In January, it was revealed that the DEA allows Mexico’s biggest cartel to traffic drugs in the US in exchange for information. In 1996, investigative reporter Gary Webb broke the prior story that the CIA was implicated in trafficking crack cocaine into the United States. It’s time to take another look at Webb’s revelations.
In mid-January, the Mexican newspaper El Universal alleged that the US DEA allowed the notorious Sinaloa cartel, considered Mexico’s most powerful drug traffickers, to operate with impunity in exchange for informing on rival cartels—smuggling billions of dollars of drugs without interference, previously including nearly 200 tons of cocaine and heroin between 1990 and 2008. It’s a story that immediately recalls the memory of Gary Webb, one of the greatest—and most tragic—investigative journalists of the last few decades.
El Universal also alleged that Operation Fast and Furious—in which Arizona ATF agents allowed arms sales to cartel members in order to track them—was part of a larger scheme to arm and finance the cartel in exchange for information on rival cartels.
The DEA’s strategy with Sinaloa is one that America has also allegedly used in Colombia, Cambodia, Thailand and Afghanistan. And while El Universal‘s revelations were barely touched upon by the mainstream media, for those who have followed drug war policy, they come as no surprise.
Gary Webb: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Let’s rewind the clock to August 1996.
Gary Webb is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. He’s 41, and he’s been writing for the paper since 1988. He’s made his way to California after dropping out of journalism school to write for local papers in Cleveland and Kentucky. He’s already begun to make a name for himself as an investigative reporter, exposing computer issues at the California DMV and freeway retrofitting issues that surfaced during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
But that’s small stuff compared to what Webb is about to deliver to his bosses, and the public: he has a new three-part, 20,000 word investigation called “Dark Alliance.” For those paying attention, it will radically shock the foundations of what we think of as American politics. It will also effectively end Webb’s promising career—and soon, his life.
According to Webb, the CIA was well aware of what was happening, and allowed shipments of cocaine into the US; he also alleged that White House personnel, including Oliver North, were involved.
Here’s what he reveals: During the 1980s, Nicaraguan cartels were freely selling crack in Los Angeles. The funds they were raising from distributing this most ruinous of drugs were directly funneled back to the Contras in Nicaragua—the Contras that the Reagan administration and CIA were covertly supporting, even though aid had been explicitly banned by Congress. According to Gary Webb, the CIA was well aware of what was happening, and allowed shipments of cocaine into the US; he also alleges that White House personnel, including Oliver North, are involved. North had previously arranged for the clandestine sale of arms to Iran and the funneling of the proceeds back to the Contras (he currently has his own show on Fox News). None of these people informed the DEA about any of these actions.
The article causes immense scandal—it also pushes 1.3 million hits a day back to the San Jose Mercury News website… and this is 1996. That kind of traffic would break many sites’ web hosting now, in Internet-ubiquitous 2014. But this is when most Americans are still on AOL, if online at all.
The spin doctors immediately leap into action, and Webb comes under attack from the big dogs: the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times all rush to debunk his findings, often attacking Webb directly. (Sound Snowden/Assange/Manning-esque?) The Los Angeles Times plays the race card, claiming that Webb alleged the CIA was trying to addict African Americans to crack, which he did not. Webb claims that the DC, New York and LA papers are acting as mouthpieces for the government (much as Glenn Greenwald has done throughout the Snowden scandal). But they can’t hold the story back: it’s one of the first times the Internet undermines the power of the mainstream media in allowing a story to spread.
Under heavy fire, the Mercury News hangs Gary Webb out to dry. His editors aren’t contacting him about the story by January 1997; the paper’s executive editor writes an editorial criticizing Webb’s work in May. Webb is reassigned to a suburban wing of the paper that’s 150 miles away from where he lives. Unable to handle six hours of commute a day, he quits the Mercury in December 1997. His career in journalism is effectively over: he never gets a job at a daily newspaper again, and though he keeps writing, he can’t support his family. He goes to work for the California Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services; after being laid off in 2003, he finally gets a job writing again, at the Sacramento News and Review. But he still can’t keep his family afloat, and loses his home.
Then, in December 10, 2004, he turns up dead. It’s ruled a suicide, due to years of depression from being economically marginalized. The coroner finds a suicide note, and additional notes mailed to his family members.
Oddly enough, however, he’s got two gunshot wounds to the head. Be that what it may.
