2014-10-20 00:48:58 UTC
News October 9, 2014The Sordid Contra-Cocaine SagaIf you ever
wondered how the mainstream U.S. media changed from the hard-nosed
Watergate press of the 1970s into the brown-nose MSM that swallowed the
Iraq War lies, a key middle point was the Contra-cocaine scandal of the
1980s/1990s, the subject of a new movie.By Robert Parry*
The movie, âKill the Messenger,â is forcing the mainstream U.S. media to
confront one of its most shameful episodes, the suppression of a major
national security scandal implicating Ronald Reaganâs CIA in aiding and
abetting cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s
and then the systematic destruction of journalist Gary Webb when he revived
the scandal in the 1990s.
Hollywoodâs treatment of this sordid affair will likely draw another
defensive or dismissive response from some of the big news outlets that
still donât want to face up to their disgraceful behavior. The New York
Times and other major newspapers mocked the Contra-cocaine scandal when
Brian Barger and I first exposed it in 1985 for the Associated Press and
then savaged Webb in 1996 when he traced some of the Contra-cocaine into
the manufacture of crack which ravaged American cities.
[image: Jeremy Renner, portraying journalist Gary Webb, in a scene from the
motion picture "Kill the Messenger." (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick Focus Features)]
Jeremy Renner, portraying journalist Gary Webb, in a scene from the motion
picture âKill the Messenger.â
(Photo: Chuck Zlotnick Focus Features)
So, when youâre watching this movie or responding to questions from friends
about whether they should believe its storyline, you might want to know
what is or is not fact. What is remarkable about this tale is that so much
of it now has been established by official government documents. In other
words, you donât have to believe me and my dozens of sources; you can turn
to the admissions by the Central Intelligence Agencyâs inspector general or
to evidence in the National Archives.
For instance, last year at the National Archives annex in College Park,
Maryland, I discovered a âsecretâ U.S. law enforcement report that detailed
how top Contra leader Adolfo Calero was casually associating with Norwin
Meneses, described as âa well-reputed drug dealer.â
Meneses was near the center of Webbâs 1996 articles for the San Jose
Mercury-News, a series that came under fierce attack from U.S. government
officials as well as major news organizations, including the New York
Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The controversy cost
Webb his career, left him nearly penniless and ultimately drove him to
suicide on Dec. 9, 2004.
But the bitter irony of Webbâs demise, which is the subject of âKill the
Messengerâ starring Jeremy Renner as Webb, is that Webbâs much-maligned
âDark Allianceâ series eventually forced major admissions from the CIA, the
Justice Department and other government agencies revealing an even-deeper
relationship between President Reaganâs beloved Contras and drug cartels
than Webb (or Barger and I) ever alleged.
Typical of the evidence that the Reagan administration chose to ignore was
the document that I found at the National Archives, recounting information
from Dennis Ainsworth, a blue-blood Republican from San Francisco who
volunteered to help the Contra cause in 1984-85. That put him in position
to witness the strange behind-the-scenes activities of Contra leaders
hobnobbing with drug traffickers and negotiating arms deals with White
Ainsworth also was a source of mine in fall 1985 when I was investigating
the mysterious sources of funding for the Contras after Congress shut off
CIA support in 1984 amid widespread reports of Contra atrocities inflicted
on Nicaraguan civilians, including rapes, executions and torture.
Ainsworthâs first-hand knowledge of the Contra dealings dovetailed with
information that I already had, such as the central role of National
Security Council aide Oliver North in aiding the Contras and his use of
âcourierâ Rob Owen as an off-the-books White House intermediary to the
Contras. I later developed confirmation of some other details that
Ainsworth described, such as his overhearing Owen and Calero working
together on an arms deal as Ainsworth drove them through the streets of San
As for Ainsworthâs knowledge about the Contra-cocaine connection, he said
he sponsored a June 1984 cocktail party at which Calero spoke to about 60
people. Meneses, a notorious drug kingpin in the Nicaraguan community,
showed up uninvited and clearly had a personal relationship with Calero,
who was then the political leader of the Contraâs chief fighting force, the
CIA-backed Nicaraguan Democratic Force (or FDN).
âAt the end of the cocktail party, Meneses and Calero went off together,â
Ainsworth told U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Russoniello, according to a âsecretâ
Jan. 6, 1987 cable
submitted by Russoniello to an FBI investigation code-named âFront Door,â a
probe into the Reagan administrationâs corruption.
After Caleroâs speech, Ainsworth said Meneses accompanied Calero and about
20 people to dinner and picked up the entire tab, according to a more
Ainsworth by the FBI. Concerned about this relationship, Ainsworth said he
was told by Renato Pena, an FDN leader in the San Francisco area, that âthe
FDN is involved in drug smuggling with the aid of Norwin Meneses who also
buys arms for Enrique Bermudez, a leader of the FDN.â Bermudez was then the
top Contra military commander.
