The CIA thought it had buried a sordid story with the death of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb. Webb had spent years documenting the crack cocaine trade in the United States and the intelligence agency’s complicity in it.
Webb took his own life in 2004 after his 1996 “Dark Alliance” reporting series came under intense scrutiny from the heavy hitters of American journalism, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.
Unfortunately for US intelligence chiefs, the accusations made by Webb and other journalists have continued to flare up in popular culture, where the opportunity to combine two movie archetypes, the spook and the gangster, seems irresistible. Hollywood films like the 2014 Webb biopic Kill the Messenger and 2017’s American Made, with Tom Cruise as CIA pilot Barry Seal, have helped keep the allegations in public consciousness.
In the same year that Kill the Messenger came out, the Central Intelligence Agency released a previously classified 1997 article from its house journal titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story.” Its author, Nicholas Dujmovic, described the controversy as a symptom of escalating “public distrust in government,” with the CIA as an innocent bystander caught in the cross fire: “In such times, even fantastic allegations about CIA — JFK’s assassination, UFO coverups, or importing drugs into America’s cities — will resonate with, and even appeal to, much of American society.”
According to Dujmovic, the “Dark Alliance” affair had now “largely run its course,” leaving intelligence agents to bemoan the “scant public appreciation of their dedication and hard work” among the US citizenry:
Ultimately the CIA-drug story says a lot more about American society on the eve of the millennium than it does about either CIA or the media. We live in somewhat coarse and emotional times — when large numbers of Americans do not adhere to the same standards of logic, evidence, or even civil discourse as those practiced by members of the CIA community.
Happily, there were exceptions to this rule. Dujmovic credited “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists” with helping “prevent this story from becoming an unmitigated disaster” as the agency got its version of events across: “In the first few days, CIA media spokesmen would remind reporters seeking comment that this series represented no real news, in that similar charges were made in the 1980s and were investigated by the Congress and were found to be without substance.”
The Kerry Report
Although he did not mention it by name, Dujmovic can only have been referring to a report published in 1989 by Massachusetts senator John Kerry and his team after an investigation by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. If the CIA really considers the Kerry Committee report to be an exoneration of its record, it is hard to know what it might view as an indictment.
While Kerry did not find evidence that CIA bosses had deliberately orchestrated the sale of drugs in US cities, his conclusions were still damning:
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 report quoted testimony from the head of the CIA’s Central American Task Force, Alan Fiers, about links between the Contras and drug smuggling: “It is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people.” Referring to one high-profile Contra leader, Edén Pastora, Fiers was equally candid: “We knew that everyone around Pastora was involved in cocaine.”
The pattern of complicity did not begin or end in Langley. Justice Department officials were still denying the allegations in 1986, the report notes, even though the FBI had “significant information regarding the involvement of narcotics traffickers in Contra operations” in its possession by that point. For its part, the State Department had “selected four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers to supply humanitarian assistance to the Contras.” It was still doing business with one firm, DIACSA, six months after its principals were indicted for cocaine smuggling and money laundering.
Right-wing Cuban exiles with strong ties to the US government, especially the CIA, had been heavily involved in supporting the Contras: “Their help, which included supplies and training, was funded in part with drug money.” Kerry’s committee found that the largest Contra group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, “did move Contra funds through a narcotics trafficking enterprise and money laundering operation.” This kind of activity was an open secret in government circles:
U.S. officials involved in assisting the Contras knew that drug smugglers were exploiting the clandestine infrastructure established to support the war and that Contras were receiving assistance derived from drug trafficking. Instead of reporting these individuals to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, it appears that some officials may have turned a blind eye to these activities.
Reagan administration official Oliver North’s diary was heavily redacted before the Iran-Contra hearings, but it still contained entries like “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.” from August 1985. The Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega also benefited from Washington’s indulgence, as the report pointed out: “Each U.S. government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellin cartel.”
Turning a Blind Eye
The findings of the Kerry Commission report offer ample support for the accusations of at least indirect CIA facilitation of the drug trade. Even the agency’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, grudgingly confirmed the broad thrust of the “turning a blind eye” charge: “There are instances where CIA did not in an expeditious or consistent fashion cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.”
