Gary Webb is dead.
He was the journalist who wrote a famous–or infamous–1996 series for the San Jose Mercury News that maintained a CIA-supported drug ring based in Los Angeles had triggered the crack epidemic of the 1980s. On Friday, the 49-year-old Webb, who won a Pulitzer Prize for other work, apparently shot himself. His “Dark Alliances” articles spurred outrage and controversy. Leaders of the African-American community demanded investigations. Mainstream newspapers–including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times–questioned his findings. And nearly a year after the pieces appeared, the Mercury News published a criticism of the series; Webb was demoted and soon left the newspaper. Two years later, he published a book based on the series.
Webb’s tale is a sad one. He was on to something but botched part of how he handled it. He then was blasted and ostracized. He was wrong on some important details but he was, in a way, closer to the truth than many of his establishment media critics who neglected the story of the real CIA-contra-cocaine connection. In 1998, a CIA inspector general’s report acknowledged that the CIA had indeed worked with suspected drugrunners while supporting the contras. A Senator named John Kerry had investigated these links years earlier, and the media had mostly ignored his findings. After Webb published his articles, the media spent more time crushing Webb than pursuing the full story. It is only because of Webb’s work–as flawed as it was–that the CIA IG inquiry happened. So, then, it is only because of Webb that US citizens have confirmation from the CIA that it partnered up with suspected drug traffickers in the just-say-no years and that the Reagan Administration, consumed with a desire to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, allied itself with drug thugs.
As the news of Webb’s death circulated across the Internet, some of his fans took the opportunity to demand that I issue a posthumous apology to him. Why? Because I had been critical of his series and book. But my criticism was different from that of the mainstream press. I maintained he had overstated the case and had not proven his more cinematic allegations. But I also credited him for forcing the issue and prodding the CIA to come clean. No one at the Times (New York or Los Angeles) or the Post managed to do that. And though there were problems with Webb’s work, it is a pity that he was so brutally hounded.
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His death is a dark end to a dark story.
For those of you who want more details on Webb, below I have posted some of my previous comments on him and his “Dark Alliance” work.
An excerpt from Gary Webb’s ‘Dark Alliance’ Ignored by Dailies
By Cory Zurowski
August 20, 1998
…Scant coverage of stories showing links between CIA-backed jungle patriots and drug trafficking is old news, says David Corn, The Nation editor and New York Press columnist who reviewed “Dark Alliance” for the Washington Post and said the book “has flaws,” but also called it “an important piece of recent history.”
“Over 10 years ago, [AP reporters] Bob Parry and Brian Barger did a bunch of stories about the government and Contra drug dealers,” says Corn. “[Senator] John Kerri’s subcommittee that came out a few years later also had evidence connecting the Contras and drugs. In both instances, it was treated as too unbelievable to be mainstream by the Washington press corp. They took and printed what the government wanted and didn’t think there was any basis to look anymore into the subject.
“I assume the alternative press is covering this because they’re doing their jobs. They’re looking into subjects the mainstream media has ignored or hasn’t caught onto yet … If the Washington Post or New York Times had done their job back in the ’80s, we wouldn’t be talking about this now.”
When you’re done reading this article,visit David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on the possibility Senator Joe Lieberman will take over the Department of Homeland Security and The New Republic‘s new loyalty test for “decent” liberals.
From The Washington Post, August 8, 1998
Following a Trail of Powder
By David Corn
Reviewed: Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb, Seven Stories, 548 pages, $24.95
In the 1980s, the CIA-backed contra rebels in Central America hobnobbed with drug-dealers, and the Agency and the Reagan administration, obsessed with ousting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, looked the other way. This is absolutely undeniable. In this past March, Frederick Hitz, then the inspector general of the CIA, testified publicly to Congress that the CIA did not “cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who [were] alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking.” Yet his startling admission received practically no notice from official Washington and the national media, which instead were consumed with details (real and imagined) of L’Affaire Monica.
But when the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 ran a three-part series exposing links between contra associates and the Los Angeles crack trade in the 1980s, the major media did pay attention; they assaulted the articles written by reporter Gary Webb. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times each ran pieces critical of Webb’s work. The Webb stories were hard to ignore, for they had ignited a firestorm. On black talk radio, hosts and callers decried a supposed conspiracy in which the CIA midwifed the birth of the crack industry. On Capital Hill, members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for investigation. The Mercury News web site, on which the series had been posted, received millions of hits. Webb had begat a national media event.
It had all begun in the summer of 1995, when Webb received a tip from the girlfriend of a drug dealer. Her honey was being tried, and a chief government witness against him was Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan who managed his own cocaine ring in California. In court proceedings, Blandon had claimed he had gotten into the coke business to raise money for the contras. Webb started investigating. He soon had evidence that Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses — a prominent contra supporter in California with an extensive criminal past in Nicaragua — had supplied cocaine to “Freeway” Ricky Ross, a pioneering crack kingpin.