Pena, who himself was convicted on federal drug charges in 1984, gave a
similar account to the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to a 1998
report by the Justice Departmentâs Inspector General Michael Bromwich,
âWhen debriefed by the DEA in the early 1980s, Pena said that the CIA was
allowing the Contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them, and
keep the proceeds. âŠ
âPena stated that he was present on many occasions when Meneses telephoned
Bermudez in Honduras. Meneses told Pena of Bermudezâs requests for such
things as gun silencers (which Pena said Meneses obtained in Los Angeles),
cross bows, and other military equipment for the Contras. Pena believed
that Meneses would sometimes transport certain of these items himself to
Central America, and other times would have contacts in Los Angeles and
Miami send cargo to Honduras, where the authorities were cooperating with
the Contras. Pena believed Meneses had contact with Bermudez from about
1981 or 1982 through the mid-1980s.â
Bromwichâs report then added, âPena said he was one of the couriers Meneses
used to deliver drug money to a Colombian known as âCarlosâ in Los Angeles
and return to San Francisco with cocaine. Pena made six to eight trips,
with anywhere from $600,000 to nearly $1 million, and brought back six to
eight kilos of cocaine each time. Pena said Meneses was moving hundreds of
kilos a week. âCarlosâ once told Pena, âWeâre helping your cause with this
drug thing âŠ we are helping your organization a lot.â
Ainsworth also said he tried to alert Oliver North in 1985 about the
troubling connections between the Contra movement and cocaine traffickers
but that North turned a deaf ear. âIn the spring some friends of mine and I
went back to the White House staff but we were put off by Ollie North and
others on the staff who really donât want to know all whatâs going on,â
Ainsworth told Russoniello.
When I first spoke with Ainsworth in September 1985 at a coffee shop in San
Francisco, he asked for confidentiality which I granted. However, since the
documents released by the National Archives include him describing his
conversations with me, that confidentiality no longer applies. Ainsworth
also spoke with Webb for his 1996 San Jose Mercury-News series under the
pseudonym âDavid Morrison.â
Though I found Ainsworth to be generally reliable, some of his depictions
of our conversations contained mild exaggerations or confusion over
details, such as his claim that I called him from Costa Rica in January
1986 and told him that the Contra-cocaine story that I had been working on
with my AP colleague Brian Barger ânever hit the papers because it was
suppressed by the Associated Press due to political pressure primarily from
In reality, Barger and I returned from Costa Rica in fall 1985, wrote our
story about the Contrasâ involvement in cocaine smuggling, and pushed it
onto the AP wire in December though in a reduced form because of resistance
from some senior AP news executives who were supportive of President
Reaganâs foreign policies. The CIA, the White House and other agencies of
the Reagan administration did seek to discredit our story, but they did not
prevent its publication.
*An Overriding Hostility*
The Reagan administrationâs neglect of Ainsworthâs insights reflected the
overriding hostility toward any information â even from a Republican
activist like Ainsworth â that put the Contras in a negative light. In
early 1987, when Ainsworth spoke with U.S. Attorney Russoniello and the
FBI, the Reagan administration was in full damage-control mode, trying to
tamp down the Iran-Contra disclosures about Oliver North diverting profits
from secret arms sales to Iran to the Contra war.
Fears that the Iran-Contra scandal could lead to Reaganâs impeachment made
it even less likely that the Justice Department would pursue an
investigation into drug ties implicating the Contra leadership. Ainsworthâs
information was simply passed on to Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh
whose inquiry was already overwhelmed by the task of sorting out the
convoluted Iran transactions.
Publicly, the Reagan team continued dumping on the Contra-cocaine
allegations and playing the find-any-possible-reason-to-reject-a-witness
game. The major news media went along, leading to much mainstream ridicule
of a 1989 investigative report by Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who
uncovered more drug connections implicating the Contras and the Reagan
Only occasionally, such as when the George H.W. Bush administration needed
witnesses to convict Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega did the
Contra-cocaine evidence pop onto Official Washingtonâs radar.
During Noriegaâs drug-trafficking trial in 1991, U.S. prosecutors called as
a witness Colombian MedellÃn cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder, who â along with
implicating Noriega â testified that the cartel had given $10 million to
the Contras, an allegation first unearthed by Sen. Kerry. âThe Kerry
hearings didnât get the attention they deserved at the time,â a Washington
Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991, acknowledged. âThe Noriega trial brings
this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention.â
But the Post offered its readers no explanation for why Kerryâs hearings
had been largely ignored, with the Post itself a leading culprit in this
journalistic misfeasance. Nor did the Post and the other leading newspapers
use the opening created by the Noriega trial to do anything to rectify
their past neglect.
Everything quickly returned to the status quo in which the desired
perception of the noble Contras trumped the clear reality of their criminal
activities. Instead of recognizing the skewed moral compass of the Reagan
administration, Congress was soon falling over itself to attach Reaganâs
name to as many public buildings and facilities as possible, including
Washingtonâs National Airport.
Meanwhile, those of us in journalism who had exposed the national security
crimes of the 1980s saw our careers mostly sink or go sideways. We were
regarded as âpariahsâ in our profession.
As for me, shortly after the Iran-Contra scandal broke wide open in fall
1986, I accepted a job at Newsweek, one of the many mainstream news outlets
that had long ignored Contra-connected scandals and briefly thought it
needed to bolster its coverage. But I soon discovered that senior editors
remained hostile toward the Iran-Contra story and related spinoff scandals,
including the Contra-cocaine mess.
After losing battle after battle with my Newsweek editors, I departed the
magazine in June 1990 to write a book (called *Fooling America*) about the
decline of the Washington press corps and the parallel rise of a new
generation of government propagandists.
