BURDEN OF PROOF

Does the press have different standards of skepticism for different stories? The coverage of the CIA-crack story, compared to that of the various Clinton scandals, seems to indicate that it does.

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WASHINGTON —
At about noon EST yesterday, former drug enforcement agent Celerino Castillo III went before news cameras at the Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C. hoping to raise an old story to new heights. Castillo claimed that the Nicaraguan Contra army, assisted by the C.I.A., ran cocaine to the United States out of a U.S. Government airstrip at Ilo Pango, El Salvador in 1985. Castillo’s statements supported San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb’s recent reports that drugs from the Contras were funneled to street gangs in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, fueling the crack plague and inner-city street wars of the past 10 years.
The press greeted Castillo’s claims with considerable skepticism, and Castillo’s performance did little to change that. Castillo produced little evidence to support his allegations. He promised “documented” evidence of links between Contra drugs and C.I.A. — names and dates and tail numbers of actual smuggler planes — but produced only one page of xeroxed notes. When pressed by a local D.C.-area television reporter for the most damning piece of evidence he had, Castillo responded that he was going to withhold the information until he was convinced the press was “serious” about following the story. The room was already packed.
Nor did the people Castillo chose to appear with — aging comedian/amateur nutritionist Dick Gregory, who cracked jokes at points throughout the proceedings, and John Newman, a University of Maryland professor best known for his books on the Kennedy assassination — improve his credibility. Gregory and Newman did make some points apparently worth investigation — particularly that Senate hearings in the late ’80s on the Contra-drug connection had turned up worrisome evidence, and that no one has yet explained how tons of expensive cocaine and arsenals of weapons suddenly showed up in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods over the course of a few months in 1985. But Castillo might as well have invited Oliver Stone, as far as the effect on much of the assembled media went.
A reporter from the Washington Post finally put a stop to the dancing around, demanding forcefully that Castillo give specific names and dates. This indeed resulted in a few concrete answers, with the room’s audience suddenly going all scribbly. Castillo claimed that in 1985, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador had told him to stop investigating the drug smuggling at Ilo Pango, and said the number two man in the DEA at the time had knowingly ignored Castillo’s cables regarding the smuggling. Iran/Contra investigators failed to contact DEA agents on the ground during their inquiries into drug-running attached to the Iran/Contra events, he added. Again, reporters muttered that they were “not convinced,” and that “all we have is a sheet of notes and that’s it.”
The Mercury News stories also came under critical scrutiny. Some journalists raised questions about some of Webb’s sources, in particular “Freeway” Rick Ross, a currently incarcerated L.A. drug lord. Ross, a serious criminal who likely has his own agenda, possesses dubious credibility as a source with which to discredit the entire C.I.A.
In the face of any serious allegation, a healthy dose of press skepticism is justified. But the press seems to apply its skepticism unevenly. In other recent scandals, in particular those involving President Clinton, the press has been ready and willing to blow the story sky high, even though the sources may be equally dubious. When Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones accused the President of sexual improprieties, Clinton was guilty until proven innocent. The same holds true for Whitewater.
Seen in this perspective, the press’ nudge-nudge attitude towards the CIA-crack story seems more than a little inconsistent. On the credibility of Ross: Who in this sort of story isn’t a criminal, and isn’t out for themselves? And is Castillo any less credible than a prostitute who was paid for her story or a longtime enemy of the accused, as in the Dick Morris and Whitewater scandals?
So far, the story has received comparatively little press play. (See last Friday’s Newsreal for more on the media’s handling of the story.) “We’ve had media interest, but nothing to the level that we would have expected given the gravity of the charges,” said Joseph Lee, a legislative assistant for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who represents the district in South-Central Los Angeles and is researching Castillo’s allegations. Senator John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) office reported receiving “many phone calls” for transcripts of the Contra/drug hearings run by Kerry in the late ’80s, though an assistant in the office added that Salon’s call was “the first call today” following Castillo’s press conference.
In addition to Rep. Waters, Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, also California Democrats, have called for hearings to investigate the Mercury News evidence. Those hearings have been granted though not yet scheduled.
It will be interesting to see whether those hearings are covered as fully as the Whitewater ones. The line between fair coverage and irresponsible sensationalism can be hard to draw, particularly when one is talking about stories full of hatred, lies and, in Castillo’s case, high corruption with genocidal overtones: the claim is that the C.I.A. conspired to start a drug war in the inner city, and succeeded.
It may be our better nature that leads us to consider such charges beyond possibility. And it may be fair professionalism to question its messengers. But amid the half-smiles at the press conference yesterday was enough lingering suspicion for the proceedings to make the evening news. Castillo seemed worth a real look and a fair hearing in the public discourse, fully critical but hopefully less arch than the one greeting him yesterday. As Washington Post columnist William Raspberry noted yesterday morning, no one believed Watergate at first either.

Marc Herman is a freelance writer in Barcelona, Spain.

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