YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The CIA, Drugs and the Divide

September 25, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

Gretchen beams a smile at us. She is sitting behind soundproof glass in the producer's cage at KABC radio. She presses a button and her voice comes floating into the studio. "You got 'em fired up, Leo," she says.

Leo does. The phone boards are blinking furiously. Leo Terrell of Terrell and Katz, the midday talk show team, simply shrugs. It wasn't so hard, he says. All he had to do was string together the words "CIA, drugs and South-Central," and wait for the inevitable.

For nearly a month now the phenomenon has been building. Ever since the San Jose Mercury News ran a series of stories claiming that the CIA-backed Contra movement peddled the first crack cocaine to South-Central in the 1980s, the ether of radio and television has been filled with talk of it. The fact that the series did not claim the CIA instigated or even knew about the drug trading has not diminished the phenomenon. The talk, the rage and denunciations keep going and going.

On Monday, I came to sit with Terrell as he opened the phones one more time to what he calls "the story that won't go away." Terrell himself is a black civil rights attorney who got his start in the commentator business with the O.J. trial. On the radio show he likes to spread his subjects around, not concentrating on race. But this issue, he says, is something special.

Terrell leans into the microphone. "The two opinions I want today are, first, do you believe that the CIA was involved in funneling drugs--cocaine!--into South-Central L.A.? And what would be the motivation of funneling the drugs into South-Central L.A. versus Ventura or Brentwood?"

"David" calls. The whole thing is deja vu, he says. The government fed drugs to South-Central for the same reason it experimented on black men with venereal disease after World War I. "We are expendable," he says.

"Martin" calls and identifies himself as a white man. Blacks should stop their bellyaching about being duped into taking drugs, he says. After all, they could have said no. Terrell asks him about the government's role. Oh, the government definitely fed drugs to South-Central, Martin says. "This is probably one of the most evil governments on the face of the Earth."

"Linneth" calls. She has an answer to the question of why the CIA chose South-Central rather than Ventura or Brentwood. "Population control," she says. "Also neocolonialism and world domination." Look at what they did to the Indians, she says. Look at what happened to the Chinese when the Brits introduced opium there. "We are repeating history," she says.

Of Terrell's two questions, the callers virtually ignore the first query of whether they believe the CIA had a role in bringing drugs to South-Central. That's because they regard it as a no-brainer: Of course the CIA was involved.

Thus, the callers were assuming the truth of an allegation that was never made by the original newspaper stories. The phenomenon had taken on a life of its own. And as with another phenomenon, the O.J. trial, it appears destined to mark the difference in the way black and white communities see the world.

With O.J., the wild and joyous celebration over the verdict by many blacks stood in great contrast to the shocked response by whites. By and large, blacks saw the O.J. trial as an elaborate frame-up. For them, the verdict was not evidence that the system "worked" but that the jurors had seen through the frame-up.

And so it goes with the CIA drug charges. The same stark contrast exists. For blacks who have seen pictures of South-Central in the 1940s, with its thriving black businesses and middle-class neighborhoods, the present state of ruin cannot help but inspire many questions. What terrible force or evil hand so destroyed its vitality?

No such force visited the San Fernando Valley or Beverly Hills. So was it the blacks themselves who wiped out their community after first building it up? Or did someone from the outside seek to destroy what the blacks had created?

For most whites, the notion of the CIA feeding drugs to South-Central to fund a distant revolution--and, incidentally, to destroy the black culture--seems outlandish and unacceptable. They tend to dismiss it in the same way they would dismiss the notion of their next-door neighbor creating a Frankenstein monster in the garage.

True enough, no evidence has irrefutably connected the CIA to the drug sales in South-Central. But the Mercury News stories have supplied evidence that the Nicaraguan Contras did, indeed, plan and carry out sales of crack cocaine in those neighborhoods at the beginning of the crack epidemic.

Taken on its own, that's bad enough. And since the CIA backed and financed the Contras during the early 1980s, the same period when the drug sales were taking place, that evidence, for some, will provide a damning connection to our own government.

But, in the end, it will not suffice. Too much remains unknown. We do not know how much cocaine the Contras sold, whether the amounts were huge or trivial. We do not know whether the Contra operatives were acting as freelancers or as members of a wide network. And we do not know whether anyone in the U.S. government, including CIA officials, knew that the sales were taking place.

With O.J. we will probably never know the answers to the essential questions. But in the case of the CIA and drugs, the answers are available from someone, somewhere. "David" and "Martin" and "Linneth" all would like to know. And with those answers, just maybe, the divide between us would grow a little smaller.

Los Angeles Times Articles