by Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall
University of California Press, 1991, paper
In country after country, from Mexico and Honduras to Panama and Peru, the CIA helped set up or consolidate intelligence agencies that became forces of repression, and whose intelligence connections to other countries greased the way for illicit drug shipments.
It has … become more clear just how cynical were the government’ claims that the apprehension of Noriega would help constrain the hemispheric drug traffic. Within a year of Noriega’s ouster, U.S. drug agents admitted that the Cali cartel had turned Panama into a financial and logistics base for flooding North America and Europe with cocaine. And U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton complained in 1993 that Panamanian authorities had not arrested a single person for the crime of money laundering in the three and a half years after Noriega’s capture in a bloody U.S. invasion.
These problems are of more than historical interest, given that the problem of a U.S.-protected drug traffic endures. Today the United States, in the name of fighting drugs, has entered into alliances with the police, armed forces, and intelligence agencies of Colombia and Peru, forces conspicuous by their own alliances with drug traffickers in counterinsurgency operations.
One of the most glaring and dangerous examples is in Peru. Behind Peru’s president, Alberto Fujimori, is his chief adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, the effective head of the National Intelligence Service, or SIN, an agency created and trained by the CIA in the 1960s.’4 Through the SIN, Montesinos played a central role in Fujimori’s “auto-coup,” or suspension of the constitution, in April 1992, an event which (according to Knight-Ridder correspondent Sam Dillon) raised “the specter of drug cartels exercising powerful influence at the top of Peru’s government.” Recently Montesinos has been accused of arranging for an opposition television station to be bombed, and in August 1996 an accused drug trafficker claimed that Montesinos had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs.
According to an opinion column in the New York Times by Gustavo Gorriti, a leader among the Peruvian intellectuals forced into exile, “Mr. Montesinos built a power base and fortune mainly as a legal strategist for drug traffickers. He has had a close relationship with the CIA, and controls the intelligence services, and, through them, the military.”
In the New York Review of Books, Mr. Gorriti spelled out this CIA-drug collaboration more fully:
In late 1990, Montesinos also began close cooperation with the CIA, and in 1991 the National Intelligence Service began to organize a secret anti-drug outfit with funding, training, and equipment provided by the CIA. This, by the way, made the DEA. . . furious. Montesinos apparently suspected that the DEA had been investigating his connection to the most important Peruvian drug cartel in the 1980s, the Rodriguez-Lopez organization, and also links to some Colombian traffickers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fujimori made a point of denouncing the DEA as corrupt at least twice, once in Peru in 1991, and the second time at the Presidential summit in San Antonio, Texas, in February . As far as I know, the secret intelligence outfit never carried out anti-drug operations. It was used for other things, such as my arrest.
The San Francisco Chronicle also reported from Mexican officials that “Vladimiro Montesinos .. and Santiago Fujimori, the president’s brother, were responsible for covering up connections between the Mexican and Peruvian drug mafias.”
Others have pointed to the drug corruption of Peru’s military establishment, which also receives U.S. anti-drug funding. Charges that the Peruvian army and security forces were continuing to take payoffs, to protect the cocaine traffickers that they were supposed to be fighting, have led at times to a withholding of U.S. aid. Such charges against Fujimori, Montesinos, and the Peruvian military are completely in line with what we have written in this book about Peru over the last two decades
The ongoing situation in Peru shows that Washington’s proclivity to tolerate, protect, and reinforce the influence of Third World drug traffickers didn’t die with the end of the Reagan-Bush years. Indeed, the Clinton Administration, guided by White House drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, has consistently asked for large increases in counternarcotics aid to compromised Latin American police and military forces. As a critical New York Times editorial observed, “Until taking the drug czar job, General McCaffrey was head of the United States army Southern Command, which worked with Latin militaries and police to fight cocaine. He knows that the overseas programs have succeeded largely in pushing cocaine from country to country.”
Such funding priorities must be repudiated. The misnamed “War on Drugs,” a pernicious and misleading military metaphor, should be replaced by a medically and scientifically oriented campaign geared toward healing this country’s drug sickness. The billions that have been wasted in military anti-drug campaigns, efforts which have ranged from the futile to the counterproductive, should be rechanneled into a public health paradigm, emphasizing prevention, maintenance, and rehabilitation programs. The experiments in controlled decriminalization that have been initiated in Europe should be closely studied and emulated here.
A root cause of the governmental drug problem in this country (as distinguished from a broader social drug problem) is the National Security Act of 1947, and subsequent orders based on it. These, in effect, have exempted intelligence agencies and their personnel from the rule of law, an exemption that in the course of time has been extended from the agencies themselves to their drug trafficking clients. This must cease. Either the president or Congress must proclaim that national security cannot be invoked to protect drug traffickers. This must be accompanied by clarifying orders or legislation that discourages the conscious collaboration with, or protection of, criminal drug traffickers by making it clear that such acts will constitute grounds for prosecution.
Clearly a campaign to restore sanity to our prevailing drug policies will remain utopian if it does not contemplate a struggle to realign the power priorities of our political system. Such a struggle will be difficult I and painful. For those who believe in an open and decent America, the results will also be rewarding.
