Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
The new movie “Kill the Messenger,” about journalist Gary Webb’s investigation into the connection between Contra drug running and the CIA in the 80s, is not exactly water cooler material at the moment. As of this writing Box Office Mojo has its widest release as 427 theaters (compare to 3,173 for the current box office champ), and it doesn’t seem to have much of a marketing push behind it (your mileage may vary). But what it lacks in mainstream buzz it’s making up for in political controversy. Washington Post assistant managing editor Jeff Leen published a piece last Friday decrying Webb’s “canonization” on film, and in doing so invited a new round of scrutiny of the Contra/CIA connection.
The best place to start reviewing the story is the 1989 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee titled Drugs, Law Enforcement And Foreign Policy (I’ve scanned it with optical character recognition at the original post if you’d like to copy and paste as well as read). It covers a lot of territory, but the sections on Nicaragua are especially interesting when considering Webb’s reporting seven years later.
What did the Committee have to say? First, on page 6 (page 16 of the PDF – add ten pages to the PDF to get to the corresponding Committee pagination) it acknowledges one of the difficulties with investigating a criminal enterprise: “A number of witnesses and prospective witnesses were convicted felons, having been imprisoned for narcotics-related offenses. The Subcommittee made use of these witnesses in Accordance with the practice of Federal and State prosecutors, who routinely rely on convicts as witnesses in criminal trials because they are the ones with the most intimate knowledge of the criminal activity.” When wading into a cesspool of corruption it is often difficult to figure out which scumbag to believe. Relying on things like statements against interest can help sort things out, but it’s obviously going to be an inexact science.
That acknowledged, here’s what they found. The Contras were involved in drug running and US agencies knew it (p. 36):
While the contra/drug question was not the primary focus of the investigation, the Subcommittee uncovered considerable evidence relating to the Contra network which substantiated many of the initial allegations laid out before the Committee in the Spring of 1986. On the basis of this evidence, 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. 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.
The entire gun/drug scene was mercenary (pp. 36-7):
The Subcommittee found that the links that were forged between the Contras and the drug traffickers were primarily pragmatic, rather than ideological. The drug traffickers, who had significant financial and material resources, needed the cover of legitimate activity for their criminal enterprises. A trafficker like George Morales hoped to have his drug indictment dropped in return for his financial and material support of the Contras. Others, in the words of Marcos Aguado, Eden Pastora’s air force chief:
…took advantage Of the anti-communist sentiment which existed in Central America … and they undoubtedly used it for drug trafficking.
While for some Contras, it was a matter of survival, for the traffickers it was just another business deal to promote and protect their own operations.
They apparently were graduates not of the School of the Americas but the Milo Minderbinder Institute for Profiteering (p. 40):
When the Sandinista insurgency succeeded in 1979, smuggling activity in northern Costa Rica did not stop. Surplus weapons originally stored in Costa Rica for use by the Sandinistas were sold on the black market in the region. Some of these weapons were shipped to the Salvadoran rebels from the same airstrips in the same planes, flown by the same pilots who had previously worked for the Sandinistas.
The drug lords were only too happy to benefit (p. 41):
Following their work on behalf of the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran rebels, the Colombian and Panamanian drug operatives were well positioned to exploit the infrastructure now serving and supplying the Contra Southern Front [a Contra base just across the border in Costa Rica]. This infrastructure was increasingly important to the drug traffickers, as this was the very period  in which the cocaine trade to the U.S. from Latin America was growing exponentially.
The Contras were funded by drug money and that was fine with at least some of the individuals running the show (p. 41):
The logic of having drug money pay for the pressing needs of the Contras appealed to a number of people who became involved in the covert war. Indeed, senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contra’s funding problems.
As DEA officials testified last July before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Lt. Col. Oliver North suggested to the DEA in June 1985 that $1.5 million in drug money carried aboard a plane piloted by DEA informant Barry Seal and generated in a sting of the Medellin Cartel and Sandinista officials, be provided to the Contras. While the suggestion was rejected by the DEA, the fact that it was made highlights the potential appeal of drug profits for persons engaged in covert activity.