I was also hired by PBS *Frontline* to investigate whether there had been a
prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal â whether those arms-for-hostage deals
in the mid-1980s had been preceded by contacts between Reaganâs 1980
campaign staff and Iran, which was then holding 52 Americans hostage and
essentially destroying Jimmy Carterâs reelection hopes. [For more on that
topic, see Robert Parryâs *Secrecy & Privilege
and* Americaâs Stolen Narrative
*Finding New Ways*
In 1995, frustrated by the growing triviality of American journalism â and
acting on the advice of and with the assistance of my oldest son Sam â I
turned to a new medium and launched the Internetâs first investigative news
magazine, known as Consortiumnews.com. The Web site became a way for me to
put out well-reported stories that my former mainstream colleagues ignored
So, when Gary Webb called me in 1996 to talk about the Contra-cocaine
story, I explained some of this tortured history and urged him to make sure
that his editors were firmly behind him. He sounded perplexed at my advice
and assured me that he had the solid support of his editors.
When Webbâs âDark Allianceâ series finally appeared in late August 1996, it
initially drew little attention. The major national news outlets applied
their usual studied indifference to a topic that they had already judged
unworthy of serious attention.
But Webbâs story proved hard to ignore. First, unlike the work that Barger
and I did for AP in the mid-1980s, Webbâs series wasnât 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
Secondly, the San Jose Mercury-News, which was the local newspaper for
Silicon Valley, had posted documents and audio on its state-of-the-art
Internet site. That way, readers could examine much of the documentary
support for the series.
It also meant that the traditional âgatekeeperâ role of the major
newspapers â the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles
Times â was under assault. If a regional paper like the Mercury-News could
finance a major journalistic investigation like this one, and circumvent
the judgments of the editorial boards at the Big Three, then there might be
a tectonic shift in the power relations of the U.S. news media. There could
be a breakdown of the established order.
This combination of factors led to the next phase of the Contra-cocaine
battle: the âget-Gary-Webbâ counterattack. Soon, the Washington Post, the
New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times were lining up like some tag-team
wrestlers taking turns pummeling Webb and his story.
On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article
knocking down Webbâs series, although acknowledging that some Contra
operatives did help the cocaine cartels. The Postâs approach fit with the
Big Mediaâs cognitive dissonance on the topic: first, the Post called the
Contra-cocaine allegations old news â âeven CIA personnel testified to
Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,â
the Post said â and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one
Contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted in his series, saying it
had not âplayed a major role in the emergence of crack.â
To add to the smug hoo-hah treatment that was enveloping Webb and his
story, the Post published a sidebar story dismissing African-Americans as
prone to âconspiracy fears.â
Next, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighed in with lengthy
articles castigating Webb and âDark Alliance.â The big newspapers made much
of the CIAâs internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 â almost a decade earlier â
that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of any role in Contra-cocaine
But the first ominous sign for the CIAâs cover-up emerged on Oct. 24, 1996,
when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conceded before the Senate
Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only12 days, and
the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.
But Webb had already crossed over from being treated as a serious
journalist to becoming a target of ridicule. Influential Washington Post
media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he
would explore the possibility that the Contra war was primarily a business
to its participants. âOliver Stone, check your voice mail,â Kurtz smirked.
Yet, Webbâs suspicion was no conspiracy theory. Indeed, Oliver Northâs
chief Contra emissary, Rob Owen, had made the same point in a March 17,
1986 message about the Contra leadership. âFew of the so-called leaders of
the movement . . . really care about the boys in the field,â Owen wrote.
âTHIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.â [Emphasis in original.]
Ainsworth and other pro-Contra activists were reaching the same conclusion,
that the Contra leadership was skimming money from the supply lines and
padding their personal wealth with proceeds from the drug trade. According
to a Jan. 21, 1987 interview report by the FBI, Ainsworth said he had âmade
inquiries in the local San Francisco Nicaraguan community and wondered
among his acquaintances what Adolfo Calero and the other people in the FDN
movement were doing and the word that he received back is that they were
probably engaged in cocaine smuggling.â
In other words, Webb was right about the suspicion that the Contra movement
had become less a cause than a business to many of its participants. Even
Oliver Northâs emissary reported on that reality. But truthfulness had
ceased to be relevant in the mediaâs hazing of Gary Webb.
In another double standard, while Webb was held to the strictest standards
of journalism, it was entirely all right for Kurtz â the supposed arbiter
of journalistic integrity who was a longtime fixture on CNNâs âReliable
Sourcesâ â to make judgments based on ignorance. Kurtz would face no
repercussions for mocking a fellow journalist who was factually correct.
The Big Threeâs assault â combined with their disparaging tone â had a
predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury-News. As it turned out,
Webbâs confidence in his editors had been misplaced. By early 1997,
executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had his own corporate career to worry
about, was in retreat.
On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page column saying the series
âfell short of my standards.â He criticized the stories because they
âstrongly implied CIA knowledgeâ of Contra connections to U.S. drug dealers
who were manufacturing crack cocaine. âWe did not have enough proof that
top CIA officials knew of the relationship,â Ceppos wrote.
Ceppos was wrong about the proof, of course. At AP, before we published our
first Contra-cocaine article in 1985, Barger and I had known that the CIA
and Reaganâs White House were aware of the Contra-cocaine problem at senior
levels. One of our sources was on Reaganâs National Security Council staff.
However, Ceppos recognized that he and his newspaper were facing a
credibility crisis brought on by the harsh consensus delivered by the Big
Three, a judgment that had quickly solidified into conventional wisdom
throughout the major news media and inside Knight-Ridder, Inc., which owned
the Mercury-News. The only career-saving move â career-saving for Ceppos
even if career-destroying for Webb â was to jettison Webb and the
Contra-cocaine investigative project.
