If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me. I'd been working at daily papers for seventeen years at that point, doing no-holds barred investigative reporting for the bulk of that time. As far as I could tell, the beneficial powers the press theoretically exercised in our society weren't theoretical in the least. They worked.
I wrote stories that accused people and institutions of illegal and unethical activities. The papers I worked for printed them, often unflinchingly, and many times gleefully. After these stories appeared, matters would improve. Crooked politicians got voted from office or were forcibly removed. Corrupt firms were exposed and fined. Sweetheart deals were rescinded, grand juries were impaneled, indictments came down, grafters were bundled off to the big house. Taxpayers saved money. The public interest was served.
It all happened exactly as my journalism-school professors had promised. And my expectations were pretty high. I went to journalism school while Watergate was unfolding, a time when people as distantly connected to newspapering as college professors were puffing out their chests and singing hymns to investigative reporting.
Bottom line: If there was ever a true believer, I was one. My first editor mockingly called me "Woodstein," after a pair of Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story. More than once I was accused of neglecting my daily reporting duties because I was off "running around with your trench coat flapping in the breeze." But in the end, all the sub rosa trench coat-flapping paid off. The newspaper published a seventeen-part series on organized crime in the American coal industry and won its first national journalism award in half a century. From then on, my editors at that the subsequent newspapers allowed me to work almost exclusively as an investigative reporter.
I had a grand total of one story spiked during my entire reporting career. That's it. One. (And in retrospect it wasn't a very important story either.) Moreover, I had a complete freedom to pick my own shots, a freedom my editors wholeheartedly encouraged since it relieved them of the burden of coming up with story ideas. I wrote my stories the way I wanted to write them, without anyone looking over my shoulder or steering me in a certain direction. After the lawyers and editors went over them and satisfied themselves that we had enough facts behind us to stay out of trouble, they printed them, usually on the front page of the Sunday edition, when we had our widest readership.
In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn't get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests.
So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as far as I could tell. It encouraged enterprise. It rewarded muckraking.
And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress.
In 1996, I wrote a series of stories, entitled Dark Alliance, that began this way: "For the better part of a decade, a 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 guerilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found."
This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the "crack" capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America -- and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy automatic weapons.
It is one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history: the union of a US backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the Uzi-toting "gangstas" of Compton and South Central Los Angeles.
The three-day series was, at its heart, a short historical account of the rise and fall of a drug ring and its impact on black Los Angeles. It attempted to explain how shadowy intelligence agencies, shady drugs and arms dealers, a political scandal, and a long-simmering Latin American civil was had crossed paths in South Central Los Angeles, leaving behind a legacy of crack use. Most important, it challenged the widely held belief that crack use began in African American neighborhoods not for any tangible reason but mainly because of the kind of people who lived in them. Nobody was forcing them to smoke crack, the argument went, so they only have themselves to blame. They should just say no.
That argument never seemed to make much sense to me because drugs don't just appear magically on street corners in black neighborhoods. Even the most rabid hustler in the ghetto can't sell what he doesn't have. If anyone was responsible for the drug problems in a specific area. I thought, it was the people who were bringing the drugs in.
And so Dark Alliance was about them -- the three cocaine traffickers who supplied the South Central market with literally tons of pure cocaine from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. What made the series so controversial is that two of the traffickers I named were intimately involved with a Nicaraguan paramilitary group known as the Contras, a collection of ex-military men, Cuban exiles, and mercenaries that the CIA was using to destabilize the socialist government of Nicaragua. The series documented direct contact between the drug traffickers who were bringing the cocaine into South Central and the two Nicaraguan CIA agents who were administering the Contra project in Central America. The evidence included sworn testimony from one of the traffickers -- now a valued government informant -- that one of the CIA agents huddled in the kitchen of a house in San Francisco with one of the traffickers and had interviewed the photographer, who confirmed its authenticity. Pretty convincing stuff, we thought.
Over the course of three days, Dark Alliance advanced five main arguments: First, that the CIA-created Contras had been selling cocaine to finance their activities. This was something the CIA and the major media had dismissed or denied since the mid-1980s, when a few reporters first began writing about Contra drug dealing. Second, that the Contras had sold cocaine in the ghettos of Los Angeles and that their main customer was L.A.'s biggest crack dealer. Third, that elements of the US government knew about this drug ring's activities at the time and did little if anything to stop it. Fourth, that because of the time period and the areas in which it operated, this drug ring played a critical role in fueling and supplying the first mass crack cocaine market in the United States. And fifth, that the profits earned from this crack market allowed the Los Angeles-based Crips and bloods to expand into other cities and spread crack use to other black urban areas, turning a bad local problem into a bad national problem. This led to panicky federal drug laws that were locking up thousands of small-time, black crack dealers for years but never denting the crack trade.
In the 1980s, the CIA-backed contra rebels in Central America hobnobbed with drug-dealers, and the Agency and the Reagan administration, obsessed with ousting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, looked the other way. This is absolutely undeniable. In this past March, Frederick Hitz, then the inspector general of the CIA, testified publicly to Congress that the CIA did not "cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who (were) alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking." Yet his startling admission received practically no notice from official Washington and the national media, which instead were consumed with details (real and imagined) of L'Affaire Monica.
But when the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 ran a three-part series exposing links between contra associates and the Los Angeles crack trade in the 1980s, the major media did pay attention; they assaulted the articles written by reporter Gary Webb. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times each ran pieces critical of Webb's work. The Webb stories were hard to ignore, for they had ignited a firestorm. On black talk radio, hosts and callers decried a supposed conspiracy in which the CIA midwifed the birth of the crack industry. On Capital Hill, members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for investigation. The Mercury News web site, on which the series had been posted, received millions of hits. Webb had begat a national media event.
It had all begun in the summer of 1995, when Webb received a tip from the girlfriend of a drug dealer. Her honey was being tried, and a chief government witness against him was Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan who managed his own cocaine ring in California. In court proceedings, Blandon had claimed he had gotten into the coke business to raise money for the contras. Webb started investigating. He soon had evidence that Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses - a prominent contra supporter in California with an extensive criminal past in Nicaragua - had supplied cocaine to "Freeway" Ricky Ross, a pioneering crack kingpin.
The lead paragraph in the Webb series was a shocker: A Bay Area drug ring had "funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency." Webb noted that the contras were in league with "Uzi-toting 'gangstas' of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles" and that the drug dealers "met with CIA agents" while raising money for the contras via drug sales. The articles implied that Blandon was directly wired to the CIA and that Blandon and Meneses had been protected from prosecution because of their usefulness to the CIA.
Webb had a helluva story. But he botched parts of it. He produced little evidence that the Blandon-Meneses ring raised "millions" for the contras or that Blandon was linked to Langley. Consequently, newspapers that had neglected the contra-drug story in the 1980s now devoted much space to debunking Webb. Eventually, the editor of the Mercury News ran a column widely seen as a retraction, and Webb left the paper.
But Webb had committed a highly useful act. He had kicked open an old trunk and discovered it full of worms - real worms, ugly and nasty. He kept on investigating and produced a book that reflects the positives and negatives of the original series. In Dark Alliance, he fleshes out the drug operations of Blandon and Meneses, and he provides more evidence of their close association to the contras. (Meneses, for example, paid for early contra support events in California.) Webb also places this ring alongside other well-substantiated examples of contra-drug connections: a Honduran general convicted of selling cocaine to finance a murder plot who was supported by Oliver North and other Reagan officials; drug dealers winning U.S. government contracts to supply the contras; the National Security Council plotting with Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up strongman of Panama; the CIA interfering with a major drug prosecution that could reveal contra drug-dealing and embarrass the agency.
Webb reminds us that the Reagan-approved contra program attracted lowlifes and thugs the way manure draws flies. He guides the reader through a netherworld of dope-dealers, gunrunners, and freelance security consultants, which on occasion overlapped with the U.S. government. He entertainingly details the honor, dishonor and deals among thieves. (Sometimes the book reads like a hard-to-follow Russian novel, with a large cast of characters in a series of intricate episodes.) All in all, it's a disgraceful picture - one that should permanently taint the happy-face hues of the Reagan years.
Again Webb has trouble chasing the money and fails to thoroughly document how much dirty cash Blandon and Meneses steered to the contras. Was it as little as $80,000 or so, as CIA investigators claim Blandon told them? Or was it millions that were instrumental to the survival of the contras, as Webb implies but does not prove? Was Blandon's drug business originally set up as a cash-for-contras enterprise, as Webb depicts it? That's what Blandon has asserted. But there is evidence, as Webb notes, that Blandon may have been a drug entrepreneur years before he hooked up with Meneses. If so, that would cast doubt on his I-did-it-for-the-contras tale and make that claim sound more like an after-the-fact justification.
There are other problems with Webb's account. His threshold of proof is on the low side. In one instance, he passes on - seemingly with a straight face - the allegations of a drug dealer who claimed Vice President George Bush met with (and posed for a photo with) Colombian dealers to craft an agreement under which the traffickers could smuggle coke into America if they supplied weapons to the contras. And Webb is indiscriminating in his use of the term "CIA agent," making it appear as if Blandon and Meneses were dealing with James Bond-like officials of the CIA, when actually their contacts were Nicaraguan contras on the Agency payroll.
This may seem like hairsplitting. But it's important when evaluating the CIA's culpability. Webb demonstrates that the Agency collaborated with contras and contra supporters suspected of smuggling narcotics. But were Blandon and Meneses in cahoots with the Agency? The evidence only shows they were part of a dark community with which the CIA was merrily doing business. Another fuzzy point in the story is how Blandon and Meneses both ended up on the government payroll as snitches. Webb strongly hints this was due to their contra work.
But, again, the picture is too murky to come to any firm conclusions other than there was something funny about the government's relationship to this pair.
The book has flaws, but Webb deserves credit for pursuing an important piece of recent history and forcing the CIA and the Justice Department to investigate the contra-drug connection. Alas, the Justice Department has been sitting on its report for months. The CIA released one volume that maintained the Agency was not connected to Blandon and Meneses. But the report confirmed there had been a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the contras and that the CIA had ignored that. A second volume - one with a broader view of the contra-drug mess - is now being suppressed by the Agency.
With this book, Webb advances his newspaper series and supplies more muck to make a decent citizen cringe. While exploring this covert territory, Webb took a few wrong turns. But he succeeded in pushing a sleazy piece of the CIA's past into public light. The gang at Langley is still resisting coming clean, and these unholy alliances remain in the dark.
He was the journalist who wrote a famous - or infamous - 1996 series for the San Jose Mercury News that maintained a CIA-supported drug ring based in Los Angeles had triggered the crack epidemic of the 1980s. On Friday, the 49-year-old Webb, who won a Pulitzer Prize for other work, apparently shot himself. His "Dark Alliances" articles spurred outrage and controversy. Leaders of the African-American community demanded investigations. Mainstream newspapers - including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times - questioned his findings. And nearly a year after the pieces appeared, the Mercury News published a criticism of the series; Webb was demoted and soon left the newspaper. Two years later, he published a book based on the series.
Webb's tale is a sad one. He was on to something but botched part of how he handled it. He then was blasted and ostracized. He was wrong on some important details but he was, in a way, closer to the truth than many of his establishment media critics who neglected the story of the real CIA-contra-cocaine connection. In 1998, a CIA inspector general's report acknowledged that the CIA had indeed worked with suspected drugrunners while supporting the contras. A Senator named John Kerry had investigated these links years earlier, and the media had mostly ignored his findings. After Webb published his articles, the media spent more time crushing Webb than pursuing the full story. It is only because of Webb's work - as flawed as it was - that the CIA IG inquiry happened. So, then, it is only because of Webb that US citizens have confirmation from the CIA that it partnered up with suspected drug traffickers in the just-say-no years and that the Reagan Administration, consumed with a desire to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, allied itself with drug thugs.
As the news of Webb's death circulated across the Internet, some of his fans took the opportunity to demand that I issue a posthumous apology to him. Why? Because I had been critical of his series and book. But my criticism was different from that of the mainstream press. I maintained he had overstated the case and had not proven his more cinematic allegations. But I also credited him for forcing the issue and prodding the CIA to come clean. No one at the Times (New York or Los Angeles) or the Post managed to do that. And though there were problems with Webb's work, it is a pity that he was so brutally hounded.
His death is a dark end to a dark story.
I am stunned and pained with the loss of Gary Webb. Gary was a friend and one of the finest investigative journalists that our country has ever seen. The Dark Alliance series was one of the most profound pieces of journalism I have ever witnessed. Gary’s work was not only in depth, revealing and confrontational but it single handedly created discussion and debate about the proliferation of crack cocaine and the role of the CIA.
“Unfortunately, the major news papers attempted to silence him by undermining his personal character and his professional integrity. Through his diligence, he has brought to the attention of the American public the failed policies of the CIA and the drug war.
“I spent two years working with Gary following his revelations and I am convinced that his work was factual and well documented. Unfortunately, as stated before, the attack on Gary Webb by major media outlets such as the LA Times, Washington Post and the New York Times were devastating and destructive.
“It is interesting that at the time that he uncovered and exposed the deficiencies of the CIA, he was attacked as rogue. It is only recently as an unintended bi-product of the war on terror that the rampant problems and mismanagement of the CIA have come to light.
“When he pointed out the numerous red flags concerning the CIA including their turning of a blind eye to the trafficking of cocaine from Nicaragua during the conflict between the contras and the Sandinistas, he was painted as the enemy.
“Gary Webb is a journalist of courage and I truly believe that the latest revelations about the intelligence communities’ failures have vindicated him.
“I will miss him and in his memory I can only hope that rather than silencing, we as a country will cultivate and encourage courageous truth seeking journalists like Gary Webb,” Congresswoman Maxine Waters said.
In this weekend's mainstream media reports on Gary Webb's death, it's no surprise that a key point has been overlooked - that the CIA's internal investigation sparked by the Webb series and resulting furor contained startling admissions. CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz reported in October 1998 that the CIA indeed had knowledge of the allegations linking many Contras and Contra associates to cocaine trafficking, that Contra leaders were arranging drug connections from the beginning and that a CIA informant told the agency about the activity.
When Webb stumbled onto the Contra-cocaine story, he couldn't have imagined the fury with which big-foot reporters from national dailies would come at him - a barrage that ultimately drove him out of mainstream journalism. But he fought back with courage and dignity, writing a book (Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion) with his side of the story and insisting that facts matter more than established power or ideology. He deserves to be remembered in the proud tradition of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, George Seldes and I.F. Stone.
In this era of "embedded reporters," an unembedded journalist like Gary Webb will be sorely missed.
Last Friday morning, December 10, 2004, three strong men walked up to the door at 2016 Clearfield Way in Carmichael, California. They were employees of A Better Moving Company and they were arriving to move the resident's belongings into storage. The company's estimator, Steve, had talked with the homeowner recently and he had felt that the man seemed saddened or depressed. The homeowner had just sold the home for $321,750 and said that he would be moving in with his grandmother who lived nearby. When the men arrived at the door they found a handwritten note attached to the surface that read, "Please do not come in. Dial 911 and ask for an ambulance."
The men instinctively took a step back in unison and then rapidly returned to their truck and notified authorities. The time of their call was 8:35 a.m. Paramedics and the Sacramento Sheriff's Department arrived at 9:15 a.m. and entered the home. The firemen went to one of the back rooms while one of the macho moving men followed them. He stopped abruptly when he spied two feet on the floor. As he was turning around a fireman addressed him saying, "Go back out. You don't want to see this."
The man rejoined his comrades outside and they waited until they were told that they would not be needed that day. The homeowner was dead from two gunshot wounds to his head. They left and returned to their office. Big, strong men thoroughly shaken whose boss gave them the rest of the day off.
At 3:55 p.m. Friday afternoon Sacramento Coroner's Investigator Dave Brown determined that the dead man had committed suicide with a hand gun. Dave Brown said that the first wound was not fatal and a second shot took the man's life. Dave Brown further stated, "There is no other possibility but suicide." Spokesmen for the investigative units of three different sheriff's departments contacted stated that suicides seen with two shots to the head inflicted by a hand gun are extremely rare. Each man interviewed also said that they have heard of such cases but had never personally seen one.
With the determination of suicide the coroner's office announced that the victim was 49-year-old investigative reporter Gary Webb.
The Sacramento Coroner's Office and the Sacramento Sheriff's Department were ill prepared for the inundation of phone calls that followed the announcement of Webb's death. Few associated with the 911 response and the subsequent investigation realized that Gary Webb was the reporter who had exposed the CIA's connection to the crack cocaine explosion when he published the 1996 series entitled Dark Alliance. The San Jose Mercury News that published Webb's three-day series would later boast that "it had published the first interactive expose in the history of American journalism." In other words, the 49-year-old deceased male found in the home in Carmichael was not just another reporter. He was THE investigative reporter of the 20th century; the first writer to link cyberspace to the printed word thereby providing his readers instant access to all the documentation that supported his story. While all the major newspapers ignored Webb's expose Dark Alliance took on a life of its own on the Internet. Subsequently, the fame of the Internet series forced the major newspapers to attack the reporter and eventually his own newspaper backed away from its support of Webb's series. Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos cowtowed to the big three, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and apologized for "shortcomings" in the series, not long after he had written that four Post reporters assigned to discredit the series "could not find a single significant error."
When the big story arrives, Susan Bell recalls her late husband saying, "it will be like a bullet with your name on it. You won't even hear it coming." It was a remark that Gary Webb overheard early in his career, from an older reporter, and would repeat, ironically, to the point that the phrase "It's the Big One" became a standing joke on his news desk. And yet for Webb, the idea that a journalist could be killed by his own story turned out to be no laughing matter. The only difference in Gary Webb's case was that his life was ended not by one bullet, but two.
We are in the living room of Bell's house just outside Sacramento, California. A perceptive, engaging woman of 48, she has turned an adjoining study into a small shrine to her late husband, who would have celebrated his 50th birthday five weeks ago. The room is decorated with his trophies: a Pulitzer prize hangs next to his HL Mencken award; also on the wall is a framed advertisement for The Kentucky Post. It reads: "There should be no fetters on reporters, nor must they tamper with the truth, but give light so the people will find their own way." When Webb's body was discovered last December, Bell says, this last item had been dumped in the trash.
Webb, one of the boldest and most outstanding reporters of his generation, was the journalist who, in 1996, established the connection between the CIA and major drug dealers in Los Angeles, some of whose profits had been channelled to fund the Contra guerrilla movement in Nicaragua. The link between drug-running and the Reagan regime's support for the right-wing terrorist group throughout the 1980s had been public knowledge for over a decade. What was new about Webb's reports, published under the title "Dark Alliance" in the Californian paper the San Jose Mercury News, was that for the first time it brought the story back home. Webb's pieces were not dealing with nameless peasants slaughtered in some distant republic, but demonstrated a clear link between the CIA and the suppliers of the gangs delivering crack to the ghetto of Watts, in South Central Los Angeles.
His series of articles - which prompted the distinguished reporter and former Newsweek Washington correspondent Robert Parry to describe Webb as "an American hero" - incited fury among the African-American community, many of whom took his investigation as proof that the White House saw crack as a way of bringing genocide to the ghetto. Webb's reports prompted three official investigations, including one by the CIA itself which - astonishingly for an organisation rarely praised for its transparency - confirmed the substance of his findings (published at length in Webb's 1998 book, also entitled Dark Alliance). "Because of Gary Webb's work," said Senator John Kerry, "the CIA launched an investigation that found dozens of connections to drug runners. That wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been willing to stand up and risk it all."
This emotive last phrase refers to Webb's experience in the immediate aftermath of publication of his three lengthy articles, in the summer of 1996. The Mercury News reporter came under sustained attack from the weightier US newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and, especially, the Los Angeles Times, infuriated at being scooped, on its own patch, by what it saw as a small-town paper.
When Webb pressed the Mercury News to allow him to investigate the LA connection further, his own newspaper issued a retraction which earned its editor, Jerry Ceppos, wide praise from rival publications, but effectively disowned Webb, who then suffered the kind of corporate lynching that reporters are usually expected to dispense rather than endure.
By 1997, Bell tells me, Webb - whose 30-year career had earned him more awards than there is room for in her study - had been reassigned to the Mercury News's office in Cupertino.
"They had him writing obituaries," she said. "The first story he had to file was about a police horse which had died of constipation."
Webb, whose plans to become a journalist had begun when he was 13, but never included equine death notices, resigned from the Mercury News a few months later. Depressed, he became increasingly unpredictable in his behaviour and embarked on a series of affairs; he was divorced from Bell in 2000, though he remained close to her throughout his life and lived in a house in nearby Carmichael. Unable to get work from any major US newspaper, he spent the four months before his death writing for * a free-sheet covering the Sacramento area. To pay off his mounting debts, Webb sold the Carmichael property, where he was living alone, and arranged to move in with his mother.
When removal men arrived, on the morning of 10 December 2004, they found a sign on his front door, which read: ''Please do not enter. Call 911 for assistance. Thank you." Webb's corpse was found in the bedroom, with two gunshot wounds to the head.
When I first heard the news, I tell Bell, I was inclined to believe the conspiracy theories that still proliferate on the internet, suggesting that Webb had been assassinated - either by one of the drug dealers he'd met while writing Dark Alliance, or by the intelligence services who were supposed to police them.
She shakes her head.
"Looking back," she says, "I think Gary had been obsessed with suicide for some time. And when he got something in his head, he was determined to do it. That was just the way he was."
Webb, Bell explains, had written four letters explaining what he was about to do - one to her, one to each of their three children - and mailed them immediately before he killed himself."Why were there two bullet wounds?"His former wife, her voice lowered to a whisper, explains that Webb missed with the first shot (which exited through his left cheek)."The second bullet," adds Bell, who has worked for more than 20 years in the area of respiratory therapy, "struck his carotid artery."
