Hooked on Fantasies
Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb, New York: Seven Stories Press, 548 pages, $24.95
Hell hath no fury like a leftist scorned. And boy, have they been scorned for the past decade. The fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European puppets, the deluge of Cuban rafters–the list is endless. It's gotten to the point where I wouldn't be surprised to see a mob of students marching on Sproul Hall at Berkeley, chanting, "Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh! General Motors is gonna win!"
But nothing, nothing, has stung like the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You could explain away the Soviet Union and even grizzled old Fidel Castro (four decades without elections and still counting) as cases of revolutionary sclerosis. And everyone knew China hadn't been the same since the Gang of Four was so indecorously tossed in the slam. But Nicaragua! Now there was socialism with a baby boomer face.
The fact that Ronald Reagan hated them so much was the best validation of all. Who could have believed that those ungrateful peasants would fling the Sandinistas overboard the first chance they got?
For the left, bad journalism has always been the continuation of war by other means, and journalism doesn't get much worse than Dark Alliance. It's Gary Webb's book-and-a-half-length expansion of the sensational series he published two years ago in the San Jose Mercury News. The series argued that the U.S.-backed contra rebels, whose war forced the Sandinistas to hold free elections, funded themselves by flooding the United States with cocaine. Contra cocaine, Webb claims, not only set off the nationwide explosion of low-priced crack but also triggered the rise of black street gangs in Los Angeles. And all the while the CIA stood by, winking and nodding.
The newspaper series was quickly shot to pieces by other news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Eventually even the Mercury itself, after sending a reporter around to recheck Webb's work, started backing away. Webb, not surprisingly, began intimating that his own newspaper was part of the conspiracy, and they soon parted ways.
"I'm not the first reporter to go after the CIA and lose his job," said Webb, a line (he was doubtless thinking) that will sound great in the final scene of the mini-series, as the sound effects men clank brass cojones in the background.
If the plot line of Dark Alliance sounds familiar, that's because it's appeared in other works of fantasy. The belief that the U.S. government forced cocaine into the ghetto in an attempt at genocide has attained urban myth status in the black community. Substitute the FBI for the CIA and the Mafia for the contras, and you have the plot of Mario Van Peebles' 1996 film Panther.
Ludicrous though it was, Panther sounded downright plausible next to the lawsuit filed by the Christic Institute, the leftist "public interest" law firm, in 1986. The suit, directed against a number of civilian supporters of the contras (including several former U.S. intelligence and counterinsurgency officials), said the whole war in Nicaragua was basically an excuse to sell drugs. The contras, the lawsuit said, were just one minor facet of a 20-year narcotics conspiracy by the CIA, the National Security Council, Cuban Americans, and right-wing Libyans.
Despite support from intellectual luminaries ranging from Sally Field to Bruce Springsteen, the lawsuit failed to impress a federal judge, who dismissed it as frivolous and ordered the Christic Institute to pay $1.2 million in legal costs for the defendants. (Another element of the Christic lawsuit was disproven a few years later when fingerprint evidence proved that a terrorist bombing that killed an American reporter was committed not by a right-wing Libyan working for the CIA, but by a left-wing Argentine working for the Sandinistas. Oops.)
Webb tries to disguise them, but the bloodlines between the Christic Institute lawsuit and Dark Alliance are quite direct. The bulk of the book's Nicaragua reporting was done by Swiss journalist Georg Hodel, who worked closely with the Christic Institute. (The firmness of Hodel's grip on reality may be judged by the other conspiracy white whale he has been pursuing for years–that the Rockefeller family was the secret power behind Hitler.) Hodel and Webb were introduced by Christic Institute investigator Doug Vaughan. Though he discreetly fails to mention it, at least half a dozen of the people Webb thanks in his preface worked for or with the Christic Institute.
