excerpts from the book
by Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan
University of California
Press, 1991, paper
In country after country, from Mexico and Honduras to Panama and
Peru, the CIA helped set up or consolidate intelligence agencies
that became forces of repression, and whose intelligence connections
to other countries greased the way for illicit drug shipments.
It has ... become more clear just how cynical were the government'
claims that the apprehension of Noriega would help constrain the
hemispheric drug traffic. Within a year of Noriega's ouster, U.S.
drug agents admitted that the Cali cartel had turned Panama into
a financial and logistics base for flooding North America and
Europe with cocaine. And U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton complained
in 1993 that Panamanian authorities had not arrested a single
person for the crime of money laundering in the three and a half
years after Noriega's capture in a bloody U.S. invasion.
These problems are of more than historical
interest, given that the problem of a U.S.-protected drug traffic
endures. Today the United States, in the name of fighting drugs,
has entered into alliances with the police, armed forces, and
intelligence agencies of Colombia and Peru, forces conspicuous
by their own alliances with drug traffickers in counterinsurgency
One of the most glaring and dangerous
examples is in Peru. Behind Peru's president, Alberto Fujimori,
is his chief adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, the effective head
of the National Intelligence Service, or SIN, an agency created
and trained by the CIA in the 1960s.'4 Through the SIN, Montesinos
played a central role in Fujimori's "auto-coup," or
suspension of the constitution, in April 1992, an event which
(according to Knight-Ridder correspondent Sam Dillon) raised "the
specter of drug cartels exercising powerful influence at the top
of Peru's government." Recently Montesinos has been accused
of arranging for an opposition television station to be bombed,
and in August 1996 an accused drug trafficker claimed that Montesinos
had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs.
According to an opinion column in the
New York Times by Gustavo Gorriti, a leader among the Peruvian
intellectuals forced into exile, "Mr. Montesinos built a
power base and fortune mainly as a legal strategist for drug traffickers.
He has had a close relationship with the CIA, and controls the
intelligence services, and, through them, the military."
In the New York Review of Books, Mr. Gorriti
spelled out this CIA-drug collaboration more fully:
In late 1990, Montesinos also began close
cooperation with the CIA, and in 1991 the National Intelligence
Service began to organize a secret anti-drug outfit with funding,
training, and equipment provided by the CIA. This, by the way,
made the DEA. . . furious. Montesinos apparently suspected that
the DEA had been investigating his connection to the most important
Peruvian drug cartel in the 1980s, the Rodriguez-Lopez organization,
and also links to some Colombian traffickers. Perhaps not coincidentally,
Fujimori made a point of denouncing the DEA as corrupt at least
twice, once in Peru in 1991, and the second time at the Presidential
summit in San Antonio, Texas, in February . As far as I
know, the secret intelligence outfit never carried out anti-drug
operations. It was used for other things, such as my arrest.
The San Francisco Chronicle also reported
from Mexican officials that "Vladimiro Montesinos .. and
Santiago Fujimori, the president's brother, were responsible for
covering up connections between the Mexican and Peruvian drug
Others have pointed to the drug corruption
of Peru's military establishment, which also receives U.S. anti-drug
funding. Charges that the Peruvian army and security forces were
continuing to take payoffs, to protect the cocaine traffickers
that they were supposed to be fighting, have led at times to a
withholding of U.S. aid. Such charges against Fujimori, Montesinos,
and the Peruvian military are completely in line with what we
have written in this book about Peru over the last two decades
The ongoing situation in Peru shows that
Washington's proclivity to tolerate, protect, and reinforce the
influence of Third World drug traffickers didn't die with the
end of the Reagan-Bush years. Indeed, the Clinton Administration,
guided by White House drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, has consistently
asked for large increases in counternarcotics aid to compromised
Latin American police and military forces. As a critical New York
Times editorial observed, "Until taking the drug czar job,
General McCaffrey was head of the United States army Southern
Command, which worked with Latin militaries and police to fight
cocaine. He knows that the overseas programs have succeeded largely
in pushing cocaine from country to country."
Such funding priorities must be repudiated.
The misnamed "War on Drugs," a pernicious and misleading
military metaphor, should be replaced by a medically and scientifically
oriented campaign geared toward healing this country's drug sickness.
The billions that have been wasted in military anti-drug campaigns,
efforts which have ranged from the futile to the counterproductive,
should be rechanneled into a public health paradigm, emphasizing
prevention, maintenance, and rehabilitation programs. The experiments
in controlled decriminalization that have been initiated in Europe
should be closely studied and emulated here.
A root cause of the governmental drug
problem in this country (as distinguished from a broader social
drug problem) is the National Security Act of 1947, and subsequent
orders based on it. These, in effect, have exempted intelligence
agencies and their personnel from the rule of law, an exemption
that in the course of time has been extended from the agencies
themselves to their drug trafficking clients. This must cease.
Either the president or Congress must proclaim that national security
cannot be invoked to protect drug traffickers. This must be accompanied
by clarifying orders or legislation that discourages the conscious
collaboration with, or protection of, criminal drug traffickers
by making it clear that such acts will constitute grounds for
Clearly a campaign to restore sanity to
our prevailing drug policies will remain utopian if it does not
contemplate a struggle to realign the power priorities of our
political system. Such a struggle will be difficult I and painful.
