The CIA and the Art of the “Un-Cover-Up”

In late 1996, John Deutch, at the time director of the CIA, traveled to a town meeting in South Central Los Angeles to confront a community outraged by charges that the Agency had been complicit in the importing of cocaine into California in the 1980s. Amid heated exchanges, Deutch publicly pledged an internal investigation by the CIA’s inspector general that would “leave no stone unturned.”

It is now possible to review, albeit in substantially censored form, the results of that probe. At the start of 1998 the inspector general, Fred Hitz, released a volume specifically addressing charges made in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News. Then, a few months later, Hitz finally made available for public scrutiny a second report addressing broader allegations about drug running by Nicaraguan Contras.

That first volume was replete with damaging admissions. Far from being an exoneration, proved on close reading to buttress Webb’s accusations. This brings us to the technique of the “uncover-up.”

Down the decades the CIA has approached perfection in this art. The “uncover-up” is a process whereby, with all due delay, the agency first denies with passion then concedes in profoundly muffled tones charges leveled against it. One familiar feature in the “uncover-up” paradigm is the frequently made statement by CIA-friendly journalists that “no smoking gun” has been detected in whatever probe is under review.

Hitz’s report describes a cable from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations dated October 22, 1982, describing a prospective meeting between Contra leaders in Costa Rica for “an exchange in [U.S.] of narcotics for arms.” But the CIA’s Director of Operations instructed the Agency’s field office not to look into this imminent arms-for-drugs transaction in light of the apparent involvement of U.S. persons throughout.” In other words, the CIA knew that Contra leaders were scheduling an arms-for-drugs exchange, and the Agency was prepared to let the deal proceed.

In 1984, the inspector general discloses, the CIA intervened with the U.S. Justice Department to seek the return from police custody of $36,800 in cash that had been confiscated from Nicaraguan drug-smuggling gang in the Bay Area whose leader, Norwin Meneses, was a prominent Contra fund-raiser. The money had been taken during what was at the time the largest seizure of cocaine in the history of California.

The CIA’s inspector general said the Agency took action to have the money returned in order “to protect an operational equity, i.e., a Contra support group in which it [CIA] had an operational interest.” Hitz also unearthed a CIA memo from that time revealing that the Agency understood the need to keep this whole affair under wraps because, according to the memo (written by the CIA’s assistant general counsel), “there are sufficient factual details which would cause certain damage to our image and program in Central America.”

The 146-page first volume is full of admissions of this nature but these two disclosures alone—allowing a Contra drug deal to go forward, and taking extraordinary action to recoup the proceeds of a drug deal gone awry—should have been greeted as smoking guns, confirming charges made since 1985 about the Agency’s role.

The send report issued by Hitz a few weeks later is even richer in devastating disclosures. The inspector general sets forth a KillingTrayvons1sequence of CIA cable traffic showing that as early as the summer of 1981, the Agency knew that the Contra leadership “had decided to engage in drug trafficking to the United States to raise funds for its activities.”

The leader of the group whose plans a CIA officer was thus describing was Enriqué Bermudez, a man hand-picked by the Agency to run the military operations of the main Contra organization. It was Bermudez who told Contra fund-raisers and drug traffickers Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon (as the latter subsequently testified for the government to a federal grand jury,) that the end justified the means and they should raise revenue in this way.

One of Bermudez’ associates in those early days was Justiniano Perez, who headed up sabotage operations for the Contra group. Perez, presumably one of the men Reagan was referring to when he called the Contra leaders the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers”, aggressively pursued a plan of bombings of civilian centers in Nicaragua and assassinations. He also developed a Contra fundraising scheme that, according to CIA memos, relied on “kidnapping, extortion and robbery.” In late 1981, Perez quit the main Contra unit because he didn’t feel it was ruthless enough. The CIA desperately wanted to bring him back. A 1982 CIA memo asked if Perez “could be influenced to employ tactics other than those used by terrorists.” The answer the Agency apparently wanted to hear was “no”. By 1984, Perez was viewed as “the only person in the entire FDN with the leadership charisma and military tactical ability to make the movement go forward in the manner CIA would like.”

The CIA was uneasily aware that its failure to advise the Contras to stop drug trafficking might land it in difficulties. Hitz documents that the Agency knew that at that time it was obligated to report Contra plans to run drugs to the Justice Department and other agencies such as FBI, DEA and Customs. Nonetheless the CIA kept quiet, and in 1982 got a waiver from the Justice Department giving a legal basis for its inaction.

Hitz enumerates the Contra leaders (“several dozen”) the CIA knew to be involved in drug trafficking, along with another two dozen involved in Contra supply missions and fund raising. He confirms that the CIA knew that Ilopango air base in El Salvador was an arms-for-drugs Contra transshipment point, and discloses a memo in which a CIA officer orders the DEA “not to make any inquiries to anyone re Hangar No. 4 at Ilopango.”

Thus, the CIA’s own inspector general shows that from the very start of the U.S. war on Nicaragua the CIA knew the Contra were planning to bring cocaine into the U.S.A. It did nothing to stop the traffic and, when other government agencies began to probe, the CIA impeded their investigations. When Contra money raisers were arrested, the Agency came to their aid and retrieved their drug money from the police.

So, was the Agency complicit in drug trafficking into Los Angeles and other cities? It is impossible to read Hitz’s report and not conclude that this was the case.

CIA: We Knew All Along

The New York Times has taken the first step in what should by rights be one of the steepest climb-downs in journalistic history. We allude to a story by James Risen, which appeared on page five of the NYT, on October 10, 1998. The story, headed “CIA Said to Ignore Charges of Contra Drug Dealing in ’80s”, must have been an unappetizing one for Risen to write, since it forced him to eat rib-sticking amounts of crow.

