The Skeptic Tank Chairman comments: I have received this material
from "Larry-Jennie", (firstname.lastname@example.org) on Sat, 11 Jan 1997
at 08:37:59 -0600, under the subject heading "CIA drugs: Urban
legend?" It came in with various other files which I've enumerated
below. There is further materials of the same nature to be found
at ftp://pencil.cs.missouri.edu/pub/mena/ though I have not examined
I have left the text alone however I have reformatted it to make it
easier to read.
- Fredric L. Rice, (email@example.com) (818) 335-9601 24 hours
-=- Begin text -=-
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'Dark Alliance' series takes on a life of its own
Analyzing criticism of drug series
Published: Oct. 13, 1996
BY PETE CAREY
Mercury News Staff Writer
It's unusual when a newspaper becomes the news, but [Other stories]
that's what happened Sunday, Aug. 18, when the Mercury
News began publishing a three-day series that offered a CIA's chief
shocking theory for the origins of the ''crack'' cocaine wants longer
epidemic that eventually spread among young, inner-city drug probe
blacks across America. Published:
The epidemic, reporter Gary Webb wrote, was sparked in 1996
part by two Nicaraguan emigres -- Norwin Meneses and
Danilo Blandon -- who were raising money for a Central
Intelligence Agency-controlled army of Nicaraguan rebels Previously
in Central America, the Contras. published
To raise millions of dollars, they sold large quantities stories
of cocaine to a South-Central Los Angeles street hustler Last
named Ricky Donnell Ross, who converted it into crack. updated:
Ross and his customers then helped spread the drug across Oct. 12,
the country, beginning the craze for crack cocaine that 1996
has devastated inner cities across America. The series
offered evidence of Contra involvement at the early
stages of this epidemic and raised the possibility of CIA The original
awareness of it. series
The articles provoked a firestorm of reaction. Aug. 18-20,
In particular, blacks, many of whom had harbored similar
suspicions for years, called for immediate
''As someone who has seen how the crack cocaine trade has by Gary Webb
devastated the South-Central Los Angeles community, and Last
as a public official, I cannot exaggerate my feelings of updated:
dismay that my own government may have played a part in Oct. 12,
the origins and history of this problem,'' Rep. Maxine 1996
Waters, D-Los Angeles, wrote to U.S. Attorney General
Janet Reno. The Department of Justice will investigate
the allegations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., [document link]
announced last month. Biographical
Others variously said the findings overreached, were on Oscar
absurd, old news or inconclusive. The CIA denied them, Danilo
and some experts questioned the assertion that Blandon,
Nicaraguans helped spark the spread of smoked cocaine -- Norwin
called rock at first and later crack. Meneses and
''Although I believe there is no substance to the
allegations in the Mercury News, I do wish to dispel any
lingering public doubt on the subject,'' said John
Deutch, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a
letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Deutch said he has
asked the CIA's inspector general to investigate the
Earlier this month, the Washington Post published a [web link]
5,000-word package attacking the series, saying that it
was weak on evidence and that a Post investigation Washington
''found that the available information does not support Post article
the conclusion that the CIA-backed Contras -- or criticizing
Nicaraguans in general -- played a major role in the series
emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use in the
The Boston Globe, however, reported that the series
documented ''in persuasive detail'' that supporters of
the Nicaraguan Contras sold drugs in inner-city Los
Angeles and that ''at least some of the proceeds went to
the rebels' efforts to overthrow their country's
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who headed a Senate inquiry [web link]
into Contra drug connections in the 1980s, said he has
been ''impressed by the reporting of the San Jose Mercury Selections
News. ... We never found specific evidence of a drug from Senate
pipeline to targeted cities. We did, however, determine inquiry into
that certain rogue agents may have looked the other way, Contra drug
and that people affiliated with the CIA and carrying its connections
credentials were involved in drug trafficking in their
support for the Contras. I remain very concerned about
the new findings reported by the Mercury News, and I
support continuing efforts to search for the truth.''
