Media Focus on CIA's Cocaine Links
is Long Overdue
By Norman Solomon / Creators Syndicate

Sometimes, when a news story is too hot for national media but too significant to die, it gets buried alive. That's what happened a decade ago with investigative journalism that linked the CIA and cocaine trafficking. Now, more information is surfacing -- with a sizzle that could prove explosive.

During much of the 1980s, the San Jose Mercury News has just reported, a drug-dealing operation sold tons of cocaine to street gangs in Los Angeles and "funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency." That army was the Nicaraguan rebel force known as the Contras -- lauded as "freedom fighters" by President Reagan and many influential media pundits.

An extensive three-part series, published Aug. 18-20 by the Mercury News, maps a CIA drug network that "opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the `crack' capital of the world." After a 13-month investigation, staff reporter Gary Webb has reached some stunning conclusions:

* Thanks to the CIA's efforts, "the cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America -- and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy automatic weapons."

* The CIA arranged an alliance between "a U.S.-backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government" in Nicaragua and drug-dealers wielding machine guns in ghetto areas of Southern California.

* The Contra financiers "met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A." -- and "delivered cut-rate cocaine to the gangs through a young SouthCentral crack dealer."

* Today, "thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine -- a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army brought it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargainbasement prices."

Such reporting goes against the established media grain. While tracing the origins of crack cocaine as an urban blight, the Mercury News has implicated a U.S. intelligence agency run by affluent whites. That's a far cry from the usual themes that castigate poor blacks.

The new revelations add weight to prior accounts of CIA drug-running. Back in the mid-1980s, some journalists went out on a limb to expose CIA involvement while it was underway. Despite solid evidence, their stories withered on the media vine.

In December 1985, an Associated Press dispatch by Brian Barger and Robert Parry provided the first comprehensive look at Contra drug trafficking. But AP watered down the article before it went out, and national media follow-up was minimal.

More than a year later, in April 1987, the now-defunct CBS News program "West 57th" allowed TV viewers to learn about American drug pilots -- who flew weapons to Contra base camps in Honduras and returned to the United States with shipments of cocaine and marijuana. The broadcast provoked little media response.

On Capitol Hill that summer, Iran-Contra hearings avoided CIA and Contra links to large-scale cocaine smuggling. Yet, congressional panels had access to handwritten notes by Reagan administration official Oliver North, whose notebooks contained 543 pages with references to the drug trade. In one notation about Contra arms supplies, North wrote: "$14 million came from drugs."

Even after such excerpts from North's notes were made public, most news media bypassed the Contra-CIA-cocaine connection. The detour around the story became more extreme in 1988: The Senate's subcommittee on terrorism and narcotics, chaired by John Kerry, released an in-depth report that nailed the CIA for cocaine trafficking with the Contras. But media coverage was muddled and fleeting.

Even now -- more than 10 years after the first reports of Contra-CIA-cocaine ties -- the story remains largely buried. Lots of drug money financed the Contras as they killed and maimed thousands of innocent peasants in Nicaragua. Introduced to urban America by the CIA, crack continues to take its toll in our cities. And truth is still trying to reach the light of day.

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