The Consortium

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- In 1972, Alfred W. McCoy, a Yale academic and Harper's correspondent, was finishing his landmark book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. His research had taken him on a harrowing tour through the war zones of Vietnam and Laos and into the equally risky apartments of well-armed drug lords in Europe.

But McCoy's findings were just as dangerous as his travels. Through numerous on-the-record interviews with participants in the heroin trade, he had discovered that U.S. intelligence had long collaborated with narcotics traffickers. He traced the alliance back to World War II when naval intelligence and the CIA's forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services, worked cozily with Mafia dons who helped the U.S. army pick its way through the hills of Sicily and up the spine of Italy.

After its creation in 1947, the CIA continued that relationship with crime syndicates, as the Mafia out-muscled pro-communist unions in Italy, France and the United States in the early days of the Cold War. The Mafia and related syndicates used the CIA's tolerance to reestablish its international routes for transporting narcotics.

In the 1950s, when the French lost Indochina, the CIA inherited the heroin-tainted Asian allies of the ruthless French intelligence agency, the SDECE. By the 1960s, the alliance of convenience had gone operational. CIA-owned aircraft were even transporting opium from Laotian poppy fields to market, as a favor to friendly Hmong tribesmen. McCoy had personally interviewed participants in the field who spoke with surprising frankness about a commodity that was seen as simply a valuable economic export from the Golden Triangle.

But McCoy's research was particularly unwelcome in Washington in 1972. President Nixon was trumpeting his "war on drugs" -- the first of many such conflicts declared by American presidents -- and the U.S. military was still reeling from negative publicity over My Lai and other atrocities in Vietnam. The CIA was coming under scrutiny, too, for running an assassination campaign called Phoenix.

So, in June 1972, with the book in galleys, the CIA went on the offensive against McCoy's publisher, Harper & Row. The CIA dispatched one of its top officials, Cord Meyer Jr., to visit his old social friend, Cass Canfield Sr., Harper's owner. The CIA wanted to review the manuscript prior to publication and Harper's executives were amenable, McCoy discovered.

As the publication date neared, Harper & Row confronted McCoy with an ultimatum: for the book to be published, McCoy must acquiesce to the CIA demand for prior review. Reluctantly, McCoy agreed. A week later, the CIA responded with a spate of denials. Some witnesses interviewed by McCoy also were persuaded to recant. But the book survived intact. Harper & Row's spine had been stiffened -- partly because the major news media had exposed the CIA's attempt to influence the publication of a book.

Public Exposure

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had picked up word of the CIA's maneuver and wrote a page-one story for The New York Times. The Washington Post weighed in, too, with an editorial lambasting the CIA's attempt at censorship. Network news programs followed up McCoy's findings with investigations of their own, including a one-hour long documentary on NBC's Chronolog program. [See Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin. ]

Though the CIA may have lost that round, its many friends in Washington had learned a valuable lesson: an American press corps that showed too much independence could be a threat to the kind of tough-minded Realpolitik crucial to the Cold War. So in the mid-to-late 1970s, conservative foundations, right-wing religious groups and pro-CIA foreign interests began pouring tens of millions of dollars into a strategy for influencing the national news media.

Part of that initiative groomed a "kept" conservative press. Dozens of right-wing and neo-conservative publications suddenly appeared, published in New York and Washington. Another part of the strategy was housebreaking the mainstream news media. To that end, groups, such as Accuracy in Media, subjected working journalists to harsh criticism when they wrote critically of the national security establishment.

In the 1980s, that outside effort merged with a muscular insider strategy by the Reagan administration to purge troublesome journalists by appealing directly to their editors and bureau chiefs. That project was known by the euphemism, "public diplomacy," and saw as its mission "perception management" on issues sensitive to the CIA. [See The Consortium, Dec. 9, 1996]

To a stunning degree, the strategy was a success. By the mid-1980s, mainstream news outfits were falling into line. Journalists who dared file critical stories about the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army or the CIA-trained Nicaraguan contra rebels found themselves reassigned or out on the street. The New York Times' Raymond Bonner was the best known example after he was pulled out of Central America while under fierce criticism for his accurate reporting on human rights atrocities in El Salvador.

In another typical case, the Reagan administration's public diplomacy team browbeat National Public Radio for airing a story about a Nicaraguan contra massacre of farmworkers in northern Nicaragua. Sensitive to government strings on NPR's funding, NPR executives appeased the administration by getting rid of foreign editor Paul Allen who had allowed the story to air.

Swallowing Propaganda

Within a short time, many Washington journalists understood that their route to professional success required them to swallow any propaganda, no matter how absurd. Their servility was on display when the White House fumed over one human rights report which cited 145 sworn affidavits signed by Nicaraguans who had witnessed contra atrocities. Many of the witnesses described contras slitting the throats of captives and mutilating their bodies.

