Dead End

Michael Massing is the author of "The Fix."

Gary Webb is a man on a mission. The series he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News two years ago alleging that the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras helped ignite the nation's crack explosion set off its own outburst of indignation and dismay. Radio talk shows burned up long hours discussing the story, and the Mercury News' Web site received more than 1 million hits a day. Both California senators wrote CIA Director John Deutch demanding an inquiry, and Deutch eventually agreed to conduct one. Webb seemed well on his way to winning a Pulitzer.

Then came the counterattack. The Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post ran long articles questioning Webb's findings. Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos, conducting his own investigation, decided to run a front-page column backing off the series. Webb was exiled to a distant suburban bureau and then left the paper. Seething at the treatment he'd received, he determinedly set out to vindicate himself. The result is "Dark Alliance," a densely researched, passionately argued, acronym-laden 548-page volume. Its combative, unyielding tone is apparent from the first page. " 'Dark Alliance,' " Webb writes, "does not propound a conspiracy theory; there is nothing theoretical about history. In this case, it is undeniable that a wildly successful conspiracy to import cocaine existed for many years, and that innumerable American citizens--most of them poor and black--paid an enormous price as well."

Is "Dark Alliance" more history or conspiracy theory? To answer this, it's necessary to assess the book's three main claims: that the Nicaraguan Contras were involved in drug trafficking; that the CIA knew about, condoned and even encouraged this trafficking; and finally that this trafficking helped set off the crack epidemic in South-Central Los Angeles and, by extension, the rest of the country. Webb focuses on the activities of two Nicaraguan traffickers operating in the United States: Norwin Meneses, an alleged importer of cocaine from the Cali cartel; and Danilo Blandon, Meneses' main distributor in Los Angeles. Relying on court documents, interviews with undercover agents and a meeting with Meneses himself in a Nicaraguan prison, Webb contends that both men supported the Contras and gave them part of their trafficking revenues at a time when that group was strapped for cash. Though the sums involved are in question--Webb puts the figure in the millions of dollars, his critics in the tens of thousands--he seems on solid ground in arguing that money from Nicaraguan traffickers ended up in Contra coffers. This also happens to be Webb's least original point; in the late 1980s, congressional hearings led by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) firmly established connections between the Contras and drug traffickers.

As to how much the CIA knew about or approved of these activities, Webb notes that Blandon and Meneses met with prominent Contra leaders like Enrique Bermudez and Adolfo Calero, both of whom were on the CIA payroll. He also describes the activities of a number of shadowy figures who, while supplying arms and other assistance to the Contras, seemed to have been smuggling drugs as well. In no case, however, does Webb demonstrate that the CIA was involved in or sanctioned these activities. What does seem clear, from Webb's account and the CIA's own investigation, is that many agency officials heard allegations of Contra-linked drug activity but did little to intervene. As CIA Inspector Gen. Fred Hitz told Congress in 1998 (as quoted by Webb), "There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity."

This, to Webb, is shocking. Of one Contra faction involved in drug smuggling, for instance, he writes, "why the CIA was so eager to promote such a drug-tainted organization as UDN-FARN is one of the enduring mysteries of the Contra War." This seems naive. In Central America in the 1980s, the CIA had one overriding goal--defeating communism--and everything else was secondary. In the drive to overthrow the Sandinistas, the CIA overlooked political assassinations, disappearances, massacres, torture and rape. Is it really so surprising, then, that it would overlook drug trafficking as well?

Of course, if that trafficking could be shown to have caused a drug epidemic, that would be news indeed, and it is here, in charging that the CIA and the Contras helped set off the nation's crack explosion, that Webb's analysis is most controversial--and most shaky. In Webb's telling, Blandon in the early 1980s began selling large quantities of cocaine to Ricky Ross, an enterprising young Los Angeles dealer. Nicknamed "Freeway Rick" (after the Freeway Motor Inn, a hotel he bought with his drug profits), Ross quickly gained control of South-Central's burgeoning crack trade. He became so big that he began supplying other dealers, including members of L.A. street gangs, who in turn started distributing the drug. "As the South-Central crack market became saturated," Webb writes, "Ross' gang customers started traveling to other cities in California to make their fortunes, setting up new crack markets and using their connections with Ross to supply them. It was the start of an unprecedented cross-country migration by the Crips, and later the Bloods, which would spread crack from South-Central to other black neighborhoods across the United States."

