WASHINGTON -- According to a former aide, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has long been drawn toward conspiracy theories. Eric Dondero, who served Paul off and on from 1987 to 2003, wrote recently that the Texas Republican suspected that George W. Bush may have had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and that Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance about Pearl Harbor. Paul's writings and speeches spotlight a host of other plots, including the "war on Christmas."
But just because not all of Paul's theories are backed by good evidence doesn't mean none of them are.
In 1988, while running for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, he highlighted yet another conspiracy theory, and this one doesn't collapse under investigation: The CIA, Paul told a gathering of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was involved in trafficking drugs as part of the Iran-Contra debacle.
Drug trafficking is "a gold mine for people who want to raise money in the underground government in order to finance projects that they can't get legitimately. It is very clear that the CIA has been very much involved with drug dealings," Paul said. "The CIA was very much involved in the Iran-Contra scandals. I'm not making up the stories; we saw it on television. They were hauling down weapons and drugs back. And the CIA and government officials were closing their eyes, fighting a war that was technically illegal."
Earlier this week, I looked into Paul's claim in the same speech that the war on drugs had racist origins and that the medical community played a role in lobbying for drug prohibitions. That charge was more or less accurate.
So is Paul's claim about the CIA and drug trafficking, a connection I explore in the book "This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America." (An excerpt of the chapter on the CIA appeared in The Root.) The following is drawn from my book.
Since at least the 1940s, the American government has organized and supported insurgent armies for the purpose of overthrowing some presumably hostile foreign regime. In Italy, the United States helped pit the Corsican and Sicilian mobs against the Fascists and then the Communists. In China, it aided Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang in its struggle against Mao Zedong's communist forces. In Afghanistan, it once backed the mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet Union and today backs warlords in opposition to the mujahedeen.
All of these and other U.S.-supported groups profited, or still profit, heavily from the drug trade. One of the principal arguments made by the Drug Enforcement Administration in support of the global drug war is that the illegal drug trade funds violent, stateless organizations. The DEA refers specifically to al Qaeda and the Taliban, but the same method of fundraising has long been used by other violent, stateless actors whom the United States befriended.
AN 'UNCOMFORTABLE' STORY
Douglas Farah was in El Salvador when the San Jose Mercury News broke a major story in the summer of 1996: The Nicaraguan Contras, a confederation of paramilitary rebels sponsored by the CIA, had been funding some of their operations by exporting cocaine to the United States. One of their best customers was a man nicknamed "Freeway Rick" -- Ricky Donnell Ross, then a Southern California dealer who was running an operation the Los Angeles Times dubbed "the Wal-Mart of crack dealing."
"My first thought was, 'Holy shit!' because there'd been so many rumors in the region of this going on," said Farah 12 years later. He'd grown up in Latin America and covered it for 20 years for the Washington Post. "There had always been these stories floating around about [the Contras] and cocaine. I knew [Contra leader] Adolfo Calero and some of the other folks there, and they were all sleazebags. You wouldn't read the story and say, 'Oh my god, these guys would never do that.' It was more like, 'Oh, one more dirty thing they were doing.' So I took it seriously."
The same would not hold true of most of Farah's colleagues, either in the newspaper business in general or at the Post in particular. "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 when you're an establishment paper like the Post," Farah told me. "If you were going to be directly rubbing up against the government, they wanted it more solid than it could probably ever be done."
In the mid to late 1980s, a number of reports had surfaced that connected the Contras to the cocaine trade. The first was by Associated Press scribes Brian Barger and Robert Parry, who published a story in December 1985 that began, "Nicaraguan rebels operating in northern Costa Rica have engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist government, according to U.S. investigators and American volunteers who work with the rebels."
Only a few outlets followed Barger and Parry's lead, including the San Francisco Examiner and the lefty magazine In These Times, which both published similar stories in 1986, and CBS's "West 57th" TV series, which did a segment in 1987. A Nexis search of the year following Barger and Parry's revelation turned up a total of only four stories containing the terms "Contras" and "cocaine," one of them a denial of the accusation from a Contra spokesperson. Stories popped up here and there over the next decade, but many of them made only oblique reference to a couldn't-possibly-be-true conspiracy theory.
