some degree of "double scandal" in every case. Plenty of journalists and media outlets initially dismissed the revelations about Watergate and questioned the Post's "obsession" with the story. But that was nothing compared to the smear campaign against San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb when he wrote about the CIA-contra-cocaine connection during the U.S. government's dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s.

Elements of this story had been known for more than a decade, but Webb documented what tied them together--the connection between the 1980s drug rings flooding the U.S. with cocaine and the counterrevolutionary army at war with the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Essentially, the CIA looked the other way while their anti-communist "contras" were part of a drug pipeline that moved cocaine across Latin America and into the U.S., particularly California--and then used the proceeds to fund terrorist operations against the Nicaraguan government.

Review: Movies

Kill the Messenger, directed by Michael Cuesta, written by Peter Landesman, starring Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta and Tim Nelson.

When it was first published in August 1996, Webb's multi-part "Dark Alliance" series caused a sensation--it was so compellingly written and meticulously documented that it was generally accepted as the truth. But then the CIA counter-attack began. The spy agency used its cozy relationship with reporters and editors at the most respected newspapers to feed them misinformation and cast doubt on Webb's exposé.

The Washington Post--still riding its reputation of having broken the Watergate scandal--led the way in attacking Webb, followed by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Eventually, Webb's bosses at the Mercury News wilted under the pressure and disowned the "Dark Alliance" series. Webb was effectively run out of mainstream journalism--he died in 2004 in what the coroner ruled a suicide.

The whole ugly, infuriating story is depicted in the movie Kill the Messenger, with Jeremy Renner portraying Webb.

Kill the Messenger is the culmination of Webb's vindication, already underway in the years since his death. Even as he was still being vilified in the late 1990s, the CIA Inspector General issued a report that confirmed the key points of his articles. Since then, sections of the establishment media--not all, by any means--have grudgingly admitted as much. But that vindication came too late to prevent the tragedy of his death.

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READING THE articles attacking Webb in papers like the Post was surreal. Whatever other questions they raised about Webb's series, they all seemed to take at face value the denials of CIA officials who claimed they had nothing to do with drug-running.

But anyone familiar with the history of American imperialism would know to take such claims with a grain of salt. The U.S. government has always been willing to ally itself with figures ranging from unsavory to repulsive if that serves its interests.

During the Second World War and after, for example, the U.S. arranged an alliance with La Cosa Nostra in Italy, via an imprisoned Mafia kingpin in the U.S., that gave the mob free reign to operate criminal enterprises in return for its assistance in the war against Mussolini's fascist regime--and later, against the Communists and other left-wing forces that were poised to dominate postwar Italian politics.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA protected the Corsican mob and its famous "French Connection" that was a major source of heroin imported into the U.S.

As Ryan Grim, author of This is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, wrote in a recent article for the Huffington Post, "During the Vietnam War, U.S. intelligence made friends with a number of known drug traffickers in Southeast Asia, including Laotian smack smugglers who used the CIA-owned civilian airline Air America to transport their product."

Grim quotes the conclusions of historian Alfred McCoy, in his book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia:

American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels: (1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) abetting the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; (3) and active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin.

These three levels of involvement were repeated with the CIA-contra-cocaine connection.

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IN 1979, the Nicaraguan revolution overthrew the hated U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.

Among the motley assortment of reactionaries who fled Nicaragua for the U.S. was Oscar Danilo Blandón, a former bureaucrat in the Somoza regime and son of a wealthy slumlord and cattle rancher. Blandón ended up in California, where he worked as a car salesman, while organizing with other right-wing exiles to support an armed insurgency against the widely popular Sandinistas.

The dregs of the old regime were pretty unsuccessful at raising the money needed for guns and equipment--until Blandón changed jobs.

At the end of 1981, Blandón flew to Honduras for a meeting with Juan Norwin Meneses and Col. Enrique Bermúdez. Meneses was a major cocaine trafficker, known to Nicaraguans as "el rey de la droga" ("the king of drugs"). Bermúdez, a top military adviser to Somoza before the revolution, was on the CIA payroll to organize the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest of the contra guerrilla armies forming to fight the Sandinistas.

Bermúdez and the contras had a problem: President Ronald Reagan had given the CIA the green light to begin covert operations against the Sandinista government, but he only authorized about $20 million--not nearly enough for the kind of operation Bermúdez wanted. In 1984, Congress, embarrassed by revelations of the contras' human rights abuses, cut off funding altogether.

