Establishment Newspapers Do Damage Control for the CIA
by Norman Solomon
Wizards of Media OZ, 1997, paper
[One of the biggest media uproars of the
mid-1990s had to do with the CIA, the Nicaraguan contras and cocaine.
As 1997 began, FAIR's magazine EXTRA! published an in-depth analysis
of how three powerful newspapers handled the controversy. The
following "Snow Job" report, written by Norman Solomon,
drew on the findings of a FAIR research/reporting team that included
Jeff Cohen, Jim Naureckas and Steve Rendall.]
The process has to be conscious, or it
would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also
has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of
falsity and hence of guilt.... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely
believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient,
and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from
oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence
of objective reality and all the while to take account of the
reality which one denies-all this is indispensably necessary.
George Orwell, 1984
For several weeks after an August 
series in the San Jose Mercury News linked the CIA-backed Nicaraguan
contras with the importation of cocaine into poor black areas
of Los Angeles, major news outlets did scant reporting on the
story. But in early autumn, near-silence gave way to a roar from
the country's three most influential urban dailies-the Washington
Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times-which is still reverberating
in the national media's echo chamber.
The first New York Times article on the
subject (9/21/96) fore shadowed much that was to follow. Headlined
"Inquiry Is Ordered Into Reports of Contra Cocaine Sales
in U.S.," the news story focused on assurances from Central
Intelligence Agency director John Deutch and unnamed "former
senior CIA officials" that the Mercury News assertions were
groundless. '1 regard these allegations with the utmost seriousness,"
Deutch said. "They go to the heart and integrity of the CIA
Not only did Deutch contend that "the
agency never had any relationship" with Nicaraguan drug traffickers
Oscar Danilo Blandon and Norvin Meneses-the Times also reported
the reassuring news that "former senior CIA officials involved
in the contra operations said this week that they had never heard
of Blandon or Meneses. None of the article's dozen paragraphs
included any suggestion that the CIA might be a dubious touchstone
for veracity. The notion that the ClA's internal probe held a
key to unlocking the story's mysteries was to be oft-repeated.
Yet the uproar over the Mercury News series,
written by reporter Gary Webb, continued to grow. Denials from
the CIA carried little weight with much of the public, particularly
African-Americans outraged by the series. Protests mounted in
cities from Los Angeles to Washington, and members of the Congressional
Black Caucus demanded federal investigations.
October  brought a fierce counterattack
from the Post, the New York Times and L A. Times, all of which
published lengthy news articles blasting the Mercury News series.
In the process, a number of recurrent debunking themes quickly
gained the status of media truisms.
"Last month," Newsweek reported
in November, "the Merc started getting trashed-by its peers.
In turn, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times
poked holes in the story, exhaustively and mercilessly."
In his role as the Post's in-house media
critic, Howard Kurtz took numerous swipes at Webb that grew increasingly
dismissive; one item, headed "A Webb of Conspiracy,"
ended with the smug one-liner, "Oliver Stone, check your
voice mail." Liberal columnist Mary McGrory, based at the
Post, echoed what she was hearing all around her in an Oct. 27
piece: "The San Jose story has been discredited by major
publications, including the Post."
By November, a clear orthodoxy had taken
hold Certain de rigueur phrases began appearing in news articles:
"Many of the series' conclusions have been widely challenged"
(Washington Post, 11/6/96); "media critics and other newspapers
have questioned the Mercury News' findings." (AP in New York
Times, 11 /7/96)
Under the headline "CIA Chief Denies
Crack Conspiracy," the New York Times (11/16/96) indicated
that reputable media outlets-and reputable spooks-had rejected
the Mercury News series: "Agency officials said they had
no evidence of any such plot. Other news organizations were not
able to confirm the plot. Still, the rumor mill continued to grind,
seemingly unstoppable." The next day, Times columnist Maureen
Dowd took the company line: "Mr. Deutch and investigators
for several major newspapers have found no evidence to support
the conspiracy theory that grew out of a series in the San Jose
Mercury News suggesting a CIA role in the spread of crack in America's
But what exactly in the San Jose Mercury
News stories was refuted by these "major newspapers"?
To a notable degree, the establishment papers relied for their
debunking of the Mercury News on the CIA's own obligatory denials.
As journalist Marc Cooper pointed out in the weekly New Times
Los Angeles, "Regarding the all-important question of how
much responsibility the CIA had, we are being asked to take the
word of sources who in a more objective account would be considered
In the New York Times' full-page magnum
opus on the controversy (10/21/96), reporter Tim Golden drew extensively
on interviews with nameless sources such as "government officials
with access to intelligence reports," not to mention "more
than two dozen current and former [contra] rebels, CIA officials
and narcotics agents, as well as other law-enforcement officials
and experts on the drug trade." The Times seemed eager to
take at face value the statements at CIA headquarters that the
agency didn't know Blandon from Adam: "Although he claimed
to have supplied several thousand pounds of cocaine to one of
the biggest crack dealers in Southern California, officials said
the CIA had no record of Mr. Blandon before he appeared as a central
figure in the series in the Mercury News." As in the first
Times report, featuring the same CIA disclaimers, there was not
the slightest hint that such denials might be self-serving.
