Kill The Messenger: How The Media Destroyed Gary Webb

10/10/2014 08:47 am ET | Updated Oct 10, 2014
  • Ryan Grim Washington Bureau Chief, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- Douglas Farah was in El Salvador when the San Jose Mercury News broke a major story in the summer of 1996: The Nicaraguan Contras, a confederation of paramilitary rebels sponsored by the CIA, had been funding some of their operations by importing cocaine into the United States. One of their best customers was a man named Freeway Rick -- Ricky Donnell Ross, then a Southern California dealer who was running an operation that the Los Angeles Times dubbed "the Wal-Mart of crack dealing."

"My first thought was, Holy shit! because there’d been so many rumors in the region of this going on," said Farah 12 years later. He'd grown up in Latin American and covered it for 20 years for The Washington Post. "There had always been these stories floating around about [the Contras] and cocaine. I knew [Contra leader] Adolfo Calero and some of the other folks there, and they were all sleazebags. You wouldn’t read the story and say, ‘Oh my god, these guys would never do that.’ It was more like, ‘Oh, one more dirty thing they were doing.’ So I took it seriously."

The same would not hold true of most of Farah's colleagues, either in the newspaper business in general or at the Post in particular. "If you’re talking about our intelligence community tolerating -- if not promoting -- drugs to pay for black ops, it’s rather an uncomfortable thing to do when you’re an establishment paper like the Post," Farah told me. "If you were going to be directly rubbing up against the government, they wanted it more solid than it could probably ever be done."

In the mid- to late '80s, a number of reports had surfaced that connected the Contras to the cocaine trade. The first was by Associated Press scribes Brian Barger and Robert Parry, who published a story in December 1985 that begins, "Nicaraguan rebels operating in northern Costa Rica have engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist government, according to U.S. investigators and American volunteers who work with the rebels."

Only a few outlets followed Barger and Parry's lead, including the San Francisco Examiner and the lefty mag In These Times, which both published similar stories in 1986, and CBS's "West 57th" TV series, which did a segment in 1987. A Nexis search of the year following Barger and Parry's revelation turns up a total of only four stories containing the terms "Contras" and "cocaine" -- one of them a denial of the accusation from a Contra spokesperson. Stories popped up here and there over the next decade, but many of them make only oblique reference to a couldn't-possibly-be-true conspiracy theory.

Then came the San Jose Mercury News piece, a 20,000-word three-parter by Pulitzer Prize–winning staffer Gary Webb published under the title "Dark Alliance." "For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found," it begins.

The series initially received little attention from major media outlets, but it was eventually transported across the nation by the Internet and black talk radio. The latter put its own spin on the tale: That the U.S. government had deliberately spread crack to African-American neighborhoods to quell unruly residents. The Post newsroom was bombarded with phone calls asking why it was ignoring the story, the paper's ombudsman later reported.

In response, the Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times would all weigh in with multiple articles claiming that Webb's assertions were bunk. His career was effectively ruined, and even his own paper eventually disavowed "Dark Alliance," despite having given it a cutting-edge online presentation complete with document transcriptions and audio recordings.

The big papers had been pushing the same line for years. In 1987, New York Times reporter Keith Schneider had flatly dismissed a lawsuit filed by a liberal group charging that the Contras were funding their operations with drug money. "Other investigators, including reporters from major news organizations, have tried without success to find proof of aspects of the case," he writes, "particularly the allegations that military supplies for the contras may have been paid for with profits from drug trafficking."

In These Times later asked Schneider why he'd rejected the Contra–coke connection. He was trying to avoid "shatter[ing] the republic," he said. "I think it is so damaging, the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we could amass."

* * * * *

The American republic, of course, is an idea as much as it is a reality. That idea is of a nation founded on freedom and dedicated to the progress of human rights around the globe. It's most certainly not of a country that aids the underground drug trade -- even if it does.

If Webb didn't have ironclad proof that the CIA had knowingly done just that, he did, as one Senate investigator later said, have "a strong circumstantial case that Contra officials who were paid by the CIA knew about [drug smuggling] and looked the other way." He based his series on court records and interviews with key drug-runners. One of them, Danilo Blandón, was once described by Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O'Neale as "the biggest Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in the United States."

Webb had been unable to get Blandón to talk, but the cocaine dealer testified at a trial shortly before "Dark Alliance" came out. Blandón wasn't on trial himself, wasn't facing any jail time, and was in fact being paid by the U.S. government to act as an informant -- in other words, he had no obvious incentive to lie to make the United States look bad. Nevertheless, in sworn testimony, he said that in 1981 alone, his drug operation sold almost a ton of cocaine in the U.S., and that "whatever we were running in LA, the profit was going to the Contra revolution."

