IRAN CONTRA SCANDAL
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Laurence North [Unit 3rd Battalion 8th Marines 2nd Marine Division] is an American best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. North came into the public spotlight as a result of his participation in the Iran-Contra affair, a political scandal of the late 1980s, in which he claimed partial responsibility for the sale of weapons via intermediaries to Iran, with the profits being channeled to the Contras in Nicaragua. He was reportedly responsible for the establishment of a covert network used for the purposes of aiding the Contras. U.S. funding of the Contras by appropriated funds spent by intelligence agencies had been prohibited by the Boland Amendment. Funding was facilitated through Palmer National Bank of Washington, D.C. It was founded in 1983 by Harvey McLean, Jr., a businessman from Shreveport, Louisiana. It was initially funded with $2.8 million dollars to McLean from Herman K. Beebe. Oliver North supposedly used this bank during the Iran-Contra scandal by funneling money from his shell organization, the "National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty", through Palmer National Bank to the Contras.
LETS GO BACK TO RECENT AMERICAN HISTORY AS PER US NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE
The Oliver North File: His Diaries, E-Mail, and Memos on the Kerry Report, Contras and Drugs National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 113 February 26, 2004 For further information Contact Peter Kornbluh: 202/994-7116 http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/
Washington D.C., 26 February 2004 - Diaries, e-mail, and memos of Iran-contra figure Oliver North, posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive, directly contradict his criticisms yesterday of Sen. John Kerry's 1988 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee report on the ways that covert support for the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s undermined the U.S. war on drugs.
Mr. North claimed to talk show hosts Hannity & Colmes that the Kerry report was "wrong," that Sen. Kerry "makes this stuff up and then he can't justify it," and that "The fact is nobody in the government of the United States, going all the way back to the earliest days of this under Jimmy Carter, ever had anything to do with running drugs to support the Nicaraguan resistance. Nobody in the government of the United States. I will stand on that to my grave."
The Kerry subcommittee [Report: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/north06.pdf] did not report that U.S. government officials ran drugs, but rather, that Mr. North, then on the National Security Council staff at the White House, and other senior officials created a privatized contra network that attracted drug traffickers looking for cover for their operations, then turned a blind eye to repeated reports of drug smuggling related to the contras, and actively worked with known drug smugglers such as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to assist the contras. The report cited former Drug Enforcement Administration head John Lawn testifying that Mr. North himself had prematurely leaked a DEA undercover operation, jeopardizing agents' lives, for political advantage in an upcoming Congressional vote on aid to the contras (p.121).
Among the documents posted today are:
Mr. North's diary entries, from the reporter's notebooks he kept in those years, noting multiple reports of drug smuggling among the contras. A Washington Post investigation published on 22 October 1994 found no evidence he had relayed these reports to the DEA or other law enforcement authorities.
Memos from North aide Robert Owen to Mr. North recounting drug-running "indiscretions" among the contras, warning that a known drug-smuggling airplane was delivering taxpayer-funded "humanitarian aid" overseen by Mr. North.
Mr. North's White House e-mails recounting his efforts to spring from prison a Honduran general who could "spill the beans" on the secret contra war, even though the Justice Department termed the Honduran a "narcoterrorist" for his involvement in cocaine smuggling and an assassination plot.
Mr. North's White House e-mails and diary entries on his personal meeting on 22 September 1986 with Noriega, following up Noriega's offer to "take care of" the Sandinista leadership if the White House would help "clean up his image."
The text of the Kerry subcommittee report. Pages 145-146 directly quote 15 North notebook entries related to drug trafficking.
by Peter Kornbluh Photos: San Jose Mercury News From Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 1997) http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/storm.htm
After Gary Webb spent more than a year of intense investigative reporting and weeks of drafting, his editors at the San Jose Mercury News decided to run his three-part series late last August, when the nation's focus was divided between politics and vacation. The series, DARK ALLIANCE: THE STORY BEHIND THE CRACK EXPLOSION, initially "sank between the Republican and Democratic Conventions," Webb recalls. "I was very surprised at how little attention it generated."
Webb needn't have worried. His story subsequently became the most talked-about piece of journalism in 1996 and arguably the most famous--some would say infamous--set of articles of the decade. Indeed, in the five months since its publication, "Dark Alliance" has been transformed into what New York Times reporter Tim Weiner calls a "metastory"--a phenomenon of public outcry, conspiracy theory, and media reaction that has transcended the original series itself.
The series, and the response to it, have raised a number of fundamental journalistic questions. The original reporting--on the links between a gang of Nicaraguan drug dealers, CIA-backed counterrevolutionaries, and the spread of crack in California--has drawn unparalleled criticism from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Their editorial decision to assault, rather than advance, the Mercury News story has, in turn, sparked critical commentary on the priorities of those pillars of the mainstream press.
Yet in spite of the mainstream media, the allegations generated by the Mercury News continue to swirl, particularly through communities of color. Citizens and journalists alike are left to weigh the significant flaws of the piece against the value of putting a serious matter, one the press has failed to fully explore, back on the national agenda.