The Los Angeles Times was on the same
track in its lengthy three-day series. "CIA officials insist
they knew nothing about Meneses' and Blandon's tainted contributions
to [Adolfo] Calero or other contra leaders," the newspaper
reported (10/21/96). One of the officials quoted in support of
the claim that the CIA had drug-free hands was Vincent Cannistraro-identified
by the newspaper only as a "former CIA official."
In fact-though the L.A. Times could spare
none of the article's several thousand words to let readers know-Cannistraro
was in charge of the ClA's contra activities during the early
1980s. After moving to the National Security Council in 1984,
he became a supervisor of covert aid to Afghanistan's mujahedeen
guerrillas, whose involvement in the opium trade made Afghanistan
and Pakistan two of the world's main suppliers of heroin. If the
L.A. Times had been willing to share such relevant details, it
would have provided readers with a much better basis for evaluating
Cannistraro's testimonial to CIA integrity: "There's no tendency
to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. It's too sensitive. It's
not a fine line. It's not a shaded area where you can turn away
from the rules."
The L.A. Times was following in the footsteps
of less august media outlets that used a deceptively identified
Cannistraro to attack the Mercury News series. The right-wing
Washington Times quoted him as saying that the series "doesn't
have any elements of authenticity." And former Washington
Times reporter Michael Hedges wrote a Scripps-Howard News Service
article that called Cannistraro a "retired CIA counterterrorism
and Latin America expert" and quoted him as declaring: "I
have personal knowledge that the CIA knew nothing about these
guys [Blandon and Meneses]. These charges are completely illogical."
Besides self-serving denials, journalistic
critics of the Mercury News offered little to rebut the paper's
specific pieces of evidence-including Blandon's own testimony
and law enforcement documents and comments-indicating that Meneses
and Blandon may have been protected by federal agents.
Judging the Mercury News series invalid,
the pre-eminent denouncers frequently berated the newspaper for
failing to prove what Webb never claimed. The Washington Post,
for instance, devoted paragraph after paragraph of its Oct. 4
barrage to illuminating what Webb had already acknowledged in
his articles-that while he proves contra links to major cocaine
importation, he can't identify specific CIA officials who knew
of or condoned the trafficking.
Many critics took issue with Webb's references
to the contras as "the CIA's army." The Washington Post's
Kurtz, for example, complained that "Webb's repeated use
of the phrase 'the CIA's army'...clearly suggests that the agency
In fact, referring to the Nicaraguan Democratic
Force (FDN) as the CIA's army is solid journalism, highlighting
a relationship that is fundamentally relevant to the story. The
army was formed at the instigation of the CIA, its leaders were
selected by and received salaries from the agency, and CIA officers
controlled day-to-day battlefield strategies. One former contra
leader, Edgar Chamorro, has said that the FDN's leaders were "nothing
more than the executioners of the CIA's orders."
Yet the newsroom culture of denial grew
so strong that a Washington Post article in November, by Marc
Fisher, seemed to dispute that the CIA and the contras had any
ties at all: "On WRC, [talkshow host] Joe Madison droned
on as he has for weeks about the supposed CIA-contra connection."
In its big blast at the Mercury News series,
the New York Times tried a semantic maneuver to distance the CIA's
army from the CIA. The newspaper acknowledged that Meneses and
Blandon "traveled once to Honduras to see the FDN's military
commander, Enrique Bermudez." But the Times quickly added:
"Although Mr. Bermudez, like other contra leaders, was often
paid by the CIA, he was not a CIA agent."
It was classic sleight-of-hand at the
keyboard, as Newsday columnist Murray Kempton pointed out: "The
maintenance of such distinctions without any essential difference
is one of the more cunning of the infinite devices the agency
employs on obfuscation. The CIA identifies highly placed foreign
hirelings not as 'agents' but as 'assets."' Just such obfuscation
helped many journalists to assert that the Mercury News series
had been debunked and that the CIA was unfairly implicated.
The most potentially damaging charge made
by the establishment papers is that Webb greatly exaggerated the
amount of crack profits going to the contras, which he reported
as being "millions" of dollars. "According to law
enforcement officials, Blandon sold $30,000 to $60,000 worth of
cocaine in two transactions and delivered the money to Meneses
for shipment to the contras," the Washington Post reported.
