LOYAL OPPOSITION: In Plain Sight: The CIA Keeps Getting Away With It
A few weeks ago, the House intelligence committee released a 44-page report that declared the CIA had nothing to do with the rise of crack in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Why did the Agency need to be exonerated of such malfeasance? Because a controversial 1996 San Jose Mercury News series by reporter Gary Webb exposed a group of California-based Nicaraguan drug-dealers who in the 1980s had supported the Nicaraguan contra rebels battling the leftist Sandinista regime. The contras, of course, had been a pet project of President Ronald Reagan and the covert cowboys he put in charge at the CIA. The headlines on the Mercury News pieces suggested that this particular band of contra backers shared responsibility for triggering the crack wave that wreaked havoc on inner-city communities across the nation. "America's crack plague has roots in Nicaragua war," read the day-one headline. "Shadowy origins of 'crack' epidemic," read the next day's. "Role of CIA-linked agents a well-protected secret until now." Thousands rushed to read the stories on the newspaper's website. The phonelines at black radio talk shows lit up. Members of Congress, particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus, demanded answers from the CIA. (Even today, the CIA says that its recruitment of African-Americans suffers because of these stories.) The CIA director at the time, John Deutch, felt obligated to attend a town meeting in Watts to deny the charges.
And what passes for investigation in Washington began. The CIA's inspector general examined the allegations of the "Dark Alliance" series. The Justice Department did the same. Not surprisngly, the CIA's own gumshoes -- and those of Justice -- pronounced the CIA not guilty of complicity in the crack explosion. Webb's series had its problems. He had unearthed a good tale of contra drug involvement, but he had not uncovered a definite link between the Agency and these dealers, and his suggestion that this one drug outfit was instrumental to the birth of crack epidemic was far-fetched. Now, the House intelligence committee, nearly four years later, has seconded the verdicts of the CIA and the Justice Department: "The commitee found no evidence to support the allegations that CIA agents or assests associated with the contra movement were involved in the supply or sale of drugs in the Los Angeles area."
But the case is not closed -- that is, it should not be closed. The spies' overseers in the House -- the people who keep an eye on the CIA for the rest of us -- also confirmed, in a quiet fashion, the real dirty secret of the CIA: that during the contra war, the Agency worked hand-in-cloak with persons it had reason to believe were smuggling drugs. In a report released in late 1998, the CIA inspector general acknowledged that the Agency, obsessed with its contra mission, had on a number of occasions collaborated with suspected drug-runners. This should have been a scandal in itself. The report provided the details of several examples. It also noted that the "CIA did not inform Congress of all allegations or information it received indicating that Contra-related organizations or individuals were involved in drug trafficking." Put more bluntly: the CIA had covered up the contra-drug connection. A CIA official who served in Central America told the inspector general, "Yes there [was] derogatory stuff [on the cotnras] ... but we were going to play with these guys." Webb had gotten near this truth. In the middle of the just-say-no Reagan years, a federal agency had indeed struck a "dark alliance" -- not the one Webb had depicted, but one as disturbing. This revelation, though, received scant media attention; most news coverage echoed the CIA's self-exoneration regarding the crack charges.
The House intelligence committee investigation repeats the pattern. The bulk of the report is directed at disputing the crack allegations. But toward the end there is understated recognition that scandalous CIA activity did happen: "As described in Volume II of the CIA IG report, under various circumstances, the CIA made use of or maintained relationships with a number of individuals associated with the Contras or the Contra-supply effort about whom the CIA had knowledge of information or allegations indicating the individuals had been involved in drug trafficking."
Now why does the House intelligence committee have nothing else to say on this front? It preferred flogging Webb one more time to examining the real skulduggery. Moreover, the committee interviewed several senior CIA managers, and these people insisted they could only recall only one single report of contra-related drug-dealing. But with the CIA inspector general having determined there had been many such instances, it's plauisble (make that, likely) that these CIA officals did not speak truthfully to the commitee. Did the committee's report address this contradiction and the possibility CIA offi cials had once again withheld information from Congress? Not at all. And the House's report registered barely a blip in the national news media.
When the CIA released the IG report that acknowleged the contra program had been tainted by drugs, Frederick Hitz, then the inspector general, said the study was merely a start: "This is grist for more work, if anyone wants to do it." A year and a half has passed since then, and it is clear that no one in government has the desire to pursue this topic. The House intelligence committee is positioned to do so. But it is more concerned with bolstering the CIA than in providing an independent and thorough look at this ugly piece of recent history. Al Gore could raise the issue -- as a reminder of what happened the last time Republicans controlled the CIA -- but then he would have to explain why his administration has shown no inclination to hold the Agency accountable. George W. Bush is hardly able to complain about lackadaisacal oversight of the CIA. When the spies were hobnobbing with suspected drug runners,they were doing so to implement the pro-contra policies of the Reagan-Bush White House. (And the CIA headquarters is now named after George the Elder, who was a CIA director in the 1970s.) It's in no one's interest in Washington to make a stink. The CIA is permitted to slither off. This is not a cover-up; it's a look-away. Reagan and Bush's CIA made common cause with suspected drug thugs and ... no big deal. Nevertheless, it will be worth keeping this nasty episode in mind, for when the ailing Reagan expires, the media hoopla will overflow with praise of the Old Man.Yet nothing that happened in Bill Clinton's Oval Office was as untoward as what went on in Reagan's CIA.
Every wonder if the people running the world know what they're talking about? Alas, that cannot be said of James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank. He was recently in the Netherlands for a meeting on aid for developing nations and, according to the newspaper De Volksrant, he reported that he was "very afraid" about the upcoming World Bank and International Monetary Fund gathering in Prague this September. What frightens Wolfensohn is not a replay of the peaceful demonstrations that greeted the Bank's meeting in Washington in April. He worries that in Prague there will be violence. "In America," Wolfensohn explained, "there is a militant group called Ruckus. This group is already training for Prague. They teach you how to make Molotov cocktails and how you can protest in violent ways. A female American millionaire is behind the organization."
Wolfensohn was being damn foolish. He was talking about the Ruckus Society, a Berkeley-based group that has an obsession with non-violence. Had he bothered to glance at its website, he would have found that its mission statement notes that it "provides training in the skills of non-violent civil disobedience to help environmental and human rights organizaitons achieve their goals." Throughout the site, the group emphasizes its commitment to non-violence. It does preach confrontation, but not conflagration. There are no recipes for flaming projectiles.
The Ruckus Society has a record as well. It was started in 1995 by Mike Roselle, a co-founder of Earth First! and Rainforest Action Network. It helped actor Woody Harrelson dangle from the Golden Gate Bridge for an action supporting old-growth forests. It held an alternative spring-break camp in Florida this year, where it taught students how to climb buildings, form blockades, and concoct media-ready soundbites. In April, it trained the activists who demonstrated -- non-violently -- against the Bank. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, has offered to post bail for its employees who take part in a Ruckus action. This is not the Weather Underground.
As for the lady millionaire behind the group, Wolfensohn probably was referring to Anita Roddick, the Body Shop baroness who is on the board of the group. But she's British, not American. And the group's budget of $370,0000 -- it's hoping to hit $600,000 this year -- comes from foundation grants and individual donors. (Its budget would pay for three mid-level Bank officials.) So, obviously, Wolfensohn the fear-monger is clueless when discusssing the Bank's foes. Is he any more credible when he claims the Bank is doing all it can to battle global poverty?
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation and author of Deep Background, a novel of political suspense.