The Consortium

By Sam Parry

Despite denigration by several national newspapers, the controversy over the CIA's alleged tolerance of cocaine trafficking by Nicaraguan contra rebels in the 1980s still simmers. The topic bubbled up again in mid-December -- especially on black talk radio stations -- with a report by a media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which defended the original reporting on major cocaine trafficking by the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels as done by The San Jose Mercury-News.

The FAIR report, entitled "Snow Job: The Establishment's Papers Do Damage Control for the CIA," sharply criticized the relentless attempts by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times to debunk the Mercury-News series. That series, written by investigative reporter Gary Webb last August, had linked the contra cocaine shipments to the devastating spread of crack in Los Angeles and other American cities.

The crack-cocaine series sparked anger especially among African-Americans whose inner-city neighborhoods were devastated by the crack epidemic. But the series also drew heated denials from the CIA which insisted that there was no evidence to support the allegations while promising a thorough investigation. Currently, investigations are under way by the inspectors general at CIA and the Justice Department and by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The FAIR report, written by media critic Norman Solomon, criticized the three big national papers for trusting unnamed government sources while taking unfair pot shots at supposed sloppy journalism by the Mercury-News. "By November, a clear orthodoxy had taken hold," the report said. "Certain de rigueur phrases began appearing in news articles," accepting that the Mercury-News conclusions had been "widely challenged" or "discredited."

But the FAIR study found major holes in the big media's treatment of the story, particularly the acceptance of CIA denials from unidentified government sources. "There was not the slightest hint that such denials might be self-serving," the FAIR study noted.

When the big newspapers did identify sources, they often left out relevant information. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, quoted former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro as declaring that "there's no tendency to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. It's too sensitive." But the lengthy article ignored the fact that Cannistraro supervised the contras during the early 1980s -- when cocaine trafficking was allegedly occurring -- and then oversaw the CIA-financed Afghan rebels in the mid-to-late 1980s. The Afghan rebels were implicated in heroin trafficking during their war against Soviet forces just as many contra units have been cited as cocaine smugglers in government reports and news stories. Cannistraro's potential conflict in denying the drug allegations was relevant, the FAIR report contended.

The report also noted that sometimes the big newspapers even contested statements in the Mercury-News series that have long been well-established fact. The Washington Post, for example, mocked the Mercury-News for calling the contras the "CIA's army." But FAIR noted that the Mercury-News description was accurate. "The army was formed at the instigation of the CIA, its leaders were selected by and received salaries from the agency, and CIA officers controlled day-to-day battlefield strategies," the report observed. Plus, that characterization of the CIA's relationship to the contras was "fundamentally relevant to the story," FAIR's critique asserted.

"While the Mercury-News series could arguably be faulted for occasional overstatement," the FAIR report said, "the elite media's attacks on the series were clearly driven by a need to defend their own shoddy record on the contra-cocaine story -- involving a decade-long suppression of evidence." The report offered as a possible motivation for this "shameful record" the fact that The Washington Post and The New York Times had supported the contras.

But the intensity of the attacks on the contra-crack story suggested an even deeper protectiveness for the Establishment, FAIR believed. The major papers have a long history of coziness with "the nation's elites, with connections to the CIA that go back nearly to the agency's founding," FAIR observed.

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

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