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Creating a Crime: How the CIA Commandeered the DEA

By Douglas Valentine | Dissident Voice | September 19, 2015

The outlawing of narcotic drugs at the start of the Twentieth Century, the turning of the matter from public health to social control, coincided with American’s imperial Open Door policy and the belief that the government had an obligation to American industrialists to create markets in every nation in the world, whether those nations liked it or not.

Civic institutions, like public education, were required to sanctify this policy, while “security” bureaucracies were established to ensure the citizenry conformed to the state ideology. Secret services, both public and private, were likewise established to promote the expansion of private American economic interests overseas.

It takes a book to explain the economic foundations of the war on drugs, and the reasons behind the regulation of the medical, pharmaceutical and drug manufacturers industries. Suffice it to say that by 1943, the nations of the “free world” were relying on America for their opium derivatives, under the guardianship of Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN).

Narcotic drugs are a strategic resource, and when Anslinger learned that Peru had built a cocaine factory, he and the Board of Economic Warfare confiscated its product before it could be sold to Germany or Japan. In another instance, Anslinger and his counterpart at the State Department prevented a drug manufacturer in Argentina from selling drugs to Germany.

At the same time, according to Douglas Clark Kinder and William O. Walker III in their article, “Stable Force In a Storm: Harry J. Anslinger and United States Narcotic Policy, 1930-1962,” Anslinger permitted “an American company to ship drugs to Southeast Asia despite receiving intelligence reports that French authorities were permitting opiate smuggling into China and collaborating with Japanese drug traffickers.”

Federal drug law enforcement’s relationship with the espionage establishment matured with the creation of CIA’s predecessor organization, the Office of Strategic Services. Prior to the Second World War, the FBN was the government agency most adept at conducting covert operations at home and abroad. As a result, OSS chief William Donovan asked Anslinger to provide seasoned FBN agents to help organize the OSS and train its agents to work undercover, avoid security forces in hostile nations, manage agent networks, and engage in sabotage and subversion.

The relationship expanded during the war, when FBN executives and agents worked with OSS scientists in domestic “truth drug” experiments involving marijuana. The “extra-legal” nature of the relationship continued after the war: when the CIA decided to test LSD on unsuspecting American citizens, FBN agents were chosen to operate the safe houses where the experiments were conducted.

The relationship was formalized overseas in 1951, when Agent Charlie Siragusa opened an office in Rome and began to develop the FBN’s foreign operations. In the 1950s, FBN agents posted overseas spent half their time doing “favors” for the CIA, such as investigating diversions of strategic materials behind the Iron Curtain. A handful of FBN agents were actually recruited into the CIA while maintaining their FBN credentials as cover.

Officially, FBN agents set limits. Siragusa, for example, claimed to object when the CIA asked him to mount a “controlled delivery” into the U.S. as a way of identifying the American members of a smuggling ring with Communist affiliations.

As Siragusa said, “The FBN could never knowingly allow two pounds of heroin to be delivered into the United States and be pushed to Mafia customers in the New York City area, even if in the long run we could seize a bigger haul.”1

And in 1960, when the CIA asked him to recruit assassins from his stable of underworld contacts, Siragusa again claimed to have refused. But drug traffickers, including, most prominently, Santo Trafficante Jr., were soon participating in CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

As the dominant partner in the relationship, the CIA exploited its affinity with the FBN. “Like the CIA,” FBN Agent Robert DeFauw explained, “narcotic agents mount covert operations. We pose as members of the narcotics trade. The big difference is that we were in foreign countries legally, and through our police and intelligence sources, we could check out just about anyone or anything. Not only that, we were operational. So the CIA jumped in our stirrups.”

Jumping in the FBN’s stirrups afforded the CIA deniability, which in turn affords it impunity. To ensure that the CIA’s criminal activities are not revealed, narcotic agents are organized militarily within an inviolable chain of command. Highly indoctrinated, they blindly obey based on a “need to know.” This institutionalized ignorance sustains the illusion of righteousness, in the name of national security, upon which their motivation depends.

As FBN Agent Martin Pera explained:

Most FBN agents were corrupted by the lure of the underworld. They thought they could check their morality at the door – go out and lie, cheat, and steal – then come back and retrieve it. But you can’t. In fact, if you’re successful because you can lie, cheat, and steal, those things become tools you use in the bureaucracy.

Institutionalized corruption began at headquarters, where FBN executives provided cover for CIA assets engaged in drug trafficking. In 1966, Agent John Evans was assigned as an assistant to enforcement chief John Enright.

“And that’s when I got to see what the CIA was doing,” Evans said. “I saw a report on the Kuomintang saying they were the biggest drug dealers in the world, and that the CIA was underwriting them. Air America was transporting tons of Kuomintang opium.” Evans bristled. “I took the report to Enright. He said, ‘Leave it here. Forget about it.’

“Other things came to my attention,” Evans added, “that proved that the CIA contributed to drug use in America. We were in constant conflict with the CIA because it was hiding its budget in ours, and because CIA people were smuggling drugs into the US. We weren’t allowed to tell, and that fostered corruption in the Bureau.”

Heroin smuggled by “CIA people” into the U.S. was channeled by Mafia distributors primarily to African-American communities. Local narcotic agents then targeted disenfranchised blacks as an easy way of preserving the white ruling class’s privileges.

“We didn’t need a search warrant,” explains New Orleans narcotics officer Clarence Giarusso. “It allowed us to meet our quota. And it was on-going. If I find dope on a black man, I can put him in jail for a few days. He’s got no money for a lawyer and the courts are ready to convict. There’s no expectation on the jury’s part that we have to make a case.

So rather than go cold turkey, the addict becomes an informant, which means I can make more cases in the neighborhood, which is all we’re interested in. We don’t care about Carlos Marcello or the Mafia. City cops have no interest in who brings dope in. That’s the job of the federal agents.”

The Establishment’s race and class privileges have always been equated with national security, and FBN executives dutifully preserved the social order. Not until 1968, when Civil Rights reforms were imposed upon government bureaucracies, were black FBN agents allowed to become supervisors and manage white agents.

The war on drugs is largely a projection of two things: the racism that has defined America since its inception, and the government policy of allowing political allies to traffic in narcotics. These unstated but official policies reinforce the belief among CIA and drug law enforcement officials that the Bill of Rights is an obstacle to national security.

Blanket immunity from prosecution for turning these policies into practice engenders a belief among bureaucrats that they are above the law, which fosters corruption in other forms. FBN agents, for example, routinely “created a crime” by breaking and entering, planting evidence, using illegal wiretaps, and falsifying reports. They tampered with heroin, transferred it to informants for sale, and even murdered other agents who threatened to expose them.

All of this was secretly known at the highest level of government, and in 1965 the Treasury Department launched a corruption investigation of the FBN. Headed by Andrew Tartaglino, the investigation ended in 1968 with the resignation of 32 agents and the indictment of five. That same year the FBN was reconstructed in the Department of Justice as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD).

But, as Tartaglino said dejectedly, “The job was only half done.”

First Infestation

Richard Nixon was elected president based on a vow to restore “law and order” to America. To prove that it intended to keep that promise, the White House in 1969 launched Operation Intercept along the Mexican border. This massive “stop and search” operation so badly damaged relations with Mexico, however, that National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Narcotics (the Heroin Committee) to coordinate drug policy and prevent further diplomatic disasters.

The Heroin Committee was composed of cabinet members represented by their deputies. James Ludlum represented CIA Director Richard Helms. A member of the CIA’s Counter-Intelligence staff, Ludlum had been the CIA’s liaison officer to the FBN since 1962.

“When Kissinger set up the Heroin Committee,” Ludlum recalled, “the CIA certainly didn’t take it seriously, because drug control wasn’t part of their mission.”

Indeed, as John Evans noted above, and as the government was aware, the CIA for years had sanctioned the heroin traffic from the Golden Triangle region of Burma, Thailand and Laos into South Vietnam as a way of rewarding top foreign officials for advancing U.S. policies. This reality presented the Nixon White House with a dilemma, given that addiction among U.S. troops in Vietnam was soaring, and that massive amounts of Southeast Asian heroin were being smuggled into the U.S., for use by middle-class white kids on the verge of revolution.

Nixon’s response was to make drug law enforcement part of the CIA’s mission. Although reluctant to betray the CIA’s clients in South Vietnam, Helms told Ludlum: “We’re going to break their rice bowls.”

This betrayal occurred incrementally. Fred Dick, the BNDD agent assigned to Saigon, passed the names of the complicit military officers and politicians to the White House. But, as Dick recalled, “Ambassador [Ellsworth] Bunker called a meeting in Saigon at which CIA Station Chief Ted Shackley appeared and explained that there was ‘a delicate balance.’ What he said, in effect, was that no one was willing to do anything.”

Meanwhile, to protect its global network of drug trafficking assets, the CIA began infiltrating the BNDD and commandeering its internal security, intelligence, and foreign operations branches. This massive reorganization required the placement of CIA officers in influential positions in every federal agency concerned with drug law enforcement.

CIA Officer Paul Van Marx, for example, was assigned as the U.S. Ambassador to France’s assistant on narcotics. From this vantage point, Van Marx ensured that BNDD conspiracy cases against European traffickers did not compromise CIA operations and assets. Van Marx also vetted potential BNDD assets to make sure they were not enemy spies.

The FBN never had more than 16 agents stationed overseas, but Nixon dramatically increased funding for the BNDD and hundreds of agents were posted abroad. The success of these overseas agents soon came to depend on CIA intelligence, as BNDD Director John Ingersoll understood.

BNDD agents immediately felt the impact of the CIA’s involvement in drug law enforcement operations within the United States. Operation Eagle was the flashpoint. Launched in 1970, Eagle targeted anti-Castro Cubans smuggling cocaine from Latin America to the Trafficante organization in Florida. Of the dozens of traffickers arrested in June, many were found to be members of Operation 40, a CIA terror organization active in the U.S., the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Mexico.

The revelation that CIA drug smuggling assets were operating within the U.S. led to the assignment of CIA officers as counterparts to mid-level BNDD enforcement officials, including Latin American division chief Jerry Strickler. Like Van Marks in France, these CIA officers served to protect CIA assets from exposure, while facilitating their recruitment as informants for the BNDD.

Many Cuban exiles arrested in Operation Eagle were indeed hired by the BNDD and sent throughout Latin America. They got “fantastic intelligence,” Strickler noted. But many were secretly serving the CIA and playing a double game.

Second Infestation

By 1970, BNDD Director Ingersoll’s inspections staff had gathered enough evidence to warrant the investigation of dozens of corrupt FBN agents who had risen to management positions in the BNDD. But Ingersoll could not investigate his top managers while simultaneously investigating drug traffickers. So he asked CIA Director Helms for help in building a “counter-intelligence” capacity within the BNDD.

