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Crack victims sue CIA for damages

DONNA WARREN lives with the scars of America's crack cocaine epidemic every day of her life. Not only has she seen her neighbourhood, South Central Los Angeles, turn from a cohesive African-American suburb into a gang-ravaged wasteland of slums and failed businesses, but she saw her own son, Joey, go through 12 years of addiction before witnessing his murder in the family living-room.

"Joey was the love of my life," she says. "Crack turned him from a loving, outgoing, bright kid into a zombie. And now it's time for the government to take responsibility for what it has done."

Ms Warren is one of two named plaintiffs in a massive class-action suit being mounted against the CIA, the Justice Department and other government agencies by a team of lawyers convinced that the 1980s crack epidemic was rooted in a specific, identifiable cause: the illicit funding of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua through drugs smuggling and the complicity of US agents in permitting the export of cheap cocaine to their own inner cities.

The Los Angeles neighbourhoods of Compton and South Central were the hardest-hit, but by no means the only, inner city areas to be blighted from the early 1980s onwards. According to the suit, the Reagan administration's support of the Contras - which continued illegally even after Congress voted to cut off aid in 1984 - was effectively funded through the destruction of some of the poorest, most helpless sections of American society.

"The drugs pitted brother against brother and criminalised the African- American community," Ms Warren said. "The only reason the gangs became so powerful was because of the drugs."

This potentially explosive thesis has been aired before, notably in a controversial series of newspaper articles in the San Jose Mercury-News three years ago that resulted in the journalist responsible for them, Gary Webb, losing his job. The difference this time is that Mr Webb's thesis has been largely substantiated by three government reports that have crept out in the past year.

Although they have received little publicity, the reports confirm that the CIA, in particular, knew its operatives and contacts were engaged in drug smuggling but did nothing to stop it. The agency has admitted the existence of a secret memorandum from the Justice Department, signed in 1982 when the Nicaraguan civil war was heating up, that said the agency did not have to report drugs-related activities. That cloaked the traffickers' activities in the mantle of national security.

The government reports deny any direct involvement by the CIA in the drugs trade, but they make clear that officials at the State and Justice Departments, as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Naturalisation Service, were complicit in granting special privileges to major Contra-supporting traffickers, in some cases arranging their illegal entry into the US.

"There was a policy of deliberate silence," said Bill Simpich, one of two lead lawyers mounting the suit. "This is the Opium Wars in another guise." What this adds up to, says Mr Simpich, is a colossal burden of responsibility for the federal government. "[They] knew or should have known that failing to report drug crimes would interfere with law enforcement agencies' efforts to halt the importation of cocaine, and that this would ultimately result in a `crack epidemic', involving addiction, death, increased crime, higher taxes, exhaustion of social services and destruction of businesses," the suit argues.

The wonder is that the government reports have not made greater waves, but they were released in a year when the US was almost wholly fixated by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The plaintiffs now want recognition that the US government broke the law, and an assurance that the secret memorandum sanctioning the drugs traffic be repealed in perpetuity.

"The government foisted drugs and guns on us and then turned around and told us it was our fault," Ms Warren said. "That's what we're fighting against here."