At this point, we might want to imagine the relevant quotes from Hitz or the Kerry report, but with the letters “KGB” in place of “CIA.” If Soviet intelligence agents had evinced a similar record of collusion with drug traffickers bringing tons of cocaine into the United States, we would not have been asking whether they deliberately set out to foster a social catastrophe or simply didn’t care what happened at the other end of their carefully constructed supply chains.
To put it another way: when banks like Wachovia and HSBC have had to pay out massive fines —$1.9 billion in the case of HSBC — for helping Mexican cartels launder their profits, nobody has sought to defend them on the grounds that they just wanted to make money and only dealt with the cartels because those groups had plenty of it.
So how could “Managing a Nightmare” refer so confidently to the “CIA drug conspiracy story” as a discredited fable that bore a closer resemblance to The X-Files than All The President’s Men? Dujmovic declared himself to be pleasantly surprised by the record of the US media: “The journalistic profession has the will and the ability to hold its own members to certain standards.” Members of the CIA’s Public Affairs staff were soon “fielding calls from a variety of reporters who were skeptical of the allegations and who were planning to write articles casting doubt on the Mercury-News series.”
In a 1997 article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Peter Kornbluh took a far more acerbic view of his colleagues’ record. As Kornbluh noted, there was a long history of gatekeeping in this field, which dated back to the release of the Iran-Contra report in November 1987:
When an investigative reporter rose to ask the lead counsel of the committees whether the lawmakers had come across any connection between the contras and drug-smuggling, a New York Times correspondent screamed derisively at him from across the aisle: “Why don’t you ask a serious question?”
When John Kerry’s team published its own report two years later, the response of major press outlets “constituted little more than a collective yawn . . . the Washington Post ran a short article on page a20 that focused as much on the infighting within the committee as on its findings; the New York Times ran a short piece on A8; the Los Angeles Times ran a 589-word story on A11.” The same newspapers devoted vastly more space to picking apart Gary Webb’s Mercury News series seven years later.
It was Webb and his editors who finally put the issue on the news agenda in 1996, assisted by the rise of the internet and by black radio stations that amplified (and sometimes embellished) the principal claims. America’s leading broadsheets then set about tearing Webb’s story down — in particular the Los Angeles Times, which assigned a squad of seventeen reporters to the task. One member described it pithily as the “get Gary Webb team.”
Inevitably, they were able to find some holes in the Mercury News articles. Reporting on the activity of criminal gangs, paramilitary groups, and intelligence agencies is not like reporting on Capitol Hill: the leading actors try very hard to cover their tracks, leaving major gaps in the documentary record, and individual pieces of evidence will often be open to multiple interpretations.
Even so, some of the “corrections” published by the LA Times were much more doubtful than Webb’s original reporting. One article accused Webb of grossly inflating the role of “Freeway” Rick Ross, a Los Angeles drug dealer who also features in Stanley Nelson’s 2021 documentary Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy. According to the Times, Ross was really a minor figure, of no great consequence in the story of crack. Yet it had published a story three years earlier making precisely the opposite claim, with a byline from one of the same reporters: “If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack’s decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick.”
Most of the rebuttals in US media really addressed a charge that Webb had not made but that soon became widespread in African-American communities: not only had the CIA turned a blind eye to drug trafficking, it had actually encouraged the proliferation of crack as part of a deliberate strategy to roll back the political gains of the 1960s and ’70s. It was perfectly understandable, after the experiences of COINTELPRO, Reaganomics, and mass incarceration, that many black people were willing to believe such allegations. Even if the evidence does not support the strong version of this thesis, the well-documented truth is scarcely less damning.
In November 1996, CIA director John Deutch agreed to face the music at a community meeting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. On the eve of his appearance, Kornbluh summed up the agency’s dilemma:
To counter extreme charges that the CIA targeted communities of color for crack distribution to finance the Contra war, Deutch must concede a different, but equally scandalous truth: the willingness of national security officials to consort with dope peddlers simply because they had a contribution to make to the covert war against Sandinista Nicaragua. It will be up to Deutch to convince those who have suffered from this chilling set of Cold War priorities that the CIA is now committed to preventing the criminalization of national security doctrine.
