Friday, March 9, 2018

It's not always tin foil hat time

As a rule, I tend to discount conspiracy theories, especially ones that involve the government. I'm a retired federal employee. I've seen first hand just how remarkably incompetent the government can be. Unfortunately, every so often an actual real world example comes along that can bolster the tin foil hat wearers' belief in a truly wide range of weirdness, especially when the real world example is something that has most people with two brain cells to rub together wondering how anyone anywhere could have believed what they were doing was a good idea.

The U.S. government does have, if not a long list, enough examples of really stupid projects and policies that they either pretended didn't exist or tried to deny once they were uncovered to make you wonder if some agencies have reverse IQ tests they use for hiring managers. Like the Tuskegee Experiment, an exercise in medical malpractice that served absolutely no useful purpose and sentenced innocent participants to suffer and die in particularly nasty ways. The supposed justification for the project was to observe the progress of untreated syphilis, a truly stupid rationale when the disease course of syphilis had been well-documented for decades and its final outcomes were extremely well-known.

The Public Health Service began the study in 1932 at a time when the treatments for syphilis could be as bad as the disease itself (injections of mercury or arsenic into the urethra, for example), but once penicillin became available a few years later the ethical thing to do was to stop the study and treat every participant. Except they didn't. And then they lied about it for decades.

Ditto the drug testing military intelligence did during the Cold War. For years there were rumors that the government had administered various hallucinogenic drugs to enlisted personnel without their knowledge. Oh, sometimes the men involved were aware they were part of a medical experiment.  Note the word "sometimes." What they often weren't aware of was what drugs were involved and when and how they might be administered. One poor sap, for example, had LSD slipped into his coffee and totally flipped out in public when he began hallucinating. Another committed suicide. Many suffered flashbacks and psychological problems for decades.

At the time the weirdness was going on the military did its best to keep it all super secret, but rumors did creep out. The S.O. and I even know someone who may have been a victim of the military's bizarre experiments: he wasn't in the Army very long, wound up with a medical discharge, and now collects a disability pension. He came back from the military with some odd personality quirks, and suffered enough "episodes" that he did a stint or two in the state mental hospital. If someone calls him crazy, he can say, "yes, I am, and here are the papers to prove it." He swore for years that the Army had experimented on him with LSD. We all laughed and made jokes about how he was crazy before he went in so how would he know the difference?

Except then we found out the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency both did a lot of experimenting with hallucinogenics and other drugs in the 1950's and '60's. Maybe our slightly odd neighbor wasn't lying after all.

Which brings me to the 1980's, Iran-Contra, and the tidal wave of cocaine that swept over the United States about thirty years ago. The S.O. and I just watched Kill the Messenger, a film based on the life of journalist Gary Webb. Webb was an investigative reporter in California who stumbled across another U.S. government operation that was unbelievably misguided and wound up doing lasting major damage to the country. Webb had been digging into stories related in various ways to drug dealing and drug trafficking.

After Webb had a story published highlighting the way local, state, and federal government benefited from forfeiture laws (i.e., the seizure of any and all property that could have been obtained using illegal drug trafficking money) he was approached by a woman whose boyfriend was about to be tried as a drug dealer. She had a copy of the transcript of grand jury proceedings that indicated a key government witness was a paid informant who had gone well beyond simply observing drug dealers in action. The prosecuting attorney's minions had screwed up and inadvertently included the document in a stack of other material requested during the discovery process. The transcript indicated the informant had been an active participant and worked with U.S. government agents in transporting cocaine from central America into the United States.

Webb was intrigued and began digging into it. It didn't take him long to discover that the story was even worse than the initial clues suggested. Turned out the U.S. government in the form of the Reagan administration and the CIA were so focused on helping the Contras fight the Sandinistas in Nicaragua that they were willing to engage in multiple levels of shady dealings. Congress didn't want to provide funding for a covert dirty war in Central America so the CIA got creative. They actively facilitated smuggling thousands and thousands of pounds of cocaine into the United States and then passed the proceeds from the sales of the drugs on to the Contras in Nicaragua. End result? A cocaine and crack cocaine epidemic in this country. Dealers told Webb that there was so much cocaine coming in the market was saturated. They had so much to move they had trouble selling it. When the price of crack cocoaine dropped so low it was cheaper to get than a few 40-ouncers from the corner liquor store, you know the number of users is going to climb. In short, the CIA created the crack cocaine problem in America's inner cities.

Webb spent a lot of time investigating the story, tracked down various sources in Central America, and in general did a stellar job of journalism. His reporting was published as three part series in the San Jose Mercury News. So what was the reaction? The CIA freaked out, of course, and set out to kill the story and destroy Webb. They did a nice job of doing both. They managed to get the mainstream media -- both print and broadcast -- to paint Webb as someone who had a past record of shoddy work, that the story itself was unverifiable and basically a work of fiction, and no way, no how would an agency of the U.S. government ever do such a thing. Terrified of being cut off from the pathways of power inside the Beltway, the major news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times fell all over themselves trashing Webb instead of doing any in depth investigation themselves.  Somehow the fact that all their sources claiming Webb was wrong came from folks either inside the CIA or with ties to it wasn't a problem for them. Webb's career went down in flames, he wound up resigning his job with the Mercury News, and never worked as a journalist again. He died in 2004, becoming, so far as I know, the only suicide victim to manage to shoot himself in the head twice. (So, yes, there are quite a few people who believe Webb was whacked by someone doing wet work for the CIA. It would have been a delayed payback, but no one has ever accused the government of moving fast on anything.)

As we all now know, Webb was right. The CIA was indeed deeply enmeshed in peddling drugs to Americans so the Contras could fight the Communist scourge in Nicaragua. Webb's article caught the attention of Congresswoman Maxine Waters and other urban leaders. Various rocks got flipped over, and the proverbial fecal matter hit the fan. Within a few years, everyone who bothered to pay attention knew that Webb's accusations were dead on: One agency within the U.S. government had actively worked with drug smugglers and contributed in a major way to the same drug epidemic other agencies claimed to be fighting. There is a certain bizarre irony in the fact that while Nancy Reagan was busy telling America's young people to "just say No" Ronnie's boys at the CIA were hauling coke in by the C-130 load.

It is also worth noting that as in true in just about everything the CIA touches, in the end nothing good came of it. Inner cities in this country still haven't recovered from the crack epidemic. Americans were given one more reason to never trust anything our government tells us. If the CIA was willing to sell crack in Compton, why should we believe them when they say Area 51 doesn't exist and that they're not implanting RIF chips in people's butts?

And, despite all the money funneled to the Contras, the Sandinistas still won elections in Nicaragua-- the country has had a progressive, left of center, democratically elected government for a couple decades now. The country has in fact become one of those places that shows up on "Househunters International" occasionally as a destination for Americans looking for a safe and cheaper lifestyle than what's available in the U.S. (It looks nice. If it wasn't for the active volcanoes and devastating earthquakes, it might not be a bad place to live.)

In any case, if Congress was serious about cutting waste from the budget and eliminating unnecessary agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency would be a good place to start. They're consistently wrong on just about everything they do and they leave a trail of domestic wreckage and trashed international relations wherever they go.

Final thought: Kill the Messenger is worth watching. It's not great cinema, but it is a compelling and interesting story. Depressing, because you know that poor sap Gary Webb is just going to get totally screwed at the end, but nonetheless interesting. It also evokes waves of nostalgia in anyone who's ever worked for a newspaper -- it's a sad reminder of the glory days a mere 20 years ago when newspapers still had multiple reporters and relied on them for local news instead of conning unpaid local writers into contributing free web content.