Since its creation in 1947 under President Harry Truman, the CIA has been
credited with a number of far-fetched operations. While some were proven - the
infamous LSD mind-control experiments of the 1950s - others, like the
assassination of John F. Kennedy and the crash of the Savings and Loans
industry, have little or no merit.
Delaval is a freelance writer and filmmaker and was a production assistant for
"Drug Wars." This article was edited by Lowell Bergman, series reporter for
In 1996 the agency was accused of being a crack dealer.
A series of expose articles in the San Jose Mercury-News by reporter
Gary Webb told tales of a drug triangle during the 1980s that linked CIA
officials in Central America, a San Francisco drug ring and a Los Angeles drug
dealer. According to the stories, the CIA and its operatives used crack
cocaine--sold via the Los Angeles African-American community--to raise millions
to support the agency's clandestine operations in Central America.
The CIA's suspect past made the sensational articles an easy sell. Talk
radio switchboards lit up, as did African-American leaders like U.S. Rep.
Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, who pointed to Webb's articles as proof of a
mastermind plot to destroy inner-city black America.
One of the people who was accused in the San Jose Mercury-News of being
in the midst of the CIA cocaine conspiracy is one of the most respected, now
retired, veteran D.E.A. agents, Robert "Bobby" Nieves.
"You have to understand Central America at that time was a haven for the
conspiracy theorists. Christic Institute, people like Gary Webb, others down
there, looking to dig up some story for political advantage," Nieves said. "No
sexier story than to create the notion in people's minds that these people are
But in the weeks following publication, Webb's peers doubted the merit of the
articles. Fellow journalists at the Washington Post, New York
Times and Webb's own editor accused him of blowing a few truths up into a
Amongst Webb's fundamental problems was his implication that the CIA lit the
crack cocaine fuse. It was conspiracy theory: a neat presentation of reality
that simply didn't jibe with real life. Webb later agreed in an interview that
there is no hard evidence that the CIA as an institution or any of its
agent-employees carried out or profited from drug trafficking.
Still, the fantastic story of the CIA injecting crack into ghettos had taken
hold. In response to the public outcry following Webb's allegations--which
were ultimately published in book form under the title Dark
Alliance--the CIA conducted an internal investigation of its role in
Central America related to the drug trade. Frederick Hitz, as the CIA
Inspector General-- an independent watchdog approved by Congress--conducted the
investigation. In October 1998, the CIA released a declassified version of
Hitz's two-volume report.
The IG's report cleared the CIA of complicity with the inner-city crack
cocaine trade. It refuted charges that CIA officials knew that their
Nicaraguan allies were dealing drugs. But, the report said that the CIA,
in a number of cases, didn't bother to look into allegations about narcotics
And the Hitz report describes how there was little or no direction for CIA
operatives when confronted by the rampant traffic in drugs in Central American
during the 1980s.
What follows is a closer look at the Hitz report, drawing on interviews with
Frederick Hitz and others interviewed for FRONTLINE's "Drug Wars" series.
When the Marxist Sandinistas overthrew the government of longtime dictator
Anastasio Somoza in 1979, U.S. approval soured when it became clear that the
new regime saw itself as a satellite of Cuba, if not the Soviet Union. When
Ronald Reagan became president soon after, he quietly began sending aid to
those fighting the Marxist government. They were known as the Nicaraguan
Resistance, or more simply, the Contras.
As with Burma, Laos and Afghanistan before it -- where the U.S. had helped
fight wars -- Nicaragua had a narcotics trade--a fact which was brought to the
CIA's attention while the Contra effort was barely off the ground. In 1981
members of the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) were
working alongside CIA officers to overthrow the new Sandinista government..
As noted in the Hitz report, a cable to CIA headquarters stated that ADREN
leadership had decided to "engage in drug smuggling to the United States in
order to finance its anti-Sandinista operations." The cable stated that an
"initial trial run" had taken place in July 1981, when drugs were transported
via plane to Miami.
In what would prove common during the Contra war, the CIA never followed up
on the allegations, or bothered to verify whether the "initial run" had taken
place, according to the Hitz report. ADREN disbanded in 1982. But some members
joined the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), which worked with the CIA.
