Kleptocracy Goes Better With Coke

Review by Carlo Parcelli

Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press

Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair
Verso Press, 1998
hardcover $25.00

   Although the CIA's half-century of complicity in the international drug trade has now been roundly and soundly documented, I still like to read a good reprise on the subject. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair deliver just that and more in Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press.

    The 'more' is an enlightening history of the Gary Webb affair. Gary Webb's revelations in a series of stories that appeared in the San José Mercury News that the CIA had been instrumental in fomenting the crack epidemic in south-central Los Angeles and elsewhere caused a stir that led eventually to a congressional investigation and reports in the official press. At first, the official print press, stunned by the presence of such a series in the establishment San José Mercury News, responded with virtual silence. But in matter of days official organs such as the N.Y. Times, and the sister publications, the L.A. Times and Washington Post had begun a campaign to smear Webb, his editor, and the San José Mercury News, along with Webb's main informant, 'Freeway Rickey' Ross. Cockburn and St. Clair document this smear campaign beautifully and concisely. Cockburn and St. Clair provide the reader with a chronology of the paint-by-numbers agitprop and lies practised by the corporate press in order to suppress a story inimical to its interests.

    For example, career liars such as Walter Pincus and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post attempted to discredit Webb's work by pointing up alleged discrepancies within the text of Webb's articles without having any hard conflicting data. Ironically, the Post, which is short on intellect and long on the politics of consumption, is usually highly critical of the kind of third rate 'deconstructing' that Pincus and Kurtz tried to use against Webb's well-researched series. Then days later, the Post, along with the N.Y. Times, claimed to have done an 'exhaustive investigation' which they insisted turned up no evidence to support Webb's assertions, namely that elements of the contra movement, with the knowledge of their CIA handlers, were engaged in the drug trade. In fact, they did no investigation of the sort and never presented counter evidence, unless you consider the free association of random pieces of information and phone calls of denial from unnamed pals at the CIA proof of the continued spotless record of the Agency.

    But the best round of hypocrisy and lack of concern for the citizenry came from the L.A. Times. The Times, several years before, had run a front page series on 'Freeway Rickey' Ross, convicted crack dealer and the center piece of Webb's series. The Times had insisted that Ross was the Bechtel of crack pestilence in south-central L.A. Yet, when Webb tied Ross to the contras and the CIA, the Times tried to play down Ross' influence on the crack trade in L.A., in effect calling themselves liars. They could have saved themselves the trouble.

    This bullshit on the part of the Times and the rest of the official press wasn't lost on the black community. African Americans can ill afford the delusions that guide the socio-economic and racial majority that inhabit both the editorial offices at major newspapers and tidy little corner offices at Langley. In fact, one could say that the wealthier and more powerful half of this equation, including the press, continues to wage war against its less powerful and understandably defensive adversary. Hence, Cockburn and St. Clair include a chapter on black paranoia. Of course, black paranoia in truth is a white journalistic fiction largely sustained by turning stories like Webb's on their head and forcing the version fabricated by the media of monopolistic capital down the throats of the general population. But despite the immense resources of the official press, they still lose an inordinately large number of their propaganda wars to the truth. The CIA and drugs is one of their most stunning losses. It turns out once again that blacks are not being so much paranoid as historically accurate and the lily white CIA and their colleagues in the official press are being felonious--and antisocial.

    For someone who has watched CIA involvement in the international drug trade for decades, the rest of Whiteout is unmitigated fun. The evidence is so copious and the documentation so voluminous that the authors can do little more than cover the highlights, throwing in illuminating instances of felonious and murderous behavior on the part of America's best-known intelligence agency. For the uninitiated this serves as a useful introduction. The authors cover a lot of ground from Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and the ONI and OSS through Southeast Asia, Iran/contra, Afghanistan and Mexico to south central L.A. Drawing on such classics as Alfred McCoy's Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine, Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall's Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America and William Blum's Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Cockburn and St. Clair introduce the reader to the taxpayer-supported drug trade carried on by the U.S. intelligence and clandestine services.

    If you were in Washington during the hearings held in the late eighties on U.S. servicemen missing in action in Southeast Asia, chances were good that one of the visiting vets scheduled to testify, or just lending support, would in casual conversation talk about their personal experiences in loading raw opium or heroin onto Agency-controlled aircraft during the Vietnam conflict. Because I was known to have an abiding interest in the topic, I was approached by several vets, that is ones not then flyin' and kickin' for the contras, and given an earful on the subject. From all indications, the Washington Post was publishing a newspaper during this period, and one would assume would have been in a better position to solicit these stories than I was. Of course, they did not; and if offered such a tale by one of the vets, would have deferred to the blanket denials by their lifelong colleagues and in many cases close friends at the CIA. And entities like the Post wonder why they're called elitist and are dismissed by the public at large, especially the many vets who have been personally close to situations like officially sanctioned drug smuggling, only to find the official press ignoring or shilling for the guilty parties.