For those who believe in an open and decent America, the results
will also be rewarding.
The drug traffic should be visualized, not as a horizontal line
between producers and consumers, but as a triangle. At its apex
sit governments whose civilian and military intelligence agencies
recurringly afford defacto protection to drug kingpins beneath
them. In the United States as elsewhere, this vertical dimension
of protected trafficking has created windows of opportunity for
importing narcotics by the ton.
Our conclusion remains that the first
target of an effective drug strategy should be Washington itself,
and specifically its own connections with corrupt, drug-linked
forces in other parts of the world. We argued that Washington's
covert operations overseas had been a major factor in generating
changes in the overall pattern of drug flows into the United States,
and cited the Vietnam-generated heroin epidemic of the 1960s and
the Afghan-generated heroin epidemic of the 1980s as analogues
of the central concern of this book: the explosion of cocaine
trafficking through Central America in the Reagan years, made
possible by the administration's covert operation to overthrow
the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
Recent indictments, congressional hearings,
and news investigations into the shadowy Bank of Credit and Commerce
International indicate that the parallel we drew between Afghanistan
and Central America is even tighter than we dared suggest. In
both regions, BCCI appears to have gone out of its way to attract
drug money, facilitate arms transactions, and cater to the CIA,
all the while enjoying an extraordinary, if still unexplained,
degree of immunity from prosecution.
Thus the head of BCCI's Panama branch,
which as noted in Chapter 4 was a conduit of CIA funds to General
Manuel Noriega, was the son of a former director of intelligence
in Pakistan. Numerous sources confirm that the CIA (and Arab states)
used BCCI to move funds into the Afghan pipeline, and that the
bank was used in turn by corrupt Pakistani officials to launder
drug profits from the burgeoning heroin trade.
To be sure, denials have come from many
quarters. Acting CIA Director Richard Kerr, admitting that his
agency knew by the early 1980s that the bank "was involved
in illegal activities such as money-laundering, narcotics and
terrorism," insisted that the CIA used BCCI merely as a "transfer
point" for the routine movement of funds. And Pakistan's
finance minister, Sarti Asis, told the Financial Times of London
that although the bank did launder CIA contributions to the Afghan
rebels, "it was not even handling 1 percent of total drug
In Latin America, however, evidence is
indisputable that the bank moved aggressively to boost its share
of that region's total drug money. BCCI officers met with and
opened accounts for such major Colombian cartel leaders as Pablo
Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. The
bank established branches in such notorious drug centers as Medellin,
Cali and even Pablo Escobar's home town, Envigado. In Peru, it
opened an office in the Huallaga Valley, the center of that country's
coca production. In Florida, it handled accounts for some 200
drug traffickers and tax evaders. In all, according to estimates
by some U.S. sources, the bank laundered nearly $1 billion in
Colombian drug profits.'
At BCCI's Panama City branch, Noriega
deposited at least $33 million. Some of that money, as noted in
Chapter 4, came from the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
As part of the discovery process preceding the Noriega trial,
the CIA and U.S. Army admitted paying him $322,226 in cash and
gifts between 1955 (when, at the age of 19, he joined the Socialist
Party and began informing on its operations) and 1986.5 Much more
money apparently flowed through Noriega's hands and into BCCI
on behalf of the Panamanian Defense Forces.
Such connections may go far to explain
the otherwise baffling failure of law enforcement authorities
to crack down on the bank, despite indications as early as 1984
that it was laundering drug money. Informant tapes were mysteriously
"lost," leads were buried in the files, and when an
indictment finally came down in 1988, prosecutors accepted a plea
bargain that struck many critics as far too easy on the bank.
As Congressman Charles Rangel of New York put it, in releasing
a report on this record by the staff of the Crime and Criminal
Justice Subcommittee, "It wasn't just that BCCI was rumored
to be bad. It was that professional investigators in the agencies
had hard evidence that they were bad, and bad in a big way, and
nobody did anything about it "
Expressions of outrage at this failure-and
at outright stonewalling from such government departments as Justice
and Treasury-have come from as ideologically diverse sources as
President Reagan's Customs Commissioner, William Von Raab, and
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Former Customs
agent Robert Mazur, whose undercover work led to the bank's indictment
for money-laundering crimes in 1988, quit Customs in disgust at
its investigatory lapses and decried the Justice Department's
failure to follow up witnesses and records from that case. And
Senator John Kerry, whose subcommittee on narcotics and terrorism
is investigating BCCI as we write, has complained of Justice Department
obstruction in the provision of witnesses, conduct he is only
too familiar with from his earlier investigation of U.S. complicity
in the Central American drug trade of the 1980s.
Bureaucratic jealousy, bungling, and incompetence
and political interference from the bank's influential allies
no doubt explain some of this record of official misbehavior.
But it is hard to write off the claim of one U.S. intelligence
officer, quoted in Time magazine, that "if BCCI is such an
embarrassment to the U.S. that forthright investigations are not
being pursued, it has a lot to do with the blind eye the U.S.
turned to heroin trafficking in Pakistan." It is similarly
hard to write off the assertion of one senior bank executive,
Abdur Sakhia, that some kind of deal-perhaps related to the Iran-Contra
affair-was struck with the bank's founder, Aga Hassan Abedi, in
1985 to allow him entry to the United States after being blacklisted.