The big newspapers and the Contrasâ defenders celebrated Cepposâs retreat
as vindication of their own dismissal of the Contra-cocaine stories. In
particular, Kurtz seemed proud that his demeaning of Webb now had the
endorsement of Webbâs editor. Ceppos next pulled the plug on the
Mercury-Newsâ continuing Contra-cocaine investigation and reassigned Webb
to a small office in Cupertino, California, far from his family. Webb
resigned from the paper in disgrace. [See Consortiumnews.comâs âHung Out to
For undercutting Webb and other Mercury News reporters working on the
Contra-cocaine project â some of whom were facing personal danger in
Central America â Ceppos was lauded by the American Journalism Review and
received the 1997 national Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of
While Ceppos won raves, Webb watched his career collapse and his marriage
break up. Still, Gary Webb had set in motion internal government
investigations that would bring to the surface long-hidden facts about how
the Reagan administration had conducted the Contra war.
The CIA published the first part of Inspector General Hitzâs findings on
Jan. 29, 1998. Though the CIAâs press release for the report criticized
Webb and defended the CIA, Hitzâs *Volume One* admitted that not only were
many of Webbâs allegations true but that he actually understated the
seriousness of the Contra-drug crimes and the CIAâs knowledge of them.
Hitz conceded that cocaine smugglers played a significant early role in the
Contra movement and that the CIA intervened to block an image-threatening
1984 federal investigation into a San Franciscoâbased drug ring with
suspected ties to the Contras, the so-called âFrogman Case.â
After* Volume One* was released, I called Webb (whom I had spent some time
with since his series was published). I chided him for indeed getting the
story âwrong.â He had understated how serious the problem of Contra-cocaine
trafficking had been, I said.
It was a form of gallows humor for the two of us, since nothing had changed
in the way the major newspapers treated the Contra-cocaine issue. They
focused only on the press release that continued to attack Webb, while
ignoring the incriminating information that could be found in the full
report. All I could do was highlight those admissions at
Consortiumnews.com, which sadly had a much, much smaller readership than
the Big Three.
The major U.S. news media also looked the other way on other startling
On May 7, 1998, for instance, Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat,
introduced into the Congressional Record a Feb. 11, 1982 letter of
understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department. The letter, which
had been requested by CIA Director William Casey, freed the CIA from legal
requirements that it must report drug smuggling by CIA assets, a provision
that covered the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan mujahedeen.
In other words, early in those two covert wars, the CIA leadership wanted
to make sure that its geopolitical objectives would not be complicated by a
legal requirement to turn in its client forces for drug trafficking.
The next break in the long-running Contra-cocaine cover-up was a report by
the Justice Departmentâs Inspector General Michael Bromwich. Given the
hostile climate surrounding Webbâs series, Bromwichâs report also opened
with criticism of Webb. But, like the CIAâs *Volume One*, the contents
revealed new details about serious government wrongdoing.
According to evidence cited by Bromwich, the Reagan administration knew
almost from the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated
the paramilitary operation. The administration also did next to nothing to
expose or stop the crimes. Bromwichâs report revealed example after example
of leads not followed, corroborated witnesses disparaged, official
law-enforcement investigations sabotaged, and even the CIA facilitating the
work of drug traffickers.
The report showed that the Contras and their supporters ran several
parallel drug-smuggling operations, not just the one at the center of
Webbâs series. The report also found that the CIA shared little of its
information about Contra drugs with law-enforcement agencies and on three
occasions disrupted cocaine-trafficking investigations that threatened the
As well as depicting a more widespread Contra-drug operation than Webb (or
Barger and I) had understood, the Justice Department report provided some
important corroboration about Nicaraguan drug smuggler Norwin Meneses, a
key figure in Gary Webbâs series and Adolfo Caleroâs friend as described by
Bromwich cited U.S. government informants who supplied detailed information
about Menesesâs drug operation and his financial assistance to the Contras.
For instance, Renato Pena, the money-and-drug courier for Meneses, said
that in the early 1980s the CIA allowed the Contras to fly drugs into the
United States, sell them, and keep the proceeds. Pena, the FDNâs northern
California representative, said the drug trafficking was forced on the
Contras by the inadequate levels of U.S. government assistance.
The Justice Department report also disclosed repeated examples of the CIA
and U.S. embassies in Central America discouraging DEA investigations,
including one into Contra-cocaine shipments moving through the
international airport in El Salvador. Bromwich said secrecy trumped all.
âWe have no doubt that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy were not anxious for
the DEA to pursue its investigation at the airport,â he wrote.
Bromwich also described the curious case of how a DEA pilot helped a CIA
asset escape from Costa Rican authorities in 1989 after the man, American
farmer John Hull, had been charged in connection with Contra-cocaine
trafficking. [See Consortiumnews.comâs âJohn Hullâs Great Escape
Hullâs ranch in northern Costa Rica had been the site of Contra camps for
attacking Nicaragua from the south. For years, Contra-connected witnesses
also said Hullâs property was used for the transshipment of cocaine en
route to the United States, but those accounts were brushed aside by the
Reagan administration and disparaged in major U.S. newspapers.
Yet, according to Bromwichâs report, the DEA took the accounts seriously
enough to prepare a research report on the evidence in November 1986. One
informant described Colombian cocaine off-loaded at an airstrip on Hullâs
The drugs were then concealed in a shipment of frozen shrimp and
transported to the United States. The alleged Costa Rican shipper was
Frigorificos de Puntarenas, a firm controlled by Cuban-American Luis
Rodriguez. Like Hull, however, Frigorificos had friends in high places. In
1985-86, the State Department had selected the shrimp company to handle
$261,937 in non-lethal assistance earmarked for the Contras.