All this, Webb insists, is traceable to Ross and his Contra-linked supplier, Blandon. Regarding one of the most vexing aspects of the whole crack phenomenon--why the drug took root mainly in the black ghetto--Webb asserts that the explanation "seems obvious" once the Blandon-Ross partnership is taken into account. "There was no market until we created it," Webb quotes Ross as saying. "We started in our neighborhood and we stayed in our neighborhood. We almost never went outside it. If people wanted dope, they came to us."

In other words, the crack epidemic--a calamitous event that in a few short years engulfed the nation's inner cities and decimated a generation of African Americans--can, in Webb's view, be pinned on a lone Nicaraguan supplying a single Los Angeles dealer over a one- or two-year period. Such a simplistic analysis is belied by Webb's own reporting. At one point, for instance, he notes that one of crack's big advantages over powder cocaine was that it democratized cocaine not only for users but for dealers as well. It didn't take a large investment anymore to call yourself a player. With sellers popping up on every street corner, Ross faced vigorous competition. It is thus misleading to maintain, as Webb does, that Ross headed a crack "cartel" in Los Angeles; the market was far too decentralized.

Moreover, it's clear that Blandon was but one of many distributors supplying that market. Webb quotes a police detective who, citing information from two informants, says that "the blacks were getting their cocaine from three Colombians and 'a fourth peripheral source.' Two of the Colombians they knew only by nickname; the 'peripheral source' they knew quite well: Danilo Blandon." Rather than draw the obvious conclusion--that Blandon was a minor player in a market controlled by Colombians--Webb insists on focusing narrowly on Blandon, the Nicaraguan connection.

The farther one gets from South-Central, the less important the Ross-Blandon connection seems. Crack initially appeared in four cities: New York, Miami, Detroit and Los Angeles. In none of these three other cities did Ross or the Bloods or the L.A. street gangs play a part. Beginning in 1986, crack began seeping out from these enclaves into neighboring towns and cities and, while L.A. gang members helped spread the drug, so did Dominicans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Guyanese, Mexicans, Cubans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans and many non-gang-affiliated black Americans. What's more, all of these carriers were simply middlemen; in the end, it was the Colombians, operating out of the great trafficking centers of Medellin and Cali, who controlled the flow of cocaine into the United States. To maintain against this backdrop that the Contras and the CIA played a key part in spreading crack seems a grab for headlines.

Sensational claims abound in "Dark Alliance." At one point, for instance, Webb cites a Colombian trafficker who "claimed to have a picture of [George] Bush posing with Medellin cartel leader Jorge Ochoa, in front of suitcases full of money." According to the trafficker, Pablo Escobar, another Medellin leader, said he would make the photo public at the "appropriate time." "By 1993," Webb writes, "Escobar was dead, killed in a shootout with Colombian police, and Jorge Ochoa was in jail. The photos, if they ever existed, were never heard of again." That Webb would even entertain such an outlandish claim raises questions about his judgment.

Webb's overall thesis--that the CIA helped set off America's crack explosion--seems fantastic. Like most drug epidemics, crack arose from a tragic confluence of circumstances: the growing appetite of Americans for cocaine in the late 1970s; the ability of Colombian traffickers to smuggle tons of the drug into the United States, causing a sharp decline in its price; the change in cocaine usage patterns away from sniffing toward smoking; the discovery of a quick and easy means of producing smokable cocaine; and, finally, the existence of a large market in the inner city for a cheap, instant and powerful high. In the end, it was this last factor--the growing desperation of black Americans in the mid-1980s--that made the crack epidemic possible.

Some of these points were made in the newspaper critiques of Webb's series in the Mercury News. In reading "Dark Alliance," I was curious to see whether Webb would make any concession to his critics--whether he would perhaps humbly acknowledge that some of their concerns were justified. The closest he comes is near the book's end, where he observes that "I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague. Indeed, the more I learned about the agency, the more certain of that I become. The CIA couldn't even mine a harbor without getting its trench coat stuck in its fly." This seems disingenuous, for Webb's entire book, beginning with its subtitle ("The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion"), seems pitched toward implicating the CIA in the crack epidemic.