Then came the San Jose Mercury News article, a 20,000-word three-parter by Pulitzer Prize-winning staffer Gary Webb, published under the headline "Dark Alliance." "For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found," the story began.
The series initially received little attention from major media outlets, but it was eventually spread across the nation by the Internet and black talk radio. The latter put its own spin on the tale: that the U.S. government had deliberately spread crack to African-American neighborhoods to quell unruly residents. The Post newsroom was bombarded with phone calls asking why it was ignoring the story, the paper's ombudsman later reported.
In response, the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times would all weigh in with multiple articles claiming that Webb's assertions were bunk. His career was effectively ruined, and even his own paper eventually disavowed "Dark Alliance," despite having given it a cutting-edge online presentation complete with document transcriptions and audio recordings.
The big papers had been pushing their same line for years. In 1987, New York Times reporter Keith Schneider had dismissed out of hand a lawsuit filed by a liberal group charging that the Contras were funding their operations with drug money. "Other investigators, including reporters from major news organizations, have tried without success to find proof of aspects of the case," he wrote, "particularly the allegations that military supplies for the contras may have been paid for with profits from drug trafficking."
In These Times later asked Schneider why he'd rejected the Contra-coke connection. He was trying to avoid "shatter[ing] the Republic," he said. "I think it is so damaging, the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we could amass."
The American republic, of course, is an idea as much as it is a reality. That idea is of a nation founded on freedom and dedicated to the progress of human rights around the globe. It's most certainly not of a country that aids the underground drug trade -- even if it does.
WHAT DRUG RUNNERS DO
If Webb didn't have ironclad proof that the CIA had knowingly done just that, he did, as one Senate investigator later noted, have "a strong circumstantial case that Contra officials who were paid by the CIA knew about [drug smuggling] and looked the other way." He based his series on court records and interviews with key drug-runners. One of them, Danilo Blandón, was once described by Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O'Neale as "the biggest Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in the United States."
Webb had been unable to persuade Blandón to talk, but the cocaine dealer testified at a trial shortly before "Dark Alliance" came out. Blandón wasn't on trial himself, wasn't facing any jail time, and was in fact being paid by the U.S. government to act as an informant. In other words, he had no obvious incentive to lie to make the United States look bad. Nevertheless, in sworn testimony, he said that in 1981 alone, his drug operation sold almost a ton of cocaine in the United States and that "whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution."
Blandón's boss in the operation was Norwin Meneses, the head of political operations and U.S. fundraising for the Contras. Meneses was known as "Rey de la Droga" -- King of Drugs -- and had been under active investigation by the U.S. government since the early '70s as the Cali cocaine cartel's top representative in Nicaragua. The DEA considered him a major trafficker, and he had been implicated in 45 separate federal investigations, Webb discovered through government documents. Regardless, Meneses had never served any time in federal prison and lived openly in his San Francisco home.
In 1981, Blandón testified, he and Meneses had traveled to Honduras to meet Col. Enrique Bermúdez, the military leader of the Contra army and a full-time CIA employee. "While Blandon says Bermudez didn't know cocaine would be the fund-raising device they used," Webb wrote, "the presence of the mysterious Mr. Meneses strongly suggests otherwise." The reporter drew on court documents and government records to show that anyone involved in or familiar with the drug world at the time knew exactly how Meneses went about raising revenue.
Blandón sold the Contras' product to Ross for prices well below what other dealers could command, allowing him to expand his business throughout Los Angeles, then to Texas, Ohio and beyond. Ross told Webb that he owed his rise to Blandón and his cheap coke. ''I'm not saying I wouldn't have been a dope dealer without Danilo,'' Ross said. ''But I wouldn't have been Freeway Rick.''
