July 23, 1998

The NYT's Contra-Cocaine Dilemma

By Robert Parry

After 12 years of dumping on the contra-cocaine allegations, The New York Times pulled what was once called in Watergate days a "modified limited hang-out," offering a partial affirmation that the long-denigrated charges were true after all.

On July 17, the Times reported that outgoing CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz had discovered that the CIA knew that about 50 contras and their backers were implicated in cocaine smuggling. Then, without seriously examining the proof, the CIA kept working with about two dozen of the suspected smugglers, the Times wrote.

The Times put its July 17 story about the still-secret second volume of Hitz's contra-cocaine report on the front page under a headline stating: "CIA Says It Used Nicaraguan Rebels Accused of Drug Tie."

Citing unnamed government sources, the story noted that "the new report [by Hitz] criticizes agency officials' actions at the time for the inconsistent and sometimes sloppy manner in which they investigated -- or chose not to investigate -- the allegations, which were never substantiated by the agency."

The story represented something of a reversal for the Times, which has uncritically accepted contra-cocaine denials from the Reagan-Bush administrations, since the problem was first reported by others in the mid-1980s. But unlike other news organizations which have recently admitted journalistic errors and fired those deemed responsible, the Times simply acted as if it had never gotten the contra-cocaine story wrong in the first place.

The newspaper tried to minimize public attention that might be drawn to just how wrong the Times had been. The one-column story was stuck in the lower left-hand corner -- the most obscure spot on the front page.

The Times also continued to protect the CIA by letting the spy agency put its spin on the drug scandal, so any public outrage would be muted. The Times quoted one U.S. intelligence official as saying, "the fundamental finding of the report is that there is no information that the CIA or CIA employees ever conspired with any contra organizations or individuals involved with the contras for the purposes of drug trafficking."

P.R. Inoculation

According to my information, however, this second volume of Hitz's review of contra-drug trafficking is far more damning than presented by the Times. Even the CIA's supposed innocence might be very narrowly worded.

Hitz's 600-page investigative document reportedly contains evidence that authorization for some cocaine trafficking tracked directly into President Reagan's National Security Council. Hitz apparently makes a distinction between Reagan administration complicity and the CIA's institutional guilt.

But in a larger sense, Hitz's second volume confirms what has been alleged for more than a decade -- that the contra operation was riddled with drug trafficking and that the smugglers were protected by the Reagan administration for geopolitical reasons.

Viewed in that context, the Times story looks more like a P.R. inoculation -- an attempt by the CIA to get out in front of the disclosures and neutralize any explosive impact -- rather than a hard-hitting expose of a serious crime of state. Prior to the Times story, some government officials worried that Hitz's second volume, if ever read by the public, could lead to demands for the CIA's abolition.

If damage control was the idea, the scheme seems to have worked. The Times article has prompted no follow-ups in the major media and no noticeable commentary in the mainstream press. The limited admissions in the July 17 story also gave the Times cover for its 12-year failure to take the contra-drug charges seriously.

While letting the Times claim that it disclosed something, the July 17 story failed to put Hitz's findings in any meaningful context. For instance, the Times ignored how the cumulative evidence now supports a clear indictment of the Reagan administration for effectively aiding and abetting major shipments of cocaine into the United States at a time when the drug was devastating American families and particularly inner-city black neighborhoods.


The Times left out evidence that exposed the premeditated nature of the Reagan administration's actions. Last May 7, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., introduced into the Congressional Record a letter exchange in which CIA director William J. Casey engineered a legal exemption in 1982 sparing the CIA from a requirement to report evidence of drug trafficking by its assets.

Since Casey agreed to report a laundry list of other crimes, the drug exemption was evidence that he was nervous about exposing clients' drug operations to U.S. law enforcement. Though the incriminating letters were in the public domain, the Times made no reference to them in May or in its subsequent July 17 story. [For details about the letters, see The Consortium, June 1, 1998.]

Yet, in view of the second volume's finding of how deep the contra-drug operations ran, any competent journalist would have put the two facts together. The logical conclusion was obvious: Casey knew the contras were smuggling drugs and he didn't want to rat them out.

Given the seriousness of the crimes, editorial writers should have clamored for follow-ups and full disclosure. Though Casey and Smith are dead, senior Smith aides, including then-counselor Kenneth Starr, could be questioned about the reasons for the drug waiver and their role in it. [Starr has not responded to my written questions about his role in the drug exemption.]

The Casey-Smith exemption must now be seen in even a darker light. Hitz's report discovered that the CIA was aware of drug smuggling by its contra operatives virtually from the start, when President Reagan authorized covert CIA support for the contra war in November 1981.

The Times bungled this point, too, in reporting that one of the drug-implicated groups, the 15th of September Legion, "was disbanded in 1982." The Times left out the fact that the 15th of September Legion was the original contra army commanded by Enrique Bermudez. Along with many other legion members, Bermudez simply transferred his operation into the FDN, the main contra force created and sustained by the CIA.

