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Secret Agent Men 

Wednesday, Jul 22 1998
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Audible gasps went up from the Congressional hearing room as CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz dropped not one, but two bombshells.

For the first time, the CIA official publicly acknowledged that top agency officials were aware that "dozens of individuals and a number of companies" engaged in the CIA's covert war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government were involved in drug trafficking.

Moreover, the inspector general declared the CIA's practice of turning a blind eye to the narcotics dealings of agency "assets" was, in fact, a matter of Reagan-administration policy. Hitz revealed at the March 16 hearing that under a secret 1982 "Memorandum of Understanding" between then-CIA director William Casey and then-Attorney General William French Smith, agency officials were not required to report narcotics-trafficking activities, not even those of people on its own payroll.

Hitz's revelations came in the course of an 18-month CIA internal investigation sparked by former San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb's controversial 1996 series "Dark Alliance." (The articles alleged that contra-connected drug dealers helped introduce crack cocaine to the streets of Los Angeles.) The declassified first volume of Hitz's report, which discounted many of Webb's allegations, was released in January. A second volume remains classified.

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So how did the mainstream media - which expended acres of newsprint debunking not only Webb's story, but also the broader issue - respond to the historic disclosures? With barely a whimper.

The Washington Post buried a 531-word next-day story on the hearing on page A12. In 1996, by way of contrast, Post intelligence scribe Walter Pincus co-wrote a 3,786-word broadside against Webb's series.

Last Friday, The New York Times broke a 937-word story - albeit on the front page - about the inspector general's still-classified second volume. Reporter James Risen significantly advanced the story - disclosing, for instance, Hitz's finding that the decision to stay in business with known and suspected narcotics traffickers "was made by top officials at headquarters in Langley."

The poorest performance of the Big Three newspapers was turned in by our own Los Angeles Times, which followed on Saturday with a skimpy 549-word, unsigned story relegated to page A3. The Times' Washington Bureau chief, Doyle McManus, defended the coverage, telling OffBeat that Hitz's findings were "old news" that had been around since the Iran-contra hearings in the late 1980s.

Yet McManus' statement is undercut by his own words on the subject. In an October 1996 appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, McManus said that "still to be proven" were the following questions: "Did the CIA know anything about these contras . . . trafficking in drugs? Did the CIA fail to act against them?" Regarding the contention that the CIA failed to act on such information, McManus told the television audience, "That is troublesome if it turns out to be true." McManus' own 6,000-plus-word rebuttal to Webb's "Dark Alliance" series was replete with denials from former agency officials on this very point.

However, now that the CIA has acknowledged what they knew and when they knew it, McManus and his fellow apologists seem curiously at a loss for words.
- Sam Gideon Anson

Electric Company

Governor Pete Wilson is waging a quiet war to quash consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield's newest initiative, Proposition 9, the November ballot measure to overturn the $28 billion bailout of California's investor-owned electric utilities. Two and a half years ago, in the name of free-market deregulation, Wilson engineered the bailout that now has consumers paying about $20 each a month, for the next decade, to cover the energy giant's botched bets on nuclear power. Rosenfield's initiative would undo Wilson's legerdemain and put close to $300 a year back into the average consumer's wallet.

That calculation is bolstered by a preliminary analysis of Proposition 9 dated May 15 by staff at the California Energy Commission. But when Rosenfield cited the findings in his ballot argument, Wilson-appointed CEC chairman William J. Keese promptly disavowed his staff's report. In a July 16 letter to the secretary of state, whose office reviews ballot arguments, Keese called the report "noncomprehensive." He added that it was "based on assumptions made on provisions of the initiative open to interpretation," and not "the conclusions of the staff or the Energy Commission. Citation of this 'study' is inappropriate and misleading."

CEC officials now appear to be backpedaling, saying the report isn't "comprehensive," because it's still undergoing "internal review," and won't be completed until next month. But when asked if there were any problems with the projected savings cited in the report, officials simply declined to comment.
-Greg Goldin

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