NOVEMBER 18, 1996
Even since the San Jose Mercury News published a controversial series, Californians have been up in arms over an alleged connection between the CIA and crack cocaine dealers. In response, CIA director John Deutch traveled to Los Angeles and vowed to investigate the charges. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports on Deutch's trip and the controversy surrounding it.
JIM LEHRER: Now the second CIA story which is about a most unusual trip that the CIA director made to the West Coast on Friday. It was to respond to charges concerning the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980's. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports.
Related NewsHour Stories and Online Forums
November 5, 1996:
Gary Webb, author of the Mercury News articles that broke the CIA/crack story, defends himself in an Online Forum.
September 5, 1996:
Read an Online NewsHour segment on drug abuse.
Selections from Senate Committee reports on the Contras and drug dealing.
REP. MILLENDER-McDONALD,(D): Please join me in welcoming Mr. John Deutch. (Applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: CIA Director John Deutch faced a largely hostile audience Friday afternoon at a community forum in South Los Angeles.
JOHN DEUTCH, Director, CIA: Thank you, Congresswoman Millender-McDonald, for holding this public meeting, for giving me the opportunity to talk with members of this community about charges that the CIA introduced crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. It is an appalling charge. It is an appalling charge that goes to the heart of this country. It is a charge that cannot go unanswered.
JEFFREY KAYE: Deutch pledged a thorough investigation. His extraordinary public relations mission to Watts came in response to a public outcry over a report by a California paper, the San Jose Mercury News. The three-part series, "Dark Alliance," appeared in August on the Internet, as well as in print.
Although the articles drew criticism by several major newspapers, they raised a firestorm of outrage and prompted official inquiries. The newspaper asserted that members of the CIA's army in Nicaragua helped spark a crack cocaine explosion in urban America in the 1980s. The report said two Nicaraguans, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, sold tons of cocaine to Los Angeles drug dealer Ricky Ross. The articles said Blandon and Meneses funneled millions of dollars in profits to CIA-backed rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
The articles showed no direct link to the CIA but did include a photograph of Meneses, on the right, with Adolfo Calero, in the center, a leader in the CIA-funded rebel army known as the contras. Much of the information in the articles is not new. Allegations of Contra/drug connections have been the subject of congressional probes, news stories, and books.
What is new is the link the articles suggest between the wholesalers and the retailers--between men said to be associated with the CIA-backed contras and sales of crack cocaine on the streets. The series was written by reporter Gary Webb.
JEFFREY. KAYE: Did the CIA dump drugs into the black community?
GARY WEBB, San Jose Mercury News: We don't have any evidence so far that they did it directly. And what we have evidence of is that men working for a CIA run army did do that.
JEFFREY KAYE: With the knowledge of the CIA?
GARY WEBB: That's the part we don't know. That's the part we don't know. I mean what we know is that these guys were working for a CIA army, they were meeting with CIA agents before and during the time they were doing this. What happens from there is sort of where we ran into the wall of national security.
JEFFREY KAYE: On Friday, CIA Director Dutch did not directly address the broad question of whether the CIA knew about drug dealing. Instead he cautiously denied a conspiracy.
JOHN DEUTCH: As of today, we have no evidence of a conspiracy by the CIA to engage in encouraging drug traffickers in Nicaragua or elsewhere in Latin America during this or any other period. However, I am going to wait and see what the results are of this Inspector General's investigation.
JEFFREY KAYE: Even without hard evidence connecting the CIA with drug dealing, many have accepted that conclusion. A standing-room-only crowd of about fifteen hundred attended a forum on the subject in September. L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters was one of the organizers.
REP. MAXINE WATERS, (D) California: (September) Now there are people who will say, Well, Miss Waters, maybe the CIA wasn't directly involved. Maybe it was just the people from Nicaragua and other places who were kind of CIA connected. Maybe they just turned their heads. Maybe they just kind of blinked and said, well, it doesn't make any difference whether they delivered the kilo themselves, or they turned their heads while somebody else delivered it, they're just as guilty. (applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: Waters has made this issue a priority.
REP. MAXINE WATERS: We are going to pass out the San Jose Mercury News articles.
JEFFREY KAYE: In the hands of activists, reprints of the series have become political pamphlets. They see the articles as confirmation of a long-suspected conspiracy.
DANNY BAKEWELL, Brotherhood Crusade: We're here today to put a face on our outrage, and our disappointment in what we know is a government ploy and a setup to decimate our communities. (applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: The palpable anger has its roots in the spread of a drug many compare to a plague. Crack cocaine hit hard in the inner city starting in the early 80's. The drug is relatively cheap and highly addictive. It spread quickly. The crack business was lucrative for high-powered dealers like Ricky Ross, the man cited in the series. Ross, now in federal prison in San Diego, became an overnight millionaire.
RICKY ROSS, Convicted Drug Dealer: At our heyday, as much as maybe a million (dollars) a day, two million a day sometimes, maybe more, you know a few days. Now this wasn't every day, but it was like we had days that--
JEFFREY KAYE: That's how much you were taking in.
RICKY ROSS: Right. In one day.
JEFFREY KAYE: Ross says he complained to his supplier Danilo Blandon that he had difficulty counting all the money.
RICKY ROSS: So eventually, he bought us a money machine. And he brought it over to us and it eased the, you know, pain a lot. But eventually, it even got too much for one money machine. We wound up getting three money machines to count it because one money machine would just be money, money, money, and they would have money stacked. And we hired people that all they would do all day was count money eventually.
JEFFREY KAYE: Full time money counters?