The “Dark Alliance” story caught the public imagination because of its relevance to a catastrophic social problem in the United States itself. But the link between US foreign policy and drug trafficking did not begin or end with Central America in the 1980s. Clandestine operations foster such enterprises in much the same way that swamps foster malaria. In the 1950s, the CIA sent weapons to anti-communist Chinese warlords who had crossed over into northern Burma, enabling them to carve out their own slice of territory. The warlords started growing opium to fund their activities, and the Golden Triangle was born.
Robert Oakley, US ambassador to Pakistan between 1988 and 1991, complained that the local CIA station was working hand in glove with Afghan mujahideen leaders who were heavily involved in the narcotics trade, even after the withdrawal of Soviet troops:
I kept asking the Station to obtain information on this traffic from its sources inside Afghanistan. They denied that they had any sources capable of doing so. They could not deny that they had sources, since we were getting information on weapons and other matters. I even raised the matter with [CIA chief] Bill Webster. Never got a satisfactory answer. Nothing ever happened.
Langley’s chosen partners included future Taliban ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The Kerry report linked the practices that it documented in Latin America to the wider environment of the Cold War: “the operations of the cartels too often have been viewed as an adjunct to what has been perceived as the more important issue of East-West conflict in the region.” Soon after the report’s appearance, the Berlin Wall came down, but the “criminalization of national security doctrine” has still been very much in evidence over the last three decades.
The US relationship with Colombian president Álvaro Uribe offers one striking example. During his first term in office, Uribe brought in the so-called “Justice and Peace Law,” granting amnesty to right-wing paramilitary leaders who had killed many thousands of Colombian civilians. The Colombian courts later ruled that the terms of the law were unconstitutional. The paramilitary chiefs, now facing the prospect of serious jail time, felt that Uribe had betrayed them, and they were about to start speaking freely about his long record of collusion with their activities.
Happily for Uribe, he had friends in Washington ready to help him out of a sticky situation. The paramilitaries were wanted for drug trafficking offenses in the United States, but Uribe had hitherto refused to extradite them. He suddenly reversed that policy and had them bundled out of the country overnight so that no Colombian judge could interfere. Infamous figures like Salvatore Mancuso now passed into the hands of the US authorities.
A 2016 New York Times investigation found some extraordinary irregularities in the handling of their cases:
The leaders extradited en masse will have served an average of 10 years, at most, for drug conspiracies that involved tons of cocaine. By comparison, federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine trafficking — mostly street-level dealers who sold less than an ounce — serve on average just over 12 years in prison . . .. [T]hey were treated as first-time offenders despite extensive criminal histories in Colombia; and they received credit for time served there, even though the official rationale for their extradition was that they were committing crimes in Colombian jails.
US legal officials involved in handling the men’s cases, none of which went to trial, had no qualms about expressing their admiration and respect for the narcos. One judge described the man he was sentencing as being “substantively different” from run-of-the-mill crime lords, since he used the money from drug trafficking to help fund a war against the Colombian left: “he was engaged in some activity that had some positive perspectives.” A federal narcotics prosecutor was equally generous in his assessment: “Clearly, they did some nasty things. But, you know, it was a civil war down there. I always wanted to believe that if I was put in the same situation, I would have done things differently. But I don’t know.”
By any rational standard, the fact that the paramilitary leaders had used their drug profits to pay for a campaign of mass murder should have been an aggravating factor, resulting in stiffer sentences.
The dark alliances that helped foster a social calamity during the 1980s and ’90s fit into a much larger pattern. There’s a chasm between “national security” as interpreted by government agencies like the CIA and the actual security of US citizens. In the name of protecting the homeland and keeping its people safe, these agencies have consistently pursued policies that increased the dangers they were supposed to combat.
The work of reporters like Gary Webb brought that reality home to everyone who suffered, directly or indirectly, from the explosion of crack addiction and the violent criminality that accompanied it. The intelligence agency’s PR nightmare was the shadow cast by a real nightmare in urban neighborhoods throughout the United States.