The result was Operation Twofold, in which 19 CIA officers were infiltrated into the BNDD, ostensibly to spy on corrupt BNDD officials. According to the BNDD’s Chief Inspector Patrick Fuller, “A corporation engaged in law enforcement hired three CIA officers posing as private businessmen to do the contact and interview work.”

CIA recruiter Jerry Soul, a former Operation 40 case officer, primarily selected officers whose careers had stalled due to the gradual reduction of forces in Southeast Asia. Those hired were put through the BNDD’s training course and assigned to spy on a particular regional director. No records were kept and some participants have never been identified.

Charles Gutensohn was a typical Twofold “torpedo.” Prior to his recruitment into the BNDD, Gutensohn had spent two years at the CIA’s base in Pakse, a major heroin transit point between Laos and South Vietnam. “Fuller said that when we communicated, I was to be known as Leo Adams for Los Angeles,” Gutensohn said. “He was to be Walter DeCarlo, for Washington, DC.”

Gutensohn’s cover, however, was blown before he got to Los Angeles. “Someone at headquarters was talking and everyone knew,” he recalled. “About a month after I arrived, one of the agents said to me, ‘I hear that Pat Fuller signed your credentials’.”

Twofold, which existed at least until 1974, was deemed by the Rockefeller Commission to have “violated the 1947 Act which prohibits the CIA’s participation in law enforcement activities.” It also, as shall be discussed later, served as a cover for clandestine CIA operations.

Third Infestation

The Nixon White House blamed the BNDD’s failure to stop international drug trafficking on its underdeveloped intelligence capabilities, a situation that opened the door to further CIA infiltration. In late 1970, CIA Director Helms arranged for his recently retired chief of continuing intelligence, E. Drexel Godfrey, to review BNDD intelligence procedures. Among other things, Godfrey recommended that the BNDD create regional intelligence units (RIUs) and an office of strategic intelligence (SI0).

The RIUs were up and running by 1971 with CIA officers often assigned as analysts, prompting BNDD agents to view the RIUs with suspicion, as repositories for Twofold torpedoes.

The SIO was harder to implement, given its arcane function as a tool to help top managers formulate plans and strategies “in the political sphere.” As SIO Director John Warner explained:

We needed to understand the political climate in Thailand in order to address the problem. We needed to know what kind of protection the Thai police were affording traffickers. We were looking for an intelligence office that could deal with those sorts of issues, on the ground, overseas.

Organizing the SIO fell to CIA officers Adrian Swain and Tom Tripodi, both of whom were recruited into the BNDD. In April 1971 they accompanied Ingersoll to Saigon, where Station Chief Shackley briefed them. Through his CIA contacts, Swain obtained maps of drug-smuggling routes in Southeast Asia.

Upon their return to the U.S., Swain and Tripodi expressed frustration that the CIA had access to people capable of providing the BNDD with intelligence, but these people “were involved in narcotics trafficking and the CIA did not want to identify them.”

Seeking a way to circumvent the CIA, they recommended the creation of a “special operations or strategic operations staff” that would function as the BNDD’s own CIA “using a backdoor approach to gather intelligence in support of operations.” Those operations would rely on “longer range, deep penetration, clandestine assets, who remain undercover, do not appear during the course of any trial and are recruited and directed by the Special Operations agents on a covert basis.”

The White House approved the plan and in May 1971, Kissinger presented a $120 million drug control proposal, of which $50 million was earmarked for special operations. Three weeks later Nixon declared “war on drugs,” at which point Congress responded with funding for the SIO and authorization for the extra-legal operations Swain and Tripodi envisioned.

SIO Director Warner was given a seat on the U.S. Intelligence Board so the SIO could obtain raw intelligence from the CIA. But, in return, the SIO was compelled to adopt CIA security procedures. A CIA officer established the SIO’s file room and computer system; safes and steel doors were installed; and witting agents had to obtain CIA clearances.

Active-duty CIA officers were assigned to the SIO as desk officers for Europe and the Middle East, the Far East, and Latin America. Tripodi was assigned as chief of operations. Tripodi had spent the previous six years in the CIA’s Security Research Services, where his duties included the penetration of peace groups, as well as setting up firms to conduct black bag jobs. Notably, White House “Plumber” E. Howard Hunt inherited Tripodi’s Special Operations unit, which included several of the Watergate burglars.

Tripodi liaised with the CIA on matters of mutual interest and the covert collection of narcotics intelligence outside of routine BNDD channels. As part of his operational plan, code-named Medusa, Tripodi proposed that SIO agents hire foreign nationals to blow up contrabandista planes while they were refueling at clandestine air strips. Another proposal called for ambushing traffickers in America, and taking their drugs and money.

Enter Lucien Conein

The creation of the SIO coincided with the assignment of CIA officer Lucien Conein to the BNDD. As a member of the OSS, Conein had parachuted into France to form resistance cells that included Corsican gangsters. As a CIA officer, Conein in 1954 was assigned to Vietnam to organize anti-communist forces, and in 1963 achieved infamy as the intermediary between the Kennedy White House and the cabal of generals that murdered President Diem.

Historian Alfred McCoy has alleged that, in 1965, Conein arranged a truce between the CIA and drug trafficking Corsicans in Saigon. The truce, according to McCoy, allowed the Corsicans to traffic, as long as they served as contact men for the CIA. The truce also endowed the Corsicans with “free passage” at a time when Marseilles’ heroin labs were turning from Turkish to Southeast Asian morphine base.

Conein denied McCoy’s allegation and insisted that his meeting with the Corsicans was solely to resolve a problem caused by Daniel Ellsberg’s “peccadilloes with the mistress of a Corsican.”

It is impossible to know who is telling the truth. What is known is that in July 1971, on Howard Hunt’s recommendation, the White House hired Conein as an expert on Corsican drug traffickers in Southeast Asia. Conein was assigned as a consultant to the SIO’s Far East Asia desk. His activities will soon be discussed in greater detail.

The Parallel Mechanism

In September 1971, the Heroin Committee was reorganized as the Cabinet Committee for International Narcotics Control (CCINC) under Secretary of State William Rogers. CCINC’s mandate was to “set policies which relate international considerations to domestic considerations.” By 1975, its budget amounted to $875 million, and the war on drugs had become a most profitable industry.

Concurrently, the CIA formed a unilateral drug unit in its operations division under Seymour Bolten. Known as the Special Assistant to the Director for the Coordination of Narcotics, Bolten directed CIA division and station chiefs in unilateral drug control operations. In doing this, Bolten worked closely with Ted Shackley, who in 1972 was appointed head of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division. Bolten and Shackley had worked together in post-war Germany, as well as in anti-Castro Cubans operations in the early 1960s. Their collaboration would grease federal drug law enforcement’s skid into oblivion.

“Bolten screwed us,” BNDD’s Latin American division chief Jerry Strickler said emphatically. “And so did Shackley.”

Bolten “screwed” the BNDD, and the American judicial system, by setting up a “parallel mechanism” based on a computerized register of international drug traffickers and a CIA-staffed communications crew that intercepted calls from drug traffickers inside the U.S. to their accomplices around the world. The International Narcotics Information Network (INIS) was modeled on a computerized management information system Shackley had used to terrorize the underground resistance in South Vietnam.

Bolten’s staff also “re-tooled” dozens of CIA officers and slipped them into the BNDD. Several went to Lou Conein at the SIO for clandestine, highly illegal operations.

Factions within the CIA and military were opposed to Bolten’s parallel mechanism, but CIA Executive Director William Colby supported Bolten’s plan to preempt the BNDD and use its agents and informants for unilateral CIA purposes. The White House also supported the plan for political purposes related to Watergate. Top BNDD officials who resisted were expunged; those who cooperated were rewarded.

Bureau of Narcotics Covert Intelligence Network

In September 1972, DCI Helms (then immersed in Watergate intrigues), told BNDD Director Ingersoll that the CIA had prepared files on specific drug traffickers in Miami, the Florida Keys, and the Caribbean. Helms said the CIA would provide Ingersoll with assets to pursue the traffickers and develop information on targets of opportunity. The CIA would also provide operational, technical, and financial support.

The result was the Bureau of Narcotics Covert Intelligence Network (BUNCIN) whose methodology reflected Tripodi’s Medusa Plan and included “provocations, inducement to desertion, creating confusion and apprehension.”

Some BUNCIN intelligence activities were directed against “senior foreign government officials” and were “blamed on other government agencies or even on the intelligence services of other nations.” Other BUNCIN activities were directed against American civic and political groups.

BNDD officials managed BUNCIN’s legal activities, while Conein at the SIO managed its political and CIA aspects. According to Conein’s administrative deputy, Rich Kobakoff, “BUNCIN was an experiment in how to finesse the law. The end product was intelligence, not seizures or arrests.”

CIA officers Robert Medell and William Logay were selected to manage BUNCIN.

A Bay of Pigs veteran born in Cuba, Medell was initially assigned to the Twofold program. Medell was BUNCIN’s “covert” agent and recruited its principal agents. All of his assets had previously worked for the CIA, and all believed they were working for it again.

Medell started running agents in March 1973 with the stated goal of penetrating the Trafficante organization. To this end the BNDD’s Enforcement Chief, Andy Tartaglino, introduced Medell to Sal Caneba, a retired Mafioso who had been in business with Trafficante in the 1950s. Caneba in one day identified the head of the Cuban side of the Trafficante family, as well as its organizational structure.

But the CIA refused to allow the BNDD to pursue the investigation, because it had employed Trafficante in its assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, and because Trafficante’s Operation 40 associates were performing similar functions for the CIA around the world.

Medell’s Principal Agent was Bay of Pigs veteran Guillermo Tabraue, whom the CIA paid $1,400 a week. While receiving this princely sum, Tabraue participated in the “Alvarez-Cruz” drug smuggling ring.

Medell also recruited agents from Manuel Artime’s anti-Castro Cuban organization. Former CIA officer and White House “Plumber” Howard Hunt, notably, had been Artime’s case officer for years, and many members of Artime’s organization had worked for Ted Shackley while Shackley was the CIA’s station chief in Miami.

Bill Logay was the “overt” agent assigned to the BUNCIN office in Miami. Logay had been Shackley’s bodyguard in Saigon in 1969. From 1970-1971, Logay had served as a special police liaison and drug coordinator in Saigon’s Precinct 5. Logay was also asked to join Twofold, but claims to have refused.

