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Television Reviews : ‘Frontline’ Probe Charges CIA, Drug Link

No doubt America is losing the war against drugs for a lot of reasons. But is one of them because the CIA has a symbiotic relationship with drug dealers? That’s the charge fired in “Guns, Drugs and the CIA,” tonight’s provocative installment of the PBS series “Frontline” (9 p.m. Channel 15, 10 p.m. Channels 28 and 50).

Producers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, no friends of the CIA, look into the claim that for 40 years the CIA has used drug lords and drug money to help it fight secret wars around the world and that these drug dealers have used CIA money, equipment and protection to expand their operations.

The Cockburns focus on two of the CIA’s largest covert operations, one in Laos during the Vietnam era and the Contra war in Nicaragua. In Laos, the CIA enlisted, trained and equipped a large army of Hmong tribesmen and handpicked Gen. Vang Pao to lead the fight against the communists.

Former U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Secord, who participated in the war in Laos, denies that the CIA helped Vang Pao. But the Cockburns present former CIA agents, pilots and others who say that Vang Pao used CIA money and its airline, Air America, to increase his market share of the Southeast Asian heroin trade.

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For their look into connections between the CIA-backed Contras and drug dealers, the Cockburns rely heavily on an interview with Ramon Milian-Rodriguez, a Cuban-American convicted of laundering drug money for the Colombian drug cartel who recently testified before Sen. John F. Kerry’s (D-Mass.) hearings on terrorism and international narcotics.

Milian-Rodriguez tells the Cockburns that he funnelled $10 million in drug profits to the Contras. A former Panamanian intelligence officer claims the late CIA Director William Casey had Gen. Noriega--with whom Milian-Rodriguez also dealt--on his personal payroll for $200,000 a year.

Other charges fly and you need a score card to keep track of all the players and the money. Some witnesses are more credible than others, and the evidence they present--though far from conclusive--is circumstantially damning, especially regarding Laos.

The Cockburns raise a lot of very suspicious dust about just how low the CIA will go in fighting communism, but they don’t prove the case they set out to prove.

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Maybe no one ever will, but they seem more interested in whipping the CIA for its operational sins than in addressing the larger political question of whether the intervention-minded Democrat and Republican politicians who have given the agency its orders are not themselves ultimately more responsible.


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