The Consortium

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- More than a decade after the first public disclosures linking CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels to cocaine trafficking, the story finally splashed dramatically onto the front page of The Washington Post. With side-bars, the story on Oct. 4, 1996, also covered two full pages inside.

This investigative report, however, did not castigate the contras for shipping tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, nor did it explore how the U.S. government covered up the criminal enterprise. Instead, the Post devoted that extraordinary space to criticizing the San Jose Mercury News, its reporter Gary Webb, and America's black community for supposedly overreacting to new contra drug evidence.

In August 1996, Webb and the Mercury News had traced the origins of Los Angeles' crack epidemic to the delivery of cheap cocaine by Nicaraguans who were raising money for the contras in the early 1980s. The Mercury News stories, backed by court records and documents from the National Archives, also touched a raw nerve in black communities which have been devastated by crack and related violence.

The Post, which had long minimized the contra drug allegations, continued that practice by putting down the Mercury News. The Post story by Roberto Suro and Walter Pincus did acknowledge that contra-connected drug smugglers had brought tons of cocaine into the United States, but the paper concluded that the contras had not "played a major role in the emergence of crack" cocaine.

The Post argued that one of the Nicaraguan smugglers, Oscar Danilo Blandon, "handled only about five tons of cocaine." The Post conceded that another pro-contra Nicaraguan, Norwin Meneses, "who was Blandon's original supplier, may have handled more cocaine than Blandon." But the Post insisted that no single drug network could be blamed for touching off the crack explosion.

To complete this debunking, a second Post story supplied a rationale for why blacks could be easily misled by charges about U.S. government complicity in contra cocaine: African-Americans are easily duped by "conspiracy fears," the Post explained. The Post had thus neatly answered the growing public concern about the Reagan administration's blind eye toward contra cocaine smuggling in the 1980s -- it wasn't "major" and blacks are paranoid.

The irony of the Post story, however, was that the newspaper was finally accepting the reality of contra cocaine trafficking, albeit in a backhand way. The Post, which swung behind the contra cause in the late 1980s, had long pooh-poohed earlier allegations that the contras were implicated in drug shipments. When Brian Barger and I wrote the first story about contra-cocaine smuggling for The Associated Press in December 1985, the Post waited a week, added some fresh denials and then stuck the story near the back of the national news section.

Official Confirmation

The Post even gave short-shrift to the charges when an official Senate investigation was documenting the Reagan administration's cozy relationships with contra-connected drug smugglers in 1987-89. That investigation, directed by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., established that the administration gave contra-supply contracts to four companies that were either under indictment for drug trafficking or listed as suspected smugglers in law enforcement computers. Kerry's probe also confirmed that pilots used for contra arms flights carried cocaine into the United States as well as guns to Central America. And Kerry found that drug kingpins had contributed heavily to the contra cause, in hopes of gaining favor with Washington.

"It is clear that individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers," the Kerry report said. "In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."

When this important report was issued in April 1989, the Post buried the information in a scant 700-word article on page A20. And most of that story, by Michael Isikoff, was devoted to Republican criticisms of Kerry, rather than to the serious evidence of contra wrongdoing. Other establishment publications took the cue that it was safe to mock Kerry. Newsweek dubbed him a "randy conspiracy buff."

The Post only briefly changed its tune in 1991, when some of Kerry's findings were dusted off by the federal government in the drug-trafficking trial of Panama's Manuel Noriega. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration had recruited the little general to assist the contras despite his well-known links to the drug trade. But in 1989, the United States invaded Panama to arrest Noriega on drug charges.

In Noriega's 1991 trial, the government called one drug kingpin, Carlos Lehder, who confirmed that the Medellin cartel had given $10 million to the Nicaraguan contras, a claim that one of Kerry's witnesses had made years earlier. For once, the Post praised Kerry for his earlier investigation. "The Kerry hearings didn't get the attention they deserved at the time," a Post editorial said on Nov. 27, 1991 -- without noting that one of the principal reasons for the neglect was the Post's own poor reporting on the scandal.

But five years later, the Post had resumed its protection of the contras by attacking the Mercury News series. After the two-page-plus take-out, an Oct. 9, 1996, editorial reprised those findings, that the CIA-connected Nicaraguans had not "played a major role" in the crack epidemic. But the editorial did adjust the newspaper's bias slightly by admitting the obvious: that for any "CIA-connected characters to have played even a trivial role in introducing Americans to crack would indicate an unconscionable breach by the CIA."

Contra Press Agents

Still, the Post's new journalistic negligence recalls the worst of the mainstream media's defense of the contras in the mid-1980s. Granted, the Reagan administration did distort the facts about Central America and lambaste the reporters who uncovered critical information about the contras. But too often, the star Washington journalists acted like little more than press agents for the contra war.