"After Gary died," she says, "a reporter from the LA Times came here. I felt weak and distressed; the whole thing was so fresh. She kept crying about how terrible it all was - by which I mean that she was, physically, crying. The story they printed was just awful. I felt she really trashed me. She said the paper wanted to make up for what it had done in the past. As it turned out," she adds, "that was not their intent."
After days of unrelenting winter rain from a powerful Pacific storm, the clouds moved east and the skies cleared above the Sacramento valley. The snowcapped peaks of the western range of the Sierra Nevada glowed pink in the glinting early morning sun. On days like this, Gary Webb normally would have taken the day off to ride his motorcycle into the mountains.
Although it was a Friday morning, Webb didn't need to call in sick. In fact, he hadn't been to work in weeks. When his ex-wife garnished his wages, seeking child support for their three kids, Webb asked for an indefinite leave from the small weekly alternative paper in Sacramento where he had been working the past four months. He told his boss he could no longer afford the $2,000 mortgage on his house in Carmichael, a suburb 20 miles east of the state capital.
There was no time for riding. Today, December 10, 2004, Webb was going to move in with his mother. It wasn't his first choice. First, he asked his ex-girlfriend if he could share her apartment. The two had dated for several months and continued to live together until their lease expired a year earlier, when Webb had bought his new house. They had remained friends, and at first she had said yes, but she changed her mind at the last minute, not wanting to lead him on in the hope that they'd rekindle a romance. Desperate, Webb asked his ex-wife, Sue, if he could live with her until he regained his financial footing. She refused.
"I don't feel comfortable with that," she said.
Sue recalls that her ex-husband's words seemed painfully drawn out.
"I don't know if I can do that," she said. "Your mother will let you move in. You don't have any other choice."
Besides losing his house, Webb had also lost his motorcycle. The day before he was to move, it had broken down as he was riding to his mother's house in a nearby retirement community. After spotting Webb pushing the bike off the road, a helpful young man with a goatee and a spider-web tattoo on his elbow had given him a lift home. Webb arranged to get a pickup truck, but when he went back to retrieve his bike, it had disappeared.
That night, Webb spent hours at his mother's house. At her urging, he typed up a description of the suspected thief. But Webb didn't see much point in filing a police report. He doubted he'd ever see his bike again. He had been depressed for months, but the loss of his bike seemed to push him over the edge. He told his mother he had no idea how he was going to ever make enough money to pay child support and pay rent or buy a new home.
Although he had a paying job in journalism, Webb knew that only a reporting gig with a major newspaper would give him the paycheck he needed to stay out of debt. But after sending out 50 résumés to daily newspapers around the country, nobody had called for an interview. His current job couldn't pay the bills, and the thought of moving in with his mother, at age 49, was more than his pride would allow.
"What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" he asked. "All I want to do is write."
It was 8 p.m. by the time Webb left his mother's house. She offered to cook him a dinner of bacon and eggs, but Webb declined, saying he had to go home. There were other things he had to do. She kissed him goodbye and told him to come back the next day with a smile on his face. "Things will be better," she said. "You don't have to pay anything to stay here. You'll get back on your feet."
The next morning, Anita Webb called her son to remind him to file a police report for the stolen bike. His phone rang and rang. She didn't bother leaving a message, figuring the movers already had arrived. They had. It's possible they heard the phone ringing. As they approached his house, they noticed a note stuck to his front door.
"Please do not enter," it warned. "Call 911 for an ambulance. Thank you."
When her son failed answer the phone for more than an hour, Anita Webb began to panic. Finally, she let the answering machine pick up. "Gary, make sure you file a police report," she said. Before she could finish, the machine beeped and an unfamiliar voice began to speak: "Are you calling about the man who lives here?"
It is normally the policy of the Sacramento County Coroner's office not to answer the telephone at the scene of a death, but apparently the phrase "police report" startled the coroner into breaking that rule. At some point early that morning, Gary Webb had committed suicide.
The coroners found his body in a pool of blood on his bed, his hands still gripping his father's 38-caliber pistol. On his nightstand were his Social Security card - apparently intended to make it easier for his body to be identified - a cremation card and a suicide note, the contents of which have never been revealed by his family. The house was filled with packed boxes. Only his turntable, DVD player and TV were unpacked.
In the hours before he shot himself in the head, Webb had listened to his favorite album, Ian Hunter Live, and had watched his favorite movie, the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In a trash can was a poster Webb had saved from his first journalism job with the Kentucky Post. The poster was an open letter to readers from Vance Trimble, Webb's first editor. Decades earlier, Webb had clipped it from the pages of the paper. Although he had always admired its message, something about it must have been too much to bear in his final moments. Trimble had written that, unlike some newspapers, the Post would never kill a story under pressure from powerful interests. "There should be no fetters on reporters, nor must they tamper with the truth, but give light so the people will find their own way," his letter stated.
This museum is all about military history on a personal level and is a collection of military artifacts that I started collecting over 40 years ago. We own many items but the select items we feature in this museum are ones with a story to tell. When our visitors leave the museum, it is our hope that they will have a new found attachment to the individuals who wore the uniforms, hats and medals.
The truth in ‘Dark Alliance’
TEN YEARS AGO today, one of the most controversial news articles of the 1990s quietly appeared on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News. Titled “Dark Alliance,” the headline ran beneath the provocative image of a man smoking crack -- superimposed on the official seal of the CIA.
The three-part series by reporter Gary Webb linked the CIA and Nicaragua’s Contras to the crack cocaine epidemic that ripped through South Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Most of the nation’s elite newspapers at first ignored the story. A public uproar, especially among urban African Americans, forced them to respond. What followed was one of the most bizarre, unseemly and ultimately tragic scandals in the annals of American journalism, one in which top news organizations closed ranks to debunk claims Webb never made, ridicule assertions that turned out to be true and ignore corroborating evidence when it came to light. The whole shameful cycle was repeated when Webb committed suicide in December 2004.
Many reporters besides Webb had sought to uncover the rumored connection between the CIA’s anti-communism efforts in Central America and drug trafficking. “Dark Alliance” documented the first solid link between the agency and drug deals inside the U.S. by profiling the relationship between two Nicaraguan Contra sympathizers and narcotics suppliers, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, and L.A.'s biggest crack dealer, “Freeway” Ricky Ross.
Two years before Webb’s series, the Los Angeles Times estimated that at its peak, Ross’ “coast-to-coast conglomerate” was selling half a million crack rocks per day. "[I]f there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine,” the article stated, “his name was ‘Freeway’ Rick.”
But after Webb’s reporting tied Ross to the Nicaraguans and showed that they had CIA connections, The Times downgraded Ross’ role to that of one “dominant figure” among many. It dedicated 17 reporters and 20,000 words to a three-day rebuttal to “Dark Alliance” that also included a lengthy musing on whether African Americans disproportionately believe in conspiracy theories.
All three major U.S. dailies, The Times included, debunked a claim that Webb actually never made -- that the CIA deliberately unleashed the crack epidemic on black America. The controversy over this non-assertion obscured Webb’s substantive points about the CIA knowingly doing business south of the border with Nicaraguans involved in the drug trade up north.
The Washington Post titled one of its stories “Conspiracy Theories Can Often Ring True History Feeds Blacks’ Mistrust.” The New York Times chipped in with a scathing critique of Webb’s entire career, suggesting that he was a reckless reporter prone to getting his facts wrong.
“That article included virtually none of the good things Gary did,” said Webb’s former Cleveland Plain Dealer colleague, Walt Bogdanich, now a New York Times editor. “It didn’t include the success he achieved or the wrongs he righted -- and they were considerable. It wasn’t fair, and it made him out to be a freak.”
There is no denying that the papers were right on one serious count -- “Dark Alliance” contained major flaws of hyperbole that were both encouraged and ignored by his editors, who saw the story as a chance to win a Pulitzer Prize, according to Mercury News staffers I interviewed.
Webb asserted, improbably, that the Blandon-Meneses-Ross drug ring opened “the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles,” helping to “spark a crack explosion in urban America.” The story offered no evidence to support such sweeping conclusions, a fatal error that would ultimately destroy Webb, if not his editors.
At first, the Mercury News defended the series, but after nine months, Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a half-apologetic letter to readers that defended “Dark Alliance” while acknowledging obvious mistakes. Webb privately (and accurately) predicted the mea culpa would universally be misperceived as a total retraction, and he publicly accused the paper of cowardice. In return, he was banished to a remote bureau in Cupertino, Calif. he resigned a few months later.
Meanwhile, spurred on by Webb’s story, the CIA conducted an internal investigation that acknowledged in March 1998 that the agency had covered up Contra drug trafficking for more than a decade. Although the Washington Post and New York Times covered the report -- which confirmed key chunks of Webb’s allegations -- the L.A. Times ignored it for four months, and largely portrayed it as disproving the “Dark Alliance” series. “We dropped the ball on that story,” said Doyle McManus, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, who helped supervise its response to “Dark Alliance.”
Unable to find suitable employment, a bewildered Webb left journalism, endured a difficult divorce and battled growing depression and financial despair. But even his suicide failed to dull the media’s contempt for “Dark Alliance.” The L.A. Times and the New York Times published brief obituaries dismissing Webb as the author of “discredited” stories linking the CIA to Southern California drug sales.
Unlike the media pariahs who came after “Dark Alliance” -- most notably fabulists Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Jayson Blair of the New York Times -- Webb didn’t invent facts. Contrary to the wholly discredited reporting on Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Webb was the only victim of his mistakes. Nobody else died because of his work, and no one, either at the CIA or the Mercury News, is known to have lost so much as a paycheck. The editors involved with the story, including Managing Editor David Yarnold, survived the scandal to receive generous promotions.
History will tell if Webb receives the credit he’s due for prodding the CIA to acknowledge its shameful collaboration with drug dealers. Meanwhile, the journalistic establishment is only beginning to recognize that the controversy over “Dark Alliance” had more to do with poor editing than bad reporting.
You Cannot Kill The Truth
Of course Gary&rsquos untimely death does not conform to our distorted perspective of how justice should work in the world. We&rsquod like to believe that justice is an inbuilt Universal law, which requires no real effort on our part, rather than the sobering reality that it actually requires active participation from us as a collective citizenry, in order for it to be truly achieved.
Gary&rsquos story, however, is far from over and could never be killed by something as trivial as a material bullet. Webb may indeed be physically dead, but his research is more alive today than ever before, and continues to haunt the shadow government and snowball into a monster that will undoubtedly have its eventual revenge.
Such is the power of Truth. It is the only power that will stand the unforgiving test of time. The guilty cannot escape its proverbial judgment, they can only hope to prolong it.
In fact, a blockbuster film documenting Gary&rsquos story was released in 2014 and, despite my cynical expectation that it would be a propaganda piece to cover up government wrongdoing and rewrite history, the film actually did an excellent job, which marks a special victory, because a film based on a controversial true story like this &mdash to the best of my knowledge &mdash has never been able to break mainstream Hollywood before.
Aside from inspiring me to write this blog, I also made a meme in Webb&rsquos honor that has been reuploaded, recreated and spread throughout the internet, and also a video that currently has over 1,000,000 views. It may seem of little consequence, but awareness is the key to change, and we can all help to spread the Truth. In fact, we have a serious responsibility and duty to do so.
Thank you for your courage Gary Webb, you continue to inspire millions of people around the world today brother. Your sacrifice was not in vain.
If any of the images in this article have not been credited correctly, or you are the artist and would like them to be taken down, please contact me HERE or directly at NewKindofHuman@gmail.com
All my work is open source and I encourage it to be reproduced. I only ask that you give me credit, and include my social media profiles &mdash as listed in the EXACT FORMAT above &mdash in an effort to help me build a formidable following of people truly intent on learning and creating positive change. If you are not willing to do that, you are NOT permitted to use my work.
1] Webb, Gary (1998), Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion
2] The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (1987), Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott
3] The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008), Hugh Wilford
4] Webb, Gary, The killing game, Sacramento News & Review, 14 October 2004
America’s War on Drugs Was Designed to Fail. So Why Is It Being Revived Now?
While much of the media is focused on Trump’s Russian skullduggery, America has quietly found itself enmeshed in the worst drug epidemic in our history. Drug overdoses, mostly from increasingly lethal opioids, now kill more people than guns and traffic accidents. A recent investigation by The New York Times of local and state authorities across the country came to a staggering conclusion—that somewhere between 59,000 and 65,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, a nearly 20% spike in a single year, the paper estimates.
2017 is gearing up to be just as bad, or worse.
In the face of this crisis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has re-declared the War on Drugs, a five-decade old boondoggle that civil-rights organizations, economists and even some law-enforcement groups believe to be discredited by years of failure. While it’s unclear exactly what Sessions is planning, so far he’s called for a crackdown on marijuana and longer mandatory sentences for drug dealers, seemingly intent on a return to policies that historically have ravaged entire communities, corrupted police forces and destroyed trust in authority𠅊ll in the name of fighting a war that opinion polls show the majority of the public doesn’t want.
But what most Americans don’t know is that our War on Drugs isn’t just a failed war it’s one that was never designed to be won. To understand the true story of the origins of the War on Drugs is to understand why Trump’s return to some of its most controversial policies is doomed to fail.
Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
President Nixon kickstarted America’s war on drugs in 1971 (he called it an “offensive”) and created the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) two years later. Ironically, or perhaps not, the war on drugs was conceived by criminals. Four of the main architects of Nixon’s drug policy𠅊ttorney General John Mitchell, White House aide John Erlichman (who later allegedly admitted the war on drugs was really a war on hippies and black people), Egil Bud Krogh (who famously arranged for a drug-addled Elvis Presley to receive an honorary DEA badge) as well as Watergate break-in conspirator G. Gordon Liddy—were all imprisoned over Watergate.
But by the time Nixon declared a war on drugs, the real fighting had begun a decade earlier during America’s effort to overthrow Fidel Castro. In 1961, the CIA conspired with mobsters in Miami to assassinate Castro, whose revolution had put an end to the lucrative drug and vice networks operating on the island. Although the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs invasion failed, many of the agency’s Cuban assets survived and after making their way back to Miami, they turned Southern Florida into an early epicenter of drug smuggling and drug-related violence.
Meanwhile, the CIA had simultaneously helped introduce LSD to the American populace via clandestine programs that dosed countless citizens𠅊ll part of a Cold War mind-control operation titled MK-Ultra. In Southeast Asia, the CIA teamed up with Laotian general Vang Pao to help make Laos the world’s top exporter of heroin. By the time Nixon began ratcheting down U.S. troop presence in Vietnam to focus on the war against drugs, more troops were dying of heroin overdoses than actual combat, an epidemic that quickly found its way to the streets of urban America.
A decade later, as a result of turning a blind eye to cocaine smugglers funding the CIA’s illegal war against the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the CIA unwittingly helped unleash a nationwide crack-cocaine epidemic. Most notably, cocaine kingpin 𠇏reeway” Ricky Ross was able to take his South Central L.A.-based crack businesses nationwide thanks to his access to a cheap supply of coke from politically connected Nicaraguan suppliers.
𠇏reeway” Ricky Ross at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego in October 1996. (Credit: Rob Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
rk Alliance,” Gary Webb’s landmark 1996 newspaper series alleging CIA involvement in the crack-cocaine epidemic, created a firestorm of controversy that ultimately drove Webb out of journalism and into a spiral of depression that led him to take his own life. Although there were problems with Webb’s reporting and the editing of his story that allowed it to be discredited by rival news organizations, it forced the CIA to reveal that for more than a decade it had protected its Nicaraguan allies from being prosecuted for smuggling cocaine into the U.S.
Veteran drug agents, including Phil Jordan, former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), say they were repeatedly called off cases involving CIA-tied drug rings.
“We had three or four cases where we arrested CIA contract workers with cocaine, and I get a phone call that the charges have been dismissed,” Jordan recalls in a new HISTORY series, America’s War on Drugs. “You know, we are risking our lives, making cases against significant drug traffickers, then on the other hand you got another government agency allowing the drugs to come in . . . And we’re not talking about 100 pounds, we’re talking about tons. That introduction of white powder was killing black people.”
The CIA’s collusion with anti-communist drug smugglers beginning in the 1960s played a direct role in the drug epidemic of the 1980s that was used to justify President Reagan‘s 1986 crime bill. The law introduced harsh mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, the legacy of which we are still dealing with today.
Munich police display 120 kilos of heroin that was seized from Turkish smugglers. (Credit: Jan Pitman/Getty Images)
President Bill Clinton expanded on Reagan’s drug war by militarizing the nation’s police forces and introducing mandatory minimum sentencing. Although President Obama tried to revise this policy shortly before leaving office, President Trump seems intent on doubling down on the war on drugs. When Trump recently invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, he congratulated him for sending police death squads into the streets to kill drug dealers and addicts. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that,” Trump reportedly said.
National polls in recent years have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the war on drugs cannot be won. Given the fact that more than half of the United States have legalized medical marijuana, with several others set to join Colorado, Washington and California in approving recreational marijuana use, there has never been a stronger mandate for drug reform than now.
Gary Webb Speaks on CIA Connections to Contra Drug Trafficking (1997)
Gary Webb I look like an idiot up here with all these mikes, the CIA agents are probably behind one or the other. [laughter from the audience]. It's really nice to be in Eugene -- I've been in Madison, Wisconsin talking about this, I've been in Berkeley, I've been in Santa Monica, and these are sort of like islands of sanity in this world today, so it's great to be on one of those islands.
One of the things that is weird about this whole thing, though, is that I've been a daily news reporter for about twenty years, and I've done probably a thousand interviews with people, and the strangest thing is being on the other side of the table now and having reporters ask me questions. One of them asked me about a week ago -- I was on a radio show -- and the host asked me, "Why did you get into newspaper reporting, of all the media? Why did you pick newspapers?" And I really had to admit that I was stumped. Because I thought about it -- I'd been doing newspaper reporting since I was fourteen or fifteen years old -- and I really didn't have an answer.
So I went back to my clip books -- you know, most reporters keep all their old clips -- and I started digging around trying to figure out if there was one story that I had written that had really tipped the balance. And I found it. And I wanted to tell you this story, because it sort of fits into the theme that we're going to talk about tonight.
I think I was fifteen, I was working for my high school paper, and I was writing editorials. This sounds silly now that I think about it, but I had written an editorial against the drill team that we had for the high school games, for the football games. This was '71 or '72, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, and I was in school then in suburban Indianapolis -- Dan Quayle country. So, you get the idea of the flavor of the school system. They thought it was a cool idea to dress women up in military uniforms and send them out there to twirl rifles and battle flags at halftime. And I thought this was sort of outrageous, and I wrote an editorial saying I thought it was one of the silliest things I'd ever seen. And my newspaper advisor called me the next day and said, "Gosh, that editorial you wrote has really prompted a response." And I said, "Great, that's the idea, isn't it?" And she said, "Well, it's not so great, they want you to apologize for it." [Laughter from the audience.]
I said, "Apologize for what?" And she said, "Well, the girls were very offended." And I said, "Well, I'm not apologizing because they don't want my opinion. You'll have to come up with a better reason than that." And they said, "Well, if you don't apologize, we're not going to let you in Quill & Scroll," which is the high school journalism society. And I said, "Well, I don't want to be in that organization if I have to apologize to get into it." [More laughter from the audience, scattered applause.]
They were sort of powerless at that point, and they said, "Look, why don't you just come down and the cheerleaders are going to come in, and they want to talk to you and tell you what they think," and I said okay. So I went down to the newspaper office, and there were about fifteen of them sitting around this table, and they all went around one by one telling me what a scumbag I was, and what a terrible guy I was, and how I'd ruined their dates, ruined their complexions, and all sorts of things. [Laughter and groans from the audience.] . and at that moment, I decided, "Man, this is what I want to do for a living." [Roar of laughter from the audience.] And I wish I could say that it was because I was infused with this sense of the First Amendment, and thinking great thoughts about John Peter Zenger and I.F. Stone. but what I was really thinking was, "Man, this is a great way to meet women!" [More laughter.]
And that's a true story, but the reason I tell you that is because it's often those kinds of weird motivations and unthinking consequences that lead us to do things, that lead us to events that we have absolutely no concept how they're going to turn out. Little did I know that twenty-five years later, I'd be writing a story about the CIA's wrongdoings because I wanted to meet women by writing editorials about cheerleaders.
But that's really the way life and that's really the way history works a lot of times. You know, when you think back on your own lives, from the vantage point of time, you can see it. I mean, think back to the decisions you've made in your lifetimes that brought you to where you are tonight, think about how close you came to never meeting your wife or your husband, how easily you could have been doing something else for a living if it hadn't been for a decision that you made or someone made that you had absolutely no control over. And it's really kind of scary when you think about how capricious life is sometimes. That's a theme I try to bring to my book, Dark Alliance, which was about the crack cocaine explosion in the 1980s.
"I am more convinced than ever that the U.S. government's responsibility for the drug problems in . inner cities is greater than I ever wrote in the newspaper."
So for the record, let me just say this right now. I do not believe -- and I have never believed -- that the crack cocaine explosion was a conscious CIA conspiracy, or anybody's conspiracy, to decimate black America. I've never believed that South Central Los Angeles was targeted by the U.S. government to become the crack capitol of the world. But that isn't to say that the CIA's hands or the U.S. government's hands are clean in this matter. Actually, far from it. After spending three years of my life looking into this, I am more convinced than ever that the U.S. government's responsibility for the drug problems in South Central Los Angeles and other inner cities is greater than I ever wrote in the newspaper.
