In a dramatic break with tradition for America's most secretive government agency, the director of the CIA came to Watts on Friday to tell a skeptical and irate audience that there will be a complete investigation into the CIA-crack cocaine controversy.
Fighting off hecklers during a 90-minute town hall-style meeting, CIA Director John M. Deutch denied charges that his agency helped or turned a blind eye to Latin American cocaine dealers.
The gathering of 800 at Locke High School quickly deteriorated into a shouting match. Many in the audience said they arrived feeling angry--wanting answers to the disturbing allegations--and left even angrier, convinced that the answers would never materialize.
Even the congresswoman who invited Deutch was condemned by some during the meeting for giving the CIA too comfortable a platform.
The audience was unmoved by Deutch's pledge to settle the controversy, which was sparked in August by a San Jose Mercury News series alleging that the CIA's laxity allowed Latin American cocaine dealers to introduce crack cocaine to Los Angeles.
"No one who runs a government agency can let such an allegation stand," Deutch said. "I will get to the bottom of it."
Deutch agreed to appear at the meeting at the request of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson). It was the third large-scale public meeting in the black community since the Mercury News series.
The series alleged that a Nicaraguan drug network with ties to the CIA-backed Contra rebels opened the first cocaine pipeline to the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
Although that allegation has been widely challenged, considerable speculation remains about whether some elements of the CIA tolerated drug trafficking by people with links to the Contras. A congressional investigation in the mid-1980s found that the CIA might have chosen to overlook such evidence.
On Friday, Deutch acknowledged to the audience that, in fighting the drug trade, the spy agency sometimes works with unsavory people.
But he also repeated the findings of a recent CIA internal investigation that concluded that there was no link between the CIA's efforts to help the Contras and drug-dealing activities of Nicaraguans who were reported to have provided tons of cocaine to a high-level South-Central dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross.
There was, Deutch said, "no evidence of a conspiracy by the CIA to encourage drug trafficking from Latin America during this or any other period."
Jerry Burge, 34, a South-Central native who is now a graduate student at a Northern California college, was typical of those unmoved by the CIA director.
"How can you really admit your organization is responsible for destruction of whole communities?" he asked after the meeting. "That's a hard thing to admit."
The meeting turned angry and raucous almost from the beginning, with several members of the audience interrupting Deutch during his opening remarks.
Tarik Ricard used his turn at the microphone not to ask a question, but to express his disdain for the proceedings.
"You come into this community and insult us," he told Deutch. "You tell us you're going to investigate yourself. You must be crazy. This was a PR move that's not fooling anybody."
One questioner asked if the investigation would lead to the prosecution of former Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Another asked Deutch if he knew veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who co-authored a story critical of the Mercury News series and 30 years ago wrote a Post story about traveling on a CIA-sponsored trip.
Deutch said he had heard of Pincus.
"Is he an asset of the CIA?" the man demanded.
"No," the CIA director said flatly.
The Mercury News' allegations were questioned by articles in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times investigation found that the crack epidemic followed no master plan and was not orchestrated by the Contras, the CIA or any single drug ring.
Even Ross, who faces a possible life sentence Tuesday in San Diego for drug dealing, has toned down his previous legal claim. Arguing that his conviction should be dismissed because of governmental misconduct, Ross has said he was "targeted" by the CIA to help the Contras sell drugs in South-Central Los Angeles.
But in new court papers, Ross claims only that the CIA is culpable because it "condoned" drug-dealing by the Contras.
In a news conference before the meeting, McDonald said she invited Deutch to Los Angeles so that the community could "see him face to face," adding that she also wanted Deutch to see "the face of a community that has been devastated" by the crack epidemic.
Deutch, asked by reporters during the same meeting if he would release an internal search of agency files of alleged drug activities between 1986 and 1988, answered: "I think I'm going to try."
The CIA's investigation of the drug allegations is being done by its inspector general. The results of many such in-house CIA probes are not released to the public.
Many who came to Friday's hearing had been touched, directly or indirectly, by the way crack has savaged families in the black community. They placed little faith in the CIA director's promise of a complete inquiry.
"Nothing is going to come out of it," said Dwight Vaughn, a former addict who now runs a rehabilitation program. Vaughn had come to the meeting with 20 members of his program, the Miracle Institute. "They are not going to tell the truth."
Elizabeth Dixon, a Lynwood city official whose 19-year-old son was killed in a drug-related drive-by shooting, added: "They always promise but never deliver. I think this, too, will be an empty promise."
Deutch's question-and-answer session was remarkable because his public appearances, like those of his predecessors, are usually limited to occasional speeches before foreign affairs organizations, academic conferences and business groups.
The appearance reflected the new political reality the intelligence agency faces in the post-Cold War era. Gone are the days when Congress automatically approved CIA budget requests.
Facing greater political accountability, the CIA's standard responses--writing letters to Congress and appearing before congressional committees--are viewed as less effective.
In addition, the allegations that the CIA somehow assisted drug traffic has weighed on morale within the agency, putting additional pressure on Deutch to respond publicly, sources familiar with the agency said.
Although most left the meeting in frustration, John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, said the gathering at least left Deutch "with a clear picture of how deeply people distrust the CIA."
"The credibility here of the CIA ranges from zero to minus zero," he said.
Times staff writers Hector Tobar and Tony Perry contributed to this story.