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.