CRACK, CONTRAS AND CYBERSPACE

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Never mind the furor over the murder of rap star Tupac Shakur and the recriminations that are sure to erupt over the civil trial of a certain ex-football player. The hottest topic in black America, bar none, is whether the CIA was responsible for introducing crack cocaine to the ghetto. This idea is, of course, a hardy perennial among conspiracy theorists, who blame every plague that afflicts the black community on racist government plots. But this time it is not so easy to write off the talk as paranoid mumbo jumbo for two reasons: it springs, for once, from a credible source and is being spread via a new black lane on the information superhighway.

Last month the San Jose Mercury News published "Dark Alliance," a three-part series charging that the CIA was all mixed up with the drug lords who flooded South Central Los Angeles, and then the rest of America, with crack during the 1980s. Written by reporter Gary Webb after a yearlong investigation, the stories allege that a San Francisco Bay-area drug ring, headed by Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, two men with close ties to a CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan contra group known as the FDN, sold tons of coke to a notorious Los Angeles-based dealer named Freeway Rick Ross. Millions of dollars, according to Webb, were then sent back to the secret war against the leftist Sandinista regime. Webb provides a plethora of court documents, recorded interviews and photographs, all of which have been posted on the Mercury's site on the World Wide Web www.sjmercury.com/drugs/).

For the past few weeks the site has been getting up to 100,000 hits a day. There is no way to know how many of these came from blacks (14% of blacks have computers vs. 33% of whites), but the subsequent fire storm suggests there must have been plenty. According to Patricia Turner, whose book I Heard It Through the Grapevine is a definitive study of how information spreads in black America, this is the first time the Internet has electrified African Americans about a subject that most whites and the national news media are only dimly aware of. The "Black Telegraph"--as some African Americans call the informal word-of-mouth network they've used to keep in touch with one another since the days of slavery--has moved into cyberspace.

In the recent past the Black Telegraph, augmented by black-radio talk shows, has been a font of bizarre fantasies. Among them: the claim that Church's fried chicken is laced with a chemical that sterilizes black men and that aids was produced by government scientists to exterminate blacks and gays. But because the allegations in "Dark Alliance" were published by a respected, white-owned newspaper, they have credibility that the other tales lacked. As Joe Madison, a Washington talk-radio host who has devoted his program to "Dark Alliance" for the past month, explains, "We've always speculated about this, but now we've got proof."

Maybe. Maybe not. My colleague Elaine Shannon, who has covered the war on drugs for so long that she knows as much about it as any narc, reports, "Even sources who are routinely skeptical of the official line on the contras agree that the idea that the agency was behind drug smuggling by the contras is fantasy. In the late 1980s the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations spent two years chasing allegations that the CIA had funded the contras with cocaine money. In the end the committee found that the CIA and the contras had, indeed, used a number of traffickers, criminals and brigands to smuggle arms or stand guard at airports. But the committee could not prove that these individuals' freelance criminal activities had been sanctioned, organized or furthered by the intelligence agency, much less that they were all part of an organized scheme to underwrite the contra war."

To settle the issue Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters is pushing for hearings, and has demanded an explanation from CIA Director John Deutch. He responded in writing that a review of CIA files turned up no proof that the agency had either participated in or condoned drug trafficking by the contras. However, to "dispel any lingering public doubt on the subject," Deutch reiterated last week that he has asked the agency's inspector general to review the Mercury's charges. The Justice Department has also launched a probe.

But if Deutch thinks anyone in black America is going to take the word of those two organizations, he's mistaken. Black Americans have been the targets of so much hostility that many of them would not put it past their own government to finance the war against communism by addicting thousands of people. Conspiracy mongers like Dick Gregory (who was arrested at CIA headquarters a couple of weeks ago trying to give Deutch a copy of the Mercury series) and Lyndon Larouche (who wants to put George Bush on trial as "the crack kingpin of the '80s") are fanning the flames with all their might. For that reason the allegations in the Mercury series need to be investigated by an independent commission with enough credibility that its findings will be believed--and the sooner the better. The charges are too serious to be explored only by spies and the lunatic fringe.