The drug traffic should be visualized, not as a horizontal line between producers and consumers, but as a triangle. At its apex sit governments whose civilian and military intelligence agencies recurringly afford defacto protection to drug kingpins beneath them. In the United States as elsewhere, this vertical dimension of protected trafficking has created windows of opportunity for importing narcotics by the ton.
Our conclusion remains that the first target of an effective drug strategy should be Washington itself, and specifically its own connections with corrupt, drug-linked forces in other parts of the world. We argued that Washington’s covert operations overseas had been a major factor in generating changes in the overall pattern of drug flows into the United States, and cited the Vietnam-generated heroin epidemic of the 1960s and the Afghan-generated heroin epidemic of the 1980s as analogues of the central concern of this book: the explosion of cocaine trafficking through Central America in the Reagan years, made possible by the administration’s covert operation to overthrow the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
Recent indictments, congressional hearings, and news investigations into the shadowy Bank of Credit and Commerce International indicate that the parallel we drew between Afghanistan and Central America is even tighter than we dared suggest. In both regions, BCCI appears to have gone out of its way to attract drug money, facilitate arms transactions, and cater to the CIA, all the while enjoying an extraordinary, if still unexplained, degree of immunity from prosecution.
Thus the head of BCCI’s Panama branch, which as noted in Chapter 4 was a conduit of CIA funds to General Manuel Noriega, was the son of a former director of intelligence in Pakistan. Numerous sources confirm that the CIA (and Arab states) used BCCI to move funds into the Afghan pipeline, and that the bank was used in turn by corrupt Pakistani officials to launder drug profits from the burgeoning heroin trade.
To be sure, denials have come from many quarters. Acting CIA Director Richard Kerr, admitting that his agency knew by the early 1980s that the bank “was involved in illegal activities such as money-laundering, narcotics and terrorism,” insisted that the CIA used BCCI merely as a “transfer point” for the routine movement of funds. And Pakistan’s finance minister, Sarti Asis, told the Financial Times of London that although the bank did launder CIA contributions to the Afghan rebels, “it was not even handling 1 percent of total drug money.”
In Latin America, however, evidence is indisputable that the bank moved aggressively to boost its share of that region’s total drug money. BCCI officers met with and opened accounts for such major Colombian cartel leaders as Pablo Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. The bank established branches in such notorious drug centers as Medellin, Cali and even Pablo Escobar’s home town, Envigado. In Peru, it opened an office in the Huallaga Valley, the center of that country’s coca production. In Florida, it handled accounts for some 200 drug traffickers and tax evaders. In all, according to estimates by some U.S. sources, the bank laundered nearly $1 billion in Colombian drug profits.’
At BCCI’s Panama City branch, Noriega deposited at least $33 million. Some of that money, as noted in Chapter 4, came from the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. As part of the discovery process preceding the Noriega trial, the CIA and U.S. Army admitted paying him $322,226 in cash and gifts between 1955 (when, at the age of 19, he joined the Socialist Party and began informing on its operations) and 1986.5 Much more money apparently flowed through Noriega’s hands and into BCCI on behalf of the Panamanian Defense Forces.
Such connections may go far to explain the otherwise baffling failure of law enforcement authorities to crack down on the bank, despite indications as early as 1984 that it was laundering drug money. Informant tapes were mysteriously “lost,” leads were buried in the files, and when an indictment finally came down in 1988, prosecutors accepted a plea bargain that struck many critics as far too easy on the bank. As Congressman Charles Rangel of New York put it, in releasing a report on this record by the staff of the Crime and Criminal Justice Subcommittee, “It wasn’t just that BCCI was rumored to be bad. It was that professional investigators in the agencies had hard evidence that they were bad, and bad in a big way, and nobody did anything about it ”
Expressions of outrage at this failure-and at outright stonewalling from such government departments as Justice and Treasury-have come from as ideologically diverse sources as President Reagan’s Customs Commissioner, William Von Raab, and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Former Customs agent Robert Mazur, whose undercover work led to the bank’s indictment for money-laundering crimes in 1988, quit Customs in disgust at its investigatory lapses and decried the Justice Department’s failure to follow up witnesses and records from that case. And Senator John Kerry, whose subcommittee on narcotics and terrorism is investigating BCCI as we write, has complained of Justice Department obstruction in the provision of witnesses, conduct he is only too familiar with from his earlier investigation of U.S. complicity in the Central American drug trade of the 1980s.
Bureaucratic jealousy, bungling, and incompetence and political interference from the bank’s influential allies no doubt explain some of this record of official misbehavior. But it is hard to write off the claim of one U.S. intelligence officer, quoted in Time magazine, that “if BCCI is such an embarrassment to the U.S. that forthright investigations are not being pursued, it has a lot to do with the blind eye the U.S. turned to heroin trafficking in Pakistan.” It is similarly hard to write off the assertion of one senior bank executive, Abdur Sakhia, that some kind of deal-perhaps related to the Iran-Contra affair-was struck with the bank’s founder, Aga Hassan Abedi, in 1985 to allow him entry to the United States after being blacklisted. And, finally, it is hard to write off the suspicion that the sea change in Washington’s approach to BCCI, so closely parallel to its change in relations with Noriega, was less a product of new information than of shifting regional priorities, in particular the abandonment in 1987 of the commitment to a military victory by the Contras.