And, finally, it is hard to write off the suspicion that the sea
change in Washington's approach to BCCI, so closely parallel to
its change in relations with Noriega, was less a product of new
information than of shifting regional priorities, in particular
the abandonment in 1987 of the commitment to a military victory
by the Contras.
The political inspiration of Washington's
zigs and zags on matters of law enforcement is evident. from the
ongoing trial of Noriega in Miami for drug offenses, many of which
he is no doubt guilty of. Far from demonstrating the renewed commitment
of U.S. officials to waging a nonpartisan "war on drugs,"
however, the trial demonstrates the total subordination of that
war to politics. In order to justify the demonization of Noriega
and the 1989 invasion of Panama, the authorities have slashed
prison terms and restored millions of dollars of drug profits
to witnesses willing to take the stand against the man deprecated
by former cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder as "just another criminally
corrupt police officer."
The trial, eagerly awaited by some government
critics as a source of revelations about Reagan administration
complicity with Noriega, has been narrowly contained by prosecutorial
objections and judicial rulings barring most questions about the
Contras, George Bush, and related matters. Even so, one key government
witness, Floyd Carlton, testified that his associate in the cocaine
trade, Alfredo Caballero, organized arms shipments to the Contras
in 1983 and 1984." And Lehder, who also testified to the
complicity of Cuban and Nicaraguan leaders in the drug trade,
admitted (over the intense objection of prosecutors) that the
Medellin Cartel contributed some $10 million to the Contra cause.
Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that even
with Noriega removed from Panama, cocaine continues to pour through
that country. One Drug Enforcement Administration agent told the
General Accounting Office that the volume of cocaine transiting
Panama "may have doubled since Operation Just Cause."
The price of cocaine reached record lows there in mid-1991. Panamanian
reporters have had a field day exposing the links of President
Guillermo Endara (whose 1989 election campaign was financed in
part by the CIA) to notorious money-laundering banks. Costa Rican
authorities say that two-thirds of the cocaine transshipped through
their own country goes through Panama's Chiriqui Province and
is often protected by former Nicaraguan Contras.
Now that the Nicaraguan civil war is over,
more will surely emerge in years to come of the Contra-drug connection.
In November 1991, for instance, the chief of Nicaragua's National
Police Criminal Division announced the arrest of that country's
leading narcotics trafficker, Norwin Meneses, known as "El
Rey" (The King). Police seized 738 kilos of cocaine from
the ring, which intended to smuggle it to the United States through
El Salvador. The Meneses group reportedly had plans to export
4,000 kilos to the North American market. As discussed in Chapter
6, Meneses was at the center of one of the most sensitive U.S.
drug busts of the 1980s, the so-called Frogman seizure, which
(through a press leak) exposed his role in financing elements
of the Contras.
Whether new revelations will make any
more difference than the old ones to Congress, public opinion
or administration policy remains to be seen. Many law enforcement
professionals need no persuading to accept our thesis; Dennis
Dayle, former chief of an elite DEA enforcement unit, has said
for the record that "in my 30-year history in the Drug Enforcement
Administration and related agencies, the major targets of my investigations
almost invariably turned out to be working for the CIA."
Yet the notion that Washington is a big part of the problem continues
to meet with strong resistance in the major media, where evidence
of government complicity with international narcotics traffickers
is variously dismissed as unthinkable or as a mere "sideshow"
to more important factors in the drug market.
Signs of any new thinking about drug issues
in Congress are hard to find. The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination
of Robert Gates as CIA director by a vote of 64 to 31 on November
5, 1991, despite voluminous testimony suggesting that he lied
as to his ignorance of key matters in the Iran-Contra affair and
that he distorted the production of intelligence estimates to
serve the political ends of his boss, former Reagan campaign director
William Casey. In this respect, one critic testified that Gates
pushed the administration line on "narcoterrorism,"
which blamed drug trafficking on leftwing states and insurgent
movements (see Chapter 2). Accusing Gates of shopping for analysts
to make that case, Mel Goodman testified that "a senior analyst
was called in by Bob Gates and told that Bill Casey wanted a memo
that would link drug dealers to international terrorists. This
senior analyst looked at the evidence and couldn't make those
conclusions. The evidence wasn't there. He was told to go back
and look again. He did that. Said the evidence wasn't there. Gates
took the project away from him and gave it to another analyst.
I believe there is an ethical issue here." Gates admitted
asking analysts to look into accusations of a linkage between
traffickers and terrorists but said in his defense that three
separate agency analyses concluded any such linkage was weak.
Congress also shows few signs of challenging
the "war on drugs," in particular, President Bush's
"Andean Initiative" to send millions of dollars in aid
to the militaries of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Assistance to
these drug-corrupted forces often goes to fight not traffickers
but leftist guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers. The program
has been seriously challenged only in the case of Peru, which
the human rights group Americas Watch accused of having one of
the worst records in the world for "disappearances."
(The organization admits that the human rights record of the guerrilla
group Shining Path, which finances its struggle in part from cocaine
taxes, is at least as grisly as that of government forces.) Congress
showed enough concern over official abuses in late 1991 to hold
up $10 million in military aid earmarked for two army battalions
combating the Shining Path.
