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Dead End

DARK ALLIANCE: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion;\o7 By Gary Webb; (Seven Stories Press: 548 pp., $24.95)\f7

WHITEOUT: The CIA, Drugs and the Press; \o7 By Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair; (Verso: 240 pp., $24.95)\f7

January 24, 1999|MICHAEL MASSING | Michael Massing is the author of "The Fix."

Gary Webb is a man on a mission. The series he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News two years ago alleging that the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras helped ignite the nation's crack explosion set off its own outburst of indignation and dismay. Radio talk shows burned up long hours discussing the story, and the Mercury News' Web site received more than 1 million hits a day. Both California senators wrote CIA Director John Deutch demanding an inquiry, and Deutch eventually agreed to conduct one. Webb seemed well on his way to winning a Pulitzer.

Then came the counterattack. The Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post ran long articles questioning Webb's findings. Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos, conducting his own investigation, decided to run a front-page column backing off the series. Webb was exiled to a distant suburban bureau and then left the paper. Seething at the treatment he'd received, he determinedly set out to vindicate himself. The result is "Dark Alliance," a densely researched, passionately argued, acronym-laden 548-page volume. Its combative, unyielding tone is apparent from the first page. " 'Dark Alliance,' " Webb writes, "does not propound a conspiracy theory; there is nothing theoretical about history. In this case, it is undeniable that a wildly successful conspiracy to import cocaine existed for many years, and that innumerable American citizens--most of them poor and black--paid an enormous price as well."

Is "Dark Alliance" more history or conspiracy theory? To answer this, it's necessary to assess the book's three main claims: that the Nicaraguan Contras were involved in drug trafficking; that the CIA knew about, condoned and even encouraged this trafficking; and finally that this trafficking helped set off the crack epidemic in South-Central Los Angeles and, by extension, the rest of the country. Webb focuses on the activities of two Nicaraguan traffickers operating in the United States: Norwin Meneses, an alleged importer of cocaine from the Cali cartel; and Danilo Blandon, Meneses' main distributor in Los Angeles. Relying on court documents, interviews with undercover agents and a meeting with Meneses himself in a Nicaraguan prison, Webb contends that both men supported the Contras and gave them part of their trafficking revenues at a time when that group was strapped for cash. Though the sums involved are in question--Webb puts the figure in the millions of dollars, his critics in the tens of thousands--he seems on solid ground in arguing that money from Nicaraguan traffickers ended up in Contra coffers. This also happens to be Webb's least original point; in the late 1980s, congressional hearings led by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) firmly established connections between the Contras and drug traffickers.

As to how much the CIA knew about or approved of these activities, Webb notes that Blandon and Meneses met with prominent Contra leaders like Enrique Bermudez and Adolfo Calero, both of whom were on the CIA payroll. He also describes the activities of a number of shadowy figures who, while supplying arms and other assistance to the Contras, seemed to have been smuggling drugs as well. In no case, however, does Webb demonstrate that the CIA was involved in or sanctioned these activities. What does seem clear, from Webb's account and the CIA's own investigation, is that many agency officials heard allegations of Contra-linked drug activity but did little to intervene. As CIA Inspector Gen. Fred Hitz told Congress in 1998 (as quoted by Webb), "There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity."

This, to Webb, is shocking. Of one Contra faction involved in drug smuggling, for instance, he writes, "why the CIA was so eager to promote such a drug-tainted organization as UDN-FARN is one of the enduring mysteries of the Contra War." This seems naive. In Central America in the 1980s, the CIA had one overriding goal--defeating communism--and everything else was secondary. In the drive to overthrow the Sandinistas, the CIA overlooked political assassinations, disappearances, massacres, torture and rape. Is it really so surprising, then, that it would overlook drug trafficking as well?

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