Hull also remained a man with powerful protectors. Even after Costa Rican
authorities brought drug charges against him, influential Americans,
including Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, demanded that Hull be let out of
jail pending trial. Then, in July 1989 with the help of a DEA pilot â and
possibly a DEA agent â Hull managed to fly out of Costa Rica to Haiti and
then to the United States.
Despite these startling new disclosures, the big newspapers still showed no
inclination to read beyond the criticism of Webb in the press release.
By fall 1998, Washington was obsessed with President Bill Clintonâs Monica
Lewinsky sex scandal, which made it easier to ignore even more stunning
Contra-cocaine disclosures in the CIAâs *Volume* *Two,* published on Oct.
In the report, CIA Inspector General Hitz identified more than 50 Contras
and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed
how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations and
frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.
According to *Volume Two*, the CIA knew the criminal nature of its Contra
clients from the start of the war against Nicaraguaâs leftist Sandinista
government. The earliest Contra force, called the Nicaraguan Revolutionary
Democratic Alliance (ADREN) or the 15th of September Legion, had chosen âto
stoop to criminal activities in order to feed and clothe their cadre,â
according to a June 1981 draft of a CIA field report.
According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, two ADREN members
made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981. ADRENâs leaders
included Enrique BermÃºdez and other early Contras who would later direct
the major Contra army, the CIA-organized FDN which was based in Honduras,
along Nicaraguaâs northern border.
Throughout the war, BermÃºdez remained the top Contra military commander.
The CIA later corroborated the allegations about ADRENâs cocaine
trafficking, but insisted that BermÃºdez had opposed the drug shipments to
the United States that went ahead nonetheless.
The truth about BermÃºdezâs supposed objections to drug trafficking,
however, was less clear. According to Hitzâs *Volume One*, BermÃºdez
enlisted Norwin Meneses â the Nicaraguan cocaine smuggler, the friend of
Adolfo Calero, and a key figure in Webbâs series â to raise money and buy
supplies for the Contras.
*Volume One* had quoted another Nicaraguan trafficker, Danilo BlandÃ³n, a
Meneses associate (and another lead character in Webbâs series), as telling
Hitzâs investigators that he (BlandÃ³n) and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet
with BermÃºdez in 1982. At the time, Menesesâs criminal activities were
well-known in the Nicaraguan exile community, but BermÃºdez told the cocaine
smugglers that âthe ends justify the meansâ in raising money for the
After the BermÃºdez meeting, Meneses and BlandÃ³n were briefly arrested by
Honduran police who confiscated $100,000 that the police suspected was to
be a payment for a drug transaction. The Contras intervened, gained freedom
for the two traffickers and got them their money back by saying the cash,
which indeed was for a cocaine purchase in Bolivia, belonged to the Contras.
There were other indications of BermÃºdezâs drug-smuggling complicity. In
February 1988, another Nicaraguan exile linked to the drug trade accused
BermÃºdez of participation in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitzâs
report. After the Contra war ended, BermÃºdez returned to Managua,
Nicaragua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder has
never been solved.
*The Southern Front*
Along the Southern Front, the Contrasâ military operations in Costa Rica on
Nicaraguaâs southern border, the CIAâs drug evidence centered on the forces
of EdÃ©n Pastora, another top Contra commander. But Hitz discovered that the
U.S. government may have made the drug situation worse, not better.
Hitz revealed that the CIA put an admitted drug operative â known by his
CIA pseudonym âIvan Gomezâ â in a supervisory position over Pastora. Hitz
reported that the CIA discovered Gomezâs drug history in 1987 when Gomez
failed a security review on drug-trafficking questions.
In internal CIA interviews, Gomez admitted that in March or April 1982, he
helped family members who were engaged in drug trafficking and money
laundering. In one case, Gomez said he assisted his brother and
brother-in-law transporting cash from New York City to Miami. He admitted
he âknew this act was illegal.â
Later, Gomez expanded on his admission, describing how his family members
had fallen $2 million into debt and had gone to Miami to run a
money-laundering center for drug traffickers. Gomez said âhis brother had
many visitors whom [Gomez] assumed to be in the drug trafficking business.â
Gomezâs brother was arrested on drug charges in June 1982. Three months
later, in September 1982, Gomez started his CIA assignment in Costa Rica.
Years later, convicted drug trafficker Carlos Cabezas alleged that in the
early 1980s, Ivan Gomez was the CIA agent in Costa Rica who was overseeing
drug-money donations to the Contras. Gomez âwas to make sure the money was
given to the right people [the Contras] and nobody was taking . . .
profit they werenât supposed to,â Cabezas stated publicly.
But the CIA sought to discredit Cabezas at the time because he had trouble
identifying Gomezâs picture and put Gomez at one meeting in early 1982
before Gomez started his CIA assignment. While the CIA was able to fend off
Cabezasâs allegations by pointing to these minor discrepancies, Hitzâs
report revealed that the CIA was nevertheless aware of Gomezâs direct role
in drug-money laundering, a fact the agency hid from Sen. Kerry in his
investigation during the late 1980s.
There was also more to know about Gomez. In November 1985, the FBI learned
from an informant that Gomezâs two brothers had been large-scale cocaine
importers, with one brother arranging shipments from Boliviaâs infamous
drug kingpin Roberto Suarez.
Suarez already was known as a financier of right-wing causes. In 1980, with
the support of Argentinaâs hard-line anticommunist military regime, Suarez
bankrolled a coup in Bolivia that ousted the elected left-of-center
government. The violent putsch became known as the Cocaine Coup because it
made Bolivia the regionâs first narco-state.