This limited dissent is not enough. The
administration's disastrous drug policies must be challenged,
both for traditional considerations of national security and basic
considerations of humanity. The United States cannot afford to
become enmeshed in counterinsurgency campaigns abroad, in Third
World jungles, nor at home in the streets of our cities. The social
cost of trying to reproduce for illicit drugs the conditions of
Prohibition is too high.
For half a century, starting with the challenge of fascism, America's
national security establishment has enjoyed the most important
guarantee of its influence, prestige, and claim on the national
treasury: a credible international threat. When Germany, Japan,
and Italy became America's allies, international communism took
their place as an enemy for almost four decades. Yet that menace
too has faded with the opening to China, détente, and now
the revolutionary political changes in Eastern Europe. And even
state-sponsored terrorism, once nominated by the Reagan administration
as a successor threat, today arouses little sustained indignation.
In the 1990s, the national security community
has finally found a new threat: narcoterrorism. The nation's enemy
number one today is drug abuse. Before the crisis with Iraq, nearly
two-thirds of the American people viewed it as "the most
important problem facing this country."' More Americans ranked
drugs an "extremely serious threat" to national security
than they did any other issue-including terrorism, the Persian
Gulf or Middle East conflicts, and the spread of communism in
Central America. Now that Mikhail Gorbachev has put a benign face
on America's traditional foe, the United States is beginning to
turn the weight of its power against this new evil, represented
above all by Colombia's cocaine cartels and their corrupt allies,
like former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega.
Drugs have played a role in American foreign
policy since the early part of the twentieth century. During the
Cold War, American leaders played the theme of the "Red dope
menace" in their propaganda against communist China, Castro's
Cuba, and, most recently, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. During
the past two decades, drug issues have also strained U.S. relations
with such noncommunist regimes as France, Turkey, Mexico, and
Today, however, the national panic over
crack has turned foreign drug enforcement into a new American
crusade. The popular frustration with America's failure to stop
the drug trade at home, despite government expenditures of more
than $10 billion a year, has prompted national leaders to demand
a dramatic escalation of enforcement abroad, up to and including
military intervention against foreign drug lords and peasant 7
cultivators. The "War on Drugs" is fast turning from
an overworked metaphor into a dangerous reality.
As early as 1982, Vice President Bush
and his aides began pushing to involve the CIA and U.S. armed
forces in the drug interdiction effort. In 1986, President Reagan
signed a directive acknowledging drugs as a national security
threat. In the summer of 1989, only a few months after taking
office as president, Bush built on that precedent with a secret
National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) expanding the role
of U.S. military forces in fighting the drug trade in Latin America.
In addition to increased financial aid, equipment, and training
for the military and police of the Andean countries, Bush authorized
wide-ranging missions by U.S. military special operations forces
in the drug-producing regions.
Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, branding
drugs a "direct threat to the sovereignty and security of
our country," ordered commanders to develop specific plans
for "operational support" of antidrug missions in Latin
America and vowed to ensure a "more aggressive and robust"
U.S. military presence in the Andes. And with the invasion of
Panama in December 1989, justified in part as an effort to capture
an indicted drug suspect (General Noriega), the Bush administration
dramatically demonstrated the terms on which it is willing to
fight the new drug war.
A few years ago, such a policy would have
stirred dire warnings from politicians, the press, and the public
of the danger of another Vietnam-style entanglement. Indeed, the
prospects of victory are no better in the Andes, where unforgiving
terrain, hostile peasants, and well-financed traffickers mistake
a deadly mix. But memories today are short and passions are high.
... the long and sordid history of CIA involvement with the Sicilian
Mafia, the French Corsican underworld, the heroin producers of
Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle, the marijuana- and cocaine-trafficking
Cuban exiles of Miami, and the opium smuggling mujaheddin of Afghanistan
simply reinforces the lesson of the Contra period: far from considering
drug networks their enemy, U.S. intelligence organizations have
made them an essential ally in the covert expansion of American
New York Times reported in 1988
"The Reagan administration has done
little to press the guerrillas to curb the drug trade, according
to se or State Department and intelligence analysts."
a Reagan administration official who follows Afghanistan closely,
emphasizing that narcotics are relatively a minor issue in the
context of policy toward the Afghan guerrillas
"We're not going to let a little
thing like drugs get in the way of the political situation...
And when the Soviets leave and there's no money in the country,
it's not going to be a priority to disrupt the drug trade.''
For the CIA to target international drug networks, it would have
to dismantle prime sources of intelligence, political leverage,
and indirect financing for its Third World operations.
On April 13, 1989 ... the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics,
and International Operations finally confirmed what the administration,
Congress, and much of the media had attempted to dismiss: the
Contra-drug connection was real.
The subcommittee's 144-page report covered
drug corruption in the Bahamas, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti,
and Panama, but it focused on the Contras and related drug-trafficking
in Honduras and Costa Rica. In several hundred pages of appendices,
the report supplemented the subcommittee's four-volume hearing
record with FBI and Customs Service documents, news stories, witness
depositions, and a chronology of the investigation and attempts
to interfere with it.