The Christic pedigree is important because of what it says about intellectual honesty. The institute's lawsuit was a fraud from the start. At its heart was an affidavit supposedly based on testimony of 79 secret witnesses whose identity could not be revealed because their lives were in danger. When the judge finally warned Christic to either reveal the names or withdraw the affidavit, it turned out that several were listed twice. Others were newspaper reporters who knew nothing more about the case than they had been told by Christic officials. One of the most important was someone known merely as "David" from Costa Rica, whom no one from Christic had ever met or spoken with; he was a supposed barroom acquaintance of another witness, who didn't know his last name or address, and hadn't seen him in years. And some witnesses obviously couldn't have feared for their lives if their names were disclosed because they were already dead. (Christic's lead attorney, Daniel Sheehan, must have been taking a good many depositions with his Ouiji board. When he submitted his list of 2,176 trial witnesses–that number is not a typo–at least 12 percent of them turned out to be dead.)
This same flexible approach to the facts colors Dark Alliance from cover to cover. How can I begin to tell you about this book? Maybe I should start with a small detail, like this one: Webb's salute in passing to his colleague Roberto Orozco, "who later lost his job at [the Nicaraguan daily newspaper] La Prensa for pursuing this story." As they say in that Hertz ad, well, not exactly. It's true Orozco quarreled with editors over, among other things, chasing a story about the CIA and narcotrafficking. But as any La Prensa reporter can tell you, what got him fired was a note he posted on the newsroom bulletin board: "This place is full of shit."
Or perhaps it would be better to plunge right into the whoppers, the paranoid fantasies that call into question not only Webb's basic skills as a reporter but his entire psychiatric history, like this one: He recounts the tale of a captured Colombian narcotrafficker named Allen Raul Rudd, who explained how then-Vice President George Bush had flown down to Colombia to strike a bargain with the Medellin cocaine cartel. The agreement was that the cartel could fly as much cocaine as it wanted into U.S. military bases as long as it sold guns to the contra rebels in Nicaragua. The deal was sealed by Bush and cartel leader Jorge Ochoa, who posed for a photo together in front of suitcases stuffed with cash.
To buy that story, you have to believe not only that Bush broke all existing Washington records for venality but that he was at once clever enough to give the slip to the phalanx of U.S. reporters who dog the vice president's every step, yet stupid enough to pose for a photo that would blow the whole thing. Then you've got to concede that Jorge Ochoa was even stupider, because even as the United States was pushing Colombia into a war on the cartels that would end in Ochoa's death, he never went on television to wave around a picture that would have proven that the biggest pusher of all was sitting in the White House.
Every page of Dark Alliance is like this, festooned with false information ranging from Clintonian half-truths to loony-tune delusions. No subject is too great, too small, or too far afield for Webb to distort or falsify. The misrepresentations run the gamut from trivial acts of self-aggrandizement, like Webb's claim that he won a Pulitzer Prize that was really awarded to the entire staff of the Mercury News, to calculated character assassinations that would be grounds for horsewhipping if they were not so obviously mendacious. Does Webb really think that anyone is going to believe that Seymour Hersh–the reporter who broke not only the My Lai massacre but the story of CIA monitoring of domestic dissident groups–is a CIA tool?
The fact that Gary Webb is a jerk does not, of course, necessarily mean that the CIA and the contras weren't cocaine merchants, any more than the fact that Joe McCarthy was a jerk proved there were no communists. Government agencies can and do run dangerously off-track all the time, and the peril is greatest when you're talking about an organization like the CIA, which not only is imbued with a sense of higher purpose (protecting national security) but shrouded in secrecy as well.
Moreover, if the contras had managed to skirt all entanglement with narcotraffickers, it would make them unique among the world's insurgent movements of the past 20 years. Every guerrilla group, from the anti-communist mujahideen in Afghanistan to the nutball Maoists of Peru's Shining Path, has at least brushed shoulders with the drug trade. For one thing, it is only a matter of time until supply pilots flying around the bush realize that bags of white powder can be profitably stashed among the loads of guns they're carrying. A few contra pilots and their associates–particularly on the so-called southern front of the war, where the commander was the erratic ex-Sandinista war hero Eden Pastora–succumbed. But to label that a CIA-contra-cocaine connection is like trying to label the Pentagon a pusher because a private in Fort Hood, Texas, sells a lid to his girlfriend's brother.
