"By the end of September , the number of observed stories in the print media that indicated skepticism of the Mercury-News series surpassed that of the negative coverage, which had already peaked," the report said. "The observed number of skeptical treatments of the alleged CIA connection grew until it more than tripled the coverage that gave credibility to that connection. The growth in balanced reporting was largely due to the criticisms of the San Jose Mercury-News by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and especially The Los Angeles Times."
The overall tone of the CIA's internal assessment is one of almost amazement at how its PR team could, with a deft touch, help convince mainstream U.S. journalists to trash a fellow reporter on a story that put the CIA in a negative light.
"What CIA media spokesmen can do, as this case demonstrates, is to work with journalists who are already disposed toward writing a balanced story," the report said. "What gives this limited influence a 'multiplier effect' is something that surprised me about the media: that the journalistic profession has the will and the ability to hold its own members to certain standards."
The report then praises the neoconservative American Journalism Review for largely sealing Webb's fate with a harsh critique entitled "The Web That Gary Spun," with AJR's editor adding that the Mercury-News "deserved all the heat leveled at it for 'Dark Alliance.'"
The report also cites with some pleasure the judgment of the Washington Post's media critic Howard Kurtz who reacted to Webb's observation that the war was a business to some Contra leaders with the snide comment: "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail."
Neither Kurtz nor the CIA writer apparently was aware of the disclosure -- among Iran-Contra documents -- of a March 17, 1986 message about the Contra leadership from White House aide Oliver North's emissary to the Contras, Robert Owen, who complained to North: "Few of the so-called leaders of the movement . . . really care about the boys in the field. " THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM." [Emphasis in original.]
Misguided Group Think
Yet, faced with this mainstream "group think" -- as misguided as it was -- Webb's Mercury-News editors surrendered to the pressure, apologizing for the series, shutting down the newspaper's continuing investigation into the Contra-cocaine scandal and forcing Webb to resign in disgrace.
But Webb's painful experience provided an important gift to American history, at least for those who aren't enamored of superficial "conventional wisdom." CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz ultimately produced a fairly honest and comprehensive report that not only confirmed many of the longstanding allegations about Contra-cocaine trafficking but revealed that the CIA and the Reagan administration knew much more about the criminal activity than any of us outsiders did.
Hitz completed his investigation in mid-1998 and the second volume of his two-volume investigation was published on Oct. 8, 1998. In the report, Hitz identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.
According to Volume Two, the CIA knew the criminal nature of its Contra clients from the start of the war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. The earliest Contra force, called the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) or the 15th of September Legion, had chosen "to stoop to criminal activities in order to feed and clothe their cadre," according to a June 1981 draft of a CIA field report.
According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, two ADREN members made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981. ADREN's leaders included Enrique Bermudez and other early Contras who would later direct the major Contra army, the CIA-organized FDN. Throughout the war, Bermudez remained the top Contra military commander.
The CIA corroborated the allegations about ADREN's cocaine trafficking, but insisted that Bermudez had opposed the drug shipments to the United States that went ahead nonetheless. The truth about Bermudez's supposed objections to drug trafficking, however, was less clear.
According to Hitz's Volume One, Bermudez enlisted Norwin Meneses, a large-scale Nicaraguan cocaine smuggler and a key figure in Webb's series, to raise money and buy supplies for the Contras. Volume One had quoted a Meneses associate, another Nicaraguan trafficker named Danilo Blandón, who told Hitz's investigators that he and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet with Bermúdez in 1982. At the time, Meneses's criminal activities were well-known in the Nicaraguan exile community. But Bermudez told these cocaine smugglers that "the ends justify the means" in raising money for the Contras.
After the Bermudez meeting, Contra soldiers helped Meneses and Blandon get past Honduran police who briefly arrested them on drug-trafficking suspicions. After their release, Blandon and Meneses traveled on to Bolivia to complete a cocaine transaction.
There were other indications of Bermudez's drug-smuggling tolerance. In February 1988, another Nicaraguan exile linked to the drug trade accused Bermudez of participation in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitz's report. After the Contra war ended, Bermudez returned to Managua, Nicaragua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder has never been solved. [For more details on Hitz's report and the Contra-cocaine scandal, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]