In another instance, the CIA received allegations that five members of the
Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ADREN) -- those fighting along the border of
Nicaragua and Costa Rica - were involved in drug trafficking. The five were
allegedly working with known drug trafficker Jorge Morales.
Although the CIA broke off contact with the ARDE in 1984, it continued to
have contact with four of the five members who associated with Sr. Morales
"In the context of this struggle between the Contras and the Sandinistas, there
were accusations flying left and right, some of which were probably
meritorious, and a good many of which were part of the battle they were
involved in," Hitz said. The question for the CIA officer in the field was,
how do you deal with those accusations?
"And what they did was, for the most part, attempt to track them down," Hitz
said. "But on several cases, no action appears to have been taken. And that's
the part that we find in our report."
Around the same time--the early 1980s--a letter between Attorney General Smith
and CIA Director Casey was made official, creating what some considered a
convenient loophole for the CIA
In the winter of 1982, as the United States was plotting how to overthrow the
Sandinista government that came to power in Nicaragua, a letter - a "Memorandum
of Understanding" [MOU] was being drafted in Washington, D.C. The presumptive
author was the U.S. Attorney General, the late William French Smith. The
recipient was the Central Intelligence Agency Director William Casey.
The subject was a list of offenses that CIA field officers in the field were
required to report if they witnessed or became aware of a crime -- particularly
if it involved an informant or someone the CIA officer wanted to recruit as
an "agent". The letter of understanding listed all kinds of crimes from murder
to passport fraud. But it omitted narcotics violations.
The oversight was too glaring, apparently, to leave without comment. Weeks
later a follow up letter based on some internal discussion in the
Justice Department was sent to the CIA
"I have been advised that a question arose regarding the need to add all
narcotics violations to the list of "non-employee" crimes," Smith wrote to
Casey in his February 11, 1982 letter. But instead of adding drugs to the
list, Smith cited existing federal policy on narcotics enforcement, and
"In light of these provisions and in view of the fine cooperation the Drug
Enforcement Administration has received from CIA, no formal requirement
regarding the reporting of narcotics violations has been included in these
procedures." In effect, the agreement meant that CIA officers were not
required to report narcotics violations back to headquarters. As the CIA's
Inspector General Fred Hitz told us, it was at best a "mixed message."
Was the omission of a requirement to report narcotics violations a conscious
decision designed to provide cover for CIA agents caught in the midst of the
thriving drug business in Central America? Fred Hitz refuses to speculate. Hitz
insists he finds it hard to believe that any CIA agent in the field would be
involved, especially since " it was well known during this period that if the
CIA was linked to any drug shipment, the political damage [to the Contra
cause] would be irreparable."
"It was fairly clear, and all of the officers whom we questioned on it, and
some whom we didn't but whom the House questioned, realized that if drugs were
intermixed with this program, it would fail, it would kill it," Hitz said.
"They knew perfectly well because of past accusations in previous theaters that
that would be the kiss of death."
Yet there was a lack of narcotics-related direction from CIA headquarters
during the Contra war, as indicated when the issue of reporting suspected
narcotics violations arose again in 1987. Acting CIA director Robert Gates
sent a 1987 memorandum to CIA Deputy Director for Operations Clair George
stating that it was imperative that CIA officers cease relations with
Contras who were "even suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking,"
according to the Hitz report.
Gates' memorandum instructed George to vet names of air crews, air services
companies and subcontractors with the DEA, U.S. Customs and the FBI to ensure
that none of the contractors used by the CIA were involved in narcotics. For
some reason, this memorandum "was not issued in any form that would advise
Agency employees generally of this policy," Hitz stated in his report. It never
got to the field agents who were supposed to use it as a guide.
Hitz interprets both the omission of narcotics from the MOU and the fact that
Gates' memo did not ever make it to the agents who needed it as the failings of
a vast bureaucracy. These events, however, as well as others documented in the
report, have provided fodder to those interpreting the agency's behavior less
Jonathan Winer was a staffer on a Senate Committee Investigation led by Senator
Kerry of Massachusetts, and is a former deputy assistant Secretary of State for
International Narcotics Matters. "If you're focused on winning an ideological
war, you're probably not focused at the same time on the law enforcement
consequences of what you're doing," Winer said. "And certainly, our government
in the 1980s was not focused on that problem. It actively resisted being
focused on that problem."
