July 9, 1998

Reality Bites Back: Contra-Coke Proof

By Robert Parry

When Britt Snider sits down in his new job as CIA inspector general, one of his first decisions will be what to do with an explosive internal report on Nicaraguan contra drug trafficking.

Snider, a former Republican Senate aide, will have to face one of the darkest crimes from the Reagan-Bush era: the shipment of vast amounts of cocaine into the United States under the umbrella of President Reagan's Nicaraguan contra operation when it was overseen by CIA director William J. Casey and White House aide Oliver North.

Evidence of those crimes -- more extensive than previously known -- has been compiled in a 600-page inspector general's report that remains highly classified. The report, written by Snider's predecessor Frederick Hitz, reportedly confirms many long-held contra-drug suspicions and establishes that the CIA complicity in the crimes was actually greater than alleged over the years by critics.

According to CIA spokesmen, Snider must decide whether to release the report with major deletions or to prepare an unclassified summary. A summary would be shorter and clearer -- lacking the large blacked-out portions that can make a redacted report hard to read. But the summary also would drop many of the specifics that are contained in the classified version. That would allow the findings to be more easily watered down.

Snider's nomination is now before the Senate. The CIA press office said a decision on the report is not expected until after Snider's confirmation.

Whatever Snider decides, however, will likely leave many principals dissatisfied. If the summary softens the findings of the 600-page report, CIA critics will complain that the long-running cover-up of the contra-drug crimes is continuing. If the summary matches the severity of the full report's discoveries, there is concern within the government that public outrage might lead to the CIA's outright elimination.

Long History

This contra-drug report is the second volume of a two-volume set examining evidence of Reagan administration knowledge of and complicity in the cocaine trade as a means of financing the contra war that raged through much of the 1980s. Allegations of contra-connected drug trafficking first surfaced in December 1985 with an Associated Press story, which I co-wrote with Brian Barger.

Though first denying that there was any evidence to support the AP account, the Reagan administration acknowledged in 1986 a limited problem but insisted that it did not implicate contra leaders. However, when a Senate investigation headed by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., turned up more evidence linking contra supply operations to drug smuggling, Reagan's Justice Department moved to shut down criminal investigations.

The cover-up was aided by the major news media -- including The New York Times, The Washington Post and other prestige news outlets -- which derided the mounting evidence and essentially protected the CIA. That pattern continued through the Kerry investigation, which published a major report in April 1989 documenting numerous contra drug ties through Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Medellin cartel. The major newspapers buried brief articles about the Senate report deep inside their pages and did no significant follow-ups.

The Washington consensus -- treating the contra-drug crimes as a "conspiracy theory" -- continued into the 1990s. In August 1996, when San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb wrote a three-part series about the consequence of contra drug shipments in the crack epidemic which devastated south-central Los Angeles, the major papers responded again by heaping ridicule on Webb. Those attacks contributed to Webb's resignation from the Mercury-News last December.

But Webb's reporting and the anger it sparked in America's black communities prompted a full review by the CIA's inspector general and the inspector general at the Justice Department. The first volume of the CIA's report was released in January and confirmed that the CIA had blocked federal criminal investigations of contra-drug activities in California.

Volume two -- a broader look at the problem -- and the Justice Department report, however, were considered far more damaging to the CIA. The Justice report was withheld because of reported concerns that it might disrupt ongoing criminal investigations linking CIA personnel to the contra-drug shipments. The CIA's volume two also revealed a large drug network surrounding the contra operation and direct tie-ins to Reagan administration officials.

The reports have been tightly held and the major news media again has shown virtually no interest in exposing their contents. But the reports have sparked concern inside the government over possible public reaction should the reports ever see the light of day. CIA officials acknowledge that the decision could be an early test of Snider's approach to the I.G. post.

Snider's Challenge

Prior to his nomination as inspector general, Snider served as a CIA counselor under CIA director George Tenet. Before that, Snider and Tenet worked together in the largely bipartisan atmosphere of the Senate Intelligence Committee, though Snider principally served Republicans and Tenet Democrats.

Snider was the staff aide for Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, on the House-Senate Iran-contra investigation in 1987. Cohen was one of three Republicans who signed the Democratic-drafted majority report, which laid most of the blame for the scandal on North and other lower-level officials.

In additional views published with the report, Cohen explained that he signed the majority report although thinking that the criticism of the Reagan administration went too far.

As part of that Iran-contra investigation, Democrats and Republicans joined hands in rejecting the then-mounting evidence of contra-connected drug trafficking. It is unclear what role if any Snider played in Cohen's decision to soft-pedal criticism of the Reagan administration's criminal activities.

Copyright (c) 1998

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