The CIA's complicity with the drug trade is a central theme of "White Out" by Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for the Nation, and Jeffrey St. Clair, an investigative journalist. Heavily dependent on secondary sources, "Whiteout" rehearses the long history of the CIA's alleged ties to international drug traffickers, from Corsican mobsters in Marseilles in the late 1940s to moujahedeen-linked smugglers in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s and drug-running Contra supporters in Central America. That such episodes are not better known, Cockburn and St. Clair maintain, is the result of the liberal media's instinctive willingness to cover up for the CIA. And Webb's case is Exhibit A. "The attack on Gary Webb and his series in the San Jose Mercury News remains one of the most venomous and factually inane assaults on a professional journalist's competence in living memory," Cockburn and St. Clair write.

Devoting two full chapters to Webb's experience, the authors strenuously seek to defend him against his attackers. Unfortunately, their account seems a sanitized one, with some of Webb's more questionable journalistic practices cleaned up for public consumption. In "Dark Alliance," for instance, Webb describes attending a 1995 preliminary hearing in the federal government's prosecution of Ricky Ross. Among those scheduled to testify is Blandon, who--now a DEA informer--was a key witness against Ross. For nine months, Webb had been trying to interview Blandon, without success, and he attended the hearing in the hope of connecting with him. Blandon brushes him off, however. Alan Fenster, Ross' lawyer, is much friendlier. Inviting Webb to lunch during a break in the hearing, Fenster expresses his frustration at the government's refusal to provide him with documents about Blandon's ties to the Contras--documents that, he says, could help exonerate Ross.

Listening to Fenster, Webb suddenly hits on the idea of providing him with questions based on his own research that he could ask Blandon; in this way, Webb could indirectly conduct the interview that had for so long eluded him. To most journalists, this would seem an unacceptable degree of personal involvement in a story one is covering, but Webb proceeds to feed him questions. Back at the courthouse, Fenster questions Blandon about his ties to the Contras. Blandon's answers, as recorded in "Dark Alliance," seem vague and inconclusive. He has trouble recalling dates and other key details regarding his trafficking activities, and he seems completely in the dark about U.S. efforts to help the Contras. But Webb, untroubled by this and by his own feeding of information to Fenster, grandly concludes that Blandon's testimony confirms his basic findings about the Contras.

In "Whiteout," Cockburn and St. Clair relate this episode quite differently. After dutifully recounting Webb's lunch with Fenster, they write: "Webb told Fenster to look at the DEA records and the grand jury transcripts that had been turned over as part of the discovery process in the investigation into the Meneses drug ring in the Bay Area. Fenster immediately reviewed the documents and was able to lead Blandon through a series of questions about his ties to the Contras. . . ." In "Dark Alliance," Webb makes no mention of asking Fenster to look at documents; rather, Fenster gets his information directly from Webb.

This is the type of airbrushing of history one expects to find in a Soviet archive. It serves Cockburn and St. Clair's purpose, however, of portraying Webb as a journalistic martyr, a courageous battler against the CIA and its apologists in the media. "Whiteout" is filled with bitter attacks on reporters at such papers as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for helping cover up the intelligence agency's misdeeds. Oddly, though, the authors, in making their case against the CIA, frequently cite stories appearing in those very papers. In a chapter on narco-trafficking and money-laundering in Mexico, for instance, the authors in their notes acknowledge the work of Douglas Farah of the Washington Post, Laurie Hays of the Wall Street Journal, and Sam Dillon and Tim Golden of the New York Times. Such citations seem to contradict Cockburn and St. Clair's view of the press as CIA lap dogs.

Had Cockburn, St. Clair and Webb limited themselves to reporting on the CIA's periodic alliances with forces involved in drug trafficking, they would have performed a useful service. By instead placing the CIA at the heart of the international drug trade and blaming it for the woes that drugs have inflicted on American society, they have guaranteed themselves an audience limited to true believers. Reading their books, I was struck by how much their worldview resembles that of the DEA and other prosecutors of the war on drugs. If only the CIA would get out of the way and let the DEA do its job, these writers suggest, the flood of drugs into the United States would diminish. For them, foreign traffickers and suppliers are the main source of the nation's drug problem, rather than any internal social factors. Such an approach feeds the belief that the solution to that problem lies not in reducing the demand for drugs but in arresting more traffickers and busting more drug rings. Books like "Dark Alliance" and "Whiteout," while purporting to expose the hypocrisy of the drug war, paradoxically support it.

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