Others believe that the U.S. espionage agency was simply covering its tracks.
The story of Ilopango air base in San Salvador has become a favorite anecdote
among those backing the claim that the CIA protected Contras neck-deep in
the drug trade. The Hitz report states that by 1985, the DEA was watching
Carlos Albert Amador. He was a former pilot for the Southern Front Contras, a
group that operated along the northern border of Costa Rica and in the southern
regions of Nicaragua. Carlos Alberto Amador had previously flown secret
Contra missions out of the airfield. But, in 1985 , he came under suspicion
for transporting drugs from Costa Rica to Miami. The CIA cable noted that
Amador "had access to Hanger 4 at Ilopango air base."
The cable quoted a DEA source who "stated that Amador was probably picking up
cocaine in San Salvador to fly to Grand Caymen [sic] and then to south
Florida," adding that the DEA was going to ask San Salvadorian police to
investigate Amador and anyone associated with Hanger 4.
But Hanger 4 -- as the author of the cable would later tell CIA
investigators -- was also thought to be associated with Oliver North,
who was under commission from the White House to secretly carry out aid to the
When CIA headquarters responded to the cable, it told its local station that
it "would appreciate Station advising DEA not to make any inquiries to anyone
re Hanger [sic] no. 4 at Ilopango since only legitimate....supported operations
were conducted from this facility."
Former DEA field agent Nieves denied the suggestion that CIA objectives
overrode DEA drug enforcement during the Contra War.
"I was given carte blanche to do my job," Nieves said. "Never once did anybody
ever say anything to me about anything I was doing that was nothing but
supportive. There was no interference. There was no overriding priority, there
was no competition, there was no anything except for support of the DEA's
mission. And that's a fact."
But others say the CIA's loose grip on its contacts certainly didn't help
the DEA's cause.
"I believe that elements working for the CIA were involved in bringing drugs
into the country," said Hector Berrellez, DEA field agent.
"I know specifically that some of the CIA contract workers, meaning some of
the pilots, in fact were bringing drugs into the U.S. and landing some of these
drugs in government air bases. And I know so because I was told by some of
these pilots that in fact they had done that."
While most D.E.A. veterans we interviewed dismiss allegations of any conscious
CIA activity or involvement in drug trafficking, a number are suspicious,
and a handful like Berrellez claim they had hard evidence of "CIA contract
employees" being involved. With the exception of the Venezuela National Guard
case we were unable to find any evidence that any CIA agent was ever
considered a potential target of a grand jury investigating drug trafficking.
"If it's your job to check out food at the supermarket counter ... you're
not worrying about the person who's supposed to be stocking the shelves. It's
not your job," said Jonathan Winer, explaining the CIA's minimal attention
to drug trafficking in Central America.
It is clear from interviews with former D.E.A. agents, CIA officials and
former Colonel Oliver North that the CIA did not ignore narcotics in Central
America. Injecting the United States into a Nicaraguan civil war was hardly an
easy sell to Capitol Hill, with nightmares of Vietnam still fresh from the
1970s. Any hint of collusion with the drug trade would be like handing a loaded
gun to opponents aiming to kill the effort.
But the degree to which that point was communicated to CIA agents in the
field, according to the Hitz investigation, does not inspire confidence.
"There was no directorate of operations instruction about how to deal with drug
allegations during the whole period of the Contra effort," Hitz said. "They
were in process. They were working on some kind of guidance. But they never
published it in black letter and sent it to the field." In Nicaragua, the
Smith-Casey letter basically excused CIA officers from reporting drug
trafficking among their contacts. Even when it became clear that narcotics
could cast a pall on the effort, the CIA appeared unwilling to react.
As early as 1980, a handbook had been developed with a section instructing
CIA officers how to deal with contacts suspected of trafficking drugs. But
those regulations were ruled inapplicable to the Contra affair, because they
were meant for CIA personnel who were specifically collecting narcotics
intelligence -- not the case in Central America. Inexplicably, the handbook
wasn't formally published until 15 years later.