Pro-contra New Republic writer Fred Barnes countered the eyewitnesses by referencing the findings of a secret U.S. investigation which had absolved the contras of many charges. In a harsh article entitled "The Sandinista Lobby," Barnes denounced the human rights community for hypocritically criticizing the innocent contras and other pro-U.S. forces, while allegedly going soft on Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.

But when I got hold of the investigative report in 1986, I found that it had been written by the CIA and was based on the word of the contras themselves. One of the key findings, supposedly debunking the slitting-throat allegations, was that the contras could not have slit throats because they "are normally not equipped with either bayonets or combat knives." The CIA failed to note that photographs of the contras from that period showed them slouching off to battle carrying a variety of machetes and other sharp objects.

In combatting evidence that the contras collaborated with cocaine traffickers, the administration's strategy was slightly different. It would swing back and forth between denying the charges outright and accepting some of the minor ones. The on-and-off pattern started with the first contra drug story which Brian Barger and I wrote for The Associated Press on Dec. 20, 1985.

Among the evidence we cited was a secret CIA intelligence report which noted that the contras in Costa Rica had obtained aircraft with drug profits. Yet, when the story appeared, State Department spokesman Charles Redman declared, "we are not aware of any evidence to support those charges."

The Reagan administration's first inclination was to build a stonewall, which rose higher even as the FBI in Miami and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in Washington uncovered supporting evidence. In May 1986, The New York Times published a story based on one unnamed administration official (in reality, it was Justice spokesman Patrick Korten) asserting that the contra-drug evidence had been thoroughly examined and "it comes to nothing."

Yet, when accused of a drug cover-up, administration officials would sometimes take a different tack. In an unpublished letter, assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams berated New Republic owner Martin Peretz for publishing such a cover-up charge in November 1986. "As to the drug charges" against some contras based in Costa Rica, Abrams declared combatively, "we made those charges."

'A Time Bomb'

The administration was back on the opposite side in February 1987, once again with the complicity of The New York Times. In a lengthy take-out, correspondent Keith Schneider took the word of unnamed "law enforcement officials" who blamed the contra-drug allegations on "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. In reality, of course, the original AP story had run in December 1985, nearly a full year earlier.

While accepting obvious lies from government sources, Schneider displayed tougher skepticism toward witnesses who dared to allege connections among the CIA, the contras and cocaine kingpins. Wanda Palacio, an FBI informant, offered testimony about alleged CIA-connected cocaine shipments from Colombia aboard planes belonging to Southern Air Transport, an airline once owned by the CIA and involved in contra resupply. Despite corroboration of important parts of her story, Palacio first faced hostility from Ronald Reagan's Justice Department.

"When I was telling that story, it was like a time bomb coming down or something," Palacio later stated in a sworn Senate deposition. "It was like this man, Richard Gregorie [an assistant U.S. attorney] was okay until I got to that point. [Then] he didn't say anything. But he just started like not putting much interest on it. ...Everytime, I would mention CIA and guns for drugs, it was like he would just talk about the guns and how did they go, but the drugs were hardly mentioned." [For more details on the Palacio case, see The Consortium, Oct. 28, 1996].

But the prosecutors were not the only ones with a deaf ear on contra drugs. Palacio described how she was taken to The New York Times office in Miami where Schneider and a "Cuban man" rudely questioned her story and bullied her in demanding specific evidence for each of her statements. The Cuban man "was talking to me kind of nasty," Palacio recalled. "I got up and left, and this man got all pissed off, Keith Schneider."

The Washington media was equally intolerant of the Kerry investigation, even as it amassed an impressive array of evidence about contra-cocaine smuggling and administration misfeasance. "It is clear 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," the Kerry report found. "In each case, one of another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."

But on this issue, the right-wing media and the mainstream press often stood shoulder-to-shoulder protecting the contras and their U.S. benefactors. When released in April 1989, Kerry's heavily documented report was treated as an insignificant story. The Washington Post's Michael Isikoff wrote a dismissive 700-word article that was buried on page A20. Later, Newsweek summed up the dominant view of Kerry and his work by declaring that the "conventional wisdom" saw Kerry as a "randy conspiracy buff."

Memory Hole

During the 1991 trial of Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega, however, the Bush administration was desperate to win a conviction. So President Bush's prosecutors wheeled out some of the same drug witnesses who had been ridiculed when they had testified about contra drug trafficking before Kerry. "The Kerry hearings didn't get the attention they deserved at the time," a Post editorial finally admitted on Nov. 27, 1991.