Bermudez, who served as a leading CIA agent inside the contra army, also was cited in Hitz's first volume as having asked two contra-connected cocaine traffickers -- Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses -- to help raise money in 1982. Blandon told Hitz's investigators that Bermudez advised the two traffickers that when it came to raising money for the contras, "the ends justify the means."

Hitz noted, too, that when the Meneses cocaine network confronted a major federal investigation in 1984, the CIA intervened with Reagan's Justice Department to block questioning of contra operatives in Costa Rica. The CIA was not only withholding evidence about contra drug traffickers, the spy agency was running interference for them with U.S. law enforcement.

[For details about Hitz's first volume, see The Consortium, Feb. 16, 1998.]

'Baseless' Reporting

The Times' July 17 article also continued a two-year campaign to discredit former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb. Webb's 1996 series, "Dark Alliance," revived the contra-drug issue and sparked the CIA investigation. But Webb still gets no respect.

The July 17 story devoted five paragraphs, nearly 20 percent of the article, to repeating CIA denunciations of Webb's series as "baseless." Yet, any fair reading of the evidence would find a solid basis for Webb's reporting. If anything, Hitz's first volume went beyond many of the allegations in Webb's series. Webb, for instance, never claimed that the CIA had obstructed a federal investigation of contra-drug trafficking nor that the CIA director had engineered a special exemption on drug reporting.

But the Times apparently is unwilling to admit how unfair its earlier criticism of Webb was. After Webb's series ran in August 1996, the Times joined The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times at the front of the media pack in denouncing "Dark Alliance" and pressuring the Mercury News to retract the series.

In spring 1997, Webb's editor, Jerry Ceppos, finally buckled under the pressure. In a front-page column, Ceppos admitted that the series was not perfect. He acknowledged that the story had "gray areas" which should have been more carefully handled and "fell short of my standards."

The Times promptly hailed Ceppos's retreat as an act of courage. In an editorial headlined "The Mercury News Comes Clean," the Times declared that Ceppos's "candor and self-criticism set a high standard for cases in which journalists make egregious errors." [NYT, May 14, 1997]

The Times later administered the coup de grace to Webb's career with a lengthy attack on his journalistic record. The story opened with a report that the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists was considering stripping Webb of a journalism award that he had received for the series. Such an action was never seriously contemplated and didn't happen, but the Times never reported the outcome of the motion which was supported by a single SPJ member. [NYT, June 3, 1997]

With the Times' final push, Ceppos pulled Webb off the contra-cocaine story and reassigned him to an obscure suburban bureau far from his home. In December 1997, with the writing on the wall, Webb resigned. He has since published a book, entitled Dark Alliance, about the contra-cocaine evidence and his personal ordeal.

Never Saying 'Sorry'

Though praising Ceppos's mea culpa, the Times has never apologized for its own sloppy reporting about the contra-cocaine issue. That record has been a litany of errors and omissions, dating back to the start of the story.

On Dec. 20, 1985, Brian Barger and I wrote the first article about contra-drug evidence for The Associated Press. The AP story quoted contra supporters and law-enforcement officials in Central America who were troubled about the cocaine smuggling.

The story also cited a CIA intelligence estimate on narcotics trafficking which revealed that a contra unit in Costa Rica had used drug profits to buy a helicopter. Even at that early date, it was clear the CIA had evidence about contras and drugs.

The Times and most other leading news organizations chose to ignore the AP dispatch. But the story did appear in The Washington Post and prompted Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to begin examining the growing evidence of contra-drug trafficking. Kerry's investigators began to locate and interview witnesses.

In April 1986, Barger and I reported another development: that a Miami-based federal investigation was looking at contra gun-running and drug-trafficking allegations.

Behind the scenes, we later learned, Attorney General Edwin Meese III had flown to Miami and discussed the probe with U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner. One of Kellner's deputies, David Leiwant, stated that he heard Kellner tell aides that Washington had ordered him to "go slow."

By spring 1986, the Reagan administration saw the brewing contra-drug scandal as a threat to its congressional lobbying for renewed contra military aid. President Reagan had lauded the contras as "the moral equals of our Founding Fathers." The president stood to look like a fool or worse if the public learned more about the contra-drug smuggling.

In that heated environment, the AP story began to draw fire from the conservative news media, especially Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times.

Then, on May 6, 1986, The New York Times weighed in with an article knocking down the AP story, too. The Times reported that a Justice Department spokesman had explained that "various bits of information got referred to us. We ran them all down and didn't find anything. It comes to nothing."

As it turned out, the Times report was dead wrong. In reality, the Miami investigation was moving forward, already having discovered links between the contra supply operation and North's NSC office.