He Who Shines With the Brightest Light Will Cast the Darkest Shadow
Though an initial investigation into the CIA/Contra link by the Los Angeles County Sheriff failed to substantiate Gary Webb’s findings, later investigations did, including a CIA internal investigation. A 1982 letter between the CIA and the Justice Department, revealed by Representative Maxine Waters in 1998, showed that the CIA had been legally freed from the responsibility of reporting drug smuggling by its assets (including the Contras and the Afghan rebels who would later become Al Qaeda).
A 1998 Justice Department report also revealed that the Reagan administration did nothing to stop Contra drug trafficking, and that the CIA shared nothing of its activities with other law enforcement agencies. Further CIA investigations revealed that the Reagan/Bush White House protected 50+ Contras and drug traffickers, with the CIA preventing information on drug crimes from going to the Justice Department, Congress or factions in the CIA likely to be concerned. CIA internal reporting even found that the pyramid of drug trafficking and money laundering went all the way to the National Security Council under Oliver North, and that this had been routinely covered up.
Even though all of this was validated by 1998, it was already too late for Webb, the shot messenger. Before his death, however, he succeeded in publishing a book expanding his reporting—Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.
(By the way, check out this review of the book by somebody claiming to have been a CIA case officer in Central America at the time of Iran/Contra—if it’s real, it’s almost as shocking as the allegations themselves, painting a horrific picture of “the way things really work.”)
After his death—only after his death—the mainstream media began to change its assessment of Gary Webb and how he had been treated. The LA Times claimed “Gary got too much blame” and called him a “great investigative reporter” in 2006, despite having rushed to hammer in the nails ten years earlier. A movie about Gary Webb and the “Dark Alliance” story, entitled Kill the Messenger, is scheduled for release this year, starring Jeremy Renner as Webb.
If anything, the connection between federal law enforcement and drug trafficking appears to have gotten worse.
So clearly, the Gary Webb scandal is a relic of a darker time, of the long shadow of Reagan, Bush, Oliver North and the Cold War, and we can put this behind us, right?
Not quite, as we see from this month’s revelations about the Sinaloa cartel. If anything, the connection between federal law enforcement and drug trafficking appears to have gotten worse. And as we’ve seen from the treatment of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, the US government is still no fan of messengers. In fact, the Obama administration has aggressively prosecuted journalists and brought more whistleblowers to trial than any other administration in United States history.
Perhaps the Jeremy Renner movie will go some way towards alerting the American public to what has been done—and continues to be done—in their name. But until the time when the same outrage erupts over covert intelligence agency activities like CIA and DEA drug trafficking that has erupted, say, over NSA spying (and to say that the American public is angry over NSA spying is highly generous), the Dark Alliance continues.
(For more: Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion)
(Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
On Kill the Messenger and the Ongoing Legacy of Gary Webb
(In 2014, Gary Webb’s life was memorialized in the biopic Kill the Messenger, which recounted the tragic turn Webb’s life took following his controversial series on the CIA-crack cocaine connection. The following look at the press surrounding the biopic was written by Ultraculture’s Andrei Burke on October 3, 2014.)
A recent trove of documents that the CIA released under the Freedom of Information Act contained a six-page article titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story” that was published in the agency’s in-house newsletter Studies in Intelligence. The article is a detailed account of the initial impact and eventual aftermath of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb’s groundbreaking “Dark Alliance” series of reports, published in 1996 by the San Jose Mercury News. Webb’s series was an in depth investigation into the CIA’s implicit role in the explosion of crack cocaine in America’s urban centers, through Nicaragua’s Contra rebels, who were trafficking cocaine into the United States to fund their counter-revolutionary campaign.
Gary Webb’s series gained extensive coverage on talk radio, and became an early viral sensation by spreading to a global audience via the Internet—still a novel means of promoting national news in 1996. It was derided by some as an overblown conspiracy theory, but heralded by others as a paragon of investigative journalism. Webb’s life eventually spiraled into crisis. The tragedy that befell Webb, as we shall see, serves as a reminder of the personal consequences of yellow journalism and the mass effect of media manipulation.
When it initially appeared, “Dark Alliances: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion” (its full title) was a public relations disaster for the CIA. Nicolas Dujmovic, the author of “Managing a Nightmare” wrote:
The charges could hardly be worse. A widely read newspaper series leads many Americans to believe CIA is guilty of at least complicity, if not conspiracy, in the outbreak of crack cocaine in America’s cities. In more extreme versions of the story circulating on talk radio and the internet, the Agency was the instrument of a consistent strategy by the US Government to destroy the black community and keep black Americans from advancing. Denunciations of CIA–reminiscent of the 1970s–abound. Investigations are demanded and initiated. The Congress gets involved.