DRUGS AND CONTRAS REDUX
Although many readers of the Mercury News articles may not have known it, "Dark Alliance" is not the first reported link between the contra war and drug smuggling. More than a decade ago, allegations surfaced that contra forces, organized by the CIA to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, were consorting with drug smugglers with the knowledge of U.S. officials. The Associated Press broke the first such story on December 20, 1985. The AP's Robert Parry and Brian Barger reported that three contra groups "have engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua." Dramatic as it was, that story almost didn't run, because of pressure by Reagan administration officials (see "Narco-Terrorism: A Tale of Two Stories" CJR, September/October, 1986). Indeed, the White House waged a concerted behind-the-scenes campaign to besmirch the professionalism of Parry and Barger and to discredit all reporting on the contras and drugs. Whether the campaign was the cause or not, coverage was minimal. While regional papers like the San Francisco Examiner--which ran a June 23, 1986 front-page exposé on Norvin Meneses, a central figure in the Mercury News series--broke significant ground on contra-drug connections, the larger papers and networks (with the exception of CBS) devoted few resources to the issue. The attitude of the mainstream press was typified during the November 1987 press conference held to release the final report of the Congressional Joint Iran-Contra Committees. When an investigative reporter rose to ask the lead counsel of the committees whether the lawmakers had come across any connection between the contras and drug-smuggling, a New York Times correspondent screamed derisively at him from across the aisle: "Why don't you ask a serious question?"
Even when a special Senate subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, chaired by Senator John Kerry, released its long-awaited report, Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, big-media coverage constituted little more than a collective yawn. The 1,166-page report--it covered not only the covert operations against Nicaragua, but also relations with Panama, Haiti, the Bahamas, and other countries involved in the drug trade--was the first to document U.S. knowledge of, and tolerance for, drug smuggling under the guise of national security. "In the name of supporting the contras," the Kerry Committee concluded in a sad but stunning indictment, officials "abandoned the responsibility our government has for protecting our citizens from all threats to their security and well-being."
Yet when the report was released on April 13, 1989, coverage was buried in the back pages of the major newspapers and all but ignored by the three major networks. The Washington Post ran a short article on page A20 that focused as much on the infighting within the committee as on its findings; the New York Times ran a short piece on A8; the Los Angeles Times ran a 589-word story on A11. (All of this was in sharp contrast to those newspapers' lengthy rebuttals to the Mercury News series seven years later --collectively totalling over 30,000 words.)
EVOLUTION OF A METASTORY
The Mercury News series "touched a raw nerve in the way our stories hadn't," observes Robert Parry. One reason is that Parry and Barger's stories had focused on the more antiseptic smuggling side of drug trafficking in far-off Central America. Webb's tale brought the story home, focusing on what he identified as the distribution network and its target. the inner cities of California. Particularly among African-American communities, devastated by the scourge of crack and desperate for information and answers, Webb's reporting found ready constituencies. From Farrakhan followers to the most moderate of black commentators, the story reverberated. "If this is true, then millions of black lives have been ruined and America's jails and prisons are now clogged with young African-Americans because of a cynical plot by a CIA that historically has operated in contempt of the law,'' wrote Carl T. Rowan, the syndicated columnist.
The wildfire-like sweep of "Dark Alliance" was all the more remarkable because it took place without the tinder of the mainstream press. Instead, the story roared through the new communications media of the Intemet and black talk radio--two distinct, but in this case somewhat symbiotic, information channels. With the Internet, as Webb put it. "you don't have be the New York Times or the Washington Post to bust a national story anymore." Understanding this media reality, Mercury Center, the Mercury News's sophisticated online service, devoted considerable staff time to preparing for simultaneous online publishing of the "Dark Alliance" stories on the World Wide Web. In the online version, many of the documents cited in the stories were posted on the Mercury Center site, hyperlinked to the story; audio recordings from wiretaps and hearings, follow-up articles from the Mercury News and elsewhere, and, for a time, even Gary Webb's media schedule were also posted.
As Webb began giving out his story's Mercury Center website address (http://www.sjmercury.com/drugs/) on radio shows in early September, the number of hits to the Center's site escalated dramatically, some days reaching as high as 1.3 million. Over all, Bob Ryan, who heads Mercury Center, estimates a 15% visitor increase since the stories appeared. "For us," he says, "it has certainly answered the question: Is there anyone out there listening?" The demographics of Web traffic are unknown, but some media specialists believe that the rising numbers at Mercury Center in part reflect what the Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Clarence Page calls an emerging "black cyber-consciousness.'' Online newsletters and other net services made the series readily available to African-American students, newspapers, radio stations, and community organizations. Patricia Turner, author of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, the definitive study on how information travels through black America, suggests that this marked the "first time the Intemet has electrified African-Americans" in this way. "The 'black telegraph,'" noted Jack While, a Time magazine colum- nist, referring to the informal word-of: mouth network used since the days of slavery, "has moved into cyberspace."
Black-oriented radio talk shows boosted this phenomenon by giving out the website address. At the same time, the call-in programs themselves became a focal point of information and debate. African-American talk-show hosts used their programs to address the allegations of CIA complicity in the crack epidemic, and the public response was forceful. The power of talk radio was demonstrated when Congresswoman Maxine Waters was a guest on WOL's Lisa Mitchell show in Baltimore on September 10, and announced that the Congressional Black Caucus meeting that week would address the issues raised by "Dark Alliance." Two hundred people were expected; nearly two thousand attended.
