In addition, the sketchy sourcing in Whiteout continually raises questions of veracity. Government documents are quoted without reference, and contradictions are glossed over. In the case of Luciano, for example, we are told that after the war, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs held him responsible for making Cuba the "center of all international narcotics operations," and that BNDD agents were assigned "to haunt Luciano's every move." In the same paragraph, however, the U.S. is reproached for "official indulgence shown toward Luciano's narcotics network."
Such contradictions - also vintage Cockburn - are particularly vexing in the chapter on Mena, the section of the book that relies most heavily on the authors' own reporting. A small town in Arkansas, Mena boasted an airstrip that served as a staging area for Ollie North's contra airlift and for several world-class drug smugglers.
Whiteout's profile of operations at Mena ranges far beyond what has previously been established, describing massive money laundering and arms manufacture - even the production of chemical weapons for use by the contras. This scenario is based, however, largely on the testimony of two alleged swindlers - Terry Reed, a pilot charged with falsely staging the theft of an airplane to collect insurance money, and Michael Roconoscuito, a convicted drug trafficker.
That is thin sourcing, and Cockburn has already been taken to task for it by Richard Behar at Time magazine, who in 1992 ridiculed a Nation column Cockburn wrote on Mena. Behar alleged that Reed had concocted his story in order to dodge a charge of bogus insurance claims, and noted that Reed was never able to produce any reference to himself in any of the extensive documentation relating to Mena and the contras. Cockburn needs to answer this challenge, but he is content simply to denounce it, while deriding Behar's editors at Time as Clinton acolytes.
That's not to say that allegations like Reed's are simply to be ignored, or that stories of possible misconduct should not see print unless sanctioned by a federal indictment. Such early warning signals often precede earth-shaking revelations, and Cockburn's column is one of the best places in print to find the deeper stories that lurk behind the day's headlines. But at book length, readers have a right to expect critical passages to be more developed, and more definitive. Instead, in Whiteout we have warmed-over versions of the first draft. It's not a book so much as a rambling clip job, unleavened by the added research a cloth-bound volume might imply.
Still, the book has its merits. The U.S. press and its audience have consistently chosen to ignore the perfidies carried out under their collective nose. The story is out there, recorded in the history of places like Burma and Peshwar and Tegucigalpa, but without writers like Cockburn and St. Clair, and publishers like Verso, the official version is the only one that survives. It's overzealous and sometimes indiscriminate, but Whiteout is no snow job.