“This has been the most extensive investigation ever undertaken by the Inspector General's office [in the CIA], requiring the review of about 250,000 pages of documents and interviews with over 365 individuals. I am satisfied that the IG has left no stone unturned in his efforts to uncover their truth. “I must admit that my colleagues and I are very concerned that the allegations made have left an indelible impression in many Americans' minds that the CIA was somehow responsible for the scourge of drugs in our inner cities. Unfortunately, no investigation — no matter how exhaustive — will completely erase that false impression or undo the damage that has been done. That is one of the most unfortunate aspects of all of this.”
Thus runs the introductory statement by CIA director George Tenet to the long-awaited report of CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz, “Report of Investigation: Allegations of Connections between CIA and the Contras in Cocaine Trafficking to the United States. Volume I: The California Story,” finally released on January 29 of this year.
It's been 18 months since Gary Webb published his series “Dark Alliance” in the San Jose Mercury News, detailing how Contra fundraisers Norwin Menesses and Oscar Danilo Blandon shipped cocaine in Los Angeles, under the eyes of a complaisant CIA. On September 3, 1996, within a month of the publication of Webb's series, then CIA director John Deutch pledged that the Agency's Inspector General would conduct an internal review and place the facts instantly before the American people “because of the seriousness of the allegations and the need to resolve definitely any questions in this area.”
Over the intervening months, we've detailed the Agency's evasive behavior after this pledge and the cursory nature of the investigation. Now we have the part of the final report covering Webb's charges. After careful review we are happy to report to AVA readers the amazing news that at taxpayers' expense the Inspector General has published an astoundingly devious document designed to exonerate the Agency, evade all inconvenient questions and skate lightly over all incriminating facts.
But since, as Tenet concedes in his mournful preface, most people believe that the Agency has played its part in the drug scourge, we should note here that the belief is entirely correct, and the CIA's denials entirely disingenuous. Indeed careful scrutiny of the report elicits damaging concessions made by the IG himself. First the IG's conclusions, which are that: The drug-running activities of Blandon and Menesses “were not motivated by any commitment to support the Contra cause or Contra activities undertaken by the CIA.”
At most, Blandon contributed $40,000 and Menesses $3,000 to the Contras “although no information has been found to substantiate these claims.” “No employee of the CIA, or anyone acting on behalf of the CIA, had any direct or indirect dealing with Ricky Ross [the South-Central crack king of Los Angeles who got his cocaine from Menesses and Blandon], Oscar Danilo Blandon or Norwin Menesses.”
The CIA played an inconsequential role in the return of $36,800 seized in a San Francisco Police raid on members of the Menesses drug ring. “The decision to return Zavala's money was based on other considerations, not CIA representations.”
The evidence buttressing the charge that Menesses and Blandon were running drugs to help the Contra cause lies in the direct ties of the two Nicaraguans to the Contra leadership. As Webb first reported, Blandon testified in federal court that he and Menesses had met with Contra military leader Enrique Bermudez in Honduras and that Bermudez had told them that Contra movement was in desperate need of money and that “the ends justified the means.” In the same testimony Blandon described how, following the meeting with Bermudez, he and Menesses (known to Bermudez as the leading cocaine dealer in Nicaragua in the 1970s) had started wholesaling cocaine into California.
The CIA report also furnishes new details of the close rapport between Blandon and Eden Pastora, a Contra leader ultimately at odds with Bermudez and the main CIA-created organization, the FDN. At a time when all of Blandon's income was coming from his drug dealing, he permitted Pastora to live — in the words of the IG report — “rent free in one of his homes in Costa Rica from 1984 to 1987.” Blandon gave Pastora thousands of dollars in cash in 1985 and two trucks in 1986. Blandon is quoted in the IG report as saying, “Pastora always asked everyone he came in contact with to raise money for the Contra cause.”
The methodology of the IG's report can be gauged by the way it arrives at those precise amounts of money Blandon and Menesses gave to the Contras. The figures ($40,000 for Blandon and $3,000 for Menesses) are based entirely upon the self-interested assertions of the two, when questioned by the IG's team. Gary Webb used the word “millions” but was mercilessly trashed by his assailants in the press for doing so. But he was right. As L.J. O'Neale conceded in an interview with detectives from the Los Angeles sheriff's office, (in statements designed to reduce Blandon from the stature of being what O'Neale had once described as “the largest Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in the United States”), Blandon had dealt 40 kilos of cocaine into Los Angeles in 1992 alone, which was worth $2 million.
The CIA passes in silence over O'Neale, and Blandon's own sworn testimony as a government witness in a U.S. trial, and presents as reliable testimony what Blandon and Menesses find it convenient to say today. Why would Blandon, now dealing in tropical lumber in Managua, want to admit anything? The CIA's willful credulity on what Menesses, now in prison in Managua, tells them is even more ludicrous. Meneses claims he never dealt drugs, was a merely “personnel recruiter for the Contras,” and donated only $3,000 in small amounts of between $50 and $100. Meneses also calls Blandon a liar.
As for the IG's categorical assertion that no CIA employee or representative ever dealt with Rick Ross, Blandon or Menesses, one can note first that no one has ever asserted any such dealings with Ross. But of course Pastora and Bermudez were both on the CIA payroll, Norwin Menesses' older brother Luis Enrique was a military commander of the FDN working under Bermudez. Luis was arrested in 1991 with Norwin in Managua in a 700 kilo cocaine bust. The $36,800 returned to the Menesses drug ring came in the aftermath of a famous drug bust on the San Francisco waterfront called “the frogman case,” when the DEA captured Menesses' men unloading 200 kilos of cocaine. The raiding party confiscated $36,800 discovered in the nightstand next to the bed of one of Menesses' subordinates, Zavala. Zavala claimed the money was intended for the Contras. The CIA went to bat on his behalf. There is a memo in the CIA file, quoted in the IG report, that says “At OGC [the CIA's Office of General Counsel] request, the U.S. Attorney has agreed to return the money to Zavala.” Then, in the IG report, comes the smoking gun. The CIA says the money should be returned “to protect an operational equity, i.e. a Contra support group in which it [the CIA] had an operational interest.” An August 22, 1984 CIA memo also quoted in the IG reports the need for secrecy. The memo is under the name of Lee S. Strickland, at that time the CIA's assistant counsel in the OGC. The memo says, “I believe the station must be made aware of the potential for disaster.
While the allegations [i.e., drugs for Contra guns] might be entirely false, there are sufficient factual details which would cause certain damage to our image and program in Central America.” How does the IG report get round this? It blandly quotes Strickland as saying “he had no recollection” of the entire matter. Even so, Strickland said the return of $36,800 worth of drug money intended for the Contras was “not a big deal.” As for the incriminating memos, Strickland is quoted in the IG report as saying that if he did write them, they were “inartfully worded.”
The inspector General's report divulges to the attentive reader a CIA cable written on October 22, 1982 which reports that Contra leaders were meeting in Costa Rica for “an exchange in (the U.S.) of narcotics for arms.” The parenthesis is the IG's. CIA agents were instructed by their superiors not to look into this arms-for-drugs transaction “in light of the apparent involvement of U.S. persons throughout, agree you should not pursue the matter further.”
And how today does the IG deal with the memo? He seizes the tail trailed by the memo writer and says that the CIA quite properly took no action (such as alerting the DEA) because to have done so would have been to infringe the prohibition against domestic activities by the Central Intelligence Agency.