Snow Job:
Establishment Newspapers Do Damage Control for the CIA

by Norman Solomon

from book

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 [1996] 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 enterprise."

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 [1996] 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 inner cities."

Suspect Sources

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 suspects."

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.

Whose Army?

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 was involved."

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.

Dubious Debunkings

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 L.A."

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.

Evidence Ignored

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 thereafter."

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 answer themselves."

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 accordingly."

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 from."

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.


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