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Gary Webb: A hero of authentic journalism

Anthony Lappé | December 15 2004

Gary Webb, the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who broke the story of the CIA’s involvement in the importation of cocaine into the U.S., died Friday, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.

It was a tragic end to a brilliant, and tragic, career.

I didn’t know Webb well. We met in Mexico two years ago, at’s rag-tag School of Authentic Journalism, a low-budget gathering of outcast journalists from across the western hemisphere.

For all of us there – Mexican, Brazilian, Bolivian, Gringo – Webb was something of a living legend. The quiet, generous reporter was the first to document what many had been alleging for years – that the CIA aided the smuggling of large quantities of cocaine into the U.S. in an effort to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras. The shipments, Webb discovered, helped fuel the crack epidemic that ravaged America’s inner-cities in the mid-80s.

One of GNN’s first NewsVideos was based largely on Webb’s scoop. The video, Crack the CIA, earned us first place at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival’s online competition and helped propel our fledgling web-based news operation to the next level.

Webb didn’t fare as well.

In August 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published Webb’s 20,000 word, three-part series entitled Dark Alliance. It was also published on the paper’s web site – a groundbreaking moment in online journalism. With slick graphics, and links to scores of original documents and phone intercepts, the articles detailed the nexus between a California coke kingpin, CIA officials and assets and the Nicaraguan Contra army, whose funding had been cut off by an act of Congress in the mid-80s. Webb found evidence that the CIA had direct contact with the smugglers, knew the proceeds were going to fund the murderous Contras, and tried to cover it up when other law enforcement agencies began investigating. The most troubling aspect to the story was that the central player was no ordinary drug lord. He was the man many credit for popularizing crack, the highly addictive, smoke-able form of cocaine.

For many African-Americans, the story smacked of a grand conspiracy to destroy the black community. There were rallies in Watts and Compton, and heated discussions on black media across the country. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for a federal investigation. On November 15, 1996, CIA director John Deutch appeared at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles to personally answer the allegations. When a former LAPD detective named Michael Ruppert confronted him with what he said was evidence that the CIA was moving coke into L.A., the crowd went crazy. It was a PR disaster. Deutch appeared frazzled and, frankly, like he was hiding something.

But it was Webb who found himself on the ropes. Ironically, the CIA did little to publicly counter his allegations. Instead, the media did its dirty work for them, most notably the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

Jeff Cohen, of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), writes:

Webb’s series focused heavily on Oscar Danilo Blandon, a cocaine importer and federal informant, who once testified in federal court that “whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution.” Blandon further testified that Colonel Enrique Bermudez, a CIA asset who led the Contra army against Nicaragua’s leftwing Sandinista government, knew the funds were from drug running. (Bermudez was a colonel during the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.)

Webb reported that U.S. law enforcement agents complained that the CIA had squelched drug probes of Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses in the name of “national security.” Blandon’s drugs flowed into L.A. and elsewhere thanks to the legendary “Freeway” Ricky Donnell Ross, a supplier of crack to the Crips and Bloods gangs.

The [Washingtion] Post devoted much ink to exposing what Webb readily acknowledged—that while he could document Contra links to cocaine importing, he was not able to identify specific CIA officials who knew of the drug flow. The ferocity of the attack on Webb led the Post’s ombudsman to note that the three national newspapers “showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws” in the Webb series than for probing the important issue Webb had raised: U.S. government relations with drug smuggling.

The L.A. Times’ anti-Webb package was curious for its handling of Freeway Ricky Ross, the dealer Webb had authoritatively linked to Contra-funder Blandon. Two years before Webb’s revelations, the Times had reported: “If there was a criminal mastermind behind crack’s decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick.” In a profile of Ross headlined “Deposed King of Crack,” the Times went on and on about “South-Central’s first millionaire crack lord” and how Ross’ “coast to coast conglomerate was selling more than $550,000 rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars.”

But two months after Webb’s series linked Ricky Ross to Contra cocaine, the L.A. Times told a totally different story, now seeking to minimize Ross’s role in the crack epidemic: Ross was just one of many “interchangeable characters”—“dwarfed” by other dealers. The reporter who’d written the 1994 Ross profile was the one called on to write the front-page 1996 critique of Webb; media critic Norman Solomon noted that it “reads like a show-trial recantation.”

[Not all big-time journalists turned on Webb, Charles Bowden’s Esquire magazine profile of Webb entitled, The Pariah, found ample evidence to back up Dark Alliance’s most controversial assertions.]

For Webb, the most confounding part of the whole affair was that he ended up being accused of making allegations he never made – specifically that the CIA-crack connection was part of a larger, genocidal plot to kill off black people. Webb never made that claim – though he noted in his book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, the inherent racism in a covert policy that reaped so much destruction on such a vulnerable segment of society.

He wrote, “Dark Alliance does not propound a conspiracy theory; there is nothing theoretical about history. In this case, it is undeniable that a wildly successful conspiracy to import cocaine existed for many years, and that innumerable American citizens—most of them poor and black—paid an enormous price as a result. This book was written for them, so that they may know upon what altars their communities were sacrificed.”

The fact is by 1996 it was common knowledge in the so-called alternative media that there were connections between the Contras, the Agency and drugs. In 1988, a Senate subcommittee investigation headed by Sen. John Kerry concluded the links were there. Oliver North’s own diary noted, “$14 million to buy arms for the Contras came from drugs.” [See North documents here]

Nevertheless, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News hung him out to dry, without ever providing any evidence that any of his reporting was wrong. He was reassigned, then forced out. Webb went on to work as an investigator for the state of California, penning a report on racial profiling by state police. More recently, he landed a reporting job at a Sacramento newspaper.

He will be missed.