The political inspiration of Washington’s zigs and zags on matters of law enforcement is evident. from the ongoing trial of Noriega in Miami for drug offenses, many of which he is no doubt guilty of. Far from demonstrating the renewed commitment of U.S. officials to waging a nonpartisan “war on drugs,” however, the trial demonstrates the total subordination of that war to politics. In order to justify the demonization of Noriega and the 1989 invasion of Panama, the authorities have slashed prison terms and restored millions of dollars of drug profits to witnesses willing to take the stand against the man deprecated by former cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder as “just another criminally corrupt police officer.”
The trial, eagerly awaited by some government critics as a source of revelations about Reagan administration complicity with Noriega, has been narrowly contained by prosecutorial objections and judicial rulings barring most questions about the Contras, George Bush, and related matters. Even so, one key government witness, Floyd Carlton, testified that his associate in the cocaine trade, Alfredo Caballero, organized arms shipments to the Contras in 1983 and 1984.” And Lehder, who also testified to the complicity of Cuban and Nicaraguan leaders in the drug trade, admitted (over the intense objection of prosecutors) that the Medellin Cartel contributed some $10 million to the Contra cause.
Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that even with Noriega removed from Panama, cocaine continues to pour through that country. One Drug Enforcement Administration agent told the General Accounting Office that the volume of cocaine transiting Panama “may have doubled since Operation Just Cause.” The price of cocaine reached record lows there in mid-1991. Panamanian reporters have had a field day exposing the links of President Guillermo Endara (whose 1989 election campaign was financed in part by the CIA) to notorious money-laundering banks. Costa Rican authorities say that two-thirds of the cocaine transshipped through their own country goes through Panama’s Chiriqui Province and is often protected by former Nicaraguan Contras.
Now that the Nicaraguan civil war is over, more will surely emerge in years to come of the Contra-drug connection. In November 1991, for instance, the chief of Nicaragua’s National Police Criminal Division announced the arrest of that country’s leading narcotics trafficker, Norwin Meneses, known as “El Rey” (The King). Police seized 738 kilos of cocaine from the ring, which intended to smuggle it to the United States through El Salvador. The Meneses group reportedly had plans to export 4,000 kilos to the North American market. As discussed in Chapter 6, Meneses was at the center of one of the most sensitive U.S. drug busts of the 1980s, the so-called Frogman seizure, which (through a press leak) exposed his role in financing elements of the Contras.
Whether new revelations will make any more difference than the old ones to Congress, public opinion or administration policy remains to be seen. Many law enforcement professionals need no persuading to accept our thesis; Dennis Dayle, former chief of an elite DEA enforcement unit, has said for the record that “in my 30-year history in the Drug Enforcement Administration and related agencies, the major targets of my investigations almost invariably turned out to be working for the CIA.” Yet the notion that Washington is a big part of the problem continues to meet with strong resistance in the major media, where evidence of government complicity with international narcotics traffickers is variously dismissed as unthinkable or as a mere “sideshow” to more important factors in the drug market.
Signs of any new thinking about drug issues in Congress are hard to find. The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of Robert Gates as CIA director by a vote of 64 to 31 on November 5, 1991, despite voluminous testimony suggesting that he lied as to his ignorance of key matters in the Iran-Contra affair and that he distorted the production of intelligence estimates to serve the political ends of his boss, former Reagan campaign director William Casey. In this respect, one critic testified that Gates pushed the administration line on “narcoterrorism,” which blamed drug trafficking on leftwing states and insurgent movements (see Chapter 2). Accusing Gates of shopping for analysts to make that case, Mel Goodman testified that “a senior analyst was called in by Bob Gates and told that Bill Casey wanted a memo that would link drug dealers to international terrorists. This senior analyst looked at the evidence and couldn’t make those conclusions. The evidence wasn’t there. He was told to go back and look again. He did that. Said the evidence wasn’t there. Gates took the project away from him and gave it to another analyst. I believe there is an ethical issue here.” Gates admitted asking analysts to look into accusations of a linkage between traffickers and terrorists but said in his defense that three separate agency analyses concluded any such linkage was weak.
Congress also shows few signs of challenging the “war on drugs,” in particular, President Bush’s “Andean Initiative” to send millions of dollars in aid to the militaries of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Assistance to these drug-corrupted forces often goes to fight not traffickers but leftist guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers. The program has been seriously challenged only in the case of Peru, which the human rights group Americas Watch accused of having one of the worst records in the world for “disappearances.” (The organization admits that the human rights record of the guerrilla group Shining Path, which finances its struggle in part from cocaine taxes, is at least as grisly as that of government forces.) Congress showed enough concern over official abuses in late 1991 to hold up $10 million in military aid earmarked for two army battalions combating the Shining Path.
