The NYT’s New Contra Lies

From the Archive: While preparing the Dec. 9 article on Gary Webb, we pulled up a 1998 article that helps explain how inconvenient facts from recent U.S. history sometimes get “found” and then “lost” again. That summer, a CIA report exposing Nicaraguan Contra drug trafficking forced the New York Times to admit the point, but it soon forgot.

By Robert Parry (Originally published Oct. 1, 1998)

After acknowledging the truth about the Nicaraguan Contras and cocaine briefly in summer 1998, the New York Times altered the public record again and resumed its sorry role in this long-running cover-up of a serious crime of state.

On Sept. 27, 1998, the Times published a dismissive combined review of Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance book and a second book, Whiteout, by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. Reviewer James Adams termed the two books “unsatisfactory” and mocked their suggestions of a CIA cover-up of Contra-cocaine crimes as “laughable.”

Cover of Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance"

“Neither gives us an explanation of how such a huge cover-up might have worked, who the puppeteers are behind it and just why career civil servants should risk jail over such an issue,” Adams wrote.

In brushing aside the idea of a cover-up, however, Adams ignored the strong historical record of both Contra-cocaine trafficking and how the cover-up functioned. Iran-Contra documents released in 1987 demonstrated that during the 1980s, the Reagan administration targeted American journalists who published any critical information about the Contras, called “freedom fighters” by President Ronald Reagan.

These attack operations came under the rubric of “public diplomacy” and “perception management,” according to the documents and participants. Reagan’s “public diplomacy” teams routinely lobbied editors and bureau chiefs to punish or fire reporters who didn’t toe the White House propaganda lines. The suppression of the Contra-drug evidence was only one facet of the larger effort.

Iran-Contra documents also made clear that the “puppeteers” of this media manipulation included Walter Raymond Jr., a career CIA propagandist who was moved to the National Security Council staff, and CIA director William Casey, who received progress reports on the efforts. [See Foreign Policy, Fall 1988; or Robert Parry's Lost History.]

Members of Congress and their staffs also came under pressure when they looked under this Contra-cocaine rock. Conservative publications, such as the Washington Times, took the lead, lashing out at Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, when he began investigating the Contras and drugs.

Kerry faced accusations of wasting money [Washington Times, Aug. 13, 1986] and his staff was accused publicly of obstructing justice [WT, Jan. 21, 1987]. Mainstream publications later joined the fun. Newsweek’s Conventional Wisdom Watch sniffed the mood when it mocked Kerry as a “randy conspiracy buff.” Adams’s review in the New York Times continued this battering of anyone who pointed the finger toward the clear evidence of Contra-cocaine crimes.

In a foreword to Webb’s book, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, noted that her own investigation of Webb’s information convinced her that U.S. intelligence agencies knew about the smuggling and “were either part of the trafficking or turned a blind eye to it, in an effort to fund the contra war.”

This allegation of official complicity was more than Adams – and the Times — could tolerate. Adams dusted off the tried-and-true tactic of ridiculing Waters as a “conspiracy theorist.”

“It is the Waters view that is going to become the accepted conspiracist perception of the Webb affair,” Adams wrote. He then summarized, inaccurately, the available evidence on Contra-cocaine trafficking and the assessments of supposedly knowledgeable journalists.

“It matters little that the CIA’s own inspector general said he found no evidence to support allegations of agency involvement in or knowledge of the drug trafficking in the United States,” Adams wrote. “It also matters little that reporters who specialize in writing about the intelligence community have found no clear evidence to support CIA involvement.”

Adams’s summary, of course, was wrong – and even the New York Times had said so. The Times had acknowledged in a front-page article on July 17, 1998, just weeks earlier, that CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz had discovered that in the 1980s, the CIA knew that about 50 Nicaraguan Contras and their backers were implicated in cocaine smuggling.

Still, according to Hitz, the CIA continued collaborating with about two dozen of the suspected smugglers without seriously examining the proof of their cocaine trafficking. The Times headlined its story, “CIA Says It Used Nicaraguan Rebels Accused of Drug Tie.” Those findings were contained in Volume Two of Hitz’s Contra-drug investigation, a report which was still classified at the time of the Times’ articles.

But even in Volume One, which focused just on the West Coast Contra-drug activities and had been released in January 1998, Hitz acknowledged that the CIA knew about and protected suspected Contra-drug traffickers. Hitz reported that in 1984, for instance, the CIA intervened to short-circuit a federal drug investigation that threatened to expose Contra-cocaine connections in Costa Rica.

In a separate report, released on July 23, 1998, the Justice Department’s inspector general described more cases of interference in Contra-cocaine inquiries by CIA officials and senior Reagan administration officials. The Justice report cited example after example of “reliable” U.S. informants divulging Contra-drug operations, only to have their warnings ignored or denigrated by an administration that saw the Contras as an important Cold War weapon.

The Reagan administration’s premeditation in protecting the Contras on drugs was underscored, too, by documents revealing that in 1982, Casey negotiated with Attorney General William French Smith to spare the CIA from a requirement to report on drug trafficking by its clients.

In short, the case proving major Contra-drug operations and the Reagan administration’s complicity was overwhelming by the summer of 1998. But that history disappeared in Adams’s review in the Times.

After the Times’ July 17, 1998, story (acknowledging widespread Contra drug trafficking), I noted that the prestige newspaper appeared hesitant to follow up its own belated disclosures, a reaction that suggested a reluctance to know more. The Times made no editorial demand for the prompt public release of Hitz’s Volume Two, upon which the July 17 story was based.

The July story also included no explanation of how the Times had been so wrong on the Contra-drug issue for so long. “Possibly,” I wrote at the time, “that hesitancy reflects a recognition by Times’ senior editors that their pious condemnations of other people’s reporting standards might be turned against them, that it might be their turn to stand in the crowded dock of journalistic shame.”

With Adams’s review, it appeared that the Times answered the question of how “the newspaper of record” would avoid the humiliation. The Times simply used its power over the official record to falsify the history.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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