Political pressure, organized at the grassroots level around the country and channeled through the Black Caucus in Washington, pushed both the CIA and the Justice Department to initiate internal investigations into the charges of government complicity in the crack trade. In November, John Deutch, then the director of the CIA, even left the secure confines of Langley headquarters to travel to Watts and address a town meeting of concered citizens on the Mercury News allegations--an unprecedented event. By then, the"Dark Alliance" series had become the journalistic Twister of 1996, with information, misinformation, allegations, and speculations hurtling across the airwaves day after day. A common charge emerged on black talk-radio programs: the U.S. government had conspired to use the crack trade to deliberately harm the African-American community. "CIA" now meant "Crack in America," or as Rep. Cynthia McKinney stated on the floor of Congress, "Central Intoxication Agency." Thousands of copies of "Dark Alliance'- were handed out at town meetings across the country, playing "into the deepest fears--sometimes plunging into paranoia--that have haunted the subject of race in America," the Boston Globe editorialized in October. "We've always speculated about this," said Joe Madison, a Washington talk-show host, who along with the activist Dick Gregory was arrested in front of the CIA in mid-September in an act of civil disobedience. ''Now we have proof."
THE STORIES THEMSELVES
In the very first Washington Post treatment of the San Jose Mercury News phenomenon--appearing in the Style section on October 2--media reporter Howard Kurtz noted "just one problem" with the controversy: despite broad hints, Gary Webb's stories never "actually say the CIA knew about the drug trafficking." In an interview with Kurtz, Webb stated that his story "doesn't prove the CIA targeted black communities. It doesn't say this was ordered by the CIA."
What did the Mercury News stories actually say? The long three-part series covered the lives and connections of three career criminals: "Freeway" Ricky Ross, perhaps L.A.'s most renowned crack dealer in the 1980s; Oscar Danilo Blandón Reyes, a right-wing Nicaraguan expatriate, described by one U.S. assistant district attorney as "the biggest Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in the United States"; and Juan Norvin (Norwin in some documents) Meneses Cantarero, a friend of the fallen dictator Anastasio Somoza, who allegedly brought Blandón into the drug business to support the contras and supplied him, for an uncertain amount of time, with significant quantities of cocaine. The first installment of the series, headlined CRACK PLAGUE'S ROOTS ARE IN NICARAGUAN WAR, opened with two dramatic statements:
For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funnelled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The second paragraph, which captured even more public attention, read:
This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the 'crack' capital of the world.
The rest of the article attempted to flesh out those assertions and explain "how a cocaine-for-weapons trade supported U.S. policy and undermined black America." The second installment, entitled ODD TRIO CREATED MASS MARKET FOR 'CRACK,' provided far more detail on the alliance between Ross, Blandón, and Meneses and their role in the crack explosion. Part three, WAR ON DRUGS' UNEQUAL IMPACT ON U.S. BLACKS, focused on an issue that outrages many in the African-American community: sentencing discrepancies between blacks and whites for cocaine trafficking, as illustrated by the cases of Blandón and Ross. Ross received a life sentence without the possibility of parole; Blandón served twenty-eight months and became a highly paid government informant. In a defense of Webb's work published in the Baltimore Sun, Steve Weinberg, a former executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors (and a CJR contributing editor), argues that the reporter took the story where it seemed to lead--to the door of U.S. national security and drug enforcement agencies. Even if Webb overreached in a few paragraphs--based on my careful reading, I would say his overreaching was limited, if it occurred at all-he still had a compelling, significant investigation to publish.
Indeed, the series did provide a groundbreaking and dramatic story of two right-wing Nicaraguans with clear--although not necessarily strong--connections to the FDN "freedom fighters," who became major drug dealers, inexplicably escaped prosecution, and made a significant contribution to the thousands of kilos of coke that flowed into the inner cities of California. "They pay cash," a wiretapped audio on the website records Blandón as telling an associate who complained he didn't "like niggers." Blandón continues: "I don't deal with anybody else. They buy all the time. They buy all the time." Blandón's grand jury and trial testimony--which Webb often over-dramatically sources as "court records"--along with a 1986 sheriff's department search warrant and affidavit and a 1992 Probation and Parole Department report, documented that an undetermined amount of drug funds was going into the contra coffers, possibly as late as 1986.
Far less compelling was the evidence the Mercury News presented to the the Nicaraguans to the CIA itself. But not for lack of trying. Speculative passages like "Freeway Rick had no idea just how 'plugged' his erudite cocaine broker [Blandón] was. He didn't know about Norwin Meneses or the CIA," were clearly intended to imply CIA involvement. As implied evidence of CIA knowledge of and participation in the drug trade, the articles emphasized the meetings between Blandón and Meneses (identified without supporting evidence as FDN officials) and FDN leaders Adolfo Calero (identified without corroboration as "a longtime CIA operative") and Enrique Bermúdez (identified as a "CIA agent"). To be sure, the FDN was, as the articles described it, the "CIA's army"--a paramilitary force created, trained, financed, equipped, and largely directed by the CIA. Nevertheless, the articles failed to distinguish between CIA officers who ran the contra war--none of whom are identified or quoted in the articles--and Nicaraguan "agents" or "operatives" such as Calero and Bermúdez, who were put on the CIA payroll for purposes of control, support, and/or information. While to some this may seem a trivial distinction--"It doesn't make any difference whether [the CIA] delivered the kilo themselves, or they turned their heads while somebody else delivered it, they are just as guilty,"
The United States believes that such allegations are not true, and that the threat to make such allegations is solely intended to dissuade the United States from going forward with the prosecution....