This limited dissent is not enough. The administration’s disastrous drug policies must be challenged, both for traditional considerations of national security and basic considerations of humanity. The United States cannot afford to become enmeshed in counterinsurgency campaigns abroad, in Third World jungles, nor at home in the streets of our cities. The social cost of trying to reproduce for illicit drugs the conditions of Prohibition is too high.
For half a century, starting with the challenge of fascism, America’s national security establishment has enjoyed the most important guarantee of its influence, prestige, and claim on the national treasury: a credible international threat. When Germany, Japan, and Italy became America’s allies, international communism took their place as an enemy for almost four decades. Yet that menace too has faded with the opening to China, détente, and now the revolutionary political changes in Eastern Europe. And even state-sponsored terrorism, once nominated by the Reagan administration as a successor threat, today arouses little sustained indignation.
In the 1990s, the national security community has finally found a new threat: narcoterrorism. The nation’s enemy number one today is drug abuse. Before the crisis with Iraq, nearly two-thirds of the American people viewed it as “the most important problem facing this country.”‘ More Americans ranked drugs an “extremely serious threat” to national security than they did any other issue-including terrorism, the Persian Gulf or Middle East conflicts, and the spread of communism in Central America. Now that Mikhail Gorbachev has put a benign face on America’s traditional foe, the United States is beginning to turn the weight of its power against this new evil, represented above all by Colombia’s cocaine cartels and their corrupt allies, like former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega.
Drugs have played a role in American foreign policy since the early part of the twentieth century. During the Cold War, American leaders played the theme of the “Red dope menace” in their propaganda against communist China, Castro’s Cuba, and, most recently, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. During the past two decades, drug issues have also strained U.S. relations with such noncommunist regimes as France, Turkey, Mexico, and the Bahamas.
Today, however, the national panic over crack has turned foreign drug enforcement into a new American crusade. The popular frustration with America’s failure to stop the drug trade at home, despite government expenditures of more than $10 billion a year, has prompted national leaders to demand a dramatic escalation of enforcement abroad, up to and including military intervention against foreign drug lords and peasant 7 cultivators. The “War on Drugs” is fast turning from an overworked metaphor into a dangerous reality.
As early as 1982, Vice President Bush and his aides began pushing to involve the CIA and U.S. armed forces in the drug interdiction effort. In 1986, President Reagan signed a directive acknowledging drugs as a national security threat. In the summer of 1989, only a few months after taking office as president, Bush built on that precedent with a secret National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) expanding the role of U.S. military forces in fighting the drug trade in Latin America. In addition to increased financial aid, equipment, and training for the military and police of the Andean countries, Bush authorized wide-ranging missions by U.S. military special operations forces in the drug-producing regions.
Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, branding drugs a “direct threat to the sovereignty and security of our country,” ordered commanders to develop specific plans for “operational support” of antidrug missions in Latin America and vowed to ensure a “more aggressive and robust” U.S. military presence in the Andes. And with the invasion of Panama in December 1989, justified in part as an effort to capture an indicted drug suspect (General Noriega), the Bush administration dramatically demonstrated the terms on which it is willing to fight the new drug war.
A few years ago, such a policy would have stirred dire warnings from politicians, the press, and the public of the danger of another Vietnam-style entanglement. Indeed, the prospects of victory are no better in the Andes, where unforgiving terrain, hostile peasants, and well-financed traffickers mistake a deadly mix. But memories today are short and passions are high.
… the long and sordid history of CIA involvement with the Sicilian Mafia, the French Corsican underworld, the heroin producers of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, the marijuana- and cocaine-trafficking Cuban exiles of Miami, and the opium smuggling mujaheddin of Afghanistan simply reinforces the lesson of the Contra period: far from considering drug networks their enemy, U.S. intelligence organizations have made them an essential ally in the covert expansion of American influence abroad.
New York Times reported in 1988
“The Reagan administration has done little to press the guerrillas to curb the drug trade, according to se or State Department and intelligence analysts.”
a Reagan administration official who follows Afghanistan closely, emphasizing that narcotics are relatively a minor issue in the context of policy toward the Afghan guerrillas
“We’re not going to let a little thing like drugs get in the way of the political situation… And when the Soviets leave and there’s no money in the country, it’s not going to be a priority to disrupt the drug trade.”
For the CIA to target international drug networks, it would have to dismantle prime sources of intelligence, political leverage, and indirect financing for its Third World operations.
On April 13, 1989 … the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations finally confirmed what the administration, Congress, and much of the media had attempted to dismiss: the Contra-drug connection was real.
The subcommittee’s 144-page report covered drug corruption in the Bahamas, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Panama, but it focused on the Contras and related drug-trafficking in Honduras and Costa Rica. In several hundred pages of appendices, the report supplemented the subcommittee’s four-volume hearing record with FBI and Customs Service documents, news stories, witness depositions, and a chronology of the investigation and attempts to interfere with it.