Medell and Logay’s reports were hand delivered to BNDD headquarters via the Defense Department’s classified courier service. The Defense Department was in charge of emergency planning and provided BUNCIN agents with special communications equipment. The CIA supplied BUNCIN’s assets with forged IDs that enabled them to work for foreign governments, including Panama, Venezuela and Costa Rica.

Like Twofold, BUNCIN had two agendas. One, according to Chief Inspector Fuller, “was told” and had a narcotics mission. The other provided cover for the Plumbers. Orders for the domestic political facet emanated from the White House and passed through Conein to “Plumber” Gordon Liddy and his “Operation Gemstone” squad of exile Cuban terrorists from the Artime organization.

Enforcement chief Tartaglino was unhappy with the arrangement and gave Agent Ralph Frias the job of screening anti-Castro Cubans sent by the White House to the BNDD. Frias was assigned to International Affairs chief George Belk. When Nixon’s White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman sent over three Cubans, Frias interviewed them and realized they were “plants.” Those three were not hired, but, Frias lamented, many others were successfully infiltrated inside the BNDD and other federal agencies.

Under BUNCIN cover, CIA anti-Castro assets reportedly kidnapped and assassinated people in Colombia and Mexico. BUNCIN’s White House sponsors also sent CIA anti-Castro Cuban assets to gather dirt on Democratic politicians in Key West. With BUNCIN, federal drug law enforcement sank to new lows of political repression and corruption.

Novo Yardley

The Nixon White House introduced the “operations by committee” management method to ensure control over its illegal drug operations. But as agencies involved in drug law enforcement pooled resources, the BNDD’s mission was diluted and diminished.

And, as the preeminent agency in the federal government, the CIA not only separated itself from the BNDD as part of Bolten’s parallel mechanism, it rode off into the sunset on the BNDD’s horse. For example, at their introductory meeting in Mexico City in 1972, Ted Shackley told Latin American division chief Strickler to hand over all BNDD files, informant lists, and cable traffic.

According to Strickler, “Bad things happened.” The worst abuse was that the CIA allowed drug shipments into the U.S. without telling the BNDD.

“Individual stations allowed this,” SIO Director John Warner confirmed.

In so far as evidence acquired by CIA electronic surveillance is inadmissible in court, the CIA was able to protect its controlled deliveries into the U.S. merely by monitoring them.

Numerous investigations had to be terminated as a result. Likewise, dozens of prosecutions were dismissed on national security grounds due to the participation of CIA assets operating around the world.

Strickler knew which CIA people were guilty of sabotaging cases in Latin America, and wanted to indict them. And so, at Bolten’s insistence, Strickler was reassigned. Meanwhile, CIA assets from Bolten’s unilateral drug unit were kidnapping and assassinating traffickers as part of Operation Twofold.

BNDD Director Ingersoll confirmed the existence of this covert facet of Twofold. Its purpose, he said, was to put people in deep cover in the U.S. to develop intelligence on drug trafficking, particularly from South America. The regional directors weren’t aware of it. Ingersoll said he got approval from Attorney General John Mitchell and passed the operation on to John Bartels, the first administrator of the DEA. He said the unit did not operate inside the U.S., which is why he thought it was legal.

Ingersoll added that he was surprised that no one from the Rockefeller Commission asked him about it.

Joseph DiGennaro’s entry into the covert facet of Operation Twofold began when a family friend, who knew CIA officer Jim Ludlum, suggested that he apply for a job with the BNDD. Then working as a stockbroker in New York, DiGennaro met Fuller in August 1971 in Washington. Fuller gave DiGennaro the code name Novo Yardley, based on his posting in New York, and as a play on the name of the famous codebreaker.

After DiGennaro obtained the required clearances, he was told that he and several other recruits were being “spun-off” from Twofold into the CIA’s “operational” unit. The background check took 14 months, during which time he received intensive combat and trade-craft training.

In October 1972 he was sent to New York City and assigned to an enforcement group as a cover. His paychecks came from BNDD funds, but the program was reimbursed by the CIA through the Bureau of Mines. The program was authorized by the “appropriate” Congressional committee.

DiGennaro’s unit was managed by the CIA’s Special Operations Division in conjunction with the military, which provided assets within foreign military services to keep ex-filtration routes (air corridors and roads) open. The military cleared air space when captured suspects were brought into the U.S. DiGennaro spent most of his time in South America, but the unit operated worldwide. The CIA unit numbered about 40 men, including experts in printing, forgery, maritime operations, and telecommunications.

DiGennaro would check with Fuller and take sick time or annual leave to go on missions. There were lots of missions. As his BNDD group supervisor in New York said, “Joey was never in the office.”

The job was tracking down, kidnapping, and, if they resisted, killing drug traffickers. Kidnapped targets were incapacitated by drugs and dumped in the U.S. As DEA Agent Gerry Carey recalled:

We’d get a call that there was ‘a present’ waiting for us on the corner of 116th Street and Sixth Avenue. We’d go there and find some guy, who’d been indicted in the Eastern District of New York, handcuffed to a telephone pole. We’d take him to a safe house for questioning and, if possible, turn him into an informer. Sometimes we’d have him in custody for months. But what did he know?

If you’re a Corsican drug dealer in Argentina, and men with police credentials arrest you, how do you know it’s a CIA operation? DiGennaro’s last operation in 1977 involved the recovery of a satellite that had fallen into a drug dealer’s hands. Such was the extent of the CIA’s “parallel mechanism.”

The Dirty Dozen

With the formation of the Drug Enforcement Administration in July 1973, BUNCIN was renamed the DEA Clandestine Operations Network (DEACON 1). A number of additional DEACONs were developed through Special Field Intelligence Programs (SFIP). As an extension of BUNCIN, DEACON 1 developed intelligence on traffickers in Costa Rica, Ohio and New Jersey; politicians in Florida; terrorists and gun runners; the sale of boats and helicopters to Cuba; and the Trafficante organization.

Under DEA chief John Bartels, administrative control fell under Enforcement Chief George Belk and his Special Projects assistant Philip Smith. Through Belk and Smith, the Office of Special Projects had become a major facet of Bolten’s parallel mechanism. It housed the DEA’s air wing (staffed largely by CIA officers), conducted “research programs” with the CIA, provided technical aids and documentation to agents, and handled fugitive searches.

As part of DEACON 1, Smith sent covert agent Bob Medell “to Caracas or Bogota to develop a network of agents.” As Smith noted in a memorandum, reimbursement for Medell “is being made in back-channel fashion to CIA under payments to other agencies and is not counted as a position against us.”

Thoroughly suborned by Bolten and the CIA, DEA Administrator Bartels established a priority on foreign clandestine narcotics collection. And when Belk proposed a special operations group in intelligence, Bartels immediately approved it. In March 1974, Belk assigned the group to Lou Conein.

As chief of the Intelligence Group/Operations (IGO), Conein administered the DEA Special Operations Group (DEASOG), SFIP and National Intelligence Officers (NIO) programs. The chain of command, however, was “unclear” and while Medell reported administratively to Smith, Conein managed operations through a separate chain of command reaching to William Colby, who had risen to the rank of CIA Director concurrent with the formation of the DEA.

Conein had worked for Colby for many years in Vietnam, for through Colby he hired a “dirty dozen” CIA officers to staff DEASOG. As NIOs (not regular gun-toting DEA agents), the DEASOG officers did not buy narcotics or appear in court, but instead used standard CIA operating procedures to recruit assets and set up agent networks for the long-range collection of intelligence on trafficking groups. They had no connection to the DEA and were housed in a safe house outside headquarters in downtown Washington, DC.

The first DEASOG recruits were CIA officers Elias P. Chavez and Nicholas Zapata. Both had paramilitary and drug control experience in Laos. Colby’s personnel assistant Jack Mathews had been Chavez’s case officer at the Long Thien base, where General Vang Pao ran his secret drug-smuggling army under Ted Shackley’s auspices from 1966-1968.

A group of eight CIA officers followed: Wesley Dyckman, a Chinese linguist with service in Vietnam, was assigned to San Francisco. Louis J. Davis, a veteran of Vietnam and Laos, was assigned to the Chicago Regional Intelligence Unit. Christopher Thompson from the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam went to San Antonio. Hugh E. Murray, veteran of Pakse and Bolivia (where he participated in the capture of Che Guevara), was sent to Tucson. Thomas D. McPhaul had worked with Conein in Vietnam, and was sent to Dallas. Thomas L. Briggs, a veteran of Laos and a friend of Shackley’s, went to Mexico. Vernon J. Goertz, a Shackley friend who had participated in the Allende coup, went to Venezuela. David A. Scherman, a Conein friend and former manager of the CIA’s interrogation center in Da Nang, was sent to sunny San Diego.

Gary Mattocks, who ran CIA counter-terror teams in Vietnam’s Delta, and interrogator Robert Simon were the eleventh and twelfth members. Terry Baldwin, Barry Carew and Joseph Lagattuta joined later.

According to Davis, Conein created DEASOG specifically to do Phoenix program-style jobs overseas: the type where a paramilitary officer breaks into a trafficker’s house, takes his drugs, and slits his throat. The NIOs were to operate overseas where they would target traffickers the police couldn’t reach, like a prime minister’s son or the police chief in Acapulco if he was the local drug boss. If they couldn’t assassinate the target, they would bomb his labs or use psychological warfare to make him look like he was a DEA informant, so his own people would kill him.

The DEASOG people “would be breaking the law,” Davis observed, “but they didn’t have arrest powers overseas anyway.”

Conein envisioned 50 NIOs operating worldwide by 1977. But a slew of Watergate-related scandals forced the DEA to curtail its NIO program and reorganize its covert operations staff and functions in ways that have corrupted federal drug law enforcement beyond repair.

Assassination Scandals

The first scandal focused on DEACON 3, which targeted the Aviles-Perez organization in Mexico. Eli Chavez, Nick Zapata and Barry Carew were the NIOs assigned.

A veteran CIA officer who spoke Spanish, Carew had served as a special police adviser in Saigon before joining the BNDD. Carew was assigned as Conein’s Latin American desk officer and managed Chavez and Zapata (aka “the Mexican Assassin”) in Mexico. According to Chavez, a White House Task Force under Howard Hunt had started the DEACON 3 case. The Task force provided photographs of the Aviles Perez compound in Mexico, from whence truckloads of marijuana were shipped to the U.S.

Funds were allotted in February 1974, at which point Chavez and Zapata traveled to Mexico City as representatives of the North American Alarm and Fire Systems Company. In Mazatlán, they met with Carew, who stayed at a fancy hotel and played tennis every day, while Chavez and Zapata, whom Conein referred to as “pepper-bellies,” fumed in a flea-bag motel.