Much more serious is the inevitable moment when it occurs to guerrilla leaders that dope represents a potentially lucrative source of funding: An army travels on its wallet, and cash flow, be it from Moscow or Washington, can be erratic. The temptation has proven irresistible to many insurgencies, especially in Latin America; drug money is a major source of revenue to all the various guerrilla groups in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and the Marxist Revolutionary Forces of Columbia (FARC) may be the biggest narcotrafficking gang in the world.
The contras–especially before the United States began funding them in 1981–had the same money problems as their Marxist counterparts. They turned to some of the same solutions. One contra faction based in Guatemala raised money for a time through bank robberies, car thefts, and kidnappings. But in late 1981, as American money began to flow to a united contra front based in Honduras, new commander Enrique Bermudez ordered an end to the Al Capone stuff. His officers complained: If robberies were good enough for the communists in El Salvador and Colombia, why not for us? Because, Bermudez said, nobody in Moscow cared what Soviet clients did to raise money. In Washington, it would be a different story.
There was a serious schism with the contras over the issue, and Bermudez had to oust a number of officers to make it stick. But he finally prevailed, in large part because there was no longer any need for the contras to pay their own way. From 1981 to 1984, the United States put up $72 million for the contras, more than enough to fund them even as their numbers increased to 15,000. Congress, in a spat with Reagan, closed the spigot in 1985, and the contras began withdrawing from Nicaragua, triggering Oliver North's now-infamous efforts to enlist the Ayatollah Khomeini in the anti-Sandinista cause. In 1986, another appropriation of $100 million started the war up again.
So you don't have to believe the CIA and contras were saints to stay out of the cocaine business, only that they had a rudimentary sense of self-preservation. Between 1982 and 1985, there was no need to undertake anything as insanely risky as running dope into American ghettos. During the 18-month span in 1985 and 1986 when they did need money, the evidence is overwhelming that the contras didn't have the pot of cocaine gold that Webb imagines–if they had, they would have stayed in Nicaragua and continued the war instead of withdrawing to Honduras.
Webb would have known this if he had ever taken the trouble to interview any actual contras, or any of the CIA officers who worked them. But he didn't. His evidence that the contras were selling cocaine is almost entirely drawn from the claims of a few Nicaraguan traffickers facing long jail sentences who were using a the-CIA-made-me-do-it defense. Their involvement with the contras was tangential, if even that. And by their own testimony–which Webb distorts to the point of falsehood–they stopped giving the contras any money at all by 1982, if not earlier.
Webb's attempts to inflate bit players into contra warlords can be downright comic. Take the case of Norwin Meneses, the Professor Moriarty of Dark Alliance. Webb says he was chief of "intelligence and security" for the contras…in California. (Does anyone out there know how many Sandinista divisions were based in San Francisco?) And Meneses certainly kept the contra coffers full. Webb triumphantly produces written proof of $484.20 in contributions. In small bills, I imagine, to confound all those Sandinista search-and-destroy teams running around Fisherman's Wharf.
If Meneses and his pals barely qualified as featherweights as far as their contra credentials go, their credits as cocaine traffickers weren't much more impressive. Webb breathlessly reports that they brought in five tons of cocaine over a decade. To put that in perspective, U.S. Customs agents found two tons in a single plane on a runway at Miami International in 1981. That's why Webb's claim that the Nicaraguan dealers single-handedly blighted inner-city Los Angeles with crack is not even taken seriously enough to rebut by most of his critics.
But then, Dark Alliance isn't really about crack or the ghetto. It's about vindicating the American left. If proving that the Sandinistas were the good guys has gotten considerably tougher as the evidence mounts that they used their time in power to amass offshore bank accounts and molest their 11-year-old stepdaughters, then more energy will have to go into proving the contras were the bad guys. I'd look for Dark Alliance II: The CIA, the Contras, and the AIDS Explosion any day now. That will be followed, if necessary, by Dark Alliance III: The CIA, the Contras, and Jerry Springer. And were those Nicaraguan cigars that Monica Lewinsky used to tempt the president? Anything is possible, except for the Gary Webbs of the world to admit that Ronald Reagan might have known more about Central America in the 1980s than they did.
Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin (email@example.com) is Managua bureau chief of the Miami Herald and author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA & the Contras (Brassey's).