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NYT's Belated Admission on Contra-Cocaine

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Cross-posted from Consortium News


A number of officials and former Reagan Administration colleagues attended the dedication of the statue of the President Ronald Reagan at Reagan National Airport
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Nearly three decades since the stories of Nicaraguan Contra-cocaine trafficking first appeared in 1985, the New York Times has finally, forthrightly admitted the allegations were true, although this belated acknowledgement comes in a movie review buried deep inside Sunday's paper.

The review addresses a new film, "Kill the Messenger," that revives the Contra-cocaine charges in the context of telling the tragic tale of journalist Gary Webb who himself revived the allegations in 1996 only to have the New York Times and other major newspapers wage a vendetta against him that destroyed his career and ultimately drove him to suicide.

Although the Times' review still quibbles with aspects of Webb's "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury-News, the Times appears to have finally thrown in the towel when it comes to the broader question of whether Webb was telling important truths. The Times' movie review by David Carr begins with a straightforward recognition of the long-denied truth to which now even the CIA has confessed: "If someone told you today that there was strong evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency once turned a blind eye to accusations of drug dealing by operatives it worked with, it might ring some distant, skeptical bell. Did that really happen? That really happened."

The Times' resistance to accepting the reality of this major national security scandal under President Ronald Reagan even predated its tag-team destruction of Webb in the mid-1990s, when he was alternately pummeled by the Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The same Big Three newspapers also either missed or dismissed the Contra-cocaine scandal when Brian Barger and I first disclosed it in 1985 for the Associated Press -- and even when an investigation led by Sen. John Kerry provided more proof in 1989.

Indeed, the New York Times took a leading role in putting down the story in the mid-1980s just as it did in the mid-1990s. That only began to change in 1998 when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conducted the spy agency's first comprehensive internal inquiry into the allegations and found substantial evidence to support suspicions of Contra-cocaine smuggling and the CIA's complicity in the scandal.

Though the Times gave short-shrift to the CIA's institutional confession in 1998, it did at least make a cursory acknowledgement of the historic admissions. The Times' co-collaborators in the mugging of Gary Webb did even less. After waiting several weeks, the Washington Post produced an inside-the-paper story that missed the point. The Los Angeles Times, which had assigned 17 journalists to the task of destroying Webb's reputation, ignored the CIA's final report altogether.

So, it is perhaps nice that the Times stated quite frankly that the long-denied scandal "really happened" -- even though this admission is tucked into a movie review placed on page AR-14 of the New York edition. And the Times' reviewer still can't quite face up to the fact that his newspaper was part of a gang assault on an honest journalist who actually got the story right.

Still Bashing Webb

Thus, the review is peppered with old claims that Webb hyped his material when, in fact, he understated the seriousness of the scandal, as did Barger and I in the 1980s. The extent of Contra cocaine trafficking and the CIA's awareness -- and protection -- of the criminal behavior were much greater than any of us knew.

The Times' review sums up the Webb story (and the movie plot) this way:

"'Kill the Messenger,' a movie starring Jeremy Renner due Oct. 10, examines how much of the story [Webb] told was true and what happened after he wrote it. 'Kill the Messenger' decidedly remains in Mr. Webb's corner, perhaps because most of the rest of the world was against him while he was alive.

"Rival newspapers blew holes in his story, government officials derided him as a nut case and his own newspaper, after initially basking in the scoop, threw him under a bus. Mr. Webb was open to attack in part because of the lurid presentation of the story and his willingness to draw causality based on very thin sourcing and evidence. He wrote past what he knew, but the movie suggests that he told a truth others were unwilling to. Sometimes, when David takes on Goliath, David is the one who ends up getting defeated. ...

"Big news organization like The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post tore the arms and legs off his work. Despite suggestions that their zeal was driven by professional jealousy, some of the journalists who re-reported the story said they had little choice, given the deep flaws.

"Tim Golden in The New York Times and others wrote that Mr. Webb overestimated his subjects' ties to the contras as well as the amount of drugs sold and money that actually went to finance the war in Nicaragua."

The reviewer gives Golden another chance to take a shot at Webb and defend what the Big Papers did. "Webb made some big allegations that he didn't back up, and then the story just exploded, especially in California," Golden said in an email. "You can find some fault with the follow-up stories, but mostly what they did was to show what Webb got wrong."

But Golden continues to be wrong himself. While it may be true that no journalistic story is perfect and that no reporter knows everything about his subject, Webb was if anything too constrained in his chief conclusions, particularly the CIA's role in shielding the Contra drug traffickers. The reality was much worse, with CIA officials intervening in criminal cases, such as the so-called Frogman Case in San Francisco, that threatened to expose the Contra-related trafficking.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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