Calif. newspaper wins Chutzpuh Award

January 04, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

Once again it's Chutzpah Award time, when I bestow annual honors on those who have taken gall and audacity much too far. That wonderful Yiddish term is defined not by a dictionary definition, but by a character.

It seems this guy murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he was an orphan. That's chutzpah. There were some folks in 1997 who had more than their share. But sometimes there is one person, group or organization that has so much that it or they drown out everyone else's chutzpah.

Such an organization is the San Jose Mercury News. It is the sole winner of this year's Chutzpah Award and brother, does it deserve it!

This started in 1996, when the Mercury News ran a series called "Dark Alliance" by reporter Gary Webb. Webb reported that two Nicaraguans, Norwin Meneses and Oscar Danilo Blandon, funneled cocaine to a Los Angeles street hood named "Freeway" Ricky Ross, who turned said cocaine into crack and sold it in South Central. Meneses and Blandon then passed the money they got on to Nicaraguan contras, the Mercury News reported. The implication was that the Ross-Meneses-Blandon connection was a CIA covert operation.

An orgy of knee-jerking soon began. Blacks on the liberal and left side of the political spectrum soon hurled charges that the CIA had "flooded" the black community of South Central Los Angeles with crack cocaine and had virtually started the crack cocaine epidemic. Conservatives had a knee-jerk response of their own, pooh-poohing the allegations and suggesting that the CIA would never do such a thing.

The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran articles saying the Mercury News had not proved its charges. In May 1997, Mercury News editors themselves had a change of heart.

"Although members of the drug ring met with contra leaders paid by the CIA and Webb believes the relationship with the CIA was a tight one," wrote Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos, "I feel that we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship."

In South Central Los Angeles and in inner cities across America, there is a term for what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. It's called "punking out." Although the term implies a lack of guts, it actually takes a great deal of chutzpah to pull off the punk-out of the century. So here's to the editors of the San Jose Mercury News, who should have done this soul-searching and fact-checking before the "Dark Alliance" series ran.

Before everyone rushes to proclaim the CIA "not guilty" of all charges, some reflection is in order. First, assuming that the CIA did precisely as the Mercury News series charged and did indeed flood South Central Los Angeles with crack, that act still pales in comparison to what congressional hearings have already confirmed the CIA has done: destabilized democratically elected governments in Third World countries because the politics of the leaders of those governments didn't sit well with the United States, and the murder or aiding and abetting of murder of Third World leaders.

And the Mercury News series was not the first time the CIA has been accused of aiding and abetting drug dealers. Alfred W. McCoy, a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has had a book on the market for years titled "The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade." McCoy charges that Ngo Dinh Diem - the first president of South Vietnam - and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu carried on an opium trade even as American leaders sank us deeper and deeper into the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Nguyen Cao Ky, McCoy claims, was another leader we supported who operated a lucrative drug trade.

"American diplomats and CIA agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels," McCoy writes: "(1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) support of the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; and (3) active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin."

In the latter part of his book, McCoy charges that Australia's defunct Nugan Hand bank was "an employer of many retired CIA agents and heavily involved in narcotics trafficking." Jonathan Kwitny, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, made the same charges in his book "The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money and the CIA." Both men wrote their books before the Mercury News series. What's shocking is that these charges have been around for years and that there is no public outrage demanding that the CIA open its files so this matter can be cleared up once and for good.

It is a demand that Mercury News editors would have done well to include in their great wimp-out revelation of 1997.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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