The lead paragraph in the Webb series was a shocker: A Bay Area drug ring had “funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” Webb noted that the contras were in league with “Uzi-toting ‘gangstas’ of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles” and that the drug dealers “met with CIA agents” while raising money for the contras via drug sales. The articles implied that Blandon was directly wired to the CIA and that Blandon and Meneses had been protected from prosecution because of their usefulness to the CIA.
Webb had a helluva story. But he botched parts of it. He produced little evidence that the Blandon-Meneses ring raised “millions” for the contras or that Blandon was linked to Langley. Consequently, newspapers that had neglected the contra-drug story in the 1980s now devoted much space to debunking Webb. Eventually, the editor of the Mercury News ran a column widely seen as a retraction, and Webb left the paper.
But Webb had committed a highly useful act. He had kicked open an old trunk and discovered it full of worms — real worms, ugly and nasty. He kept on investigating and produced a book that reflects the positives and negatives of the original series. In Dark Alliance, he fleshes out the drug operations of Blandon and Meneses, and he provides more evidence of their close association to the contras. (Meneses, for example, paid for early contra support events in California.) Webb also places this ring alongside other well-substantiated examples of contra-drug connections: a Honduran general convicted of selling cocaine to finance a murder plot who was supported by Oliver North and other Reagan officials; drug dealers winning U.S. government contracts to supply the contras; the National Security Council plotting with Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up strongman of Panama; the CIA interfering with a major drug prosecution that could reveal contra drug-dealing and embarrass the agency.
Webb reminds us that the Reagan-approved contra program attracted lowlifes and thugs the way manure draws flies. He guides the reader through a netherworld of dope-dealers, gunrunners, and freelance security consultants, which on occasion overlapped with the U.S. government. He entertainingly details the honor, dishonor and deals among thieves. (Sometimes the book reads like a hard-to-follow Russian novel, with a large cast of characters in a series of intricate episodes.) All in all, it’s a disgraceful picture — one that should permanently taint the happy-face hues of the Reagan years.
Again Webb has trouble chasing the money and fails to thoroughly document how much dirty cash Blandon and Meneses steered to the contras. Was it as little as $80,000 or so, as CIA investigators claim Blandon told them? Or was it millions that were instrumental to the survival of the contras, as Webb implies but does not prove? Was Blandon’s drug business originally set up as a cash-for-contras enterprise, as Webb depicts it? That’s what Blandon has asserted. But there is evidence, as Webb notes, that Blandon may have been a drug entrepreneur years before he hooked up with Meneses. If so, that would cast doubt on his I-did-it-for-the-contras tale and make that claim sound more like an after-the-fact justification.
There are other problems with Webb’s account. His threshold of proof is on the low side. In one instance, he passes on — seemingly with a straight face — the allegations of a drug dealer who claimed Vice President George Bush met with (and posed for a photo with) Colombian dealers to craft an agreement under which the traffickers could smuggle coke into America if they supplied weapons to the contras. And Webb is indiscriminating in his use of the term “CIA agent,” making it appear as if Blandon and Meneses were dealing with James Bond-like officials of the CIA, when actually their contacts were Nicaraguan contras on the Agency payroll.
This may seem like hairsplitting. But it’s important when evaluating the CIA’s culpability. Webb demonstrates that the Agency collaborated with contras and contra supporters suspected of smuggling narcotics. But were Blandon and Meneses in cahoots with the Agency? The evidence only shows they were part of a dark community with which the CIA was merrily doing business. Another fuzzy point in the story is how Blandon and Meneses both ended up on the government payroll as snitches. Webb strongly hints this was due to their contra work.
But, again, the picture is too murky to come to any firm conclusions other than there was something funny about the government’s relationship to this pair.
The book has flaws, but Webb deserves credit for pursuing an important piece of recent history and forcing the CIA and the Justice Department to investigate the contra-drug connection. Alas, the Justice Department has been sitting on its report for months. The CIA released one volume that maintained the Agency was not connected to Blandon and Meneses. But the report confirmed there had been a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the contras and that the CIA had ignored that. A second volume — one with a broader view of the contra-drug mess — is now being suppressed by the Agency.
With this book, Webb advances his newspaper series and supplies more muck to make a decent citizen cringe. While exploring this covert territory, Webb took a few wrong turns. But he succeeded in pushing a sleazy piece of the CIA’s past into public light. The gang at Langley is still resisting coming clean, and these unholy alliances remain in the dark.