The subcommittee, led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, found that drug trafficking had pervaded the entire Contra war effort. “There was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual Contras, Contra suppliers, Contra pilots, mercenaries who worked with the Contras, and Contra supporters throughout the region,” the subcommittee concluded. Far from taking steps to combat those drug flows, “U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war efforts against Nicaragua,” the investigation showed. “In each case,” the report added, “one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.” Moreover, “senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.”
Narcoterrorism as Propaganda
President Reagan came to office with a mission: to roll back the frontiers of world communism, especially in the Third World. Almost from the start he singled out Nicaragua as a dangerous base of Soviet bloc operations in the Western Hemisphere. But with the American public’s anticommunist sentiments dulled by a decade of détente and memories of Vietnam, how could his administration revive support for combating the Nicaraguan challenge to U.S. power and credibility?
One answer was to invent a new threat, closely associated with communism and even more frightening to the public: narcoterrorism. The term, rarely well defined by its users, encompasses a variety of phenomena: guerrilla movements that finance themselves by drugs or taxes on drug traffickers, drug syndicates that use terrorist methods to counter the state’s law enforcement apparatus, and state-sponsored terrorism associated with drug crimes.’ But in the hands of administration officials, the epithet served a more political than analytical purpose: to capitalize on popular fear of terrorists and drug traffickers in order to mobilize support for foreign interventions against leftist regimes. As two private colleagues of Oliver North noted in a prospectus for a propaganda campaign to link the Sandinistas and drugs, “the chance to have a single issue which no one can publicly disagree with is irresistible.”
Administration spokesmen drove the lesson home through sheer repetition. In January 1986, President Reagan said, “The link between the governments of such Soviet allies as Cuba and Nicaragua and international narcotics trafficking and terrorism is becoming increasingly clear. These twin evils-narcotics trafficking and terrorism-represent the most insidious and dangerous threats to the hemisphere today.” A year and a half earlier, Secretary of State George Shultz decried the “complicity of communist governments in the drug trade,” which he called “part of a larger pattern of international lawlessness by communist nations that, as we have seen, also includes support for international terrorism, and other forms of organized violence against legitimate governments.” Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, told a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in 1986 that “sustaining democracy and combating the ‘narcoterrorist’ threat are inextricably linked.”
The term “narcoterrorism” also soon became an essential adjunct to the doctrine of national security developed by right-wing Latin American military forces to rationalize their repressive domestic activities and seizures of power. At the Fourteenth Bilateral Intelligence Conference of the general staffs of the Argentine and Bolivian armies, held in Buenos Aires in late August 1988, military leaders concluded that “the relationship between drugs and subversion, which generates narcoterrorism, has become part of the East-West confrontation, with a real impact on the national-international security of the West.” They declared that “narcoterrorism now constitutes a means of Revolutionary War” and that “the MCI [International Communist Movement] uses narcoterrorism as a socio-ideological procedure for provoking social imbalances, eroding community morale, and corrupting and disintegrating Western society, as part of the strategic objective of promoting the new Marxist order.” Combating narcoterrorism would justify repressing a whole range of familiar enemies: “trade unions, religious, student groups, etc.” Above all, it would require granting more resources and political power to military elites: “The intervention of the armed forces in this context has been considered necessary, given that the increase in drug trafficking surpasses individual action.”
The Reagan administration’s calculated use of the term was often challenged by leftist critics, academics, and even the Drug Enforcement Administration, which cautiously demurred from the most inflammatory accusations against Nicaragua, Cuba, and Latin American guerrilla movements. But White House officials went beyond exaggerating the truth to make their case against Marxist movements and regimes: they sponsored narcoterrorists of their own within the Contras in the course of waging ,”covert” war against Nicaragua.
The distortion of the Contras’ ostensibly democratic cause by drugs and terrorism owed much to the practices of three important influences on the anti-Sandinista rebels: militant CIA-trained Cuban exiles, the Mexican drug Mafia, and Argentine military intelligence agents. Their methods, both in war and in crime, indelibly tainted the Contras’ own cause. In short, the Contra-drug link, supported by Washington, exemplified the very narcoterrorist threat that Assistant Secretary Abrams called an enemy of democracy.
One symptom of something deeply wrong with U.S. drug enforcement is that since World War II it has been promoted with the aid of blatant lies. In the 1950s Harry Anslinger, the head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, wrung his annual appropriations from Congress with the accusation, which he knew to be groundless, that the U.S. was being flooded with a tide of “Yunnan opium” from Communist China, “the uncontrolled reservoir supplying the worldwide narcotics traffic.” Only in the 1970s, as the United States moved towards normalization of relations with Beijing, did a U.S. narcotics agent admit that “there was no evidence for Anslinger’s accusations.”‘ Thus the U.S. media have faced a special problem when reporting on the international drug trade. They are accustomed to drawing their stories from government sources; what should they do when they suspect these sources are Iying?