The firestorm has left the newspaper in the awkward
position of continuing to report developments of the
story while needing to evaluate -- and to take note of in
print -- the criticism it has received.
As a result, Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos asked this
reporter and editors not associated with the series to
lay out and attempt to evaluate for Mercury News readers
the top findings of the series and the major issues
raised by its critics.
Reporter Webb and top Mercury News editors continue to
stand by the story, saying they believe it represents a
significant advance on the long-running story of Contra
drug dealing; is the most detailed account of Contra
agents selling drugs in U.S. cities; and is the first
linking the Contra operation with cocaine use in urban,
''People have been sniffing around this issue since
Iran-Contra,'' said Paul Van Slambrouck, an assistant
managing editor and one of those who edited the stories.
''We've added a couple of bricks to this edifice. I think
we've made a significant contribution to what is one of
the best stories of the decade.''
The strongest media challenge was the major
deconstruction by the Washington Post on Oct. 4.
Among the prominent points raised by the Post and others:
* The two drug dealers may not have sent money to the
Contras from California during the time they were trading
* They were less than the Contra leaders the series
claimed they are.
* The crack cocaine epidemic was already under way when
the drug dealing described in the series took place;
there was no ''Johnny Appleseed of crack,'' as the
Mercury News called Blandon, and the epidemic would have
happened with or without the trio of Meneses, Blandon and
* The series clearly left the impression that the CIA was
directly linked to the drug dealing in South-Central Los
Here is an examination of each point:
The time line
Series cited evidence that Blandon had dates wrong
The Mercury News reported that for the better part of the
1980s, money from the sale of cocaine to street gangs in
Los Angeles was funneled to the Contras.
The Post reported that, according to Blandon's own [Image]Although
testimony, he did little or no business with Ross during
the time Blandon was supposedly sending money to the I believe
Contras. Blandon twice testified that he stopped sending there is no
money to the Contras around 1982-1983, and that he met substance to
Ross in 1982. This deals a blow to the idea that cocaine the
profits extracted from blacks went to the CIA-backed allegations
Contras for five years or more. in the
Blandon's dates are plausible because President Ronald News, I do
Reagan ordered a covert operation in support of the wish to
Contras on Dec. 1, 1981, and $19.95 million was dispel any
eventually allocated to them, reducing the need for drug lingering
money. Blandon said in Ross' trial this year that he public doubt
stopped sending money sometime after the United States on the
approved $19 million for the Contras. subject.
Webb said Blandon's dates ''didn't make sense'' because
in 1984, the Contras needed money more than ever after -- CIA
Congress forced a halt to all covert military aid. That Director
ban was lifted in 1986, when $100 million was authorized John Deutch
by Congress. [Image]
Blandon ''is bad with dates,'' Webb said, and the series
did not quote the part of his testimony with the 1983
date. Webb also said Blandon could have been referring to
a second $19 million secretly authorized by Congress in
''We don't put a date on it in the series; it was unclear
from his testimony,'' Webb said. ''He was all over the
map on when he allegedly stopped doing this (sending
money). First he said he stopped in 1982. (It was)
pointed out, "how could you stop then when you started in
1982?' Then he said it was 1983, possibly; he couldn't
remember. That's why we never had him saying definitively.''
Webb acknowledged that it would be damaging to his series
''if you only looked at the testimony. But we didn't. We
looked at other sources. ... Even he (Blandon) admitted
he couldn't be accurate, because he was very bad with
Unable to interview Blandon directly, Webb relied instead
on other evidence to decide that Blandon continued
sending money to the Contras until 1986.
A 1986 Los Angeles County sheriff's affidavit for [document link]
searches of the homes and business of Blandon and members Affidavit to
of his drug ring shows that the Contra connection lasted search homes
into the mid-1980s. In the 1986 affidavit, three and business
confidential informants said that Blandon was still of Oscar
sending money to the Contras. There is no date for when Danilo
the informants provided this information. Two had given Blandon
their information to the Drug Enforcement Administration
and the FBI, which passed it on to the sheriff's
department. But one informant named a relative of
Blandon's as his launderer of Contra money, saying it
went through a business in Florida that the relative
didn't work for until 1984.