RICKY ROSS: Yeah.
JEFFREY KAYE: Even though Ross is a central figure in this story, he can shed little light on the people he dealt with.
JEFFREY KAYE: Blandon-- what did you know about him? Did you know his name?
RICKY ROSS: No, just Danilo.
JEFFREY KAYE: Danilo.
RICKY ROSS: And we used to call him Nika.
JEFFREY KAYE: You don't even know his last name-
RICKY ROSS: No.
JEFFREY KAYE: Did he ever talk about the government, the U.S. government?
RICKY ROSS: No, never.
JEFFREY KAYE: DEA, CIA?
RICKY ROSS: No, never.
JEFFREY KAYE: While Ross made easy money, Dr. Xylina Bean was coping with cocaine's tragic consequences. At the neonatology ward at Martin Luther King Hospital in L.A., she saw 60 babies a month born with cocaine in their systems. Today, Bean's anger embodies a common view that the black community has been victimized.
DR. XYLINA BEAN: Every child, every baby, every child of the substance abusing mother and a substance abusing family should be considered a victim of violence, and be entitled to reparations.
JEFFREY KAYE: Congresswoman Waters says the strong reaction to allegations of government involvement in the crack trade is not surprising. That's because the drug has touched so many lives.
REP. MAXINE WATERS: One thing that's very striking, when you're out there, people will get up and they'll start crying. I have women who have gotten up and told stories about they haven't seen their daughter for years. Their daughter's on crack. They have the babies. Every audience that I go into, there's always a sizeable number of people who have had it in their families: sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, cousins. So this scourge has touched a lot of people and there's a lot of pain out there; I mean, just a lot of pain.
JEFFREY KAYE: Pressure from Waters and other elected officials has led to congressional and agency investigations.
SPOKESMAN: The hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee will proceed.
JEFFREY KAYE: At a recent Senate hearing, inspectors general from the CIA and Justice Department promised thorough reviews. The committee also heard from a former Senate investigator, Jack Blum, who in the late '80s looked into drug trafficking by the contras.
JACK BLUM, Former Senate Investigator: The answer you get to the questions you ask depends totally on how you frame the question. If you ask the question, did the CIA sell drugs in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles to finance the contra war, the answer will be a categorical no. Now, having said that, we have to go back to what is true, and what is true is the policy makers absolutely closed their eyes to the criminal behavior of our allies and supporters in that war. The policy makers ignored their drug dealing, their stealing and their human rights violation.
JEFFREY KAYE: But while Blum lends credence to some of the allegations raised by the Mercury News, major newspapers have criticized the series. The L.A. Times, Washington Post, and New York Times have all run articles, saying the Mercury News overstated the facts. Leo Wolinsky is Metropolitan editor of the L.A. Times.
LEO WOLINSKY, L.A. Times: The main weakness was the basic allegation that the contras had made millions from dealing drugs on the streets of Los Angeles, working through a northern California drug dealer
JEFFREY KAYE: Wolinsky's reporters said the Nicaraguans sent no more than $50,000 to the contras.
LEO WOLINSKY: Also indicated that this drug ring was responsible for beginning the crack epidemic in Los Angeles and spreading it like Johnny Appleseed across the country. Found out those facts were untrue also; that crack started in various parts of the country simultaneously, and that crack was already in Los Angeles far before this story ever took place. The other thing that was questionable was the ties to the CIA, which they never said specifically that the CIA was dealing drugs, but there are a lot of implications throughout the article.
JEFFREY KAYE: Waters says the criticisms miss the point.
REP. MAXINE WATERS: It's not about whether or not this trafficking ring gave fifty thousand dollars or fifty million dollars to the Contras. The main story is that there has been a connection made between the government, the CIA, and its involvement in drug trafficking to support the Contras. Can American citizens ever tolerate this kind of involvement or connection? We don't know how direct it was, whether or not they just kind of winked, blinked, turned their back, but it needs to be known, and it seems to me that everybody would be interested in getting to the bottom of that.
JOHN DEUTCH: I will get to the bottom of it, and I will let you know the results of what I've found.
JEFFREY KAYE: But if Friday's forum was any indication, members of this community have little faith in a CIA investigation.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: This man coming into this community at this time, as far as we are concerned, most of us in this audience, is a mandate to close the investigation and to prepare us for him to say six months down the line that the CIA didn't do anything.
JEFFREY KAYE: Audience members hurled a series of angry accusations during the fiery, 90-minute meeting. One skeptical speaker after another used the microphone to voice anger and suspicion.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: You know, as well as everyone else, that the CIA has been dealing drugs throughout the world and bringing drugs into this country since the Vietnam War. You brought them in here in body bags. You were in the Golden Triangle. So you're going to come in this community and insult us and tell us that you're going to investigate yourself? You got to be crazy.
JEFFREY KAYE: Deutch said repeatedly that any wrongdoers would be brought to justice. As he prepared to leave, he told an emotional audience he would take the charges seriously.
JOHN DEUTCH: Thank you. Thank you for--thank you for letting me come here today. You know, I have learned something. I've learned how important it is for our government and for our agency to get on top of this problem and stop it. I just want to say that I came today to try and describe--(off mike yelling)--the approach that I'm taking--the approach that I'm taking to address these serious charges. But I go away with a better appreciation of what's on your mind. And I go away with a conviction that we're going to do more to stop drugs from coming into the United States. Thank you very much. (applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: The forum broke up in distrust and chaos, just as it had begun. Meanwhile, members of California's congressional delegation say they will push hard for answers to a fundamental question: What did the government know about drug dealing?