WASHINGTON — An expos by a California newspaper is raising questions about whether American intelligence officials in the 1980s permitted the "contra" rebels to sell drugs in US cities to help fund guerrilla warfare against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Mid- and late-1980s news reports and congressional investigations did in fact establish that certain people associated with the CIA-backed rebel group did engage in drug trafficking as a means to support the contras.
But what remains unclear is the extent to which US intelligence and law-enforcement officials may have been aware of specific illegal activities by pro-contra Nicaraguans operating in the US. Also, did the CIA allow those activities to continue, rather than risk identifying secret sources and operatives engaged in the fight against communism in Central America?
Yesterday, CIA director John Deutch addressed the matter before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. He said that an initial CIA review found no evidence to support the allegations, but that he was ordering a "thorough and independent" inquiry into the allegations.
CIA critics see the recent news accounts as evidence of what they say is a familiar pattern, with the spy agency once again rubbing elbows with drug traffickers and other criminals for the sake of defeating communists.
They point to CIA operatives in Southeast Asia, who were actively involved in opium smuggling, and to US-backed mujahideen rebels in Aghanistan, some of whom sold opium to help finance the battle against Soviet forces occupying that country in the 1980s.
These critics pose the issue this way: If US intelligence officials weren't aware of contra drug trafficking, they should have been. And stopping the flow of illegal drugs, and the proliferation of weapons and violence in urban America that come with them, should have been a higher priority for the US government than waging a foundering insurgency in Central America.
The questions came up after the publication last month of a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News. Reporter Gary Webb chronicled the drug-dealing activities of two civilian supporters of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces (FDN), who reportedly sold "tons" of cocaine to street gangs in South Central Los Angeles. The drug dealers say they turned their profits over to the contras.
Mr. Webb reported that cocaine from the two Nicaraguans was sold at cut-rate prices and helped spark the explosion of crack cocaine use in Los Angeles and other cities in the early 1980s.
The stories suggest the two traffickers were protected from prosecution, but the articles do not identify who in the US government may have protected them and why.
The charge that a group supported by the Central Intelligence Agency may have played a key role in supplying crack cocaine to predominantly black neighborhoods in Los Angeles has angered the African American community.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who represents South Central Los Angeles, is calling for a congressional investigation. "I think it is unconscionable that the intelligence community or the CIA could think so little of people of color that they would be willing to destroy generations in an effort to try to win the war in Nicaragua," Mrs. Waters says. "And they lost it anyway."
The response among Clinton administration officials has been lukewarm. The CIA's Mr. Deutch has asked the agency's inspector general to investigate the allegations. But he says that in his view there is "no substance" to the Mercury News accounts.
In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, Deutch wrote: "The review I ordered of Agency files, including a study conducted in 1988 and briefed to both intelligence committees [in Congress], supports the conclusion that the Agency neither participated in nor condoned drug trafficking by Contra forces."
But Jack Blum, former chief counsel to a Senate subcommittee that investigated allegations of contra drug ties in the 1980s, says he is dismayed by rapid-fire denials issued by the CIA and Justice Department. He says he believes the accounts are accurate and "raise very serious questions" about covert operations of the day.
Mr. Blum says Washington's zeal in the 1980s to fight communists in Central America blinded officials from seeing the bigger picture. Allowing Nicaraguan drug traffickers to receive a free ride into the lucrative US drug market, Blum says, caused more damage to America than anything that happened in Nicaragua.
Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archives in Washington, is considered an expert in the Iran-Contra scandal and related issues. He says it will take more than the CIA inspector general to get to the bottom of the issues raised by the Mercury News accounts.
"The CIA is denying that it knowingly participated in drug trafficking. That is true. But that is not the right question," Mr. Kornbluh argues. "The right question is: 'Was the CIA aware that key FDN civilians in California were involved in drug smuggling, and did [the CIA] protect them from prosecution in any way?' "
Kornbluh says the Clinton administration should order an investigation of the matter by the intelligence oversight board, a body independent of the CIA.
Tom Cash, a former top Drug Enforcement Administration official in Miami, says that sometimes drug prosecutions take a back seat when matters of national security are at stake. "When you have those types of political upheavals and foreign policy considerations of the president to start with, and at the same time have a drug prosecution to contend with, drugs are going to be second," he says. "It is something we grappled with on a daily basis."