An informant arranged for Chavez, posing as a buyer, to meet Perez. A deal was struck, but DEA chief John Bartels made the mistake of instructing Chavez to brief the DEA’s regional director in Mexico City before making “the buy.”

At this meeting, the DEACON 3 agents presented their operational plan. But when the subject of “neutralizing” Perez came up, analyst Joan Banister took this to mean assassination. Bannister reported her suspicions to DEA headquarters, where the anti-CIA faction leaked her report to Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson.

Anderson’s allegation that the DEA was providing cover for a CIA assassination unit included revelations that the Senate had investigated IGO chief Conein for shopping around for assassination devices, like exploding ashtrays and telephones. Conein managed to keep his job, but the trail led to his comrade from the OSS, Mitch Werbell.

A deniable asset Conein used for parallel operations, Werbell had tried to sell several thousand silenced machine pistols to DEACON 1 target Robert Vesco, then living in Costa Rica surrounded by drug trafficking Cuban exiles in the Trafficante organization. Trafficante was also, at the time, living in Costa Rica as a guest of President Figueres whose son had purchased weapons from Werbell and used them to arm a death squad he formed with DEACON 1 asset Carlos Rumbault, a notorious anti-Castro Cuban terrorist and fugitive drug smuggler.

Meanwhile, in February 1974, DEA Agent Anthony Triponi, a former Green Beret and member of Operation Twofold, was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in New York “suffering from hypertension.” DEA inspectors found Triponi in the psychiatric ward, distraught because he had broken his “cover” and now his “special code” would have to be changed.

Thinking he was insane, the DEA inspectors called former chief inspector Patrick Fuller in California, just to be sure. As it turned out, everything Triponi had said about Twofold was true! The incredulous DEA inspectors called the CIA and were stunned when they were told: “If you release the story, we will destroy you.”

By 1975, Congress and the Justice Department were investigating the DEA’s relations with the CIA. In the process they stumbled on, among other things, plots to assassinate Torrijos and Noriega in Panama, as well as Tripodi’s Medusa Program.

In a draft report, one DEA inspector described Medusa as follows:

Topics considered as options included psychological terror tactics, substitution of placebos to discredit traffickers, use of incendiaries to destroy conversion laboratories, and disinformation to cause internal warfare between drug trafficking organizations; other methods under consideration involved blackmail, use of psychopharmacological techniques, bribery and even terminal sanctions.

The Cover-Up

Despite the flurry of investigations, Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, reconfirmed the CIA’s narcotic intelligence collection arrangement with DEA, and the CIA continued to have its way. Much of its success is attributed to Seymour Bolten, whose staff handled “all requests for files from the Church Committee,” which concluded that allegations of drug smuggling by CIA assets and proprietaries “lacked substance.”

The Rockefeller Commission likewise gave the CIA a clean bill of health, falsely stating that the Twofold inspections project was terminated in 1973. The Commission completely covered-up the existence of the operation unit hidden within the inspections program.

Ford did task the Justice Department to investigate “allegations of fraud, irregularity, and misconduct” in the DEA. The so-called DeFeo investigation lasted through July 1975, and included allegations that DEA officials had discussed killing Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega. In March 1976, Deputy Attorney General Richard Thornburgh announced there were no findings to warrant criminal prosecutions.

In 1976, Congresswoman Bella Abzug submitted questions to new Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush, about the CIA’s central role in international drug trafficking. Bush’s response was to cite that a 1954 agreement with the Justice Department gave the CIA the right to block prosecution or keep its crimes secret in the name of national security.

In its report, the Abzug Committee said: “It was ironic that the CIA should be given responsibility of narcotic intelligence, particularly since they are supporting the prime movers.”

The Mansfield Amendment of 1976 sought to curtail the DEA’s extra-legal activities abroad by prohibiting agents from kidnapping or conducting unilateral actions without the consent of the host government. The CIA, of course, was exempt and continued to sabotage DEA cases against its movers, while further tightening its stranglehold on the DEA’s enforcement and intelligence capabilities.

In 1977, the DEA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement sent a memo, co-signed by the six enforcement division chiefs, to DEA chief Peter Bensinger. As the memo stated, “All were unanimous in their belief that present CIA programs were likely to cause serious future problems for DEA, both foreign and domestic.”

They specifically cited controlled deliveries enabled by CIA electronic surveillance and the fact that the CIA “will not respond positively to any discovery motion.” They complained that “Many of the subjects who appear in these CIA- promoted or controlled surveillances regularly travel to the United States in furtherance of their trafficking activities.” The “de facto immunity” from prosecution enabled the CIA assets to “operate much more openly and effectively.”

But then DEA chief Peter Bensinger suffered the CIA at the expense of America’s citizens and the DEA’s integrity. Under Bensinger the DEA created its CENTAC program to target drug trafficking organizations worldwide through the early 1980s. But the CIA subverted the CENTAC: as its director Dennis Dayle famously said, “The major targets of my investigations almost invariably turned out to be working for the CIA.”

Murder and Mayhem

DEACON 1 inherited BUNCIN’s anti-Castro Cuban assets from Brigade 2506, which the CIA organized to invade Cuba in 1960. Controlled by Nixon’s secret political police, these CIA assets, operating under DEA cover, had parallel assignments involving “extremist groups and terrorism, and information of a political nature.”

Noriega and Moises Torrijos in Panama were targets, as was fugitive financier and Nixon campaign contributor Robert Vesco in Costa Rica, who was suspected of being a middle man in drug and money-laundering operations of value to the CIA.

DEACON 1’s problems began when overt agent Bill Logay charged that covert agent Bob Medell’s anti-Castro Cuban assets had penetrated the DEA on behalf of the Trafficante organization. DEACON 1 secretary Cecelia Plicet fanned the flames by claiming that Conein and Medell were using Principal Agent Tabraue to circumvent the DEA.

In what amounted to an endless succession of controlled deliveries, Tabraue was financing loads of cocaine and using DEACON 1’s Cuban assets to smuggle them into the U.S. Plicet said that Medell and Conein worked for “the other side” and wanted the DEA to fail. These accusations prompted an investigation, after which Logay was reassigned to inspections and Medell was reassigned and replaced by Gary Mattocks, an NIO member of the Dirty Dozen.

According to Mattocks, Shackley helped Colby set up DEASOG and brought in “his” people, including Tom Clines, whom Shackley placed in charge of the CIA’s Caribbean operations. Clines, like Shackley and Bolten, knew all the exile Cuban terrorists and traffickers on the DEASOG payroll. CIA officer Vernon Goertz worked for Clines in Caracas as part of the CIA’s parallel mechanism under DEASOG cover.

As cover for his DEACON 1 activities, Mattocks set up a front company designed to improve relations between Cuban and American businessmen. Meanwhile, through the CIA, he recruited members of the Artime organization including Watergate burglars Rolando Martinez and Bernard Barker, as well as Che Guevara’s murderer, Felix Rodriguez. These anti-Castro terrorists were allegedly part of an Operation 40 assassination squad that Shackley and Clines employed for private as well as professional purposes.

In late 1974, DEACON 1 crashed and burned when interrogator Robert Simon’s daughter was murdered in a drive-by shooting by crazed anti-Castro Cubans. Simon at the time was managing the CIA’s drug data base and had linked the exile Cuban drug traffickers with “a foreign terrorist organization.” As Mattocks explained, “It got bad after the Brigaders found out Simon was after them.”

None of the CIA’s terrorists, however, were ever arrested. Instead, Conein issued a directive prohibiting DEACON 1 assets from reporting on domestic political affairs or terrorist activities and the tragedy was swept under the carpet for reasons of national security.

DEACON 1 unceremoniously ended in 1975 after Agent Fred Dick was assigned to head the DEA’s Caribbean Basin Group. In that capacity Dick visited the DEACON 1 safe house and found, in his words, “a clandestine CIA unit using miscreants from Bay of Pigs, guys who were blowing up planes.” Dick hit the ceiling and in August 1975 DEACON I was terminated.
No new DEACONs were initiated and the others quietly ran their course. Undeterred, the CIA redeployed its anti-Castro Cuban miscreant assets, some of whom established the terror organization CORU in 1977. Others would go to work for Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, a key National Security Council aide under President Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra drug and terror network.

Conein’s IGO was disbanded in 1976 after a grand jury sought DEACON I intelligence regarding several drug busts. But CIA acquired intelligence cannot be used in prosecutions, and the CIA refused to identify its assets in court, with the result that 27 prosecutions were dismissed on national security grounds.

Gary Mattocks was thereafter unwelcomed in the DEA. But his patron Ted Shackley had become DCI George Bush’s assistant deputy director for operations and Shackley kindly rehired Mattocks into the CIA and assigned him to the CIA’s narcotics unit in Peru.

At the time, Santiago Ocampo was purchasing cocaine in Peru and his partner Matta Ballesteros was flying it to the usual Cuban miscreants in Miami. One of the receivers, Francisco Chanes, an erstwhile DEACON asset, owned two seafood companies that would soon allegedly come to serve as fronts in Oliver North’s Contra supply network, receiving and distributing tons of Contra cocaine.

Mattocks himself soon joined the Contra support operation as Eden Pastrora’s case officer. In that capacity Mattocks was present in 1984 when CIA officers handed pilot Barry Seal a camera and told him to take photographs of Sandinista official Federico Vaughn loading bags of cocaine onto Seal’s plane. A DEA “special employee,” Seal was running drugs for Jorge Ochoa Vasquez and purportedly using Nicaragua as a transit point for his deliveries.

North asked DEA officials to instruct Seal, who was returning to Ochoa with $1.5 million, to deliver the cash to the Contras. When the DEA officials refused, North leaked a blurry photo, purportedly of Vaughn, to the right-wing Washington Times. For partisan political purposes, on behalf of the Reagan administration, Oliver North blew the DEA’s biggest case at the time, and the DEA did nothing about it, even though DEA Administrator Jack Lawn said in 1988, in testimony before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, that leaking the photo “severely jeopardized the lives” of agents.

The circle was squared in 1989 when the CIA instructed Gary Mattocks to testify as a defense witness at the trial of DEACON 1 Principal Agent Gabriel Tabraue. Although Tabraue had earned $75 million from drug trafficking, while working as a CIA and DEA asset, the judge declared a mistrial based on Mattocks’s testimony. Tabraue was released. Some people inferred that President George H.W. Bush had personally ordered Mattocks to dynamite the case.

The CIA’s use of the DEA to employ terrorists would continue apace. For example, in 1981, DEA Agent Dick Salmi recruited Roberto Cabrillo, a drug smuggling member of CORU, an organization of murderous Cuban exiles formed by drug smuggler Frank Castro and Luis Posada while George Bush was DCI.