The CIA, Risen wrote, “repeatedly ignored or failed to investigate allegations of drug trafficking by the anti-Sandinista rebels in the 1980s”. Risen went on to report that, according to the long-awaited second volume of CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz’s investigation, the CIA had concealed both from Congress and other government agencies its knowledge that the Contras had from the very beginning decided to smuggle drugs to support its operations.

Probably out of embarrassment Risen postponed till his fourteenth paragraph the information from Hitz’s explosive report that should rightly have been the lead to the story, which itself should rightly have been on the front page: “In September 1981, as a small group of rebels was being formed from former soldiers in the National Guard of the deposed Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a CIA informant reported that the leadership of the fledgling group had decided to smuggle drugs to the United States to support its operation.”

Thus does Risen put the lie to all past reports on this topic in the New York Times and his own previous story in the Los Angeles Times parroting CIA and Justice Department press releases to the effect that vigorous internal investigation had entirely exonerated the Agency. In that single paragraph just noted we have four momentous confessions by the CIA’s own inspector general. One: the Contras were involved in drug running from the very start. Two: the CIA knew the Contras were smuggling drugs into the U.S. in order to raise money. Three: this was a decision not made by profiteers on the fringe of the Contras, but by the leadership. Four: the CIA, even before it got a waiver from the Justice Department, was concealing its knowledge from the Congress and from other U.S. government agencies such as the DEA and the FBI. Remember also that the Contra leadership, was handpicked by the CIA, both in the form of its civilian head, Adolfo Calero, and of its military director, Enriqué Bermudez. The fact that the New York Times chose to run this story on the Saturday of a three-day holiday, on an inside page, suggests considerable embarrassment on the part of a newspaper that has had a long history of attacks on those who have charged CIA complicity in Contra drug smuggling, from Senator John Kerry, to Gary Webb, to the present writers in our book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press.

From 1986 to 1988, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts probed allegations about Contra drug running and CIA complicity in same, and issued a 1,000-page report. Even while the hearings were under way, the New York Times belittled his investigation in a three-part series by its reporter Keith Schneider, who attacked Kerry for relying on the testimony of pilots, many of them in prison. Some months after this series was published, Schneider was asked by the weekly paper In These Times why he had taken that approach. Schneider replied that the charges were so explosive that they could “shatter the Republic. I think it’s so damaging the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we could amass.” In other words, it should be based on a written confession by the Director of Central Intelligence.

And now, over a decade later, we have a written confession from the CIA’s inspector general about the “explosive” and the “extraordinary” charges, and the story ends up on an inside page on an inconspicuous Saturday.

Two weeks earlier, the NYT Book Review featured an article on our book, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, and Webb’s book Dark Alliance. The author was James Adams, a Washington-based hack who used to eke out a twilit existence as correspondent for the Murdoch-owned London Sunday Times before transferring from that lowly billet to the ignominious function of relaying Agency handouts and news droppings from Congressional intelligence committees for UPI.

Adams leveled two charges against Whiteout, to the effect that there was no evidence that any Contras were running drugs, and that our book could not be taken seriously because we had not solicited a confession of guilt from the Agency. In fact, as long ago as 1985, reporters accumulated and published evidence of Contra drug running. Among these reporters were Bob Parry and Brian Barger of Associated Press and Leslie Cockburn in documentaries for CBS. So far as Agency confessions are concerned, Whiteout, completed in late June 1998 and published at the start of September, contained precisely the main thrust of the inspector general’s conclusions in the second volume, now discussed by Risen. Hitz anticipated this written report in his verbal testimony to Congress in May 1998 where he acknowledged the Agency’s knowledge of Contra drug links and also disclosed that in 1982 CIA director William Casey had gotten a waiver from Reagan’s attorney general, William French Smith, allowing the CIA to keep secret from other government agencies its knowledge of drug trafficking by its assets, contractors and other Contra figures.

Unlike the Washington Post, the New York Times never reported Hitz’s sensational March 1998 testimony, and in his October 10 story Risen disingenuously fails to mention the 1982 waiver Hitz disclosed at that time. The omission has the effect of implying that the Agency was somehow acting in a “rogue” capacity, whereas the 1982 waiver shows clearly that the Reagan presidency was foursquare behind the whole strategy of concealment of what the Agency was up to. As we have written on the opening page of Whiteout, “Whether it was Truman’s meddling in China, which created Burmese opium kings; or the Kennedy brothers’ obsession with killing Fidel Castro; or Nixon’s command for ‘more assassinations’ in Vietnam, the CIA has always been the obedient executor of the will of the U.S. government, starting with the White House.”

For readers of the New York Times in its home port the newspaper’s climb-down was not nearly as drastic as in the edition distributed in the Washington, D.C., area. The edition available in New York City did not have the fourteenth paragraph (quoted above) nor indeed five other concluding paragraphs. Why? A Times editor simply chopped them off to allow space for a large Bloomingdale’s ad for a drug sale, thus confirming the truth of A.J. Leibling’s observation years ago that the news diet of New Yorkers depends entirely on a bunch of dry goods merchants. The full story was also available on the New York Times’ website, but not on the Lexis-Nexis database, where it ends at the thirteenth paragraph, plus a bland and uninformative final three-line resumé of the missing material. At the time, the Nexis database was where most people looking for Risen’s story would go.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at:

This story is excerpted from End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate.





Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.