AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2005

The CIA and Drug Trafficking   

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

While federal investigations of the charges in "Dark Alliance" found no evidence that the CIA supplied or sold drugs in Los Angeles, they discovered the agency had withheld information about crimes by its contra allies from the Justice Department and Congress, and had recruited drug traffickers to run an undeclared war that took precedence over law enforcement. The CIA had one overriding priority: to oust Nicaragua's socialist Sandinista government, the agency's inspector general reported. "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."

"Dark Alliance" forced the CIA to admit its ties to drug dealers; that admission is the debt the nation owes Gary Webb, says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with George Washington University's National Security Archive. Despite its flaws, the series provoked one of the agency's most extensive internal investigations, confirming many of the findings of a 1988 Senate Foreign Relations Committee study that noted "serious questions as to whether or not U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua."

Webb chose the right "big picture" issue, says Jack Blum, former special counsel to the foreign relations committee. But he got many of the details "completely wrong." Seven years after Blum and the committee tried repeatedly--and with little success--to focus attention on the CIA and drug dealing, "Dark Alliance" appeared and "suddenly here was complete vindication as a result of Gary Webb getting it wrong," Blum says. "Which is really quite ironic."

The findings the CIA inspector general published in the fall of 1998 were reported on the inside pages of the Washington Post and New York Times. They include:

CIA officials, so focused on winning the war, ignored collecting information about possible contra drug dealing.

The agency continued to work with dozens of contras and their supporters, despite allegations they were trafficking drugs. The CIA knew about 58 contras allegedly involved in drug trafficking, including 14 pilots and two others in the CIA-backed air transportation program.

In response to hundreds of drug allegations involving contras and their supporters contained in nearly 1,000 cables sent from the field to its Washington headquarters, the CIA did little or nothing to investigate.

CIA officials instructed Drug Enforcement Administration officials to hold back on looking into charges involving alleged drug dealers connected with the contras.

The CIA failed to inform Congress of all allegations or information it received indicating a relationship between drug traffickers and the contras.

--Susan Paterno