Blandón's boss in the operation was Norwin Meneses, the head of political operations and U.S. fundraising for the Contras. Meneses was known as Rey de la Droga -- "King of Drugs" -- and had been under active investigation by the U.S. government since the early '70s as the Cali cocaine cartel's top representative in Nicaragua. The DEA considered him a major trafficker, and he had been implicated in 45 separate federal investigations, Webb discovered through government documents. Regardless, Meneses had never served any time in federal prison and lived out in the open in his San Fransisco home.

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In 1981, Blandón testified, he and Meneses traveled to Honduras to meet Col. Enrique Bermúdez, the military leader of the Contra army and a full-time CIA employee. "While Blandon says Bermudez didn't know cocaine would be the fund-raising device they used," Webb writes, "the presence of the mysterious Mr. Meneses strongly suggests otherwise." The reporter drew on court documents and government records to show that anyone remotely involved in or familiar with the drug world at the time knew exactly how Meneses went about raising revenue.

Blandón sold the Contras' product to Ross for prices well below what other dealers could command, allowing him to expand his business throughout LA, then to Texas, Ohio, and beyond. Ross told Webb that he owed his rise to Blandón and his astonishingly cheap coke. ''I'm not saying I wouldn't have been a dope dealer without Danilo,'' Ross said. ''But I wouldn't have been Freeway Rick.''

* * * * *

Webb had uncovered a direct link between the Contras and street-level crack cocaine. His story also repeatedly highlights the facts that the Contras were a CIA-directed entity and that the drug-runners avoided prosecution despite mountains of evidence implicating them. Webb never explicitly states that CIA brass or other Washington bigwigs condoned smuggling drugs into the United States, but the facts of his story strongly imply it.

As shocking as that might have been to Webb's readers and colleagues other than Farah, they were hardly unprecedented in American history. The United States' global drug policy had long taken a backseat to more important foreign-policy concerns, in this case toppling Nicaragua's socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Since at least the 1940s, the American government has founded and supported insurgent armies organized for the purpose of overthrowing some presumably hostile foreign regime. In Italy, the United States pitted the Corsican and Sicilian mobs against Fascists and then Communists. In China, it aided Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang in its struggle against Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China. In Afghanistan, it backed the mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviet Union.

All of these and other U.S.-supported organizations profited heavily from the drug trade. One of the principal arguments made by the DEA in recent years in support of the global drug war is that the drug trade funds violent, stateless organizations. The administration is referring specifically to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but the same method of fund-raising has long been used by other violent, stateless actors the United States has befriended.

Foreign critics are quick to blame the global drug trade and its attendant problems on the voracious demand of American drug users, who get high at rates many times greater than those of users in the rest of the world. Stop snorting so much coke, they tell us, and our farmers will stop growing coca. American drug warriors, meanwhile, treat the trade as a foreign threat that needs to be eradicated in root countries and stopped at the border. Stop growing so much coca, and we'll stop snorting it.

But both sides miss -- or ignore -- a crucial fact: that Americans' involvement in the international drug market extends well beyond our appetite to get high. For decades and for a variety of reasons, the United States has been an important link in the global supply chain, protecting and often funding major drug-running organizations. The government has denied it for just as long. Anyone who believes it is labeled a conspiracy nut. And the American media, Webb discovered the hard way, can tie itself in knots trying to avoid discussing it.

* * * * *

In the '40s, Americans may well have fought a "good war," but that doesn't mean we waged it like angels. In its effort to defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, the U.S. government forged relationships with a host of other criminals, some of whom would make it very difficult for the feds to succeed in another militarized conflict: the war on drugs.

The conflict in Europe and Asia had disrupted global supply routes to such an extent that by the end of the '30s, heroin addicts had great difficulty finding their drug of choice and substituted all manner of intoxicants in its stead. Meanwhile, Mussolini's war on the Italian mob, which had began in 1924, was going well, with La Cosa Nostra a shell of its former self and its leaders exiled to Canada and the United States. Mafia kingpin Charles "Lucky" Luciano was in prison in upstate New York, locked up since 1936 after being convicted of running a massive prostitution ring.

For the previous two decades, Luciano and his partner, Meyer Lansky, had dominated not only the Manhattan call-girl market, but also the U.S. heroin trade, modeling their business, Lansky claimed, on John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust. Cuba was used as the drop-off point for heroin manufactured in Sicily, which also allowed the Mafia to build the island nation's gambling industry. But it all began to unravel during the war, and Luciano was left controlling his threadbare syndicate from prison.

