After the death a few weeks ago of the legendary editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, most obituaries celebrated his willingness to go after Richard Nixon. Charles Pierce at Esquire writes that Bradlee “rode the Watergate story when nobody else wanted it. It’s hard now even to imagine how very far out on the limb Bradlee went on that story.” But Pierce is largely alone in also noting that the Post under Bradlee “ultimately took a dive on Iran-Contra.” Bradlee himself described what he called a “return to deference” on the part of the press corps that took place under Ronald Reagan, saying that his colleagues were responding to a perceived public fatigue with journalists “trying to make a Watergate out of everything.” “We did ease off,” he said.
The Post did more than “ease off.” After Bradlee’s retirement, it went on the offensive, especially in its discrediting of Gary Webb’s reporting, for supposedly overstating the case that the CIA knowingly helped flood Central Los Angeles with cocaine, as part of its illegal support of the anti-Sandinista Contras. And it hasn’t let up. In response to Kill the Messenger, the movie based on Webb’s life and work, the Post published yet another deceptive essay, by an assistant managing editor named Jeff Leen. FAIR details all the many ways Leen misleads. It’s striking after all we’ve been through since his 2004 suicide that Webb is still a flashpoint for many journalists and Webb’s contentions a matter of dispute.
In all of the discussion about Webb’s reporting that Kill the Messenger has prompted, a number of people have rightly cited Robert Parry’s earlier breaking of the Contra-cocaine story and Senator John Kerry’s Senate investigation into the matter.
But there’s another precedent: the largely-ignored and now mostly forgotten 1991 trial in a Federal district court in Miami of deposed Panamanian president Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering charges. At that trial, the Colombian Carlos Lehder, sentenced to life without parole in 1988 for drug trafficking, testified that “U.S. government officials offered him a green light to smuggle drugs into the United States in exchange for use of a Bahamian island to ship weapons to the Nicaraguan contras” and that the Medellin cartel gave ten million dollars to the Contras and that the CIA knew about it.
Government lawyers managed to suppress Lehder’s testimony (even though he was their witness!) on the grounds that it was irrelevant. But the Washington Post, in the last year of Bradlee’s leadership, wrote this strong editorial: “The charges of contra-trafficker ties prompt an impulse to say that they cannot be left hanging and must be investigated further. In fact, they were investigated further and in telling detail by a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee chaired by John Kerry.” The editorial then went on to basically pre-confirm Webb’s arguments, quoting the CIA’s Alan Fiers as admitting that “a lot of people” were involved in Contra drug trafficking. The Post then presented Kerry’s conclusion to his Senate report as its conclusion: “Individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the contras themselves knowing received financial material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.”
Never again did The Post made mention of Lehder’s allegations, not once. Not even as background in any of its many many articles investigating Webb. That’s what “taking a dive” looks like.
Part of the reaction against Webb has to do with the nature of symbiotic relationship between mainstream journalists and the national-security state, as Robert Parry, whose career also went “sideways” as a result of his refusal to give up on Iran-Contra, describes.
But there’s an excess to the ongoing backlash against Webb that needs to be explained. Donna Murch, an associate professor of history at Rutgers and author of a great book, Living for the City, on Oakland and the rise of the Black Panther Party, says that what is missing in the revived debate on Webb is the depth of racism directed at the black mobilization his reporting provoked.
Over the last few years, Murch has been researching the crack crisis in Los Angeles of the 1980s and 1990s, whose origins can be traced to the attack on black radical organizing and the intensification of police militarization under the War on Drugs. She says to understand the reaction against Webb, one needs to recognize the centrality of Los Angeles to the War on Drugs — and, in turn, the centrality of the War on Drugs, with all its punitive racism and racist impunity at home and abroad, to the broader right-wing ascendency.
Murch further explains:
The effect of the Dark Alliance series on Black LA could only be described as magnetic. When the story was initially released in August 1996, it was met with relative silence by the mainstream newspapers. However a broad coalition of activists in Los Angeles immediately recognized the significance of Webb’s reporting and began protesting and calling for Maxine Waters and the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus to intervene and formally investigate his allegations.