During Ross' trial, Webb met with Ross' attorney, Alan
Fenster. Webb said Fenster invited him to lunch and said
he didn't know what to ask Blandon. Webb said he told
Fenster he had several questions. The questions, Webb
said, were about Blandon's relationship with the Contras
That afternoon and the following morning, Fenster also
asked Blandon questions of his own. Webb said these
helped verify the information in the affidavit.
''Fenster took him through that list of names, one by
one,'' said Webb. ''Blandon identified every one of them,
said everyone was in his drug operation.''
The Post was less impressed with the informants' stories
contained in the affidavit, said Walter Pincus, co-author
of the Post's story. Pincus said he found things in it
that are ''just dead wrong'' and that he does not trust
Webb says, ''I haven't found a false statement in it (the
Webb's suggesting questions to Fenster also was
criticized by some in the media as going beyond
acceptable journalistic practice.
Webb has no regrets. ''I got the best interview I've ever
had -- while the man was under oath in a federal court
and being vouched for by two federal agencies.''
Chieftains or crooks?
Contra evidence mixed; amounts involved unclear
Another issue is more subtle: Were Blandon and Meneses
two Contra officials who became drug smugglers and
dealers to support their guerrilla army, or were they
drug smugglers and dealers who for a while sent money to
This is important because it helps determine the
closeness of the links between the drug selling and the
CIA, which supported the Contra operation.
The Post reported that Adolfo Calero, the Contras' chief [document link]
political leader, denied that Blandon and Meneses were Biographical
ever among the guerrilla army's leaders. information
''Neither Meneses nor Blandon were 'leaders of the FDN Calero and
(the Contras), any time or any place,''' the Post quoted Enrique
Calero as saying. Bermudez
The Mercury News series called them ''financiers'' and [Photo link]
said that others considered them to be important Contra Calero,
officials. They had visited Contra military commander Meneses and
Enrique Bermudez at a secret camp of the Fuerza others at a
Democratica Nicaraguense (the official name of the meeting in
Contras) in Honduras in 1981, and hosted dinners for San
Contra officials in California. Francisco
Webb interviewed Eden Pastora, an original Contra
commander, who said that both Blandon and Meneses were
original Contras. Meneses also told a Nicaraguan magazine
he had raised money for the Contras in California for
several years. He also was a professional drug smuggler
with a large ring operating in California.
John Mattes, a Miami attorney and investigator who
assisted a Senate inquiry into Contra drug dealing in the
mid-1980s, said the Honduran visit is a sign Meneses and
Blandon were more than just members of a Contra fan club.
''They were visiting the Contra camp,'' noted Mattes.
''What is it, Club Med down there? Who would have been
traveling to the Central American jungle to visit with
the Contras but a Contra-related individual?''
The question of how much money they sent from California
is unclear, however.
Though the first paragraph of the series says
''millions,'' that is a conclusion based on the amount of
cocaine the two Nicaraguans were selling and Blandon's
testimony that ''everything'' was going to the Contras.
There are no hard figures.
Mattes said the Contra drug dealings he uncovered were
not solely or even primarily for the revolutionary cause.
''Was it for war effort exclusively? No, they funded
their condominiums, they funded their Mercedeses and
could afford to throw a few pennies to the Contra
campesinos,'' he said. ''Those associated with narcotics
trafficking in the Contras were good enough businessmen
not to give away their money.''
Trio's role in crack trade
Accelerated but didn't originate, some say
Another element of the Mercury News series that has
prompted controversy is the role in the crack explosion
it gives to Meneses, Blandon and Ross.