The DEA arrested Castro in 1981, but the CIA engineered his release and hired him to establish a Contra training camp in the Florida Everglades. Posada reportedly managed resupply and drug shipments for the Contras in El Salvador, in cahoots with Felix Rodriguez. Charged in Venezuela with blowing up a Cuban airliner and killing 73 people in 1976, Posada was shielded from extradition by George W. Bush in the mid-2000s.

Having been politically castrated by the CIA, DEA officials merely warned its CORU assets to stop bombing people in the U.S. It could maim and kill people anywhere else, just not here in the sacred homeland. By then, Salmi noted, the Justice Department had a special “grey-mail section” to fix cases involving CIA terrorists and drug dealers.

The Hoax

DCI William Webster formed the CIA’s Counter-Narcotics Center in 1988. Staffed by over 100 agents, it ostensibly became the springboard for the covert penetration of, and paramilitary operations against, top traffickers protected by high-tech security firms, lawyers and well-armed private armies.

The CNC brought together, under CIA control, every federal agency involved in the drug wars. Former CIA officer and erstwhile Twofold member, Terry Burke, then serving as the DEA’s Deputy for Operations, was allowed to send one liaison officer to the CNC.

The CNC quickly showed its true colors. In the late 1990, Customs agents in Miami seized a ton of pure cocaine from Venezuela. To their surprise, a Venezuelan undercover agent said the CIA had approved the delivery. DEA Administrator Robert Bonner ordered an investigation and discovered that the CIA had, in fact, shipped the load from its warehouse in Venezuela.

The “controlled deliveries” were managed by CIA officer Mark McFarlin, a veteran of Reagan’s terror campaign in El Salvador. Bonner wanted to indict McFarlin, but was prevented from doing so because Venezuela was in the process of fighting off a rebellion led by leftist Hugo Chavez. This same scenario has been playing out in Afghanistan for the last 15 years, largely through the DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD), which provides cover for CIA operations worldwide.

The ultimate and inevitable result of American imperialism, the SOD job is not simply to “create a crime,” as freewheeling FBN agents did in the old days, but to “recreate a crime” so it is prosecutable, despite whatever extra-legal methods were employed to obtain the evidence before it is passed along to law enforcement agencies so they can make arrests without revealing what prompted their suspicions.

Reuters reported in 2013:

The unit of the DEA that distributes the information is called the Special Operations Division, or SOD. Two dozen partner agencies comprise the unit, including the FBI, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. It was created in 1994 to combat Latin American drug cartels and has grown from several dozen employees to several hundred.

The utilization of information from the SOD, which operates out of a secret location in Virginia, “cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function,” according to an internal document cited by Reuters, which added that agents are specifically directed “to omit the SOD’s involvement from investigative reports, affidavits, discussions with prosecutors and courtroom testimony.”

Agents are told to use “parallel construction” to build their cases without reference to SOD’s tips which may come from sensitive “intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records,” Reuters reported.

Citing a former federal agent, Reuters reported that SOD operators would tell law enforcement officials in the U.S. to be at a certain place at a certain time and to look for a certain vehicle which would then be stopped and searched on some pretext. “After an arrest was made, agents then pretended that their investigation began with the traffic stop, not with the SOD tip, the former agent said,” Reuters reported.

An anonymous senior DEA official told Reuters that this “parallel construction” approach is “decades old, a bedrock concept” for law enforcement. The SOD’s approach follows Twofold techniques and Bolten’s parallel mechanism from the early 1970s.

To put it simply, lying to frame defendants, which has always been unstated policy, is now official policy: no longer considered corruption, it is how your government manages the judicial system on behalf of the rich political elite.

As outlined in this article, the process tracks back to Nixon, the formation of the BNDD, and the creation of a secret political police force out of the White House. As Agent Bowman Taylor caustically observed, “I used to think we were fighting the drug business, but after they formed the BNDD, I realized we were feeding it.”

The corruption was first “collateral” – as a function of national security performed by the CIA in secret – but has now become “integral,’ the essence of empire run amok.

  1. For citations to this and other quotations/interviews, as well as documents, please refer to the author’s books, The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs (Verso 2004) and The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics, and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA (TrineDay 2009). See also Douglas Valentine’s website

Douglas Valentine is the author of The Hotel Tacloban. He can be reached at: dougvalentine77@gmail.com.

September 20, 2015 Posted by | Corruption, Deception, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Evidence of Contra-Cocaine Scandal

By Robert Parry | Consortium News | December 9, 2013

Nearly a decade before Gary Webb published his investigative series on cocaine trafficking by Nicaraguan Contra rebels, U.S. law enforcement received a detailed account of top Contra leader Adolfo Calero casually associating with Norwin Meneses, called “a well-reputed drug dealer” in a “secret” document that I recently found at the National Archives.

Meneses was near the center of Webb’s 1996 articles for the San Jose Mercury-News, a series that came under fierce attack from U.S. government officials as well as major news organizations, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The controversy cost Webb his career, left him nearly penniless and ultimately contributed to his suicide on Dec. 9, 2004.

But the bitter irony of Webb’s demise, which will be the subject of a 2014 movie starring Jeremy Renner as Webb, is that Webb’s much-maligned “Dark Alliance” series forced major admissions from the CIA, the Justice Department and other government agencies revealing an even-deeper relationship between President Ronald Reagan’s beloved Contras and drug cartels than Webb ever alleged.

Typical of the evidence that the Reagan administration chose to ignore was information provided by Dennis Ainsworth, a blue-blood Republican from San Francisco who volunteered to help the Contra cause in 1984-85. That put him in position to witness the strange behind-the-scenes activities of Contra leaders hobnobbing with drug traffickers and negotiating arms deals with White House emissaries.

Ainsworth also was a source of mine in fall 1985 when I was investigating the mysterious sources of funding for the Contras after Congress shut off CIA support in 1984 amid widespread reports of Contra atrocities inflicted on Nicaraguan civilians, including rapes, executions and torture.

Ainsworth’s first-hand knowledge of the Contra dealings dovetailed with information that I already had, such as the central role of National Security Council aide Oliver North in aiding the Contras and his use of “courier” Rob Owen as an off-the-books White House intermediary to the Contras. I later developed confirmation of some other details that Ainsworth described, such as his overhearing Owen and Calero working together on an arms deal as Ainsworth drove them through the streets of San Francisco.

As for Ainsworth’s knowledge about the Contra-cocaine connection, he said he sponsored a June 1984 cocktail party at which Calero spoke to about 60 people. Meneses, a notorious drug kingpin in the Nicaraguan community, showed up uninvited and clearly had a personal relationship with Calero, who was then the political leader of the Contra’s chief fighting force, the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Democratic Force (or FDN).

“At the end of the cocktail party, Meneses and Calero went off together,” Ainsworth told U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Russoniello, according to a “secret” Jan. 6, 1987 cable submitted by Russoniello to an FBI investigation code-named “Front Door,” a probe into corruption by the Reagan administration.

After Calero’s speech, Ainsworth said Meneses accompanied Calero and about 20 people to dinner and picked up the entire tab, according to a more detailed debriefing of Ainsworth by the FBI. Concerned about this relationship, Ainsworth said he was told by Renato Pena, an FDN leader in the San Francisco area, that “the FDN is involved in drug smuggling with the aid of Norwin Meneses who also buys arms for Enrique Bermudez, a leader of the FDN.” Bermudez was then the top Contra military commander.

Corroborating Account

Pena, who himself was convicted on federal drug charges in 1984, gave a similar account to the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to a 1998 report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Bromwich, “When debriefed by the DEA in the early 1980s, Pena said that the CIA was allowing the Contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them, and keep the proceeds. …

“Pena stated that he was present on many occasions when Meneses telephoned Bermudez in Honduras. Meneses told Pena of Bermudez’s requests for such things as gun silencers (which Pena said Meneses obtained in Los Angeles), cross bows, and other military equipment for the Contras. Pena believed that Meneses would sometimes transport certain of these items himself to Central America, and other times would have contacts in Los Angeles and Miami send cargo to Honduras, where the authorities were cooperating with the Contras. Pena believed Meneses had contact with Bermudez from about 1981 or 1982 through the mid-1980s.”

Bromwich’s report then added, “Pena said he was one of the couriers Meneses used to deliver drug money to a Colombian known as ‘Carlos’ in Los Angeles and return to San Francisco with cocaine. Pena made six to eight trips, with anywhere from $600,000 to nearly $1 million, and brought back six to eight kilos of cocaine each time. Pena said Meneses was moving hundreds of kilos a week. ‘Carlos’ once told Pena, ‘We’re helping your cause with this drug thing … we are helping your organization a lot.”

Ainsworth also said he tried to alert Oliver North in 1985 about the troubling connections between the Contra movement and cocaine traffickers but that North turned a deaf ear. “In the spring some friends of mine and I went back to the White House staff but we were put off by Ollie North and others on the staff who really don’t want to know all what’s going on,” Ainsworth told Russoniello.

When I first spoke with Ainsworth in September 1985 at a coffee shop in San Francisco, he asked for confidentiality which I granted. However, since the documents released by the National Archives include him describing his conversations with me, that confidentiality no longer applies. Ainsworth also spoke with Webb for his 1996 San Jose Mercury-News series under the pseudonym “David Morrison.”

Though I found Ainsworth to be generally reliable, some of his depictions of our conversations contained mild exaggerations or confusion over details, such as his claim that I called him from Costa Rica in January 1986 and told him that the Contra-cocaine story that I had been working on with my AP colleague Brian Barger “never hit the papers because it was suppressed by the Associated Press due to political pressure primarily from the CIA.”

In reality, Barger and I returned from Costa Rica in fall 1985, wrote our story about the Contras’ involvement in cocaine smuggling, and pushed it onto the AP wire in December though in a reduced form because of resistance from some senior AP news executives who were supportive of President Reagan’s foreign policies. The CIA, the White House and other agencies of the Reagan administration did seek to discredit our story, but they did not prevent its publication.

An Overriding Hostility

The Reagan administration’s neglect of Ainsworth’s insights reflected the overriding hostility toward any information – even from Republican activists – that put the Contras in a negative light. In early 1987, when Ainsworth spoke with U.S. Attorney Russoniello and the FBI, the Reagan administration was in full damage-control mode, trying to tamp down the Iran-Contra disclosures about Oliver North diverting profits from secret arms sales to Iran to the Contra war.

Fears that the Iran-Contra scandal could lead to Reagan’s impeachment made it even less likely that the Justice Department would pursue an investigation into drug ties implicating the Contra leadership. Ainsworth’s information was simply passed on to Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh whose inquiry was already overwhelmed by the task of sorting out the convoluted Iran transactions.