But it's important to differentiate between malign intent and gross negligence. And that's an important distinction, because it's what makes premeditated murder different from manslaughter. That said, it doesn't change the fact that you've got a body on the floor, and that's what I want to talk about tonight, the body.
Many years ago, there was a great series on PBS -- I don't know how many of you are old enough to remember this -- it was called Connections. And it was by a British historian named James Burke. If you don't remember it, it was a marvelous show, very influential on me. And he would take a seemingly inconsequential event in history, and follow it through the ages to see what it spawned as a result. The one show I remember the most clearly was the one he did on how the scarcity of firewood in thirteenth-century Europe led to the development of the steam engine. And you would think, "Well, these things aren't connected at all," and he would show very convincingly that they were.
In the first chapter of the book on which the series is based, Burke wrote that "History is not, as we are so often led to believe, a matter of great men and lonely geniuses pointing the way to the future from their ivory towers. At some point, every member of society is involved in that process by which innovation and change come about. The key to why things change is the key to everything."
What I've attempted to demonstrate in my book was how the collapse of a brutal, pro-American dictatorship in Latin America, combined with a decision by corrupt CIA agents to raise money for a resistance movement by any means necessary, led to the formation of the nation's first major crack market in South Central Los Angeles, which led to the arming and the empowerment of LA's street gangs, which led to the spread of crack to black neighborhoods across the country, and to the passage of racially discriminatory sentencing laws that are locking up thousands of young black men today behind bars for most of their lives.
But it's not so much a conspiracy as a chain reaction. And that's what my whole book is about, this chain reaction. So let me explain the links in this chain a little better.
The first link is this fellow Anastasio Somoza, who was an American-educated tyrant, one of our buddies naturally, and his family ruled Nicaragua for forty years -- thanks to the Nicaraguan National Guard, which we supplied, armed, and funded, because we thought they were, you know, anti-communists.
Well, in 1979, the people of Nicaragua got tired of living under this dictatorship, and they rose up and overthrew it. And a lot of Somoza's friends and relatives and business partners came to the United States, because we had been their allies all these years, including two men whose families had been very close to the dictatorship. And these two guys are sort of two of the three main characters in my book -- a fellow named Danilo Blandón, and a fellow named Norwin Meneses.
They came to the United States in 1979, along with a flood of other Nicaraguan immigrants, most of them middle-class people, most of them former bankers, former insurance salesmen -- sort of a capitalist exodus from Nicaragua. And they got involved when they got here, and they decided they were going to take the country back, they didn't like the fact that they'd been forced out of their country. So they formed these resistance organizations here in the United States, and they began plotting how they were going to kick the Sandanistas out.
At this point in time, Jimmy Carter was president, and Carter wasn't all that interested in helping these folks out. The CIA was, however. And that's where we start getting into this murky world of, you know, who really runs the United States. Is it the president? Is it the bureaucracy? Is it the intelligence community? At different points in time you get different answers. Like today, the idea that Clinton runs the United States is nuts. The idea that Jimmy Carter ran the country is nuts.
In 1979 and 1980, the CIA secretly began visiting these groups that were setting up here in the United States, supplying them with a little bit of money, and telling them to hold on, wait for a little while, don't give up. And Ronald Reagan came to town. And Reagan had a very different outlook on Central America than Carter did. Reagan saw what happened in Nicaragua not as a populist uprising, as most of the rest of the world did. He saw it as this band of communists down there, there was going to be another Fidel Castro, and he was going to have another Cuba in his backyard. Which fit in very well with the CIA's thinking. So, the CIA under Reagan got it together, and they said, "We're going to help these guys out." They authorized $19 million to fund a covert war to destabilize the government in Nicaragua and help get their old buddies back in power.
Soon after the CIA took over this operation, these two drug traffickers, who had come from Nicaragua and settled in California, were called down to Honduras. And they met with a CIA agent named Enrique Bermúdez, who was one of Somoza's military officials, and the man the CIA picked to run this new organization they were forming. And both traffickers had said -- one of them said, the other one wrote, and it's never been contradicted -- that when they met with the CIA agent, he told them, "We need money for this operation. Your guy's job is to go to California and raise money, and not to worry about how you did it. And what he said was -- and I think this had been used to justify just about every crime against humanity that we've known -- "the ends justify the means."
Now, this is a very important link in this chain reaction, because the means they selected was cocaine trafficking, which is sort of what you'd expect when you ask cocaine traffickers to go out and raise money for you. You shouldn't at all be surprised when they go out and sell drugs. Especially when you pick people who are like pioneers of the cocaine trafficking business, which Norwin Meneses certainly was.
There was a CIA cable from I believe 1984, which called him the "kingpin of narcotics trafficking" in Central America. He was sort of like the Al Capone of Nicaragua. So after getting these fundraising instructions from this CIA agent, these two men go back to California, and they begin selling cocaine. This time not exclusively for themselves -- this time in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy. And they began selling it in Los Angeles, and they began selling it in San Francisco.
Sometime in 1982, Danilo Blandón, who had been given the LA market, started selling his cocaine to a young drug dealer named Ricky Ross, who later became known as "Freeway" Rick. In 1994, the LA Times would describe him as the master marketer most responsible for flooding the streets of Los Angeles with cocaine. In 1979, he was nothing. He was nothing before he met these Nicaraguans. He was a high school dropout. He was a kid who wanted to be a tennis star, who was trying to get a tennis scholarship, but he found out that in order to get a scholarship you needed to read and write, and he couldn't. So he drifted out of school and wound up selling stolen car parts, and then he met these Nicaraguans, who had this cheap cocaine that they wanted to unload. And he proved to be very good at that.
Now, he lived in South Central Los Angeles, which was home to some street gangs known as the Crips and the Bloods. And back in 1981-82, hardly anybody knew who they were. They were mainly neighborhood kids -- they'd beat each other up, they'd steal leather coats, they'd steal cars, but they were really nothing back then. But what they gained through this organization, and what they gained through Ricky Ross, was a built-in distribution network throughout the neighborhood. The Crips and the Bloods were already selling marijuana, they were already selling PCP, so it wasn't much of a stretch for them to sell something new, which is what these Nicaraguans were bringing in, which was cocaine.
This is where these forces of history come out of nowhere and collide. Right about the time the contras got to South Central Los Angeles, hooked up with "Freeway" Rick, and started selling powder cocaine, the people Rick was selling his powder to started asking him if he knew how to make it into this stuff called "rock" that they were hearing about. This obviously was crack cocaine, and it was already on its way to the United States by then -- it started in Peru in '74 and was working its way upward, and it was bound to get here sooner or later. In 1981 it got to Los Angeles, and people started figuring out how to take this very expensive powdered cocaine and cook it up on the stove and turn it into stuff you could smoke.
When Ricky went out and he started talking to his customers, and they started asking him how to make this stuff, you know, Rick was a smart guy -- he still is a smart guy -- and he figured, this is something new. This is customer demand. If I want to progress in this business, I better meet this demand. So he started switching from selling powder to making rock himself, and selling it already made. He called this new invention his "Ready Rock." And he told me the scenario, he said it was a situation where he'd go to a guy's house, he would say, "Oh man, I want to get high, I'm on my way to work, I don't have time to go into the kitchen and cook this stuff up. Can't you cook it up for me and just bring it to me already made?" And he said, "Yeah, I can do that." So he started doing it.
So by the time crack got ahold of South Central, which took a couple of years, Rick had positioned himself on top of the crack market in South Central. And by 1984, crack sales had supplanted marijuana and PCP sales as sources of income for the gangs and drug dealers of South Central. And suddenly these guys had more money than they knew what to do with. Because what happened with crack, it democratized the drug. When you were buying it in powdered form, you were having to lay out a hundred bucks for a gram, or a hundred and fifty bucks for a gram. Now all you needed was ten bucks, or five bucks, or a dollar -- they were selling "dollar rocks" at one point. So anybody who had money and wanted to get high could get some of this stuff. You didn't need to be a middle-class or wealthy drug user anymore.
Suddenly the market for this very expensive drug expanded geometrically. And now these dealers, who were making a hundred bucks a day on a good day, were now making five or six thousand dollars a day on a good day. And the gangs started setting up franchises -- they started franchising rock houses in South Central, just like McDonald's. And you'd go on the streets, and there'd be five or six rock houses owned by one guy, and five or six rock houses owned by another guy, and suddenly they started making even more money.
'The contras. They were selling weapons and were buying weapons. And they started selling weapons to the gangs in Los Angeles."
And now they've got all this money, and they felt nervous. You get $100,000 or $200,000 in cash in your house, and you start getting kind of antsy about it. So now they wanted weapons to guard their money with, and to guard their rock houses, which other people were starting to knock off. And lo and behold, you had weapons. The contras. They were selling weapons. They were buying weapons. And they started selling weapons to the gangs in Los Angeles. They started selling them AR-15s, they started selling them Uzis, they started selling them Israeli-made pistols with laser sights, just about anything. Because that was part of the process here. They were not just drug dealers, they were taking the drug money and buying weapons with it to send down to Central America with the assistance of a great number of spooky CIA folks, who were getting them [audio glitch -- "across the border"?] and that sort of thing, so they could get weapons in and out of the country. So, not only does South Central suddenly have a drug problem, they have a weapons problem that they never had before. And you started seeing things like drive-by shootings and gang bangers with Uzis.
By 1985, the LA crack market had become saturated. There was so much dope going into South Central, dope that the CIA, we now know, knew of, and they knew the origins of -- the FBI knew the origins of it the DEA knew the origins of it and nobody did anything about it. (We'll get into that in a bit.)
But what happened was, there were so many people selling crack that the dealers were jostling each other on the corners. And the smaller ones decided, we're going to take this show on the road. So they started going to other cities. They started going to Bakersfield, they started going to Fresno, they started going to San Francisco and Oakland, where they didn't have crack markets, and nobody knew what this stuff was, and they had wide open markets for themselves. And suddenly crack started showing up in city after city after city, and oftentimes it was Crips and Bloods from Los Angeles who were starting these markets. By 1986, it was all up and down the east coast, and by 1989, it was nationwide.
Today, fortunately, crack use is on a downward trend, but that's something that isn't due to any great progress we've made in the so-called "War on Drugs," it's the natural cycle of things. Drug epidemics generally run from 10 to 15 years. Heroin is now the latest drug on the upswing.
Now, a lot of people disagreed with this scenario. The New York Times, the LA Times and the Washington Post all came out and said, oh, no, that's not so. They said this couldn't have happened that way, because crack would have happened anyway. Which is true, somewhat. As I pointed out in the first chapter of my book, crack was on its way here. But whether it would have happened the same way, whether it would have happened in South Central, whether it would have happened in Los Angeles at all first, is a very different story. If it had happened in Eugene, Oregon first, it might not have gone anywhere. [Restless shuffling and the sounds of throats being cleared among the audience.] No offense, but you folks aren't exactly trend setters up here when it comes to drug dealers and drug fads. LA is, however. [Soft laughter and murmuring among the audience.]
You can play "what if" games all you like, but it doesn't change the reality. And the reality is that this CIA-connected drug ring played a very critical role in the early 1980s in opening up South Central to a crack epidemic that was unmatched in its severity and influence anywhere in the U.S.
One question that I ask people who say, "Oh, I don't believe this," is, okay, tell me this: why did crack appear in black neighborhoods first? Why did crack distribution networks leapfrog from one black neighborhood to other black neighborhoods and bypass white neighborhoods and bypass Hispanic neighborhoods and Asian neighborhoods? Our government and the mainstream media have given us varying explanations for this phenomenon over the years, and they are nice, comforting, general explanations which absolve anyone of any responsibility for why crack is so ethnically specific. One of the reasons we're told is that, well, it's poverty. As if the only poor neighborhoods in this country were black neighborhoods. And we're told it's high teenage unemployment these kids gotta have jobs. As if the hills and hollows of Appalachia don't have teenage unemployment rates that are ten times higher than inner city Los Angeles. And then we're told that it's loose family structure -- you know, presuming that there are no white single mothers out there trying to raise kids on low-paying jobs or welfare and food stamps. And then we're told, well, it's because crack is so cheap -- because it sells for a lower price in South Central than it sells anywhere else. But twenty bucks is twenty bucks, no matter where you go in the country.
So once you have eliminated these sort of non-sensical explanations, you are left with two theories which are far less comfortable. The first theory -- which is not something I personally subscribe to, but it's out there -- is that there's something about black neighborhoods which causes them to be genetically predisposed to drug trafficking. That's a racist argument that no one in their right mind is advancing publicly, although I tell you, when I was reading a lot of the stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, they were talking about black Americans being more susceptible to "conspiracy theories" than white Americans, which is why they believe the story more. I think that was sort of the underlying current there. On the other hand, I didn't see any stories about all the white people who think Elvis is alive still, or that Hitler's brain is preserved down in Brazil to await the Fourth Reich. [laughter from the audience] . which is a particularly white conspiracy theory, I didn't see any stories in the New York Times about that.
The other more palatable reason which in my mind comes closer to the truth, is that someone started bringing cheap cocaine into black neighborhoods right at the time when drug users began figuring out how to turn it into crack. And this allowed black drug dealers to get a head start on every other ethnic group in terms of setting up distribution systems and trafficking systems.
Now, one thing I've learned about the drug business while researching this is that in many ways it is the epitome of capitalism. It is the purest form of capitalism. You have no government regulation, a wide-open market, a buyer's market -- anything goes. But these things don't spring out of the ground fully formed. It's like any business. It takes time to grow them. It takes time to set up networks. So once these distribution networks got set up and established in primarily South Central Los Angeles, primarily black neighborhoods, they spread it along ethnic and cultural lines. You had black dealers from LA going to black neighborhoods in other cities, because they knew people there, they had friends there, and that's why you saw these networks pop up from one black neighborhood to another black neighborhood.
Now, exactly the same thing happened on the east coast a couple of years later. When crack first appeared on the east coast, it appeared in Caribbean neighborhoods in Miami -- thanks largely to the Jamaicans, who were using their drug profits to fund political gains back home. It was almost the exact opposite of what happened in LA in that the politics were the opposite -- but it was the same phenomenon. And once the Miami market was saturated, they moved to New York, they moved east, and they started bringing crack from the east coast towards the middle of the country.
So it seems to me that if you're looking for the root of your drug problems in a neighborhood, nothing else matters except the drugs, and where they're coming from, and how they're getting there. And all these other reasons I cited are used as explanations for how crack became popular, but it doesn't explain how the cocaine got there in the first place. And that's where the contras came in.
One of the things which these newspapers who dissed my story were saying was, we can't believe that the CIA would know about drug trafficking and let it happen. That this idea that this agency which gets $27 billion a year to tell us what's going on, and which was so intimately involved with the contras they were writing their press releases for them, they wouldn't know about this drug trafficking going on under their noses. But the Times and the Post all uncritically reported their claims that the CIA didn't know what was going on, and that it would never permit its hirelings to do anything like that, as unseemly as drug trafficking. You know, assassinations and bombings and that sort of thing, yeah, they'll admit to right up front, but drug dealing, no, no, they don't do that kind of stuff.
Unfortunately, though, it was true, and what has happened since my series came out is that the CIA was forced to do an internal review, the DEA and Justice Department were forced to do internal reviews, and these agencies that released these reports, you probably didn't read about them, because they contradicted everything else these other newspapers had been writing for the last couple of years, but let me just read you this one excerpt. This is from a 1987 DEA report. And this is about this drug ring in Los Angeles that I wrote about. In 1987, the DEA sent undercover informants inside this drug operation, and they interviewed one of the principals of this organization, namely Ivan Torres. And this is what he said. He told the informant:
"The CIA wants to know about drug trafficking, but only for their own purposes, and not necessarily for the use of law enforcement agencies. Torres told DEA Confidential Informant 1 that CIA representatives are aware of his drug-related activities, and that they don't mind. He said they had gone so far as to encourage cocaine trafficking by members of the contras, because they know it's a good source of income. Some of this money has gone into numbered accounts in Europe and Panama, as does the money that goes to Managua from cocaine trafficking. Torres told the informant about receiving counterintelligence training from the CIA, and had avowed that the CIA looks the other way and in essence allows them to engage in narcotics trafficking."
This is a DEA report that was written in 1987, when this operation was still going on. Another member of this organization who was affiliated with the San Francisco end of it, said that in 1985 -- and this was to the CIA -- "Cabezas claimed that the contra cocaine operated with the knowledge of, and under the supervision of, the CIA. Cabezas claimed that this drug enterprise was run with the knowledge of CIA agent Ivan Gómez."
Now, this is one of the stories that I tried to do at the Mercury News was who this man Ivan Gómez was. This was after my original series came out, and after the controversy started. I went back to Central America, and I found this fellow Cabezas and he told me all about Ivan Gómez. And I came back, I corroborated it with three former contra officials. Mercury News wouldn't put it in the newspaper. And they said, "We have no evidence this man even exists."
Well, the CIA Inspector General's report came out in October, and there was a whole chapter on Ivan Gómez. And the amazing thing was that Ivan Gómez admitted in a CIA-administered polygraph test that he had been engaged in laundering drug money the same month that this man told me he had been engaged in it. CIA knew about it, and what did they do? Nothing. They said okay, go back to work. And they covered it up for fifteen years.
So, the one thing that I've learned from this whole experience is, first of all, you can't believe the government -- on anything. And you especially can't believe them when they're talking about important stuff, like this stuff. The other thing is that the media will believe the government before they believe anything.
This has been the most amazing thing to me. You had a situation where you had another newspaper who reported this information. The major news organizations in this country went to the CIA, they went to the Justice Department, and they said, what about it? And they said, oh, no, it's not true. Take our word for it. And they went back and put it in the newspaper! Now, I try to imagine what would happen had reporters come back to their editors and said, look, I know the CIA is involved in drug trafficking. And I know the FBI knows about it, and I've got a confidential source that's telling me that. Can I write a story about that? What do you think the answer would have been? [Murmurs of "no" from the audience.] Get back down to the obit desk. Start cranking out those sports scores. But, if they go to the government and the government denies something like that, they'll put it in the paper with no corroboration whatsoever.
And it's only since the government has admitted it that now the media is willing to consider that there might be a story here after all. The New York Times, after the CIA report that came out, ran a story on its front page saying, gosh, the contras were involved in drugs after all, and gosh, the CIA knew about it.
Now you would think -- at least I would think -- that something like that would warrant Congressional investigation. We're spending millions of dollars to find out how many times Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky. Why aren't we interested in how much the CIA knew about drug traffic? Who was profiting from this drug traffic? Who else knew about it? And why did it take some guy from a California newspaper by accident stumbling over this stuff ten years later in order for it to be important? I mean, what the hell is going on here? I've been a reporter for almost twenty years. To me, this is a natural story. The CIA is involved in drug trafficking? Let's know about it. Let's find out about it. Let's do something about it. Nobody wants to touch this thing.
And the other thing that came out just recently, which nobody seems to know about, because it hasn't been reported -- the CIA Inspector General went before Congress in March and testified that yes, they knew about it. They found some documents that indicated that they knew about it, yeah. I was there, and this was funny to watch, because these Congressmen were up there, and they were ready to hear the absolution, right? "We had no evidence that this was going on. " And this guy sort of threw 'em a curve ball and admitted that it had happened.
One of the people said, well geez, what was the CIA's responsibility when they found out about this? What were you guys supposed to do? And the Inspector General sort of looked around nervously, cleared his throat and said, "Well. that's kind of an odd history there." And Norman Dix from Washington, bless his heart, didn't let it go at that. He said, "Explain what you mean by that?" And the Inspector General said, well, we were looking around and we found this document, and according to the document, we didn't have to report this to anybody. And they said, "How come?" And the IG said, we don't know exactly, but there was an agreement made in 1982 between Bill Casey -- a fine American, as we all know [laughter from the audience] -- and William French Smith, who was then the Attorney General of the United States. And they reached an agreement that said if there is drug trafficking involved by CIA agents, we don't have to tell the Justice Department. Honest to God. Honest to God. Actually, this is now a public record, this document. Maxine Waters just got copies of it, she's putting it on the Congressional Record. It is now on the CIA's web site, if you care to journey into that area. If you do, check out the CIA Web Site for Kids, it's great, I love it. [Laugher from the audience.] I kid you not, they've actually got a web page for kids.
The other thing about this agreement was, this wasn't just like a thirty-day agreement -- this thing stayed in effect from 1982 until 1995. So all these years, these agencies had a gentleman's agreement that if CIA assets or CIA agents were involved in drug trafficking, it did not need to be reported to the Justice Department.
So I think that eliminates any questions that drug trafficking by the contras was an accident, or was a matter of just a few rotten apples. I think what this said was that it was anticipated by the Justice Department, it was anticipated by the CIA, and steps were taken to ensure that there was a loophole in the law, so that if it ever became public knowledge, nobody would be prosecuted for it.
The other thing is, when George Bush pardoned -- remember those Christmas pardons that he handed out when he was on his way out the door a few years ago? The media focused on old Caspar Weinberger, got pardoned, it was terrible. Well, if you looked down the list of names at the other pardons he handed out, there was a guy named Claire George, there was a guy named Al Fiers, there was another guy named Joe Fernández. And these stories sort of brushed them off and said, well, they were CIA officials, we're not going to say much more about it. These were the CIA officials who were responsible for the contra war. These were the men who were running the contra operation. And the text of Bush's pardon not only pardons them for the crimes of Iran-contra, it pardons them for everything. So, now that we know about it, we can't even do anything about it. They all received presidential pardons.