"Meneses was indeed a financial contributor to the contras,"
the L A. Times reported, "but his donations to the rebel
cause amounted to no more than $50,000, according to two men who
knew him at the time." These estimates quickly became enshrined
as journalistic fact. They were even given credence by an editorial
in The Nation: Blandon and Meneses' contributions to the contra
cause "may have been $50,000," David Corn wrote.
Yet the Mercury News' higher estimates
are better sourced than the debunkers' low numbers. In contrast
to the Mercury News-which had drawn on sworn grand jury and court
testimony to calculate that millions of crack dollars flowed to
the contras-the Post and L.A. Times attributed their much smaller
estimates to unnamed sources, variously described as "law
enforcement officials" (Washington Post, 10/4/96), "a
contra supporter and a business partner who sold drugs with Blandon"
(L A. Times, 10/20/96) and "associates in drug trafficking
in Los Angeles" (L.A. Times, 10/21 /96).
Nor do the claims by the Washington Post
and New York Times stand up that the funneling of crack money
to the contras ended early in the 1980s. Pete Carey, a reporter
assigned by the Mercury News to do a reassessment of the paper's
own reporting (10/13/96), presented fuller documentation: "A
1986 Los Angeles County sheriff's affidavit for searches of the
homes and business of Blandon and members of his drug ring shows
that the contra connection lasted into the mid-1980s. In the 1986
affidavit, three confidential informants said that Blandon was
still sending money to the contrast"
The establishment papers' orthodoxy also
insists that "Freeway" Ricky Ross, the contact who distributed
Blandon's cocaine in the form of crack, was not a key player in
the drug's proliferation. The Washington Post declared that Ross'
activities were incidental to the spread of crack; using identical
language in a pair of news articles (10/4/96,10/12/96), the Post
insisted that available data "point to the rise of crack
as a broad-based phenomenon driven in numerous places by players
of different nationalities." The New York Times concluded
rather cryptically that "several experts on the drug trade
said that although Mr. Ross was indeed a crack kingpin, he was
one of many."
But two years earlier-before the public
learned that much of his cocaine was supplied by smugglers connected
to the contras-the same man was the subject of a 2,400-word Los
Angeles Times news article (12/20/94) that portrayed him as central
to the spread of crack cocaine. "If there was an eye to the
storm," the article began, "if there was a criminal
mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one
outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets
with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick." The
headline? "Deposed King of Crack; Now Free After 5 Years
in Prison, This Master Marketer Was Key to the Drug's Spread in
The article reported that as far as crack
went, "Ross did more than anyone else to democratize it,
boosting volume, slashing prices and spreading disease on a scale
never before conceived." He became "South-Central's
first millionaire crack lord," the newspaper reported. "While
most other dealers toiled at the bottom rungs of the market, his
coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than 500,000 rocks
a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of
anyone with a few dollars."
In a remarkable display of subservience
to prevailing orthodoxy, the same reporter who wrote those words,
Jesse Katz, went on to write a front-page article for the L.A.
Times (10/20/96) that reads like a show-trial recantation. Ross
now was one of many "interchangeable characters," who
was "dwarfed" by other dealers. "How the crack
epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do
with Ross," Katz reported. The L A.Times reporter did not
explain how his reporting on Ross two years earlier could have
been so inaccurate.
While the Mercury News series could arguably
be faulted for occasional overstatement, the elite media's attacks
on the series were clearly driven by a need to defend their shoddy
record on the contra cocaine story-involving a decade-long suppression
of evidence. The Washington Post was typical. "When Brian
Barger and I wrote the first story about contra cocaine smuggling
for the Associated Press in December 1985," Robert Parry
recalls, "the Post waited a week, added some fresh details
and then stuck the story near the back of the national news section."
In July 1987, the House Narcotics Committee,
chaired by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), investigated contra-drug
allegations and found a "need for further congressional investigation."
The Washington Post distorted reality with the headline "Hill
Panel Finds No Evidence Linking Contras to Drug Smuggling"-
and then refused to publish Rangel's letter correcting the record.
Later that year, Time magazine staff writer
Laurence Zuckerman was assigned to work with an investigative
reporter on contra cocaine allegations. They found serious evidence
of the link, but the story Zuckerman wrote was obstructed by higher-ups.
A senior editor acknowledged to Zuckerman: "Time is institutionally
behind the contrast If this story were about the Sandinistas and
drugs, you'd have no trouble getting it in the magazine."
Two years later, the Senate subcommittee
chaired by John Kerry released a scathing condemnation of U.S.
government complicity with narcotics trafficking by or for the
contrast Among Kerry's conclusions: "Individuals who provided
support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking, the
supply network of the contras was used by drug trafficking organizations,
and elements of the contras themselves knowingly received financial
and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one
or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding
the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately
Parry remembers the reaction: "When
this important report was issued in April 1989, the Post buried
the information in a scant 700 word article on page A20. And most
of that story, by Michael Isikoff, was devoted to Republican criticisms
of Kerry, rather than to the serious evidence of contra wrongdoing.