Luckily for Lucky, the feds had use for him. The government was deeply concerned about infiltration and sabotage at American ports, which Mafia-connected unions controlled, and it was equally worried about a strike that could shut the docks down. Communist organizers had been making inroads against the corrupt mob unions, so Luciano had good reason to cooperate with the feds. The mob gave U.S. Naval Intelligence operatives access to its docks and instructed its people to ferret out any German spies. In return, the government allowed the mob to battle the radical union organizers threatening to shut the ports with impunity. From 1942 to 1946, more than two dozen dockworkers and organizers were killed, their murders left unsolved.

Luciano also opened up channels of communication between exiled Sicilian mobsters and those still at home, yielding intelligence that would be used during the U.S. invasion and occupation of Sicily. The United States expressed its gratitude by installing mobsters as the leaders of occupied Italy, where they went about murdering Communist opponents and restarting the heroin trade.

On May 8, 1945, V-E Day, a petition was filed for Luciano's early release. Supported by U.S. intelligence officials, it cited his contribution to the war effort. Luciano was freed in January by New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the same man who had locked him up in his first major case as "special rackets prosecutor," as The New York Times describes Dewey in a story on the commutation, one of a handful of items the paper printed about the mobster's release. When Luciano was taken down a few year earlier, the Times had followed the case breathlessly, offering daily reports.

Dewey, in ordering Luciano's release, explained that his "aid was sought by the armed services in inducing others to provide information concerning possible enemy attack. It appears that he cooperated in such effort though the actual value of the information procured is not clear." Sourcing Luciano's attorney, the Times reported that Luciano's intelligence "led to the locating of many Sicilian-born Italians who gave information of military value on conditions in Sicily" and that he "aided the military authorities for two years in the preliminaries leading to the invasion of Sicily."

More than 500 Italian-born mobsters would follow Luciano back home over the next five years, solidifying the Italian–American drug connection.

* * * * *

Heroin addiction in America rose through the late '40s and early '50s as U.S. intelligence continued to find a useful purpose for its Italian friends: teaming up with the CIA to thwart the Communist Party in the 1948 Italian elections.

Closely linked to the Soviet Union, the Italian Communists hoped that a win at home would give Stalin's regime a toehold in Western Europe -- exactly what the United States feared most. The effort on the U.S. government's behalf by the Mafia was voter intimidation at its most direct: Offices were burned, candidates and activists were assassinated, and demonstrators were gunned down. Coupled with simple ballot-stuffing, it had the desired effect: The Communists were defeated, in what historians of Europe consider a pivotal postwar moment.

The CIA struck up a similar partnership with Corsican mafiosi in the French port city of Marseilles. The mobsters battled a coalition of communists and socialists who had vowed to root out mob influence. The mob prevailed with the help of CIA weapons and agents -- a development that would prove very damaging to the cause of American drug warriors.

In 1950, U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger persuaded Italy to stop a major pharmaceutical firm from selling heroin legally to Luciano. In response, the boss formed an alliance with the Corsican mob -- which had just taken over Marseilles. The vaunted French Connection, which supplied the vast majority of America's heroin over the next two decades, was born. Not a single major bust was made of French Connection folks between 1950 and 1965. It wasn't for lack of evidence: A 1976 Department of Justice report concluded that on repeated occasions, charges against Corsican drug-runners were dropped at the insistence of the CIA for national-security reasons.

The dots were there for anybody who wanted to connect them, but the only people to make much of a case for U.S. involvement in the global heroin trade were Dewey's opponents, who included Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. The Democrat had national aspirations: He twice sought his party's presidential nomination, in 1952 and 1956, and he was Adlai Stevenson's running mate in 1956. The Republican Dewey, a popular governor who had run for president in 1948 and 1952, was a ripe target.

In the early '50s, Kefauver held 15 months' worth of hearings on organized crime. It was the first televised congressional drama to be watched by millions, and it started the nation's love affair with the workings of the Mafia. Here's how Life magazine described the public reaction: "[T]he week of March 12, 1951, will occupy a special place in history....[P]eople had suddenly gone indoors into living rooms, taverns, and clubrooms, auditoriums and back-offices. There, in eerie half-light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed. Never before had the attention of the nation been riveted so completely on a single matter."

Kefauver called in armed-forces representatives, who told the committee that Luciano was back in Sicily running a drug operation and had contributed essentially nothing to the war effort. The dual charge called Dewey's commutation into question. Lucky didn't take kindly to the attacks on his prosecutor-cum-liberator: Dewey "pardoned me from a fifty-year sentence he imposed on me earlier," an "indignant" Luciano told The Associated Press, saying that the attackers had "political motives." He threatened that shortly after the 1952 election, he would reveal "certain stories which will make everybody in the United States take notice" and "put an end to all the dirty speculation about me." Luciano also pointed to his wartime service. "I got my pardon because of the great services I rendered the United States," he said, "and because, after all, they reckoned I was innocent." (Those "certain stories" were never publicly told by Luciano.)

