DID THE CIA PLAY A ROLE IN launching the crack-cocaine epidemic? A powerful series by investigative reporter Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News says the answer may be yes--and the charge, reviving old rumors about the agency's complicity in cocaine smuggling during the Reagan administration's covert war in Nicaragua, has some African-American leaders ready to carpet-bomb Langley. ""I think it is unconscionable that the intelligence community or the CIA could think so little of people of color that they would be willing to destroy generations in an effort to try to win the war in Nicaragua,'' Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters told The Christian Science Monitor last week. Minister Louis Farrakhan's weekly paper, The Final Call, went further. HOW THE U.S. GOVERNMENT SPREAD CRACK COCAINE IN THE BLACK GHETTO, a recent headline said.
Behind the uproar is a three-part series, ""Dark Alliance,'' that appeared in the Mercury News in mid-August. In it, reporter Webb, a 40-year-old investigative specialist, traces the story of a notorious Los Angeles drug dealer, ""Freeway Ricky'' Ross, who created one of South-Central's biggest crack-distribution rings in the early 1980s. As Webb tells it, Ross built his empire on an abundant supply of cheap cocaine provided by two Nicaraguan refugees, Oscar Danilo Blandon and Juan Norwin Meneses. Though Meneses denies it, Blandon said they trafficked in cocaine to raise money for the contra cause. According to the series, Blandon was ""the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California''--distributing thousands of kilos of Colombian cocaine to black dealers like Ricky Ross.
Enter the CIA, which at the strenuous urging of its director, the late William J. Casey, was covertly supporting the war in Nicaragua during the early '80s. That Casey was willing to flout the law is beyond dispute; his obsession with the Sandinistas later led to the Iran-contra scandal. Webb, citing an array of previously secret reports and sources, suggests that the CIA must have been aware of the Nicaraguan connection, which reportedly included shipments aboard Salvadoran Air Force planes to an unnamed U.S. Air Force base in Texas. But that is just his own supposition: Webb does not say anyone in the CIA actually knew about the Nicaraguans' cocaine trafficking or that any CIA operative actually took part.
So it comes down to those familiar questions: how much did the CIA know, and when did it know it? Black opinion leaders like Waters have mounted a furious campaign to force the agency to tell everything it knows. A panel discussion on the Mercury Newws series drew an overflow crowd at the Washington Convention Center on Sept. 12, and comedian Dick Gregory and NAACP board member Joseph Madison were arrested during a demonstration at CIA headquarters on Sept. 11. Madison, who hosts a radio talk show in Washington, says, ""I'm not dropping it. We're standing up for all the crack babies, all the innocent bystanders hit by stray bullets during gang-related warfare over this poisonous white powder.'' With support from others in the House and Senate, Waters has demanded a congressional investigation of the Mercury News's report--and last week she said House Speaker Newt Gingrich has promised that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence will delve into the issue.
There is a further twist. A decade after he allegedly retired from the crack business, Ricky Ross was set up by a DEA informant--Danilo Blandon. Ross now faces life in prison while Blandon, who served 26 months in jail for his own career in drug trafficking, is now at liberty in Managua. Ross's sentencing has been delayed pending his attorney's demand for more information about Blandon's association with the CIA. CIA Director John Deutch, meanwhile, has ordered his inspector general to file a report on the subject within 60 days. The findings will be required reading for anyone concerned by the rise of crack, but given the CIA's habit of burying its own past, undoubtedly not the final word.