Other establishment publications took the cue that * was safe
to mock Kerry. Newsweek dubbed him a 'randy conspiracy buff.'"
In July 1989., former White House operative
Oliver North, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, U.S.
ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis Tambs, CIA station chief Joseph
Fernandez and other contragate figures were barred from Costa
Rica-on orders of that country's president, Oscar Arias, who acted
on recommendations from a Costa Rican congressional commission
investigating drug trafficking. The commission concluded that
the contra re-supply network in Costa Rica, which North coordinated
from the White House, doubled as a drug smuggling operation.
A big story? Not at all. Although AP sent
out a dispatch, the New York Times and the three major TV networks
failed to mention it; the Washington Post ran the news as a short
back-page item. When FAIR's Steve Rendall called the Post to find
out why, reporter Walter Pincus-who later co-wrote the Post's
1996 attack on the San Jose Mercury News-made no apologies. 'fuss
because a congressional commission in Costa Rica says something,
doesn't mean it's true," Pincus said (EXTRA!, 10/11/89).
In late 1996, one of the basic pretensions
threading through much of the coverage by the Washington Post,
New York Times and L.A. Times was the notion that contra participation
in drug trafficking is old news-a particularly ironic claim coming
from newspapers that went out of their way to ignore or disparage
key information during the 1980s. The Post's ombudsman, Geneva
Overholser, was on target (11/10/96) when she re-raised the question
of the U.S. government's relationship to drug smuggling and noted
that the three newspapers "showed more passion for sniffing
out the flaws in San Jose's answer than for sniffing out a better
Citing "strong previous evidence
that the CIA at least chose to overlook contra involvement in
the drug trade," Overholser found "misdirected zeal"
in the Post's response to the Mercury News series: "Would
that we had welcomed the surge of public interest as an occasion
to return to a subject the Post and the public had given short
shrift. Alas, dismissing someone else's story as old news comes
more naturally." A more pointed observation came from Robert
Parry: The irony of the Post's big Oct. 4 story "was that
the newspaper was finally accepting the reality of contra cocaine
trafficking, albeit in a backhanded way." The Post "had
long pooh-poohed earlier allegations that the contras were implicated
in drug shipments."
A Dirty, Dangerous World
What explains these elite media outlets'
shameful record of suppressing evidence that the CIA's contra
army was involved in the drug trade-and attacking those who dared
to report the story?
In the case of the New York Times and
the Washington Post, part of the explanation is that the papers
had lent their editorial prestige to the contra cause. By the
late 1980s, both papers had endorsed military aid to the contras-though
sometimes grudgingly. In February 1988, a pair of pro-contra aid
Post editorials bracketed a crucial vote in Congress; the pre-vote
editorial observed approvingly that "a carrot-and-stick combination
has moved the Sandinistas." There was no discernible concern
that the military "stick" was being used to take the
lives of civilian peasants in the Nicaraguan countryside.
At all three papers, the attitudes of
owners and top management set the tone and impose the constraints
within which journalists work. Dennis McDougal, a former L.A.
Times staffer, described the paper's editor, Shelby Coffey m,
this way: "He is the dictionary definition of someone who
wants to protect the status quo. He weighs whether or not an investigative
piece will have repercussions among the ruling elite, and if it
will, the chances of seeing it in print in the L A. Times decrease
The New York Times and Washington Post
have an even closer relationship to the nation's elites, with
connections to the CIA that go back nearly to the agency's founding.
In a piece on the CIA and news media written for Rolling Stone
two decades ago (10/20/77), Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein
wrote that "the agency's relationship with the [New York]
Times was by far its most valuable among newspapers, according
to CIA officials. From 1950 to 1966, about 10 CIA employees were
provided Times cover under arrangements approved by the newspaper's
late publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. The cover arrangements
were part of a general Times policy - set by Sulzberger - to provide
assistance to the CIA whenever possible."
Bernstein's former employer, the Washington
Post, was also useful to the CIA; Bernstein quoted a CIA official
as saying of the Post's late owner and publisher, "It was
widely known that Phil Graham was somebody you could get help
Descendants of these publishers still
run their respective papers, and the attitude that they have an
obligation to provide covert help to the CIA persists to the present
era. In 1988, Post owner Katharine Graham, Phil's widow, gave
a speech at the CIA's Langley, Va. headquarters. "We live
in a dirty and dangerous world," Graham told agency leaders.
"There are some things the general public does not need to
know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government
can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press
can decide whether to print what it knows."
Readers, in turn, can decide how much
faith to put in news outlets whose owners embrace such a philosophy.
and Third World
of Media OZ