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Undeterred, Waters Crusades for Answers

Politics: She pursues alleged CIA-crack link, presses anti-drug campaign.


BALTIMORE — As she crusades across the country, from hotel ballrooms to college campuses, from talk radio to the Internet, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) asks a series of troubling questions at almost every stop: "Who knew what? When did they know it? And how high did it go?"

For six months, she has been demanding answers to a controversial and disputed San Jose Mercury News series that suggested the federal government aided the spread of crack cocaine in the inner city.

Waters' questions imply a willingness to take the allegations further than even the Mercury News was prepared to go. Never mind that most of the news media and the political establishment months ago dismissed the CIA-crack link as overstated or unprovable. This is a Maxine Waters kind of issue: full of rage, full of history, easily grasped by many of her constituents, misunderstood by much of the outside world.

The story of how Waters has seized and run with the CIA allegations is a story of why a combative, polarizing, inspiring lone wolf is arguably America's most visible black politician.

She walks a tightrope. On one hand, she blames the government for somehow betraying its poorest citizens. "It doesn't matter whether [the CIA] delivered the kilo of cocaine themselves or turned their back on it to let somebody else do it," she said with cold deliberateness that built into an engaging rhythm two weeks ago at a Baltimore Urban League dinner. "They're guilty just the same."

On the other hand, she is trying to use the crack issue to mobilize those same citizens against the pitfalls of drugs. The allegations against the CIA matter, she says, because crack has so viciously undermined personal responsibility and exacerbated other social problems such as crime.

"You have to be stronger, you have to be better," she tells young audiences. "You can't do that if you're cracked out, you can't do it if you are alcoholed out."

Watching as Crack Ravages City

To understand why the 58-year-old Waters takes the CIA allegations so seriously, listen to her talk about an incident that happened in the 1980s, when crack was surging through the neighborhoods of her inner-city state Assembly district.

At the time, she said, she was involved in a job training program that provided $10 a day to men and women who finished the classes. The money was supposed to help out with incidental expenses. But often the money seemed to make it no further than the door of a neighborhood crack house.

Ultimately, she said, the program was paralyzed until the employment counselors and trainers confronted participants with the evils of drug addiction.

"We put up signs saying, 'I'm not going to give the crack man my $10 today,' " she said.

The lesson, to Waters, was that all the social programs so dear to liberals are meaningless unless drugs are eradicated.

"You can't talk about job training, teenage pregnancy, welfare reform or even communities turning themselves around until you talk about drugs," she said.

Last August, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Nicaraguan drug dealers Norvin Meneses and Danilo Blandon had set up one of the original cocaine pipelines in the early 1980s with a Los Angeles dealer named "Freeway" Ricky Ross and funneled millions in drug profits to the CIA-supported Contras. The newspaper suggested that the CIA either approved of the scheme or turned a blind eye as the pipeline ignited a cocaine epidemic that spread from South-Central Los Angeles to urban centers across the nation.

Eventually, Meneses landed in jail. His partner, Blandon, became a paid drug enforcement agent, participating in a sting that nabbed Ross, who is serving life in prison.

Other publications, including the Los Angeles Times, found significant lapses in reporting in the Mercury News series. For example, The Times found that the crack epidemic was triggered by myriad drug networks and that little money from the Nicaraguan drug dealers made its way back to the Contras. A preliminary report by the CIA also cleared the agency.

A Puzzle's Missing Pieces

But Waters was captivated--and enraged. The allegations touched a raw nerve with her and throughout communities like those in her 35th Congressional District, which includes Inglewood, Hawthorne, Gardena and part of South-Central Los Angeles. Through the 1980s, blocks had been devastated by the seemingly sudden influx of affordable, highly addictive crack cocaine. The Mercury News allegations, Waters said, provided the missing pieces to a puzzle many had been trying to figure out: Why was crack so easily available in the inner city?

"It made my heart pound," she said.

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