By: m.l. stein
THREE MAJOR NEWSPAPERS have raised doubts about the accuracy of a San Jose Mercury News series linking the Central Intelligence Agency to a drug ring that allegedly fed tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs.
Although the three-part series by Gary Webb was published in August, its full impact is just beginning to be felt.
At least three official investigations, including one by the CIA itself, are underway into the allegations.
And, as the Mercury News stories were picked up by the national media, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the NAACP and other black groups around the country have demanded that the government look into the newspaper’s findings. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has written a demand to CIA director John Deutch for an explanation of the CIA’s involvement in the events reported.
Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who has strongly defended the series, asserted in an interview that “good follow stories” are on the way. He further contended that the Washington Post, one of the papers that chipped away at Webb’s revelations, in a sense confirmed his reporting.
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times also reported they found significant weaknesses in the series.
Webb wrote that in the 1980s, a narcotics ring sold “tons of cocaine” to the Crips and Bloods, L.A. street gangs, and “funneled millions in drug profits to a Nicaraguan guerilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.”
The rebels, called the Contras in their battle against the then-Sandinista government, were backed by the United States. Webb said the cocaine was supplied by a Southern California drug peddler and Contra leader, Oscar Danilo Blandon. Blandon, according to the articles, also was a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Webb also alleged that Blandon’s boss in the Contra operation was Juan Norwin Meneses Cantarero, a San Francisco Bay area resident, who was a big fund-raiser for the Contras. Webb said they worked through “Freeway” Ricky Ross, a South Central L.A. street hustler who converted the cocaine to crack and helped spread the drug throughout the country.
Nowhere in the series, however, does Webb say that the drug operation was run by the CIA or that the agency had knowledge of it.
Washington Post staffers Robert Suro and Walter Pincus wrote that the Post’s investigation determined that “the available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed Contras ? or Nicaraguans in general ? played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States.”
Crack sales in the last decade, they said, were a broad-based phenomenon involving not only Nicaraguans but dealers from several countries, including the United States. Blandon, they continued, handled only about five tons of cocaine in a period when 250 tons were distributed each year.
In addition, the Post story quoted a court filing by federal prosecutors saying that Blandon was never involved in any drug dealing “with or for the CIA.”
A New York Times story by Tim Golden stated that “while there are indications in American intelligence files and elsewhere that Mr. Meneses and Mr. Blandon may indeed have provided modest support for the rebels . . . there is no evidence that either man was a rebel official or had anything to do with the CIA.”
And, like the Post, the Times said there was no proof the “relatively small amounts of cocaine” the pair perhaps brokered on behalf of the Contras played any signifcant role in the crack explosion here.
The Los Angeles Times weighed in saying no evidence has turned up that large amounts of profits from a Nicaraguan drug ring were steered to the Contras. Similarly, said the story by Jesse Katz, Clare Spiegel and Ralph Frammolino, there has been no showing that the Crips and Bloods enjoy huge profits from cocaine.
“Cocaine was flowing from Colombia into Los Angeles long before the Nicaraguan traffickers arrived on the scene,” they reported.
The newspapers also suggested the disclosure of a Contra connection was warmed-over news. The Post pointed out that allegations of Contra drug dealing surfaced in the 1980s, during investigations by journalists and congressional investigators.
Lost in all the debate, the Mercury News’ Ceppos said, is the fact that the Knight-Ridder newspaper posted on its Web site “actual documents on which our story was based . . . . Readers can see for themselves whether they believe the series.”
The Web site has been deluged with visits. Telephone callers to the paper are greeted by a recorded message telling them the response to the series has been “tremendous” and that reprints were available. Webb’s voice mailbox was reported to be full.
Several attempts to reach Webb were unsuccessful.
In an interview, Ceppos said his only regret about the series was its lack of a paragraph high in the account saying “clearly what the Mercury News DOESN’T know: whether the CIA indeed had knowlege of the drug dealing in Los Angeles.”
He added that although there is “considerable circumstantial evidence” of CIA involvement with drug-ring leaders, the newspaper did not reach or report any conclusion on the question.
Ceppos insisted that the Post, despite its assault on the series, went further than the Mercury News in tying the CIA to the L.A. drug racket. He cited a paragraph in the Post story saying:
“The articles provided what appears to be the first account of Nicaraguans with links to the contras selling drugs themselves in American cities . . . . That went beyond findings in the 1980s by congressional investigators and journalists, that a few of the contras’ and some of the rebels’ suppliers and supporters were involved in drug smuggling in the region at a time when the CIA was deeply involved in contra operations there. The CIA knew about some of these activities and did little nor nothing to stop them, according to accounts from then-senior CIA officers and other government officials.”
Ceppos said he was gratified by the interest in the series as indicated by the critical articles in the three papers.
“There may be some disagreement around the edges, but they have validated the heart of our story,” he maintained. “The only thing that troubles me about the criticism of our series is the what’s-the-big-deal tone running through it. Goodness, if the CIA knew about the illegal activities being conducted by its associates, federal laws and basic morality required that it notify domestic authorities. It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of story a newspaper should shine a light on . . . . I want to learn the truth through additional reporting by the Mercury News or anyone else and through many federal investigations.”
There is one other thing troubling Ceppos, who said he found it “absolutely outrageous” that the Post refused to publish his op-ed reply to its examination of the series. He said that in two weeks of negotiations with Post editors, he even rewrote the piece at the request of deputy editorial page editor Stephen Rosenfeld, who finally turned it down.
Rosenfeld declined to comment, but in a letter told Ceppos he rejected the piece based on stories in other papers “essentially confirming the Post’s story.” Rosenfeld also said Ceppos’ response “did not fully enough meet the tough questions you and I had discussed and that it defended some positions you had backed away from elsewhere.”
Besides the CIA’s internal probe, a Senate hearing is planned, and the Department of Justice is conducting an inquiry. Meanwhile, the Mercury News is heavily promoting the story on the Internet and in the paper.
?(Lost in all the debate, Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos said, is the fact that the Knight-Ridder newspaper posted on its Web site “actual documents on which our story was based . . . . Readers can see for themselves whether they believe the series.”) [Caption & Photo]