Congress will shortly have to decide whether to bury or deal with explosive new revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency protected major drug traffickers who aided the Contra army in Central America. These new findings go far beyond the original stories which gave rise to them by Gary Webb in 1996.
Webb had alleged that cocaine from two Contra-supporting traffickers, Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon, had helped fuel the national crack epidemic. The resulting political firestorm brought promises of a full investigation. After an unprecedented review of internal CIA and Justice Department files, three massive reports, totaling almost 1,000 pages, were released by the inspectors general of the CIA (Fred Hitz) and Justice Department (Michael Bromwich).
The new revelations confirmed many of Webbs claims. Meneses and Blandon were admitted to have been (despite previous press denials) "significant traffickers who also supported, to some extent, the Contras." For years they escaped prosecution, until after support for the Contras ended.
Meanwhile the reports opened the doors on worse scandals. According to the reports, the CIA made conscious use of major traffickers as agents, contractors and assets. It maintained good relations with Contras it knew to be working with drug traffickers. It protected traffickers which the Justice Department was trying to prosecute, sometimes by suppressing or denying the existence of information.
This protection extended to major Drug Enforcement Agency targets considered to be among the top smugglers of cocaine into this country. Perhaps the most egregious example is that of the Honduran trafficker Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros. Matta had been identified by the DEA in 1985 as the most important member of a consortium moving a major share (perhaps a third, perhaps more than half) of all the cocaine from Colombia to the United States. The DEA also knew that Matta was behind the kidnapping of a DEA agent in Mexico, Enrique Camarena, who was subsequently tortured and murdered.
A public enemy? Yes. But Matta was also an ally of the CIA. Mattas airline, SETCO, was recorded in U.S. files as a drug-smuggling airline. It was also the chief airline with which the CIA contracted to fly supplies to the Contra camps in Honduras. When the local DEA office began to move against Matta in 1983, it was shut down. Though Mattas whereabouts were well- known, the United States did not arrest and extradite him until 1988, a few days after Congress ended support for the Contras.
At Mattas first drug trial, a U.S. attorney described him as "on the level of the top 10 Colombian drug traffickers." We now learn from the CIA Hitz reports that, in the same year, 1989, CIA officials reported falsely, in response to an inquiry from Justice, that in CIA files "There are no records of a SETCO Air." CIA officers appear also to have lied to Hitzs investigators about who said this.
There appears to have been a broad pattern of withholding information from the Justice Department. For example, when Justice began to investigate the drug activities of two Contra supporters, CIA headquarters turned down proposals that CIA should interview the two men. The reason in one case was that such documentation would be "exactly the sort of thing the U.S. Attorneys Office will be investigating."
The House Committee on Intelligence received this information, and chose to deny it. According to a recent committee report, "There is no evidence . . . that CIA officers . . . ever concealed narcotics trafficking information or allegations involving the Contras."
Just as dishonestly, the committee found that "there is unambiguous reporting in the CIA materials reviewed showing that the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) leadership in Nicaragua would not accept drug monies and would remove from its ranks those who had involvement in drug trafficking." In fact, the Hitz reports contained a detailed account of drug-trafficking by members of the main FDN faction, the September 15th League (ADREN). Those named included the FDN chief of logistics. According to the Hitz Reports, "CIA also received allegations or information concerning drug trafficking by nine Contra-related individuals in the (FDN) Northern Front." This included credible information, corroborated elsewhere, against leaders such as Juan Ramon Rivas, the Northern Army chief of staff. Yet CIA support for the FDN continued, through a period when aid to any drug-tainted Contra organization was forbidden by statute.
In short, the House Committee Report is a dishonest cover-up of CIA wrong-doings, what one might expect from a committee chaired and staffed by former CIA officers.
As committee member Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-S.F., said in a hearing two years ago, "This is an issue of great concern in our community." Will she, and other like-minded representatives, repudiate this flimsy attempt to silence that concern with falsehoods?
The answer may depend on the voters: Will they object as strongly as before?