    For me, Cockburn and St. Clair's section on Iran-contra was the most evocative. At the time, I was involved daily with the subject of the contras and illegal drugs and arms smuggling. The author's chapter on Iran/contra closely parallels the information that I was gathering at that time. Why shouldn't it; these are the facts. I availed myself of information that came to light during hearings held by John Kerry's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Communications, and Lawrence Walsh's investigation, as well as the reams of excellent work done by members of the alternative press in the face of a near total blackout by the official media. But somehow Cockburn and St. Clair fail to mention the role of the Christic Institute in digging up evidence against not only the contras and the CIA, but also members of the State Department like convicted liar, Elliott Abrams and members of the National Security Council like Oliver North, Donald Gregg, and then Vice President George Bush as well as the CIA element, e.g. Duane 'Dewey' Clarridge and Felix Rodriguez. Cockburn and St.Clair's story is the Christic Institute's story. To heighten the irony, Cockburn and St Clair rely on journalist Martha Honey for much of the material in the Iran/contra chapter. Martha Honey, as some of you might remember, was married to journalist Tony Avirgan who was injured during the bombing of a press conference scheduled by contra leader and drug dealer Eden Pastora at a remote camp in La Penca, Nicaragua. It was Avirgan and Honey who filed the initial suit, with the Christic Institute providing counsel. A dozen people were injured and several killed, including an American journalist.

    It was the Christic Institute that provided the Owen/ North memos to the alternative and the official press alike when Walsh's investigation revealed their existence. The Christic Institute had deposed Robert Owen on behalf of Avirgan and Honey and had received the memos as part of that deposition. Unfortunately, much of the alternative press avoided the Avirgan/Honey suit. Christopher Hitchens now shits his Dacron at the very mention of Clinton's name. But one could have argued that the place to stop a felonious prick like Clinton would have been during Iran/contra and its drug and arms smuggling Mena dimension. As one Arkansas police officer wrote in his report of infamous drug pilot Barry Seal's operation in August of 1985: "Every time Bari (sic) Seal flies a load of dope for the US govt., he flies two for himself."

    If my memory serves me, Hitchens in The Nation did mention the Christic Institute as the source of the Owen/North memos. But if the Clinton presidency is part of a larger Iran/contra quid pro quo, the Achilles heel of the Reagan-Bush criminal enterprise might have been the chubby Democratic governor from Ar-Kansas. If that might have been a remote possibilty, the Christic Institute certainly had the goods. As a member of the staff of an independent news program, I made a number of trips to the Institute's run-down row house offices on North Capital street with the Capitol looming hazily some 25 blocks in the distance. The Institute was very open and accommodating with requests. They supplied us with reams of information and documents. As a result we often knew months in advance what Hitchens and occasionally Cockburn were going to say about Iran/contra. The Christic Institute's doors and files were open to anyone. Only CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) seemed to be as little concerned about infiltration and sabotage by forces hostile to their human rights activities in El Salvador. As our contact at CISPES said, "We've got nothing to hide." The Christic Institute was the same way. Dan Sheehan would call just to clear up a minor point. The Christic Institute as well as CISPES were grass roots organization, a fact missed or dismissed by the airheads and wannabees like former Nation columnist David Corn and many others in the alternative press.

    Of course, CISPES was spied upon illegally (because indeed they had nothing to hide) by the U.S. government and spearheaded a suit by 300 groups and organizations against illegal U.S. government wiretapping, surveillance, and harassment. The Christic Institute too had nothing to hide; the press and the courts had to do that for them. But if the Institute ferreted out the Iran/contra details that now are retold in Whiteout and elsewhere, they should get some credit.

    Cockburn and St. Clair end their book with a synposis of Inspector General Frederick Hitz's report on allegations of drug smuggling on the part of the CIA and its employees. After release of the heavily redacted report and several admissions that indeed members of the Agency had associated with and facilitated drug smuggling during several Iran/contra operations, Hitz's effort is summed up thus. Cockburn and St. Clair write:

     Even more damaging was Hitz's revelation that in 1982 the CIA had signed a memorandum of understanding with Ronald Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith, freeing the Agency from any requirement to report allegations of drug trafficking involving non-employees. The non-employees, according to Hitz (who refused to release the entire memo), were described as paid and non-paid "assets, pilots who ferried supplies to the contras as well as contra officials and others.

    The official press reported that the Hitz report completely exonerated the CIA and refuted Gary Webb's allegations. In other words, like the death of Joe Dimaggio, the official press had the journalistic death of Gary Webb scripted in advance. Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press provides a little fact among all this officially sanctioned fiction. If the official press in this country has been looking for a place in Hell, their reporting, or lack thereof, concerning CIA drug smuggling has earned them one of its deepest bolgias.