By protecting cocaine shipments headed north, Boliviaâs government helped
transform Colombiaâs MedellÃn cartel from a struggling local operation into
a giant corporate-style business for delivering vast quantities of cocaine
to the U.S. market.
Flush with cash in the early 1980s, Suarez invested more than $30 million
in various right-wing paramilitary operations, including the Contra forces
in Central America, according to U.S. Senate testimony by an Argentine
intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse.
In 1987, Sanchez-Reisse said the Suarez drug money was laundered through
front companies in Miami before going to Central America. There, other
Argentine intelligence officers â veterans of the Bolivian coup â trained
the Contras in the early 1980s, even before the CIA arrived to first assist
with the training and later take over the Contra operation from the
Inspector General Hitz added another piece to the mystery of the
Bolivian-Contra connection. One Contra fund-raiser, Jose Orlando Bolanos,
boasted that the Argentine government was supporting his Contra activities,
according to a May 1982 cable to CIA headquarters. Bolanos made the
statement during a meeting with undercover DEA agents in Florida. He even
offered to introduce them to his Bolivian cocaine supplier.
Despite all this suspicious drug activity centered around Ivan Gomez and
the Contras, the CIA insisted that it did not unmask Gomez until 1987, when
he failed a security check and confessed his role in his familyâs drug
business. The CIA official who interviewed Gomez concluded that âGomez
directly participated in illegal drug transactions, concealed participation
in illegal drug transactions, and concealed information about involvement
in illegal drug activity,â Hitz wrote.
But senior CIA officials still protected Gomez. They refused to refer the
Gomez case to the Justice Department, citing the 1982 agreement that spared
the CIA from a legal obligation to report narcotics crimes by people
collaborating with the CIA who were not formal agency employees. Gomez was
an independent contractor who worked for the CIA but was not officially on
staff. The CIA eased Gomez out of the agency in February 1988, without
alerting law enforcement or the congressional oversight committees.
When questioned about the case nearly a decade later, one senior CIA
official who had supported the gentle treatment of Gomez had second
thoughts. âIt is a striking commentary on me and everyone that this guyâs
involvement in narcotics didnât weigh more heavily on me or the system,â
the official told Hitzâs investigators.
*Drug Path to the White House*
A MedellÃn drug connection arose in another section of Hitzâs report, when
he revealed evidence suggesting that some Contra trafficking may have been
sanctioned by Reaganâs National Security Council. The protagonist for this
part of the Contra-cocaine mystery was Moises Nunez, a Cuban-American who
worked for Oliver Northâs NSC Contra-support operation and for two
drug-connected seafood importers, Ocean Hunter in Miami and Frigorificos De
Puntarenas in Costa Rica.
Frigorificos De Puntarenas was created in the early 1980s as a cover for
drug-money laundering, according to sworn testimony by two of the firmâs
principals â Carlos Soto and MedellÃn cartel accountant Ramon Milian
Rodriguez. (It was also the company implicated by a DEA informant in moving
cocaine from John Hullâs ranch to the United States.)
Drug allegations were swirling around Moises Nunez by the mid-1980s.
Indeed, his operation was one of the targets of my and Bargerâs AP
investigation in 1985. Finally reacting to the suspicions, the CIA
questioned Nunez about his alleged cocaine trafficking on March 25, 1987.
He responded by pointing the finger at his NSC superiors.
âNunez revealed that since 1985, he had engaged in a clandestine
relationship with the National Security Council,â Hitz reported, adding:
âNunez refused to elaborate on the nature of these actions, but indicated
it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in
narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the
direction of the NSC. Nunez refused to identify the NSC officials with whom
he had been involved.â
After this first round of questioning, CIA headquarters authorized an
additional session, but then senior CIA officials reversed the decision.
There would be no further efforts at âdebriefing Nunez.â
Hitz noted that âthe cable [from headquarters] offered no explanation for
the decisionâ to stop the Nunez interrogation. But the CIAâs Central
American Task Force chief Alan Fiers Jr. said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was
not pursued âbecause of the NSC connection and the possibility that this
could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [the Contra
money handled by the NSCâs Oliver North] a decision was made not to pursue
Joseph Fernandez, who had been the CIAâs station chief in Costa Rica,
confirmed to congressional Iran-Contra investigators that Nunez âwas
involved in a very sensitive operationâ for Northâs âEnterprise.â The exact
nature of that NSC-authorized activity has never been divulged.
At the time of the Nunez-NSC drug admissions and his truncated
interrogation, the CIAâs acting director was Robert Gates, who nearly two
decades later became President George W. Bushâs second secretary of
defense, a position he retained under President Barack Obama.
The CIA also worked directly with other drug-connected Cuban-Americans on
the Contra project, Hitz found. One of Nunezâs Cuban-American associates,
Felipe Vidal, had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s.
But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics coordinator for the
Contras, Hitz reported.
The CIA also learned that Vidalâs drug connections were not only in the
past. A December 1984 cable to CIA headquarters revealed Vidalâs ties to
Rene Corvo, another Cuban-American suspected of drug trafficking. Corvo was
working with Cuban anticommunist Frank Castro, who was viewed as a MedellÃn
cartel representative within the Contra movement.
