Shrinking Fig Leaf
By the time that Hitz's Volume Two was published in fall 1998, the CIA's defense against Webb's series had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the Contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking. But Hitz made clear that the Contra war took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the Justice Department, Congress and even the CIA's own analytical division.
Besides tracing the evidence of Contra-drug trafficking through the decade-long Contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the Contra-drug problem but didn't want its exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
According to Hitz, the CIA had "one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government. ... [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the Contra program." One CIA field officer explained, "The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war."
Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations officers handling the Contras hid evidence of Contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA's analysts.
Because of the withheld evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that "only a handful of Contras might have been involved in drug trafficking." That false assessment was passed on to Congress and to major news organizations -- serving as an important basis for denouncing Gary Webb and his "Dark Alliance" series in 1996.
Although Hitz's report was an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it went almost unnoticed by major U.S. news outlets. By fall 1998, the U.S. mainstream media was obsessed with President Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. So, few readers of major U.S. newspapers saw much about the CIA's inspector general admitting that America's premier spy agency had collaborated with and protected cocaine traffickers.
On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitz's Volume Two was posted on the CIA's Web site, the New York Times published a brief article that continued to deride Webb but acknowledged the Contra-drug problem may have been worse than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles Times, which had assigned a huge team of 17 reporters to tear down Webb's work, never published a story on the release of Hitz's Volume Two.
In 2000, the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee grudgingly acknowledged that the stories about Reagan's CIA protecting Contra drug traffickers were true. The committee released a report citing classified testimony from CIA Inspector General Britt Snider (Hitz's successor) admitting that the spy agency had turned a blind eye to evidence of Contra-drug smuggling and generally treated drug smuggling through Central America as a low priority.
"In the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas appears to have taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations against those with whom the agency was working," Snider said, adding that the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in "a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner."
The House committee still downplayed the significance of the Contra-cocaine scandal, but the panel acknowledged, deep inside its report, that in some cases, "CIA employees did nothing to verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the opportunity to do so. In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual."
Like the release of Hitz's report in 1998, the admissions by Snider and the House committee drew virtually no media attention in 2000 -- except for a few articles on the Internet, including one at Consortiumnews.com.
Killing the Messenger
Because of this abuse of power by the Big Three newspapers -- choosing to conceal their own journalistic negligence on the Contra-cocaine scandal and to protect the Reagan administration's image -- Webb's reputation was never rehabilitated.
After his original "Dark Alliance" series was published in 1996, Webb had been inundated with attractive book offers from major publishing houses, but once the vilification began, the interest evaporated. Webb's agent contacted an independent publishing house, Seven Stories Press, which had a reputation for publishing books that had been censored, and it took on the project.
After Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion was published in 1998, I joined Webb in a few speaking appearances on the West Coast, including one packed book talk at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, California. For a time, Webb was treated as a celebrity on the American Left, but that gradually faded.