To contextualize the backlash against Webb, one has to understand the importance of Los Angeles for the national War on Drugs. In the 1980s, the city contained the world’s largest urban prison population. It had been the target of the most brutal campaigns against crack use and distribution. And it had been the venue of some of the Reagan/Bush Era’s most provocative War-on-Drugs spectacles, including Daryl Gates co-piloting a tank armed with a fifteen-foot long battering ram to tear down the side of an alleged “crack house” in Pacoima (only to find a mother and her children eating ice cream). In 1988, the LAPD’s implementation of “Operation Hammer” utilized similar shock-and-awe displays of police power through mass sweeps of black and brown youth. In a single day, law enforcement jailed over 1400 people, the largest total since the Watts Rebellion in 1965. Very few of the arrests stuck, but the scale of internment was so great that the LAPD set up mobile booking units in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The “Southland’s” War on Drugs extended from saturation policing to the creation of a parallel legal structure criminalizing poor urban populations of color. Law enforcement databases listed over half of young African American men in LA County as gang members, and it was not uncommon for convicted teenage offenders to receive over a century of hard time. By attacking precisely the types of youth that joined militant political organizations like the Southern California Black Panther Party two decades earlier, law enforcement’s overlapping wars on drugs and gangs struck at the heart of postwar black radicalism in the city.
In this context, Webb’s revelations raced through South LA in the late 1990s like wildfire and helped to revitalize dormant anti-statist activism. Radical Angelinos used the Mercury News story to mobilize residents against U.S. covert action abroad and the drug war at home, bringing together disparate left-wing community groups together, including historical Black Power organizers and Central American activists. The umbrella group, “Crack the CIA Coalition,” united former Panthers, Sandinista supporters, black Communist Party members, the west-coast branch of Kwame Toure’s (formerly Stokely Carmichael) All African People’s Revolutionary Party, and even a few sympathetic dissidents from the NAACP. They sponsored regular protests and rallies in front of the L.A. Times accusing the paper of colluding with the CIA. In one demonstration, protestors dressed in hats and mittens carried an artificial snow blower with signs reading, “L.A. Times Snow Blind to the Truth,” “Contra Cocaine Story: Twelve Year White Wash,” and “Avalanche of Disinformation.” In an amusing piece of agit prop theatre, two rotund snowmen, “Frosty ” and “Flakey” marched hand and hand holding a sign, “CIA and L.A. Times Working Together to Keep you Snowed.”
Ultimately in light of Webb’s revelations, the tragedy and perceived hypocrisy of the war on drugs became a boon to anti-carceral organizing in Los Angeles. In October 1996 a rally was held with over 2500 people, and when CIA Director John M. Deutch traveled to Watt’s Locke High School to address Webb’s allegations, he confronted an angry overflow crowd. Even the Times, which pilloried Webb, published a story by Peter Kornbluh encouragingDeutch to appease South L.A. “by acknowledging that the CIA did, in fact, knowingly and willingly work with drug dealers.” When the U.S. Civil Rights Commission subpoenaed former Black Panther Michael Zinzun in 1996 for a hearing on police violence in Los Angeles, he insisted on testifying about new evidence on CIA complicity in local crack distribution. Zinzun, who founded the Coalition Against Police Abuse in 1970s, was not alone. In the months after Dark Alliance’s release, the Crack the CIA Coalition worked tirelessly to publicize state complicity in the crack crisis.
The backlash in mainstream media to black protest against the CIA and support for Gary Webb was brutal. In a Washington Post article entitled “Finding the Truest Truth,” African-American columnist Donna Britt wrote, “What feels true to blacks has fueled numerous conspiracy theories. Some, such as the infamous Tuskegee Experiment in which syphilitic black men weren’t treated by doctors who knew their condition, are true. Others are not” – the implication being that Webb’s story was not. In a similar vein, anotherPost story by Michael Fletcher argued, “The history of black victimization of black people allows myths – and, at times, outright paranoia – to flourish.” He continued on, “Even if a major investigation is done it is unlikely to quell the certainty among many African Americans that the government played a role in bringing the crack epidemic to black communities.”
Although most of the mainstream media dismissed the protest prompted by Webb’s series as a wave of irrational black paranoia, the organizing it inspired played a critical role in changing African American political elites’ views of the War on Drugs. The importance of this shift is hard to overestimate because up until this point, the Congressional Black Caucus had largely supported the punitive turn, including Reagan’s 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act which enshrined the 100:1 crack to powder cocaine disparity in federal sentencing.
The movie Kill the Messenger, and the Nick Schou book on which it is based, focuses on the cowardly and instrumental decisions of the Mercury Newseditorial staff that led to Webb’s professional and ultimately personal demise. In the film, Webb is rendered as a macho suburban hero whose family is imperiled through his search for truth in the face of complicity and incompetence. However, when considering Gary Webb’s legacy, it’s important to remember that Webb himself framed his story not only as a profound ethics breach of the national security state, but as an expose of hypocritical drug war policies that had terrible repercussions for African American populations in California and beyond. And for this choice, which inspired mass black support and political mobilization, he paid dearly.
Donna Murch’s Crack in Los Angeles: Policing the Crisis and the War on Drugs is due out in 2017.