[Werner] Lotz [a Costa Rican pilot and convicted drug smuggler] said that Contra operations on the Southern Front were in fact funded by drug operations. He testified that weapons for the Contras came from Panama on small planes carrying mixed loads which included drugs. The pilots unloaded the weapons, refueled, and headed north toward the U.S. with drugs. The pilots included Americans, Panamanians, and Colombians, and occasionally, uniformed members of the Panamanian Defense Forces.
We have the names of some of those running drugs to the US (p. 43):
Pilots who made combined Contra weapons/drug flights through the Southern Front included:
— Gerardo Duran, a Costa Rican pilot in the airplane parts supply business. Duran flew for a variety of Contra organizations on the Southern Front, including those affiliated with Alfonso Robelo, Fernando “El Negro” Chamorro, and Eden Pastora, before U.S. officials insisted that the Contras sever their ties from Duran because of his involvement with drugs. Duran was convicted of narcotics trafficking in Costa Rica in 1987 and jailed.
— Gary Wayne Betzner, drug pilot who worked for convicted smuggler George Morales. Betzner testified that twice in 1984 he flew weapons for the Contras from the U.S. to northern Costa Rica and returned to the United States with loads of cocaine. Betzner is presently serving a lengthy prison term for drug smuggling.
— Jose “Chepon” Robelo, the head of UDN-FARN air force on the Southern front. Robelo turned to narcotics trafficking and reselling goods provided to the Contras by the U.S.
And we know at least one city the drugs were being flown to (p. 46):
In September, 1984, Miami police officials advised the FBI of information they had received that Ocean Hunter [a money laundering operation fronting as a seafood company] was funding contra activities through “narcotics transactions,” and nothing that Luis Rodriguez was its president. This information confirmed previous accounts the FBI had received concerning the involvement of Ocean Hunter and its officers in Contra supply operations involving the Cuban American community.
To recap: Various undifferentiated groups of psychopaths were fighting endless internecine wars against each other and wreaking havoc on the civilian populations that had the misfortune to be nearby. The engine for these conflicts was a professional class of amoral drug kingpins and bagmen who set up a drug pipeline to America. And the US, apparently in search of adventure, decided to pick a side. In other words, an appalling scandal.
The report gives the most generous possible interpretation for this by introducing the “blind eye” narrative (p. 44):
At best, these incidents represent negligence on the part of U.S. government officials responsible for providing support to the Contras. At worst it was a matter of turning a blind eye, to the, activities of companies who use legitimate activities as a cover for their narcotics trafficking.
But there are still some open questions (p. 42):
The State Department selected four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers to supply humanitarian assistance to the Contras…In each case, prior to the time that the State Department entered into contracts with the company, federal law enforcement had received information that the individuals controlling these companies were involved in narcotics…A number of questions arise as a result of the selection of these four companies by the State Department for the provision of humanitarian assistance to the contras, to which the Subcommittee has been unable to obtain clear answers:
— Who selected these firms to provide services to the Contras, paid for with public funds, and what criteria were used for selecting them?
— Were any U.S. officials in the CIA, NSC, or State Department aware of the narcotics allegations associated with any of these companies? If so, why were these firms permitted to receive public funds on behalf of the Contras?
— Why were Contra suppliers not checked against federal law enforcement records that would have shown them to be either under active investigation as drug traffickers, or in the case of DIASCA, actually under indictment?
The concern highlights the degree to which the infrastructure used by the Contras and that used by drug traffickers was potentially interchangeable, even in a situation in which the U.S. government had itself established and maintained the airstrip involved.
The whole operation crippled attempts to come to grips with the drug problem (p. 123):
The most graphic example of this Conflict between law enforcement and foreign policy priorities is that of Richard Gregorie, who for eight years led the war on drugs in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami. He had achieved a reputation as one of the nation’s most effective and toughest federal narcotics prosecutors.
Yet, Gregorie, in frustration, resigned his position in January of this year due to increasing opposition he was meeting from the State Department to his investigations and indictments of foreign officials.
