I wrote this story for Impact Weekly--which I prefer to remember as the Dayton Voice, its original name--in 1999. It followed on a series of stories by Gary Webb that originally ran in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 under the title "Dark Alliance" (later a book by the same name).
I thought Webb's reports ought to have won journalism prizes, but they were greeted with scorn by his colleagues in the mainstream media, and official cover up. Now, a new film about the stories, "Kill the Messenger," is in first-run theaters around the country. Though Webb and his work are still dissed by some journalists who should know better, his core allegations and his investigative effort stand up well to any fair assessment.
We founded the Dayton Voice in 1993 precisely because we believed that mainstream media ignored or misreported stories like this with devastating effect on the people and politics of the United States. We tried to follow paths blazed by journalists like Gary Webb and scholars like Manning Marable and activists like Harvey Milk and writers like Toni Morrison because we believed that was the true mission of responsible journalism. The story below is the longest of three pieces I wrote for the Voice about "Dark Alliance." I loved doing it and believe that the story remains relevant today.
April 29—May 5, 1999
by Jeff Epton
In 1985, Sgt. David Neil was assigned to duty as a police shift commander at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. Because Homeland was a point of entry for flights originating in foreign countries, the Air Force police had the responsibility for enforcing customs regulations, including searches of individuals and cargo. But Neil, now living in Dayton after 19 years in the service, sometimes ran into surprising obstacles that prevented him from doing his job.
In one incident, in the spring of 1986, Neil and another officer using a drug dog approached a private plane that had landed at the base without proper notification. From a distance, Neil says, they could see people unloading cargo. As the neared the plane, the dog “alerted,” indicating that there were drugs present. But before they could take any further investigatory action, Air Force officers on the scene told Neil to leave.
“There were a couple of lieutenant colonels out there,” Neil says . “Technically they out-ranked me, but they didn’t have jurisdiction. I was a police officer engaged in the performance of his duties.” But when Neil indicated his intention to proceed, he found himself confronted by the base commander who did have the authority to tell him to stop and did so. “The wing commander came out and said ‘you haven’t seen anything, you don’t know anything, leave it alone,’” says Neil.
That was the only time that base police got a drug dog close enough to a mysterious flight to get an alert, he says, but it wasn’t the only time they were unable to enforce customs regulations. Beginning early in 1986 and continuing at least into the next year, at least 20 private planes came to Homestead that he and his crew were unable to inspect.
“These aircraft wouldn’t do radio notifications on final approach and we weren’t hearing from the control tower. Some of the planes would touch down and leave before we could get there,” Neil says. “The drug dog incident was in May or June of 1986. About a month later, we got an order from the chief not to inspect executive fleet aircraft [U.S. government planes] or civilian aircraft with drug dogs.”
Neil was all set to tell that story and others at a Federal Court hearing last month. At the hearing, local attorney John Paul Rion, arguing that his client, Charles Goff Jr., should get a downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines, told the court that the drug-dealing of Nicaraguan Contras and the support they received from the CIA and other U.S. agencies had resulted in the establishment of huge drug trafficking operations in the 1980s. The existence of these enterprises, Rion argued, was a major factor in the crack “epidemic” of that time and should be a mitigating factor in the sentencing of all those convicted in federal court of crack-related violations. In support of his argument, Rion wanted to bring in Neil and journalists Gary Webb and Martha Honey to testify.
But neither Rion nor his client got a long day in court on the argument. Judge Walter Rice decided not to hear from witnesses, ruling that the CIA complicity that Rion proposed to prove did not apply exclusively to Goff’s case and could not be considered as a basis for a departure from sentencing guidelines. Rice’s decision delayed, at least temporarily, the opportunity for Neil to put on an official record the stories whose implications trouble him deeply more than a decade later.
“I don’t think Air Force guys on the scene knew these were drug flights,” Neil says. “But somebody in D.C. made a deal with the devil and ordered us away. The result was that we had drugs coming through that created huge problems,” he adds as he ticks off a list of issues he connects to the crack cocaine explosion. “We’ve almost destroyed this country, for god’s sake—500,000 in prison, widespread violence, people selling their babies. If you destroy your country, it used to be called treason.”
Among those most disappointed by the missed opportunity to hear Neil was Webb, who wrote a detailed account of the Contra-CIA connection to Freeway Rick Ross, for a time reputed to be the largest cocaine dealer in South Central Los Angeles. In a three-part series published in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News, Webb focused on connections between the CIA, Nicaraguan Contras and cocaine trafficking in South Central L.A. Webb’s charges and his supporting evidence came under attack from mainstream media, but the story he told was repeated over and over, especially among African Americans using the internet and talk radio to share the details.
For Webb, who left his job at the Mercury News after his editors backed away from the story, testifying at the sentencing hearing was a duty. But getting a chance to hear Neil tell his story would have been almost a pleasure, an opportunity to listen to one more eyewitness step forward to confirm official involvement in drug trafficking. Neil’s account would have been one more corroboration of official wrongdoing and one more piece of evidence that the story isn’t going to go away, despite CIA denials and despite media attacks on the story.
