CIA Clears Self of Drug Charge
by David Corn
The Nation magazine, March 8, 1998
For the covert gang, the headlines were refreshing. "C.I.A.
Report Concludes Agency Knew Nothing of Drug Dealers' Ties to
Rebels," The New York Times announced. "C.I.A. Finds
No Significant Drug-Contra Tie," the Los Angeles Times proclaimed.
These and similar media declarations were prompted by the January
release of the agency's internal review of allegations, published
in a 1996 San Jose Mercury News series, that a California narcotics
ring had funneled millions of dollars in drug profits to the Nicaraguan
contrast The series, written by Gary Webb, suggested that this
one drug outfit was instrumental to the birth of the crack cocaine
epidemic. The allegations ignited an uproar. Members of Congress
and black talk-radio hosts demanded investigations. Now the inquiring
is done, or nearly so. Headlines aside, while this 149-page C.I.A.
report dismisses the most explosive portions of Webb's problematic
series, it also provides material showing that contras and drug
dealers did hobnob together, and that the contras ' patrons in
the U.S. government knew that and did little about it.
It is hardly shocking that the C.I.A.'s Inspector General
found no evidence that the agency was connected to Danilo Blandon
and Norwin Meneses, the Nicaraguan drug dealers featured in the
Mercury News "Dark Alliance" series. (The articles had
implied such a connection without offering proof, which the paper
later admitted in a mea culpa.) The C.I.A. reports that it located
no information to support the charge that Blandon and Meneses
peddled drugs to raise money for the contras; nor that the C.I.A.
had interfered with the prosecution of drug-related cases against
them. Then, too, the agency states that "Freeway" Ricky
Ross, a Los Angeles drug chieftain who figured prominently in
the newspaper series, told its investigators that he'd been a
crack peddler years before hooking up with Blandon, and Blandon
confirmed It. So, case closed? Not at all.
The C.I.A. promises a second report, on other allegations
of contra drug-trafficking- and there are contra-drug links more
substantial than those described in the Mercury News series. (Remember
Manuel Noriega's offer to bump off Sandinistas if the White House
would ~ clean up his coke-tainted reputation? Or drug O runners
winning U.S. contracts to haul supplies ~, to the contras?) But
even this first self-absolving ^_ ~ volume offers evidence that
there was a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the
contras, that the C.I.A. ignored reports of contra-drug involvement
and that the agency and the Justice Department colluded in limiting
a prosecution that threatened to expose one contra-drug link.
The report quotes Blandon as claiming he had no tie to the
C.I.A. and that he never sold cocaine on direct behalf of the
contras. But he did make other interesting statements: for example,
that he supplied roughly $40,000 to the contras and that his partner
Meneses gave a similar amount. In 1982, Blandon notes, he met
with contra leaders in Honduras. Afterward, when he was detained
at the Tegucigalpa airport by Honduran officials who discovered
that he was carrying $100,000, his contra friends interceded,
winning his release and the return of the cash (which was drug
money). That is, the contras helped-wittingly or not- a drug dealer
escape the authorities because he was a supporter. That same year,
according to Blandon, the contras' military chief, Enrique Bermudez,
asked him and Meneses to raise money for them, saying, "The
ends justify the means." Blandon maintains that Bermudez
did not know that he and Meneses were cocaine smugglers. But,
as the C.I.A.'s own cables noted, Meneses had been the narcotics
kingpin of Nicaragua when Bermudez was a high-level government
official, so Bermudez could be expected to know of Meneses' "means."
Blandon also says he attended a summit of contra leaders in Florida
in 1983 and financially assisted contra leader Eden Pastora (who,
by the way, acknowledges having received significant help from
another narcotics dealer).
All this is not proof of a contra-cocaine grand conspiracy.
