Gary Webb's Legacy
by Robert Parry
For his brave reporting at the San Jose Mercury News, Webb paid a high
1996, journalist Gary Webb wrote a series of articles that forced a
long-overdue investigation of a very dark chapter of recent U.S. foreign
policy -- the Reagan-Bush administration's protection of cocaine
traffickers who operated under the cover of the Nicaraguan contra war in
For his brave reporting at the San Jose Mercury News, Webb paid a high
price. He was attacked by journalistic colleagues at the New York Times,
the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the American Journalism
Review and even the Nation magazine. Under this media pressure, his
editor Jerry Ceppos sold out the story and demoted Webb, causing him to
quit the Mercury News. Even Webb's marriage broke up.
On Friday, December 10, Gary Webb, 49, died of an apparent suicide, a
gunshot wound to the head.
Whatever the details of Webb's death, American history owes him a huge
debt. Though denigrated by much of the national news media, Webb's
contra-cocaine series prompted internal investigations by the Central
Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department, probes that confirmed
that scores of contra units and contra-connected individuals were
implicated in the drug trade. The probes also showed that the
Reagan-Bush administration frustrated investigations into those crimes
for geopolitical reasons.
Webb also exposed the cowardice and unprofessional
behavior that had become the new trademarks of the major U.S. news media
by the mid-1990s. The big news outlets were always hot on the trail of
some titillating scandal -- the O.J. Simpson case or the Monica Lewinsky
scandal -- but the major media could no longer grapple with serious
crimes of state.
Even after the CIA's inspector general issued his findings in 1998, the
major newspapers could not muster the talent or the courage to explain
those extraordinary government admissions to the American people. Nor
did the big newspapers apologize for their unfair treatment of Gary
Webb. Foreshadowing the media incompetence that would fail to challenge
George W. Bush's case for war with Iraq five years later, the major news
organizations effectively hid the CIA's confession from the American people.
The New York Times and the Washington Post never got much past the CIA's
'executive summary,' which tried to put the best spin on Inspector
General Frederick Hitz's findings. The Los Angeles Times never even
wrote a story after the final volume of the CIA's report was published,
though Webb's initial story had focused on contra-connected cocaine
shipments to South-Central Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Times' cover-up has now continued after Webb's death. In
a harsh obituary about Webb, the Times reporter, who called to interview
me, ignored my comments about the debt the nation owed Webb and the
importance of the CIA's inspector general findings. Instead of using
Webb's death as an opportunity to finally get the story straight, the
Times acted as if there never had been an official investigation
confirming many of Webb's allegations. [Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 2004.]
By maintaining the contra-cocaine cover-up -- even after the CIA's had
admitted the facts -- the big newspapers seemed to have understood that
they could avoid any consequences for their egregious behavior in the
1990s or for their negligence toward the contra-cocaine issue when it
first surfaced in the 1980s. After all, the conservative news media --
the chief competitor to the mainstream press -- isn't going to demand a
reexamination of the crimes of the Reagan-Bush years.
That means that only a few minor media outlets, like our own
Consortiumnews.com, will go back over the facts now, just as only a few
of us addressed the significance of the government admissions in the
late 1990s. I compiled and explained the findings of the CIA Justice
investigations in my 1999 book, "Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the
Press & 'Project Truth.'"
describes how the contra-cocaine story first reached the public in a
story that Brian Barger and I wrote for the Associated Press in December
1985. Though the big newspapers pooh-poohed our discovery, Sen. John
Kerry followed up our story with his own groundbreaking investigation.
For his efforts, Kerry also encountered media ridicule. Newsweek dubbed
the Massachusetts senator a 'randy conspiracy buff.' (MORE)
So when Gary Webb revived the contra-cocaine issue in August 1996 with a
20,000-word three-part series entitled 'Dark Alliance,' editors at major
newspapers already had a powerful self-interest to slap down a story
that they had disparaged for the past decade.
The challenge to their earlier judgments was doubly painful because the
Mercury-News' sophisticated Web site ensured that Webb's series made a
big splash on the Internet, which was just emerging as a threat to the
traditional news media. Also, the African-American community was furious
at the possibility that U.S. government policies had contributed to the
In other words, the mostly white, male editors at the major newspapers
saw their preeminence in judging news challenged by an upstart regional
newspaper, the Internet and common American citizens who also happened
to be black. So, even as the CIA was prepared to conduct a relatively
thorough and honest investigation, the major newspapers seemed more
eager to protect their reputations and their turf.
Without doubt, Webb's series had its limitations. It primarily tracked
one West Coast network of contra-cocaine traffickers from the
early-to-mid 1980s. Webb connected that cocaine to an early 'crack'
production network that supplied Los Angeles street gangs, the Crips and
the Bloods, leading to Webb's conclusion that contra cocaine fueled the
early crack epidemic that devastated Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.
black leaders began demanding a full investigation of these
charges, the Washington media joined the political Establishment in
circling the wagons. It fell to Rev. Sun Myung Moon's right-wing
Washington Times to begin the counterattack against Webb's series. The
Washington Times turned to some former CIA officials, who participated
in the contra war, to refute the drug charges.