These omissions left the impression that Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O'Neale was allempting to conceal a CIA connection, when a reading of the full motion showed that his stated purposewas to keep Ricky Ross's defense lawyer from sidetracking the prosecution.
Blandón, according to Webb's story, implied CIA approval for the cocaine trafficking when he told a federal grand jury in San Francisco that after the contras started receiving official CIA funds, the agency no longer needed drug money. "When Mr. Reagan get in the power, we start receiving a lot of money," he stated. "And the people that was in charge, it was the, the CIA, so they didn't want to raise any [drug] money because they have, they had the money that they wanted." At that point, he said, "we started doing business by ourselves."
Intriguing as that statement is, neither Webb nor his editors appear to have noticed that it contradicted the thrust of ''Dark Alliance." Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981; the CIA received its seed authorization of $19.9 million later that year to organize the covert war against Nicaragua. If Blandón and Meneses stopped sup- porting the FDN at that point, it could not be true that "for the better part of a decade" drug profits in the millions were channeled to the contras. Nor, then, could it be true that this dark alliance with the contras was responsible for the crack epidemic in Califomia in the early 1980s.
This inconsistency demonstrates the overarching problem in the series: the difficulty in using Blandón's grand jury and court testimony, which is often imprecise--Blandón at one point appeared to date Reagan's rise to power in 1983--and contradictory. Particularly regarding the timeline of when he met Meneses, supported the contras, broke with Meneses, and became Ricky Ross's mentor and supplier--a series of dates critical to the central allegation, that this Nicaraguan drug ring opened the inner city market to the crack trade to finance the contra war--Blandón's testimony and other documents are vague or inconsistent or both.
In an unusual follow-up evaluating the controversy over "Dark Alliance," thirty-year Mercury News veteran Pete Carey rcviewed the discrepancies in Blandón's testimony and other records. Webb, according to Carey, acknowledged that it would be damaging to the series "if you looked only at the [Blandón] testimony. But we didn't. We looked at other sources." The other evidence, Carey pointed out, included the 1986 L.A. County Sheriff's affidavit for searching the homes of Blandón in which "three confidential informants said that Blandón was still sending money to the contras." While Carey laid out all the differing evidence "for the readers to make up their own mind," he says, the original series did not. That omission left the series wide open to attack.
THE MEDIA RESPONSE
Initially the national media greeted the series with a deafening silence. No in-depth articles were published in the major papers in the month of September on the growing controversy. The networks were similarly silent that month, with the exception of CNN, which ran several pieces, and NBC, which did an in-depth Nightly News report on September 27. Despite pressure from some staffers and outsiders, Ted Koppel's Nightline did nothing until November 15, when CIA Director Deutch held his town meeting in Watts; PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer also used the Deutch peg for its first piece on the subject, on November 18.
In some cases, the absence or delay of coverage reflected the deep-rooted skepticism of veteran reporters who had covered the contra war. One newspaper reporter who has written on intelligence for a decade compared the articles to "a crime scene that has been tampered with," rendering the true story difficult to obtain. "Dark Alliance, he suggested, was "a stew of hard fact, supposition, and wild guesswork.'' For David Corn of The Nation, 1 Webb's "claims were not well substantiated; that was pretty obvious from reading the story." The New York Times's Weiner agreed that the opening declaration that millions in drug funds had been kicked back to the contras "was unsupported in the body of the story." Upon first read, the Los Angeles Times's Washington bureau chief, Doyle McManus, thought "Dark Alliance" was "a hell of a story"; after further review, he concluded that "most of the things that are new aren't true, and most of the things that are true aren't new." Of all the contra-war journalists polled, only the one who originally broke the contra/drug story, Robert Parry, felt "Dark Alliance" was credible. "It didn't strike me as 'Oh wow, that's outlandish.'"
It was public pressure that essentially forced the media to address Webb's allegations. The Washinton Post, after an internal debate on how to handle the story, weighed in first on October 4 with THE CIA AND CRACK: EVIDENCE IS LACKING OF ALLEGED PLOT, a lengthy--and harsh--report written by Roberto Suro and Walter Pincus. "A Washington Post investigation," the article declared, had determined that "available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras--or Nicaraguans in general--played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States"--an odd argument since "Dark Alliance" had focused mostly on the rise of crack in California. The article emphasized parts of Blandón's court testimony, where he limited the time he was connected to the contras to 1981-82, but failed to mention, let alone evaluate, contradictory evidence that Blandón's drug money was being laundered through a Miami bank for contra arms purchases possibly into 1986. The Suro/Pincus dismissal of the series, combined with a companion piece on the black community's susceptibility to conspiracy theories, only served to stir the controversy.
On October 21, the New York Times covered the same ground as the Post--finding "scant proof" for the Mercury News's contentions--but with a more measured approach. A lengthy article by Tim Golden, THOUGH EVIDENCE lS THIN, TALE OF CIA AND DRUGS HAS LIFE OF ITS OWN, examined how and why "Dark Alliance" had resounded throughout Alrican-American communities, the problems with the evidence, and the politics surrounding the issue.
