Snow-Blind on 43rd Street

The Times’ Silence on Plan Colombia

Thank God that New York Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld has stamped out drug reporting at the paper this year. Last January, he gave an honorable discharge to Chris Wren, who had been on the beat since 1996. Lelyveld says he's going to name a replacement, but don't hold your breath.

Not doing drugs is a fine decision and one that has spared the Times lots of blood, sweat, and scoops. Thus, four Times reporters attended the drug panel at Philadelphia's Shadow Conventions, but none of them blinked when Jesse Jackson denounced the drug war for sending a generation of minorities to jail. They left that angle to The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, all of which reported it the next day. Ever race-conscious, the Times national edition ran a photo of Jackson, with a caption indicating he had spoken on "multicultural" issues.

Timesman Fox Butterfield is a paragon of drug reporting lite. Thus, when the news broke last week that Uncle Sam has locked up some 2 million people, largely drug offenders, Butterfield repeated the government's spin that the prison boom has more to do with recidivism than the drug war. Never mind Jackson's contention that 80 percent of drug offenders are nonviolent. That's the kind of critical detail best left to Butterfield's hometown paper, the Globe.

Yes, the Times' zero tolerance policy has paid off. They didn't have to cover last week's other drug story, when Clinton handed a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jim Burke, chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "No American has done more to save the children of this country from the horror of drug abuse than Jim Burke," Clinton has said. The Times could have added that Burke and General Barry McCaffrey have been paying the media to lace its content with anti-drug messages—but Salon already broke that story.

Now consider how the Times has covered Plan Colombia, Clinton's $1.3 billion gift to a country that desperately wants to crack down on its Marxist guerrillas, er, drug traffickers. It's a major story, as Max Frankel noted in the Times April 30, one that deserves lots of extra manpower to unravel, and about which "it would be unwise to expect trustworthy information from Washington."

Indeed, as the Times' Tim Golden reported March 6, Clinton's foray into Colombia was born of heavy lobbying by military subcontractors, including helicopter manufacturers who are seeking a "foothold in a rich and growing Latin American market." Columnist Arianna Huffington and Newsweek quickly added names to the roll call of drug warriors, including Lockheed Martin, which makes radar systems, and Occidental Petroleum, which has oil rigs in Colombia.

On July 6, Golden reported on yet another businessman with a drug war jones, Dr. David Sands, who went to Bogotá last spring to persuade the Colombians to carpet bomb their own coca fields with a fungus that no one wants to test in America. A fuller story appeared on Motherjones.com on May 3. (On a side note, Sands wants to drop the fungus out of high-flying C-130s, just like the cargo planes once used by the CIA to run dope out of Vietnam. Even the Times' Anthony Lewis has called the parallels between Vietnam and Colombia "spooky.")

This showcase of military synergy was masterminded by McCaffrey, a discredited veteran of the Gulf War, as The New Yorker pointed out earlier this year. His office ostensibly merits scrutiny, but the Times has no drug reporter, and its State Department and Pentagon reporters are focused elsewhere. That leaves Golden and Larry Rohter, the Times' bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro. Rohter has filed solid stories on Colombia, but he never questions what the U.S. is doing there. Even if it is about fighting drugs, is this really a war we can win?

Whether by accident or design, the Times has yet to connect the dots. Last February, The Dallas Morning News correctly predicted that Plan Colombia would be outsourced to DynCorp and Military Professional Resources Inc. (the former has employed Vietnam vets; the latter is run by a former Defense Intelligence Agency director). The Financial Times says these companies "essentially provide mercenaries."

Mercenaries? In the drug war? If the Times had listened to Frankel, they would not have been scooped by the Los Angeles Times, which reported August 6 that the U.S. Special Forces have just landed in Colombia, where they will train a new batch of soldiers in the delicate task of "crop eradication." A Timesman might have hesitated when embassy officials said the recruits are being screened to weed out human rights abusers. As Human Rights Watch has documented, the Colombian military is closely linked to torture and murder.

A Times report on the Special Forces would have to admit the group is made up mainly of Green Berets and Navy SEALs. That would lead to the question of whether Special Forces have ever been in Colombia before. (They have, notably in 1996 and 1997, when Clinton cut off aid to Colombia.) According to a 1998 Washington Post series, a legal loophole allows the Special Forces to train foreign troops without subjecting them to human rights review.

Are there credible connections between U.S. troops and the paramilitaries who kill civilians in Colombia? Amnesty International has evidence that suggests the Special Forces looked the other way when just such a massacre took place in Mapiripan in 1997. So far, the Times hasn't touched it—but they did run a story by Larry Rohter, detailing the El Salado massacre last February. The timing was perfect: It was published July 14, one day after Clinton signed the bill approving aid to Colombia.

Corruption in Colombia should bother more people than the Daily News' Juan Gonzalez, who has written on the massacres, and former Voice reporter Bill Bastone, who broke the news about Colonel James Hiett. Remember Hiett? He was sent to Colombia in 1998, to head up the Special Forces. But then he forgot to report that his own wife was smuggling drugs out of the embassy. With all those State Department people snoozing, it's no wonder the Times ended up snow-blind.

But there may be a good reason the Times' Colombia reporting has slipped through the cracks. It's a dangerous country, best left to reporters like the AP's Will Weissert, who's been filing almost daily for the last month. So when Clinton travels to Bogotá on August 30, the Times can safely say they don't have anyone on the beat.

Ironically, that was the case in 1954, when the CIA mounted a secret invasion of Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company. The Times had helped pave the way with a series hyping the Communist threat. But when the late Timesman Sydney Gruson began telling the truth about Guatemala, the CIA began spreading a lie that Gruson was a Communist. The rumor found its way to then Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who kept Gruson out of Guatemala until the coup was complete.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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