Two years ago last month, a reporter working a long way from Washington touched off one of the hottest journalistic firefights of the ’90s. Gary Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning San Jose Mercury News reporter, spent more than a year interviewing cops and coke dealers, and slogging through court transcripts before reporting that the CIA-backed Contras, during their 1980s guerrilla war with the Nicaraguan government, had turned to cocaine dealing to raise money for their cause. In effect, Webb charged, the Contras and their backers had helped to bring the scourge of crack cocaine to mostly black South Central Los Angeles.

It was an explosive accusation—but the big national media dismissed Webb’s story. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell assailed the reporter’s work as “a conspiracy theory” spread by talk radio. And big papers like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which had been scooped on its home turf, followed suit. The stories were just black paranoia, they maintained: As Michael A. Fletcher wrote in the Post, “In the African American community the allegations have hit a nerve, highlighting an inclination, born of bitter history and captured in polls, to accept as fact rumors about conspiracies targeting blacks.”

After an amazing barrage of attacks—the Post ran four anti-Webb stories in a single day—the reporter was left for dead on the battlefield.

But then, last March, Fred P. Hitz, who as the CIA’s inspector general had been ordered to look into Webb’s allegations, took a seat before a congressional committee and dropped two large bombs. “Let me be frank about what we are finding,” he told the startled senators. “There are instances where the CIA did not…cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity.” Did that include drug sales inside the U.S.? Yes.

And Hitz stammered out an account of what he called “a rather odd history”: The CIA had been free to lie about its involvement with drug dealers, he explained, because back in 1982 the agency had obtained from the Reagan Justice Department a secret agreement allowing it to hide drug dealing by “non-employees”—who were defined to include “pilots who ferried arms to the Contras, as well as Contra officials and others.”

Now, as a response to this rather astonishing series of events, Nation reporter and press critic Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair of In These Times have published Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press. Cockburn has long been known for his unbeatable eye for shaky establishment cant and for the vituperative verve of his prose; his cool, slashing deconstructions of various unfortunate New Republic and New York Times luminaries are legend. With St. Clair and Ken Silverstein, he also publishes CounterPunch, a feisty D.C.-based investigative newsletter that has often exposed CIA chicanery.

So it’s no surprise that Whiteout’s first order of business is to lay down a vigorous defense of Webb’s reporting and an even tougher assault on his critics. Apparently, not one national news organization tried to develop, rather than refute, Webb’s findings. The Los Angeles Times team of reporters looking into Webb’s reports called itself the “Get Gary Webb Team,” and one of its members boasted in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer. Another telling story-behind-the-story nugget is that Post reporter Walter Pincus, who co-authored one of the sharpest attacks on Webb, was once a CIA recruit—and has reportedly been referred to around the agency as “the CIA’s house reporter.”

But the authors’ ambition is of a wider scope. Clearly exasperated by decades of incidents like the Webb case (10 years ago, a pair of Associated Press reporters who wrote a story making the CIA-Contra-drug link were hastily abandoned by their bosses after the Reagan administration attacked not their story but their politics), Cockburn and St. Clair set out to show that the kind of arrangement that Gary Webb uncovered—in which the CIA allies itself with drug thugs the better to leverage its attacks on political enemies and in exchange helps the dealers ply their trade—is far from unique. They argue, in fact, that such alliances form a key pattern in the agency’s operating methods.

The CIA has conspired with drug dealers since its inception following World War II—indeed, before that. One of Whiteout’s best stories is the tale of how the agency’s wartime forerunners sprang Mafia murderer and heroin dealer Lucky Luciano from prison as recompense for his help in ensuring the success of the Allied invasion of Sicily: Luciano rounded up hundreds of New York Sicilians, who helped the military assemble detailed maps that proved crucial for the invasion’s success. After the war, Lucky got a parole, and the U.S. rewarded the Sicilian Mafia with mayorships throughout southern Italy. Thus, quite ironically, was the Mafia restored to power in Italy after having been nearly eliminated by Mussolini.

But the U.S. knew what it was doing: After the war, Cockburn and St. Clair charge, the brand-new CIA enlisted the dons’ aid in a covert campaign of terror to prevent communists and leftists from winning posts in the Italian elections. On agency orders, the Mafia torched political offices and opened fire on a peaceful May Day celebration in Palermo, killing 11 people; it also assassinated labor organizers. As the elections neared, the Mafia was performing about five political killings a week. In France, in similar fashion, the CIA turned to Corsican gangs to break up a strike on the Marseilles docks. The Corsicans, too, were set to the murdering of labor leaders, as well as spreading CIA money around to scabs.

The establishment of this network of alliances was eventually felt in the U.S., too. Whiteout relates that, as Luciano rebuilt his heroin empire, he and the Corsicans formed a profitable partnership—which came to be known as the French Connection. The Luciano-Corsican heroin syndicate poured heroin onto U.S. streets for more than a decade—and enjoyed the CIA’s protection at least into the 1970s. A 1976 Justice Department report says that in 1973, the CIA, citing national security, pressured the U.S. to drop charges against a group of Corsican heroin dealers.

The pattern repeated again and again in the postwar years, as Whiteout outlines: During the Vietnam War, just as in Nicaragua, the CIA handed out airplanes to its drug allies. When the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) discovered that the CIA’s clients were smuggling heroin into the U.S. in body bags, the agency intervened to prevent their prosecution. And in Afghanistan, CIA officials have long known that the big prize for the locals was never victory over the Soviets, but dominion over the poppy fields. As the Taliban recently started to sew up control over the country, it cranked up output: Afghanistan is now the world’s No. 1 supplier of raw opium.

Why does the CIA seem almost to seek out drug dealers as partners? As Cockburn and St. Clair suggest, part of the answer is certainly tactics: The CIA needs lots of “black” cash and violent men with guns to carry out its operations, and large-scale drug dealing generates both.

But there is also the matter of politics. And this is the most useful insight Whiteout offers: Of course the CIA’s anti-communist allies are all drug dealers—what could be more entrepreneurial, more absolutely free-market (and more profitable) than big-time drug dealing? Talk about your private-sector heroes: to a drug cartel, the DEA and Interpol are just government over-regulation. (This seems to be pretty much the CIA’s view, too.) It only makes sense that the agency, America’s underground Cold War army, has consistently picked the most gung-ho free traders around. Who else?

But that’s a view with disquieting implications: Free markets and entrepreneurialism are our post-Cold War political faiths. And for 50 years, our media and politicians have assured us that those values are the natural allies of democracy and human progress. Maybe they are. But Whiteout reminds us that during the Cold War, the CIA didn’t just talk the talk, it walked the walk. And time after time it got partnered up with people who were as anti-communist and entrepreneurial as they come—and who were criminals and killers in the bargain. Killers of communists, socialists, labor activists, struggling peasants, priests, children—and democrats.

Finally, then, Whiteout’s big question is whether the national media’s consistent misreporting on the CIA (as typified by their responses to Webb’s work) is just bad journalism—or something more like overt social control. In 1988, Washington Post President Katharine Graham told a group of CIA recruits, “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.” Whiteout has its flaws—it offers more information than analysis, and it is a bit less gracefully written than most work with Cockburn’s name attached—but it provides plenty of evidence that the big media practice exactly what Graham preaches. It thus leaves us to ponder who suffers—and who is served by—this strikingly elitist view of a “free” press.CP