The story declares that cocaine was ''a drug that was [Image]This
virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before
members of the CIA's army brought it into South-Central is a
(Los Angeles) in the 1980s at bargain basement prices.'' disgraceful
And it says that ''the L.A. gangs ... used their enormous newspaper
cocaine profits to arm themselves and spread crack across series in
the country.'' that it
Several experts who have studied the use and spread of proof.
drugs said the Meneses-Blandon-Ross connection is not [Image]
responsible for the crack epidemic, although several
grant that the trio played a role as a mass market -- Tucker
developed in Los Angeles. Carlson of
''You don't need a Ricky Ross to sell cocaine,'' said Standard,
Ronald Siegel, a drug expert at of the University of from CNN's
California, Los Angeles. ''It sells itself.'' "Both
Siegel said he wasn't impressed with the claims about [Image]
Ross' pre-eminence in the crack market. ''It spread well
before Ricky Ross was even heard of, probably,'' he said.
''I don't think he did (start the epidemic). It was well
on its way,'' Siegel said.
''The crack epidemic started in a lot of places at
similar times,'' said Robert Byck, Yale University
professor of psychiatry and pharmacology. ''Once you have
a product which can be made by anybody and sold in unit
dosages ... then you have something which is a fabulous
Byck added, ''Maybe Ricky Ross was the entrepreneur that
was required, I do not know. It is not unreasonable to
think that was one of the points of infection.''
The Los Angeles Times, in a 1994 series on cocaine, said
that ''if there was one outlaw capitalist most
responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with
mass-marketed cocaine, it was 'Freeway Rick' (Ross).''
Malcolm Klein, a University of Southern California social
scientist who has studied gang migration and the rise of
the crack cocaine epidemic, disagreed with the Mercury
News finding that gangs played a significant role in the
spread of crack.
''You're looking at the same thing that happened in Los
Angeles happening elsewhere,'' said Klein, who directs
USC's Social Science Research Institute. He said his
research in Los Angeles found that only 25 to 30 percent
of the crack arrests involved one or more gang members,
which suggests 75 percent was in the hands of non-gang
''You don't need the CIA to explain it,'' Klein said.
''You really don't need the gang involvement either,
although the gangs got involved. There's a market.
There's the technology. It is very simple. It's going to
happen sooner or later. Was it accelerated by Blandon? It
certainly was. Was it accelerated by Ricky Ross? It
Webb replies, ''His (Klein's) argument is that we pin
this only on the gangs. Rick Ross was selling to
everybody. Even Ricky Ross doesn't know where this was
going. He was the biggest crack wholesaler in
South-Central Los Angeles.''
What story did, didn't say
About the extent of CIA link to drug traffic
Perhaps the most difficult issue is how far the newspaper
went in linking the CIA to the illegal activities of two
Contra supporters in California. Webb said his research
ended at the CIA's door, but did not draw direct ties to
But would a reasonable person reading the series think
that the agency either sanctioned or directed the
drug-selling efforts? Did the story make it appear the
CIA had been caught acquiescing to illegal acts, or was
some of the outrage the series generated by a misreading
-- deliberate or otherwise -- of the series' conclusions?
The notion that crack cocaine was a government-sponsored [Image]How
plot was quickly accepted by many people who read about
or heard about the series. The series did not speculate the U.S.
about why cocaine was sold by Contra associates to a government
dealer in heavily black South-Central Los Angeles. The spread crack
closest the story comes to an explanation is in numerous cocaine in
references to the fact that there was a lot of money to the black
be made. ghetto
''I'm not sure everyone who talked about the series read
it,'' said Mercury News Executive Editor Ceppos. ''But -- Headline
talk show hosts put together a set of conclusions (of in Minister
their own) with the conclusions of the series. Louis
''Can I say people drew conclusions we didn't? weekly
Absolutely. Do I wish we hadn't run the series? paper, the
Absolutely not. It seems to me the way the press works is Final Call
you run the information and let the readers draw their [Image]
[See Fredric Rice note 1 below]
The editors who handled the series say that the original
articles never proved direct CIA involvement in the
Nicaraguan drug ring, although they say the evidence
pointed in that direction.