But it provides further reason to conclude that the contra war
and the drug trade existed in all-too-close proximity to each
The C.I.A. report shows that the agency was hardly vigilant
in probing reports of contra-drug links. One 1986 C.I.A. cable
revealed that contra leader Fernando Chamorro was asked by Meneses
to "move drugs to the U.S." How did Chamorro deal with
this request? Did the C.I.A. pursue this lead? The report says
nothing further about it. In a similar instance, a 1982 C.I.A.
cable reported that "there are indications of links between
[a U.S. religious organization] and two Nicaraguan counter-revolutionary
groups.... These links involve an exchange in [the United States]
of narcotics for arms." The cable noted that representatives
of the major contra groups might have been participating in the
scheme. In response, C.I.A. headquarters, as reported in the review,
initially decided not to dig into the matter because U.S. citizens
might be involved. Then it decided to ask one of its foreign stations
to find out if such a plot was under way. The station replied
that contra leaders had recently traveled to the United States
for meetings, but that it had no further information. By all appearances,
the agency did little to ascertain the truth of the arms-for-drugs
charge. And there is no evidence that in these instances the C.I.A.
turned over information to the Drug Enforcement Administration
for further investigation.
The most damning portion of the C.I.A. report concerns the
"Frogman" case, a contra-drug story broken in 1986 by
the San Francisco Examiner and reprised by Gary Webb. In 1983
the Feds in San Francisco arrested fifty people and seized 430
pounds of cocaine. Two of the principals-Julio Zavala and Carlos
Cabezas were Nicaraguans who claimed their drug trafficking was
linked to the contrast The Inspector General's review found no
evidence of this. But the most intriguing aspect of this episode
involved about $37,000 seized at Zavala's safehouse by the F.B.I.
Zavala said the cash belonged to the contras, and he produced
letters written by two contra leaders to support his claim. The
U.S. Attorney's office was left with the problem of what to do
about the money. In 1984 U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello decided
that federal officers would travel to Costa Rica and take depositions
from the two contra leaders.
But the C.l.A., according to an agency cable, worried that
the relationship between Zavala and one of the contra leaders
"could prove most damaging" and that a "case could
be made that [C.I.A.] funds are being diverted by [C.I.A.] assets
into the drug trade." So the agency made a "discreet
approach" to the Justice Department, the cable reported.
Subsequently, the depositions were canceled and "at [the
C.I.A.'s] request the U.S. Attorney...agreed to return the money
to Zavala." To recap: The C.I.A. intervened in a law enforcement
matter to smother embarrassing exposure of a contra-drug link.
Suspiciously, the C.I.A. says it had a hard time determining precisely
who in the agency orchestrated the "discreet approach."
And-almost as an aside-the report notes that when Senator John
Kerry's subcommittee requested information on the Frogman case
in 1986, the C.I.A. refused to provide it and succeeded in obstructing
a major Congressional investigation.
The C.I.A. study is troubling. Obvious questions go unanswered.
In a matter-of-fact tone, it notes that several former senior
C.I.A. officers responsible for the contra operation declined
to cooperate with the Inspector General's review. The report takes
comfort in the finding that Blandon's and Meneses' drug transactions
were not "motivated by any commitment to support the Contra
cause." But motivation is not the key issue. It appears that
the Mercury News did go too far, and that Blandon and Meneses
did not sell millions in drugs specifically for the contrast The
implication of the series-that the C.I.A. and the contras bore
responsibility for the crack epidemic-was over the top. But the
real story, as confirmed by the C.I.A. report, is that the cocaine
business and the secret war in Nicaragua intersected repeatedly.
Not in as cinematic a fashion as Webb portrayed it, but in more
subtle and routine ways. The question for the C.I.A. is, What
was done about that?
The next C.I.A. volume is supposed to consider this wider
topic. But it too will have to be read carefully. Unfortunately,
the C.I.A. has the review field to itself. The Justice Department
was scheduled to release a report of its own on this subject in
mid-December. Then it suddenly pulled the study, claiming that
the entire report could somehow compromise an ongoing criminal
matter. The Justice review was expected to look beyond the Mercury
News allegations and examine the possibility that prosecution
of drug cases in the eighties had been compromised because of
the Reagan Administration's support of the contrast
On a new Web site, the C.I.A. proclaims that "an informed
citizenry [is] vital to a democratic society." Indeed. There
are enough substantiations of a contra-drug overlap to support
public suspicion that the U.S. government perverted priorities
in pursuit of the contra war. The agency and Justice owe the citizenry
a full explanation. Thus, they should accede to a request from
the National Security Archive, a private nonprofit research group,
that they release the tens of thousands of documents gathered
for their reviews. The C.I.A. may judge itself innocent, but the
public should be able to examine the evidence.
and Third World