The Consortium

By Sam Parry

Allegations that the CIA-supported Nicaraguan contra army ran cocaine to the United States to raise money for guns are not new. Neither are the jaded efforts of The Washington Times, financed by the right-wing Unification Church, to blast away at the story.

For instance, when The Associated Press reported in April 1986, that a federal investigation had begun in Miami into illegal contra gun-running and drug trafficking, the Times published a front-page story denouncing the AP disclosure as "an old story" and arguing that it was "resurrected to influence a House vote on aid for the contras." The Times did not cite any prior public reference to the federal investigation.

Indeed, throughout the often-contentious debates over President Reagan's Central American policies, the Times was always there to attack the administration's critics, often in harshly worded front-page stories and in even nastier editorials. Now, a decade later, the Times is rallying again to the defense of the contras, their legacy and their old patrons, the CIA.

The new target is the 20,000-word investigative series by Gary Webb of The San Jose Mercury News. The series, entitled "Dark Alliance," traced the contra cocaine through to the crack gangs of south-central Los Angeles. The series prompted demands from the Congressional Black Caucus for a thorough investigation.

The Times started its counter-offensive on Sept. 12. Reporter Andy Thibault penned an article that prominently quoted Vince Cannistraro, who was described as "a retired CIA official." Cannistraro declared that "the testimony for things like this [contra drugs] originate with scam artists. ...This doesn't have any elements of authenticity."

A former Washington Times reporter, Michael Hedges, would use similar quotes from Cannistraro in another Webb-bashing article that Hedges wrote for his new employers, the Scripps Howard News Service. Calling Cannistraro a "retired CIA counterterrorism and Latin America expert," Hedges quoted Cannistraro as declaring "these charges are completely illogical."

But what neither Thibault nor Hedges did was to identify the potential conflicts of interest in Cannistraro's comments. This "retired CIA official," in fact, directed the CIA's contra operations in the early 1980s, exactly the time when Webb's article was alleging that the CIA was first tolerating cocaine trafficking as a contra fund-raising device. In 1984, Cannistraro transferred to the National Security Council, where he was assigned to oversee covert assistance to the Afghan mujahedeen, another rebel force implicated in narcotics trafficking.

Thibault and Hedges also ignored the Iran-contra testimony of CIA officer Alan Fiers, Cannistraro's successor at the contra helm. Fiers told the Iran-contra committees that "with respect to [drug trafficking by] the Resistance Forces [the contras] it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people."

While leaving out Fiers's sworn testimony on the subject, Thibault found space to quote several anonymous Internet gossipers about Webb's stories. Thibault reported that one "Internet user reacted, 'while I'll certainly grant you that the CIA does some pretty slim[e]y stuff, I've never seen any evidence that this is going on'."

A Big Gun

On Sept. 24, the Times fired off another barrage, from one of its biggest guns, editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave. In his first paragraph, de Borchgrave suggests that Webb's allegations were merely the result of "pro-Marxist CIA bashers" successfully planting the story, and "snookering the San Jose Mercury News."

But Webb's article actually cites a wide variety of sources who have no connection to "pro-Marxist CIA bashers." Besides witnesses from the drug trade, including pro-contra Nicaraguans, Webb quotes a public defender, a prosecutor, a U.S. Senate subcommittee report, a chief of Nicaragua's anti-drug agency, a Los Angeles County sheriff, DEA agents, several DEA informants, and unnamed agents from U.S. Customs and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

In the next sentence, de Borchgrave goes further still. He claims that Webb asserts that the objective of the CIA's involvement in drug trafficking was to "drug the blacks of our inner cities into submission and, presumably, relegate them to oblivion." There is no such claim in Webb's series.

De Borchgrave also chides Webb for not realizing that the contras were swimming in $100 million a year in CIA money approved by Congress -- and thus had no motive for dealing drugs. "Maybe Mr. Webb is too young to remember that the CIA had no need for illicit contra funds in those days," de Borchgrave wrote. "It was all legal. Congress had voted $100 million in military assistance to the Contras."

But it is de Borchgrave who is playing games with history. Webb's series addressed the contras' financial needs in the early 1980s, when the contras never had enough money to fully fund their war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. Congress did not approve the $100 million until summer 1986 and that money was not available to the contras until October 1986.

Any one who was old enough to remember the Iran-contra scandal also would know that the contras' chronic money problems were the principal reason why the Reagan administration went to such extraordinary -- and politically dangerous -- lengths to raise funds from private individuals and third countries. Not only did Oliver North beg wealthy Americans for donations, but President Reagan and his top aides solicited a host of foreign potentates.

The contras' financial desperation got so bad in early 1986 that North admitted diverting millions of dollars in profits from secret Iranian arms sales to the contras. That reckless decision touched off what became known as the Iran-contra scandal. By no stretch of the imagination were the contras flush with cash before October 1986.

De Borchgrave and The Washington Times seem intent on promoting a political agenda, regardless of the facts.

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

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