The subcommittee, led by Sen. John Kerry
of Massachusetts, found that drug trafficking had pervaded the
entire Contra war effort. "There was substantial evidence
of drug smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual
Contras, Contra suppliers, Contra pilots, mercenaries who worked
with the Contras, and Contra supporters throughout the region,"
the subcommittee concluded. Far from taking steps to combat those
drug flows, "U.S. officials involved in Central America failed
to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war efforts
against Nicaragua," the investigation showed. "In each
case," the report added, "one or another agency of the
U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either
while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter." Moreover,
"senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that
drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras' funding problems."
Narcoterrorism as Propaganda
President Reagan came to office with a
mission: to roll back the frontiers of world communism, especially
in the Third World. Almost from the start he singled out Nicaragua
as a dangerous base of Soviet bloc operations in the Western Hemisphere.
But with the American public's anticommunist sentiments dulled
by a decade of détente and memories of Vietnam, how could
his administration revive support for combating the Nicaraguan
challenge to U.S. power and credibility?
One answer was to invent a new threat,
closely associated with communism and even more frightening to
the public: narcoterrorism. The term, rarely well defined by its
users, encompasses a variety of phenomena: guerrilla movements
that finance themselves by drugs or taxes on drug traffickers,
drug syndicates that use terrorist methods to counter the state's
law enforcement apparatus, and state-sponsored terrorism associated
with drug crimes.' But in the hands of administration officials,
the epithet served a more political than analytical purpose: to
capitalize on popular fear of terrorists and drug traffickers
in order to mobilize support for foreign interventions against
leftist regimes. As two private colleagues of Oliver North noted
in a prospectus for a propaganda campaign to link the Sandinistas
and drugs, "the chance to have a single issue which no one
can publicly disagree with is irresistible."
Administration spokesmen drove the lesson
home through sheer repetition. In January 1986, President Reagan
said, "The link between the governments of such Soviet allies
as Cuba and Nicaragua and international narcotics trafficking
and terrorism is becoming increasingly clear. These twin evils-narcotics
trafficking and terrorism-represent the most insidious and dangerous
threats to the hemisphere today." A year and a half earlier,
Secretary of State George Shultz decried the "complicity
of communist governments in the drug trade," which he called
"part of a larger pattern of international lawlessness by
communist nations that, as we have seen, also includes support
for international terrorism, and other forms of organized violence
against legitimate governments." Elliott Abrams, assistant
secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, told a meeting
of the Council on Foreign Relations in 1986 that "sustaining
democracy and combating the 'narcoterrorist' threat are inextricably
The term "narcoterrorism" also
soon became an essential adjunct to the doctrine of national security
developed by right-wing Latin American military forces to rationalize
their repressive domestic activities and seizures of power. At
the Fourteenth Bilateral Intelligence Conference of the general
staffs of the Argentine and Bolivian armies, held in Buenos Aires
in late August 1988, military leaders concluded that "the
relationship between drugs and subversion, which generates narcoterrorism,
has become part of the East-West confrontation, with a real impact
on the national-international security of the West." They
declared that "narcoterrorism now constitutes a means of
Revolutionary War" and that "the MCI [International
Communist Movement] uses narcoterrorism as a socio-ideological
procedure for provoking social imbalances, eroding community morale,
and corrupting and disintegrating Western society, as part of
the strategic objective of promoting the new Marxist order."
Combating narcoterrorism would justify repressing a whole range
of familiar enemies: "trade unions, religious, student groups,
etc." Above all, it would require granting more resources
and political power to military elites: "The intervention
of the armed forces in this context has been considered necessary,
given that the increase in drug trafficking surpasses individual
The Reagan administration's calculated
use of the term was often challenged by leftist critics, academics,
and even the Drug Enforcement Administration, which cautiously
demurred from the most inflammatory accusations against Nicaragua,
Cuba, and Latin American guerrilla movements. But White House
officials went beyond exaggerating the truth to make their case
against Marxist movements and regimes: they sponsored narcoterrorists
of their own within the Contras in the course of waging ,"covert"
war against Nicaragua.
The distortion of the Contras' ostensibly
democratic cause by drugs and terrorism owed much to the practices
of three important influences on the anti-Sandinista rebels: militant
CIA-trained Cuban exiles, the Mexican drug Mafia, and Argentine
military intelligence agents. Their methods, both in war and in
crime, indelibly tainted the Contras' own cause. In short, the
Contra-drug link, supported by Washington, exemplified the very
narcoterrorist threat that Assistant Secretary Abrams called an
enemy of democracy.
One symptom of something deeply wrong with U.S. drug enforcement
is that since World War II it has been promoted with the aid of
blatant lies. In the 1950s Harry Anslinger, the head of the U.S.
Federal Bureau of Narcotics, wrung his annual appropriations from
Congress with the accusation, which he knew to be groundless,
that the U.S. was being flooded with a tide of "Yunnan opium"
from Communist China, "the uncontrolled reservoir supplying
the worldwide narcotics traffic." Only in the 1970s, as the
United States moved towards normalization of relations with Beijing,
did a U.S. narcotics agent admit that "there was no evidence
for Anslinger's accusations."' Thus the U.S. media have faced
a special problem when reporting on the international drug trade.
They are accustomed to drawing their stories from government sources;
what should they do when they suspect these sources are Iying?