The disinformation began even before Ronald Reagan took office. In December 1980 when right-wing Salvadoran troops raped and murdered four American churchwomen, the incoming Republicans tried to blame the women for their own fate. In the following years, the Reagan administration struggled to conceal the Salvadoran government's hand in the thousands of civilian murders that left bodies rotting along the country's roadways.

In December 1981, when U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops butchered about 800 men, women and children in the town of El Mozote, administration denied the story and pro-Reagan media outlets attacked the reporters who discovered the atrocity. The same PR protection was afforded the CIA-backed contras when they rampaged through northern Nicaragua, killing civilians, raping women and torturing captives. President Reagan hailed the contras as the "moral equals of the Founding Fathers."

With this carte blanche from the White House, the contra war became a perfect cover for cocaine traffickers. For both ideological and commercial reasons, drug traffickers got close to the contras. Noriega thought his contra assistance gave him political protection. So did corrupt military officers in El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica, many of whom also joined in the lucrative cocaine trade.

As federal drug agent Celerino Castillo has said, warnings from the field went unheeded in Washington. U.S. embassy staff in Central America knew that cabling negative information about the contras was a quick route to career oblivion. The same was true of state-side prosecutors, FBI agents and even members of Congress. In spring 1986, when a federal investigation started in Miami into illegal gun-running and drug trafficking by contra backers, the prosecutor found his report urging a grand jury rewritten to recommend the opposite. When Sen. Kerry tried to examine the drug allegations, the Republicans put him under a Senate ethics committee inquiry.

The 'Wanda' Tale

Prospective witnesses encountered similar troubles. Typical was the case of 31-year-old Wanda Palacio, who broke with the Medellin cartel in 1986 and approached Kerry with an account of pilots for a CIA-connected airline, Southern Air Transport, flying cocaine out of Barranquilla, Colombia, as part of the contra support operation. She claimed to have witnessed two such flights, one in 1983 and the other in October 1985. She quoted drug lord Jorge Ochoa as claiming the flights were part of an arrangement to exchange "drugs for guns."

On Sept. 26, 1986, Kerry took Palacio's 11-page "proffer" statement to William Weld, then assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division. According to contemporaneous notes of the meeting, Weld chuckled that he was not surprised about the allegations of "bum agents, former and current CIA agents" involved in corrupt dealings with the cartel. But on Oct. 3, Weld's office informed Kerry that it was rejecting Palacio as a witness on the grounds that there were some minor contradictions in her testimony.

Then, two days later, on Oct. 5, 1986, one of Oliver North's secret contra-supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua, killing three crew members. Only a cargo handler, Eugene Hasenfus, survived. That week, Palacio was in Kerry's Senate office when a photo of the dead co-pilot Wallace Sawyer flashed onto a TV screen. She excitedly exclaimed that Sawyer was one of the pilots she had seen loading cocaine onto the Southern Air plane in Barranquilla in early October 1985. Her claim was greeted with skepticism by Kerry's staff.

But I had flown to Managua for the AP after the crash and had gained access to Sawyer's flight logs that had been aboard the plane. Sawyer had written down the airport codes of the cities he had visited as well as the tail numbers of the planes he had flown. When I returned to Washington, I deciphered the IDs of the sometime obscure airports where Sawyer had landed. I also cross-checked the tail numbers with federal aviation records which identify the owners of the plane.

Sawyer had scribbled down three entries for Oct. 2, 4 and 6, 1985, listing himself flying a Southern Air transport plane into Barranquilla, just as Palacio had alleged. Yet, despite the corroboration -- and a supportive polygraph exam -- Weld still rejected Palacio. Her fate was similar to other witnesses who dared to link the contras, the CIA and cocaine.

Weld, now governor of Massachusetts, is running for Kerry's Senate seat. When I asked him recently why he had dismissed Palacio, he responded with uncharacteristic harshness. He said his aides "felt her credibility was roughly that of a wagonload of diseased blankets." But he declined to be any more specific. [For a fuller account of the Palacio story, see The Nation magazine, Oct. 21, 1996]

'Randy Conspiracy Buff'

Cruel assessments were also in store for investigators who took the contra drug stories too seriously. On Feb. 24, 1987, Keith Schneider of The New York Times wrote a dismissive story about Kerry's probe. Schneider quoted "law enforcement officials" as saying that the contra allegations "have come from a small group of convicted drug traffickers in South Florida who never mentioned contras or the White House until the Iran-contra affair broke in November" 1986.

The Times statement, of course, was false: the AP contra-drug story had appeared almost a full year before the Iran-contra scandal broke and Kerry's initial witnesses had surfaced in early 1986, not after November 1986. But the Times report was part of what would become a pattern, a reflexive mainstream media defense of the contras.

The current media assault on Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News is an ugly echo of that earlier shouting down of honest investigators who had uncovered an inconvenient truth: the connections between the CIA and the contras -- and cocaine.

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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