Neil’s take on the effects of the crack epidemic may include elements of hyperbole—after all, some drug experts say that crack never became the drug of choice everywhere in the country—but his assertion that crack fueled an explosion in the prison population is right on target. From the beginning to the end of the 1980s, the number of people in prisons and jails in the United States doubled, and before the end of this decade the prison population will have doubled again, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
While the CIA was giving an intentional assist to drug traffickers who would bring cocaine into this country at unprecedented rates, news operations that had finally discovered crack were busy painting a picture of vicious black criminals—feeding the hysteria that would support Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and fuel the prison population boom.
And the fastest growing segment of that population was, and is, young African Americans doing crack-related time based on the kinds of sentencing guidelines that attorney Rion sought to challenge. A key feature of the federal guidelines is a formula that punishes a crack cocaine conviction (most often a black defendant) at 100 times the rate of a powder cocaine conviction (most often a white defendant).
“The scales of justice became so lopsided that a powder dealer had to sell $50,000 worth of cocaine to get the same five-year mandatory sentence as someone who sold $750 worth of crack. (As if crack could be made without powder cocaine),” wrote Webb in Dark Alliance, a book-length follow-up to his original story.
Disparities in sentencing is one of the great injustices of the drug war. But the drug trade that created the basis for that war was aided and abetted by CIA and other federal employees. That they have so far escaped prosecution for the damage they did is another of the drug war’s great injustices. And though it is true that crack was not the primary drug scourge in every urban area, it did widespread damage spreading across the country from L.A. and other prime distribution points like Miami and Detroit.
Crack arrived in Dayton in the mid-‘80s, getting here through a variety of routes. Ross, the dealer from South Central, also established a significant crack enterprise in Cincinnati. From there, according to court documents, he funneled cocaine out to other Midwestern cities, Dayton included. According to one U.S. attorney, Ross’ Cincinnati activities may have grossed as much as $30,000 a day. And a DEA informant placed Ross in Dayton on April 26 and 27, 1987 selling more than 7 kilograms of cocaine, a quantity worth between $200,000 and $300,000.
There were other possible drug routes to Dayton. In 1988, an FBI agent based in the Dayton office claimed that a million dollar drug bust at the Residence Inn near I-70 and I-75 was connected to an effort by “the Crips,” an L.A. street gang, to take over the cocaine trade in Dayton. If so, the gang would have been working the trail blazed by Ross, the one that originated with a Contra source.
Also in 1988, a shootout on the Central State University campus signaled the presence of other drug trafficking operations. The incident involved rival gangs, one of them called Pony Down, actually composed of elements of a larger Detroit-based gang of the same name. Pony Down and another Detroit gang, Young Boys Incorporated, may have been at the end of another Contra-connected pipeline, one supplied by pilot Michael Palmer, who was indicted in Detroit in the mid-80s on drug-trafficking charges.
Palmer also worked as a pilot during the same period for the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office. And, though the connection has yet to be made by investigators, a drug ring bringing cocaine to Dayton in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had sources in Florida and Louisiana, and possible connections to Michael Palmer and Barry Seal, the latter an associate of Columbian drug cartels, who oversaw some drug importations through Central America. Seal was shot to death the night after testifying before a grand jury in New Orleans, perhaps burying his connections forever.
Urban atom bomb
But whatever route crack travelled to get to Dayton, it arrived with destructive impact. Dayton City Commissioner Dean Lovelace, who grew up on the west side and lives there still, was a witness to drug dealing and related violence in his neighborhood. Lovelace and his family have hung in through the changes that have wounded his community—the flight of the black middle class, the loss of neighborhood jobs and factory jobs, highways rammed right through residential areas, and the pervasive sale and use of drugs—and he ranks the effect of crack as equal to or greater than all the rest.
“Crack devastated—let me underline that—devastated our inner city neighborhoods, especially African American neighborhoods. Once it hit the streets, it was like ‘whomp!’ an urban atom bomb.” Lovelace says. “Crack addicts may be more aggressive than heroin addicts, but the real violence associated with crack comes from dealers fighting for turf. And whether it’s Ricky Ross or the CIA, crack wrecked lives at both ends of the pipeline. You got people in South America saying ‘I’ll grow this stuff here because my life would be better,’ and folks here that say, ‘I’ll sell this stuff because my life would be better,’ but the consequences are death at both ends,” Lovelace concludes.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who represents South Central in congress, makes a similar point about violence associated with the crack trade. Sophisticated automatic weaponry was showing up on the streets of South Central in the early ‘80s, she said. “They were not simply handguns, they were Uzis and AK-47s, sophisticated weapons brought in by the same CIA operatives who were selling the cocaine because they had to enforce bringing the profits back.”
After Webb’s series briefly grabbed headlines and provoked a media counterattack, Waters began her own investigation. After all, she says, her own constituents were asking “where are all the drugs coming from?” After visits to Central America and discussions with many of the individuals identified by Webb, including Ricky Ross, Waters concluded “that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies knew about drug trafficking in South Central Los Angeles and throughout the U.S.—and they let the dealing go on.”