But just as there was no explicit language in the series
tying the CIA to the drug sales, there was no paragraph
that expressly stated that the newspaper had found no
evidence that the CIA ordered or sanctioned the
distribution of the cocaine. Nor did the original series
contain comment from the CIA denying the allegations, an
omission that has been sharply criticized.
The misreading on the first point was so widespread that
news media continue to repeat the error. The Los Angeles
Daily News described ''reports that the Central
Intelligence Agency provided crack cocaine to street
gangs to finance the Contra forces in Nicaragua in the
The Mercury News' editorial page staff, which works
separately from the news staff, put the following
headline on its editorial about the issue: ''Another CIA
disgrace: Helping the crack flow.''
Of the lack of CIA comment, Webb said that he did not
call the CIA for a final, official comment on his series
just before it was published, nor was he asked to by
editors. He did exchange calls and letters on Freedom of
Information Act requests for documents in December,
January and March. The CIA denied his requests.
Did the presentation of the series contribute to the
* The story called the Contras ''the CIA's army'' and
identified the two drug dealers as leaders of the army.
While the CIA organized the army, supplied it and paid
its leaders, the army was not made up of CIA
The phrase was a shorter way of saying ''a Latin-American
guerilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence
Agency,'' and was used to make the story flow, said City
Editor Dawn Garcia, one of those who edited the series.
''It's a phrase that has been more misunderstood than I
thought it would be,'' said Garcia. ''We do use it a few
times. We explain on Day 1 (the first day of the series)
what that means.''
* Bermudez, the Contra army's military leader, is
identified as a CIA agent, the correct terminology for a
contractor, but some readers might believe that a CIA
agent is a professional CIA employee or policy-maker,
similar to an FBI agent's relationship to the FBI.
Reporter Webb argues that the distinction is simply a [Image]We've
''These guys (the Contras) were directly controlled by speculated
CIA case agents, which makes them much closer to the about this,
agency and its officials than most contractors,'' he but now
said. we've got
* A logo that appeared in Mercury Center and reprints of [Image]
the series depicts a crack smoker superimposed on a filmy
CIA seal. (The logo also appeared on the front page of -- Joe
the first and third installments, in a promotion for the Madison, a
Web page.) Washington,
Below the image were the words: ''The story behind the talk-radio
crack explosion.'' Some critics say this amounted to host [Image]
implicating the CIA. The logo was removed from the Web
site, and the reprints were discarded Wednesday and will
''For more than five weeks after publication of the
series, no one to my knowledge in the world raised a
question about the logo,'' said Executive Editor Ceppos
on Thursday. ''It was raised in a Washington Post column.
I believe that the logo said to the reader, 'This is a
story about the CIA and cocaine.' But because I don't
want a discussion about logos to cloud the significant
issues, we changed the Web site last night and are
remaking the reprint.''
* The closest direct CIA link established was to
Bermudez, the Contra military commander. Bermudez, the
former military attache in Washington for the deposed
Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza, was paid by the
CIA to organize the army. In a time-line graphic of the
events that ran with the series, Blandon was erroneously
described as meeting ''the CIA's military chief'' in
1981, although the stories clearly describe the man he
met with as Bermudez, the Contra military commander.
A former investigator for the Senate committee that
documented in extensive detail the dealings of various
Contra officials and their henchmen, and CIA awareness of
the drug dealings, said that in his view, the lack of
direct evidence implicating the CIA made the series
''You have to show they (the CIA) knew about the
smuggling and either did nothing about it or actively
abetted it,'' said the investigator, who asked not to be
named. ''This is what the series has not done. Instead,
it has drawn a strong circumstantial case that Contra
officials who were paid by the CIA knew about it and
looked the other way.''
In fact, said this former Senate investigator, ''to call
it the CIA is a little simplistic, because it was the USG
(U.S. government), not the CIA; (it) was a group of
people operating alongside and largely outside of the
system. They were Ronald Reagan's freedom fighters.''
