There are magicians within the U.S. government. And last week they played a dirty trick.
Two major official reports on an alleged CIA-crack cocaine scandal, scheduled for public release on Thursday, suddenly disappeared into the thin air of the bureaucracy. It is not clear when or whether they will reappear.
These reports - one by the Department of Justice, the other by the Central Intelligence Agency - resulted from more than a year of internal investigation into allegations of government complicity in the crack cocaine trade. Yielding to public outcry in the fall of 1996 after a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News titled "Dark Alliance," the government agreed to conduct a full inquiry into what the CIA knew, and when it knew it, about drug smuggling during the U.S.-sponsored contra war in Nicaragua.
The CIA has done two reports - one focusing on allegations in the Mercury News, which it planned to release last week, and one on broader allegations of drug trafficking during the contra war, which it has yet to complete. The Department of Justice has conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the possibility that some contra traffickers were protected from prosecution.
Both agencies planned to release the reports on Thursday. At the last minute, Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. blocked the Department of Justice's report, on the vague grounds that there are "law enforcement concerns" about its content. The CIA then suspended the release of its report.
The reports were meant to restore public confidence in the integrity of government, but the furtive delay has become a public-relations fiasco. The sudden disappearance of the reports can only intensify public skepticism about the government inquiry. "It raises questions and suspicions," observes Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, who has been outspoken on this issue. "In the minds of some people, it stinks."
Indeed, it does. The contents of the CIA study are being leaked to the press. Not surprisingly, the agency has cleared itself of any wrongdoing. The CIA report concludes that none of its agents knew about contra drug smuggling or used the drug trade to help fund the covert war.
At the same time, it is apparent that the agency's self-examination was lax and limited. Duane Clarridge, the CIA official who shows up in Oliver North's notebooks making quid pro quo deals with known drug kingpin Manuel Noriega, refused to be interviewed. "They sent me questions that were a bunch of bull -- , and I wrote back they were a bunch of bull -- ," Clarridge told reporters.
Such an attitude on the part of former agents who ran the contra war are unlikely to bolster public confidence in the intelligence community. The publication of these reports, when and if that occurs, will not be enough to allay deep-rooted skepticism over the seriousness of the government inquiry.
Only a full disclosure of the documentation upon which the reports are based can provide the credibility and accountability demanded by the matter. The CIA is reported to have gathered some 10,000 records; the Justice Department compiled 40,000 pages of classified documents during its inquiry.
Three freedom of information organizations - the National Security Archive, the Center for National Security Studies and the Federation of American Scientists - have requested "the most complete and candid disclosure of evidence possible." In letters to both agencies, Rep. Ron Dellums, also a California Democrat, warned that laying this scandal to rest will require openness from the government.
"It is regrettable," Dellums wrote, "that the majority of Americans currently believe that it is routine procedure for the 'government' to obfuscate matters; not to confuse our enemies, but to prevent our citizens from learning about possibly shameful public acts."
That the vocal opinions of concerned citizens across the nation forced the U.S. government to conduct this inquiry must be considered a victory for the public's right to know. But it will be a pyrrhic victory if the full record is not released for public scrutiny. Openness in government must prevail over the system of secrecy that wrought this scandal in the first place.
Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and co-author of the "Iran-Contra Scandal: A Declassified History."
Pub Date: 12/21/97