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.