“The Dark Alliance” Declassified
In 1996 San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published an explosive three-part series, “The Dark Alliance”, on the connection between the genesis of the crack cocaine epidemic in California and across the U.S., to the contras, the CIA-run and Reagan-backed guerrilla army operating out of Nicaragua. The firestorm surrounding Webb’s controversial series prompted outrage among African American communities hard hit by the epidemic, attempts by the media to discredit Webb, three federal investigations, and inspired the recent Hollywood “newsroom thriller” Kill the Messenger.
In 1998 the National Security Archive – in its second ever Electronic Briefing Book – posted a collection of declassified documents obtained through the FOIA concerning the meat of Webb’s reporting: that there was official U.S. knowledge of, and collusion with, known drug traffickers connected to the contras. The documents include handwritten notes by National Security Council staffer Oliver North showing North unequivocally knew money being used to fund the contras was drug money, and the Kerry Committee Report, which found in 1989 that “senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.”
The Archive obtained Oliver North’s hand-written notebooks through a FOIA lawsuit in 1989. North, who helped run the contra war and other Reagan administration covert operations, recorded in them that he was repeatedly informed of the contras’ drug ties. A July 12, 1985, entry in North’s notebook, for example, details a call from retired Air Force general Richard Secord. North and Secord discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the contras planned to purchase weapons. According to the notebook, Secord told North that “14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs.”
In a later August 9, 1985, entry North summarized a meeting with his contras liaison, Robert “Rob” Owen. They discussed a plane used by the brother of the head of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) to transport supplies from New Orleans to contras in Honduras. North writes: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.” North later asserted that he passed this information on to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), but the Washington Post’s Lorraine Adams reported in October 22, 1994, that there are no records that corroborate this.
It’s also worth nothing that the CIA sought to protect a Honduran “asset”– who was “convicted of conspiracy to smuggle $40 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. to finance the assassination of the president of Honduras – from a lengthy prison sentence for fear he might spill the beans on covert operations”.
A December 20, 1985, Associated Press article reporting that three contra groups “have engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua” prompted the Kerry Committee Report, the first federal report “to document U.S. knowledge of, and tolerance for, drug smuggling under the guise of national security.” As the Archive’s Peter Kornbluh reported, “Dramatic as it was, that story almost didn’t run, because of pressure by Reagan administration officials.” The 1,166-page Kerry Report, released in 1989, exposed Oliver North’s illegal activities and found “the Contra drug links included…payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.”
A specific incident investigated by the Kerry Committee and highlighted in the Archive’s 1998 posting was the July 28, 1988, testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime by two DEA agents regarding a sting operation conducted against the Medellin Cartel. The two agents said that in 1985 Oliver North had wanted to take $1.5 million in Cartel bribe money that was carried by a DEA informant and give it to the contras. The DEA rejected the idea.
On the other hand, the federal investigations initiated after “Dark Alliance’s” publication – some years after the completion of the Kerry Report – failed to support Webb’s more scandalous findings. An investigation into the CIA by the House Intelligence Committee found no evidence “that anyone associated with the CIA or other intelligence agencies was involved in supplying or selling drugs in Los Angeles”. A CIA inspector general investigation similarly found no evidence to support claims that drug trafficking was “motivated by any commitment to support the Contra cause or Contra activities undertaken by CIA”, and a Justice Department inspector general investigation found that “the allegations contained in the original Mercury News articles were exaggerations of the actual facts.”
Webb’s reporting did, however, generate an unprecedented visit by the director of the CIA, John Deutch, to a November 1996 town hall meeting in Watts, Los Angeles, to discuss the drug/contra scandal. As Kornbluh notes in his 1996 commentary for the Los Angeles Times, the trip was an opportunity to commit the CIA to a “process of disclosure and accountability that is necessary to lay the scandal to rest.”
Considering North’s records and the findings of the Kerry Report, the CIA likely got off lightly in the “Dark Alliance” investigations. This makes the CIA’s recent declassification of the Studies in Intelligence article, “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story”, all the more vexing. The article highlights the agency’s willingness to capitalize on media rivalries to help bury the larger truth about the agency’s documented relationship with drug traffickers — not exactly the type of disclosure and accountability Kornbluh had in mind.
While the federal investigations prompted by “The Dark Alliance” didn’t substantiate the series’ claims, declassified documents and the Kerry Report decidedly demonstrate U.S. knowledge of collaboration with known drug traffickers worthy of Hollywood’s spotlight.