Farah, the Washington Post reporter, said that his reporting on Webb's trail led to one of the biggest battles of his career. "There were maybe, in my 20 years at the Post, two or three stories out of however many hundreds or thousands I wrote where I had this kind of problem, and this was one of them. I wasn't in general in confrontation with my editors but ... this thing was weird and I knew it was weird," he said. "I did have a long and dispiriting fight with the editors at the Post because they wanted to say ultimately -- their basic take was that I was dealing with a bunch of liars, so it was one person's word against another person's word, and therefore you couldn't tell the truth. But it was pretty clear to me."
The official government response was provided to Post national security reporter Walter Pincus, who had at one time served in the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps. "One of my big fights on this was with Pincus," Farah remembered, "and my disadvantage was that I was in Managua and he was sitting in on the story meetings and talking directly to the editors. And we had a disagreement over the validity of what I was finding. At the time, I didn't realize he had been an agency employee for awhile. That might have helped me understand what was going on there a bit."
Pincus, who said that his involvement with the CIA several decades before is overblown, recalled the developing story differently. "To be honest, I can't remember talking to Doug at the time," he said. "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 said that Webb's core story about the Contras and cocaine didn't resonate not because it didn't have any truth to it, but because it was obviously true. "This is a problem that came up -- it's probably a question of how long you cover these things," he said. "It came up during the Vietnam War, where the U.S. was dealing with the Hmong tribes in Laos and some of the people that were flying airplanes that the agency was using were also [running] drugs."
Through his reporting, Farah concluded, he'd confirmed the greater part of Webb's story. "The Contra-drug stuff, I think, was there," Farah said. "Largely, I think it [Webb's story] was right."
THE MEDIA ONSLAUGHT
The editorial cuts and pushback, however, discouraged Farah from pursuing a further investigation into the Contras' drug-running history. "I was really sort of disappointed at how things had run there at the Post on that story, and there wasn't much incentive to go forward after that," said Farah. (The Post's top editor at the time, Leonard Downie, told me that he didn't remember the incident well enough to comment on it.)
Although Pincus said that he didn't have any role in neutering and burying Farah's story, he did say that he sympathized with his fellow reporter. "I was writing about there being no weapons in Iraq, and it was put in the back of the paper," Pincus said. "I've been through the same thing."
The Washington Post, like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, published a massive package dedicated to debunking Webb's story. When a congressional investigation later confirmed the major elements of Webb's reporting, the papers barely covered it. (I go into the media attack in more detail in the book.)
In the face of the media onslaught, Webb's editor retracted the story. Webb was demoted and sent to a dustbin bureau 150 miles from San Jose. He resigned after settling an arbitration claim and went to work for a small alt-weekly. Over the next several years, his marriage fell apart and his wages were garnished for child support. On Dec. 10, 2004, Webb was discovered dead, shot twice in the head with his father's .38. The local coroner declared the death a suicide.
Obituaries in the major papers referenced his "discredited" series. The Los Angeles Times obit recalled his "widely criticized series linking the CIA to the explosion of crack cocaine in Los Angeles," noting that "[m]ajor newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, wrote reports discrediting elements of Webb's reporting." The New York Times ran a five-paragraph Reuters obit that began, "Gary Webb, a reporter who won national attention with a series of articles, later discredited." The obit continued, "The articles led to calls in Congress for an investigation, but major newspapers discredited parts of Mr. Webb's work." It made no mention of the fact that those calls for an investigation were heeded and that the investigation confirmed a great deal of Webb's reporting.
The headline "Web of Deception" ran atop Howard Kurtz's story in the Washington Post. "There was a time when Gary Webb was at the center of a huge, racially charged national controversy. That was eight years ago, and it turned out badly for him," Kurtz wrote. "The lesson," he concluded, "is that just because a news outlet makes sensational charges doesn't make them true, and just because the rest of the media challenge the charges doesn't make them part of some cover-up."
Reading the obituaries at the time, Farah recalled, was dispiriting. "Everybody, especially in the news business when you're working fast, makes mistakes," he said. "But I don't think that should stand as the final word on what he did."
Kurtz, however, stands by what he wrote then. "Of course it's very sad what happened to [Gary Webb] in the end, but I just did some basic reporting on him," Kurtz said. "I wasn't going out on a limb."