In a memoir published after he died, Dewey expressed similar indignation at the charge that "there might have been something crooked about my action." He knew that whatever the actual value of Luciano's contribution, the armed services had indeed approached him, and that they did have a hand in freeing him, despite the self-protective testimony they'd given in the Kefauver hearings.

If the military was going to take him down, Dewey must have figured, he'd drag it with him. So the governor commissioned a study of Luciano's role in the war. New York Commissioner of Investigations William Herlands finished his report in 1954. Herlands pulled together 2,883 pages of statements from 57 major witnesses, including Luciano right-hand man Lansky, Luciano attorney Moses Polakoff, and racketeer and wartime Naval Intelligence collaborator Joseph "Socks" Lanza. Herlands also talked to 31 U.S. Navy personnel.

Then-director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Adm. Carl Espe, called the study "thorough" but made sure that Dewey suppressed it. Public disclosure "might jeopardize operations of a similar nature in the future," he warned, foreseeing the likes of the mujahideen and the Contras. He added that "there is potential for embarrassment to the Navy public relations-wise."

The report didn't see the light of day until researcher Rodney Campbell found a copy in the late Dewey's papers and used it to write the 1977 book The Luciano Project: The Secret Wartime Collaboration of the Mafia and the U.S. Navy. The media, however, barely took notice. The New York Times wrote about the book just before it came out and mentioned it again when Campbell died decades later, saying that his exposé had garnered "widespread attention."

That isn't exactly true: A Nexis search for The Luciano Project turns up just 18 stories written over more than three decades.

* * * * *

Postwar, the U.S. government continued to finance or turn a blind eye to known drug traffickers who were on the American side of the Cold War. Involvement in the drug trade was not merely an evil that the CIA accepted as a cost of allying itself with the right forces; often, the drug trade was what made such forces possible, given that congressional funds didn't always flow freely to potentially useful organizations.

U.S. involvement in the drug trade wasn't always sanctioned at the top levels. The desire to make money and get high knows know cultural, socio-economic or political bounds -- and therefore seeps into the ranks of the drug warriors even when the overall policy is opposed to drugs. In 1968, before the DEA was created, the IRS stumbled on knee-deep corruption in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. More than three dozen agents were helping to import and distribute drugs. It's a hazard that the government runs into: the drug trade doesn't produce any immediate victims, so there's no one to call the police. Therefore, the cops rely on deception to become part of the trade themselves. Inevitably, some realize that they can't stop it, so they might as well make some money off of it. The economic argument for a drug enforcement officer in any country can be overwhelming. The U.S. was no different, even after those dozens of cops were fired.

Forty years later, little had changed. In early 2006, the website NarcoNews.com -- founded by former AP reporter Robert Parry, who broke the original Contra-cocaine story -- published a memo by Thomas Kent, then an attorney for the office of wiretaps in the Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs Section of the Justice Department, calling for an investigation into DEA corruption. It outline pervasive corruption in the Bogata station and warned that informants were being systematically killed off. "Each murder [of an informant] was preceded by a request for their identity by an agent in Bogata," wrote Kent.

The memo was written in 2004. The media largely ignored it, but the AP did file a 332-word story early in the morning of Jan. 14, 2006, headlined, "U.S. official: DEA agents in Colombia allegedly involved in drug trade." Twelve hours later, it published precisely the same story, in time for the Sunday papers, but this time called it, "Probe of DEA Agents Finds No Wrongdoing." No major paper touched it.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. intelligence made friends with a number of known drug traffickers in Southeast Asia, including the Laotian smack smugglers who used CIA-owned civilian airline Air America to transport their product. Although the affair was slapsticked and sensationalized in a 1990 Mel Gibson movie, it received more sober treatment in Alfred W. McCoy's 1972 book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, which amasses substantial evidence and concludes that "American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels: (1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) abetting the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; (3) and active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin."

The agency continued to deny knowledge of what its allies had done or were doing, but by May 1980, two Carter administration officials had had enough. Drug-policy advisers David F. Musto and Joyce Lowinson took to The New York Times op-ed page, frustrated at their inability to get through to Carter or to the media, and tried to blow the whistle on the longstanding practice of colluding with drug-runners.

“We worry about the growing of opium poppies in Afghanistan and Pakistan by rebel tribesmen," they write. "Are we erring in befriending these tribes as we did in Laos when Air America (chartered by the CIA) helped transport crude opium from certain tribal areas?”