In an interview with NBC, aired on February 22, 1989, Gregorie said the opposition from the State Department made it almost impossible to pursue top cocaine bosses. He stated, in that interview: “I am finding the higher we go, the further I investigate matters involving Panama, high level corruption in Colombia, in Honduras, in the Bahamas, they are concerned that we are going to cause a problem in foreign policy areas and that that is more important than stopping the dope problem.”
Lastly, the drug runners were remarkably effective at evading law enforcement – but then their luck began running out (p. 53):
Thomas Castillo, the former CIA station chief in Costa Rica, who was indicted in connection with the Iran/Contra affair, testified before the Iran/Contra Committees that when the CIA became aware of narcotics trafficking by Pastorals supporters and lieutenants, those individuals’ activities were reported to law enforcement officials. However, Morales continued to work with the Contras until January 1986. He was indicted for a second time in the Southern District of Florida for a January 1986 cocaine flight to Bahamas and was arrested on June 12, 1986.
In October 1986 Congress approved $100 million in funds for the Contras. Is it too much to think that the plug got pulled on such an unsavory clandestine operation in anticipation of a windfall of taxpayer money? And that there may have been some kind of extraordinary forbearance shown to the drug runners when they had no public funding? Sure, that would mean something more than studied ignorance was going on – which would conflict with the preferred version of events. But the Committee report establishes a solid foundation for anyone looking to fill in the gaps. I don’t know how anyone can read that report and conclude, as Leen does, that it’s the final word on the matter. It’s just the opposite: an invitation to further investigation.
Given the vast scope of the program, its duration, and the abundance of details provided by the report, it strains credulity to think that the entire time US operatives were just standing on the sideline watching. So when, years later, Webb accepted the invitation, the resulting series shouldn’t have been seen as a fundamental change of narrative. Rather, it was a clarification of the blind eye/active encouragement questions left open by the Committee report. Why was it so explosive then? Robert Parry has a thought:
Webb’s series wasn’t just a story about drug traffickers in Central America and their protectors in Washington. It was about the on-the-ground consequences, inside the United States, of that drug trafficking, how the lives of Americans were blighted and destroyed as the collateral damage of a U.S. foreign policy initiative.
In other words, there were real-life American victims, and they were concentrated in African-American communities. That meant the ever-sensitive issue of race had been injected into the controversy. Anger from black communities spread quickly to the Congressional Black Caucus, which started demanding answers.
It’s one thing to write about trafficking and smuggling. It’s quite another to identify the destination of that traffic and into whose hands the smuggled goods ended. Webb’s series has been preserved by Narco News, and you can read part one, part two and part three for yourself. Webb’s pieces sound a number of themes from the Committee report, such as the frustration of drug investigations:
Agents from four organizations — the DEA, U.S. Customs, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement — have complained that investigations were hampered by the CIA or unnamed “national security” interests.
And the withdrawal of support for the program:
According to a December 1986 FBI Teletype, [Bradley] Brunon [defense attorney for Contra leader and drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes] told the officers that the “CIA winked at this sort of thing. … (Brunon) indicated that now that U.S. Congress had voted funds for the Nicaraguan Contra movement, U.S. government now appears to be turning against organizations like this.”…Blandon has also implied that his cocaine sales were, for a time, CIA-approved. He told a San Francisco federal grand jury in 1994 that once the FDN began receiving American taxpayer dollars, the CIA no longer needed his kind of help.
That last quote actually supports the “blind eye” theory and just calls it a wink instead. But here’s the rub: you can’t reconcile a wink with the change in the smugglers’ fortunes post-Congressional funding. If some person or agency was clearing the field for those activities – and again, the Committee report suggests as much, it’s not new – then the blind eye narrative is blown out of the water.
We aren’t talking blind eye anymore, but neither are we talking about CIA agents selling drugs in south central Los Angeles. So it’s ludicrous for Leen to write Webb claimed “the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America.” Why resort to such hyperbolic falsehood? Maybe because knocking out the support from under the blind eye version of events would be incredibly damaging to the CIA’s reputation and credibility (and Leen seems particularly sympathetic to the agency). So instead of trying to re-establish blind eye, Leen makes an outlandish characterization of Webb’s reporting. Readers who are not familiar with it (and Leen unhelpfully does not provide links) will be inclined to think Webb a crank and his reporting discredited.