In the 1980s the Eisenhower-Anslinger
propaganda about Red Chinese heroin was replaced by the Reagan-North
propaganda about Red Sandinista cocaine. The climax of this campaign
was Reagan's charge in a nationally televised broadcast "that
top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply involved in drug
trafficking." Reagan made this charge on March 16, 1986,
only a few hours after the San Francisco Examiner, in a frontpage
story, had revealed the involvement of Contra leaders and supporters
in the Frogman cocaine bust three years earlier. Reagan's charges
reached a national audience; the Examiner's story remained a local
It was a sign of improvement in U.S. narcotics
enforcement that Reagan's charge was almost immediately undercut
by the Drug Enforcement Administration:
Reporters who called the DEA public affairs
office after Reagan's speech were read a brief statement, which
said: "DEA receives sporadic allegations concerning drug
trafficking by Nicaraguan nationals. One DEA investigation resulted
in the indictment of the Nicaraguan aide to the minister of the
interior [i.e., Federico Vaughan]; no evidence was developed to
implicate the minister of the interior or other Nicaraguan officials."
The statement earned the DEA an unwelcome headline in The New
York Times: "Drug Agency Rebuts Reagan Charge." DEA's
stock sank at the White House. The Washington Times attacked [DEA
Administrator] Lawn's senior spokesman, a respected former journalist,
Robert Feldkamp, for failing to support the president.
At the same time, Vice President Bush
was helping spread the administration story, also discounted by
DEA Chief Lawn, that Nicaragua, as well as the Medellin cartel,
had inspired the 1985 attack by M-19 guerrillas against the Colombian
Despite the lessons of Watergate, the
methods and protocol of United States journalism are not well
equipped to handle government spokesmen who are out to peddle
lies. It is true that establishment media, which have longer-lived
reputations to worry about than do politicians, do not connive
willingly at these lies; but as the government is the usual source
for political journalism in Washington, the establishment media
are reluctant to find themselves at odds with it.
... the media do not set their own investigative agendas independently,
but operate as part ... of the political establishment.
As a journalist with a good Iran-Contra reporting record told
us, "I had the Oliver North story for two years before it
broke, but never ran it. Ollie was my best Washington source."
... it is the journals with the highest national reputations,
such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, that find
it hardest to undermine their government sources, at least when
the story concerns drugs and the U.S. intelligence community.
The timidity of Congress in challenging administration big lies
on the Contra drug issue rises in no small part from the fear
of contradiction and criticism from the powerful establishment
media, whose interests all too frequently parallel those of the
The Kerry report, although cautious, had come up with significant
and disturbing facts, such as that "the State Department
selected four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers
to supply humanitarian assistance to the Contras," that when
one of these companies in Honduras (SETCO) came under suspicion,
along with its allies in the Honduran military, "the DEA
office in Honduras was closed in June of 1983," or that "Five
witnesses testified that [John] Hull ['a central figure in Contra
operations on the Southern Front'] was involved in cocaine trafficking."
Both the drug traffic and the CIA's relationship
to it were prominent public issues when the report was released
in April 1989. Yet the New York Times story on the Kerry report
was buried on page 8; the Washington Post's on page 20. Neither
John Hull nor the closure of the DEA office was mentioned at all;
the State Department story was mentioned only briefly. Thus stories
that the Times and Post had never told continued to be excluded
from their columns.
The Post in particular devoted far less
space to the accounts of Contra involvement ("The report
concluded that there was 'substantial' evidence of drug smuggling
through the Nicaraguan war zone and that combatants on both sides
were involved") than to the subcommittee report's own disclaimers:
"The report acknowledges that widely publicized allegations
that high-level contras were directly involved in the drug trade
could not be substantiated. The report also states that one of
the Contras' chief accusers, convicted money launderer Ramon Milian
Rodriguez, failed a lie detector test and was found to be 'not
truthful.' Another widely quoted contra accuser, Richard Brenneke,
never had the Central Intelligence Agency connections he claimed
and was found to be otherwise unreliable as well, the report said."
Thus the report's twenty-five pages of documentation on the Contras
were reduced to a tepid half sentence, while three pages of disclaimers
about minor, irrelevant witnesses were given three full sentences.
The Times and the Post, like the Iran-Contra
Committees, were also circumspect in investigating the recurring
deals of Oliver North and Richard Secord with drug-linked international
arms brokers, such as Manucher Ghorbanifar, Sadeg Tabatabai, and
Manzer al-Kassar. Here the press and Congress, so shrill in their
demands for a "real war" against drugs, were not covering
up for the CIA (which had recommended against dealing with Ghorbanifar);
they were covering up for these drug traffickers themselves.
In the same way, Jack Terrell's revelations
about the drug aspects of North's illegal Contra support activities,
as they slowly found their way into the mainstream U.S. press,
were never fully covered. The Washington Post ran one story about
how more than $100,000 from Secord's IranContra bank accounts
had been spent on Robinette efforts against Terrell and others
involved in the Christic Institute lawsuit against Secord, a story
based largely on Terrell's allegations. But the more such stories
proliferated, the more obvious it became that the establishment
press was avoiding three central facts: (1) Terrell had told the
FBI and other government agencies about major drug smuggling by
Contra supporters; (2) the FBI was engaged by North to harass
and silence Terrell, an FBI source, along with his political allies;
and (3) North's ability to engage the FBI in silencing one of
its own witnesses depended on the secret counterterrorism powers
of the Operations Sub-Group. (When the Democrats of the Iran-Contra
Committees came to issue their report, they too, in their extended
treatments of the Terrell story, suppressed these three facts.)