Publicly, the Reagan team continued dumping on the Contra-cocaine allegations and playing the find-any-possible-reason-to-reject-a-witness game. The major news media went along, leading to much mainstream ridicule of a 1989 investigative report by Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who uncovered more drug connections implicating the Contras and the Reagan administration.

Only occasionally, such as when the George H.W. Bush administration needed witnesses to convict Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega did the Contra-cocaine evidence pop onto Official Washington’s radar screens.

During Noriega’s drug-trafficking trial in 1991, U.S. prosecutors called as a witness Colombian Medellín cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder, who — along with implicating Noriega — testified that the cartel had given $10 million to the Contras, an allegation first unearthed by Sen. Kerry. “The Kerry hearings didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time,” a Washington Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991, acknowledged. “The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention.”

But the Post offered its readers no explanation for why Kerry’s hearings had been largely ignored, with the Post itself a leading culprit in this journalistic misfeasance. Nor did the Post and the other leading newspapers use the opening created by the Noriega trial to do anything to rectify their past neglect.

Everything quickly returned to the status quo in which the desired perception of the noble Contras trumped the clear reality of their criminal activities. Instead of recognizing the skewed moral compass of the Reagan administration, Congress was soon falling over itself to attach Reagan’s name to as many public buildings and facilities as possible, including Washington’s National Airport.

Meanwhile, those of us in journalism who had exposed the national security crimes of the 1980s saw our careers mostly sink or go sideways. We were regarded as “pariahs” in our profession.

As for me, shortly after the Iran-Contra scandal broke wide open in fall 1986, I accepted a job at Newsweek, one of the many mainstream news outlets that had long ignored Contra-connected scandals and briefly thought it needed to bolster its coverage. But I soon discovered that senior editors remained hostile toward the Iran-Contra story and related spinoff scandals, including the Contra-cocaine mess.

After losing battle after battle with my Newsweek editors, I departed the magazine in June 1990 to write a book (called Fooling America) about the decline of the Washington press corps and the parallel rise of a new generation of government propagandists.

I was also hired by PBS Frontline to investigate whether there had been a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal — whether those arms-for-hostage deals in the mid-1980s had been preceded by contacts between Reagan’s 1980 campaign staff and Iran, which was then holding 52 Americans hostage and essentially destroying Jimmy Carter’s reelection hopes. [For more on that topic, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Finding New Ways

In 1995, frustrated by the growing triviality of American journalism — and acting on the advice of and with the assistance of my oldest son Sam — I turned to a new medium and launched the Internet’s first investigative news magazine, known as Consortiumnews.com. The Web site became a way for me to put out well-reported stories that my former mainstream colleagues ignored or mock.

So, when Gary Webb called me in 1996 to talk about the Contra-cocaine story, I explained some of this tortured history and urged him to make sure that his editors were firmly behind him. He sounded perplexed at my advice and assured me that he had the solid support of his editors.

When Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series finally appeared in late August 1996, it initially drew little attention. The major national news outlets applied their usual studied indifference to a topic that they had already judged unworthy of serious attention.

But Webb’s story proved hard to ignore. First, unlike the work that Barger and I did for AP in the mid-1980s, Webb’s series wasn’t just a story about drug traffickers in Central America and their protectors in Washington. It was about the on-the-ground consequences, inside the United States, of that drug trafficking, how the lives of Americans were blighted and destroyed as the collateral damage of a U.S. foreign policy initiative.

In other words, there were real-life American victims, and they were concentrated in African-American communities. That meant the ever-sensitive issue of race had been injected into the controversy. Anger from black communities spread quickly to the Congressional Black Caucus, which started demanding answers.

Secondly, the San Jose Mercury News, which was the local newspaper for Silicon Valley, had posted documents and audio on its state-of-the-art Internet site. That way, readers could examine much of the documentary support for the series.

It also meant that the traditional “gatekeeper” role of the major newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times — was under assault. If a regional paper like the Mercury News could finance a major journalistic investigation like this one, and circumvent the judgments of the editorial boards at the Big Three, then there might be a tectonic shift in the power relations of the U.S. news media. There could be a breakdown of the established order.

This combination of factors led to the next phase of the Contra-cocaine battle: the “get-Gary-Webb” counterattack. Soon, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times were lining up like some tag-team wrestlers taking turns pummeling Webb and his story.

On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s series, although acknowledging that some Contra operatives did help the cocaine cartels. The Post’s approach fit with the Big Media’s cognitive dissonance on the topic: first, the Post called the Contra-cocaine allegations old news — “even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,” the Post said — and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one Contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted in his series, saying it had not “played a major role in the emergence of crack.”

To add to the smug hoo-hah treatment that was enveloping Webb and his story, a Post published a sidebar story dismissing African-Americans as prone to “conspiracy fears.”

Next, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighed in with lengthy articles castigating Webb and “Dark Alliance.” The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 — almost a decade earlier — that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of any role in Contra-cocaine smuggling.

But the first ominous sign for the CIA’s cover-up emerged on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only12 days, and the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.

Mocking Webb

But Webb had already crossed over from being treated as a serious journalist to becoming a target of ridicule. Influential Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the Contra war was primarily a business to its participants. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz smirked.

Yet, Webb’s suspicion was no conspiracy theory. Indeed, Oliver North’s chief Contra emissary, Rob Owen, had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message about the Contra leadership. “Few of the so-called leaders of the movement . . . really care about the boys in the field,” Owen wrote. “THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Emphasis in original.]

Ainsworth and other pro-Contra activists were reaching the same conclusion, that the Contra leadership was skimming money from the supply lines and padding their personal wealth with proceeds from the drug trade. According to a Jan. 21, 1987 interview report by the FBI, Ainsworth said he had “made inquiries in the local San Francisco Nicaraguan community and wondered among his acquaintances what Adolfo Calero and the other people in the FDN movement were doing and the word that he received back is that they were probably engaged in cocaine smuggling.”

In other words, Webb was right about the suspicion that the Contra movement had become less a cause than a business to many of its participants. Even Oliver North’s emissary reported that many Contra leaders treated the conflict as “a business.” But accuracy had ceased to be relevant in the media’s hazing of Gary Webb.

In another double standard, while Webb was held to the strictest standards of journalism, it was entirely all right for Kurtz — the supposed arbiter of journalistic integrity who was a longtime fixture on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — to make judgments based on ignorance. Kurtz would face no repercussions for mocking a fellow journalist who was factually correct.

The Big Three’s assault — combined with their disparaging tone — had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury News. As it turned out, Webb’s confidence in his editors had been misplaced. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had his own corporate career to worry about, was in retreat.

On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page column saying the series “fell short of my standards.” He criticized the stories because they “strongly implied CIA knowledge” of Contra connections to U.S. drug dealers who were manufacturing crack cocaine. “We did not have enough proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship,” Ceppos wrote.

Ceppos was wrong about the proof, of course. At AP, before we published our first Contra-cocaine article in 1985, Barger and I had known that the CIA and Reagan’s White House were aware of the Contra-cocaine problem at senior levels.

However, Ceppos recognized that he and his newspaper were facing a credibility crisis brought on by the harsh consensus delivered by the Big Three, a judgment that had quickly solidified into conventional wisdom throughout the major news media and inside Knight-Ridder, Inc., which owned the Mercury News. The only career-saving move – career-saving for Ceppos even if career-destroying for Webb – was to jettison Webb and the Contra-cocaine investigative project.

A ‘Vindication’

The big newspapers and the Contras’ defenders celebrated Ceppos’s retreat as vindication of their own dismissal of the Contra-cocaine stories. In particular, Kurtz seemed proud that his demeaning of Webb now had the endorsement of Webb’s editor. Ceppos next pulled the plug on the Mercury News’ continuing Contra-cocaine investigation and reassigned Webb to a small office in Cupertino, California, far from his family. Webb resigned from the paper in disgrace.

For undercutting Webb and other Mercury News reporters working on the Contra-cocaine project – some of whom were facing personal danger in Central America – Ceppos was lauded by the American Journalism Review and received the 1997 national Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.

While Ceppos won raves, Webb watched his career collapse and his marriage break up. Still, Gary Webb had set in motion internal government investigations that would bring to the surface long-hidden facts about how the Reagan administration had conducted the Contra war.

The CIA published the first part of Inspector General Hitz’s findings on Jan. 29, 1998. Though the CIA’s press release for the report criticized Webb and defended the CIA, Hitz’s Volume One admitted that not only were many of Webb’s allegations true but that he actually understated the seriousness of the Contra-drug crimes and the CIA’s knowledge of them.

Hitz conceded that cocaine smugglers played a significant early role in the Contra movement and that the CIA intervened to block an image-threatening 1984 federal investigation into a San Francisco–based drug ring with suspected ties to the Contras, the so-called “Frogman Case.”

After Volume One was released, I called Webb (whom I had spent some time with since his series was published). I chided him for indeed getting the story “wrong.” He had understated how serious the problem of Contra-cocaine trafficking had been.

It was a form of gallows humor for the two of us, since nothing had changed in the way the major newspapers treated the Contra-cocaine issue. They focused only on the press release that continued to attack Webb, while ignoring the incriminating information that could be found in the full report. All I could do was highlight those admissions at Consortiumnews.com, which sadly had a much, much smaller readership than the Big Three.

The major U.S. news media also looked the other way on other startling disclosures.

On May 7, 1998, for instance, Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, introduced into the Congressional Record a Feb. 11, 1982 letter of understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department. The letter, which had been requested by CIA Director William Casey, freed the CIA from legal requirements that it must report drug smuggling by CIA assets, a provision that covered the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan mujahedeen.

In other words, early in those two covert wars, the CIA leadership wanted to make sure that its geopolitical objectives would not be complicated by a legal requirement to turn in its client forces for drug trafficking.

Justice Denied

The next break in the long-running Contra-cocaine cover-up was a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Bromwich. Given the hostile climate surrounding Webb’s series, Bromwich’s report also opened with criticism of Webb. But, like the CIA’s Volume One, the contents revealed new details about serious government wrongdoing.

According to evidence cited by Bromwich, the Reagan administration knew almost from the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the paramilitary operation. The administration also did next to nothing to expose or stop the crimes. Bromwich’s report revealed example after example of leads not followed, corroborated witnesses disparaged, official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged, and even the CIA facilitating the work of drug traffickers.

The report showed that the Contras and their supporters ran several parallel drug-smuggling operations, not just the one at the center of Webb’s series. The report also found that the CIA shared little of its information about Contra drugs with law-enforcement agencies and on three occasions disrupted cocaine-trafficking investigations that threatened the Contras.