In the 1980s the Eisenhower-Anslinger propaganda about Red Chinese heroin was replaced by the Reagan-North propaganda about Red Sandinista cocaine. The climax of this campaign was Reagan’s charge in a nationally televised broadcast “that top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking.” Reagan made this charge on March 16, 1986, only a few hours after the San Francisco Examiner, in a frontpage story, had revealed the involvement of Contra leaders and supporters in the Frogman cocaine bust three years earlier. Reagan’s charges reached a national audience; the Examiner’s story remained a local one.
It was a sign of improvement in U.S. narcotics enforcement that Reagan’s charge was almost immediately undercut by the Drug Enforcement Administration:
Reporters who called the DEA public affairs office after Reagan’s speech were read a brief statement, which said: “DEA receives sporadic allegations concerning drug trafficking by Nicaraguan nationals. One DEA investigation resulted in the indictment of the Nicaraguan aide to the minister of the interior [i.e., Federico Vaughan]; no evidence was developed to implicate the minister of the interior or other Nicaraguan officials.” The statement earned the DEA an unwelcome headline in The New York Times: “Drug Agency Rebuts Reagan Charge.” DEA’s stock sank at the White House. The Washington Times attacked [DEA Administrator] Lawn’s senior spokesman, a respected former journalist, Robert Feldkamp, for failing to support the president.
At the same time, Vice President Bush was helping spread the administration story, also discounted by DEA Chief Lawn, that Nicaragua, as well as the Medellin cartel, had inspired the 1985 attack by M-19 guerrillas against the Colombian Supreme Court.
Despite the lessons of Watergate, the methods and protocol of United States journalism are not well equipped to handle government spokesmen who are out to peddle lies. It is true that establishment media, which have longer-lived reputations to worry about than do politicians, do not connive willingly at these lies; but as the government is the usual source for political journalism in Washington, the establishment media are reluctant to find themselves at odds with it.
… the media do not set their own investigative agendas independently, but operate as part … of the political establishment.
As a journalist with a good Iran-Contra reporting record told us, “I had the Oliver North story for two years before it broke, but never ran it. Ollie was my best Washington source.”
… it is the journals with the highest national reputations, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, that find it hardest to undermine their government sources, at least when the story concerns drugs and the U.S. intelligence community.
The timidity of Congress in challenging administration big lies on the Contra drug issue rises in no small part from the fear of contradiction and criticism from the powerful establishment media, whose interests all too frequently parallel those of the administration.
The Kerry report, although cautious, had come up with significant and disturbing facts, such as that “the State Department selected four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers to supply humanitarian assistance to the Contras,” that when one of these companies in Honduras (SETCO) came under suspicion, along with its allies in the Honduran military, “the DEA office in Honduras was closed in June of 1983,” or that “Five witnesses testified that [John] Hull [‘a central figure in Contra operations on the Southern Front’] was involved in cocaine trafficking.”
Both the drug traffic and the CIA’s relationship to it were prominent public issues when the report was released in April 1989. Yet the New York Times story on the Kerry report was buried on page 8; the Washington Post’s on page 20. Neither John Hull nor the closure of the DEA office was mentioned at all; the State Department story was mentioned only briefly. Thus stories that the Times and Post had never told continued to be excluded from their columns.
The Post in particular devoted far less space to the accounts of Contra involvement (“The report concluded that there was ‘substantial’ evidence of drug smuggling through the Nicaraguan war zone and that combatants on both sides were involved”) than to the subcommittee report’s own disclaimers: “The report acknowledges that widely publicized allegations that high-level contras were directly involved in the drug trade could not be substantiated. The report also states that one of the Contras’ chief accusers, convicted money launderer Ramon Milian Rodriguez, failed a lie detector test and was found to be ‘not truthful.’ Another widely quoted contra accuser, Richard Brenneke, never had the Central Intelligence Agency connections he claimed and was found to be otherwise unreliable as well, the report said.” Thus the report’s twenty-five pages of documentation on the Contras were reduced to a tepid half sentence, while three pages of disclaimers about minor, irrelevant witnesses were given three full sentences.
The Times and the Post, like the Iran-Contra Committees, were also circumspect in investigating the recurring deals of Oliver North and Richard Secord with drug-linked international arms brokers, such as Manucher Ghorbanifar, Sadeg Tabatabai, and Manzer al-Kassar. Here the press and Congress, so shrill in their demands for a “real war” against drugs, were not covering up for the CIA (which had recommended against dealing with Ghorbanifar); they were covering up for these drug traffickers themselves.
In the same way, Jack Terrell’s revelations about the drug aspects of North’s illegal Contra support activities, as they slowly found their way into the mainstream U.S. press, were never fully covered. The Washington Post ran one story about how more than $100,000 from Secord’s IranContra bank accounts had been spent on Robinette efforts against Terrell and others involved in the Christic Institute lawsuit against Secord, a story based largely on Terrell’s allegations. But the more such stories proliferated, the more obvious it became that the establishment press was avoiding three central facts: (1) Terrell had told the FBI and other government agencies about major drug smuggling by Contra supporters; (2) the FBI was engaged by North to harass and silence Terrell, an FBI source, along with his political allies; and (3) North’s ability to engage the FBI in silencing one of its own witnesses depended on the secret counterterrorism powers of the Operations Sub-Group. (When the Democrats of the Iran-Contra Committees came to issue their report, they too, in their extended treatments of the Terrell story, suppressed these three facts.)