Long as it was, the Golden piece was overshadowed by a massive three-part rebuttal in the Los Angeles Times that began on October 20. Unlike the East Coast papers, the Los Angeles Times had been scooped in its own backyard about events that took place in its own city. "When I first saw the series," Leo Wolinsky, Metro editor for the Times told L.A. Weekly, "it put a big lump in my stomach." Still, it took almost a month for editors (who blame vacation plans and the conventions for the delay) to begin to focus on how to follow up on the Mercury News. A query to the Washington bureau for direction and advice brought a substantive memo, written by McManus, that made three points:
The Washington bureau had no expertise on the history of crack in California; the L.A. desk would have to take up that issue on its own. There had been earlier reporting on the contras and drugs, including in California--most notably by Seth Rosenfeld of the San Francisco Examiner in 1986. Although the lead allegation of "millions" in drug revenues going to the contras was not substantiated, "There is something there."
The allegations of government protection of Meneses and Blandón from prosecution were the "most convincing and troubling" part of the Mercury News exposé and fertile ground for further investigation. On that, the memo recommended a full-court press. As McManus characterized his response, "I said: 'This goddamn thing is full of holes. There is no sourcing or terribly weak sourcing in the story. There is phraseology in here that is dishonest. But it is obviously worth going back and seeing what we can establish. '" Both McManus and Wolinsky deny that the Times response was ever intended, as Wolinsky put it, "as a knockdown of the Mercury News series." But one Times reporter characterized himself as being "assigned to the 'get Gary Webb team'" and another was heard to say "We're going to take away that guy's Pulitzer." The opening "About this series" teaser made it clear that the Times pieces would explicitly address, and deny, the validity of all the main assertions in "Dark Alliance."
For all the effort spent trying to highlight the shortcomings of the Mercury News, however, the Times stumbled into some of the same problems of hyperbole, selectivity, and credibility that it was attempting to expose. For example, the first installment highlighted many of the dealers who had played a role in the advent of crack in L.A. The point was to show that Ricky Ross may have been a big player, but was not the player, as Webb had suggested, in the arrival of crack into the black neighborhoods of L.A. "The story of crack's genesis and evolution . . . is filled with a cast of interchangeable characters, from ruthless billionaires to strung-out curb dealers, none of whom is central to the drama," Jesse Katz wrote, based on his reporting and that of six other Times reporters. "Even on the best day Ricky Ross had, there was way more crack cocaine out there than he could ever control," Katz quoted a San Fernando narcotics detective as stating, and then noted: "How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross. Before, during, and after his reign, a bewildering roster of other dealers and suppliers helped fuel the crisis."
Less than two years earlier, however, the same Jesse Katz had described Ross as the veritable Dr. Moriarty of crack. Katz's December 20, 1994 article, DEPOSED KING OF CRACK, opened with this dramatic statement:
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.... Ricky Donnell Ross did more than anyone else to democratize [crack], boosting volume, slashing prices, and spreading disease on a scale never befor conceived. Either Katz was guilty of of vast exaggeration in 1994 or of playing down evidence that he had in 1996. If Ross was "key to the drug's spread in L.A.," as the Times said in 1994, then his key supplier, Blandón, bore at least some of the responsibility for the "democratization" of crack that Gary Webb ascribed to him.
The second installment, written by McManus, drew on three unnamed associates of Blandón and Meneses, who denied that the two had sent "millions" to the contras; they believed the figure closer to $50,000, because the drug smugglers were awash in debt, not profit, in the early years. Perhaps more importantly, the Los Angeles Times obtained an admission from Dawn Garcia, who edited the piece at the Mercury News, that the "millions" figure was an extrapolation, based on the amount of coke Blandón and Meneses had sold between 1981 and 1986 combined with Blandón's testimony that everything went to the contras.
But the Times, like the Post, drew on the pieces on Blandón's testimony in which he confined his contra drug dealings to a short period in 1981 and 1982--using the same kind of selectivity in highlighting evidence as the Mercury News, but to arrive at opposite conclusions, and failing to pursue leads in the other contradictory testimony and documents that Webb had used to present his case.
At the same time as it sought to undermine the specifics of "Dark Alliance," the McManus piece actually advanced its contra/crack connection thesis. To the two Nicaraguan drug dealers that Webb had written about, the Times added two more members of that ring: Meneses's nephew, Jairo Morales Meneses, and Renato Peria Cabrera. Both were arrested on cocaine charges in November, 1984. Unlike Blandón and Norvin Meneses, whose depiction in Webb's series as FDN offi- cials was challenged by critics, Peria had a verifiable role, having served as an FDN press secretary in California.
The McManus piece credulously painted a portrait of the CIA as a law- abiding, conscientious agency. It included an abundance of denials from prominent CIA and Justice Department officials--while failing to inform readers of their roles in some of the scandals of the contra war--that the CIA would ever tolerate drug smuggling or that there had ever been any government interference with prosecuting drug smugglers connected to the contras. This despite documentation to the contrary.
Indeed, all three papers ignored evidence from declassified National Security Council e-mail messages and the New York Times and the Washington Post ignored evidence, from Oliver North's notebooks, which lend support to the underlying premise of the Mercury News series--that U.S. officials would both condone and protect drug traffickers if doing so advanced the contra cause. The October 21 New York Times piece didn't even mention the Kerry Committee report. "A decade ago. the national media low- balled the contra-drug story," David Corn observed in The Nation. "Now it's, Been there, done that."
