An imaginary conspiracy

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Remember the hellish ghetto crack house in Spike Lee's film "Jungle Fever?" The director populated the scene with the gaunt forms of white users, sucking grimly on their glass pipes. Mr. Lee was trying to remind his audience that, media stereotypes notwithstanding, there is nothing exclusively "black" about drug abuse.

And he had a point. Blacks have indeed suffered disproportionately from crack addiction and the attendant violent crime. But in absolute numbers, the majority of drug users in this country have always been white. Crack has addicted many more whites than blacks.


Or maybe that's just what the CIA wants us to believe. After all, no less a source than the San Jose Mercury News has revealed that Nicaraguans working for the CIA introduced crack into the ghetto of South-Central Los Angeles in the mid-'80s as part of a scheme to finance the contras -- even if it meant devastation for black America.

So forget such obvious questions as why the agency would have decided to carry out its genocidal plan by means of a substance that wrought so much havoc among whites, too. Forget Spike Lee's plea for a more balanced view of crack's racial impact.


Jesse Jackson, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Dick Gregory and Mayor Kurt Schmoke have all called for an investigation into the charges. So has Gen. Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug czar. CIA Director John Deutch said he knew of no evidence to support the Mercury News' claims, but ordered his inspector general, Fred Hitz, to get to the bottom of the matter, anyway. The Senate Intelligence Committee, under chairman Arlen Specter, has already held hearings on it, and is promising more.

Now some conspiracy theories at least touch on enough elements of plausible wrongdoing to merit investigation. O.J. was not framed by racists in the Los Angeles Police Department, but the Mark Fuhrman tapes certainly suggested the need for another look at that department. The notion of a CIA plot to finance the contras and kill blacks with crack, on the other hand, is illogical on its face. And as it turns out, the evidence for it is non-existent.

The "Appleseed of crack"

A Washington Post article debunking the Mercury News piece pointed out, among other things, that drug kingpin "Freeway Rick" Ross -- the key figure in the Mercury News' account -- had been selling crack in Los Angeles for four years before he even met Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes, the Nicaraguan contra supporter the Mercury News calls "the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California." Not even Jack Blum, the cabal-seeking former investigator for Sen. John Kerry's contra-drug subcommittee during the late '80s, buys the conspiracy theory.

The Mercury News and Gary Webb, the author of the three-part series, now say they never intended to charge the CIA with a deliberate plan to target blacks. This may be true, strictly speaking, but it sounds pretty disingenuous given the insinuating language of Mr. Webb's piece ("the [contra] financiers . . . met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A.") and the paper's sensationalistic choice of illustration for the Internet version of the piece -- a CIA emblem superimposed over a photo of a black man smoking crack. Conceding error, the paper has now withdrawn this graphic.

So what's left, exactly, to investigate? Well, perhaps, in its anti-Communist zeal, the CIA did turn a blind eye to drug trafficking by its Central American agents and associates. But the "blind eye" scenario, which was thoroughly explored in the Senate committee investigation led by Mr. Blum and Senator Kerry, won't be any easier to trace now, after the evidence has had another decade to get cold.

Anyway, the charge mainly reflects naivete about the inherent trade-offs of criminal justice and intelligence-gathering. Every day, law-enforcement types stand by and observe drug deals in progress, in order to gather evidence that can be used for later busts. Every day they strike plea bargains to let smaller-time drug dealers go free in order to procure their testimony against bigger fish.

The hidden issue


From Korea to Kabul, American intelligence agencies have done much the same thing in the pursuit of missions given them by policy-makers. The disproportionate focus on contra drug dealing suggests that what really bothers the critics is not the agency's moral trade-offs, but rather the objective -- getting rid of the Sandinistas -- invoked to justify them.

Besides, if there were a CIA conspiracy to commit crack-genocide, would the conspirators have left a paper trail for Fred Hitz to follow? No CIA, or even "independent," investigator can ever lay these allegations to rest. Any findings will immediately be attacked as part of an ever-widening cover-up. Remember how the JFK conspiracy buffs reacted to the "independent" Warren Commission?

Messrs. Deutch and Specter and company know this. They just figure the heat will be easier to deflect if they can at least claim to have done due diligence. But there are costs to this charade -- and they are not limited to the millions of tax dollars that will be wasted. The crack sideshow diverts attention and resources from truly necessary reforms in the post-cold war intelligence apparatus, even as countless work-a-day civil servants -- the real people behind what Maxine Waters calls "Mr. CIA" -- have to sweat out lie-detector tests and hire lawyers in the futile effort to placate investigators.

And society as a whole pays a price every time obvious lies and crankery are legitimized by the earnest attention of senior government officials and leading newspapers. This is a cost to which the black community is especially vulnerable. Ms. Waters, Mr. Jackson and company are not only manipulating the understandable sorrow and frustration of people who have suffered cruelly from the drug epidemic. They are insulting their intelligence by papering over the complexities of the drug crisis.

But the propagators of the CIA-crack conspiracy are not particularly concerned with getting at the truth. Still less are they concerned with practical remedies for government misfeasance. Rather, they are intent on tearing down the legitimacy of government institutions in order to build up their own short-term political prospects.

Perhaps it's too late now to stop the pointless CIA-crack investigations. But next time an accusation as patently bogus as this one comes along, accompanied by a not-so-spontaneous clamor for an investigation, let's hope government officials have the courage to just say no.


Charles Lane is a senior editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 11/08/96