What did the CIA know and when did it know it?

November 06, 1996|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- A newspaper adage holds that if you can't match the other guy's scoop, knock it down.

I have been reminded of that old motto as I see how various other news organizations have reacted to reported allegations of links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan contras and the urban crack epidemic of the 1980s.

A three-part series in the San Jose Mercury News alleged in August that two Nicaraguan drug lords in the San Francisco Bay area launched the crack-cocaine epidemic in South Central Los Angeles in the early 1980s to raise ''millions'' for the CIA-backed contra war against the Marxist Sandinista government and that the agency either approved or looked the other way.

It was hardly the first time such charges have been raised. Books have been written about other CIA drug connections since the Vietnam era. The difference this time is the relentless pressure of alternative media like black talk radio and the Internet, where the Mercury News has been receiving tens of thousands of hits per day on its home page since posting the series, written by reporter Gary Webb, and additional backup documents and photographs.

Protests by black leaders, including a sit-in and arrests at CIA headquarters, have sparked new investigations by the CIA and the Justice Department and a reopening of Senate committee hearings held a Clarence Page

decade ago to investigate similar allegations.

Now the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have reported investigations of their own that knock down Mr. Webb's scoop. Among their findings are that Danilo Blandon and Norvin Meneses, the two contra-connected Nicaraguan drug dealers the Mercury News fingered, played a comparatively small role in the crack epidemic and probably no more than $50,000 of their cash went to the contras.

With that, I think the healthy competition of great newspapers is moving us toward answering the real question raised by the Mercury News' series, which undoubtedly exaggerated the role played by Messrs. Blandon and Meneses in launching the nation's crack epidemic. It was already launched by a variety of sources and ethnic nationals before they came along.

And, although the Mercury News series's logo depicted the CIA emblem behind a crack-cocaine pipe, it stopped short of claiming a deliberate conspiracy by government officials. As one Mercury News editor put it, Mr. Webb's investigation got to the CIA's door, but not inside.

Even so, the Post and Times conceded that many questions remain about possible ties between the government and at least part of the cocaine flow into this country in the 1980s. Significantly, the Los Angeles Times, while minimizing the significance of Messrs. Blandon and Meneses, named an

additional, even more closely connected link to the contras, raising more questions worth pursing.

Appearing to disappear

The additional link is Renato Pena Cabrera, who had served as San Francisco Bay-area press spokesman for the major CIA-sponsored contra group known as the FDN. He was arrested for drug possession in November, 1984, along with Jairo Morales Meneses, Norvin Meneses' nephew. By the end of that year, sources told the Times, Mr. Morales' uncle and Mr. Blandon ''seem to have disappeared from the contra fund-raising network.''

In other words, the central question raised by Mr. Webb remains: What did the CIA know and when did it know it? Hearings in the late 1980s by a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., found that CIA officials apparently knew their operations had become entangled in drug smuggling and did nothing to stop it.

Jack Blum, chief investigator for Senator Kerry's panel, put it this bTC way in new hearings held in October by the committee, now chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.: ''If you ask: In the process of fighting a war against the Sandinistas, did people connected with the U.S. government open channels which allowed drug traffickers to move drugs to the United States, did they know the drug traffickers were doing it, and did they protect them from law enforcement?'' Mr. Blum testified. ''The answer to all those questions is yes.''

Contra-era CIA Director Robert M. Gates launched an internal investigation in 1986 into such charges, decided ''there was no 'there' there,'' and refused to release the report.

The time has come to lift the cone of silence. This story is too important to be left to Oliver Stone and the paranoid conspiracy theorists. The president should appoint a special investigative commission with full subpoena power to investigate these allegations properly. You don't have to be paranoid to believe, now that the Cold War is over, that the United States must shed the bright light of public disclosure on all past atrocities, including its own.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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