Over at The Root, you can read an excerpt of my colleague, Ryan Grim's book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History Of Getting High In America. A particularly juicy one, at that: the incredible true story of two newspapers, sparring over the story of Nicaraguan Contras, inner-city drug dealers, and the way the whole thing eventually evolved into a tidy little tale of a "victimized" black community, under the thrall of paranoia.
Most people experienced the journalism this way: The San Jose Mercury News broke open "the story of the connection between L.A. crack dealers and the U.S.-funded Nicaraguan Contras." A month later, the Washington Post tore the Mercury News up. Grim says, "The Washington Post, while it launched its assault on the Mercury News, had facts at its disposal demonstrating that the story was accurate." And he goes on to document a fascinating internal struggle at the Post, between reporter Douglas Farah, on the ground in Nicaragua, and the DC-based National Security Reporter Walter Pincus:
Pincus says he didn't actually disagree with Webb's thesis--that the Contras were running drugs--but rather objected to the idea that the CIA was running drugs. Webb had reported, rather, that the Contras were a CIA-backed army but didn't pin the trafficking on them directly. "To me, it was no great shock that some of the people the agency was dealing with were also drug dealers. But the idea that the agency was then running the drug program was totally different."
Pincus' front-page piece ran at more than 4,000 words and was headlined, "CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking of Contra-Tied Plot." The evidence, in fact, was not lacking. It was on the editing room floor. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times would also weigh in with stories purporting to debunk Webb's scoop, but only the Post, as far as I know, did so with independent evidence that backed him up.
And here's the thing: to everyone who despairs of the seemingly too-close cocktail connections between DC journos and the corridors of power, you're going to recognize this story. Pincus had "flirted with joining the CIA and who is routinely accused of having been an undercover asset in the '50s." And while Pincus maintains that the cloak-and-dagger rumors were "overblown," Farah talks about it in pretty clear terms: "At the time, I didn't realize he had been an agency employee for a while. That might have helped me understand what was going on there a bit."
"If you're talking about our intelligence community tolerating--if not promoting--drugs to pay for black ops, it's rather an uncomfortable thing to do [report on] when you're an establishment paper like the Post," Farah says. "If you were going to be directly rubbing up against the government, they wanted it more solid than it could probably ever be done."
Farah, by the way? He now works for the Department of Homeland Security as a consultant on drug policy. Circle of life.
Black, Paranoid and Absolutely Right [The Root]
[DC readers can talk to author Ryan Grim about the book tonight at Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St, NW, starting at 6:30pm. Chances are, he won't be holding, but it never hurts to ask!]