Few spectacles in journalism in the mid-1990s were more disgusting than the slagging of Gary Webb in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Squadrons of hacks, some of them with careerlong ties to the CIA, sprayed thousands of words of vitriol over Webb and his paper, the San Jose Mercury News, for besmirching the agency’s fine name by charging it, in his 1996 “Dark Alliance” series, with complicity in the importing of cocaine into the United States.
There are certain things you aren’t supposed to mention in public in America. The systematic state-sponsorship of torture by the United States used to be a major no-no, but that went by the board this year (even though Seymour Hersh treated the CIA with undue kindness in The Road to Abu Ghraib). A prime no-no is that the US government has used assassination down the years as an instrument of national policy; also that the CIA’s complicity with drug-dealing criminal gangs stretches from the Afghanistan of today back to the year the agency was founded, in 1947. That last one is the line Webb stepped over. He paid for his presumption by undergoing one of the unfairest batterings in the history of the US press. His own paper turned on him.
Friday, December 10, Webb died in his Sacramento apartment from what seems to have been a self-inflicted gunshot blast to the head. The notices of his passing in many newspapers were as nasty as ever. The Los Angeles Times took care to note that even after the “Dark Alliance” uproar Webb’s career had been “troubled,” offering as evidence the following: “While working for another legislative committee in Sacramento, Webb wrote a report accusing the California Highway Patrol of unofficially condoning and even encouraging racial profiling in its drug interdiction program.” The effrontery of the man! “Legislative officials released the report in 1999,” the story piously continued, “but cautioned that it was based mainly on assumptions and anecdotes,” no doubt meaning that Webb didn’t have dozens of CHP officers stating under oath, on the record, that they were picking on blacks and Hispanics. There were similar fountains of outrage in 1996 that the CIA hadn’t been given enough space in Webb’s series to solemnly swear that never a gram of cocaine had passed under its nose but that it had been seized and turned over to the DEA or US Customs.
In 1998 Jeffrey St. Clair and I published Whiteout, a book about the relationships among the CIA, drugs and the press since the agency’s founding. We also examined the Webb affair in detail. On a lesser scale and at lower volume, Whiteout elicited the same sort of abuse Webb drew. It was a long book stuffed with well-documented facts, over which the critics vaulted to charge us, as they did Webb, with “conspiracy-mongering,” even as they accused us of recycling “old news.” (The oddest was a multipage screed in The Nation flaying us for giving aid and comfort to the war on drugs and not addressing the truly important question, Why do people take drugs? As I said at the time, To get high, stupid!)