What’s even more extraordinary is that Leen was “an investigative reporter covering the drug trade for the Miami Herald” during the time in question. While he was on that beat the United States Senate released a report disclosing, among other things, that a money laundering operation in Miami was funding the Contras through drug sales. Yet he writes:
Beginning in 1985, journalists started pursuing tips about the CIA’s role in the drug trade. Was the agency allowing cocaine to flow into the United States as a means to fund its secret war supporting the contra rebels in Nicaragua? Many journalists, including me, chased that story from different angles, but the extraordinary proof was always lacking.
Weren’t the activities of Ocean Hunter, helpfully supplied by the Senate – no chasing required! – worthy of a deep dive? It’s just astounding that the abundance of leads in the Committee report was taken not as the jumping off point for a whole new round of investigations but the final word on the CIA’s blamelessness. Parry has an apt description (via Charles Pierce) of Leen’s brand of investigative journalism:
journalists need “extraordinary proof” if a story puts the U.S. government or an “ally” in a negative light but pretty much anything goes when criticizing an “enemy.”
If, for instance, the Post wanted to accuse the Syrian government of killing civilians with Sarin gas or blame Russian-backed rebels for the shoot-down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, any scraps of proof – no matter how dubious – would be good enough (as was the actual case in 2013 and 2014, respectively).
However, if new evidence undercut those suspicions and shifted the blame to people on “the U.S. side” – say, the Syrian rebels and the Ukrainian government – then the standards of proof suddenly skyrocket beyond reach.
“Extraordinary proof” is not an ironclad principle adhered to though the heavens may fall, but a tactic that is first evaluated against political exigency.
In the comments to Leen’s piece (the Post doesn’t permalink comments, so either wade through them yourself or trust me on this one) linerider writes:
As stated before Webb all but claimed the CIA created the crack epidemic. Go back and read the articles. Not simply that they ignored their sources in the business; not that drugs weren’t a national security issue to them, but that real, honest-to-god spooks ran drugs. That’s the inference. They didn’t and running with that lead discredited everything else he wrote.
Was the CIA wrong in turning a blind eye to the traffickers? As much so as they are in turning a blind eye to anyone who provides a major need in the fulfillment of our national goals. Would they ignore drug trafficking being done by, say the Kurds, if the Kurds were using the money to fight ISIS? Would the nation consider that acceptable? And would we claim that the CIA was all but running the drugs into the United States by associating with Kurds and ignoring that backdoor funding or would we recognize the nuance – a nuance rarely found in the age of 7 day/24 hour internet reporting?
I have no idea who that individual is, but the comment is a great example of Washington’s perpetual conflict mentality, beginning with the smearing of a credible report (“Webb all but claimed the CIA created the crack epidemic…That’s the inference.”) Go back and read the articles indeed.
The second paragraph is the really interesting one, though. How would we think about its contemporary analogue? Would we be OK with the Kurds running heroin to the US (ideally in a newly engineered form that made it cheaper, more potent, and suitable for transport to America’s urban areas, I suppose)? God knows the war-firsters have been hyping the nonexistent threat from ISIS and would like nothing more than to drop another round of freedom bombs. Launching a new war certainly casts a new light on a little smuggling. So would we recognize the, ahem, nuance? Personally, I’d say absolutely fucking not, and the suggestion that this is some kind of grey area is indicative of a terribly skewed moral compass. But as a window into a certain kind of bellicose mindset I find it fascinating.
More importantly, consider this. In Webb’s first article he describes the Contra war as “barely a memory today.” It turns out the Sandinistas weren’t so important after all. Looking back, it seems hard to believe the US went to such lengths to oppose them. That’s why linerider’s analogy is so valuable. ISIS poses the same threat to us now that the Sandinistas did in the 80s. If we resist the urge to turn them into heroes and martyrs, they will burn out or fade away. Yet now, as then, a wildly exaggerated threat is being hyped. Now, as then, we don’t know much about who we are being asked to support. Now, as then, we don’t really know what’s happening on the ground. You don’t need to be Nostradamus to see how this will all look in twenty or thirty years. But by then we will be on to our next wild ride, and the next Gary Webb – should we be fortunate enough to have one – will be long fallen from respectability.
