In the 1980s, the CIA-backed contra rebels in Central America hobnobbed with drug-dealers, and the Agency and the Reagan administration, obsessed with ousting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, looked the other way. This is absolutely undeniable. In this past March, Frederick Hitz, then the inspector general of the CIA, testified publicly to Congress that the CIA did not "cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who (were) alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking." Yet his startling admission received practically no notice from official Washington and the national media, which instead were consumed with details (real and imagined) of L'Affaire Monica.
But when the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 ran a three-part series exposing links between contra associates and the Los Angeles crack trade in the 1980s, the major media did pay attention; they assaulted the articles written by reporter Gary Webb. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times each ran pieces critical of Webb's work. The Webb stories were hard to ignore, for they had ignited a firestorm. On black talk radio, hosts and callers decried a supposed conspiracy in which the CIA midwifed the birth of the crack industry. On Capital Hill, members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for investigation. The Mercury News web site, on which the series had been posted, received millions of hits. Webb had begat a national media event.
It had all begun in the summer of 1995, when Webb received a tip from the girlfriend of a drug dealer. Her honey was being tried, and a chief government witness against him was Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan who managed his own cocaine ring in California. In court proceedings, Blandon had claimed he had gotten into the coke business to raise money for the contras. Webb started investigating. He soon had evidence that Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses - a prominent contra supporter in California with an extensive criminal past in Nicaragua - had supplied cocaine to "Freeway" Ricky Ross, a pioneering crack kingpin.
The lead paragraph in the Webb series was a shocker: A Bay Area drug ring had "funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency." Webb noted that the contras were in league with "Uzi-toting 'gangstas' of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles" and that the drug dealers "met with CIA agents" while raising money for the contras via drug sales. The articles implied that Blandon was directly wired to the CIA and that Blandon and Meneses had been protected from prosecution because of their usefulness to the CIA.
Webb had a helluva story. But he botched parts of it. He produced little evidence that the Blandon-Meneses ring raised "millions" for the contras or that Blandon was linked to Langley. Consequently, newspapers that had neglected the contra-drug story in the 1980s now devoted much space to debunking Webb. Eventually, the editor of the Mercury News ran a column widely seen as a retraction, and Webb left the paper.
But Webb had committed a highly useful act. He had kicked open an old trunk and discovered it full of worms - real worms, ugly and nasty. He kept on investigating and produced a book that reflects the positives and negatives of the original series. In Dark Alliance, he fleshes out the drug operations of Blandon and Meneses, and he provides more evidence of their close association to the contras. (Meneses, for example, paid for early contra support events in California.) Webb also places this ring alongside other well-substantiated examples of contra-drug connections: a Honduran general convicted of selling cocaine to finance a murder plot who was supported by Oliver North and other Reagan officials; drug dealers winning U.S. government contracts to supply the contras; the National Security Council plotting with Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up strongman of Panama; the CIA interfering with a major drug prosecution that could reveal contra drug-dealing and embarrass the agency.
Webb reminds us that the Reagan-approved contra program attracted lowlifes and thugs the way manure draws flies. He guides the reader through a netherworld of dope-dealers, gunrunners, and freelance security consultants, which on occasion overlapped with the U.S. government. He entertainingly details the honor, dishonor and deals among thieves. (Sometimes the book reads like a hard-to-follow Russian novel, with a large cast of characters in a series of intricate episodes.) All in all, it's a disgraceful picture - one that should permanently taint the happy-face hues of the Reagan years.
Again Webb has trouble chasing the money and fails to thoroughly document how much dirty cash Blandon and Meneses steered to the contras. Was it as little as $80,000 or so, as CIA investigators claim Blandon told them? Or was it millions that were instrumental to the survival of the contras, as Webb implies but does not prove? Was Blandon's drug business originally set up as a cash-for-contras enterprise, as Webb depicts it? That's what Blandon has asserted. But there is evidence, as Webb notes, that Blandon may have been a drug entrepreneur years before he hooked up with Meneses. If so, that would cast doubt on his I-did-it-for-the-contras tale and make that claim sound more like an after-the-fact justification.
There are other problems with Webb's account. His threshold of proof is on the low side. In one instance, he passes on - seemingly with a straight face - the allegations of a drug dealer who claimed Vice President George Bush met with (and posed for a photo with) Colombian dealers to craft an agreement under which the traffickers could smuggle coke into America if they supplied weapons to the contras. And Webb is indiscriminating in his use of the term "CIA agent," making it appear as if Blandon and Meneses were dealing with James Bond-like officials of the CIA, when actually their contacts were Nicaraguan contras on the Agency payroll.
This may seem like hairsplitting. But it's important when evaluating the CIA's culpability. Webb demonstrates that the Agency collaborated with contras and contra supporters suspected of smuggling narcotics. But were Blandon and Meneses in cahoots with the Agency? The evidence only shows they were part of a dark community with which the CIA was merrily doing business. Another fuzzy point in the story is how Blandon and Meneses both ended up on the government payroll as snitches. Webb strongly hints this was due to their contra work.
But, again, the picture is too murky to come to any firm conclusions other than there was something funny about the government's relationship to this pair.
The book has flaws, but Webb deserves credit for pursuing an important piece of recent history and forcing the CIA and the Justice Department to investigate the contra-drug connection. Alas, the Justice Department has been sitting on its report for months. The CIA released one volume that maintained the Agency was not connected to Blandon and Meneses. But the report confirmed there had been a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the contras and that the CIA had ignored that. A second volume - one with a broader view of the contra-drug mess - is now being suppressed by the Agency.
With this book, Webb advances his newspaper series and supplies more muck to make a decent citizen cringe. While exploring this covert territory, Webb took a few wrong turns. But he succeeded in pushing a sleazy piece of the CIA's past into public light. The gang at Langley is still resisting coming clean, and these unholy alliances remain in the dark.