So where does that leave us? Well, I think it sort of leaves us to rely on the judgment of history. But that is a dangerous step. We didn't know about this stuff two years ago we know about it now. We've got Congressmen who are no longer willing to believe that CIA agents are "honorable men," as William Colby called them. And we've got approximately a thousand pages of evidence of CIA drug trafficking on the public record finally.
That said, let me tell you, there are thousands of pages more that we still don't know about. The CIA report that came out in October was originally 600 pages by the time we got ahold of it, it was only 300 pages.
One last thing I want to mention -- Bob Parry, who is a fine investigative reporter, he runs a magazine in Washington called I.F. Magazine, and he's got a great website, check it out -- he did a story about two weeks ago about some of the stuff that was contained in the CIA report that we didn't get to see. And one of the stories he wrote was about how there was a second CIA drug ring in South Central Los Angeles that ran from 1988 to 1991. This was not even the one I wrote about. There was another one there. This was classified.
The interesting thing is, it was run by a CIA agent who had participated in the contra war, and the reason it was classified is because it is under investigation by the CIA. I doubt very seriously that we'll ever hear another word about that.
But the one thing that we can do, and the one thing that Maxine Waters is trying to do, is force the House Intelligence Committee to hold hearings on this. This is supposed to be the oversight committee of the CIA. They have held one hearing, and after they found out there was this deal that they didn't have to report drug trafficking, they all ran out of the room, they haven't convened since.
So if you're interested in pursuing this, the thing I would suggest you do is, call up the House Intelligence Committee in Washington and ask them when we're going to have another CIA/contra/crack hearing. Believe me, it'll drive them crazy. Send them email, just ask them, make sure -- they think everybody's forgotten about this. I mean, if you look around the room tonight, I don't think it's been forgotten. They want us to forget about it. They want us to concentrate on sex crimes, because, yeah, it's titillating. It keeps us occupied. It keeps us diverted. Don't let them do it.
Thanks very much for your attention, I appreciate it. We'll do questions and answers now for as long as you want.
Question and Answer Session
Gary Webb I've been instructed to repeat the question, so.
Voice From the Audience You talked about George Bush pardoning people. Given George Bush's history with the CIA, do you know when he first knew about this, and what he knew?
Gary Webb Well, I didn't at the time I wrote the book, I do now. The question was, when did George Bush first know about this? The CIA, in its latest report, said that they had prepared a detailed briefing for the vice president -- I think it was 1985? -- on all these allegations of contra drug trafficking and delivered it to him personally. So, it's hard for George to say he was out of the loop on this one.
I'll tell you another thing, one of the most amazing things I found in the National Archives was a report that had been written by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa -- I believe it was 1987. They had just busted a Colombian drug trafficker named Allen Rudd, and they were using him as a cooperating witness. Rudd agreed to go undercover and set up other drug traffickers, and they were debriefing him.
Now, let me set the stage for you. When you are being debriefed by the federal government for use as an informant, you're not going to go in there and tell them crazy-sounding stories, because they're not going to believe you, they're going to slap you in jail, right? What Rudd told them was, that he was involved in a meeting with Pablo Escobar, who was then the head of the Medellín cartel. They were working out arrangements to set up cocaine shipments into South Florida. He said Escobar started ranting and raving about that damned George Bush, and now he's got that South Florida Drug Task Force set up which has really been making things difficult, and the man's a traitor. And he used to deal with us, but now he wants to be president and thinks that he's double-crossing us. And Rudd said, well, what are you talking about? And Escobar said, we made a deal with that guy, that we were going to ship weapons to the contras, they were in there flying weapons down to Columbia, we were unloading weapons, we were getting them to the contras, and the deal was, we were supposed to get our stuff to the United States without any problems. And that was the deal that we made. And now he double-crossed us.
So the U.S. Attorney heard this, and he wrote this panicky memo to Washington saying, you know, this man has been very reliable so far, everything he's told us has checked out, and now he's saying that the Vice President of the United States is involved with drug traffickers. We might want to check this out. And it went all the way up -- the funny thing about government documents is, whenever it passes over somebody's desk, they have to initial it. And this thing was like a ladder, it went all the way up and all the way up, and it got up to the head of the Criminal Division at the Justice Department, and he looked at it and said, looks like a job for Lawrence Walsh! And so he sent it over to Walsh, the Iran-contra prosecutor, and he said, here, you take it, you deal with this. And Walsh's office -- I interviewed Walsh, and he said, we didn't have the authority to deal with that. We were looking at Ollie North. So I said, did anybody investigate this? And the answer was, "no." And that thing sat in the National Archives for ten years, nobody ever looked at it.
Voice From the Audience Is that in your book?
Gary Webb Yeah.
Voice From the Audience Thank you.
Audience Member #1 Well, first of all, I'd like to thank you for pursuing this story, you have a lot of guts to do it.[Applause from the audience.]
Gary Webb This is what reporters are supposed to do. This is what reporters are supposed to do. I don't think I was doing anything special.
Audience Member #1 Still, there's not too many guys like you that are doing it.
Gary Webb That's true, they've all still got jobs. [Laughter, scattered applause.]
Audience Member #1 I just had a couple of questions, the first one is, I followed the story on the web site, and I thought it was a really great story, it was really well done. And I noticed that the San Jose Mercury News seemed to support you for a while, and then all the sudden that support collapsed. So I was wondering what your relationship is with your editor there, and how that all played out, and when they all pulled out the rug from under you.
Gary Webb Well, the support collapsed probably after the LA Times. The Washington [Post] came out first, the New York Times came out second, and the LA Times came out third, and they started getting nervous. There's a phenomenon in the media we all know, it's called "piling on," and they started seeing themselves getting piled on. They sent me back down to Central America two more times to do more reporting and I came back with stories that were even more outrageous than what they printed in the newspaper the first time. And they were faced with a situation of, now we're accusing Oliver North of being involved in drug trafficking. Now we're accusing the Justice Department of being part and parcel to this. Geez, if we get beat up over accusing a couple of CIA agents of being involved in this, what the hell is going to happen now? And they actually said, I had memos saying, you know, if we run these stories, there is going to be a firestorm of criticism.
So, I think they took the easy way out. The easy way out was not to go ahead and do the story. It was to back off the story. But they had a problem, because the story was true. And it isn't every day that you're confronted with how to take a dive on a true story.
They spent several months -- honestly, literally, because I was getting these drafts back and forth -- trying to figure out how to say, we don't support this story, even though it's true. And if you go back and you read the editor's column, you'll see that the great difficulty that he had trying to take a dive on this thing. And he ended up talking about "gray areas" that should have been explored a little more and "subtleties" that we should have not brushed over so lightly, without disclosing the fact that the series had originally been four parts and they cut it to three parts, because "nobody reads four part series' anymore." So, that was one reason.
The other reason was, you know, one of the things you learn very quickly when you get into journalism is that there's safety in numbers. Editors don't like being out there on a limb all by themselves. I remember very clearly going to press conferences, coming back, writing a story, sending it in, and my editor calling up and saying, well gee, this isn't what AP wrote. Or, the Chronicle just ran their story, and that's not what the Chronicle wrote. And I'd say, "Fine. Good." And they said, no, we've got to make it the same, we don't want to be different. We don't want our story to be different from everybody else's.
And so what they were seeing at the Mercury was, the Big Three newspapers were sitting on one side of the fence, and they were out there by themselves, and that just panicked the hell out of them. So, you have to understand newspaper mentality to understand it a little bit, but it's not too hard to understand cowardice, either. I think a lot of that was that they were just scared as hell to go ahead with the story.
Audience Member #1 Were they able to look you in the eye, and.
Gary Webb No. They didn't, they just did this over the phone. I went to Sacramento.
Audience Member #1 When did you find out about it, and what did you.
Gary Webb Oh, they called me up at home, two months after I turned in my last four stories, and said, we're going to write a column saying, you know, we're not going ahead with this. And that's when I jumped in the car and drove up there and said, what the hell's going on? And I got all these mealy-mouthed answers, you know, geez, gray areas, subtleties, one thing or another. But I said, tell me one thing that's wrong with the story, and nobody could ever point to anything. And today, to this day, nobody has ever said there was a factual error in that story.
[Inaudible question from the audience.]
Gary Webb The question was, the editors are one thing, what about the readers? Um. who cares about the readers? Honestly. The reader's don't run the newspaper.
[Another inaudible question from the audience regarding letters to the editor and boycotts of the newspaper.]
Gary Webb Well, a number of them did, and believe me, the newspaper office was flooded with calls and emails. And the newspaper, to their credit, printed a bunch of them, calling it the most cowardly thing they'd ever seen. But in the long run, the readers, you know, don't run the place. And that's the thing about newspaper markets these days. You folks really don't have any choice! What else are you going to read? And the editors know this.
When I started in this business, we had two newspapers in town where I worked in Cincinnati. And we were deathly afraid that if we sat on a story for 24 hours, the Cincinnati Inquirer was going to put it in the paper, and we were going to look like dopes. We were going to look like we were covering stuff up, we were going to look like we were protecting somebody. So we were putting stuff in the paper without thinking about it sometimes, but we got it in the paper. Now, we can sit on stuff for months, who's going to find out about it? And even if somebody found out about it, what are they going to do? That's the big danger that everybody has sort of missed. These one-newspaper towns, you've got no choice. You've got no choice. And television? Television's not going to do it. I mean, they're down filming animals at the zoo! [Laughter and applause.]
Audience Member #2 I assume you have talked to John Cummings, the one that wrote Compromised, that book?
Gary Webb I talked to Terry Reed, who was the principal author on that, yeah.
Audience Member #2 Well, that was a well-documented book, and I had just finished reading this when I happened to look down and see the headlines on the Sunday paper. And he stated that Oliver North told him personally that he was a CIA asset that manufactured weapons.
Gary Webb Right.
Audience Member #2 When he discovered that they were importing cocaine, he got out of there. And they chased him with his family across country for two years trying to catch him. But he had said in that book that Oliver North told him that Vice President Bush told Oliver North to dirty Clinton's men with the drug money. Which I assumed was what Whitewater was all about, was finding the laundering and trying to find something on Clinton. Do you know anything about that?
Gary Webb Yeah, let me sum up your question. Essentially, you're asking about the goings-on in Mena, Arkansas, because of the drug operations going on at this little air base in Arkansas while Clinton was governor down there. The fellow you referred to, Terry Reed, wrote a book called Compromised which talked about his role in this corporate operation in Mena which was initially designed to train contra pilots -- Reed was a pilot -- and it was also designed after the Boland Amendment went into effect to get weapons parts to the contras, because the CIA couldn't provide them anymore. And as Reed got into this weapons parts business, he discovered that the CIA was shipping cocaine back through these weapons crates that were coming back into the United States. And when he blew the whistle on it, he was sort of sent on this long odyssey of criminal charges being filed against him, etcetera etcetera etcetera. A lot of what Reed wrote is accurate as far as I can tell, and a lot of it was documented.
There is a House Banking Committee investigation that has been going on now for about three years, looking specifically at Mena, Arkansas, looking specifically at a drug trafficker named Barry Seal, who was one of the biggest cocaine and marijuana importers in the south side of the United States during the 1980s. Seal was also, coincidentally, working for the CIA, and was working for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
I don't know how many of you remember this, but one night Ronnie Reagan got on TV and held up a grainy picture, and said, here's proof that the Sandanistas are dealing drugs. Look, here's Pablo Escobar, and they're all loading cocaine into a plane, and this was taken in Nicaragua. This was the eve of a vote on the contra aid. That photograph was set up by Barry Seal. The plane that was used was Seal's plane, and it was the same plane that was shot down over Nicaragua a couple of years later that Eugene Hasenfus was in, that broke open the whole Iran-contra scandal.
The Banking Committee is supposed to be coming out with a report in the next couple of months looking at the relationship between Barry Seal, the U.S. government and Clinton's folks. Alex Cockburn has done a number of stories on this company called Park-On Meter down in Russellville, Arkansas, that's hooked up with Clinton's family, hooked up with Hillary's law firm, that sort of thing. To me, that's a story people ought to be looking at. I never thought Whitewater was much of a story, frankly. What I thought the story was about was Clinton's buddy Dan Lasater, the bond broker down there who was a convicted cocaine trafficker. Clinton pardoned him on his way to Washington. Lasater was a major drug trafficker, and Terry Reed's book claims Lasater was part and parcel with this whole thing.
Voice From the Audience Cockburn's newsletter is called Counterpunch, and he's done a good job of defending you in it.
Gary Webb Yeah, Cockburn has also written a book called Whiteout, which is a very interesting look at the history of CIA drug trafficking. Actually, I think it's selling pretty well itself. The New York Times hated it, of course, but what else is new?
Audience Member #2 Well I just wanted to mention that he states also -- I guess it was Terry Reed who was actually doing the work -- he said Bush was running the whole thing as vice president.
"I think that George Bush's role in this whole thing is one of the large unexplored areas of it."
Gary Webb I think that George Bush's role in this whole thing is one of the large unexplored areas of it.
Audience Member #2 Which is why I think Reagan put him in as vice president, because of his position with the CIA.
Gary Webb Well, you know, that whole South Florida Drug Task Force was full of CIA operatives. Full of them. This was supposed to be our vanguard in the war against cocaine cartels, and if those Colombians are to be believed, this was the vehicle that we were using to ship arms and allow cocaine into the country, this Drug Task Force. Nobody's looked at that. But there are lots of clues that there's a lot to be dug out.
Audience Member #3 Thank you, Gary. I lost my feature columnist position at my college paper for writing a satire of Christianity some years ago, and.
Gary Webb That'll do it, yeah. [Laughter from the audience.]
Audience Member #3 And I lost my job twice in the last five years because of my activism in the community, but I got a job [inaudible]. But my question is, I knew someone in the mid-'80s who said that he was in the Navy, and that he had information that the Navy was involved in delivering cocaine to this country. Another kind of bombshell, I'd like to have you comment on it, I saw a video some years ago that said the UFO research that's being done down in the southwest is being funded by drug money and cocaine dealings by the CIA, and that there are 25 top secret levels of government above the Top Secret category, and that there are some levels that even the president doesn't know about. So there's another topic for another book, I just wanted to have you comment.
Gary Webb A number of topics for another book. [Laughter from the audience.] I don't know about the UFO research, but I do know you're right that we have very little idea how vast the intelligence community in this country is, or what they're up to. I think there's a great story brewing -- it's called the ECHELON program, and it involves the sharing of eavesdropped emails and cell phone communications, because it is illegal for them to do it in this country. So they've been going to New Zealand and Australia and Canada and having those governments eavesdrop on our conversations and tell us about it. I've read a couple of stories about it in the English press, and I read a couple of stories about it in the Canadian press, but I've seen precious little in the American press. But there's stuff on the Internet that circulates about that, if you're interested in the topic. I think it's called the ECHELON program.
Audience Member #4 I'm glad you brought up James Burke and his Connections, because there are a lot of connections here. One I didn't hear too much about, and I know you've done a lot of research on, was how computers and high tech was used by the Crips and Bloods early on. I lived in south LA prior to this, knew some of these people, and you're right, they had virtually no education. And to suddenly have an operation that's computer literate, riding out of Bakersfield, Fresno, on north and then east in a very quick period -- I'm still learning the computer, I'm probably as old as you are, or older -- so I'd like to hear something on that. The whole dislocation of south LA that occurred -- the Watts Festival, the whole empowerment of the black community was occurring beginning in the late '60s and into the early '70s and mid-'70s, and then collapses into a sea of flipping demographics, and suddenly by 1990 it is El Salvadoran-dominated. And that's another curious part of this equation as we talk about drugs.
Gary Webb Well, that's quite a bevy of things there. As far as the sophistication of the Crips and the Bloods, the one thing that I probably should have mentioned was that when Danilo Blandón went down to South Central to start selling this dope, he had an M.B.A. in marketing. So he knew what he was doing. His job for the Somoza government was setting up wholesale markets for agricultural products. He'd received an M.B.A. thanks to us, actually -- we helped finance him, we helped send him to the University of Bogata to get his M.B.A. so he could go back to Nicaragua, and he actually came to the United States to sell dope to the gangs. So this was a very sophisticated operation.
One of the money launderers from this group was a macro-economist -- his uncle, Orlando Murillo, was on the Central Bank of Nicaragua. The weapons advisor they had was a guy who'd been a cop for fifteen years. They had another weapons advisor who had been a Navy SEAL. You don't get these kinds of people by putting ads in the paper. This is not a drug ring that just sort of falls together by chance. This is like an all-star game. Which is why I suspect more and more that this thing was set up by a higher authority than a couple of drug dealers.
Audience Member #5 Hi Gary, I just want to thank you for going against the traffic on this whole deal. I'm in the journalism school up at U. of O., and I'm interested in the story behind the story. I was hoping you could share some anecdotes about the kind of activity that you engaged in to get the story. For example, when you get off a plane in Nicaragua, what do you do? Where do you start? How do you talk to "Freeway" Ricky? How do you go against a government stonewall?
Gary Webb The question is, how do you do a story like this, essentially. Well, thing I've always found is, if you go knock on somebody's door, they're a lot less apt to slam it in your face than if you call them up on the telephone. So, the reason I went down to Nicaragua was to go knock on doors. I didn't go down there and just step off a plane -- I found a fellow down in Nicaragua and we hired him as a stringer, a fellow named George Hidell who is a marvelous investigative reporter, he knew all sorts of government officials down there. And I speak no Spanish, which was another handicap. George speaks like four languages. So, you find people like that to help you out.
With these drug dealers, you know, it's amazing how willing they are to talk. I did a series while I was in Kentucky on organized crime in the coal industry. And it was about this mass of stock swindlers who had looted Wall Street back in the '60s and moved down to Kentucky in the '70s while the coal boom was going on, during the energy shortage. The lesson I learned in that thing -- I thought these guys would never talk to me, I figured they'd be crazy to talk to a reporter about the scams they were pulling. But they were happy to talk about it, they were flattered that you would come to them and say, hey, tell me about what you do. Tell me your greatest knock-off. Those guys would go on forever! So, you know, everybody, no matter what they do, they sort of have pride in their work. [Laughter from the audience.] And, you know, I found that when you appeared interested, they would be happy to tell you.
The people who lied to me, the people who slammed doors in my face, were the DEA and the FBI. The DEA called me down -- I wrote about this in the book -- they had a meeting, and they were telling me that if I wrote this story, I was going to help drug traffickers bring drugs into the country, and I was going to get DEA agents killed, and this, that and the other thing, all of which was utterly bullshit. So that's the thing -- just ask. There's really no secret to it.
Audience Member #6 I'd like to ask a couple of questions very quickly. The first one is, if you wouldn't mind being a reference librarian for a moment -- there was the Golden Triangle. I was just wondering if you've ever, in your curiosity about this, touched on that -- the drug rings and the heroin trade out of Southeast Asia. And the second one is about the fellow from the Houston Chronicle, I don't remember his name right off, but you know who I'm talking about, if you could just touch on that a little bit.
Gary Webb Yes. The first question was about whether I ever touched on what was going on in the Golden Triangle. Fortunately, I didn't have to -- there's a great book called The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, by Alfred McCoy, which is sort of a classic in CIA drug trafficking lore. I don't think you can get any better than that. That's a great reference in the library, you can go check it out. McCoy was a professor at the University of Wisconsin who went to Laos during the time that the secret war in Laos was going on, and he wrote about how the CIA was flying heroin out on Air America. That's the thing that really surprised me about the reaction to my story was, it's not like I invented this stuff. There's a long, long history of CIA involvement in drug traffic which Cockburn gets into in Whiteout.
And the second question was about Pete Brewton -- there was a reporter in Houston for the Houston Post named Pete Brewton who did the series -- I think it was '91 or '92 -- on the strange connections between the S&L collapses, particularly in Texas, and CIA agents. And his theory was that a lot of these collapses were not mismanagement, they were intentional. These things were looted, with the idea that a lot of the money was siphoned off to fund covert operations overseas. And Brewton wrote this series, and it was funny, because after all hell broke loose on my story, I called him up, and he said, "Well, I was waiting for this to happen to you." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "I was exactly like you are. I'd been in this business for twenty years, I'd won all sorts of awards, I'd lectured in college journalism courses, and I wrote a series that had these three little letters C-I-A in it. And suddenly I was unreliable, and I couldn't be trusted, and Reed Irvine at Accuracy In Media was writing nasty things about me, and my editor had lost confidence in me, so I quit the business and went to law school."
Brewton wrote a book called George Bush, CIA and the Mafia. It's hard to find, but it's worth looking up if you can find it. It's all there, it's all documented. See, the difference between his story and my story was, we put ours out on the web, and it got out. Brewton's story is sort of confined to the printed page, and I think the Washington Journalism Review actually wrote a story about, how come nobody's writing about this, nobody's picking up this story. Nobody touched this story, it just sort of died. And the same thing would have happened with my series, had we not had this amazing web page. Thank God we did, or this thing would have just slipped underneath the waves, and nobody would have ever heard about it.
Audience Member #7 I'm glad you're here. I guess the CIA, there was something I read in the paper a couple of years ago, that said the CIA is actually murdering people, and they admitted it, they don't usually do that.
Gary Webb It's a new burst of honesty from the new CIA.
Audience Member #7 They'll murder us with kindness. In the Chicago police force, there were about 10 officers who were kicked off the police force for doing drugs or selling drugs, and George Bush or something. I heard that he had a buddy who had a lot of money in drug testing equipment, so that's one reason everybody has to pee in a cup now. [Laughter from the audience.] The other thing I found, there was a meth lab close to here, and somebody who wasn't even involved with it, he was paralyzed. And as you know, we have the "Just Say No to Drugs" deal. What do you think we can do to stop us, the People, from being hypnotized once again from all these shenanigans, doing other people injury in terms of these kinds of messages, at the same time they're selling. Because all this money is being spent for all this.