So the contras needed money--which is where "el rey de la droga" came in. When Blandón returned to the U.S., he had an assignment: be the conduit for Meneses' inexhaustible supply of cocaine from the Bogotá, Colombia, cartel.

Along with the protection of the CIA in getting their product into the U.S., the contras' new business venture had another stroke of good fortune. Drug dealers in the U.S. had figured out how to make cocaine affordable--by cooking expensive powder cocaine into small nuggets of crack cocaine, which offered a powerful high at a fraction of the price.

Blandón started supplying Meneses' cocaine to a dealer in Los Angeles named Ricky Ross, who was able to undersell the competition thanks to Blandón's low prices and reliable supply. By 1984, Ross was the main distributor of crack cocaine in LA, selling to the biggest dealers in town, including both the Crips and Bloods gangs. Meanwhile, Blandón was grossing more than $100 million per year.

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THAT'S THE outlines of the story that Gary Webb told with his "Dark Alliance" series. After he quit the San Jose Mercury News, he wrote a book with the same name, which served as a source for Kill the Messenger.

Webb was a talented investigative journalist with other exposés to his credit. In 1999, for example, he wrote an article for Esquire on racial profiling by police that helped popularize the recently coined phrase "Driving While Black."

But he wasn't the only person writing about the contras and cocaine back in the mid-1990s--and he certainly wasn't the first.

Webb had zeroed in on Blandón, the key link in the chain connecting the right-wing Nicaraguan rebels to crack cocaine in LA. But other journalists had uncovered different parts of the operation. In 1985, Associated Press reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger unearthed evidence of drug-running among contras based in Costa Rica. Their article began: "Nicaraguan rebels operating in northern Costa Rica have engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist government, according to U.S. investigators and American volunteers who work with the rebels."

In 1987, the CBS News program West 57th interviewed American mercenary pilots who said they flew weapons to contra base camps in Honduras and then returned to the U.S. with shipments of cocaine and marijuana. Other reports tied the contras to Miami cocaine kingpin George Morales--and to Panamanian dictator and drug-runner Gen. Manuel Noriega. The U.S. would invade Panama a few years later to topple Noriega and arrest him on drug charges--but back then, he was still a valued CIA asset.

There was plenty of evidence--but the establishment media largely ignored it.

The atmosphere in the media was different from the Watergate era, when the press--reflecting the turmoil and radicalization of the 1960s and early 1970s social movements--gained a reputation for investigative journalism focused on the political and economic powers that be. By the time of the Reagan years during the 1980s, the media was back to reflecting the conservative consensus of the times.

There's no better illustration of this than Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Remembered from the Watergate years for having stood behind her reporters, in 1988, Graham told a gathering of CIA recruits: "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."

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SO IT was no coincidence that Post reporters and editors--using information spoon-fed to them by their "official sources"--took the lead in attacking Webb's credibility. They couldn't outright dismiss the allegations of the "Dark Alliance" series. So they used an old tactic: Build a straw man and knock it down.

Basically, as Webb described in his book, the Post and other major newspapers exaggerated the conclusions of the "Dark Alliance" series, claiming it had accused the CIA of being responsible for the crack epidemic in LA. The first Post article attacking Webb said he had made a "racially charged allegation that the 'CIA army' of contras deliberately targeted the Black community in an effort to expand the market for a cheap form of cocaine."

Such claims were easily discredited since there were clearly many more factors in the rise of crack during the 1980s than a single supplier. Nor was there evidence that the contras or the CIA deliberately targeted the Black community--only that the right-wing Nicaraguan rebels were involved in drug trafficking, that they collaborated with people on the CIA payroll to so, and that their product ended up on the streets of LA.

Having successfully refuted arguments Webb never made, the Post and other papers fell back on the official denials delivered by current and former CIA officials. As the liberal columnist Molly Ivins wrote at the time:

Like good little boys and girls, the Times, the Washington Post et al., toddled off to the CIA and asked the agency if it had ever done such a thing. When the CIA said "no," the papers solemnly printed it--just as though the CIA hadn't previously denied any number of illegal operations in which it was later caught red-handed.

It was a shoddy smear campaign, but given the rightward tone of official politics--upheld by the two-party and media establishment together--it worked. Webb was abandoned by his own newspaper, along with most of his colleagues in the mainstream media.

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KILL THE Messenger does a great job of packing the main points about the contra-cocaine connection, along with the corporate media's persecution of Webb, into a two-hour movie. But the film is even more powerful if you remember the full dimension of the political issues connected to the story.

For one thing, the 1980s was the high point of the "war on drugs," declared for a second time--Richard Nixon was the first drug warrior--by Ronald Reagan and his insufferable wife Nancy.