He also noted that much of what Webb reported on was not new. In 1985, more than a decade before Webb’s series, Associated Press journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger discovered that Contra groups had “engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua.” What distinguished Webb’s reportage from AP’s was the immediacy that he brought to the issue by revealing that drug trafficking abroad had the very real domestic impact of crack cocaine spreading through American’s urban centers.
The story covered familiar ground while making a few new connections, but what was truly novel about it was its means of distribution. Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept notes:
And while its content was not all new, the series marked the beginning of something that was: an in-depth investigation published outside the traditional mainstream media outlets and successfully promoted on the internet. More than a decade before Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, Webb showcased the power and reach of online journalism. Key documents were hosted on the San Jose Mercury News website, with hyperlinks, wiretap recordings and follow-up stories. The series was widely discussed on African American talk radio stations; on some days attracting more than one million readers to the newspaper’s website. As Webb later remarked, “you don’t have be The New York Times or The Washington Post to bust a national story anymore.”
But papers like the Times or the Post, Devereaux points out, “seemed to spend far more time trying to poke holes in the series than in following up on the underreported scandal at its heart, the involvement of U.S.-backed proxy forces in international drug trafficking.” The Los Angeles Times was particularly hostile. Webb’s story began in Nicaragua, but ended in South Central Los Angeles, the paper’s very own backyard. The California paper assigned 17 reporters to dismantle Webb’s story. At one point, one of the reporters referred to it as the “get Gary Webb team” while another reportedly said, “We’re going to take away this guy’s Pulitzer.”
The CIA closely observed these developments, and collaborated when and where it could with outlets challenging Webb’s story. In “Managing a Nightmare,” Dujmovic boasted that the agency virtually abandoned its longstanding policies in order to discredit Webb and the series. “For example, in order to help a journalist working on a story that would undermine the Mercury News allegations, Public Affairs was able to deny any affiliation of a particular individual—which is a rare exception to the general policy that CIA does not comment on any individual’s alleged CIA ties,” he wrote.
The Intercept notes:
[Dujmovic’s “Managing a Nightmare”] chronicles the shift in public opinion as it moved in favor of the CIA, a trend that began about a month and a half after the series was published. “That third week in September was a turning point in media coverage of this story,” Dujmovic wrote, citing “[r]espected columnists, including prominent blacks,” along with the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, The Weekly Standard and the Washington Post. The agency supplied the press, “as well as former Agency officials, who were themselves representing the Agency in interviews with the media,” with “these more balanced stories,” Dujmovic wrote. The Washington Post proved particularly useful. “Because of the Post‘s national reputation, its articles especially were picked up by other papers, helping to create what the Associated Press called a ‘firestorm of reaction’ against the San Jose Mercury News.” Over the month that followed, critical media coverage of the series (“balanced reporting”) far outnumbered supportive stories, a trend the CIA credited to the Post, The New York Times, “and especially the Los Angeles Times.” Webb’s editors began to distance themselves from their reporter.
The CIA “didn’t really need to lift a finger to try to ruin Gary Webb’s credibility,” said Webb biographer Nick Schou. “They just sat there and watched these journalists go after Gary like a bunch of piranhas.”
What was a minor victory for the CIA became a living hell for Webb. He was eventually removed from his position at the Mercury News, and ultimately took his own life. The Narco News Bulletin reports:
The Mercury News’ top editor, Jerry Ceppos, ultimately buckled, threw Webb to the wolves and penned a letter of apology to the readers for the Dark Alliance series. Webb was subsequently banished to a small Mercury News bureau in Cupertino, Calif., south of San Francisco — and some 125 miles from his home and family in Sacramento. He was forced to write stories normally assigned to cub reporters. His career was effectively destroyed, and he would never again get a job with a daily newspaper. He took his own life on Dec. 9, 2004.
“Once you take away a journalist’s credibility, that’s all they have,” Schou says. “He was never able to recover from that.”
Webb’s story has been immortalized in the upcoming Hollywood movie Kill the Messenger, staring Academy Award-nominee Jeremy Renner of Hurt Locker fame as Webb.
Much like the proxy war waged between the Sandinistas and the Contras, the CIA fought a proxy war between news print and online journalism. Print media was all-too-eager to wage an attack against the fledgling field of online reporting, which by its expedient nature rendered newsprint obsolete. This was not so much a fight to suppress the truth, but a fight to suppress how it is we tell the truth—a fight that is echoed today in the battle over net neutrality. Gary Webb was an early victim of this battle, but his tragic downfall was not in vain. Online journalism thrives today in spite of the attempts to discredit one of its earliest adopters. We owe it to Webb to keep the Internet open and free.
(For more: Kill the Messenger.)