* * * * *

"We live in a dirty and dangerous world," Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham told a gathering of CIA recruits in 1988. "There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows."

Webb apparently made the wrong decision, and Graham's paper was instrumental in his story's discrediting. On Oct. 2, after "Dark Alliance" had gained some traction on black radio and online, renowned [former] Post media reporter Howard Kurtz weighed in, heading off the most damning of the piece's implications.

"The series doesn't actually say the CIA knew about the drug trafficking," Kurtz acknowledges, quoting an interview with Webb in which the reporter points out that "This doesn't prove the CIA targeted black communities. It doesn't say this was ordered by the CIA. ... Essentially, our trail stopped at the door of the CIA. They wouldn't return my phone calls."

Kurtz hammers Webb for not getting an official denial. But he also notes, "The fact that Nicaraguan rebels were involved in drug trafficking has been known for a decade," assuring his readers that "the Reagan Administration acknowledged as much in the 1980s, but subsequent investigations failed to prove that the CIA condoned or even knew about it." This formulation raises a ridiculous question: If the White House knew about the Contras' participation in the drug trade, how come the CIA didn't?

"I wasn't an expert on drug trafficking or South America," Kurtz told me years later, saying that he "looked up what had been reported in the past, and my recollection is I found a number of stories about drug trafficking and Nicaraguan rebels. So the question is, How much of that did the Washington Post and other big papers report? I don't know; I'd have to look into it."

He wouldn't have had to look very hard, because the Post reported very little pre-Webb. In April 1989, when Sen. John Kerry completed a two-year investigation finding that contractors connected to the Contras and the CIA were known at the time to be running drugs but were not prosecuted, the Post reacted with a 703-word piece by Michael Isikoff tucked away on Page A20.

When the Barger and Parry broke news of the Contras' connection to cocaine in 1986, the Post declined even to run the wire story. It mentioned the allegations two days later, when Democrats demanded that President Ronald Reagan respond to the charges. His refusal to do so is found in a 515-word story on page A38 written by Thomas Edsall, who later worked for The Huffington Post.

After "Dark Alliance" was published, the Post went after Webb only grudgingly. The paper's preferred method of dealing with the series would have been to ignore it, according to veteran Post national-security reporter Walter Pincus. "Originally, I didn’t do anything about it because I checked it out and didn’t believe it to be true," Pincus told me. "If you go look at the chronology, I didn’t write about it until the Black Caucus took it up as a serious issue."

Black radio hosts and audiences had met "Dark Alliance" with an I-knew-it-all-along reception that didn't dull their outrage. The Congressional Black Caucus, led by Los Angeles Democrat Maxine Waters, demanded an investigation. (Waters even traveled to Nicaragua to conduct her own.) The head of the CIA traveled to South Central Los Angeles to meet with hundreds of residents packed into a huge community meeting, where he denied angry accusations that his agency had purposely caused the crack epidemic.

Kurtz "initially got into this because black radio hosts and others were seizing on the Gary Webb series and making claims that went far beyond what he had actually reported," he told me. "And the person who agreed with me on that was Gary Webb....He considered me always to be fair to him." The Post reporter explained that his effort was meant to be in defense of the media: "In the pre-blogging age, it was this surreal environment in which the mainstream media were being accused by critics of covering up or ignoring allegations involving the CIA that weren’t actually made by the San Jose Mercury News."

* * * * *

On Oct. 4, the Post published a five-piece package dedicated to discrediting "Dark Alliance." The paper seemed genuinely frightened by the black response to Webb's series, perhaps imagining that it would spark a riot similar to the one that had swept through D.C.'s Hispanic Mount Pleasant neighborhood a few years before, after a police officer shot and wounded a reportedly unarmed man during a Cinco de Mayo celebration. As the Post's editorial board explained in a piece that appeared five days after the initial anti-Webb salvo, "the shock of the story for many was not simply the sheer monstrousness of the idea of an official agency contributing to a modern-day plague -- and to a plague targeted on blacks. The shock was the credibility the story seems to have generated when it reached some parts of the black community."

The Post offered an explanation of why African-Americans had gotten so riled up: a "history of victimization" that had led to "outright paranoia." The Oct. 4 assault included not one but two stories intended to counteract this process. "Whatever makes the truth slide into rumor and then plummet into myth, it isn't new," writes Donna Brit in an essay titled "Finding the Truest Truth." "Nearly 50 years ago, Howard University surgeon Charles R. Drew -- the renowned director of America's first Red Cross blood bank -- died after a car accident in rural North Carolina. Within hours, rumor had it that Drew, 45, had bled to death because a whites-only hospital had refused to treat him. The tragic story, repeated in newspapers, documentaries, even in an episode of TV's M*A*S*H, is an outrage -- and entirely false."

