These days it's CNN's Tailwind retraction, the Cincinnati Enquirer's $10 million Chiquita apology and the Boston Globe's scorched-earth campaign against its columnists. But the opening date of the current season of press second-guessing and recrimination might best be pegged to August 1996 and the publication, in the San Jose Mercury News, of Gary Webb's stories asserting a direct link between drug trafficking by the CIA-sponsored contras in Nicaragua and the crack-cocaine plague in Los Angeles. Webb's charge was denounced as preposterous by the mainstream press, by the CIA, even by his own newspaper, and the story consigned to history's dustbin.

Now come Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair with Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, a 400-page rejoinder to a complacent media and its sanitized version of America's global conduct. Cockburn, a British expatriate, is this nation's most widely published leftist commentator, whose biting analysis of world events and the press that reports them first appeared in The Village Voice, then the L.A. Weekly, and now The Nation, with syndicated pieces running regularly in the L.A. Times. St. Clair, an occasional collaborator of Cockburn's, writes from the Pacific Northwest and specializes in environmental expose.

Whiteout is vintage Cockburn, packed with infamous innuendo and chilling historical anecdotes that suggest stunning parallels to the present day. The press has long been a favorite foil for Cockburn, and Whiteout takes up Webb's banner by showing how other stories exposing U.S. covert operations received the same shabby treatment in the media. More important, the book seeks to demonstrate that, far from being outlandish, the international plot described by Webb follows a pattern established by American intelligence from the beginning of the postwar era.

Surprisingly, considering the disdainful treatment Webb received at the hands of his colleagues, it's not a hard case to make. The most obvious precedent is U.S. complicity in heroin trafficking in China and Burma, as reported by Alfred McKoy. A Yale graduate student who traveled to Southeast Asia in 1971, McKoy found extensive evidence of a scandal that scores of professional journalists had ignored or simply missed – that the CIA had become a leading sponsor in the production and transport of heroin, and that proceeds from the traffic went to support anti-communist client armies, particularly in Laos.

The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia was published in 1972, but only in spite of the fact that officials at the CIA visited the owner of McKoy's publisher, Harper & Row, and sought to kill the project. McKoy's findings have since been extensively corroborated, but at the time it was published, The Politics of Heroin received the skeptical treatment; its findings were written off as a partisan broadside by an antiwar activist.

The scenario was played out again in the 1980s, in Afghanistan. The CIA was determined to augment its $3 billion in financial and military support to the fundamentalist mujahedin against the occupying troops of the Soviet Union. That meant clearing the way for the rapid expansion of the heroin trade in central Asia, from the production of opium in the mountain fiefdoms controlled by the mujahedin themselves, to the lucrative heroin-processing labs of Pakistan, to the banks, like the BCCI, that laundered the proceeds of the traffic. The U.S. government was aware of the collateral damage of its war effort from the outset – as a DEA official told Congress in 1983, “There's no doubt about it. These rebels keep their cause going through the sale of opium” – but Washington chose to look the other way.

These episodes illustrate what Cockburn and St. Clair term “the classic CIA-drug paradigm”: the condoning or fostering of drug trafficking by agency associates in order to finance operations that could not otherwise obtain funding. If Whiteout does not break new ground here, it at least assembles some of the most egregious examples of this practice.

Unfortunately, Whiteout goes farther, touring the modern era to provide a catalog of nefarious deeds – some involving the drug traffic, some involving the CIA, and some bearing little on either – until the point seems lost altogether.

Thus do we encounter Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a co-founder of Murder Inc., sprung from jail in return for assisting Naval Intelligence to control the wartime waterfront; Operation Paperclip, by which the U.S. spirited Nazi scientists out of Europe to serve in military research projects; apartheid South Africa's chemical and biological weapons programs; and Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, long-time head of the CIA's Chemical Division who instigated the agency's notorious experiments with LSD. These are dark episodes, certainly, but they've been thoroughly documented elsewhere and relate only glancingly to Whiteout's thesis, that the CIA funds secret wars off proceeds of the drug trade. As a result, there's no center to the story. The book starts to drone.

What's lacking here is a sense of perspective. Cockburn and St. Clair seem satisfied to simply identify which players wear the black hats, then let the tape run. Rarely do the authors pause to explore the underlying currents of power and context that might help lift anecdote to the domain of history. Take their synopsis of the CIA-backed coup in Iran: “The country, dominated by British and U.S. oil companies and intelligence agencies, was producing 600 tons of opium a year and had 1.3 million opium addicts. . . . In August 1953, Mossadegh was overthrown, the Shah was installed by the CIA, and the oil and opium fields of Iran were once again in friendly hands.” To put opium on a par with oil in the politics of the Middle East is simply nonsense: In place of sustained analysis, Whiteout settles for lusty condemnation.

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.

LA Weekly