IN THE AFTERMATH
On October 23, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held its first hearing on the controversy surrounding contra-drug allegations. Jack Blum, the former lead investigator for the Kerry committee, was the lead witness. Blum testified that his investigators had found no evidence whatsoever that the African-American community was a particular target of a plot to sell crack cocaine or that high U.S. officials had a policy of supporting the contras through drug sales. But, he testified further, "if you ask whether the United States government ignored the drug problem and subverted law enforcement to prevent embarrassment and to reward our allies in the contra war, the answer is yes." In a long session, he also detailed the Reagan Administration's obstruction of the Kerry investigation.
A story on ABC's World News Tonight about the hearing led with Blum's ''no evidence" statement but excluded any reterence to the rest of his testimony. The New York Times ran an AP story on the hearing but cut references to Blum's testimony. The Los Angeles Times covered the hearing but failed even to mention the lead witness or his testimony.
For conspiracy buffs, this non-coverage raised the specter of a government/media collaboration to bury the contra-cocaine story. That is far-fetched. Yet the furor over "Dark Alliance" and the mainstream media's response to it dramatically raise the issue of responsible and irresponsible journalism--particularly in an era of growing public cynicism toward both the government and the institutional press.
For many in the media, Webb's reporting remains at the core of the debate over journalistic responsibility. One veteran TV producer decried the impact of "Dark Alliance" on the profession: "Those stories have cheapened the coin of the realm." Another veteran reporter asks, "Can anyone doubt that Gary Webb added two plus two and came out with twenty-two?" At the Washington Post, senior management, led by Steven Rosenfeld, deputy editorial-page editor, even refused to print a letter to the editor written by Jerry Ceppos, the Mercury News's executive editor, regarding the Post's critique of the series. Although Ceppos had redrafted the letter several times at the demand of the Post, Rosenfeld disparaged it as misinformation.
In her November 10 column, the Post's own ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, objected to that decision, as well as to the Post's response to ''Dark Alliance.'' "There is another appropriate response, a more important one, and that is: 'Is there anything to the very serious question the series raised?' "
Overholser's point resonated inside the Post "There was a lot of unhappiness," says one editor. "A lot of frustration. Why pick on the Mercury News? There was a recognition that it would be appropriate to do something else." That recognition led to the publication of a follow-up piece headlined CIA, CONTRAS AND DRUGS: QUESTIONS ON LINKS LINGER. It reported that in 1984 the CIA had authorized a contra group in Costa Rica to take planes and cash from a prominent Colombian drug dealer then under indictment in the U.S. The planes, according to the drug dealers, were used to ferry arms to the contras and then drugs to the United States.
Clearly, there was room to advance the contra/drug/CIA story rather than simply denounce it. Indeed, at the Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other major oracles, the course of responsible joumalism could have taken a number of avenues, among them: a historical treatment of drug smuggling as part of CIA covert operations in Indochina, Afghanistan, and Central America; an investigation into the alleged obstruction, by the Justice Department and the CIA, of the Kerry Committee's inquiry in the late 1980s; an evaluation of Oliver North's mendacious insistence, after the Mercury News series was published, that "no U.S. government official" ever "tolerated" drug smuggling as part of the contra war; and a follow-up on the various intriguing leads in "Dark Alliance."
"The big question is still hanging out there," said one Los Angeles Times reporter who disagreed with his editors' decision to simply trash "Dark Alliance." What did the government know and when did they know it? This story is not put to rest by a long shot."
To be sure, the "Dark Alliance" series was an overwritten and problematically sourced piece of reporting. It repeatedly promised evidence that, on close reading, it did not deliver. In so doing, the Mercury News bears part of the responsibility for the sometimes distorted public furor the stories generated. (A thorough editing job might have spared the Mercury News such responsibility and still resulted in a major exposé.) "Webb has convinced thousands of people of assertions that are not yet true or not supported," McManus points out. "That pollutes the public debate."
Yet the Mercury News was single-handedly responsible for stimulating this debate. This regional newspaper accomplished that neither the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, nor The New York Times had been willing or able to do--revisit a significant story that had been inexplicably abandoned by the mainstream press, report a new dimension to to it, and thus put it back on the national agenda where it belongs. "We have advanced a ten-year story that is clearly of great interest to the American public," Ceppos could rightfully claim.
The unacknowledged negligence of the mainstream press made that possible. Indeed, if the major media had devoted the same energy and ink to investigating the contra drug scandal in the 1980s as they did attacking the Mercury News in 1996, Gary Webb might never have had his scoop.
And having shown itself still unwilling to follow the leads and lay the story to rest, the 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. "A principal responsibility of the press is to protect the people from government excesses," Overholser pointed out. "The Post (and others) showed more energy for protecting the CIA from someone else's journalistic excesses." The mainstream press shirked its larger duty; thus it bears the larger burden.