Intrinsic and Exotic Pressures for Media
Conformity on Drugs
Undoubtedly this reluctance to publish
arises in part from the phenomenon of pack journalism we have
already described, which the press itself has recognized. As the
Los Angeles Times once observed in a front-page story,
Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy once likened
reporters to blackbirds on a telephone wire-when one lands, they
all land, he said; when one takes off, they all take off. Nowhere
is this phenomenon more pervasive than in Washington.... "Washington
is more susceptible to pack journalism than any place I've been,"
says John Balzar, a political writer for the Los Angeles Times.
"I've watched reporters go through the agonies of hell because
their stories differed slightly from their colleagues'."
. . . "It seems paradoxical to say that competition produces
uniformity, rather than diversity," says Howell Raines, Washington
bureau chief of the New York Times, but that's exactly what often
happens in Washington. One explanation: Washington journalists
have many of the same sources, sources who have their own vested
interests. They are government aides and spokesmen who function
much as political aides and consultants do in a campaign; they
are "spin doctors," ready to tell the reporters and
commentators just what each event "really means. "
In defense of the media, one can point
to the unique propaganda campaign mounted by the Reagan administration
on behalf of the Contras, with the help of U.S. tax dollars. This
campaign itself has been effectively covered up:
Congressional investigators [for the
Iran-Contra Committees] did draft a chapter about the domestic
side of the scandal for the Iran-contra report, but it was blocked
by House and Senate Republicans. Kept from the public domain,
therefore, was the draft chapter's explosive conclusion: that,
according to one congressional investigator, senior CIA covert
operatives were assigned to the White House to establish and manage
a covert domestic operation designed to manipulate the Congress
and the American public.... The Administration was indeed running
a set of domestic political operations comparable to what the
CIA conducts against hostile forces abroad. Only this time they
were turned against the three key institutions of American democracy:
Congress, the press, and an informed electorate.
... author Mark Hertsgaard that the aberrations and excesses of
the Reagan years are unfortunately outgrowths of a more fundamental
problem: "that the press was part of, and beholden to, the
structure of power and privilege in the United States." Former
Newsweek reporter Bob Parry concurs that when any administration
defines its policy priorities so clearly, most media executives
are happy to play ball: "In Washington, there is a correspondence
between people who run news organizations and people in government.
There is this sense of wanting to be respected.... [Drug] stories
raise too many questions and don't serve the 'national interest.'
That is more important to these executives than selling magazines
or newspapers. Many news editors and executives are more interested
in being respected at cocktail parties than selling newspapers."
Others have pointed to economic as well
as psychological bonds that link media chiefs to others with power.
As ABC's Sam Donaldson acknowledged in
his autobiography: "The press, myself included, traditionally
sides with authority and the establishment." It is hard to
see how it could do otherwise; the press was itself a central
part of the American establishment. According to Ben Bagdikian's
The Media Monopoly, a mere fifty large corporations owned or controlled
the majority of media outlets in the United States . . . when
Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981. By the time Bagdikian published
a new edition of his book in 1987, mergers and acquisitions had
shrunk the previous fifty down to twenty-nine. Half of these media
moguls ranked among the Fortune 500-itself an elite club whose
members, while numbering less than 1 percent of all industrial
corporations in the United States, nevertheless accounted for
87 percent of total sales.
Herman and Chomsky also focus on the wealth
of the mass media, and the ways in which they "are closely
interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major
corporations, banks, and government." This corporate analysis
of media oligopoly can easily be oversimplified. Although the
media as a whole have been affected by their growing concentration
of ownership, the behavior of particular institutions cannot be
predicted by their size. Large newspaper chains like Hearst and
KnightRidder, with relatively independent Washington bureaus,
have collectively a far better record on the drug issue than the
New York Times and the Washington Post, which by the yardstick
of corporate wealth are smaller. But Hearst and Knight-Ridder
newspapers have little circulation among the elites of Washington
and New York.
It is true that during Vietnam and Watergate
the press had begun to criticize (even if for establishment reasons)
the political performance of the U.S. power structure it represented.
But this brief drama had led to a prompt backlash for which the
academic as well as financial establishments must share responsibility.
"The most important new source of
national power in 1970, as compared to 1950, was the national
media," Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor of political
science and frequent government consultant, wrote in 1975. Huntington
was one of dozens of scholars hired to explore the theme of "the
governability of democracy" for the Trilateral Commission,
a private group founded by banker David Rockefeller and composed
of highly influential business, political and academic figures
from the United States, Western Europe and Japan. It was the Trilateral
Commission's view that the United States suffered from an "excess
of democracy" which prevented the country from making the
difficult and painful choices needed to set things right again.
On the specific topic of the press, Huntington asserted, "There
is . . . considerable evidence that the development of television
journalism contributed to the undermining of governmental authority."
Backed by large corporate foundations, right-wing think tanks
and other representatives of the American power structure, the
attack on the press seemed aimed at convincing both the press
itself and the public at large that journalists were out of step
with the rest of the country.