She suggests that Webb's piece would probably end up plummeting into myth, too -- and perhaps already had. "It doesn't matter whether the series' claims are 'proved' true," she writes. "To some folks -- graduates of Watergate, Iran-contra and FBI harassment of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. -- they feel so true that even if they're refuted, they'll still be fact to them."

Britt's story ran on the front page of the Metro section. For readers who might not make it that far into the paper, the Post ran a strikingly similar piece by Michael Fletcher on Page A1. Blacks' skepticism, Fletcher duly notes, is rooted in a "history of victimization ... [that] allows myth -- and, at times, outright paranoia -- to flourish." He cites the Drew story -- "a man who had benefited medicine for all races died because of anti-black attitude" -- and concludes that "Even if a major investigation into the allegations 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."

Nonetheless, the Post quelled the best it could, going after the portions of Webb's story that most explicitly suggested a racist conspiracy against American citizens. In the process, it authored a myth of its own: that everything in "Dark Alliance" was wrong.

The Oct. 4 package's lead piece, "CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking of Contra-Tied Plot," was written by Pincus and national-desk staffer Roberto Suro, who rejected "the idea that Blandón and Ross alone could have launched the crack epidemic." Webb hadn't reported exactly that, but he did note that cocaine "was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army started bring it into South Central in the 1980s at bargain basement prices."

* * * * *

Farah, now a consultant on the drug trade with the Department of Homeland Security, speculated that the Post's proximity to the corridors of power made it beholden to whatever the official line was at the time. He said that he saw a "great deal of weight on what the official response was, whether it was Haiti or El Salvador death squads. There was so much Washington influence that it ends up dominating the story no matter what the reality on the ground was."

Farah said that his reporting on Webb's trail led to one of the biggest battles of his career. "There were maybe, in my 20 years at the Post, two or three stories out of however many hundreds or thousands I wrote, where I had this kind of problem, and this was one of them. I wasn’t in general in confrontation with my editors but ... this thing was weird and I knew it was weird," he said. "I did have a long and dispiriting fight with the editors at the Post because they wanted to say ultimately -- their basic take was that I was dealing with a bunch of liars, so it was one person's word against another person's word and therefore you couldn’t tell the truth. But it was pretty clear to me."

The official response was provided to national-security reporter Pincus, who had at one time served in the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps. "One of my big fights on this was with Pincus," Farah remembered, "and my disadvantage was that I was in Managua and he was sitting in on the story meetings and talking directly to the editors. And we had a disagreement over the validity of what I was finding. At the time, I didn’t realize he had been an agency employee for awhile. That might have helped me understand what was going on there a bit."

Pincus, who said that his involvement with the CIA several decades before is overblown, remembers it differently. "To be honest, I can’t remember talking to Doug at the time," he said. "To me, it was no great shock that some of the people the agency was dealing with were also drug dealers. But the idea that the agency was then running the drug program was totally different."

Pincus said that Webb's core story about the Contras and cocaine didn't resonate not because it didn't have any truth to it, but because it was obviously true. "This is a problem that came up -- it’s probably a question of how long you cover these things," he said. "It came up during the Vietnam War, where the U.S. was dealing with the Hmong tribes in Laos and some of the people that were flying airplanes that the agency was using were also [running] drugs."

Calling him a CIA stooge, added Pincus, does little to advance understanding of the story. "Anytime somebody wants to object to something I’ve written about, they go back to quote my connection with the agency, all of which they can prove because I wrote about it," he said, claiming that he didn't know a front group that he was involved with was connected to the CIA and that he declined an offer to join the agency.

Pincus told me that trying to draw lessons about the media from the Webb saga is pointless, just as it was to try to ascribe motives to the entire band of Contras. "This is sort of like saying the media is liberal," he said. "The media is made up of -- what? -- 5,000 different people, and some of them are far-left and some of them are conservative, but that doesn’t stop some people from making generalities. And when you say 'the Contras,' you’re talking about a whole bunch of different leaders, some of whom were good, some of whom were bad."

Both the good and the bad, however, would get a pass at the Post. "I thought my story was really cool," recalled Farah, noting that Nicaragua was in the middle of an election and all the players he needed to talk to were in Managua. "I had an amazing run of luck where I had rounded up everybody I needed to see in 24 hours and got to see Meneses. ... I got all this stuff. I thought it was going on the front page, and I got a tagline or something on the front-page story and my story buried away. And I remember that they cut it down. I don’t remember how long it ran, but they cut it down considerably."

Farah's reporting, he concluded, confirmed the largest parts of Webb's story. "The contra-drug stuff, I think, was there," Farah said. "Largely, I think it [Webb's story] was right."