Gary Webb I guess the question is, what could you do to keep from being hypnotized by the media message, specifically on the Drug War? Is that what you're talking about?
Audience Member #7 Yeah, or all the funds. like, there's another thing here with the meth lab, they say we'll kind of turn people in.
Gary Webb Oh yeah, the nation of informers.
Audience Member #7 Yeah.
Gary Webb That's something I have to laugh about -- up until I think '75 or '76, probably even later than that, you could go to your doctor and get methamphetamine. I mean, there were housewives by the hundreds of thousands across the United States who were taking it every day to lose weight, and now all the sudden it was the worst thing on the face of the earth. That's one thing I got into in the book, was the sort of crack hysteria in 1986 that prompted all these crazy laws that are still on the books today, and the 100:1 sentencing ratio. I don't know how many of you saw, on PBS a couple of nights back, there was a great show on informants called "Snitch." [Murmurs of recognition from the audience.] Yeah, on Frontline. That was very heartening to see, because I don't think ten years ago that it would have stood a chance in hell of getting on the air.
What I'm seeing now is that a lot of people are finally waking up to the idea that this "drug war" has been a fraud since the get-go. My personal opinion is, I think the main purpose of this whole drug war was to sort of erode civil liberties, very slowly and very gradually, and sort of put us down into a police state. [Robust burst of applause from the audience.] And we're pretty close to that. I've got to hand it to them, they've done a good job. We have no Fourth Amendment left anymore, we're all peeing in cups, and we're all doing all sorts of things that our parents probably would have marched in the streets about.
The solution to that is to read something other than the daily newspaper, and turn off the TV news. I mean, I'm sorry, I hate to say that, but that's mind-rot. You've got to find alternative sources of information. [Robust applause.]
Voice From the Audience How can you say that it was all a chain reaction, that it was not done deliberately, and on the other hand say it has at the same time deliberately eroded our rights?
Gary Webb Well, the question was, how can I say on one hand it was a chain reaction, and on the other hand say the drug war was set up deliberately to erode our rights. I mean, you're talking about sort of macro versus micro. And I do not give the CIA that much credit, that they could plan these vast conspiracies down through the ages and have them work -- most of them don't.
What I'm saying is, you have police groups, you have police lobbying groups, you have prison guard groups -- they seize opportunities when they come along. The Drug War has given them a lot of opportunities to say, okay, now let's lengthen prison sentences. Why? Well, because if you keep people in jail longer, you need more prison guards. Let's build more prisons. Why? Well, people get jobs, prison guards get jobs. The police stay in business. We need to fund more of them. We need to give bigger budgets to the correctional facilities. This is all very conscious, but I don't think anybody sat in a room in 1974 and said, okay, by 1995, we're going to have X number of Americans locked up or under parole supervision. I don't think they mind -- you know, I think they like that. But I don't think it was a conscious effort. I think it was just one bad idea, after another bad idea, compounded with a stupid idea, compounded with a really stupid idea. And here we are. So I don't know if that answers your question or not.
Audience Member #8 To me, the Iran-contra story was one of the most interesting and totally frustrating things. And the more information, the more about it I heard -- we don't know anything about it, I mean, if you look for any official data, they deny everything. And to see Ollie North, the upstanding blue-eyed American, standing there lying through his teeth, and we knew it. [Inaudible comment, "before Congress and the President"?] What galls me is that these people who are guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors are now getting these enormous pensions, and we have to pay for these bums. It sickens me!
Gary Webb Right.
Audience Member #8 And I actually have a question -- this is my question, by the way, I know you have a thousand other questions [laughter from the audience] -- but the one that stays with me, and has always bothered me, was the Christic Institute, and I thought it was fantastic. And they were hit with this enormous lawsuit, and they had to bail out. This needs to be ["rehired"?] because they knew what they were doing, they had all the right answers, and they were run out of office, so to say, in disgrace, because of this lawsuit.
"I think the Iran-contra scandal was worse than Watergate. But I'll tell you, I think the press played a very big part in downplaying that scandal."
Gary Webb The question was about the Christic Institute, and about how the Iran-contra controversy is probably one of the worst scandals. I agree with you, I think the Iran-contra scandal was worse than Watergate, far worse than this nonsense we're doing now [The Clinton Impeachment]. But I'll tell you, I think the press played a very big part in downplaying that scandal. One of the people I interviewed for the book was a woman named Pam Naughton, who was one of the best prosecutors that the Iran-contra committee had. And I asked her, why -- you know, it was also the first scandal that was televised, and I remember watching them at night. I would go to work and I'd set the VCR, and I'd come home at night and I'd watch the hearings. Then I'd pick up the paper the next morning, and it was completely different! And I couldn't figure it out, and this has bothered me all these years.
So when I got Pam Naughton on the phone, I said, what the hell happened to the press corps in Washington during the Iran-contra scandal? And she said, well, I can tell you what I saw. She said, every day, we would come out at the start of this hearings, and we would lay out a stack of documents -- all the exhibits we were going to introduce -- stuff that she thought was extremely incriminating, front page story after front page story, and they'd sit them on a table. And she said, every day the press corps would come in, and they'd say hi, how're you doing, blah blah blah, and they'd go sit down in the front row and start talking about, you know, did you see the ball game last night, and what they saw on Johnny Carson. And she said one or two reporters would go up and get their stack of documents and go back and write about it, and everybody else sat in the front row, and they would sit and say, okay, what's our story today? And they would all agree what the story was, and they'd go back and write it. Most of them never even looked at the exhibits.
And that's why I say it was the press's fault, because there was so much stuff that came out of those hearings. That used to just drive me crazy, you would never see it in the newspaper. And I don't think it's a conspiracy -- if anything, it's a conspiracy of stupidity and laziness. I talked to Bob Parry about this -- when he was working for Newsweek covering Iran-contra, they weren't even letting him go to the hearings. He had to get transcripts messengered to him at his house secretly, so his editors wouldn't find out he was actually reading the transcripts, because he was writing stories that were so different from everybody else's.
Bob Parry tells a story of being at a dinner party with Bobby Inman from the CIA, the editor of Newsweek, and all the muckity-mucks -- this was his big introduction into Washington society. And they were sitting at the dinner table in the midst of the Iran-contra thing, talking about everything but Iran-contra. And Bob said he had the bad taste of bringing up the Iran-contra hearing and mentioning one particularly bad aspect of it. And he said, the editor of Newsweek looked at him and said, "You know, Bob, there are just some things that it's better the country just doesn't know about." And all these admirals and generals sitting around the table all nodded their heads in agreement, and they wanted to talk about something else.
That's the attitude. That's the attitude in Washington. And that's the attitude of the Washington press corps, and nowadays it's even worse than that, because now, if you play the game right, you get a TV show. Now you've got the McLaughlin Group. Now you get your mug on CNN. You know. And that's how they keep them in line. If you're a rabble rouser, and a shit-stirrer, they don't want your type on television. They want the pundits.
"The Christic Institute had this thing figured out. they had names, they had dates. and the Reagan administration's line was, 'they're a bunch of left-wing liberal crazies, this was conspiracy theory'."
The other question was about the Christic Institute. They had it all figured out. The Christic Institute had this thing figured out. They filed suit in May of 1986, alleging that the Reagan administration, the CIA, this sort of parallel government was going on. Oliver North was involved in it, you had the Bay of Pigs Cubans that were involved in it down in Costa Rica, they had names, they had dates, and they got murdered. And the Reagan administration's line was, they're a bunch of left-wing liberal crazies, this was conspiracy theory. If you want to see what they really thought, go to Oliver North's diaries, which are public -- the National Security Archive has got them, you can get them -- all he was writing about, after the Christic Institute's suit was filed, was how we've got to shut this thing down, how we have to discredit these witnesses, how we've got to get this guy set up, how we've got to get this guy out of the country. They knew that the Christic Institute was right, and they were deathly afraid that the American public was going to find out about it.
I am convinced that the judge who was hearing the case was part and parcel to the problem. He threw the case out of court and fined the Christic Institute, I think it was $1.3 million, for even bringing the lawsuit. It was deemed "frivolous litigation." And it finally bankrupted them. And they went away.
But that's the problem when you try to take on the government in its own arena, and the federal courts are definitely part of its own arena. They make the rules. And in cases like that, you don't stand a chance in hell, it won't happen.
Voice From the Audience But if you cannot get the truth in the courts, if you cannot write it in the papers, then what do you do?
Gary Webb You do it yourself. You do it yourself. You've got to start rebuilding an information system on your own. And that's what's going on. It's very small, but it's happening. People are talking to each other through newsgroups on the Internet. People are doing Internet newsletters.
Voice From the Audience Do you have a website?
Emcee Let's use the mike, let's use the mike.
Gary Webb The question is, do I have a website. No, I don't, but I'm building one. [Inaudible question from the audience.]
Gary Webb Well, let's let these people who have been standing in line.
[Commotion, murmuring. Someone calls out, "Please use the mike."]
Audience Member #9 When you mentioned prisons a moment ago, I couldn't help but remember that it is America's fastest-growing industry, the "prison industry" -- which is a hell of a phrase unto itself. But it seems that the CIA had people aligned throughout Central America at one point, and El Salvador, with the contras, and in Honduras and Nicaragua, and in Panama, Manuel Noriega.
Gary Webb Our "man in Panama," that's right.
Audience Member #9 Yeah. But something went wrong with him, and he got pinched in public. And I'm interested to know what you think about that.
Gary Webb The question is about Manuel Noriega, who was our "man in Panama" for so many years. What happened to Noriega is that -- I don't think it had anything to do with the fact that he was a drug trafficker, because we knew that for years. What it had to do with was what is going to happen at the end of this year, which is when control of the Panama Canal goes over to the Panamanians. If you read the New York Times story that Seymour Hersh wrote back in June of 1986 that exposed Noriega publicly as a drug trafficker and money launderer, there were some very telling phrases in it. All unsourced, naturally, you know -- unattributed comments from high-ranking government officials -- but they talked about how they were nervous that Noriega had become unreliable. And with control of the Panama Canal reverting to the Panamanian government, they were very nervous at the idea of having somebody as "unstable" as Noriega running the country at that point. And I think that was a well-founded fear. You've got a major drug trafficker controlling a major maritime thoroughway. I can see the CIA being nervous about being cut out of the business. [Laughter from the audience.]
But I think that's what the whole thing with Noriega was about -- they wanted him out of there, because they wanted somebody that they could control a little more closely in power in Panama for when the canal gets reverted back to them.
Audience Member #9 Was there much of a profit difference between Nicaragua and Panama as far as the drugs went?
Gary Webb Well, what Noriega had done was sort of create an international banking center for drug money. That was his part of it. Nicaragua was nothing ever than just a trans-shipment point. Central America was never anything more than a trans-shipment point. Columbia Peru and Bolivia were the producers, and the planes needed a place to refuel, and that's all that Central America ever was. The banking was all done in Panama.
Audience Member #10 You talk about how they sat on their stories, the newspapers? Why did they suddenly decide to pursue the stories?
Gary Webb Which stories are these?
Audience Member #10 The stories about the crack dealing and the CIA. Why did they suddenly decide that, well, actually.
Gary Webb The question was -- correct me if I'm wrong -- the question raised the fact that the other newspapers didn't do anything about this story for a while, and then after I wrote it they came after me. Is that what you're asking?
Audience Member #10 Well, yeah, and then eventually the CIA admitted it. and I mean, why are people asking, it sat for a long time, and then suddenly everyone was on it. What was the turning point that made them decide to pursue it?
Gary Webb The turning point that made them decide to pursue the story was the fact that it had gotten out over the Internet, and people were calling them up saying, why don't you have the story in your newspaper? You know, I don't think the subject matter frightened the major media as much as the fact that a little newspaper in Northern California was able to set the national agenda for once. And people were marching in the streets, people were holding hearings in Washington, they were demanding Congressional hearings, you had John Deutch, the CIA director, go down on that surreal trip down to South Central to convince everyone that everything was okay. [Laughter from the audience.] And all of this was happening without the big media being involved in it at all. And the reason that happened was because we had an outlet -- we had the web. And the people at the Mercury News did a fantastic job on this website.
And so, news was marching on without them. There's a professor at the University of Wisconsin who's done a paper on the whole "Dark Alliance" thing, and her thesis is that this story was shut down more because of how it got out than for what it actually said. That it was an attempt by the major media to regain control of the Internet, and to suggest that unless they're the ones who are putting it out, it's unreliable. Which I think you see in a lot of stories. The mainstream press gladly promotes the idea that you can't believe anything you read on the Internet, it's all kooks, it's all conspiracy theorists. And there are, I mean, I admit, there are a lot of them out there, but it's not all false. But the idea that we're being taught is, unless it's got our name on it, you can't believe it. So they can retain control of the means of communication anyway.
Audience Member #11 You mentioned Iran-contra, which was private foreign policy in defiance of Congress, which means it was a high crime. From there, we get more drugs, we get erosion of civil liberties and the loss of the Fourth Amendment, which you mentioned. And we have to get that back, because without it, we're just commodities to one another. So what I'd like to ask you is, what are you working on now? And do you have your own journalistic chain of reaction? Are you going to be doing something that connects back to this?
Gary Webb The question is what am I doing now -- believe it or not, I'm working for the government. [Laughter from the audience.] I work for the California legislature, and I do investigations of state agencies. I just wrote a piece for Esquire magazine which should be out in April on another fabulous DEA program that they're running. Actually, part of it's based here in Oregon, called Operation Pipeline. That story is coming out in April, and Esquire told me they want me to write more stuff for them, they want me to do some investigative reporting for them, so I'll be working for them. And I'm putting together another book proposal, and a couple of other things. I'm not going to work for newspapers any more, I learned my lesson.
Audience Member #12 A year ago the editor of your newspaper was here to speak, sponsored by the University of Oregon School of Journalism. Before I got up here, I took a casual look around -- I don't know all of the members of the journalism faculty, but I didn't recognize any. We did have a student here who got up and asked a question. That leads to this question: I'd like, if you don't mind, to ask if there is someone from the University of Oregon journalism faculty here, would they mind being acknowledged and raising their hand?
Gary Webb All right, there's one back there.
Audience Member #12 There is one. Okay. [Applause from the audience.] I'm pleased to see it. There is that one person. My point is, I think much of what you've said this evening constitutes an indictment -- and a valid indictment -- of the university journalism programs in this country. [Applause.] Most Americans and I believe -- and I'm interested in your reaction -- that it reinforces that indictment when we see, to that person's credit, that she is the only faculty member from our school of journalism to hear you tonight.
Gary Webb I think the general question was about the state of the journalism schools. The one thing journalism schools don't teach, by and large, is investigative reporting. They teach stenography very well. That's why I consider most of journalism today to be stenography. You go to a press conference, you write down the quotes accurately, you come back, you don't provide any context, you don't provide any perspective, because that gets into analysis, and heavens knows, we don't want any analysis in our newspapers.
But you report things accurately, you report things fairly, and even if it's a lie you put it in the newspaper, and that's considered journalism. I don't consider that journalism, I consider that stenography. And that is the way they teach journalism in school, that's the way I was taught. Unless you go to a very different journalism school from the kinds that most kids go to, that's what you're taught. Now, there are specialized journalism schools, there are master's programs like the Kiplinger Program at Ohio State, that's very good.
So, I'm not saying that all journalism schools are bad, but they don't teach you to be journalists. They discourage you from doing that, by and large. And I don't think it's the fault of the journalism professors, I just think that's the way things have been taught in this country for so long, that they just do it automatically. I'd be interested in hearing the professor's thoughts about it, but that's sort of the way I look at things. I spent way too many years in journalism school. I kind of got shed of those notions after I got out in the real world.
America's 'crack' plague has roots in Nicaragua war - Gary Webb
This article from 1996 explores how the crack cocaine explosion in black neighbourhoods in the US was facilitated by the CIA.
Part 1 of the 3 part series. Parts 2 and 3 are included in this article, and indicated where they start.
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.
This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the "crack'' capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy automatic weapons.
It is one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history: the union of a U.S.-backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the Uzi-toting "gangstas'' of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.
The army's financiers -- who met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A. -- delivered cut-rate cocaine to the gangs through a young South-Central crack dealer named Ricky Donnell Ross. Unaware of his suppliers' military and political connections, "Freeway Rick" -- a dope dealer of mythic proportions in the L.A. drug world -- turned the cocaine powder into crack and wholesaled it to gangs across the country.
The cash Ross paid for the cocaine, court records show, was then used to buy weapons and equipment for a guerrilla army named the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) or FDN, the largest of several anti-communist commonly called the Contras.
While the FDN's war is barely a memory today, black America is still dealing with its poisonous side effects. Urban neighborhoods are grappling with legions of homeless crack addicts. Thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine -- a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices. And the L.A. gangs, which used their enormous cocaine profits to arm themselves and spread crack across the country, are still thriving, turning entire blocks of major cities into occasional war zones.
"There is a saying that the ends justify the means,'' former FDN leader and drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes testified during a recent cocaine trafficking trial in San Diego. "And that's what Mr. Bermudez (the CIA agent who commanded the FDN) told us in Honduras, OK? So we started raising money for the Contra revolution.''
Recently declassified reports, federal court testimony, undercover tapes, court records here and abroad and hundreds of hours of interviews over the past 12 months leave no doubt that Blandon was no ordinary drug dealer.
Shortly before Blandon -- who had been the drug ring's Southern California distributor -- took the stand in San Diego as a witness for the U.S. Department of Justice, federal prosecutors obtained a court order preventing defense lawyers from delving into his ties to the CIA.
Blandon, one of the FDN's founders in California, "will admit that he was a large-scale dealer in cocaine, and there is no additional benefit to any defendant to inquire as to the Central Intelligence Agency,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O'Neale argued in his motion shortly before Ross' trial on cocaine trafficking charges in March.
The most Blandon would say in court about who called the shots when he sold cocaine for the FDN was that "we received orders from the -- from other people.''
The 5,000-man FDN, records show, was created in mid-1981 when the CIA combined several existing groups of anti-communist exiles into a unified force it hoped would topple the new socialist government of Nicaragua.
From 1982 to 1988, the FDN -- run by both American and Nicaraguan CIA agents -- waged a losing war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government, the Cuban-supported socialists who'd overthrown U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Blandon, who began working for the FDN's drug operation in late 1981, testified that the drug ring sold almost a ton of cocaine in the United States that year -- $54 million worth at prevailing wholesale prices. It was not clear how much of the money found its way back to the CIA's army, but Blandon testified that "whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution.''
At the time of that testimony, Blandon was a full-time informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, a job the U.S. Department of Justice got him after releasing him from prison in 1994.
Though Blandon admitted to crimes that have sent others away for life, the Justice Department turned him loose on unsupervised probation after only 28 months behind bars and has paid him more than $166,000 since, court records show.
"He has been extraordinarily helpful,'' federal prosecutor O'Neale told Blandon's judge in a plea for the trafficker's release in 1994. Though O'Neale once described Blandon to a grand jury as "the biggest Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in the United States,'' the prosecutor would not discuss him with the Mercury News.
A known dealer since '74 has stayed out of U.S. jails
Blandon's boss in the FDN's cocaine operation, Juan Norwin Meneses Cantarero, has never spent a day in a U.S. prison, even though the federal government has been aware of his cocaine dealings since at least 1974, records show.
Meneses -- who ran the drug ring from his homes in the San Francisco Bay Area -- is listed in the DEA's computers as a major international drug smuggler and was implicated in 45 separate federal investigations. Yet he and his cocaine-dealing relatives lived quite openly in the Bay Area for years, buying homes in Pacifica and Burlingame, along with bars, restaurants, car lots and factories in San Francisco, Hayward and Oakland.
"I even drove my own cars, registered in my name,'' Meneses said during a recent interview in Nicaragua.
Meneses' organization was "the target of unsuccessful investigative attempts for many years,'' prosecutor O'Neale acknowledged in a 1994 affidavit. But records and interviews revealed that a number of those probes were stymied not by the elusive Meneses but by agencies of the U.S. government.
Agents from four organizations -- the DEA, U.S. Customs, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement -- have complained that investigations were hampered by the CIA or unnamed "national security'' interests.
1988 investigation hit a wall of secrecy
One 1988 investigation by a U.S. Senate subcommittee ran into a wall of official secrecy at the Justice Department.
In that case, congressional records show, Senate investigators were trying to determine why the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, Joseph Russoniello, had given $36,000 back to a Nicaraguan cocaine dealer arrested by the FBI.
The money was returned, court records show, after two Contra leaders sent letters to the court swearing that the drug dealer had been given the cash to buy weapons for guerrillas. Russoniello said it was cheaper to give the money back than to disprove that claim.
"The Justice Department flipped out to prevent us from getting access to people, records -- finding anything out about it,'' recalled Jack Blum, former chief counsel to the Senate subcommittee that investigated allegations of Contra cocaine trafficking. "It was one of the most frustrating exercises that I can ever recall.''
It wasn't until 1989, a few months after the Contra-Sandinista war ended and five years after Meneses moved from the Peninsula to a ranch in Costa Rica, that the U.S. government took action against him -- sort of.
Federal prosecutors in San Francisco charged Meneses with conspiracy to distribute one kilo of cocaine in 1984, a year in which he was working publicly with the FDN.
In San Francisco photo, Meneses seen with CIA operative
Meneses' work was so public, in fact, that he posed for a picture in June 1984 in a kitchen of a San Francisco home with the FDN's political boss, Adolfo Calero, a longtime CIA operative who became the public face of the Contras in the United States.