There were other narcotics links to Vidal. In January 1986, the DEA in
Miami seized 414 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipment of yucca that
was going from a Contra operative in Costa Rica to Ocean Hunter, the
company where Vidal (and Moises Nunez) worked. Despite the evidence, Vidal
remained a CIA employee as he collaborated with Frank Castroâs assistant,
Rene Corvo, in raising money for the Contras, according to a CIA memo in
By fall 1986, Sen. Kerry had heard enough rumors about Vidal to demand
information about him as part of his congressional inquiry into Contra
drugs. But the CIA withheld the derogatory information in its files. On
Oct. 15, 1986, Kerry received a briefing from the CIAâs Alan Fiers, who
didnât mention Vidalâs drug arrests and conviction in the 1970s.
But Vidal was not yet in the clear. In 1987, the U.S. Attorneyâs Office in
Miami began investigating Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and other Contra-connected
entities. This prosecutorial attention worried the CIA. The CIAâs Latin
American division felt it was time for a security review of Vidal. But on
Aug. 5, 1987, the CIAâs security office blocked the review for fear that
the Vidal drug information âcould be exposed during any future litigation.â
As expected, the U.S. Attorneyâs Office did request documents about
âContra-related activitiesâ by Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and 16 other entities.
The CIA advised the prosecutor that âno information had been found
regarding Ocean Hunter,â a statement that was clearly false. The CIA
continued Vidalâs employment as an adviser to the Contra movement until
1990, virtually the end of the Contra war.
Hitz also revealed that drugs tainted the highest levels of the
Honduran-based FDN, the largest Contra army. Hitz found that Juan Rivas, a
Contra commander who rose to be chief of staff, admitted that he had been a
cocaine trafficker in Colombia before the war.
The CIA asked Rivas, known as El Quiche, about his background after the DEA
began suspecting that Rivas might be an escaped convict from a Colombian
prison. In interviews with CIA officers, Rivas acknowledged that he had
been arrested and convicted of packaging and transporting cocaine for the
drug trade in Barranquilla, Colombia. After several months in prison, Rivas
said, he escaped and moved to Central America, where he joined the Contras.
Defending Rivas, CIA officials insisted that there was no evidence that
Rivas engaged in trafficking while with the Contras. But one CIA cable
noted that he lived an expensive lifestyle, even keeping a $100,000
Thoroughbred horse at the Contra camp. Contra military commander BermÃºdez
later attributed Rivasâs wealth to his ex-girlfriendâs rich family. But a
CIA cable in March 1989 added that âsome in the FDN may have suspected at
the time that the father-in-law was engaged in drug trafficking.â
Still, the CIA moved quickly to protect Rivas from exposure and possible
extradition to Colombia. In February 1989, CIA headquarters asked that the
DEA take no action âin view of the serious political damage to the U.S.
Government that could occur should the information about Rivas become
public.â Rivas was eased out of the Contra leadership with an explanation
of poor health. With U.S. government help, he was allowed to resettle in
Miami. Colombia was not informed about his fugitive status.
Another senior FDN official implicated in the drug trade was its chief
spokesman in Honduras, Arnoldo Jose âFrankâ Arana. The drug allegations
against Arana dated back to 1983 when a federal narcotics task force put
him under criminal investigation because of plans âto smuggle 100 kilograms
of cocaine into the United States from South America.â On Jan. 23, 1986,
the FBI reported that Arana and his brothers were involved in a
drug-smuggling enterprise, although Arana was not charged.
Arana sought to clear up another set of drug suspicions in 1989 by visiting
the DEA in Honduras with a business associate, Jose Perez. Aranaâs
association with Perez, however, only raised new alarms. If âArana is mixed
up with the Perez brothers, he is probably dirty,â the DEA said.
*Drug Airlines *
Through their ownership of an air services company called SETCO, the Perez
brothers were associated with Juan Matta-Ballesteros, a major cocaine
kingpin connected to the 1985 torture-murder of DEA agent Enrique âKikiâ
Camarena, according to reports by the DEA and U.S. Customs. Hitz reported
that someone at the CIA scribbled a note on a DEA cable about Arana
stating: âArnold Arana . . . still active and working, we [CIA] may have a
Despite its drug ties to Matta-Ballesteros, SETCO emerged as the principal
company for ferrying supplies to the Contras in Honduras. During
congressional Iran-Contra hearings, FDN political leader Adolfo Calero
testified that SETCO was paid from bank accounts controlled by Oliver
North. SETCO also received $185,924 from the State Department for
delivering supplies to the Contras in 1986. Furthermore, Hitz found that
other air transport companies used by the Contras were implicated in the
cocaine trade as well.
Even FDN leaders suspected that they were shipping supplies to Central
America aboard planes that might be returning with drugs. Mario Calero,
Adolfo Caleroâs brother and the chief of Contra logistics, grew so uneasy
about one air freight company that he notified U.S. law enforcement that
the FDN only chartered the planes for the flights south, not the return
Hitz found that some drug pilots simply rotated from one sector of the
Contra operation to another. Donaldo Frixone, who had a drug record in the
Dominican Republic, was hired by the CIA to fly Contra missions from 1983
to 1985. In September 1986, however, Frixone was implicated in smuggling
19,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. In late 1986 or early
1987, he went to work for Vortex, another U.S.-paid Contra supply company
linked to the drug trade.
By the time that Hitzâs *Volume Two* was published in fall 1998, the CIAâs
defense against Webbâs series had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did
not *conspire* with the Contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking.
But Hitz made clear that the Contra war took precedence over law
enforcement and that the CIA withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the
Justice Department, Congress, and even the CIAâs own analytical division.