The cuts and the editorial pushback, however, discouraged Farah from pursuing a further investigation into the Contras' drug-running history. "I was really sort of disappointed at how things had run there at the Post on that story, and there wasn’t much incentive to go forward after that," said Farah. (The Post's top editor at the time, Leonard Downie, told me that he doesn't remember the incident well enough to comment on it.)

Alhough Pincus said that he didn't have a role in neutering and burying Farah's story, he did admit that he sympathizes with the reporter. "I was writing about there being no weapons in Iraq and it was put in the back of the paper," he said. "I’ve been through the same thing."

* * * * *

In its modern-day-plague editorial, the Post declares, "For even just a couple of CIA-connected characters to have played even a trivial role in introducing Americans to crack would indicate an unconscionable breach by the CIA. It is essential know whether the agency contributed to this result or failed to exercise diligence to stop it."

More than a year later, when the CIA's inspector general finished an investigation conducted in response to the Webb series, that knowledge somehow seemed much less essential -- or at least that's what the Post's handling of the story suggests.

Before the CIA made its findings public, it leaked word to Pincus and a few other national-security reporters, assuring them that the report, to be released the next day, would exonerate the agency. Pincus, relying on anonymous officials, repeated this assertion in the paper -- possibly without having seen a copy of the report. (He told me that he doesn't remember whether he was given a copy or only briefed on its contents.) The next day, the CIA pulled the football away. For national-security reasons, it said, it had decided not to publicize the report after all.

It was a good move. The report, when it finally did come out, in January 1998, determined that the agency "did not inform Congress of all allegations or information it received indicating that contra-related organizations or individuals were involved in drug trafficking." It also found that the CIA had intervened in a California drug bust, that it had ignored a narcotics-for-arms trade by the Contras, and that Meneses and Blandón did indeed meet with agency asset Bermúdez, who suggested to them that drug-running would be an acceptable means of raising funds for the Contras. The Post ran a Page 4 story by Pincus with the misdirective headline "Probe Finds No CIA Link to L.A. Crack Cocaine Sales."

Two months later, readers of another Pincus dispatch would learn that CIA Inspector General Frederick R. Hitz testified before Congress that "dozens of people and a number of companies connected in some fashion to the contra program" were involved in drug trafficking. "Let me be frank," Hitz added, "there are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug-trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations."

Hitz discovered, too, that high-ranking Reagan administration officials were aware of Contra drug trafficking. "The inspector general also said that under an agreement in 1982 between then-Attorney General William French Smith and the CIA, agency officers were not required to report allegations of drug trafficking involving non-employees, which was defined as meaning paid and non-paid 'assets,' pilots who ferried supplies to the contras, as well as contra officials and others," Pincus reports. "[T]his policy was modified in 1986 when the agency was prohibited from paying U.S. dollars to any individual or company found to be involved in drug dealing." That same year, Congress approved $100 million in funding for the Contras, meaning that the group no longer needed to rely on drug money.

Where were these bombshells printed? Page A12. In October 1998, the inspector general released another report. The New York Times pushed it to A7: "In all, the report found that the C.I.A. received allegations of drug involvement by 58 contras or others linked to the contra program, including 14 pilots and two others tied to the contra program's C.I.A.-backed air transportation operations. The report indicates that information linking the contras to drugs began to emerge almost as soon as the contras came into existence, and before it became publicly known that the C.I.A. was supporting their effort to overthrow the Marxist-led Government in Managua," writes James Risen, confirming "Dark Alliance"'s underlying assumptions

Yet the writer makes sure to take a swipe at Webb: "The first volume of the C.I.A. inspector general's report, issued in January, dealt primarily with the specific allegations raised by the Mercury-News series and dismissed its central findings."

Pincus covered the report the next month in a 1,566-word piece on page A4. It was his final attempt to reconcile the new findings with the notion that Webb had been wrong:

Although the report contradicts previous CIA claims that it had little information about drug running and the contras, it does not lend any new support to charges of an alliance among the CIA, contra fund-raisers and dealers who introduced crack cocaine in the 1980s in south-central Los Angeles. Those charges created a national sensation during the summer of 1996 when they were published in a series of articles by the San Jose Mercury News.

The allegations, which were not substantiated by subsequent reporting by other newspapers, prompted a year-long CIA inquiry that produced two reports, including the one released last month. The first report found that there was no evidence to indicate that the CIA had any dealings with the California drug traffickers. The classified version of the second report, sent to Congress earlier this year, concluded that there was no evidence that the CIA "conspired with or assisted contra-related organizations or individuals in drug trafficking to raise funds for the contras or for other purposes."