According to the indictment, Meneses was in the midst of his alleged cocaine conspiracy at the time the picture was taken.
But the indictment was quickly locked away in the vaults of the San Francisco federal courthouse, where it remains today inexplicably secret for more than seven years. Meneses was never arrested.
Reporters found a copy of the secret indictment in Nicaragua, along with a federal arrest warrant issued Feb. 8, 1989. Records show the no-bail warrant was never entered into the national law enforcement database called NCIC, which police use to track down fugitives. The former federal prosecutor who indicted him, Eric Swenson, declined to be interviewed.
After Nicaraguan police arrested Meneses on cocaine charges in Managua in 1991, his judge expressed astonishment that the infamous smuggler went unmolested by American drug agents during his years in the United States.
"How do you explain the fact that Norwin Meneses, implicated since 1974 in the trafficking of drugs . has not been detained in the United States, a country in which he has lived, entered and departed many times since 1974?'' Judge Martha Quezada asked during a pretrial hearing.
"Well, that question needs to be asked to the authorities of the United States,'' replied Roger Mayorga, then chief of Nicaragua's anti-drug agency.
U.S. officials amazed Meneses remained free
His seeming invulnerability amazed American authorities as well.
A Customs agent who investigated Meneses in 1980 before transferring elsewhere said he was reassigned to San Francisco seven years later "and I was sitting in some meetings and here's Meneses' name again. And I can remember thinking, "Holy cow, is this guy still around?'.''
Blandon led an equally charmed life. For at least five years he brokered massive amounts of cocaine to the black gangs of Los Angeles without being arrested. But his luck changed overnight.
On Oct. 27, 1986, agents from the FBI, the IRS, local police and the Los Angeles County sheriff fanned out across Southern California and raided more than a dozen locations connected to Blandon's cocaine operation. Blandon and his wife, along with numerous Nicaraguan associates, were arrested on drug and weapons charges.
The search warrant affidavit reveals that local drug agents knew plenty about Blandon's involvement with cocaine and the CIA's army nearly 10 years ago.
"Danilo Blandon is in charge of a sophisticated cocaine smuggling and distribution organization operating in Southern California,'' L.A. County sheriff's Sgt. Tom Gordon said in the 1986 affidavit. "The monies gained from the sales of cocaine are transported to Florida and laundered through Orlando Murillo, who is a high-ranking officer of a chain of banks in Florida named Government Securities Corporation. From this bank the monies are filtered to the Contra rebels to buy arms in the war in Nicaragua.''
Corporate records show that Murillo -- a Nicaraguan banker and relative of Blandon's wife -- was a vice-president of Government Securities Corporation in Coral Gables, a large brokerage firm that collapsed in 1987 amid allegations of fraud. Murillo did not respond to an interview request.
Despite their intimate knowledge of Blandon's operations, the police raids were a spectacular failure. Every location had been cleaned of anything remotely incriminating. No one was ever prosecuted.
Ron Spear, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, said Blandon somehow knew that he was under police surveillance. Others thought so, too.
"The cops always believed that investigation had been compromised by the CIA,'' Los Angeles federal public defender Barbara O'Connor said in a recent interview. O'Connor knew of the raids because she later defended the raids' leader, Sgt. Gordon, against federal charges of police corruption. Gordon, convicted of tax evasion, declined to be interviewed.
Lawyer suggests aid was at root of problem
FBI records show that soon after the raids, Blandon's defense attorney, Bradley Brunon, called the sheriff's department to suggest that his client's troubles stemmed from a most unlikely source: a recent congressional vote authorizing $100 million in military aid to the CIA's Contra army.
According to a December 1986 FBI Teletype, Brunon told the officers that the "CIA winked at this sort of thing. . (Brunon) indicated that now that U.S. Congress had voted funds for the Nicaraguan Contra movement, U.S. government now appears to be turning against organizations like this.''
That FBI report, part of the files of former Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, was made public only last year, when it was released by the National Archives at the Mercury News' request.
Blandon has also implied that his cocaine sales were, for a time, CIA-approved. He told a San Francisco federal grand jury in 1994 that once the FDN began receiving American taxpayer dollars, the CIA no longer needed his kind of help.
"When Mr. Reagan get in the power, we start receiving a lot of money,'' Blandon testified. "And the people that was in charge, it was the CIA, so they didn't want to raise any (drug) money because they have, they had the money that they wanted.''
"From the government?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall.
"Yes," for the Contra revolution," Blandon said. "So we started -- you know, the ambitious person -- we started doing business by ourselves."
Asked about that, prosecutor Hall said, "I don't know what to tell you. The CIA won't tell me anything."
None of the government agencies known to have been involved with Meneses and Blandon over the years would provide the Mercury News with any information about them.
A Freedom of Information Act request filed with the CIA was denied on national security grounds. FOIA requests filed with the DEA were denied on privacy grounds. Requests filed months ago with the FBI, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have produced nothing so far.
None of the DEA officials known to have worked with the two men would talk to a reporter. Questions submitted to the DEA's public affairs office in Washington were never answered, despite repeated requests.
Blandon's lawyer, Brunon, said in an interview that his client never told him directly that he was selling cocaine for the CIA, but the prominent Los Angeles defense attorney drew his own conclusions from the "atmosphere of CIA and clandestine activities'' that surrounded Blandon and his Nicaraguan friends.
"Was he involved with the CIA? Probably. Was he involved with drugs? Most definitely,'' Brunon said. "Were those two things involved with each other? They've never said that, obviously. They've never admitted that. But I don't know where these guys get these big aircraft . ''
That very topic arose during the sensational 1992 cocaine trafficking trial of Meneses after Meneses was arrested in Nicaragua in connection with a staggering 750-kilo shipment of cocaine. His chief accuser was his friend Enrique Miranda, a relative and former Nicaraguan military intelligence officer who had been Meneses' emissary to the cocaine cartel of Bogota, Colombia. Miranda pleaded guilty to drug charges and agreed to cooperate in exchange for a seven-year sentence.
In a long, handwritten statement he read to Meneses' jury, Miranda revealed the deepest secrets of the Meneses drug ring, earning his old boss a 30-year prison sentence in the process.
"He (Norwin) and his brother Luis Enrique had financed the Contra revolution with the benefits of the cocaine they sold,'' Miranda wrote. "This operation, as Norwin told me, was executed with the collaboration of high-ranking Salvadoran military personnel. They met with officials of the Salvadoran air force, who flew (planes) to Colombia and then left for the U.S., bound for an Air Force base in Texas, as he told me.''
Meneses -- who has close personal and business ties to a Salvadoran air force commander and former CIA agent named Marcos Aguado -- declined to discuss Miranda's statements during an interview at a prison outside Managua in January. He is scheduled to be paroled this summer, after nearly five years in custody.
U.S. General Accounting Office records confirm that El Salvador's air force was supplying the CIA's Nicaraguan guerrillas with aircraft and flight support services throughout the mid-1980s.
Miranda did not name the Air Force base in Texas where the FDN's cocaine was purportedly flown. The same day the Mercury News requested official permission to interview Miranda, he disappeared.
While out on a routine weekend furlough, Miranda failed to return to the Nicaraguan jail where he'd been living since 1992. Though his jailers, who described him as a model prisoner, claimed Miranda had escaped, they didn't call the police until a Mercury News correspondent showed up and discovered he was gone.
He has not been seen in nearly a year.
Shadowy origins of 'crack' epidemic
Part 2 of the 3 part series.
IF THEY'D BEEN IN a more respectable line of work, Norwin Meneses, Danilo Blandon and ''Freeway Rick'' Ross would have been hailed as geniuses of marketing.
This odd trio -- a smuggler, a bureaucrat and a driven ghetto teen-ager -- made fortunes creating the first mass market in America for a product so hellishly desirable that consumers will literally kill to get it: ''crack'' cocaine.
Federal lawmen will tell you plenty about Rick Ross, mostly about the evils he visited upon black neighborhoods by spreading the crack plague in Los Angeles and cities as far east as Cincinnati. On Aug. 23, they hope, Freeway Rick will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But those same officials won't say a word about the two men who turned Rick Ross into L.A's first king of crack, the men who, for at least five years, supplied him with enough Colombian cocaine to help spawn crack markets in major cities nationwide. Their critical role in the country's crack explosion, a Mercury News investigation found, has been a strictly guarded secret -- until now.
To understand how crack came to curse black America, you have to go into the volcanic hills overlooking Managua, the capital of the Republic of Nicaragua.
During June 1979, those hills teemed with triumphant guerrillas called Sandinistas -- Cuban- assisted revolutionaries who had just pulled off one of the biggest military upsets in Central American history. In a bloody civil war, they'd destroyed the U.S.-trained army of Nicaragua's dictator, Anastasio Somoza. The final assault on Somoza's downtown bunker was expected any day.
In the dictator's doomed capital, a minor member of Somoza's government decided to skip the war's obvious ending. On June 19, Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes gathered his wife and young daughter, slipped through the encircling rebels and flew into exile in California.
Blandon, the then 29-year-old son of a wealthy slumlord, left a life of privilege and luxury behind. Educated at the finest private schools in Latin America, he had earned a master's degree in marketing and had become the head of a $27 million program financed by the U.S. government. As Nicaragua's director of wholesale markets, it had been his job to create an American-style agricultural system.
Today, Danilo Blandon is a well-paid and highly trusted operative for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Federal officials say he is one of the DEA's top informants in Latin America, collecting intelligence on Colombian and Mexican drug lords and setting up stings.
In March, he was the DEA's star witness at a drug trial in San Diego, where, for the first time, he testified publicly about his strange interlude between government jobs -- the years he sold cocaine to the street gangs of black Los Angeles.
Dealer says patriotism for Nicaragua was motive
A stocky man with salt-and-pepper hair, a trim mustache and a distinguished bearing, Blandon swore that he didn't plan on becoming a dope dealer when he landed in the United States with $100 in his pocket, seeking political asylum. He did it, he insisted, out of patriotism.
When duty called in late 1981, he was working as a car salesman in East Los Angeles. In his spare time, he said, he and a few fellow exiles were working to rebuild Somoza's defeated army, the Nicaraguan national guard, in hopes of one day returning to Managua in triumph.
Like his friends, Blandon nursed a keen hatred of the Sandinistas, who had confiscated the Blandon family's cattle ranches and sprawling urban slums. His wife's politically prominent family -- the Murillos, whose patriarch was Managua's mayor in the 1960s -- lost its immense fortune as well.
''Because of the horror stories and persecution suffered by his family and countrymen, Blandon said he decided to assist his countrymen in fighting the tyranny of the (Sandinista) regime,'' stated a 1992 report from the U.S. Probation and Parole Department. ''He decided that because he was an adept businessman, he could assist his countrymen through monetary means.''
But the rallies and cocktail parties the exiles hosted raised little money. ''At this point, he became committed to raising money for humanitarian and political reasons via illegal activity (cocaine trafficking for profit),'' said the heavily censored report, which surfaced during the March trial.
That venture began, Blandon testified, with a phone call from a wealthy friend in Miami named Donald Barrios, an old college classmate. Corporate records show Barrios was a business partner of one of the ex-dictator's top military aides: Maj. Gen. Gustavo ''The Tiger'' Medina, a steely eyed counterinsurgency expert and the former supply boss of Somoza's army.
Blandon said his college chum, who also was working in the resistance movement, dispatched him to Los Angeles International Airport to pick up another exile, Juan Norwin Meneses Cantarero. Though their families were related, Blandon said, he'd never met Meneses -- a wiry, excitable man with a bad toupee -- until that day.
''I picked him up, and he started telling me that we had to (raise) some money and to send to Honduras,'' Blandon testified. He said he flew with Meneses to a camp there and met one of his new companion's old friends, Col. Enrique Bermudez.
Bermudez -- who'd been Somoza's Washington liaison to the American military -- was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency in mid-1980 to pull together the remnants of Somoza's vanquished national guard, records show. In August 1981, Bermudez's efforts were unveiled at a news conference as the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN) -- in English, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force. It was the largest and best-organized of the handful of guerrilla groups Americans would know as the Contras.
Bermudez was the FDN's military chief and, according to congressional records and newspaper reports, received regular CIA paychecks for a decade, payments that stopped shortly before his still-unsolved slaying in Managua in 1991.
Reagan's secret order not enough to fund Contras
White House records show that shortly before Blandon's meeting with Bermudez, President Reagan had given the CIA the green light to begin covert paramilitary operations against the Sandinista government. But Reagan's secret Dec. 1, 1981, order permitted the spy agency to spend only $19.9 million on the project, an amount CIA officials acknowledged was not nearly enough to field a credible fighting force.
After meeting with Bermudez, Blandon testified, he and Meneses ''started raising money for the Contra revolution.'' ''There is a saying that the ends justify the means,'' Blandon testified. ''And that's what Mr. Bermudez told us in Honduras, OK?''
While Blandon says Bermudez didn't know cocaine would be the fund-raising device they used, the presence of the mysterious Mr. Meneses strongly suggests otherwise.
Norwin Meneses, known in Nicaraguan newspapers as ''Rey de la Droga'' (King of Drugs), was then under active investigation by the DEA and the FBI for smuggling cocaine into the United States, records show.
And Bermudez was very familiar with the influential Meneses family. He had served under two Meneses brothers, Fermin and Edmundo, who were generals in Somoza's army. Somoza himself spoke at the 1978 funeral of Edmundo Meneses, who was slain by leftists shortly after his appointment as Nicaragua's ambassador to Guatemala, hailing him as an anti-communist martyr.
A violent death -- someone else's -- had also made brother Norwin famous in his homeland. In 1977 he was accused of ordering the assassination of Nicaragua's chief of Customs, who was gunned down in the midst of an investigation into an international stolen car ring allegedly run by Norwin Meneses.
Though the customs boss accused Meneses on his deathbed of hiring his killer, Nicaraguan newspapers reported that the Managua police, then commanded by Edmundo Meneses, cleared Norwin of any involvement.
Despite that incident and a stack of law enforcement reports describing him as a major drug trafficker, Norwin Meneses was welcomed into the United States in July 1979 as a political refugee and given a visa and a work permit. He settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, and for the next six years supervised the importation of thousands of kilos of cocaine into California.
It arrived in all kinds of containers: false-bottomed shoes, Colombian freighters, cars with hidden compartments, luggage from Miami. Once here, it disappeared into a series of houses and nondescript storefront businesses scattered from Hayward to San Jose, Pacifica to Burlingame, Daly City to Oakland.
And, like Blandon, Meneses went to work for the CIA's army.
At the meeting with Bermudez, Meneses said in a recent interview, the Contra commander put him in charge of ''intelligence and security'' for the FDN in California.
''Nobody (from California) would join the Contra forces down there without my knowledge and approval,'' he said proudly. Blandon, he said, was assigned to raise money in Los Angeles.
Blandon testified that Meneses took him back to San Francisco and, over two days, schooled him in the cocaine trade.
Meneses declined to discuss any cocaine dealings he may have had, other than to deny that he ever ''transferred benefits from my business to the FDN. Business is business.''
Lessons over, Blandon said, Meneses gave him two kilograms of cocaine (roughly 4 pounds), the names of two customers and a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
''Meneses was pushing me every week,'' he testified. ''It took me about three months, four months to sell those two keys because I didn't know what to do. . In those days, two keys was too heavy.''
At the time, cocaine was so costly that few besides rock stars and studio executives could afford it. One study of actual cocaine prices paid by DEA agents put it at $5,200 an ounce.
But Blandon wasn't peddling the FDN's cocaine in Beverly Hills or Malibu. To find customers, he and several other Nicaraguan exiles working with him headed for the vast, untapped markets of L.A.'s black ghettos.
Uncanny timing made marketing strategy work
Blandon's marketing strategy, selling the world's most expensive street drug in some of California's poorest neighborhoods, might seem baffling, but in retrospect, his timing was uncanny. He and his compatriots arrived in South-Central L.A. right when street-level drug users were figuring out how to make cocaine affordable: by changing the pricey white powder into powerful little nuggets that could be smoked -- crack.
Crack turned the cocaine world on its head. Cocaine smokers got an explosive high unmatched by 10 times as much snorted powder. And since only a tiny amount was needed for that rush, cocaine no longer had to be sold in large, expensive quantities. Anyone with $20 could get wasted.
It was a ''substance that is tailor-made to addict people,'' Dr. Robert Byck, a Yale University cocaine expert, said during congressional testimony in 1986. ''It is as though (McDonald's founder) Ray Kroc had invented the opium den.''
Crack's Kroc was a disillusioned 19-year-old named Ricky Donnell Ross, who, at the dawn of the 1980s, found himself adrift on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles.
A talented tennis player for Dorsey High School, Ross had recently seen his dream of a college scholarship evaporate when his coach discovered he could neither read nor write.
At the end of tennis season, Ross quit high school and wound up at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, a vocational community college where, ironically, he learned to bind books. But a bookbinding career was the last thing Ross had in mind. L.A. Trade-Tech had a tennis team, and Ross was still hoping his skills with the racquet would get his dreams back on track.
''He was a very good player,'' recalled Pete Brown, his former coach at L.A. Trade-Tech. ''I'd say he was probably my No. 3 guy on the team at the time.''
To pay his bills, however, Ross picked up a different racket: stolen car parts. In late 1979, he was arrested for stealing a car and had to quit the trade while the charges were pending.
'Freeway Rick' hears about popularity of jet-set drug
During this forced hiatus, Ross said, a friend home on Christmas break from San Jose State University told him about the soaring popularity of a jet-set drug called cocaine, which Ross had only vaguely heard about. In the impoverished neighborhoods of South-Central, it was virtually non-existent. Most street cops, in fact, had never seen any because cocaine was then a parlor drug of the wealthy and the trendy.
Ross' friend -- a college football player -- told him ''cocaine was going to be the new thing, that everybody was doing it.'' Intrigued, Ross set off to find out more.
Through a cocaine-using auto upholstery teacher Ross knew, he met a Nicaraguan named Henry Corrales, who began selling Ross and his best friend, Ollie ''Big Loc'' Newell, small amounts of remarkably inexpensive cocaine.
Thanks to a network of friends in South-Central and Compton, including many members of various Crips gangs, Ross and Newell steadily built up clientele. With each sale, Ross reinvested his hefty profits in more cocaine.
Eventually, Corrales introduced Ross and Newell to his supplier, Danilo Blandon. And then business really picked up.
''At first, we was just going to do it until we made $5,000,'' Ross said. ''We made that so fast we said, no, we'll quit when we make $20,000. Then we was going to quit when we saved enough to buy a house . ''
Ross would eventually own millions of dollars' worth of real estate across Southern California, including houses, motels, a theater and several other businesses. (His nickname, ''Freeway Rick,'' came from the fact that he owned properties near the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles.)
Within a year, Ross' drug operation grew to dominate inner-city Los Angeles, and many of the biggest dealers in town were his customers. When crack hit L.A.'s streets hard in late 1983, Ross already had the infrastructure in place to corner a huge chunk of the burgeoning market.
$2 million worth of crack moved in a single day
It was not uncommon, he said, to move $2 million or $3 million worth of crack in one day.
''Our biggest problem had got to be counting the money,'' Ross said. ''We got to the point where it was like, man, we don't want to count no more money.''
Nicaraguan cocaine dealer Jacinto Torres, another former supplier of Ross and a sometime- partner of Blandon, told drug agents in a 1992 interview that after a slow start, ''Blandon's cocaine business dramatically increased. . Norwin Meneses, Blandon's supplier as of 1983 and 1984, routinely flew quantities of 200 to 400 kilograms from Miami to the West Coast.''
Leroy ''Chico'' Brown, an ex-crack dealer from Compton who dealt with Ross, told the Mercury News of visiting one of Ross' five cookhouses, where Blandon's powder was turned into crack, and finding huge steel vats of cocaine bubbling atop restaurant-size gas ranges.
''They were stirring these big pots with those things you use in canoes,'' Brown said with amazement. ''You know -- oars.''
Blandon told the DEA last year that he was selling Ross up to 100 kilos of cocaine a week, which was then ''rocked up'' and distributed ''to the major gangs in the area, specifically the "Crips' and the "Bloods,''' the DEA report said.
At wholesale prices, that's roughly $65 million to $130 million worth of cocaine every year, depending on the going price of a kilo.
"He was one of the main distributors down here," said former Los Angeles Police Department narcotics detective Steve Polak, who was part of the Freeway Rick Task Force, which was set up in 1987 to put Ross out of business. "And his poison, there's no telling how many tens of thousands of people he touched. He's responsible for a major cancer that still hasn't stopped spreading."
But Ross is the first to admit that being in the right place at the right time had almost nothing to do with his amazing success. Other L.A. dealers, he noted, were selling crack long before he started.
What he had, and they didn't, was Danilo Blandon, a friend with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of high-grade cocaine and an expert's knowledge of how to market it.
''I'm not saying I wouldn't have been a dope dealer without Danilo,'' Ross stressed. ''But I wouldn't have been Freeway Rick.''
The secret to his success, Ross said, was Blandon's cocaine prices. ''It was unreal. We were just wiping out everybody.''
That alone, Ross said, allowed him to sew up the Los Angeles market and move on. In city after city, local dealers either bought from Ross or got left behind.
''It didn't make no difference to Rick what anyone else was selling it for. Rick would just go in and undercut him $10,000 a key,'' Chico Brown said. ''Say some dude was selling for 30. Boom -- Rick would go in and sell it for 20. If he was selling for 20, Rick would sell for 10. Sometimes, he be giving (it) away.''
Before long, Blandon was giving Ross hundreds of kilos of cocaine on consignment -- sell now, pay later -- a strategy that dramatically accelerated the expansion of Ross' crack empire, even beyond California's borders.