Besides tracing the evidence of Contra-drug trafficking through the
decade-long Contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA
officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the Contra-drug problem
but didnât want its exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow
Nicaraguaâs leftist Sandinista government.
According to Hitz, the CIA had âone overriding priority: to oust the
Sandinista government. . . . [CIA officers] were determined that the
various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective
implementation of the Contra program.â One CIA field officer explained,
âThe focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.â
Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations
officers handling the Contras hid evidence of Contra-drug trafficking even
from the CIAâs analysts.
Because of the withheld evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in
the mid-1980s that âonly a handful of Contras might have been involved in
drug trafficking.â That false assessment was passed on to Congress and to
major news organizations â serving as an important basis for denouncing
Gary Webb and his âDark Allianceâ series in 1996.
Although Hitzâs report was an extraordinary admission of institutional
guilt by the CIA, it went almost unnoticed by the big American newspapers.
On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitzâs *Volume Two* was posted on the
CIAâs Web site, the New York Times published a brief article that continued
to deride Webb but acknowledged the Contra-drug problem may have been worse
than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post weighed
in with a story that simply missed the point of the CIAâs confession.
Though having assigned 17 journalists to tear down Webbâs reporting, the
Los Angeles Times chose not to publish a story on the release of Hitzâs *Volume
In 2000, the House Intelligence Committee grudgingly acknowledged that the
stories about Reaganâs CIA protecting Contra drug traffickers were true.
The committee released a report citing classified testimony from CIA
Inspector General Britt Snider (Hitzâs successor) admitting that the spy
agency had turned a blind eye to evidence of Contra-drug smuggling and
generally treated drug smuggling through Central America as a low priority.
âIn the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas appears to have
taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations
against those with whom the agency was working,â Snider said, adding that
the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in âa consistent, reasoned or
The House committee â then controlled by Republicans â still downplayed the
significance of the Contra-cocaine scandal, but the panel acknowledged,
deep inside its report, that in some cases, âCIA employees did nothing to
verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the
opportunity to do so. In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation
appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual.â
Like the release of Hitzâs report in 1998, the admissions by Snider and the
House committee drew virtually no media attention in 2000 â except for a
few articles on the Internet, including one at Consortiumnews.com.
Because of this journalistic misconduct by the Big Three newspapers â
choosing to conceal their own neglect of the Contra-cocaine scandal and to
protect the Reagan administrationâs image â Webbâs reputation was never
After his original âDark Allianceâ series was published in 1996, I joined
Webb in a few speaking appearances on the West Coast, including one packed
book talk at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, California.
For a time, Webb was treated as a celebrity on the American Left, but that
In our interactions during these joint appearances, I found Webb to be a
regular guy who seemed to be holding up fairly well under the terrible
pressure. He had landed an investigative job with a California state
legislative committee. He also felt some measure of vindication when CIA
Inspector General Hitzâs reports came out.
But Webb never could overcome the pain caused by his betrayal at the hands
of his journalistic colleagues, his peers. In the years that followed, Webb
was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession â the conventional
wisdom remained that he had somehow been exposed as a journalistic fraud.
His state job ended; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills;
and he was faced with a forced move out of a house near Sacramento,
California, and in with his mother.
On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his
ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation;
and taped a note on the door telling movers â who were coming the next
morning â to instead call 911. Webb then took out his fatherâs pistol and
shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once
Even with Webbâs death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his
destruction couldnât bring themselves to show Webb any mercy. After Webbâs
body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times
who knew that I was one of Webbâs few journalistic colleagues who had
defended him and his work.
I told the reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb
because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I
added that the Los Angeles Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest
obituary because the newspaper had ignored Hitzâs final report, which had
largely vindicated Webb.
To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The Los Angeles
Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my
defense of Webb, nor the CIAâs admissions in 1998. The obituary was
republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.
In effect, Webbâs suicide enabled senior editors at the Big Three
newspapers to breathe a little easier â one of the few people who
understood the ugly story of the Reagan administrationâs cover-up of the
Contra-cocaine scandal and the U.S. mediaâs complicity was now silenced.
To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in
the destruction of Gary Webb has paid a price. None has faced the sort of
humiliation that Webb had to endure. None had to experience that special
pain of standing up for what is best in the profession of journalism â
taking on a difficult story that seeks to hold powerful people accountable
for serious crimes â and then being vilified by your own colleagues, the
people that you expected to understand and appreciate what you had done.
On the contrary, many were rewarded with professional advancement and
lucrative careers. For instance, for years, Howard Kurtz got to host the
CNN program, âReliable Sources,â which lectured journalists on professional
standards. He was described in the programâs bio as âthe nationâs premier
media critic.â (His show has since moved to Fox News, renamed âMediaBuzz.â)
The rehabilitation of Webbâs reputation and the correction of this dark
chapter of American history now rest on how the public responds to the
presentation of Webbâs story in the film, âKill the Messenger.â Itâs also
unclear how the Big Media will react. Last Sunday, New York Timesâ media
writer David Carr continued some of the old quibbling about Webbâs series
but did acknowledge the Contra-cocaine reality.
Carrâs movie review
began with a straightforward recognition of the long-denied truth: âIf
someone told you today that there was strong evidence that the Central
Intelligence Agency once turned a blind eye to accusations of drug dealing
by operatives it worked with, it might ring some distant, skeptical bell.
Did that really happen? That really happened.â
Yes, that really happened.
[To learn how you can hear a December 1996 joint appearance at which Robert
Parry and Gary Webb discuss their reporting, click here
*Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories
for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. *
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