Responds Ceppos: ''Our job is not to prosecute the case
by courtroom standards. ... Our job is to make a fair and
accurate report, and then let the reader and government
agencies take it from there. Part of our job is digging
out and shining a light on injustice. That is what we
Ceppos said it falls within the newspaper's [Image]The
responsibilities to expose serious questions about
possible governmental wrongdoing without supplying final key finding
proof. of the
Many of the series' critics praise the depth of its people
reporting, and many of its findings remain unchallenged. associated
with the CIA
The series showed the inner workings of a also sold
California-Nicaragua cocaine ring as it imported tons of many tons of
the drug into the West Coast. At the same time, it cocaine has
connected their activities directly to a black inner-city not been
drug ring in Los Angeles and showed in detail how the challenged.
costly cocaine powder smuggled by Nicaraguans linked to The beauty
the Contras was converted by the ring into cheap cocaine of the
rocks, or crack, which could be bought one dose at a time series is
by poor, inner-city blacks. And the story continues to that it
develop. clearly went
that far and
Martin Schram, a columnist who writes on the media, didn't go
policy and politics for Scripps-Howard News Service in any further
Washington, D.C., called the series ''a work in than that..
Although harshly critical of the way the series was -- Jerry
executed, he said, ''It may indeed be true. ... The CIA Ceppos,
over the years and government in general have done so Mercury News
many things that reach so far beyond the pale and are so Executive
far out of bounds, that these things all do somehow have Editor
a ring of plausibility, even if they are not proven at [Image]
the time ...
''There are a lot of good things in the series, but I
thought it was undercut by trying to reach beyond what it
had already grasped,'' he said.
Web multiplies reaction
Mercury Center gets 100,000 extra 'hits' a day
Behind at least part of the swift reaction to the series
was a burgeoning technology. The Internet contributed to
the rapid spread of the explosive information contained
in the newspaper's three installments.
As the series began running, Mercury Center, the paper's
electronic publishing arm that carried the entire series,
recorded a rough average of 100,000 more ''hits'' each
day than the 700,000 to 750,000 it normally sees.
It also solicited reader comment.
''What do you think?'' the site asked. More than 300
responses have been posted in the site's forum and
hundreds of e-mail letters have been received. Judging
from the e-mail, many respondents seemed to think the
Mercury News had proved that the CIA was covertly
involved in the sales of crack cocaine to young, black
''There's a significant number of people ... extremely
receptive to the suggestion that the government is
engaged in a well-organized effort to oppress certain
constituent groups in American society, and they are
well-represented in the online world,'' said Bob Ryan,
director of Mercury Center.
The electronic version of the series represents an
unprecedented use of the Internet to promote and
circulate an investigative story by a major newspaper.
The Web site contains much more information than the
Text, photographs, charts, diagrams and even the
documentary evidence -- transcripts, recordings of trial
testimony and other findings -- are hyperlinked to the
stories and can be listened to and viewed. The
interactive display was a groundbreaking use of the
Internet by a major news organization.
Mercury Center staffers also did more than ask for
comment on the Web site. They sent messages to several
Internet news groups -- online discussion forums on
different subjects -- alerting them to the series, which
helped spread the word about the effort.
As a result, the story spun out into the world in a way
that editors hadn't foreseen. The series almost instantly
took on a life of its own.
''It's an open information system that's not dependent on
the size of the gas tanks on our trucks,'' Ryan said.
The newspaper also has produced a CD-ROM of the series,
which has not yet been circulated.
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[Fredric Rice note 1]
There is a comment made above:
''... Absolutely not. It seems to me the way the
press works is you run the information and let
the readers draw their own conclusions.''
This is a fairly new phenomena in "news reporting". Previously there
was some measure of integrety wherein the news reporter verified his
or her sources and materials and specifically spelled-out what aspects
of a news story are verified and accurate and which aspects of a story
are either yet to be ascertained or are merely unevidenced opinion.
The newer thinking in journalism is to throw up anything which will
sell newspapers, television air time, magazines and radio air time,
and allowing the consuming audience pick out what they will believe
and what they will not (usually predicated upon preconcieved notions.)