In addition, in the mid-1980s, any effort to keep the CIA out of the world
of drug trafficking was made more difficult by the decision of its boss,
Director Casey, to activate what became known as the "off-the books" operation
of Oliver North.
Along with a leading role in the Iran/Contra scandal - in which North helped
sell arms to Iran to fund the Contra War - North is also said to have employed
air and sea transport companies moonlighting as drugs carriers.
North at Iran-Contra Hearings
When the Kerry Commission released its report in 1988, the company Frigorificos
De Puntarenas was listed as receiving $261,000 in funds from the Nicaraguan
Humanitarian Assistance Office, an organization established in 1985 to spend
$27 million in congressional humanitarian aid to the Nicaraguan resistance.
Frigorificos' owner, Luis Rodriguez, also operated Ocean Hunter/Mr. Shrimp out
of Miami, Florida.
In 1986 the DEA seized 400 pounds of cocaine hidden in yucca addressed to Ocean
Hunter. Rodriguez later testified that both companies were used to launder drug
money between Costa Rica and Miami.
North has categorically denied that anybody in his operation was trafficking
drugs. But in 1987, a co-owner of the shrimp companies pointed the finger at
the National Security Council. Moises Nunez told the CIA that he had had a
clandestine relationship with the National Security Council since 1985.
"If we have a foreign policy that says we're going to oppose the spread of
Communism, that's not inconsistent with the (drug) policy,' North said in an
interview with FRONTLINE. "We're not going to tolerate the flow of drugs into
this country. Unfortunately you've got members of Congress up there who want
to beat the drum and blame the problem of narcotics in America on the
Nicaraguan resistance. And that's just not the case."
"He is either misinformed or lying," Winer says. "Oliver North's diaries are
filled with references to drug trafficking and people associated with his
enterprise drug trafficking--filled with it. Oliver North can say, 'I never
hired or worked with any drug traffickers.' His organization did."
While the Kerry report listed several companies used by the Nicaraguan
Humanitarian Assistance Office that had drug ties, it failed to pass definitive
judgement on how much government agencies knew about those ties.
"At best, these incidents represent negligence on the part of U.S.
government officials responsible for providing support to the Contras," the
Hitz report stated. 'At worst, it was a matter of turning a blind eye to the
activities of companies who use legitimate activities as a cover for their
That statement sums up the debate remaining over the CIA's involvement in
the Contra War. The Hitz report gives an abundance of anecdotal evidence
showing that drugs were low on the list of intelligence priorities in the
Contra war. It shows that allegation after allegation were either partially
investigated or not investigated at all.
To this day, Fred Hitz denies that the CIA had any intentional ties to drug
trafficking. But he also admits that the Agency in many cases took a rain check
on specifically addressing narcotics activity within its allies' ranks.
Some say that's expected when fighting ideological wars in countries where
drugs have historically fueled not only conflict, but entire economies as well.
"You're always going to be having drug traffickers, gun runners, people who are
alien smugglers ... as some of the kinds of people that you're going to be
relying on to carry out a covert war," Winer observes. "And that's true of any
government anywhere--whether you're talking Afghanistan, Colombia, Southeast
Asia, Burma. Your operatives tend to be people who are involved in other
illicit activities. These things tend to go together."
If you put aside conspiracy theories of crack peddling, that still leaves the
question of why the Agency has repeatedly found itself associated with drug
To add to the list of theories and speculations, Fred Hitz has his own.
"I would call them bureaucratically challenged," Hitz said. "(The CIA)
didn't get it done. Having studied the agency over a period of eight years and
the bureaucracy that is involved, it grieves me but doesn't surprise me that
nobody grasped the nettle and got the right information to the field."
"No conspiracy," he said. "That's ineptitude. Yes, there are lots of things
going on. There is congressional testimony. There are crises in other parts of
the world. There are things that are keeping the individuals who write these
regulations busy; but that's no excuse. You've got to get to it."
drug warriors ·
$400bn business ·
npr reports ·
teacher's guide ·
tapes & transcripts ·
pbs online ·
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation.