If the only thing you know about the US Central Intelligence Agency is that a 1996 San Jose Mercury News report accusing the CIA of contributing to the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles was dismissed by government officials and mainstream journalists as African-American hysteria, you're likely to take their word for it. The US government helping the Contras purchase weapons with the proceeds of crack sales by gang members in South Central Los Angeles? Yeah, right.
WhiteOut: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press
by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (Verso, $17)
Veteran muckrakers Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair will make you a believer. Cockburn, the well-known columnist for The Nation, joins with St. Clair, a colleague at the hard-driving newsletter Counterpunch, to write a book that's more than just a history of the US government's role in international drug dealing. Whiteout is an encyclopedia of covert psychological and sociological research and experimentation performed on unknowing subjects since the early 1900s. It's the kind of expos頰eople like Katherine Graham don't think should be available in bookstores. "We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know—and shouldn't," the now-retired Washington Post president told an audience of CIA recruits in 1988. "I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows."
Some of the most closely held government secrets—secrets the press has decided not to print—are unmasked in Whiteout's shocking third chapter, "The History of Black 'Paranoia.'" The government had a lot practice targeting African Americans and other minorities in the decades prior to the CIA's alleged crack-cocaine enterprise. Distributing cholera-infected blankets to Native Americans; the Tuskegee syphilis experiments; the FBI's "COINTELPRO" campaign against the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers, and other dissenting voices of the '60s; forced sterilization of "mental degenerates" (which inspired the Nazi program); using cattle prods and LSD to prevent homosexuality among children; infecting black prisoners with malaria (cited by Nazi doctors in their defense at Nuremburg); releasing millions of yellow-fever- and dengue- fever-infected mosquitoes over predominately black Southern towns—these are hardly the signs of a flourishing democracy.
During the '50s and '60s, sadistic "doctors" and "scientists" flourished under the CIA's MK-ULTRA program. One, Dr. Harris Isbell of the Center for Addiction Research in Lexington, Kentucky, kept black heroin addicts high on LSD for up to 77 days in a row (some were strapped to tables and injected through the eyes). Government-funded researchers secretly gave LSD to children, San Francisco prostitutes, New York partygoers, prominent European leftists, and to CIA agents themselves, one of whom freaked out and mysteriously "jumped" out of a 10th-story window. Scientists even considered, according to a CIA memo, "putting some in a city water supply and having citizens wander around in more or less a happy state, not terribly interested in defending themselves."
Equally appalling is the story, colorfully told by Cockburn and St. Clair, of the US government's affiliation with mobsters such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano. In exchange for help in fighting Mussolini and preventing sabotage of American ships, Luciano and other mafiosi won protection from law enforcement officials, cushy government positions in postwar Italy, and—with a hand from immigration officials in the Americas and Europe—their freedom. Luciano went on to build one of the world's largest heroin operations; the predominately black ghettos of New York and Washington, DC, ranked among his most profitable distribution points.
The US government's postwar rescue and assimilation of former Nazi military officers, doctors, and scientists makes for even more sickening reading. "Operation Paperclip" perpetuated the careers of Nazis who dissected live prisoners, infected people with bubonic plague, detonated germ bombs above men tied to stakes, locked people in low-pressure chambers until their brains exploded, and sewed mustard gas and glass into the wounds of women prisoners. Within a few years, American scientists were feeding radioactive oats to mentally retarded boys, injecting poor blacks with plutonium, and releasing clouds of radioactive iodine over residential communities. Aided by the US in his escape to South America, Klaus Barbie helped the Bolivian government hunt down, torture, and murder priests, union organizers, Native Americans, and opposition leaders—while profiting from and helping to build a $3 billion-a-year cocaine operation.
Relying on vast primary and secondary source material, Cockburn and St. Clair also document the roles of the CIA and other US intelligence agencies in drug trafficking enterprises in Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Burma, Colombia, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Thailand, and Vietnam. They devote a chapter on the purported Contra-supply, drug-dealing, and money-laundering operation Oliver North helped establish in Mena, Arkansas, during the gubernatorial watch of Bill Clinton. Just for fun, the authors recount the CIA's sometimes comical efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro—and to get him high, like when operatives tried to get him to smoke LSD-laced cigars.
When it comes to the CIA, what you don't know might not hurt you. But it just might make you want to throw up.