After the Noriega trial, however, the Washington media quickly shoved the contra-drug evidence back into a convenient memory hole. The story again disappeared into that hazy realm of discredited "conspiracy theory" where it stayed for four years.

Then, in August 1996, the San Jose Mercury News revived the contra-cocaine story with a three-part series that focused on the crack consequences in Los Angeles. Two contra-connected drug smugglers, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, had sold tons of cocaine to an enterprising black street tough called Freeway Ricky Ross. He, in turn, processed the powder into crack and marketed the powerful drug across South Central Los Angeles and into other cities.

Written by reporter Gary Webb, the series documented ties between the two Nicaraguans and contra leaders and cited Blandon's statements that he had shared his profits with the contra cause. The newspaper put its story and supporting documents on the Internet, giving the series a national and even international reach.

The Mercury-News story also put the Washington press corps in a bind. Many mid-level news executives -- bureau chiefs and deputy managing editors -- had reached those high-paying jobs by ignoring and pooh-poohing the contra-drug story when the cocaine smuggling was under way in the mid-1980s.

So, the initial mainstream media reaction was to ignore the San Jose stories, except to report briefly the CIA denials and demands for investigation by African-American leaders. The right-wing media, which had long placed the contras on a pedestal, was the first to rush out and battle for contra honor. Those stories appeared in publications, such as The Washington Times, which is run by Sun-Myung Moon's Unification Church, and The Weekly Standard, which is bankrolled by right-wing media mogul, Rupert Murdoch.

Tag-Team Trashings

But outrage in the black communities grew -- and the mainstream media finally had to take sides. Instead of criticizing the contras and the Reagan administration, the big media joined an all-out assault against the perceived weaknesses in the Mercury-News series. In a remarkable display of editorial unity, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times all bludgeoned the San Jose series.

The stories in the prestige media were similar, picking up arguments and sources used in the earlier right-wing accounts. The articles all credited multiple denials from U.S. officials, including CIA officers who oversaw the contra operation. The stories also quoted unnamed sources questioning the amounts of money that these two drug dealers, Blandon and Meneses, actually gave to the contras.

Soon, veteran investigative reporter Gary Webb became the target for outright ridicule, the modern media's weapon of choice. When Webb included in a book proposal a suggestion that he would examine the possibility that the contra war was primarily a business to its participants, the Washington news media could barely contain itself. "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail," hooted the Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz.

But Webb's suspicion wasn't so flaky. In fact, it had originated with the contras and their supporters. In one frank critique of the flailing contra war on March 17, 1986, Oliver North's emissary Robert Owen wrote, "The reality as I see it is there are few of the so-called leaders of the movement who really care about the boys in the field. THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM." [Capitalization in the original.] Though the contra war had been a major story of the 1980s, the elite Washington journalists seemed to know very little about it.

The Washington press corps also heaped abuse on the black community for supposedly believing in cock-eyed conspiracy theories. This theme of black paranoia and gullibility resonated as an echo through virtually every major-media story about the contra-crack controversy. Rarely had mainstream news outlets so openly mocked a major American ethnic or racial group.

The attacks were particularly unusual because the mainstream press acknowledged, grudgingly, that there was substantial truth to the broader allegations of contra complicity in the drug trade. That "has been well documented for years," conceded The Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post even recounted how two other contra leaders in Miami had accepted substantial sums of money and supplies from a major drug trafficker.

Bog of Bad Information

In public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, contra leader Eden Pastora admitted that his group, called ARDE, received money and helicopters from known drug traffickers. Still, the Washington news media separated the acknowledged broader truth of the contra-drug allegations from the specifics of the Mercury-News story.

Through that process somehow, the media could then dismiss the contra-drug allegations as unfounded. "Both The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have taken a look at the allegations and found them baseless," concluded Post columnist Richard Cohen in a typical summary of the controversy by late October.

By early December, the "bogus" contra-cocaine allegations were ending up in round-ups of kooky conspiracies. The Post's chic Style section, which helps set the city's pecking order, included Webb's story as an example of "a time besotted with Bad Information." Writer Joel Achenbach chastised the Mercury-News for implying "that the crack epidemic in urban America is a CIA plot," an allegation the series never made.

Achenbach went on to poke fun at "defenders of the series [who] are now, as we speak scouring the volcanic hills overlooking Managua, seeking more evidence." But Achenbach saw a profound responsibility for people like himself. "Bad Information is insidious because it looks so much like Good Information," he explained. "It takes an extremely practiced eye, a kind of controlled skepticism that never quite slides into abject nihilism, to spear Good Information from the thick bog of Bad."

These days -- even more than when Alfred McCoy published The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia in 1972 -- spearing that Good Information has been made immensely tougher by the strange new roles taken by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times.

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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