Documentation of Official U.S. Knowledge of Drug Trafficking and the Contras
Documentation of Official U.S. Knowledge of Drug Trafficking and the Contras
Evidence that NSC Staff Supported Using Drug Money to Fund the Contras
U.S. Officials and Major Traffickers
Kerry Report - Iran/Contra North Notebook Citation Bibliography
The National Security Archive obtained the hand-written notebooks of Oliver North, the National Security Council aide who helped run the contra war and other Reagan administration covert operations, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 1989 with Public Citizen Litigation Group. The notebooks, as well as declassified memos sent to North, record that North was repeatedly informed of contra ties to drug trafficking.
In his entry for August 9, 1985, North summarizes a meeting with Robert Owen ("Rob"), his liaison with the contras. They discuss a plane used by Mario Calero, brother of Adolfo Calero, head of the FDN, to transport supplies from New Orleans to contras in Honduras. North writes: "Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S." As Lorraine Adams reported in the October 22, 1994 Washington Post, there are no records that corroborate North's later assertion that he passed this intelligence on drug trafficking to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In a July 12, 1985 entry, North noted a call from retired Air Force general Richard Secord in which the two discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the contras planned to purchase weapons. (The contras did eventually buy the arms, using money the Reagan administration secretly raised from Saudi Arabia.) According to the notebook, Secord told North that "14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs."
An April 1, 1985 memo from Robert Owen (code-name: "T.C." for "The Courier") to Oliver North (code-name: "The Hammer") describes contra operations on the Southern Front. Owen tells North that FDN leader Adolfo Calero (code-name: "Sparkplug") has picked a new Southern Front commander, one of the former captains to Eden Pastora who has been paid to defect to the FDN. Owen reports that the officials in the new Southern Front FDN units include "people who are questionable because of past indiscretions," such as José Robelo, who is believed to have "potential involvement with drug running" and Sebastian Gonzalez, who is "now involved in drug running out of Panama."
On February 10, 1986, Owen ("TC") wrote North (this time as "BG," for "Blood and Guts") regarding a plane being used to carry "humanitarian aid" to the contras that was previously used to transport drugs. The plane belongs to the Miami-based company Vortex, which is run by Michael Palmer, one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the United States. Despite Palmer's long history of drug smuggling, which would soon lead to a Michigan indictment on drug charges, Palmer receives over $300,000.00 from the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) -- an office overseen by Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer Alan Fiers -- to ferry supplies to the contras.
State Department contracts from February 1986 detail Palmer's work to transport material to the contras on behalf of the NHAO.
Evidence that NSC Staff Supported Using Drug Money to Fund the Contras
In 1987, the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, led by Senator John Kerry, launched an investigation of allegations arising from reports of contra-drug links. One of the incidents examined by the "Kerry Committee" was an effort to divert drug money from a counternarcotics operation to the contra war.
On July 28, 1988, two DEA agents testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime regarding a sting operation conducted against the Medellin Cartel. The two agents said that in 1985 Oliver North had wanted to take $1.5 million in Cartel bribe money that was carried by a DEA informant and give it to the contras. DEA officials rejected the idea.
Document 6 [90 pp. / 9.47 MB - For best results, Right click and select "Save Target As..."]
Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, A Report Prepared by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations of the Committtee on Foreign Relations, 100th Congress, 2d Session
The Kerry Committee report concluded that "senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras' funding problems." (See page 41)
U.S. Officials and Major Traffickers
In June, 1986, the New York Times published articles detailing years of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega's collaboration with Colombian drug traffickers. Reporter Seymour Hersh wrote that Noriega "is extensively involved in illicit money laundering and drug activities," and that an unnamed White House official "said the most significant drug running in Panama was being directed by General Noriega." In August, Noriega, a long-standing U.S. intelligence asset, sent an emissary to Washington to seek assistance from the Reagan administration in rehabilitating his drug-stained reputation.
Oliver North, who met with Noriega's representative, described the meeting in an August 23, 1986 e-mail message to Reagan national security advisor John Poindexter. "You will recall that over the years Manuel Noriega in Panama and I have developed a fairly good relationship," North writes before explaining Noriega's proposal. If U.S. officials can "help clean up his image" and lift the ban on arms sales to the Panamanian Defense Force, Noriega will "'take care of' the Sandinista leadership for us."
North tells Poindexter that Noriega can assist with sabotage against the Sandinistas, and suggests paying Noriega a million dollars -- from "Project Democracy" funds raised from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran -- for the Panamanian leader's help in destroying Nicaraguan economic installations.
The same day Poindexter responds with an e-mail message authorizing North to meet secretly with Noriega. "I have nothing against him other than his illegal activities," Poindexter writes.
On the following day, August 24, North's notebook records a meeting with CIA official Duane "Dewey" Clarridge on Noriega's overture. They decided, according to this entry, to "send word back to Noriega to meet in Europe or Israel."
The CIA's Alan Fiers later recalls North's involvement with the Noriega sabotage proposal. In testimony at the 1992 trial of former CIA official Clair George, Fiers describes North's plan as it was discussed at a meeting of the Reagan administration's Restricted Interagency Group: "[North] made a very strong suggestion that . . . there needed to be a resistance presence in the western part of Nicaragua, where the resistance did not operate. And he said, 'I can arrange to have General Noriega execute some insurgent -- some operations there -- sabotage operations in that area. It will cost us about $1 million. Do we want to do it?' And there was significant silence at the table. And then I recall I said, 'No. We don't want to do that.'"