- A couple noteworthy comments to the Washington Post article. I found the Committee report courtesy of Patrick J. Kiger:
Forget about whether or not Webb overreached. Read the Kerry committee report http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB113/north06.pdf In it, you have operatives in a CIA and NSC-run operation who are simultaneously involved in drug trafficking, including (on page 42) a pilot who flew guns to the Contras and then returned to the US with drugs. This is just a sample of the sort of stuff than went on during the Reagan administration, some of which makes the Right’s worst allegations against President Obama look trivial.
Geri72 wrote the following about the film’s distribution:
Is it also worth noting that the distributors of this film, Focus, have absolutely killed it. They have done the barest minimum of marketing and instead of slowly increasing the number of screens to allow for word of mouth, they dumped it in a few hundred, which is both too many and not enough; too many to be costly to sustain without an audience primed and ready, too few to get the word out on social media. It is likely they will pull it completely within the next week or so.
- Leen makes much of how Webb’s editor “backed away” from (note: not retracted) the story. Among the items:
Blandon testified he stopped sending cocaine profits to the Contras at the end of 1982, after being in operation for a year.
The evidence also suggested that millions in profits were sent to the Contras from cocaine sales to Ross and others, Ceppos wrote…”We didn’t know for certain what the profits were, and I feel that we should have made it clear that our figures were estimates,” Ceppos wrote.
The clarifications don’t change the thesis, though. The Contras were getting drug profits, but for not as long (in one case, anyway) as indicated. They were making lots of money from drug sales, but only estimates are available. It seems to me a journalist worth his salt would take these items as a reason to dig further into rather than bury the story.
- Beginning on page 124 of the Committee report is a section titled “THE CONSEQUENCES OF PRIVATIZING U.S. FOREIGN POLICY.” It’s worth looking at both for its historical value and how it foreshadowed subsequent developments in that area.
- Lest you think intelligence and executive branch agencies giving Congress the finger is a recent development, look at the following from the report.
Pp. 38-9 (emphasis added):
On May 6, 1986, a bipartisan group of Committee staff met with representatives of the Justice Department, FBI, DEA, CIA and State Department to discuss the allegations that Senator Kerry had received information of Neutrality Act Violations, gun running and drug trafficking in association with Contra organizations based on the Southern Front in Costa Rica.
In the days leading up to the meeting, Justice Department spokesmen were stating publicly that “the FBI had conducted an inquiry into all of these charges and none of them have any substance. At that meeting, Justice Department officials privately contradicted the numerous public statements from the Department that these allegations had been investigated thoroughly and were determined to be without foundation. The Justice Department officials at the meeting said the public statements by Justice were “inaccurate.” The Justice officials confirmed there were ongoing Neutrality. Act investigations in connection with the allegations raised by Senator Kerry.
At the same meeting, representatives of the CIA categorically denied that the Neutrality Act violations raised by the Committee staff had in fact taken place, citing classified documents which the CIA did not make available to the Committee. In fact, at the time, the FBI had already assembled substantial information confirming the Neutrality Act violations, including admissions by some of the persons involved indicating that crimes had taken place.
The Justice Department refused to provide any information in response to this request on the grounds that the information remained under active investigation, and that the Committee’s “rambling through open investigations gravely risks compromising those efforts.”
At the May 6, 1986 meeting with Committee staff, the CIA categorically denied that weapons had been shipped to the Contras from the United States on the flights involving Rene Corbo, noting that the material on which they were basing these assertions was classified, and suggested that the allegations that had been made to the contrary were the result of disinformation.
In fact, as the FBI had previously learned from informants, Cuban American supporters of the Contras had shipped weapons from south Florida to Ilopango, and from there to John Hull’s airstrips in Costa Rica.
These agencies have learned they can act with impunity towards Congress, which doesn’t inspire confidence in the end product of the upcoming torture report.