The fresh dope on CIA-drug link Official inquiries produce information that's new, startling

August 30, 1998|By Peter Kornbluh

Two years after the San Jose Mercury News published its controversial "Dark Alliance" series, the scandal over the CIA, the Contras and cocaine refuses to go away. The public uproar over the August 1996 articles has set in motion a chain of events that has produced new and startling information about CIA knowledge of drug smuggling - a sordid and sorry history that the Agency has yet to fully and honestly share with the American people.

The controversy provoked by the articles has been considerable. The mainstream press devoted large amounts of space and resources to debunking the main assertion of the articles - that the cocaine epidemic began because the CIA needed millions in drug profits to finance Ronald Reagan's "freedom fighters" in the covert war against Nicaragua.

The Mercury News subsequently issued a major "clarification" saying parts of the stories didn't meet journalistic standards. The reporter who wrote the series, Gary Webb, resigned after he was put on another beat. He has recently published a lengthy book - also called "Dark Alliance" - offering a broader, albeit still cloudy, picture of Contra drug operations.

Most important, public pressure forced the CIA and the Justice Department to launch internal inquiries, centralizing thousands of pages of classified documents and writing three major reports.

Last winter, the CIA's Inspector General released Volume I of his report on "Allegations of Connections Between CIA and the Contras in Cocaine Trafficking to the United States." Late last month, after interviewing 200 witnesses and reviewing 40,000 pages of documents, the Justice Department's Inspector General released a 400-page study, "The CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy: A Review of the Justice Department's Investigations and Prosecutions." (Oliver North and the CIA's top agent in charge of the Contra war, Duane Clarridge, refused to cooperate.)

The CIA's Volume II, a comprehensive, 600-page report on "The Contra Story," was completed and, in May, turned over to the House Intelligence Committee. But, because it contains incriminating documentation on drug smuggling by CIA "assets," the Agency has refused to declassify a word.

To be sure, the two reports that have been released undercut Webb's primary assertion, that the CIA knew and protected two California-based Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers who were allegedly funneling massive amounts of money to the counter-revolutionary operations in Central America. The Justice Department's study - the more credible of the reports - found not a conspiracy of malevolence but a conspiracy of mediocrity. The drug smugglers managed to stay free from prosecution because the DEA and the FBI waivered between arresting them or enlisting them as informants. Neither report found evidence of CIA knowledge of, or involvement in, the Los Angeles drug operations.

But contrary to newspaper headlines suggesting these reports thoroughly rebutted the "Dark Alliance" stories, they have, in fact, advanced the larger premise of the articles: The CIA and the Reagan Administration tolerated drug traffickers because they could help advance the covert war against Nicaragua.

Trafficking condoned

For years, U.S. officials have vociferously denied any tolerance for narcotics trafficking during the CIA's 1980s Contra campaign against the Sandinista government. Clarridge has labeled the official inquiries "bull--." One of the Los Angeles Times rebuttals to the "Dark Alliance" series quoted another former high-ranking CIA manager of the Contra war, Vincent Cannistraro, as saying that when it came to wrongdoing by Agency assets, "there's no tendency to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. It's too sensitive. It's not a fine line."

Spurred by public outrage over the scandal, the official investigations by the CIA and Justice Department have produced concrete evidence disproving, once and for all, such specious claims of innocence. The public has learned that:

* In 1982, CIA director William Casey sought an agreement with the Justice Department allowing the Agency to legally ignore drug smuggling by its covert assets. According to the Justice Department, the CIA and the Attorney General's office worked out a "memorandum of understanding" that exempted the CIA from having to report drug smuggling by its assets to the DEA, Customs and FBI. Other criminal behavior -- bribery, sabotage, hijacking and perjury, for example -- would be reported, but not narcotics trafficking. "I am pleased," Casey wrote to Attorney General William French Smith in a March 2, 1982, letter (reluctantly provided by the Agency to Congresswoman Maxine

Waters) that "these procedures strike the proper balance between enforcement of the law and protection of intelligence ,, sources and methods."

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