By David Corn
June 5, 2000
A few weeks ago, the House intelligence committee released a 44-page report that declared the CIA had nothing to do with the rise of crack in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Why did the Agency need to be exonerated of such malfeasance? Because a controversial 1996 San Jose Mercury News series by reporter Gary Webb exposed a group of California-based Nicaraguan drug-dealers who in the 1980s had supported the Nicaraguan contra rebels battling the leftist Sandinista regime. The contras, of course, had been a pet project of President Ronald Reagan and the covert cowboys he put in charge at the CIA. The headlines on the Mercury News pieces suggested that this particular band of contra backers shared responsibility for triggering the crack wave that wreaked havoc on inner-city communities across the nation. “America’s crack plague has roots in Nicaragua war,” read the day-one headline. “Shadowy origins of ‘crack’ epidemic,” read the next day’s. “Role of CIA-linked agents a well-protected secret until now.” Thousands rushed to read the stories on the newspaper’s website. The phonelines at black radio talk shows lit up. Members of Congress, particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus, demanded answers from the CIA. (Even today, the CIA says that its recruitment of African-Americans suffers because of these stories.) The CIA director at the time, John Deutch, felt obligated to attend a town meeting in Watts to deny the charges.
And what passes for investigation in Washington began. The CIA’s inspector general examined the allegations of the “Dark Alliance” series. The Justice Department did the same. Not surprisingly, the CIA’s own gumshoes — and those of Justice — pronounced the CIA not guilty of complicity in the crack explosion. Webb’s series had its problems. He had unearthed a good tale of contra drug involvement, but he had not uncovered a definite link between the Agency and these dealers, and his suggestion that this one drug outfit was instrumental to the birth of crack epidemic was far-fetched. Now, the House intelligence committee, nearly four years later, has seconded the verdicts of the CIA and the Justice Department: “The committee found no evidence to support the allegations that CIA agents or assets associated with the contra movement were involved in the supply or sale of drugs in the Los Angeles area.”
But the case is not closed — that is, it should not be closed. The spies’ overseers in the House — the people who keep an eye on the CIA for the rest of us — also confirmed, in a quiet fashion, the real dirty secret of the CIA: that during the contra war, the Agency worked hand-in-cloak with persons it had reason to believe were smuggling drugs. In a report released in late 1998, the CIA inspector general acknowledged that the Agency, obsessed with its contra mission, had on a number of occasions collaborated with suspected drug-runners. This should have been a scandal in itself. The report provided the details of several examples. It also noted that the “CIA did not inform Congress of all allegations or information it received indicating that Contra-related organizations or individuals were involved in drug trafficking.” Put more bluntly: the CIA had covered up the contra-drug connection. A CIA official who served in Central America told the inspector general, “Yes there [was] derogatory stuff [on the contras] … but we were going to play with these guys.” Webb had gotten near this truth. In the middle of the just-say-no Reagan years, a federal agency had indeed struck a “dark alliance” — not the one Webb had depicted, but one as disturbing. This revelation, though, received scant media attention; most news coverage echoed the CIA’s self-exoneration regarding the crack charges.
The House intelligence committee investigation repeats the pattern. The bulk of the report is directed at disputing the crack allegations. But toward the end there is understated recognition that scandalous CIA activity did happen: “As described in Volume II of the CIA IG report, under various circumstances, the CIA made use of or maintained relationships with a number of individuals associated with the Contras or the Contra-supply effort about whom the CIA had knowledge of information or allegations indicating the individuals had been involved in drug trafficking.”
Now why does the House intelligence committee have nothing else to say on this front? It preferred flogging Webb one more time to examining the real skulduggery. Moreover, the committee interviewed several senior CIA managers, and these people insisted they could only recall only one single report of contra-related drug-dealing. But with the CIA inspector general having determined there had been many such instances, it’s plausible (make that, likely) that these CIA officials did not speak truthfully to the committee. Did the committee’s report address this contradiction and the possibility CIA officials had once again withheld information from Congress? Not at all. And the House’s report registered barely a blip in the national news media.
When the CIA released the IG report that acknowledged the contra program had been tainted by drugs, Frederick Hitz, then the inspector general, said the study was merely a start: “This is grist for more work, if anyone wants to do it.” A year and a half has passed since then, and it is clear that no one in government has the desire to pursue this topic. The House intelligence committee is positioned to do so. But it is more concerned with bolstering the CIA than in providing an independent and thorough look at this ugly piece of recent history. Al Gore could raise the issue — as a reminder of what happened the last time Republicans controlled the CIA — but then he would have to explain why his administration has shown no inclination to hold the Agency accountable. George W. Bush is hardly able to complain about lackadaisical oversight of the CIA. When the spies were hobnobbing with suspected drug runners, they were doing so to implement the pro-contra policies of the Reagan-Bush White House. (And the CIA headquarters is now named after George the Elder, who was a CIA director in the 1970s.) It’s in no one’s interest in Washington to make a stink. The CIA is permitted to slither off. This is not a cover-up; it’s a look-away. Reagan and Bush’s CIA made common cause with suspected drug thugs and … no big deal. Nevertheless, it will be worth keeping this nasty episode in mind, for when the ailing Reagan expires, the media hoopla will overflow with praise of the Old Man. Yet nothing that happened in Bill Clinton’s Oval Office was as untoward as what went on in Reagan’s CIA.