In the 1980s, the United States press
was open to voices of dissent on policy, but not to questions
about the fundamental legitimacy of institutions accused of systematically
breaking the law. It is chilling to recognize the extent to which
this defense of the status quo entailed, time after time, a protective
cover-up of the United States security system's involvement with
international drug traffickers, its supposed enemies.
The history of official toleration for or complicity with drug
traffickers in Central America in the 1980s suggests the inadequacy
of traditional "supply-side" or "demand-side"
drug strategies whose targets are remote from Washington. Chief
among these targets have been the ethnic ghettos of America's
inner cities (the demand side) and foreign peasants who grow coca
plants or opium poppies (the supply side). Experience suggests
instead that one of the first targets for an effective drug strategy
should be Washington itself, and specifically its own support
for corrupt, drug-linked forces in the name of anticommunism.
Since the 1940s these government intelligence
connections have opened up unsupervised shipping and plane communications
between the United States and drug-growing areas and conferred
protection on drug traffickers willing to ally themselves in the
war against communism- a process the Kerry subcommittee referred
to as "ticket punching."' These conditions in turn have
created windows of opportunity for drug smugglers to flood America's
domestic market with their products.
Such a window was opened wide to cocaine
smugglers in Honduras by Washington's support of the Nicaraguan
Contras in the 1980s. The resulting "Honduran connection"
was built around trafficker allies in the Honduran military, who
provided essential support to the Reagan administration's Contra
program. Honduras in these years accounted for 20 percent or more
of all the cocaine smuggled into the United States. Costa Rica,
another center of Contra activity and official corruption, accounted
for another 10 percent or more. And Panama, with the CIA-protected
Noriega at its helm, supplied drugs, pilots, and banks to service
The Contra drug connection arose in the
context of other drug-related covert operations conducted since
the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, which created
the legal justification for a national security bureaucracy that
evaded normal constraints of law and congressional review. The
cumulative history of such connections suggests that changes in
politics, as much as changes in either demand or supply, have
driven shifts in the overall pattern of drug flows into the United
One clear example is the so-called heroin
epidemic of the late 1960s, which followed a decade and a half
of CIA collaboration with opium-smuggling gangs and drug-corrupted
regimes in the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. Historian
Alfred McCoy noted that this relationship sparked a "takeoff"
in the Southeast Asian opium trade in the 1950s, with Burma's
production growing tenfold and Thailand's even more. The addition
of American troops and the disruption of the French Connection
supplied the conditions for an explosion in heroin shipments across
The revival of covert operations under
Reagan was accompanied by the dramatic expansion of another traditional
opium region: Southwest Asia's "Golden Crescent." In
1979, the region was not a major heroin supplier to the U.S. market;
the drug was virtually unknown in Pakistan. The Afghan war changed
all that. By 1984, the year Vice President Bush (Reagan's drug
czar) graced Pakistan with an official visit, the border area
with Afghanistan supplied roughly 50 percent of the heroin consumed
in the United States, and 70 percent of the world's high-grade
heroin; and there were 650,000 addicts in Pakistan itself. Heroin
was shipped out in the same Pakistani army trucks that brought
in covert U.S. aid to the Afghan guerrillas. The only high-level
heroin bust in Pakistan was made at the insistence of a Norwegian
prosecutor; none was made at the instigation of narcotics officers
in the U.S. Embassy.
The Central America drug experience in
the 1980s, in short, was not an anomaly but part of a long-standing
pattern of intelligence alliances, military intervention, and
official corruption. It is a pattern that shows no sign of abating.
Under these conditions, the strategy of further militarizing the
societies of Latin America promises to be utterly counterproductive,
not only for controlling drugs but also for fostering democracy.
Surely the latter objective should stand higher in the priorities
of both North and South America. It will be achieved not through
wholesale destruction of peasant economies and drug wars but rather
through strengthening civilian polities and economies.
Washington could better help Latin America
by looking more at home than abroad for ways to reduce drug abuse.
Rather than export its crime problem, America should start exporting
the example of dealing more humanely with the social, psychological,
and medical issues of drug use. As Colombian President-elect Cesar
Gaviria said in July 1990, "The demand for drugs is the engine
of the trafficking problem. If the United States and the industrial
countries don't get a way to reduce consumption, we will not solve
the problem. It doesn't matter how much we work against the trafficking
of drugs, how many lives we lose. It doesn't matter how great
our effort, the problem will be there. The United States and industrialized
countries need a way to reduce the consumption of drugs."
Instead of addressing the root causes
of America's drug demand, however, during the 1980s about 70 percent
of federal drug spending went to law enforcement, which even enthusiasts
admit can interdict only a small fraction of total drug supplies.
Spending priorities must be reversed if any progress toward social
healing is to begin. Drug education and support for expanded treatment
are essential. So too are broader (if more challenging) programs
to rebuild broken communities that breed despair, escapism, and
crime. Ultimately, the United States must begin to consider, and
experiment with, proposals to take the crime out of drug markets
through controlled legalization.
No approach will succeed, however, without
urgent political action to end Washington's own complicity with
drug traffic. Both Congress and the media, institutions that have
served executive power more than they have challenged it, must
show more courage. They must simultaneously judge administration
foreign policies more critically and exercise more restraint in
milking the drug issue for votes and sales. Neither institution
is likely to reform entirely from within; only an informed and
demanding public can push them to respond as the nation needs
War on Drugs