With some audiences, the thesis that drugs entered the black community with official support comes as no surprise. “The first major jump in narcotics addiction in black neighborhoods followed the urban rebellions of the 1960s,” wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson in his 1990 book, The Mugging of Black America. “The ease of entry and the widespread availability of heroin gave rise to the first alarms by blacks that drugs were being used to control discontent and pacify the community.” And though Hutchinson’s reference is to heroin, not to cocaine, a CIA connection to the heroin trade has also been documented repeatedly, most notably since the Vietnam War.
One of the earliest accounts of CIA involvement in drug trafficking was developed by Alan McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. McCoy’s story has been corroborated over and over again by others. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny did it in two books, Endless Enemies and The Crimes of Patriots. And in his 1996 book, Smoke and Mirrors, author Dan Baum blasted the war on drugs.
In a book focused primarily on “expensive, ineffective, delusional and destructive” anti-drug programs and policies, Baum takes on the CIA in a short aside. The “CIA’s Air America [helped fund] the secret war in Laos by flying the dopelord’s smack…a decade later the CIA would get caught doing the same thing, this time subverting Congress’s specific prohibition against funding the Nicaraguan Contras by making unholy and lucrative deals with cocaine dealers.”
Since its 1996 publication, Webb’s story has been the target of deeply critical attacks by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and other influential media. Even the Dayton Daily News has joined the braying pack from time to time—most recently when Webb came to town to testify in support of Rion’s legal action. Though the News passed on the opportunity to interview Webb, it took a journalistic moment to note that his accusations had been denied by the CIA and repudiated by his own editor at the Mercury News. That gratuitous slam at Webb omitted mention of editor Jerry Ceppos’ equally important assertion that the central claims of “Dark Alliance” had not been factually challenged by any source.
To succeed, the disinformation campaign that overtook the Dark Alliance story needed an audience that could be persuaded that Gary Webb was an isolated nut travelling a winding road to nowhere that had been blazed by conspiracy crackpots before him. And, having consistently ignored, and even suppressed, previous reports of the CIA’s criminal history, mainstream media was perfectly positioned to launch its smear campaign against Webb and his story.
But if Webb is a nut, so, too, is Rep. Waters. And so is U.S. Senator John Kerry, whose subcommittee tried and succeeded, at least partially, to document the misdeeds of CIA agents and their Contra assets in Central America. And so are authors Hutchinson, McCoy, Kwitny and Baum. And so is David Neil, the military policy officer once stationed at Homestead Air Force base. And so is ex-DEA agent Celerino Castillo, who has told his own story of Contra drug trafficking to Webb, Waters and others, including testimony before a congressional committee.
Castillo even posted a statement on a web page maintained by ex-California narcotics officer, Michael Rupert. On the page, Castillo has listed numerous names and dates, all portions of reports of drug trafficking by the Contras and of CIA support for those activities that he submitted to his own superiors. “In 1991, before I departed the DEA, I met with FBI agent Mike Foster, investigator for the Office of the Independent Counsel on Iran-Contra,” wrote Castillo, “where I gave him detailed information of the Contras’ involvement in drugs.”
Despite the accumulated evidence, corporate media may be among the last U.S. institutions (along with the CIA, itself, and the courts) to admit what others know—that the CIA did it. But the question for everyone else is what to do next. In 1997, Lovelace, along with fellow commissioners Tony Capizzi and Bootsie Neal, wrote Rep. Tony Hall expressing concern about the allegations against the CIA. Hall responded with a letter of his own.
“This matter will be fully investigated. The CIA’s inspector general has launched an internal investigation, “ Hall wrote. Since that time, the CIA has completed that investigation and issued a report with a summary that claims “no information has been found…” to link the CIA to drug trafficking or drug traffickers.
But the summary’s conclusions are not supported by the hundreds of pages of materials that are included in the report. And, in March 1998, CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz appeared before a congressional committee and confessed that the CIA had maintained relationships with Contras and others who were allegedly involved in drug trafficking and, in an admission that Waters calls “the smoking gun,” admitted that CIA Director William Casey had negotiated an agreement with the Justice Department that would allow CIA agents to suppress information about drug trafficking by individuals with whom they had contact.
Though Congress has taken no further action and Hall has had no further contact with the city commission about the matter, the CIA’s report details, and Hitz’s admission, have provided a basis for legal action such as Rion’s. In California, three attorneys have filed a class action suit against the agency, the Department of Jutice (DOJ), and numerous government and former government officials . The suit alleges that inner-city residents of Los Angeles, Compton and other California cities “experienced particular economic, physical and/or emotional injuries arising from the neighborhoods hardest hit by the crack cocaine epidemic, such as: addiction tocrack cocaine, death or absence of loved ones due to drug-related crime, reduction of income, and increase in the number of defendants.” The suit also alleges that the communities as a whole suffered from a related “lack of safety, overburdened social services, loss of local businesses and damage to the tax base.”
The suit asks for “a declaration that the secret CIA/DOJ agreement and the consequent policy and practice of not reporting drug crimes were illegal.” It also asks for “an order requiring the CIA to report to the DOJ all possible drug crimes by all persons…” and “money to rebuild the community and fund drug treatment.”
Now, that seems like a good start. It may not be justice, but should any affected community settle for less?