Intrinsic and Exotic Pressures for Media Conformity on Drugs
Undoubtedly this reluctance to publish arises in part from the phenomenon of pack journalism we have already described, which the press itself has recognized. As the Los Angeles Times once observed in a front-page story,
Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy once likened reporters to blackbirds on a telephone wire-when one lands, they all land, he said; when one takes off, they all take off. Nowhere is this phenomenon more pervasive than in Washington…. “Washington is more susceptible to pack journalism than any place I’ve been,” says John Balzar, a political writer for the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve watched reporters go through the agonies of hell because their stories differed slightly from their colleagues’.” . . . “It seems paradoxical to say that competition produces uniformity, rather than diversity,” says Howell Raines, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, but that’s exactly what often happens in Washington. One explanation: Washington journalists have many of the same sources, sources who have their own vested interests. They are government aides and spokesmen who function much as political aides and consultants do in a campaign; they are “spin doctors,” ready to tell the reporters and commentators just what each event “really means. ”
In defense of the media, one can point to the unique propaganda campaign mounted by the Reagan administration on behalf of the Contras, with the help of U.S. tax dollars. This campaign itself has been effectively covered up:
Congressional investigators [for the Iran-Contra Committees] did draft a chapter about the domestic side of the scandal for the Iran-contra report, but it was blocked by House and Senate Republicans. Kept from the public domain, therefore, was the draft chapter’s explosive conclusion: that, according to one congressional investigator, senior CIA covert operatives were assigned to the White House to establish and manage a covert domestic operation designed to manipulate the Congress and the American public…. The Administration was indeed running a set of domestic political operations comparable to what the CIA conducts against hostile forces abroad. Only this time they were turned against the three key institutions of American democracy: Congress, the press, and an informed electorate.
… author Mark Hertsgaard that the aberrations and excesses of the Reagan years are unfortunately outgrowths of a more fundamental problem: “that the press was part of, and beholden to, the structure of power and privilege in the United States.” Former Newsweek reporter Bob Parry concurs that when any administration defines its policy priorities so clearly, most media executives are happy to play ball: “In Washington, there is a correspondence between people who run news organizations and people in government. There is this sense of wanting to be respected…. [Drug] stories raise too many questions and don’t serve the ‘national interest.’ That is more important to these executives than selling magazines or newspapers. Many news editors and executives are more interested in being respected at cocktail parties than selling newspapers.”
Others have pointed to economic as well as psychological bonds that link media chiefs to others with power.
As ABC’s Sam Donaldson acknowledged in his autobiography: “The press, myself included, traditionally sides with authority and the establishment.” It is hard to see how it could do otherwise; the press was itself a central part of the American establishment. According to Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly, a mere fifty large corporations owned or controlled the majority of media outlets in the United States . . . when Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981. By the time Bagdikian published a new edition of his book in 1987, mergers and acquisitions had shrunk the previous fifty down to twenty-nine. Half of these media moguls ranked among the Fortune 500-itself an elite club whose members, while numbering less than 1 percent of all industrial corporations in the United States, nevertheless accounted for 87 percent of total sales.
Herman and Chomsky also focus on the wealth of the mass media, and the ways in which they “are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government.” This corporate analysis of media oligopoly can easily be oversimplified. Although the media as a whole have been affected by their growing concentration of ownership, the behavior of particular institutions cannot be predicted by their size. Large newspaper chains like Hearst and KnightRidder, with relatively independent Washington bureaus, have collectively a far better record on the drug issue than the New York Times and the Washington Post, which by the yardstick of corporate wealth are smaller. But Hearst and Knight-Ridder newspapers have little circulation among the elites of Washington and New York.
It is true that during Vietnam and Watergate the press had begun to criticize (even if for establishment reasons) the political performance of the U.S. power structure it represented. But this brief drama had led to a prompt backlash for which the academic as well as financial establishments must share responsibility.
“The most important new source of national power in 1970, as compared to 1950, was the national media,” Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor of political science and frequent government consultant, wrote in 1975. Huntington was one of dozens of scholars hired to explore the theme of “the governability of democracy” for the Trilateral Commission, a private group founded by banker David Rockefeller and composed of highly influential business, political and academic figures from the United States, Western Europe and Japan. It was the Trilateral Commission’s view that the United States suffered from an “excess of democracy” which prevented the country from making the difficult and painful choices needed to set things right again. On the specific topic of the press, Huntington asserted, “There is . . . considerable evidence that the development of television journalism contributed to the undermining of governmental authority.” Backed by large corporate foundations, right-wing think tanks and other representatives of the American power structure, the attack on the press seemed aimed at convincing both the press itself and the public at large that journalists were out of step with the rest of the country.