As well as depicting a more widespread Contra-drug operation than Webb had understood, the Justice Department report provided some important corroboration about Nicaraguan drug smuggler Norwin Meneses, a key figure in Gary Webb’s series and Adolfo Calero’s friend as described by Dennis Ainsworth.

Bromwich cited U.S. government informants who supplied detailed information about Meneses’s drug operation and his financial assistance to the Contras. For instance, Renato Pena, the money-and-drug courier for Meneses, said that in the early 1980s the CIA allowed the Contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them, and keep the proceeds. Pena, the FDN’s northern California representative, said the drug trafficking was forced on the Contras by the inadequate levels of U.S. government assistance.

The Justice Department report also disclosed repeated examples of the CIA and U.S. embassies in Central America discouraging DEA investigations, including one into Contra-cocaine shipments moving through the international airport in El Salvador. Bromwich said secrecy trumped all. “We have no doubt that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy were not anxious for the DEA to pursue its investigation at the airport,” he wrote.

Bromwich also described the curious case of how a DEA pilot helped a CIA asset escape from Costa Rican authorities in 1989 after the man, American farmer John Hull, had been charged in connection with Contra-cocaine trafficking. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “John Hull’s Great Escape.”]

Hull’s ranch in northern Costa Rica had been the site of Contra camps for attacking Nicaragua from the south. For years, Contra-connected witnesses also said Hull’s property was used for the transshipment of cocaine en route to the United States, but those accounts were brushed aside by the Reagan administration and disparaged in major U.S. newspapers.

Yet, according to Bromwich’s report, the DEA took the accounts seriously enough to prepare a research report on the evidence in November 1986. One informant described Colombian cocaine off-loaded at an airstrip on Hull’s ranch.

The drugs were then concealed in a shipment of frozen shrimp and transported to the United States. The alleged Costa Rican shipper was Frigorificos de Puntarenas, a firm controlled by Cuban-American Luis Rodriguez. Like Hull, however, Frigorificos had friends in high places. In 1985-86, the State Department had selected the shrimp company to handle $261,937 in non-lethal assistance earmarked for the Contras.

Hull also remained a man with powerful protectors. Even after Costa Rican authorities brought drug charges against him, influential Americans, including Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, demanded that Hull be let out of jail pending trial. Then, in July 1989 with the help of a DEA pilot – and possibly a DEA agent – Hull managed to fly out of Costa Rica to Haiti and then to the United States.

Despite these startling new disclosures, the big newspapers still showed no inclination to read beyond the criticism of Webb in the press release.

Major Disclosures

By fall 1998, Washington was obsessed with President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which made it easier to ignore even more stunning Contra-cocaine disclosures in the CIA’s Volume Two, published on Oct. 8, 1998.

In the report, CIA Inspector General Hitz identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.

According to Volume Two, the CIA knew the criminal nature of its Contra clients from the start of the war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. The earliest Contra force, called the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) or the 15th of September Legion, had chosen “to stoop to criminal activities in order to feed and clothe their cadre,” according to a June 1981 draft of a CIA field report.

According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, two ADREN members made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981. ADREN’s leaders included Enrique Bermúdez and other early Contras who would later direct the major Contra army, the CIA-organized FDN which was based in Honduras, along Nicaragua’s northern border.

Throughout the war, Bermúdez remained the top Contra military commander. The CIA later corroborated the allegations about ADREN’s cocaine trafficking, but insisted that Bermúdez had opposed the drug shipments to the United States that went ahead nonetheless.

The truth about Bermúdez’s supposed objections to drug trafficking, however, was less clear. According to Hitz’s Volume One, Bermúdez enlisted Norwin Meneses – the Nicaraguan cocaine smuggler, the friend of Adolfo Calero, and a key figure in Webb’s series – to raise money and buy supplies for the Contras.

Volume One had quoted another Nicaraguan trafficker, Danilo Blandón, a Meneses associate (and another lead character in Webb’s series), as telling Hitz’s investigators that he (Blandón) and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet with Bermúdez in 1982. At the time, Meneses’s criminal activities were well-known in the Nicaraguan exile community, but Bermúdez told the cocaine smugglers that “the ends justify the means” in raising money for the Contras.

After the Bermúdez meeting, Meneses and Blandón were briefly arrested by Honduran police who confiscated $100,000 that the police suspected was to be a payment for a drug transaction. The Contras intervened, gained freedom for the two traffickers and got them their money back by saying the cash, which indeed was for a cocaine purchase in Bolivia, belonged to the Contras.

There were other indications of Bermúdez’s drug-smuggling complicity. In February 1988, another Nicaraguan exile linked to the drug trade accused Bermúdez of participation in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitz’s report. After the Contra war ended, Bermúdez returned to Managua, Nicaragua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder has never been solved.

The Southern Front

Along the Southern Front, the Contras’ military operations in Costa Rica on Nicaragua’s southern border, the CIA’s drug evidence centered on the forces of Edén Pastora, another top Contra commander. But Hitz discovered that the U.S. government may have made the drug situation worse, not better.

Hitz revealed that the CIA put an admitted drug operative — known by his CIA pseudonym “Ivan Gomez” — in a supervisory position over Pastora. Hitz reported that the CIA discovered Gomez’s drug history in 1987 when Gomez failed a security review on drug-trafficking questions.

In internal CIA interviews, Gomez admitted that in March or April 1982, he helped family members who were engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. In one case, Gomez said he assisted his brother and brother-in-law transporting cash from New York City to Miami. He admitted he “knew this act was illegal.”

Later, Gomez expanded on his admission, describing how his family members had fallen $2 million into debt and had gone to Miami to run a money-laundering center for drug traffickers. Gomez said “his brother had many visitors whom [Gomez] assumed to be in the drug trafficking business.” Gomez’s brother was arrested on drug charges in June 1982. Three months later, in September 1982, Gomez started his CIA assignment in Costa Rica.

Years later, convicted drug trafficker Carlos Cabezas alleged that in the early 1980s, Ivan Gomez was the CIA agent in Costa Rica who was overseeing drug-money donations to the Contras. Gomez “was to make sure the money was given to the right people [the Contras] and nobody was taking  . . .  profit they weren’t supposed to,” Cabezas stated publicly.

But the CIA sought to discredit Cabezas at the time because he had trouble identifying Gomez’s picture and put Gomez at one meeting in early 1982 before Gomez started his CIA assignment. While the CIA was able to fend off Cabezas’s allegations by pointing to these discrepancies, Hitz’s report revealed that the CIA was nevertheless aware of Gomez’s direct role in drug-money laundering, a fact the agency hid from Sen. Kerry in his investigation during the late 1980s.

There was also more to know about Gomez. In November 1985, the FBI learned from an informant that Gomez’s two brothers had been large-scale cocaine importers, with one brother arranging shipments from Bolivia’s infamous drug kingpin Roberto Suarez.

Suarez already was known as a financier of right-wing causes. In 1980, with the support of Argentina’s hard-line anticommunist military regime, Suarez bankrolled a coup in Bolivia that ousted the elected left-of-center government. The violent putsch became known as the Cocaine Coup because it made Bolivia the region’s first narco-state.

By protecting cocaine shipments headed north, Bolivia’s government helped transform Colombia’s Medellín cartel from a struggling local operation into a giant corporate-style business for delivering vast quantities of cocaine to the U.S. market.

Flush with cash in the early 1980s, Suarez invested more than $30 million in various right-wing paramilitary operations, including the Contra forces in Central America, according to U.S. Senate testimony by an Argentine intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse.

In 1987, Sanchez-Reisse said the Suarez drug money was laundered through front companies in Miami before going to Central America. There, other Argentine intelligence officers — veterans of the Bolivian coup — trained the Contras in the early 1980s, even before the CIA arrived to first assist with the training and later take over the Contra operation from the Argentines.

Inspector General Hitz added another piece to the mystery of the Bolivian-Contra connection. One Contra fund-raiser, Jose Orlando Bolanos, boasted that the Argentine government was supporting his Contra activities, according to a May 1982 cable to CIA headquarters. Bolanos made the statement during a meeting with undercover DEA agents in Florida. He even offered to introduce them to his Bolivian cocaine supplier.

Despite all this suspicious drug activity centered around Ivan Gomez and the Contras, the CIA insisted that it did not unmask Gomez until 1987, when he failed a security check and confessed his role in his family’s drug business. The CIA official who interviewed Gomez concluded that “Gomez directly participated in illegal drug transactions, concealed participation in illegal drug transactions, and concealed information about involvement in illegal drug activity,” Hitz wrote.

But senior CIA officials still protected Gomez. They refused to refer the Gomez case to the Justice Department, citing the 1982 agreement that spared the CIA from a legal obligation to report narcotics crimes by people collaborating with the CIA who were not formal agency employees. Gomez was an independent contractor who worked for the CIA but was not officially on staff. The CIA eased Gomez out of the agency in February 1988, without alerting law enforcement or the congressional oversight committees.

When questioned about the case nearly a decade later, one senior CIA official who had supported the gentle treatment of Gomez had second thoughts. “It is a striking commentary on me and everyone that this guy’s involvement in narcotics didn’t weigh more heavily on me or the system,” the official told Hitz’s investigators.

Drug Path to the White House

A Medellín drug connection arose in another section of Hitz’s report, when he revealed evidence suggesting that some Contra trafficking may have been sanctioned by Reagan’s National Security Council. The protagonist for this part of the Contra-cocaine mystery was Moises Nunez, a Cuban-American who worked for Oliver North’s NSC Contra-support operation and for two drug-connected seafood importers, Ocean Hunter in Miami and Frigorificos De Puntarenas in Costa Rica.

Frigorificos De Puntarenas was created in the early 1980s as a cover for drug-money laundering, according to sworn testimony by two of the firm’s principals — Carlos Soto and Medellín cartel accountant Ramon Milian Rodriguez. (It was also the company implicated by a DEA informant in moving cocaine from John Hull’s ranch to the United States.)

Drug allegations were swirling around Moises Nunez by the mid-1980s. Indeed, his operation was one of the targets of my and Barger’s AP investigation in 1985. Finally reacting to the suspicions, the CIA questioned Nunez about his alleged cocaine trafficking on March 25, 1987. He responded by pointing the finger at his NSC superiors.

“Nunez revealed that since 1985, he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National Security Council,” Hitz reported, adding: “Nunez refused to elaborate on the nature of these actions, but indicated it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC. Nunez refused to identify the NSC officials with whom he had been involved.”

After this first round of questioning, CIA headquarters authorized an additional session, but then senior CIA officials reversed the decision. There would be no further efforts at “debriefing Nunez.”

Hitz noted that “the cable [from headquarters] offered no explanation for the decision” to stop the Nunez interrogation. But the CIA’s Central American Task Force chief Alan Fiers Jr. said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued “because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [the Contra money handled by the NSC’s Oliver North] a decision was made not to pursue this matter.”