However, the unclassified report provides a wealth of anecdotes indicating that the CIA routinely received allegations about drug trafficking links to the contras. Although the report does not specify in most cases whether the allegations proved accurate, it suggests that in many cases the charges were simply ignored or overlooked because of the priority to keep the contra effort going.

* * * * *

After nine months of backing Webb, the Mercury News finally recanted. And when it did, it made bigger news than when it broke the initial story. The New York Times ran a notice on the front page, and its editorial board congratulated Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos for his courage. Kurtz mentioned several times to me that when Webb's own paper stood down from the story, it ended the debate over which parts of "Dark Alliance" were factual and which were conjecture. "The Mercury News looked into its own work and concluded that the series had fallen short," he said. "So now ... instead of having Gary Webb versus the critics, you had Gary Webb versus his own editors."

Ceppos wrote a front-page editorial suggesting that the paper's most significant error was failing to report that Blandón stopped sending money to the Contras in 1982. He also notes that "Dark Alliance" "oversimplified" the way that the crack epidemic spread across the country and, most significantly, that knowledge of Contra drug-running the CIA was implied and not proved, therefore making the story bunk. "[T]hough we never said the CIA knew of, or was involved in, this Contra fundraising effort, we strongly implied CIA knowledge," writes Ceppos. "Although members of the drug ring met with Contra leaders paid by the CIA and Webb believes the relationship with the CIA was a tight one, I feel that we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship."

Ceppos was given the 1997 Society of Professional Journalists' National Ethics in Journalism Award for the editorial. Webb, meanwhile, continued researching and reporting on his own, and published his work in the 1999 book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. If he thought that his book, combined with the CIA's validation of some of "Dark Alliance"'s assertions, would resurrect his reputation, he hadn't yet figured out the game that he was playing.

"Poor Gary never really could fathom why they got the knives out and slashed him to death. He foolishly believed that in the end respect for Truth made for a level playing field," emailed Alexander Cockburn, whose own book on the subject, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, came out in 1998 and was often jointly reviewed with Webb's. Both were shredded, and not just by the mainstream media.

Cockburn recalled that his "book was savagely attacked, particularly by liberals, (including a vast review in the Nation), almost invariably -- Jeffrey and I came to this conclusion after puzzling over the weird vehemence of the attacks -- because they couldn't stomach the immensely detailed and carefully sourced account of the history and role of the CIA, not as 'a rogue' agency, but as the obedient servant of the U.S. government. They can't stand to look at Medusa's face."

Geneva Overholser, the Post's ombudsman, took a look her own paper a month after the Webb takedown and didn't like what she saw. "The Post (and the others) showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose's answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves," she scolds in a Nov. 10 op-ed. "A principal responsibility of the press is to protect the people from government excesses. The Post (among others) showed more energy for protecting the CIA from someone else's journalistic excesses. Not an invalid goal, but by far a lesser one. Perhaps there is better to come."

* * * * *

Not for Webb, however. He was demoted and sent to a dustbin bureau 150 miles from San Jose. He resigned after settling an arbitration claim and went to work for a small alt-weekly. Over the next several years, his marriage fell apart and his meager wages were garnished for child support. On Dec. 10, 2004, Webb was discovered dead, shot twice in the head with his father's .38. The local coroner declared the death a suicide.

Obituaries in the major papers continued referencing his "discredited" series. The Los Angeles Times obit recalls his "widely criticized series linking the CIA to the explosion of crack cocaine in Los Angeles," noting that "[m]ajor newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, wrote reports discrediting elements of Webb's reporting." The New York Times ran a five-paragraph Reuters obit that began, "Gary Webb, a reporter who won national attention with a series of articles, later discredited." "The articles led to calls in Congress for an investigation, but major newspapers discredited parts of Mr. Webb's work," it adds, making no mention of the fact that those calls for an investigation were heeded, and that the investigation confirmed a great deal of Webb's reporting.

"Web of Deception" sat atop Howard Kurtz' writeup in the Post. "There was a time when Gary Webb was at the center of a huge, racially charged national controversy. That was eight years ago, and it turned out badly for him," Kurtz begins. "The lesson," he concludes, "is that just because a news outlet makes sensational charges doesn't make them true, and just because the rest of the media challenge the charges doesn't make them part of some cover-up."

Reading the obituaries at the time, Farah recalled, was dispiriting. "Everybody, especially in the news business when you’re working fast, makes mistakes," he said. "But I don’t think that should stand as his final word on what he did."

Kurtz, however, stood by what he said then. "Of course it’s very sad what happened to him in the end, but I just did some basic reporting on him," he said. "I wasn’t going out on a limb."

This article is excerpted from the book This Is Your Country On Drugs

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