By Sam Parry
- Contra-Crack: Investigators vs. Brickwall
Most of Congress is still preoccupied with returning from a long winter break or distracted by the ethical charges against House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Rep. Maxine Waters has busied herself in the post-election period by pursuing allegations that CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels funnelled cocaine into the United States, drugs that helped spark the "crack" crisis.
Waters, the recently elected head of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been in Nicaragua interviewing witnesses and pursuing leads. Joseph Lee, her spokesman, said the congresswoman is still "fully engaged" in that investigation which started last summer with a controversial three-part investigative series by reporter Gary Webb of The San Jose Mercury-News.
Despite criticism of that series by conservatives and some mainstream press outlets, Lee said Waters's investigation has been "bolstered" by a steady stream of phone calls from concerned citizens volunteering information and support. With the start of the new congressional session, Waters plans to introduce legislation seeking a bipartisan commission to dig deeper into what the CIA knew about the contra cocaine trafficking and what the spy agency did about it.
In her congressional pursuit of the "crack" allegations, Waters seems to be walking a lonely road. Continued Republican control of Congress means that the intelligence oversight committees remain in the hands of members who supported the contra cause and want to defend the legacy of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
The national media also seems to have settled the matter in its own collective mind. There have been no stories run on the controversy in any of the major papers since before the holidays. A recent Newsweek treatment cited the story in a tongue-in-cheek manner as an example of modern American paranoia. [See The Consortium, Jan. 20, 1997]
But for many Americans, the alleged CIA-contra role in the crack epidemic remains a question of whom to believe. In many ways, the story has pitted the new media vs. the old media, with the upstarts like the Internet, talk radio and a regional paper like the Mercury-News challenging the Establishment press, particularly The Washington Post and The New York Times.
It is also a story of grassroots efforts within the black community to challenge the powers-that-be and their reassuring declarations that the CIA is innocent. Besides the Black Caucus, comedian-activist Dick Gregory and talk-show host Joe Madison have been particularly vocal and active, pledging to fast until all relevant documents are disclosed. Joe Madison's radio show on WRC in Washington has devoted daily attention to the charges. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP, also have pressed the issue.
But these investigative efforts have run into a brickwall of disbelief and even ridicule from much of the Establishment press. Major newspapers have devoted unprecedented space in attempted debunkings of another newspaper's investigative work.
At times, the big papers have gone so far as to stifle attempts by the Mercury-News to defend itself. Since mid-October, The Washington Post has refused to run a letter by Mercury-News executive editor Jerry Ceppos responding to the Post's two-page-plus slamming of the Mercury-News series.
Ceppos, for instance, challenged the Post's criticism of the series for supposedly implicating the CIA in America's crack epidemic. Ceppos argued that "while there is considerable circumstantial evidence of CIA involvement with the leaders of the drug ring, we never reached or reported any definitive conclusion on CIA involvement."
In recent weeks, the dispute over the series has spilled into two academic journals, The Columbia Journalism Review and The American Journalism Review. Both published pieces that tried to sort through the media quarrels. But the two articles came to distinctly different evaluations of the Mercury-News series.
AJR's piece, "The Web That Gary Spun" by Alicia C. Shepard, embraces the mainstream press critiques and hits Webb's stories for exaggerating the CIA's involvement in the contra cocaine network. Shepard writes, "While the core of Webb's stories may be true, he has been chastised for overselling the story by writing it in a way that would lead reasonable readers to conclude that the CIA was involved in the drug trafficking." Shepard noted, for instance, that Webb described the contras as the "CIA's army," a complaint also raised by The Washington Post.
But the problem with Shepard's argument is that the contras indeed were, to a large degree, the "CIA's army," trained, financed and directed either by CIA officers or by Oliver North's associates. At one point in 1983, for instance, President Reagan turned to Duane Clarridge, the head of the CIA's Latin American Division, and complained, "can't you get those vandals of yours to do this job." [See The Consortium, Jan. 20, 1997]
In CJR's analysis, writer Peter Kornbluh concentrates on the larger point of the big media's failure to have pursued the contra cocaine allegations adequately in the 1980s. "Citizens and journalists alike are left to weigh the significant flaws of the piece against the value of putting a serious matter, one the press has failed to fully explore, back on the national agenda," wrote Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive.
Though the national press has apparently concluded that the contra-cocaine case is closed, Waters and other black leaders are not convinced. As a new congressional session opens, they seem determined to put this troubling controversy back on the national agenda.
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