Life of a Scandal

Life of a Scandal

In mid-October 1996, two months after the publication of Gary Webb’s series “Dark Alliance” in the San Jose Mercury News, an extraordinary town meeting took place in Compton, California, o


In mid-October 1996, two months after the publication of Gary Webb’s series “Dark Alliance” in the San Jose Mercury News, an extraordinary town meeting took place in Compton, California, one of the South Central neighborhoods of LA ravaged by the crack epidemic. A daylong series of panels, convened by Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald, examined many of the critical issues related to drug use and abuse–the human casualties of crack-related crime, gang operations, sentencing inequities, police corruption and, of course, the brewing CIA-contra-cocaine scandal.

One witness could not be physically present. The voice of “Freeway” Ricky Ross, serving life without parole for his activities as LA’s most renowned crack dealer in the eighties, was piped in over the loudspeakers. Ross, who received some of his coke from a Nicaraguan trafficker whom Webb identified as a CIA-backed contra, clearly had the sympathy of the 800 people who filled the audience. When he told Representative Millender-McDonald that Ronald Reagan and George Bush “deserve to be in jail with me,” the crowd cheered its approval.

The surreal nature of Ross’s participation in this forum–the man whom the Los Angeles Times once called “the one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles streets with mass-marketed cocaine” being hailed as a victim rather than the foremost victimizer–illustrates at least a temporary distortion in the debate over drug policy that Michael Massing attributes to the CIA-trafficking scandal. In this case, the focus and outrage of the audience was directed away from the criminal damage wrought by a member of the community and toward the amorphous specter of CIA and US government misconduct. Across the country, immediately following the publication of the “Dark Alliance” series, thousands of activists, community leaders and citizens vented their rage at the CIA’s “responsibility” for drugs flowing into the inner cities.

But the agenda of those who helped to expose this scandal was to highlight the government’s criminal abuse of power and gross distortion of social and political priorities during the cold war–not to find a solution to the scourge of drugs in our society. By suggesting that they constitute a “main school” of thought on drug reform, or even a “tendency” on the left, Massing is creating a straw-man argument–itself a diversion in the drug debate.

With one exception, the main writings and reports on the reprehensible merging of covert operations and drug trafficking during the CIA’s Third World wars have never offered prescriptions for drug policy. The Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, led by Senator John Kerry, documented government knowledge of and tolerance for drug smuggling under the guise of national security; Gary Webb’s book (drawn from his series) is a journalistic account of the CIA-backed contras, cocaine smuggling and corruption and competition among law-enforcement agencies in California; the Alexander Cockburn/Jeffrey St. Clair book, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, was about just what its title suggests.

Only Alfred McCoy, in his seminal work The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, concluded with policy analysis and recommendations to confront the crisis. Contrary to Massing’s argument that, for the CIA-crack “tendency,” “the solution consists in cracking down on producers, processors and smugglers,” McCoy writes: “Simply put, narcotics are major global commodities resistant to any attempt at localized suppression. As long as the demand for drugs in the cities of the First World continues to grow, Third World producers will find a way to supply their markets.” He agrees with Massing that legalization would expand drug use and abuse, particularly among teenagers. His “middle ground” solution, worth considering in the context of this discussion, is “regulation”–a combination of emphasizing (1) treatment and education to reduce demand, (2) short-term interdiction to reduce but not eliminate shipments bound for the United States, (3) multilateral efforts through the UN aimed at reducing global supply and (4) barring CIA protection of drug smugglers in the name of covert operations.

Likewise, the vast majority of political and social activists working on drug reform have not allowed the scandal to dominate their agenda or distort their priorities; rather, they have used it to increase public interest in reconsidering other aspects of the “war on drugs.” Even at the Compton meeting, the CIA debate helped draw attention to issues like drug-related violence that might not otherwise have received such scrutiny. In the aftermath of the scandal, the Institute for Policy Studies created a Citizens’ Fact-finding Commission on US Drug Policy. Its first meeting, held in Los Angeles in May, covered everything from the CIA-crack scandal to the social costs of the drug war and how the drug economy functions, and examined policy alternatives such as harm reduction. And when the Congressional Black Caucus, chaired by Representative Maxine Waters, drew up its agenda last year, the goal of “investigating allegations of involvement in drug trafficking by intelligence agencies” was the last of six CBC objectives, including:

§ Increase funding for drug prevention, treatment and education for at-risk communities.

§ Refocus federal resources to target and punish large-scale drug smugglers, suppliers and distributors.

§ Propose enhanced sentences for law-enforcement personnel convicted of drug-related offenses.

§ Organize town-hall meetings, workshops and educational forums to take our drug-eradication message to communities across the nation.

§ Eliminate sentencing disparities.

The CIA-contra-crack scandal remains a salient issue of history and accountability–one that will not be fully laid to rest until Congress bars the CIA from secretly putting traffickers on the US payroll. As a confidence-building measure with the public, the agency must also declassify all documentation on its sordid relations with drug traffickers posing as freedom fighters. Full disclosure, along with a concrete apology, would not be just an academic exercise. The lasting impact of this scandal is not that it distracted the left from engaging in the drug policy reform debate but that, throughout the communities most affected by the horrors of drug abuse, it has reinforced cynicism and skepticism about the willingness of the US government to address this issue credibly and fulfill its responsibility to protect our citizens from true threats to their security and well-being.

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