But -- in a pattern that would repeat itself on other issues in the
following years -- the Washington Post and other mainstream newspapers
quickly lined up behind the conservative news media. On Oct. 4, 1996,
the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb's
The Post's approach was twofold: first, it presented the contra-cocaine
allegations as old news -- 'even CIA personnel testified to Congress they
knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,' the Post
reported -- and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one
contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted -- that it had not
'played a major role in the emergence of crack.' A Post side-bar story
dismissed African-Americans as prone to 'conspiracy fears.'
Soon, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times joined in the piling
on of Gary Webb. The big newspapers made much of the CIA's internal
reviews in 1987 and 1988 that supposedly cleared the spy agency of a
role in contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the CIA's decade-old cover-up began to crack on Oct. 24, 1996, when
CIA Inspector General Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence
Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only 12 days, the second
only three days. He promised a more thorough review.
however, Gary Webb became the target of outright media
ridicule. Influential Post media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for
saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the
contra war was primarily a business to its participants. 'Oliver Stone,
check your voice mail,' Kurtz chortled. [Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1996]
Webb's suspicion was not unfounded, however. Indeed, White House aide
Oliver North's emissary Rob Owen had made the same point a decade
earlier, in a March 17, 1986, message about the contra leadership. 'Few
of the so-called leaders of the movement -- really care about the boys in
the field,' Owen wrote. 'THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF
THEM.' [Capitalization in the original.]
Nevertheless, the pillorying of Gary Webb was on, in earnest. The
ridicule also had a predictable effect on the executives of the
Mercury-News. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos was in retreat.
On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page column saying the series
'fell short of my standards.' He criticized the stories because they
'strongly implied CIA knowledge' of contra connections to U.S. drug
dealers who were manufacturing crack-cocaine. 'We did not have proof
that top CIA officials knew of the relationship.'
The big newspapers celebrated Ceppos's retreat as vindication of their
own dismissal of the contra-cocaine stories. Ceppos next pulled the plug
on the Mercury-News' continuing contra-cocaine investigation and
reassigned Webb to a small office in Cupertino, California, far from his
family. Webb resigned the paper in disgrace.
For undercutting Webb and the other reporters working on the contra
investigation, Ceppos was lauded by the American Journalism Review and
was given the 1997 national 'Ethics in Journalism Award' by the Society
of Professional Journalists. While Ceppos won raves, Webb watched his
career collapse and his marriage break up.
Gary Webb had set in motion internal government investigations
that would bring to the surface long-hidden facts about how the
Reagan-Bush administration had conducted the contra war. The CIA's
defensive line against the contra-cocaine allegations began to break
when the spy agency published Volume One of Hitz's findings on Jan. 29,
Despite a largely exculpatory press release, Hitz's Volume One admitted
that not only were many of Webb's allegations true but that he actually
understated the seriousness of the contra-drug crimes and the CIA's
knowledge. Hitz acknowledged that cocaine smugglers played a significant
early role in the Nicaraguan contra movement and that the CIA intervened
to block an image-threatening 1984 federal investigation into a San
Francisco-based drug ring with suspected ties to the contras. (For
details, see "Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press
& 'Project Truth'")
On May 7, 1998, another disclosure from the government investigation
shook the CIA's weakening defenses. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California
Democrat, introduced into the Congressional Record a Feb. 11, 1982,
letter of understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department. The
letter, which had been sought by CIA Director William Casey, freed the
CIA from legal requirements that it must report drug smuggling by CIA
assets, a provision that covered both the Nicaraguan contras and Afghan
rebels who were fighting a Soviet-supported regime in Afghanistan.
crack in the defensive wall opened when the Justice Department
released a report by its inspector general, Michael Bromwich. Given the
hostile climate surrounding Webb's series, Bromwich's report opened with
criticism of Webb. But, like the CIA's Volume One, the contents revealed
new details about government wrongdoing.
According to evidence cited by the report, the Reagan-Bush
administration knew almost from the outset of the contra war that
cocaine traffickers permeated the paramilitary operation. The
administration also did next to nothing to expose or stop the criminal
activities. The report revealed example after example of leads not
followed, corroborated witnesses disparaged, official law-enforcement
investigations sabotaged, and even the CIA facilitating the work of drug
The Bromwich report showed that the contras and their supporters ran
several parallel drug-smuggling operations, not just the one at the
center of Webb's series. The report also found that the CIA shared
little of its information about contra drugs with law-enforcement
agencies and on three occasions disrupted cocaine-trafficking
investigations that threatened the contras.