Ross said he never discovered how Blandon was able to get cocaine so cheaply. ''I just figured he knew the people, you know what I'm saying? He was plugged.''
But Freeway Rick had no idea just how ''plugged'' his erudite cocaine broker was. He didn't know about Norwin Meneses, or the CIA, or the Salvadoran air force planes that allegedly were flying the cocaine into an air base in Texas.
And he wouldn't find out about it for another 10 years.
War on drugs has unequal impact on black Americans
Part 3 of the 3 part series.
FOR THE LAST YEAR and a half, the U.S. Department of Justice has been trying to explain why nearly everyone convicted in California's federal courts of ''crack'' cocaine trafficking is black.
Critics, who include some federal court judges, say it looks like the Justice Department is targeting crack dealers by race, which would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Federal prosecutors, however, say there's a simple, if unpleasant, reason for the lopsided statistics: Most crack dealers are black.
''Socio-economic factors led certain ethnic and racial groups to be particularly involved with the distribution of certain drugs,'' the Justice Department argued in a case in Los Angeles last year, ''and blacks were particularly involved in the Los Angeles area crack trade.''
But why -- of all the ethnic and racial groups in California to pick from -- crack planted its deadly roots in L.A.'s black neighborhoods is something only Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes can say for sure.
Danilo Blandon, a yearlong Mercury News investigation found, is the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California -- the Crips' and Bloods' first direct-connect to the cocaine cartels of Colombia. The tons of cut-rate cocaine he brought into black L.A. during the 1980s and early 1990s became millions of rocks of crack, which spawned new crack markets wherever they landed.
On a tape made by the Drug Enforcement Administration in July 1990, Blandon casually explained the flood of cocaine that coursed through the streets of South-Central Los Angeles during the previous decade.
''These people have been working with me 10 years,'' Blandon said. ''I've sold them about 2,000 or 4,000 (kilos). I don't know. I don't remember how many.''
''It ain't that Japanese guy you were talking about, is it?'' asked DEA informant John Arman, who was wearing a hidden transmitter.
''No, it's not him,'' Blandon insisted. ''These . these are the black people.''
''Yeah,'' Blandon said. ''They control L.A. The people (black cocaine dealers) that control L.A.''
U.S. has paid Blandon more than $166,000
But unlike the thousands of young blacks now serving long federal prison sentences for selling mere handfuls of the drug, Blandon is a free man today. He has a spacious new home in Nicaragua and a business exporting precious woods, courtesy of the U.S. government, which has paid him more than $166,000 over the past 18 months, records show -- for his help in the war on drugs.
That turn of events both amuses and angers ''Freeway Rick'' Ross, L.A.'s premier crack wholesaler during much of the 1980s and Danilo Blandon's biggest customer.
''They say I sold dope everywhere but, man, I know he done sold 10 times more dope than me,'' Ross said with a laugh during a recent interview.
Nothing epitomizes the drug war's uneven impact on black Americans more clearly than the intertwined lives of Ricky Donnell Ross, a high school dropout, and his suave cocaine supplier, Danilo Blandon, who has a master's degree in marketing and was one of the top civilian leaders in California of an anti-communist guerrilla army formed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Called the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN), it became known to most Americans as the Contras.
In recent court testimony, Blandon, who began dealing cocaine in South-Central L.A. in 1982, swore that the first kilo of cocaine he sold in California was to raise money for the CIA's army, which was trying on a shoestring to unseat Nicaragua's new socialist Sandinista government.
After Blandon crossed paths with Ross, a South-Central teen-ager who had the gang connections and street smarts necessary to move the army's cocaine, a veritable blizzard engulfed the ghettos.
Former Los Angeles Police narcotics detective Stephen W. Polak said he was working the streets of South-Central in the mid-1980s when he and his partners began seeing more cocaine than ever before.
''A lot of detectives, a lot of cops, were saying, hey, these blacks, no longer are we just seeing gram dealers. These guys are doing ounces they were doing keys,'' Polak recalled. But he said the reports were pooh-poohed by higher-ups who couldn't believe black neighborhoods could afford the amount of cocaine the street cops claimed to be seeing.
''Major Violators (the LAPD's elite anti-drug unit) was saying, basically, ahh, South-Central, how much could they be dealing?'' said Polak, a 21-year LAPD veteran. ''Well, they (black dealers) went virtually untouched for a long time.''
It wasn't until January 1987 -- when crack markets were popping up in major cities all over the U.S. -- that law enforcement brass decided to confront L.A.'s crack problem head-on. They formed the Freeway Rick Task Force, a cadre of veteran drug agents whose sole mission was to put Rick Ross out of business. Polak was a charter member.
''We just dedicated seven days a week to him. We were just on him at every move,'' Polak said.
Ross, as usual, was quick to spot a trend. He moved to Cincinnati and quietly settled into a home in the woodsy Republican suburbs on the east side of town.
''I called it cooling out, trying to back away from the game,'' Ross said. ''I had enough money.''
His longtime supplier, Blandon, reached an identical conclusion around the same time. A massive police raid on his cocaine operation in late 1986 nearly gave his wife a nervous breakdown, he testified recently, and by the summer of 1987 he was safely ensconced in Miami, with $1.6 million in cash.
Some of his drug profits, records show, were invested in a string of rental car and export businesses in Miami, often in partnership with an exiled Nicaraguan judge named Jose Macario Estrada. Like Blandon, the judge also worked for the CIA's army, helping FDN soldiers and their families obtain visas and work papers in the United States. Estrada said he knew nothing of Blandon's drug dealings at the time.
Blandon invested in four-star steak house
Blandon also bought into a swank steak-and-lobster restaurant called La Parrilla, which became a popular hangout for FDN leaders and supporters. The Miami Herald called it the ''best Nicaraguan restaurant in Dade County'' and gave it a four-star rating, its highest.
But neither Ross nor Blandon stayed ''retired'' for long.
A manic deal-maker, Ross found Cincinnati's virgin crack market too seductive to ignore. When he left Los Angeles, the price of a kilo was around $12,000. In the Queen City, Ross chuckled, ''keys was selling for $50,000. It was like when I first started.''
Plunging back in, the crack tycoon cornered the Cincinnati market using the same low-price, high-volume strategy -- and the same Nicaraguan drug connections -- he'd used in L.A. Soon, he was selling crack as far away as Cleveland, Indianapolis, Dayton and St. Louis.
''There's no doubt in my mind crack in Cincinnati can be traced to Ross,'' police officer Robert Enoch told a Cincinnati newspaper three years ago.
But Ross' reign in the Midwest was short-lived. In 1988, one of his loads ran into a drug-sniffing dog at a New Mexico bus station and drug agents eventually connected it to Ross. He pleaded guilty to crack trafficking charges and received a mandatory 10-year prison sentence, which he began serving in 1990.
In sunny Miami, Blandon's retirement plans also had gone awry. His 24-city rental car business collapsed in 1989 and later went into bankruptcy. To make money, he testified, he came to the Bay Area and began brokering cocaine again, buying and selling from the same Nicaraguan dealers he'd known from his days with the FDN. In 1990 and 1991, he testified, he sold about 425 kilos of cocaine in Northern California -- $10.5 million worth at wholesale prices.
But unlike before, when he was selling cocaine for the Contras, Blandon was constantly dogged by the police.
Twice in six months he was detained, first by Customs agents while taking $117,000 in money orders to Tijuana to pay a supplier, and then by the LAPD in the act of paying one of his Colombian suppliers more than $350,000.
The second time, after police found $14,000 in cash and a small quantity of cocaine in his pocket, he was arrested. But the U.S. Justice Department -- saying a prosecution would disrupt an active investigation -- persuaded the cops to drop their money laundering case.
Soon after that, Blandon and his wife, Chepita, were called down to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service office in San Diego on a pretense and scooped up by DEA agents, on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. They were jailed without bond as dangers to the community and several other Nicaraguans were also arrested.
Blandon's prosecutor, L.J. O'Neale, told a federal judge that Blandon had sold so much cocaine in the United States his mandatory prison sentence was ''off the scale.''
Then Blandon ''just vanished,'' said Juanita Brooks, a San Diego attorney who represented one of Blandon's co-defendants. ''All of a sudden his wife was out of jail and he was out of the case.''
The reasons were contained in a secret Justice Department memorandum filed in San Diego federal court in late 1993.
Prosecutor found Blandon 'extraordinarily valuable'
Blandon, prosecutor O'Neale wrote, had become ''extraordinarily valuable in major DEA investigations of Class I drug traffickers.'' And even though probation officers were recommending a life sentence and a $4 million fine, O'Neale said the government would be satisfied if Blandon got 48 months and no fine. Motion granted.
Less than a year later, records show, O'Neale was back with another idea: Why not just let Blandon go? After all, he wrote the judge, Blandon had a federal job waiting.
O'Neale, saying that Blandon ''has almost unlimited potential to assist the United States,'' said the government wanted ''to enlist Mr. Blandon as a full-time, paid informant after his release from prison.''
And since it would be hard to do that job with parole officers snooping around, O'Neale added, the government wanted him turned loose without any supervision. Motion granted. O'Neale declined to comment.
After only 28 months in custody, most of it spent with federal agents who debriefed him for ''hundreds of hours,'' he said, Blandon walked out of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, was given a green card and began working on his first assignment: setting up his old friend ''Freeway Rick'' for a sting operation.
Targeted for a sting while sitting in prison
Records show Ross was still behind bars, awaiting parole, when San Diego DEA agents targeted him for a ''reverse'' sting -- one in which government agents provide the drugs and the target provides the cash. The sting's author, DEA agent Chuck Jones, has testified that he had no evidence Ross was dealing drugs from his prison cell, where he'd spent the past four years.
But during his incarceration Ross did something that, in the end, may have been even more foolhardy: He testified against Los Angeles police officers, as a witness for the U.S. government.
Soon after Ross went to prison for the Cincinnati bust, federal prosecutors from Los Angeles came to see him, dangling a tantalizing offer. A massive scandal was sweeping the L.A. County sheriff's elite narcotics squads, and among the dozens of detectives fired or indicted for allegedly beating suspects, stealing drug money and planting evidence were members of the old Freeway Rick Task Force.
If Ross would testify about his experiences, he was told, it could help him get out of jail.
In 1991, he took the stand against his old nemesis, LAPD detective Steve Polak, who eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of excessive use of force and retired. But the deal Ross got from federal prosecutors for testifying -- five years off his sentence and an agreement that his remaining drug profits would not be seized -- galled many.
''Ross will fall again someday,'' Polak bitterly told a Los Angeles Times reporter in late 1994.
By then, the trip wires were already strung.
Within days of Ross' parole in October 1994, he and Blandon were back in touch and their conversation quickly turned to cocaine. It was almost like old times, except that Ross was now hauling trash for a living. He was also behind on his mortgage payments for an old theater he owned in South-Central, which he was trying to turn into a youth academy.
According to tapes Blandon made of some of their discussions, Ross repeatedly told Blandon that he was broke and couldn't afford to finance a drug deal. But Ross did agree to help his old mentor, who was also pleading poverty, find someone else to buy the 100 kilos of cocaine Blandon claimed he had.
Drug-laden vehicle was a trap for Ross
On March 2, 1995, in a shopping center parking lot in National City, near San Diego, Ross poked his head inside a cocaine-laden Chevy Blazer and the place exploded with police.
Ross jumped into a friend's pickup and zoomed off ''looking for a wall that I could crash myself into,'' he said. ''I just wanted to die.'' He was captured after the truck careened into a hedgerow and has been held in jail without bond since then.
Ross' arrest netted Blandon $45,500 in government rewards and expenses, records show. On the strength of Blandon's testimony, Ross and two other men were convicted of cocaine conspiracy charges in San Diego last March -- conspiring to sell the DEA's cocaine. Sentencing is set for Aug. 23. Ross is facing a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The other men are looking at 10- to 20- year sentences.
The Gary Webb Story: Still Killing the Messenger
Few things are better at getting the word out about a past injustice than a Hollywood movie and Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner and directed by Michael Cuesta does so with depth and drama. For the first time the true story about the courageous investigative journalist, Gary Webb, is being told in movie theaters across the country where people can draw their own conclusions unhindered by the noise and static of establishment naysayers in the corporate media.
This powerful film uses an "entertainment" format to assess the compelling evidence that people tied to the Nicaraguan Contras, who President Ronald Reagan called "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers," were involved in bringing cocaine back to the United States at the dawn of the crack epidemic.
Writing for the San Jose Mercury-News, Gary Webb had traveled repeatedly to Central America and uncovered what appeared to be the story of the decade: people associated with a U.S.-backed mercenary army had become international drug traffickers. If "agents" or "assets" of the Central Intelligence Agency's war against Nicaragua were implicated, even indirectly, in importing one gram of cocaine to America's cities that should have set off alarm bells in the journalistic community and possibly won a Pulitzer Prize for Webb.
Instead, the mainstream press went after Webb in a coordinated smear campaign that ignored the potential abuses he had uncovered and effectively allied itself with the Contras. "Journalists" and editors from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, essentially toed the line of right-wing rags like the Washington Times by citing unnamed sources from the CIA and national security establishment to burnish the image of the Contras and their taskmasters.
Despite a mountain of evidence from witness accounts, law enforcement and court records, a Senate subcommittee inquiry, Oliver North's notebooks, congressional testimony, and even the CIA's own internal review that backs up Webb's original reporting, these mainstream hacks found that the best way to defend the CIA was to sully their colleague Webb.
Webb wasn't working in a vacuum. Robert Parry and Brian Barger exposed the Contra cocaine connection for the Associated Press in 1985. Congressional testimony from Oliver North's liaison to the Contras, Robert Owen, during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings also confirmed the link.
After the attacks on Webb reached a fever pitch, the editors of the San Jose Mercury- News chose not to run his follow-up articles that backed up what he had originally wrote, while publicly pretending to be unaware of Webb's additional evidence. Webb found himself in a situation that no journalist ever should be in. His own editors at the San Jose Mercury-News not only abandoned him but painted a big target on his back after first forcing him to cut his original story down and insisted he sex it up to highlight some of its more sensational findings. Webb later wrote that his preference always had been a methodical and revelatory series that enabled the facts to speak for themselves. He also wanted to run his own brief response to the Mercury's retraction of his story but was denied even that professional courtesy. (Dark Alliance, p. 460-461)
The New York Times had not even mentioned Webb's story when it was first published but ran the retraction by the editor of the Mercury on its front page accompanied by an editorial praising the Mercury for bravely dealing with "egregious errors" from one of its reporters. (p. 462) (The Mercury, which was my hometown paper, has since been reduced to a stripped down newsletter and a joke.)
No one had a better understanding about what was really happening than Webb himself. His detractors among mainstream journalists, he later wrote, had U.S. "officials whispering in their ears" and were dutifully reporting "there was no evidence the CIA knew anything about the dealings of Danilo Blandon, Norwin Meneses, or Freeway Ricky Ross" -- a few of the individuals Webb had uncovered as being involved in drug trafficking. "I tried to imagine," Webb writes, "what the reaction would have been had those same reporters gone to their editors with unnamed sources citing unobtainable reports claiming the CIA was involved in drug trafficking. Journalistic standards can be wonderfully flexible when necessary." (p. 467)
"Freedom Fighters" or Terrorists?
CIA Director William Casey had filled the ranks of the Contras with fighters from Anastasio Somoza's notoriously brutal National Guard. In the name of fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Managua, these remnants of the Somoza regime waged a terrorist war against the government and people of Nicaragua that lasted over a decade. It's not surprising that privatized "cut-outs" working for the CIA, such as Southern Air Transport, which held "national security" clearances to fly in and out of the United States without going through normal customs, would want to fill their planes with something lucrative after secretly delivering arms to the Contras rather than "deadhead" their planes back to the States.
The ever present need for cash to sustain the Contra effort, given the unreliable funding for the operation coming from Congress (with the Boland Amendments banning aid in 1984 and 1985), meant the people behind the effort were always seeking new revenue streams. Indeed, the "Contra" part of the "Iran-Contra Scandal" (selling arms to Ayatollah Khomeini and using the profits to arm the Contras) shows the extent to which the Reagan White House would go to get money for their pet project. The Iran-Contra hearings exposed "the Enterprise" run by retired Air Force Major General Richard Secord and Iranian businessman and CIA "asset," Albert Hakim, who were enriching themselves on both ends of the arms transactions.
In the 1980s, the human rights abuses of the Contras were well known. They were responsible for all manner of documented atrocities against innocent Nicaraguans including murder, rape, and acts of terror targeting public schools and clinics. They routinely executed prisoners and even killed an American aid worker, Benjamin Linder. The CIA provided them with sabotage manuals that read like a "how-to" book on terrorism. And after all the U.S.-sponsored shedding of innocent blood in Nicaragua the CIA now concedes that arming rebels like the Contras doesn't even fucking work. Drug dealing would constitute one of their lesser crimes. Yet despite the Contras' tarnished reputation Walter Pincus of the Washington Post and other shills for the national security state chose to attack Gary Webb instead of doing their jobs.
Maybe Gary Webb Was On To Something
With the invention in 1985 of "crack" cocaine, which is pharmacologically identical to the powder variety but can be packaged and sold in small quantities suitable for smoking, people living in economically impoverished urban neighborhoods had access to the drug as never before. Crack became an inner city currency as well as a business outlet for thousands of small-time dealers in depressed areas. Crack transformed entire neighborhoods and its sales and distribution gave an enormous boost to gang activity. It also became the single largest contributor to the spike in the incarceration rate of young African-American men.
Over the course of a single year, (from October 1988 to October 1989), the Washington Post published 1,565 stories covering various aspects of the crack crisis, which later prompted the paper's ombudsman to admit that the paper had lost "a proper sense of perspective." Newsweek and Time magazines published three cover stories on crack. In June 1986, Newsweek declared crack to be the biggest story since Watergate. And in August 1986, Time deemed crack "the issue of the year."
In this context of lurid descriptions about crack cocaine the House of Representatives passed a bill that appropriated $2 billion to fight drugs. The Senate strengthened the law to make it even harsher and it was signed into law as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Among its provisions it unleashed the U.S. military in narcotics control operations, enacted capital punishment for some drug-related crimes, loosened the evidentiary requirements in drug trials, and imposed mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine. The act imposed more severe penalties for selling crack than it did for powder cocaine, which set sentencing guidelines that were racially discriminatory.
In December 1988, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who chaired a subcommittee on "Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations," released a report that cites fifteen of Oliver North's notebook entries that confirm his suspicions that people connected to the Contras were engaged in drug trafficking. In the report there is an appendix titled "Narcotics and the North Notebooks," wherein North's own entries point to evidence that some of the planes used to re-supply the Contras also carried drugs, and that some of the money generated from drug transactions was being funneled back into the operation.
North's notebooks also revealed a secret meeting he had in London on September 22, 1986 with the Panamanian leader, General Manuel Noriega. North aimed to enlist Noriega's help in financing the Contras and reported back to national security adviser John Poindexter Noriega's willingness to do so. Noriega soon became arguably the most famous drug dealer on earth.
According to Webb's 1998 book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, his original reporting mentioned the CIA only "in passing." Webb writes: "I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague. Indeed, the more I learned about the agency, the more certain of that I became." (p. 438)
Neither did Webb intend to become the focal point of the story but simply wanted to do his job as an investigative reporter:
"In mid-April I finished the first drafts and sent them up to my editors, with no clue as to how they would be received. They were like nothing I had ever written before, and probably unlike anything my editors had ever grappled with either: a tale spanning more than a decade, that attempted to show how two of the defining issues of the 1980s--the Contra war and the crack explosion, seemingly unconnected social phenomena--were actually intertwined, thanks largely to government meddling." (p. 438)
Webb suffered the wrath of his mainstream colleagues in part because he successfully linked two of the biggest stories of the era:
"That the Contras' cocaine ended up being turned into crack was a horrible accident of history, I believed, not someone's evil plan. The Contras just happened to pick the worst possible time ever to begin peddling cheap cocaine in black neighborhoods. That, I believed, was the real danger the CIA has always presented--unbridled criminal stupidity, cloaked in a blanket of national security." (p. 438)
Epic Press Failures/Lessons Unlearned
Shilling for the interests of foreign-policy elites on the part of the U.S. mainstream press, if anything, has gotten worse today than it was during the time the newspapers ganged up on Gary Webb. In the decades since we've seen the same establishment press uncritically promote the CIA's bogus claims that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons. This same press corps greeted as "old news" the exposure of the stunning July 23, 2002 "Downing Street Memo," which is the smoking gun proving that the Bush Administration had chosen to lie the country into war. More recently, the press has failed miserably in its reportage of the true nature of the conflict between the Kiev government in Ukraine and the Russia Federation.
Given Webb's unapologetic defense of his reporting and clear-eyed view of the CIA, it's not unexpected that a host of mainstream "journalists" who owed their careers to kissing the asses of foreign policy elites and U.S. intelligence officials would pile on against him.
Recently, the CIA has been caught red-handed spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee, thereby becoming a fourth branch of government in an egregious violation of the divisions of powers. And the public has not been able to see even a redacted version of the internal report on the CIA's use of torture during the Bush years.
In 2002-03, "journalists" like the New York Times' Michael Gordon and Judith Miller proved themselves to be duplicitous tools for amplifying every lie about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that leapt from the imaginations of unnamed officials inside the George W. Bush administration. Miller ended up at Fox News where she belongs but Gordon continues to cite unnamed sources in his stories. In a September 2014 article covering a U.S. delegation's visit to Moscow, Gordon cites repeatedly unnamed "American officials" and "Western experts."