In the 1980s, the United States press was open to voices of dissent on policy, but not to questions about the fundamental legitimacy of institutions accused of systematically breaking the law. It is chilling to recognize the extent to which this defense of the status quo entailed, time after time, a protective cover-up of the United States security system’s involvement with international drug traffickers, its supposed enemies.
The history of official toleration for or complicity with drug traffickers in Central America in the 1980s suggests the inadequacy of traditional “supply-side” or “demand-side” drug strategies whose targets are remote from Washington. Chief among these targets have been the ethnic ghettos of America’s inner cities (the demand side) and foreign peasants who grow coca plants or opium poppies (the supply side). Experience suggests instead that one of the first targets for an effective drug strategy should be Washington itself, and specifically its own support for corrupt, drug-linked forces in the name of anticommunism.
Since the 1940s these government intelligence connections have opened up unsupervised shipping and plane communications between the United States and drug-growing areas and conferred protection on drug traffickers willing to ally themselves in the war against communism- a process the Kerry subcommittee referred to as “ticket punching.”‘ These conditions in turn have created windows of opportunity for drug smugglers to flood America’s domestic market with their products.
Such a window was opened wide to cocaine smugglers in Honduras by Washington’s support of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. The resulting “Honduran connection” was built around trafficker allies in the Honduran military, who provided essential support to the Reagan administration’s Contra program. Honduras in these years accounted for 20 percent or more of all the cocaine smuggled into the United States. Costa Rica, another center of Contra activity and official corruption, accounted for another 10 percent or more. And Panama, with the CIA-protected Noriega at its helm, supplied drugs, pilots, and banks to service these networks.
The Contra drug connection arose in the context of other drug-related covert operations conducted since the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, which created the legal justification for a national security bureaucracy that evaded normal constraints of law and congressional review. The cumulative history of such connections suggests that changes in politics, as much as changes in either demand or supply, have driven shifts in the overall pattern of drug flows into the United States.
One clear example is the so-called heroin epidemic of the late 1960s, which followed a decade and a half of CIA collaboration with opium-smuggling gangs and drug-corrupted regimes in the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. Historian Alfred McCoy noted that this relationship sparked a “takeoff” in the Southeast Asian opium trade in the 1950s, with Burma’s production growing tenfold and Thailand’s even more. The addition of American troops and the disruption of the French Connection supplied the conditions for an explosion in heroin shipments across the Pacific.
The revival of covert operations under Reagan was accompanied by the dramatic expansion of another traditional opium region: Southwest Asia’s “Golden Crescent.” In 1979, the region was not a major heroin supplier to the U.S. market; the drug was virtually unknown in Pakistan. The Afghan war changed all that. By 1984, the year Vice President Bush (Reagan’s drug czar) graced Pakistan with an official visit, the border area with Afghanistan supplied roughly 50 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States, and 70 percent of the world’s high-grade heroin; and there were 650,000 addicts in Pakistan itself. Heroin was shipped out in the same Pakistani army trucks that brought in covert U.S. aid to the Afghan guerrillas. The only high-level heroin bust in Pakistan was made at the insistence of a Norwegian prosecutor; none was made at the instigation of narcotics officers in the U.S. Embassy.
The Central America drug experience in the 1980s, in short, was not an anomaly but part of a long-standing pattern of intelligence alliances, military intervention, and official corruption. It is a pattern that shows no sign of abating.
Under these conditions, the strategy of further militarizing the societies of Latin America promises to be utterly counterproductive, not only for controlling drugs but also for fostering democracy. Surely the latter objective should stand higher in the priorities of both North and South America. It will be achieved not through wholesale destruction of peasant economies and drug wars but rather through strengthening civilian polities and economies.
Washington could better help Latin America by looking more at home than abroad for ways to reduce drug abuse. Rather than export its crime problem, America should start exporting the example of dealing more humanely with the social, psychological, and medical issues of drug use. As Colombian President-elect Cesar Gaviria said in July 1990, “The demand for drugs is the engine of the trafficking problem. If the United States and the industrial countries don’t get a way to reduce consumption, we will not solve the problem. It doesn’t matter how much we work against the trafficking of drugs, how many lives we lose. It doesn’t matter how great our effort, the problem will be there. The United States and industrialized countries need a way to reduce the consumption of drugs.”
Instead of addressing the root causes of America’s drug demand, however, during the 1980s about 70 percent of federal drug spending went to law enforcement, which even enthusiasts admit can interdict only a small fraction of total drug supplies. Spending priorities must be reversed if any progress toward social healing is to begin. Drug education and support for expanded treatment are essential. So too are broader (if more challenging) programs to rebuild broken communities that breed despair, escapism, and crime. Ultimately, the United States must begin to consider, and experiment with, proposals to take the crime out of drug markets through controlled legalization.
No approach will succeed, however, without urgent political action to end Washington’s own complicity with drug traffic. Both Congress and the media, institutions that have served executive power more than they have challenged it, must show more courage. They must simultaneously judge administration foreign policies more critically and exercise more restraint in milking the drug issue for votes and sales. Neither institution is likely to reform entirely from within; only an informed and demanding public can push them to respond as the nation needs and deserves.