Though depicting a more widespread contra-drug operation than Webb had
understood, the Justice report also provided some important
corroboration about a Nicaraguan drug smuggler, Norwin Meneses, who was
a key figure in Webb's series. Bromwich cited U.S. government informants
who supplied detailed information about Meneses's operation and his
financial assistance to the contras.
For instance, Renato Pena, a money-and-drug courier for Meneses, said
that in the early 1980s, the CIA allowed the contras to fly drugs into
the United States, sell them and keep the proceeds. Pena, who also was
the northern California representative for the CIA-backed FDN contra
army, said the drug trafficking was forced on the contras by the
inadequate levels of U.S. government assistance.
The Justice report also disclosed repeated examples of the CIA and U.S.
embassies in Central America discouraging Drug Enforcement
Administration investigations, including one into alleged contra-cocaine
shipments moving through the airport in El Salvador. In an understated
conclusion, Inspector General Bromwich wrote: 'We have no doubt that the
CIA and the U.S. Embassy were not anxious for the DEA to pursue its
investigation at the airport.'
CIA's Volume Two
the remarkable admissions in the body of these reports, the big
newspapers showed no inclination to read beyond the press releases and
executive summaries. By fall 1998, official Washington was obsessed with
the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which made it easier to ignore even
more stunning disclosures in the CIA's Volume Two..
In Volume Two, published Oct. 8, 1998, CIA Inspector General Hitz
identified more than 50 contras and contra-related entities implicated
in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan-Bush administration
had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal
investigations, which had threatened to expose the crimes in the
mid-1980s. Hitz even published evidence that drug trafficking and money
laundering tracked into Reagan's National Security Council where Oliver
North oversaw the contra operations.
Hitz revealed, too, that the CIA placed an admitted drug money launderer
in charge of the Southern Front contras in Costa Rica. Also, according
to Hitz's evidence, the second-in-command of contra forces on the
Northern Front in Honduras had escaped from a Colombian prison where he
was serving time for drug trafficking
In Volume Two, the CIA's defense against Webb's series had shrunk to a
tiny fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the contras to raise
money through cocaine trafficking. But Hitz made clear that the contra
war took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld
evidence of contra crimes from the Justice Department, the Congress and
even the CIA's own analytical division.
Hitz found in CIA files evidence that the spy agency knew from the first
days of the contra war that its new clients were involved in the cocaine
trade. According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, one of
the early contra groups, known as ADREN, had decided to use drug
trafficking as a financing mechanism. Two ADREN members made the first
delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981, the CIA cable reported.
ADREN's leaders included Enrique Bermudez, who emerged as the top contra
military commander in the 1980s. Webb's series had identified Bermudez
as giving the green light to contra fundraising by drug trafficker
Meneses. Hitz's report added that that the CIA had another Nicaraguan
witness who implicated Bermudez in the drug trade in 1988.
tracing the evidence of contra-drug trafficking through the
decade-long contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA
officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the contra-drug
problem but didn't want its exposure to undermine the struggle to
overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.
According to Hitz, the CIA had 'one overriding priority: to oust the
Sandinista government. -- [CIA officers] were determined that the various
difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective
implementation of the contra program.' One CIA field officer explained,
'The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.'
Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations
officers handling the contra war hid evidence of contra-drug trafficking
even from the CIA's analytical division. Because of the withheld
evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that
'only a handful of contras might have been involved in drug
trafficking.' That false assessment was passed on to Congress and the
major news organizations -- serving as an important basis for denouncing
Gary Webb and his series in 1996.
Though Hitz's report was an extraordinary admission of institutional
guilt by the CIA, it passed almost unnoticed by the big newspapers.
Two days after Hitz's report was posted at the CIA's Internet site, the
New York Times did a brief article that continued to deride Webb's work,
while acknowledging that the contra-drug problem may indeed have been
worse than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post
weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles Times
never published a story on the release of the CIA's Volume Two.
this day, no editor or reporter who missed the contra-drug story has
been punished for his or her negligence. Indeed, many of them are now
top executives at their news organizations. On the other hand, Gary
Webb's career never recovered.
At Webb's death, however, it should be noted that his great gift to
American history was that he -- along with angry African-American
citizens -- forced the government to admit some of the worst crimes ever
condoned by any American administration: the protection of drug
smuggling into the United States as part of a covert war against a
country, Nicaragua, that represented no real threat to Americans.
The truth was ugly. Certainly the major news organizations would have
come under criticism themselves if they had done their job and laid out
this troubling story to the American people. Conservative defenders of
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush would have been sure to howl in protest.
But the real tragedy of Webb's historic gift -- and of his life cut short
-- is that because of the major news media's callowness and cowardice,
this dark chapter of the Reagan-Bush era remains largely unknown to the
Reprinted by permission of
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the
Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book is
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise
of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq"
following his 1999 book, "Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the
Press & 'Project Truth'"
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December 13, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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