The New York Times' Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, recently sought praise for her launch of "AnonyWatch," which she explains is "intended to draw attention to the gratuitous use of unnamed sources." (New York Times, 10/19/14 p. 12) But Sullivan's example is a local piece about a Brooklyn teacher who was accused of sexually abusing students. Her choice leaves readers to wonder about the far more important abuse of unnamed official sources that occurs almost daily in the Times with reporters like Michael Gordon routinely quoting unidentified intelligence and defense officials who have a stake in spinning stories to serve unstated policy ends.
It's clear that the nation's mainstream press has learned nothing from the Gary Webb inquisition or the Iraq WMD fabrications. Stenographers just keep on going, like Jeff Leen at the Washington Post, circling the wagons around their official sources and ensuring that whatever the Pentagon or CIA wants printed is dutifully recorded and disseminated.
The simple fact is this: Gary Webb got the story right and his detractors among journalists did grave harm to their own profession. The editors of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times revealed themselves not only to be Establishment mouthpieces, but also "team players." If you have a chance to see Kill the Messenger it might be helpful to keep this history in mind, and to draw your own conclusions without relying on the new gang of self-promoters who are writing at this moment retread articles trashing a person who was a thousand times the journalist any of them could ever be.
WRITTEN IN PAIN
He typed out four lengthy suicide notes and put them in the mail to family members. He placed his prearranged cremation certificate and Social Security card on the kitchen counter of his suburban Sacramento home. He put the keys to his cars and motorcycles in an envelope addressed to his oldest son.
All his belongings -- among them numerous awards from his years as an investigative reporter -- were packed and neatly stacked in boxes in a corner of his living room. He left a note on the door. “Please do not enter. Call 911 for assistance. Thank you.”
Then, sometime during the evening of Dec. 9, Webb, age 49, went into his bedroom. He put his driver’s license on the bed next to him and placed an old .38-caliber revolver near his right ear.
When he pulled the trigger, the bullet sliced down through his face, exiting at his left cheek, a non-fatal wound. He pulled the trigger again. The second shot, coroner’s investigators believe, nicked an artery.
His body was found the following day.
For weeks after, Internet bloggers buzzed with the news of Webb’s death. Perhaps Webb -- a controversial figure in American journalism -- was murdered. Some saw reason to suspect a plot by the U.S. government the former San Jose Mercury News reporter gained folk hero status among left-wing conspiracy theorists for writing scathingly about the CIA nine years ago.
Suddenly, the journalist known for unearthing incredible stories had become one.
Two Hollywood agents called Webb’s family to ask about the movie rights. A television station in France sent a crew to file a report. Esquire magazine ran a tribute article.
Inundated with inquiries, Sacramento County coroner’s deputies spent weeks investigating Webb’s death and concluded that his wounds were self-inflicted. (They plan to release their final autopsy results later this month.)
Webb’s suicide has left friends and loved ones trying to sort through tangled feelings about a man who was known not so much for the triumphs of a high-impact journalism career as for what he is accused of getting wrong.
In 1996, Webb produced a series of stories for the San Jose Mercury News that suggested the CIA was involved in the nation’s crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s as a means of helping Nicaraguan drug dealers funnel money to the Contras. His premise that the government knew about and even encouraged the drug sales -- with South Los Angeles as ground zero -- sparked outrage, especially among members of the African American community.
Government agencies and the media, most notably the Los Angeles Times, launched their own investigations into Webb’s report. Resoundingly -- and some believed venomously -- they dismissed Webb’s thesis. Later, his bosses at the Mercury News all but disavowed the piece, with a front-page editor’s note stating that the series had largely overstated its provocative findings. Eventually, Webb was forced to resign.
As the CIA story began to unravel, so did Webb’s life, sending him down a self-destructive path. While many of his supporters believe that the mainstream media’s condemnation was largely to blame for the journalist’s demise, those closest to him say Webb’s downward spiral is far more complicated.
For more than a decade, the journalist struggled with clinical depression, sometimes so profound that he sought solace in reckless and dangerous behavior. He crashed cars and motorcycles, he had illicit affairs and he took journalistic risks -- beyond what his research could support -- in his stories. (He was sued for libel four times, two of the suits resulting in settlements.)
On the surface, Webb seemed confident and determined. Admired and even idolized by some of his colleagues who later abandoned him, he could dig up any public document, a talent that helped him win more than 30 journalism awards and earned him a national reputation as a dogged investigative reporter.
However, his cocky street-smart style concealed a core sadness that few ever saw.
“By the end of his life he was just in a lot of pain,” said Webb’s ex-wife, Susan Bell. “He was sleeping more, he hated to get up in the morning, he started having a lot of motorcycle accidents.
“I kept saying, ‘Gary has a death wish.’ ”
Isolated yet scared of being alone, Webb tried a cocktail of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, prescribed by a doctor. He took Prozac for a while. He mixed Lexapro with Klonopin. He gave up the medications altogether last spring, after complaining to his close friends that they made him feel worse.
With his ego dependent on his job, Webb needed a good story to lift his mood. But after the CIA scandal, no major newspaper would hire him.
He learned a hard lesson: There is no regulatory agency overseeing American journalism, no hearing committee or moderator to sort out disputes. Historically, and without any formal coordination, the profession polices itself, largely because a reporter’s reputation rests on his credibility. Discredited, Webb was ostracized and there was no court of appeal.
Alone, in debt and on the verge of losing his house, Webb told family members in his suicide notes that he was done.
“He told us if he couldn’t write, then what was the sense of going on,” Bell said. “He had just given up.”
Since he was in grade school in North Carolina, Gary Webb wanted to be a newspaper reporter. The son of a career Marine sergeant who constantly moved his family, Webb became an avid reader with an interest in government. Coming of age during Vietnam, he believed reporters were duty-bound to act as watchdogs.
In high school in Indianapolis, he joined the newspaper. It wasn’t long before he caused a stir. He wrote an editorial criticizing the drill team for dressing up in military uniforms and twirling rifles and battle flags at halftime during the football games to show their support for the troops in Vietnam.
“I thought it was one of the silliest things I’d ever seen,” Webb later told an audience during a speech in Eugene, Ore., in 1999. The next day at school, the newspaper advisor told Webb to apologize for what he wrote. He refused. Fifteen members of the drill team showed up at the newspaper office.
“They all went around one by one telling me what a scumbag I was, what a terrible guy I was, and how I’d ruined their dates, ruined their complexions, and all sorts of things,” he told the audience, eliciting laughter. “And at that moment I decided, ‘Man, this is what I want to do for a living.’ ”
After finishing high school, he went to Indiana University on a journalism scholarship. He was there about a year before he transferred to Northern Kentucky University, joining the staff of the college paper.
Webb looked like the ultimate 1970s dude, his sandy blond hair cut and feathered into a shag, a style he wore long after it was outdated. He loved horror movies, motorcycles, hockey -- anything for a thrill.
Cigarette dangling from his mouth, Webb could rebuild a car engine, put down a hardwood floor and argue politics with equal passion. Once, wielding a.22-caliber rifle, he chased down a man who tried to break into his Triumph sports car outside his house in Covington, Ky. He fired off a shot, grazing the man’s buttocks as he tried to escape.
His reporting style was equally brazen. Strong-willed and stubborn, Webb relished the idea of being an investigative reporter, one of the fighter pilots of the journalism world. The “I teams” are among the last bastions of male dominance in American newspapers, and Webb enjoyed his place in the elite fraternity of characters known for their macho swagger.
Working as an investigative reporter at small and medium-sized papers, Webb could be the star -- and the editor’s nightmare.
“He wasn’t exactly the kind of person who was crippled with a whole lot of self-doubt,” said Tom Loftus, a friend and former colleague from the Kentucky Post. “I don’t think I would want to engage in a debate over the veracity and solidness of a story with Gary Webb unless you had done your homework.”
If allowed, Webb would infuse his stories with over-the-top language, such as referring to the Contras as “the CIA’s army” in his controversial Mercury News series. Cutting the rhetoric meant a fight.
“All his research was meticulous, but when it came to writing he pushed the envelope,” said Mary Ann Sharkey, who edited Webb early in his career. “I would always find myself deleting adjectives and adverbs. We had quite a few jousts.”
Occasionally, however, Webb offered a glimpse of his softer side: He kept a box of mementos -- his baby shoes, sand from Hawaii, homemade Christmas ornaments. And he married his high school sweetheart.
“His mom used to tell me that I was the only one who could put up with him,” said Bell. “But he had a great sense of humor. He was intelligent and intriguing. He knew a lot about everything.
Webb was well on his way to getting a degree in journalism when crisis struck. His parents divorced and his mother needed money. With his college newspaper clips in hand, he walked into the editor’s office at the Kentucky Post and asked for a job. The editor, a cantankerous man who liked to call his staff late at night to tell them their stories were awful, took a chance and hired him.
One of his duties included stopping by the police stations and the courthouses to pick up reports and check filings. His curiosity was piqued one day by a police report he discovered. On the surface it seemed like just another homicide: The owner of an adult video store was found dead. Webb dug for months and was able to write an investigative piece that linked the man’s death to organized crime in Kentucky’s coal industry.
Hooked, Webb decided to focus his career on uncovering the misdeeds of the powerful. He went to work for the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s capital bureau in Columbus.
“I well remember coming into the bureau in the mid-morning and stopping by Gary’s office to find him there,” said Sharkey, former statehouse bureau chief for the Plain Dealer. “He had been there all night poring over some arcane records, whether telephone printouts or state leases or whatever document might be the smoking one.”
With the high-profile stories came problems. Webb was sued four times for libel during his stints in Kentucky and Ohio. The first suit, against the Kentucky Post, was dismissed, as was a subsequent suit against the Plain Dealer.
The Ohio paper later settled two additional lawsuits, for undisclosed sums.
One of the suits was filed by a former chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, who claimed that Webb’s story -- “Mob-Linked Groups Donate to Chief Justice” -- cost him his reelection. Another case involved two Cleveland Grand Prix promoters, who sued the paper after Webb wrote a story claiming that the promoters took auto-race money that should have gone to charity and to the city. A jury sided with the promoters, awarding them $13.6 million. The paper appealed the decision and eventually settled out of court.
Webb maintained that the stories were backed up by public documents. He was hurt and angry that the paper decided to settle, Sharkey said.
She said he soon came to see legal problems as part of the job. Certainly, the libel allegations did not impede his career. Reporters from all over the country started to call Webb for tips on how to dig up documents and investigate public officials. He was happy to help.
“He was very generous with people, especially young reporters,” Sharkey said.
In 1988, the editors at the Mercury News phoned. The paper wanted to establish a stronger investigative presence. Webb seemed like the perfect fit.
Webb was interested in working for the Mercury News, but he had some conditions. He and his wife did not want to live in San Jose because they thought it was too expensive. He asked if he could work in the paper’s Sacramento bureau instead, and the editors agreed.
“From his clips, he looked like he had tremendous potential,” said Scott Herhold, one of the editors who interviewed Webb. “When he was passionate about a story, he was willing to do the things that we go into journalism for -- to look power in the face and question it.”
Webb’s early years at the paper included an impressive run of stories, though not without controversy. He was part of a large group of reporters and editors that won the Pulitzer in 1990 for spot-news coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake. He irked his colleagues when he started referring to himself as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, leading some people to believe that the award went solely to him.
“For Gary to do that smacked of self-aggrandizement,” Herhold said.
He also caused a stir when he wrote a series of stories that blamed Tandem Computers Inc. for failures in a program to modernize a computer system at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. After Tandem complained, the paper assigned a second reporter to look into the matter. The reporter concluded, in a memo to senior editors, that Webb’s series was “in all its major elements, incorrect.”
The paper ran two corrections, and Tandem -- which later was cleared by a state audit -- bought a full-page advertisement attacking the stories and Webb.
But there were other stories that Webb nailed. For example, he wrote a series of stories about police in California taking people’s property under the guise of cracking down on drug traffickers. The state Legislature ended up abolishing the program.
“In his prime, he was the most fearless reporter I’d ever met,” remembers Los Angeles Times reporter Ralph Frammolino, who became friends with Webb while working in Sacramento.
With a nice house, young children -- two sons and a daughter -- and an attractive wife, Webb seemed to have everything going for him. Privately, Webb was struggling. In 1991, a doctor confirmed what he and his wife already suspected: He was clinically depressed.
Bell said she worried about her husband but knew that when he found a good story he would perk up. High-stakes journalism was Webb’s most effective antidepressant.
“Hot stories always pulled him out of it,” Bell said. “When he was writing and into a good story, that was always his best time.”
Then in July 1995 came the tip that led Webb to the biggest story of his career.
It started with a phone message, written on a palm-sized piece of pink paper and placed on the edge of Webb’s desk. A woman Webb had never heard of wanted to talk to him. She left her name and number, but no other information. Intrigued, Webb phoned back.
The woman was the girlfriend of an accused cocaine dealer. She said one of the government witnesses testifying against her boyfriend used to work for the CIA selling drugs, “tons of it.”
Webb was skeptical at first. “In 17 years of investigative reporting, I had ended up doubting the credibility of every person who ever called me with a tip about the CIA,” he would later write in a lengthy account of the conversation in his 1998 book, “Dark Alliance.”
He quizzed her: “You say you can document this?” She responded: “Absolutely.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Webb spent hundreds of hours combing through documents, interviewing dozens of sources and making trips to Central America.
In August 1996, Webb alleged in a 20,000-word Mercury News series that a Contra-connected drug gang helped fuel America’s crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s by bringing in large supplies of Colombian cocaine and selling it to black street gangs in Los Angeles, with the knowledge and protection of the CIA.
Webb’s allegation that the CIA-supported Contra army cooperated with drug traffickers was already well known. A congressional subcommittee headed by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) issued a 437-page report in 1989, concluding that the Reagan administration had “delayed, halted or interfered” with anti-drug investigations when they conflicted with its effort to help the Contras.
But Webb’s series included three new, and explosive, charges: that a CIA-related drug ring sent “millions” of dollars to the Contras that it launched an epidemic in the 1980s of cocaine use in South Los Angeles and America’s other inner cities and that the CIA either approved the scheme or deliberately turned a blind eye.
Crack cocaine -- a cheap but highly addictive street drug -- wreaked havoc in poor neighborhoods throughout the United States. African Americans were hit especially hard. The reaction to Webb’s series was immediate and emotionally charged.
The CIA assigned a special investigator to probe the matter. Congress called for hearings. The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and New York Times launched their own investigations. One by one, they picked apart Webb and his series.
“The available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support” Webb’s allegations, was the conclusion of the Los Angeles Times’ probe, conducted by a team of two dozen reporters, including Webb’s friend Frammolino.
“Reporting by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times produced no clear evidence of any direct line between the drug dealers and the CIA,” the New York Times noted in a follow-up story.
In May 1997, Jerry Ceppos, then editor of the Mercury News, published a stunning rebuke of the series. “We did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the [crack-Contra] relationship,” he wrote. He added: “I believe that we fell short at every step in our process -- in the writing, editing and production of our work.”
Almost as a postscript, the CIA concluded a 17-month investigation in 1998, stating that it found no evidence that the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan rebels of the 1980s received significant financial support from drug traffickers.
Webb, who strongly believed his reporting was accurate, told friends that he felt as if he had been abandoned. Some of his colleagues blamed Webb’s bosses for not editing the series more carefully.
“Gary’s flaws were big ones, just as his talents were big ones,” said Herhold. “All along, he needed a strong editor.”
(When reached by phone recently, Ceppos declined to comment.)
The alternative press, which embraced Webb as a hero, blamed the major media, especially the Los Angeles Times, for vilifying him.
“Gary Webb’s work deserved to be taken seriously and to be closely scrutinized precisely because of the scope of the allegations,” Marc Cooper wrote recently in his weekly column for the LA Weekly. “As more-objective critics than The Times have pointed out, Webb overstated some of his conclusions, he too loosely framed some of his theses, and perhaps (perhaps) overestimated the actual amount of drug funding that fueled the Contra war. And for that he deserved to be criticized.
“The core of his work, however, still stands.”
Webb reacted to the heavy criticism by going on radio and television, defending the series. And he continued to do so for the rest of his life. He blamed his editors for cutting important information that backed up his claims.
“The problem is the series was a lot shorter than when I wrote it,” he told one interviewer in 1997. “But as far as what actually appeared in the paper, it’s accurate, it’s truthful and we can substantiate every word of it.”
After the CIA scandal, Webb was transferred from his prestigious investigative job in Sacramento and unceremoniously placed in one of the paper’s suburban bureaus. Webb complained loudly. His editors urged him to quit. His colleagues gossiped and joked about him behind his back.
“I wish he had never gotten that call I wish he would have never gotten that tip,” said Bell, who recalled that Webb carried his resignation letter around with him for two weeks. After he turned it in, he told his wife that he felt like he had just signed his death warrant.
After he left the Mercury News, Webb wrote a book about his CIA findings. The mainstream press largely ignored the 2-inch-thick tome. In his misery and depression, he had a series of affairs. His wife discovered Webb’s infidelities and filed for divorce in 2000. Bell said Webb found himself in a place he always feared: being alone.
He tried to get on with his life, but it wasn’t easy. Searching for a way to put his investigative skills to use, Webb went to work doing special projects and investigations for the state Assembly. He enjoyed the job, but it didn’t compare to newspaper reporting.
He started missing appointments. He lost weight. He wrecked his motorcycles. He stayed up all night playing video games, and he struggled to get up in the morning.
In February 2004, he was laid off from his Assembly job. “He was scared about what he was going to do,” said his ex-wife. Bell, who needed Webb’s help with child support, urged him to go back into journalism. He sent out 50 resumes to daily newspapers across the country. “He didn’t get any offers,” Bell said.
During the summer, a Los Angeles screenwriter called and asked him to collaborate on writing a television miniseries about gun smugglers. In August, Webb went to work as a staff writer for Sacramento’s alternative paper, the News & Review.
Things seemed to be getting better in his life. He produced a number of well-received stories for the weekly paper, and he was excited about the screenplay. But by late September, Webb received word that no one was interested in the television project. He struggled to pay his mortgage and help support his teenage kids on his News & Review salary.
In October, Webb told Bell that he had come up with a plan that would “help both of us out.”
His ex-wife now believes that Webb had been contemplating suicide for most of the year. “He had been distancing himself more and more, but we just didn’t see the signs,” she said.
Secretly, Webb signed over the titles of his motorcycles and cars to his oldest son. He made his ex-wife a beneficiary on his bank accounts. And, in late fall, he bought a cremation certificate.
Webb put his house in Carmichael on the market in November and sold it for $323,000. He promised to vacate the premises by the second week in December.
He was facing the prospect of moving back in with his mother. The night that he died, he dropped a box of mementos off at her house. He told her he didn’t think he had anything left to live for.
That was the last time anyone in his family saw him alive.
The movers arrived at Webb’s house on the morning of Dec. 10. Following his instructions on the note on the door, they called the authorities. Webb’s mother found out her son was dead when she phoned the house later that morning, reaching a coroner’s investigator.
She had the task of telling Bell and Webb’s brother, Kurt, the news.
On Dec. 11, Webb’s suicide notes -- single-spaced and several pages long -- arrived in the mail.
He told his ex-wife and children that he loved them. He also wanted them to know that he did not regret anything he had written during his journalism career.
Of everything he wrote in those suicide notes, Bell said, this point resonated the most: Webb said he was tired of being in pain.
YOU CANNOT KILL THE TRUTH
Of course Gary’s untimely death does not conform to our distorted perspective of how justice should work in the world. We’d like to believe that justice is an inbuilt Universal law, which requires no real effort on our part, rather than the sobering reality that it actually requires active participation from us as a collective citizenry, in order for it to be truly achieved.
Gary’s story, however, is far from over and could never be killed by something as trivial as a material bullet. Webb may indeed be physically dead, but his research is more alive today than ever before, and continues to haunt the shadow government and snowball into a monster that will undoubtedly have its eventual revenge.
Such is the power of Truth. It is the only power that will stand the unforgiving test of time. The guilty cannot escape its proverbial judgment, they can only hope to prolong it.
In fact, a blockbuster film documenting Gary’s story was released in 2014 and, despite my cynical expectation that it would be a propaganda piece to cover up government wrongdoing and rewrite history, the film actually did an excellent job, which marks a special victory, because a film based on a controversial true story like this — to the best of my knowledge — has never been able to break mainstream Hollywood before.
Aside from inspiring me to write this blog, I also made a meme in Webb’s honor that has been reuploaded and spread throughout the internet, and also a video that currently has over 400,000 views. It may seem of little consequence, but awareness is the key to change, and we can all help to spread the Truth. In fact, we have a serious responsibility and duty to do so.
Thank you for your courage Gary Webb, you continue to inspire millions of people around the world today brother. Your sacrifice was not in vain.
All my work is open source and I encourage it to be reproduced. I only ask that you give me credit, and include my social media profiles as listed in the EXACT FORMAT above, in an effort to help me build a formidable following of people truly intent on learning and creating positive change. If you are not willing to do that, you are NOT permitted to use my work.
1] Webb, Gary (1998), Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion
2] The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (1987), Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott
3] The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008), Hugh Wilford
4] Webb, Gary, The killing game, Sacramento News & Review, 14 October 2004
Kash Khan is the founder of Educate Inspire Change (EIC). Since 2012 he has focused on on inspiring and educating others in order to improve their consciousness and connect to their true selves.
Kash Khan is the founder of Educate Inspire Change(EIC). 2019 has been the most transformative for his life and is now focusing on creating video and audio content with the purpose to educate and inspire. He founded EIC in 2015 to help keep people informed, to encourage people to expand their consciousness and to inspire people to reach for their dreams.