The drug war was a cynical component of the broader Reagan agenda of undermining the progressive social reforms associated with the movements of the 1960s and '70s. The Reagans' hyped-up rhetoric and crocodile-tears compassion was the pretext for expanding the powers of police, prosecutors and the prison system--and, in particular, scapegoating and victimizing African Americans, who had benefitted from the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements.

The new "war on drugs" triggered the incarceration boom and launched the era of what author Michelle Alexander called "the New Jim Crow." Several generations of African Americans paid a catastrophic price as U.S. prisons filled to the bursting point, disproportionately with Black and Brown people, many sent away for nonviolent drug offenses.

And from Gary Webb's exposé, we learned that while the loathsome Reagans were preaching about the evils of drugs, the president's henchmen were taking advantage of the drug trade to finance their program for rebuilding the U.S. empire in its "backyard."

To this so-called "basement White House"--the ex-spies and soldiers like Lt. Col. Oliver North who had worked together on covert operations during the Vietnam era and who regrouped under Reagan--any means were justified to achieve the ends of reasserting U.S. imperial power.

The contras in Nicaragua were the administration's pet project above all others, so there were other covert ways for funding them besides dealing drugs. North masterminded the sale of arms to Washington's archenemy Iran in return for the Iranian government using its influence to get U.S. hostages released in Lebanon--but the profits from the arms sales were funneled to the contras.

The "arms-for-hostages" scandal, better known as Contragate, took down North and a few others, and cast a shadow over the last few years of the Reagan presidency. Yet the administration mostly escaped scrutiny about the even sleazier means of financing the contras.

As for the contras themselves, they were hailed as "freedom fighters"--just like the Mujahideen Islamist insurgents like Osama bin Laden were celebrated for challenging the ex-USSR's invasion of Afghanistan during the same decade.

But the contras were never anything other than a band of reactionaries. Virtually all of the contra leaders came from the feared National Guard that protected the Somoza dynasty, first put in place in 1933 by--you guessed it--occupying U.S. Marines.

After the revolution, exiled National Guardsmen formed themselves into terrorist bands and launched raids into Nicaragua from neighboring countries. Then Reagan took over the White House in 1981, and the contras--armed with the most sophisticated weapons and military equipment the U.S. could supply, or funnel through Israel--escalated their terrorism to a new level.

The reactionary army claimed the lives of some 40,000 Nicaraguans. In 1984, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs described the contras as the "worst human rights violators in all of Latin America."

The contras themselves admitted to carrying out mass executions, torture and rape. After being forced from the leadership of the contras for criticizing their most extreme abuses, Edgar Chamorro described a typical operation:

[Contra] units would arrive at an undefended village, assemble all the residents in the town square and then proceed to kill--in full view of the others--all persons suspected of working for the Nicaraguan government or the [Sandinistas], including police, local militia members, health workers, teachers and farmers from cooperatives. In this atmosphere, it was not difficult to persuade those able-bodied men left alive to return with the [contra] units to their base camps in Honduras and enlist in the force.

The first years of the Sandinista government made great strides in literacy and health care, but this couldn't be sustained in a country under siege by the contra forces, armed to the teeth by the U.S. Eventually, the Sandinistas were forced to agree to an oppressive "peace" plan requiring them to negotiate with the contra murderers. A few years more, and they lost the national elections to a right-wing coalition that included now "respectable" contra leaders.

In short, the Nicaraguan revolution was bled dry.

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IN 1996, I wrote a feature for Socialist Worker that described the revelations from Webb's "Dark Alliance" series and added some background about the U.S. government's dirty wars in Central America. It was very satisfying to find the crimes of the arrogant Reagan reactionaries--which we on the left knew were taking place, but were unable to stop--revealed in all their detail for the world to see.

I got one point wrong at the end, though. I predicted that the CIA and the bipartisan political establishment would cover their collective ass, as they had before, by cutting loose a few scapegoats and claiming that no one else should be held responsible for the actions of "a few bad apples."

Instead, they set out to kill the messenger--and got a spineless mainstream media to pull the trigger.

But SW's ultimate conclusion was as true then as it remains today: Scandals like the contra-cocaine connection aren't the exception, but the rule in a system built on secrecy and corruption, where the government serves the interests of a minority ruling class whose priority is protecting their own power and wealth.

As the Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote:

Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical...

The whole point is that a bourgeois state which is exercising the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie through a democratic republic cannot confess to the people that it is serving the bourgeoisie; it cannot tell the truth, and has to play the hypocrite.