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The CIA And Drugs

by Alexander Cockburn

CIA knew from the start that the Contras were planning to smuggle cocaine into the United States
Just under two years ago, John Deutch, at that time director of the CIA, traveled to a town meeting in South Central Los Angeles to confront a community outraged by charges that the agency had been complicit in the importing of cocaine into California in the 1980s. Amid heated exchanges, Deutch publicly pledged an internal investigation by the CIA's inspector general that would leave no stone unturned.

It is now possible to review, albeit in substantially censored form, the results of that probe. At the start of this year, the inspector general, Fred Hitz, released a volume specifically addressing charges made in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News. Earlier this month, Hitz finally made available for public scrutiny a second report addressing broader allegations about drug running by Nicaraguan Contras.

That first volume released 10 months ago was replete with damaging admissions. Two examples: The report describes a cable from the CIA's directorate of operations dated Oct. 22, 1982, describing a prospective meeting between Contra leaders in Costa Rica for "an exchange in (US) of narcotics for arms." The CIA's directorate instructed the agency's field office not to look into this imminent arms-for-drugs transaction "in light of the apparent involvement of U.S. persons throughout." In other words, the CIA knew that Contra leaders were scheduling a drugs-for-arms exchange, and the agency was prepared to let the deal proceed.

The inspector general also disclosed that in 1984, the CIA intervened with the U.S. Justice Department to seek the return from police custody of $36,800 in cash that had been confiscated from a Nicaraguan drug-smuggling gang in the Bay Area whose leader, Norwin Menesses, was a prominent Contra fund-raiser. The money had been taken during what was at the time the largest seizure of cocaine in the history of California.

The CIA's inspector general said the agency took action to have the money returned in order "to protect an operational equity, i.e., a Contra support group in which it (the CIA) had an operational interest." Hitz also unearthed a CIA memo from that time revealing that the agency understood the need to keep this whole affair under wraps because, according to the memo (written by the CIA's assistant general counsel), "there are sufficient factual details which would cause certain damage to our image and program in Central America."

The 146-page first volume is full of admissions of this nature, but these two disclosures alone -- allowing a Contra drug deal to go forward and taking extraordinary action to recoup the proceeds of a drug deal gone awry -- should have been greeted as smoking guns, confirming charges made since 1985 about the agency's role.

The report issued by Hitz a few weeks ago is even richer in devastating disclosures. The inspector general sets forth a sequence of CIA cable traffic showing that as early as the summer of 1981, the agency knew that the Contra leadership "had decided to engage in drug trafficking to the United States to raise funds for its activities."

The leader of the group whose plans a CIA officer was thus describing was Enrique Bermudez, a man handpicked by the agency to run the military operations of the main Contra organization. It was Bermudez who told Contra fund-raisers and drug traffickers Norwin Menesses and Danilo Blandon (as the latter subsequently testified for the government to a federal grand jury) that the end justified the means and they should raise revenue in this manner.

The CIA was uneasily aware that its failure to advise the Contras to stop drug trafficking might land it in difficulties. Hitz documents the fact that the agency knew it should report Contra plans to run drugs to the Justice Department and other agencies such as FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs. Nonetheless, the CIA kept quiet and in 1982 got a waiver from the Justice Department giving a legal basis for its inaction.

Hitz enumerates the Contra leaders ("several dozen") the CIA knew to be involved in drug trafficking, along with another two dozen involved in Contra supply missions and fund raising. He confirms that the CIA knew Ilopango Air Force Base in El Salvador was an arms-for-drugs Contra transhipment point and discloses a memo in which a CIA officer orders the DEA "not to make any inquiries to anyone re Hanger No. 4 at Ilopango."

Thus, the CIA's own inspector general shows that from the very start of the U.S. war on Nicaragua, the CIA knew the Contras were planning to smuggle cocaine into the United States. It did nothing to stop the traffic, and when other government agencies began to probe, the CIA impeded their investigations. When Contra money raisers were arrested, the agency came to their aid and retrieved their drug money from the police.

So, was the agency complicit in drug trafficking into Los Angeles and other cities? It is impossible to read Hitz's report and not conclude that this was the case.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor November 9, 1998 (

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