Joseph Fernandez, who had been the CIA’s station chief in Costa Rica, confirmed to congressional Iran-Contra investigators that Nunez “was involved in a very sensitive operation” for North’s “Enterprise.” The exact nature of that NSC-authorized activity has never been divulged.

At the time of the Nunez-NSC drug admissions and his truncated interrogation, the CIA’s acting director was Robert Gates, who nearly two decades later became President George W. Bush’s second secretary of defense, a position he retained under President Barack Obama.

Drug Record

The CIA also worked directly with other drug-connected Cuban-Americans on the Contra project, Hitz found. One of Nunez’s Cuban-American associates, Felipe Vidal, had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s. But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics coordinator for the Contras, Hitz reported.

The CIA also learned that Vidal’s drug connections were not only in the past. A December 1984 cable to CIA headquarters revealed Vidal’s ties to Rene Corvo, another Cuban-American suspected of drug trafficking. Corvo was working with Cuban anticommunist Frank Castro, who was viewed as a Medellín cartel representative within the Contra movement.

There were other narcotics links to Vidal. In January 1986, the DEA in Miami seized 414 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipment of yucca that was going from a Contra operative in Costa Rica to Ocean Hunter, the company where Vidal (and Moises Nunez) worked. Despite the evidence, Vidal remained a CIA employee as he collaborated with Frank Castro’s assistant, Rene Corvo, in raising money for the Contras, according to a CIA memo in June 1986.

By fall 1986, Sen. Kerry had heard enough rumors about Vidal to demand information about him as part of his congressional inquiry into Contra drugs. But the CIA withheld the derogatory information in its files. On Oct. 15, 1986, Kerry received a briefing from the CIA’s Alan Fiers, who didn’t mention Vidal’s drug arrests and conviction in the 1970s.

But Vidal was not yet in the clear. In 1987, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami began investigating Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and other Contra-connected entities. This prosecutorial attention worried the CIA. The CIA’s Latin American division felt it was time for a security review of Vidal. But on Aug. 5, 1987, the CIA’s security office blocked the review for fear that the Vidal drug information “could be exposed during any future litigation.”

As expected, the U.S. Attorney’s Office did request documents about “Contra-related activities” by Vidal, Ocean Hunter, and 16 other entities. The CIA advised the prosecutor that “no information had been found regarding Ocean Hunter,” a statement that was clearly false. The CIA continued Vidal’s employment as an adviser to the Contra movement until 1990, virtually the end of the Contra war.

Hitz also revealed that drugs tainted the highest levels of the Honduran-based FDN, the largest Contra army. Hitz found that Juan Rivas, a Contra commander who rose to be chief of staff, admitted that he had been a cocaine trafficker in Colombia before the war.

The CIA asked Rivas, known as El Quiche, about his background after the DEA began suspecting that Rivas might be an escaped convict from a Colombian prison. In interviews with CIA officers, Rivas acknowledged that he had been arrested and convicted of packaging and transporting cocaine for the drug trade in Barranquilla, Colombia. After several months in prison, Rivas said, he escaped and moved to Central America, where he joined the Contras.

Defending Rivas, CIA officials insisted that there was no evidence that Rivas engaged in trafficking while with the Contras. But one CIA cable noted that he lived an expensive lifestyle, even keeping a $100,000 Thoroughbred horse at the Contra camp. Contra military commander Bermúdez later attributed Rivas’s wealth to his ex-girlfriend’s rich family. But a CIA cable in March 1989 added that “some in the FDN may have suspected at the time that the father-in-law was engaged in drug trafficking.”

Still, the CIA moved quickly to protect Rivas from exposure and possible extradition to Colombia. In February 1989, CIA headquarters asked that the DEA take no action “in view of the serious political damage to the U.S. Government that could occur should the information about Rivas become public.” Rivas was eased out of the Contra leadership with an explanation of poor health. With U.S. government help, he was allowed to resettle in Miami. Colombia was not informed about his fugitive status.

Another senior FDN official implicated in the drug trade was its chief spokesman in Honduras, Arnoldo Jose “Frank” Arana. The drug allegations against Arana dated back to 1983 when a federal narcotics task force put him under criminal investigation because of plans “to smuggle 100 kilograms of cocaine into the United States from South America.” On Jan. 23, 1986, the FBI reported that Arana and his brothers were involved in a drug-smuggling enterprise, although Arana was not charged.

Arana sought to clear up another set of drug suspicions in 1989 by visiting the DEA in Honduras with a business associate, Jose Perez. Arana’s association with Perez, however, only raised new alarms. If “Arana is mixed up with the Perez brothers, he is probably dirty,” the DEA said.

Drug Airlines

Through their ownership of an air services company called SETCO, the Perez brothers were associated with Juan Matta-Ballesteros, a major cocaine kingpin connected to the 1985 torture-murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, according to reports by the DEA and U.S. Customs. Hitz reported that someone at the CIA scribbled a note on a DEA cable about Arana stating: “Arnold Arana . . . still active and working, we [CIA] may have a problem.”

Despite its drug ties to Matta-Ballesteros, SETCO emerged as the principal company for ferrying supplies to the Contras in Honduras. During congressional Iran-Contra hearings, FDN political leader Adolfo Calero testified that SETCO was paid from bank accounts controlled by Oliver North. SETCO also received $185,924 from the State Department for ferrying supplies to the Contras in 1986. Furthermore, Hitz found that other air transport companies used by the Contras were implicated in the cocaine trade as well.

Even FDN leaders suspected that they were shipping supplies to Central America aboard planes that might be returning with drugs. Mario Calero, Adolfo Calero’s brother and the chief of Contra logistics, grew so uneasy about one air freight company that he notified U.S. law enforcement that the FDN only chartered the planes for the flights south, not the return flights north.

Hitz found that some drug pilots simply rotated from one sector of the Contra operation to another. Donaldo Frixone, who had a drug record in the Dominican Republic, was hired by the CIA to fly Contra missions from 1983 to 1985. In September 1986, however, Frixone was implicated in smuggling 19,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. In late 1986 or early 1987, he went to work for Vortex, another U.S.-paid Contra supply company linked to the drug trade.

By the time that Hitz’s Volume Two was published in fall 1998, the CIA’s defense against Webb’s series had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the Contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking. But Hitz made clear that the Contra war took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the Justice Department, Congress, and even the CIA’s own analytical division.

Besides tracing the evidence of Contra-drug trafficking through the decade-long Contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the Contra-drug problem but didn’t want its exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.

According to Hitz, the CIA had “one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government. . . . [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the Contra program.” One CIA field officer explained, “The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.”

Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations officers handling the Contras hid evidence of Contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA’s analysts.

Because of the withheld evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that “only a handful of Contras might have been involved in drug trafficking.” That false assessment was passed on to Congress and to major news organizations — serving as an important basis for denouncing Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series in 1996.

CIA Admission

Although Hitz’s report was an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it went almost unnoticed by the big American newspapers.

On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitz’s Volume Two was posted on the CIA’s Web site, the New York Times published a brief article that continued to deride Webb but acknowledged the Contra-drug problem may have been worse than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles Times never published a story on the release of Hitz’s Volume Two.

In 2000, the House Intelligence Committee grudgingly acknowledged that the stories about Reagan’s CIA protecting Contra drug traffickers were true. The committee released a report citing classified testimony from CIA Inspector General Britt Snider (Hitz’s successor) admitting that the spy agency had turned a blind eye to evidence of Contra-drug smuggling and generally treated drug smuggling through Central America as a low priority.

“In the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas appears to have taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations against those with whom the agency was working,” Snider said, adding that the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in “a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner.”

The House committee — then controlled by Republicans — still downplayed the significance of the Contra-cocaine scandal, but the panel acknowledged, deep inside its report, that in some cases, “CIA employees did nothing to verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the opportunity to do so. In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual.”

Like the release of Hitz’s report in 1998, the admissions by Snider and the House committee drew virtually no media attention in 2000 — except for a few articles on the Internet, including one at Consortiumnews.com.

Because of this journalistic misconduct by the Big Three newspapers — choosing to conceal their own neglect of the Contra-cocaine scandal and to protect the Reagan administration’s image — Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated.

After his original “Dark Alliance” series was published in 1996, Webb had been inundated with attractive book offers from major publishing houses, but once the vilification began, the interest evaporated. Webb’s agent contacted an independent publishing house, Seven Stories Press, which had a reputation for publishing books that had been censored, and it took on the project.

After Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion was published in 1998, I joined Webb in a few speaking appearances on the West Coast, including one packed book talk at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, California. For a time, Webb was treated as a celebrity on the American Left, but that gradually faded.

In our interactions during these joint appearances, I found Webb to be a regular guy who seemed to be holding up fairly well under the terrible pressure. He had landed an investigative job with a California state legislative committee. He also felt some measure of vindication when CIA Inspector General Hitz’s reports came out.

But Webb never could overcome the pain caused by his betrayal at the hands of his journalistic colleagues, his peers. In the years that followed, Webb was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession — the conventional wisdom remained that he had somehow been exposed as a journalistic fraud. His state job ended; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a move out of a modest rental house near Sacramento, California.

On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation; and taped a note on the door telling movers — who were coming the next morning — to instead call 911. Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.

Even with Webb’s death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction couldn’t bring themselves to show Webb any mercy. After Webb’s body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work.

I told the reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the Los Angeles Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents of Hitz’s final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.

To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The Los Angeles Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb, nor the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The obituary was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.

In effect, Webb’s suicide enabled senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little easier — one of the few people who understood the ugly story of the Reagan administration’s cover-up of the Contra-cocaine scandal and the U.S. media’s complicity was now silenced.

To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has paid a price. None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. None had to experience that special pain of standing up for what is best in the profession of journalism — taking on a difficult story that seeks to hold powerful people accountable for serious crimes — and then being vilified by your own colleagues, the people that you expected to understand and appreciate what you had done.

On the contrary, many were rewarded with professional advancement and lucrative careers. For instance, for years, Howard Kurtz got to host the CNN program, “Reliable Sources,” which lectured journalists on professional standards. He was described in the program’s bio as “the nation’s premier media critic.” (His show has since moved to Fox News, renamed “MediaBuzz.”)

The rehabilitation of Webb’s reputation and possibly even the correction of this dark chapter of American history now rests on how accurately – and how bravely – Hollywood presents Webb’s story in the film, “Kill the Messenger,” starring Jeremy Renner and scheduled for release next year. [For more on the Contra-cocaine story, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

~

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Corruption, Deception, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , | Leave a comment