Senior officials ignored Fiers' opinion. On September 20, North informed Poindexter via e-mail that "Noriega wants to meet me in London" and that both Elliott Abrams and Secretary of State George Shultz support the initiative. Two days later, Poindexter authorized the North/Noriega meeting.
North's notebook lists details of his meeting with Noriega, which took place in a London hotel on September 22. According to the notes, the two discussed developing a commando training program in Panama, with Israeli support, for the contras and Afghani rebels. They also spoke of sabotaging major economic targets in the Managua area, including an airport, an oil refinery, and electric and telephone systems. (These plans were apparently aborted when the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November 1986.)
José Bueso Rosa
Reagan administration officials interceded on behalf of José Bueso Rosa, a Honduran general who was heavily involved with the CIA's contra operations and faced trial for his role in a massive drug shipment to the United States. In 1984 Bueso and co-conspirators hatched a plan to assassinate Honduran President Roberto Suazo Córdoba; the plot was to be financed with a $40 million cocaine shipment to the United States, which the FBI intercepted in Florida.
Declassified e-mail messages indicate that Oliver North led the behind-the-scenes effort to seek leniency for Bueso . The messages record the efforts of U.S. officials to "cabal quietly" to get Bueso off the hook, be it by "pardon, clemency, deportation, [or] reduced sentence." Eventually they succeeded in getting Bueso a short sentence in "Club Fed," a white collar prison in Florida.
Document 14 (See page 76 of Document 6, the Kerry Report http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/north06.pdf) The Kerry Committee report reviewed the case, and noted that the man Reagan officials aided was involved in a conspiracy that the Justice Department deemed the "most significant case of narco-terrorism yet discovered."
Kerry Report - Iran/Contra North Notebook Citation Bibliography
The text below is taken from page 146 of the Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy report prepared by the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations ("Kerry Committee" http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/north06.pdf). Click on the links to view the relevant passages from Oliver North's notebooks.
Case Study: The Drug-Related Entries
Among the entries in the North Notebooks which discernably concern narcotics or terrorism are:
May 12, 1984 http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/May%2012,%201984.pdf …contract indicates that Gustavo is involved w/ drugs. (Q0266)
June 26, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/June%2026,%201984.pdf DEA- (followed by two blocks of text deleted by North) (Q0349)
June 27, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/June%2027,%201984.pdf Drug Case - DEA program on controlling cocaine- Ether cutoff- Colombians readjusting- possible negotiations to move on refining effort to Nicaragua- Pablo Escobar-Colombian drug czar- Informant (Pilot) is indicted criminal- Carlos Ledher- Freddy Vaughn (Q0354)
July 9, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%209,%201984.pdf[NOTE: Portions transcribed in Kerry Report but deleted from declassified version] Call from Clarridge- Call Michel re Narco Issue- RIG at 1000 Tomorrow (Q0384)- DEA Miami- Pilot went talked to Vaughn- wanted A/C to go to Bolivia to p/u paste- want A/C to p/u 1500 kilos- Bud to meet w/ Group (Q0385)
July 12, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%2012,%201984.pdf[NOTE: Portions transcribed in Kerry Report but deleted from declassified version] Gen. Gorman-*Include Drug Case (Q0400) Call from Johnstone- (White House deletion) leak on Drug (0402)
July 17, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%2017,%201984.pdf Call to Frank M- Bud Mullins Re- leak on DEA piece- Carlton Turner (Q0418) Call from Johnstone- McManus, LA Times-says/NSC source claims W.H. has pictures of Borge loading cocaine in Nic. (Q0416)
July 20, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%2020,%201984.pdf Call from Clarridge:-Alfredo Cesar Re Drugs-Borge/Owen leave Hull alone (Deletions)/Los Brasiles Air Field-Owen off Hull (Q0426)
July 27, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%2027,%201984.pdf Clarridge:-(Block of White House deleted text follows)-Arturo Cruz, Jr.-Get Alfredo Cesar on Drugs (Q0450)
July 31, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%2031,%201984_1.pdf -Finance: Libya- Cuba/Bloc Countries-Drugs. . . Pablo Escobar/Federic Vaughn (Q0460)
July 31, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%2031,%201984_2.pdf [NOTE: Portions transcribed in Kerry Report but deleted from declassified version] Staff queries re (White House deletion) role in DEA operations in Nicaragua (Q0461)
December 21, 1984. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/December%2021,%201984.pdf Call from Clarridge: Ferch (White House deletion)- Tambs- Costa Rica- Felix Rodriguez close to (White House deletion)- not assoc. W/Villoldo- Bay of Pigs- No drugs (Q0922)
January 14, 1985. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/January%2014,%201985.pdf $14 million to finance came from drugs (Q1039)
July 12, 1985. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/July%2012,%201985.pdf
$14 million to finance came from drugs
August 10, 1985. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/August%2010,%201985.pdf Mtg w/ A.C.- name of DEA person in New Orleans re Bust on Mario/ DC-6 (Q1140)
February 27, 1986. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/February%2027,%201986.pdf Mtg w/ Lew Tambs- DEA Auction A/C seized as drug runners.- $250-260K fee (Q2027)
Numerous other entries contain references to individuals or events whoch Subcommittee staff has determined have relevance to narcotics, terrorism, or international operations, but whose ambiguities cannot be resolved without the production of the deleted materials by North and his attorneys.