On May 14, 1986, federal prosecutor Jeffrey Feldman recommended to his superiors that the evidence of contra crimes was strong enough to take to a grand jury. According to internal documents released during the Iran-contra investigation, Feldman's boss, Kellner, scribbled on the memo, "I concur that we have sufficient evidence to ask for a grand jury investigation."

But on May 20, Kellner abruptly reversed himself, rewriting Feldman's memo to reject a grand jury as "a fishing expedition with little prospect that it would bear fruit." Without informing Feldman of the changes and after signing Feldman's name without permission, Kellner sent the revised memo to Washington. There, it was promptly leaked to the conservative media to undermine Kerry's investigation.

Getting It Wrong

Nevertheless, in October and November 1986, events overtook the administration's careful media manipulation in Washington. One of Oliver North's contra supply planes was shot down in Nicaragua and a Beirut magazine disclosed the secret U.S. missile shipments to Iran. The flood of disclosures revealed that the Reagan administration had consistently misled Congress and the press.

Yet, even after the Iran-contra revelations, The New York Times continued to take the Reagan administration at its word on contra-drug trafficking. On Feb. 24, 1987, the Times published a lengthy article relying on Reagan officials to put down those charges, again.

Correspondent Keith Schneider quoted unidentified "law enforcement officials" as saying the contra allegations "have come from a small group of convicted drug traffickers in South Florida who never mentioned contras or the White House until the Iran-contra affair broke in November" 1986.

The Times story, of course, was false: the AP contra-drug story appeared in December 1985, almost a full year before the Iran-contra scandal broke. Kerry's initial witnesses were questioned in early 1986, not after November 1986. But the Times made no effort to correct the record.

On July 16, 1987, Schneider and the Times struck once more, reporting that except for a few convicted drug smugglers from Miami, the contra-drug "charges have not been verified by any other people and have been vigorously denied by several government agencies."

Four days later, Schneider and the Times added that "investigators, including reporters from major news outlets, have tried without success to find proof of ... allegations that military supplies may have been paid for with profits from drug smuggling." [NYT, July 20, 1987] The Times ignored the fact that the original AP story had cited a CIA report describing the contras buying a helicopter with drug money.

Hitz's recent findings further debunk the Times' reporting. But the Times' near-total failure to get at the truth had consequences beyond the niceties of journalistic debates. By denigrating the investigative efforts of others, the Times enabled the drug smuggling to continue and obstructed investigations that might have brought criminals -- and their government accomplices -- to justice.

Despite the Times' grievous errors, the paper has engaged in no self-criticism. There has never been an explanation of how Schneider and his editors could have misreported such basic facts as when the contra-drug charges first surfaced and what other news organizations had reported.

In a 1987 interview with In These Times, Schneider seemed more preoccupied with protecting the image of the contras and the U.S. government than getting at the truth. "This story can shatter a republic," Schneider said. "I think it is so damaging, the implications so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we can amass." [ITT, Aug. 5, 1987]

So, instead of using normal journalistic standards and exposing a serious crime of state, the Times insisted on near perfect, unattainable proof -- and let the cocaine trafficking to go ahead unchecked.

Buried Inside

The Times continued its biased work through the Kerry investigation, joining with other elite publications in burying the findings of Kerry's remarkable Senate contra-drug report when it was released on April 13, 1989.

Kerry's report concluded that "individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."

The Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all wrote brief accounts of the Senate findings and stuck them deep inside their pages. The Times article, 850 words long, landed on page 8. The Post put its kiss-off article by Michael Isikoff on A20. The Los Angeles Times chose page 11.

By sticking brief stories on inside pages, the prestige papers signaled what they thought of the contra-drug allegations. Picking up the scent, Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" branded Kerry a "randy conspiracy buff."

With the new CIA findings, however, it is clear that Kerry was very much on target in 1989 and the major papers had missed one of the worst American scandals of Cold War history. Kerry recently reviewed Hitz's still-classified volume two and urged its immediate declassification, with as few deletions as possible.

Rep. Waters also demanded the report's release and immediate public hearings. "There is no conceivable reason to keep this report classified," Waters said. "It is tantamount to protecting drug dealers. ... I cannot understand why a CIA report, which details the illegal efforts of Reagan-Bush administration officials to protect the involvement of top-level contras in drug trafficking, should continue to be protected."

So far, the Kerry-Waters appeals have fallen on the deaf ears of a national news media obsessed with every twist and turn of the Monica Lewinsky story. Likewise, President Clinton seems distracted by his political troubles and unlikely to use his authority to overrule the CIA's secrecy.

Still unwilling to admit how badly it failed the American people in the 1980s, The New York Times has not followed up its own "modified limited hang-out" story. There have been no editorials demanding full disclosure of Hitz's findings, no outrage over the Reagan administration's tolerance of drug traffickers, no condemnation of the CIA for at minimum looking the other way, no hand-wringing over how most of the over-paid national news media blew another big story .

Possibly, 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.

Copyright (c) 1998

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