California Public Policy and Citizen Participation/Chapter Nine
Gary Webb (August 31, 1955 – December 10, 2004) was a Pulitzer prize-winning United States|American Investigative journalism|investigative journalist.
Webb was best known for his 1996 "Dark Alliance" series of articles written for the San Jose Mercury News and later published as a book. In the three-part series, Webb investigated Nicaraguans linked to the Central Intelligence Agency|CIA-backed Contra (guerrillas)|Contras who had allegedly smuggled cocaine into the U.S. Their smuggled cocaine was distributed as crack cocaine in Los Angeles, with the profits funneled back to the Contras. Webb also alleged that this influx of Nicaraguan-supplied cocaine sparked, and significantly fueled, the widespread Crack Epidemic|crack cocaine epidemic that swept through many U.S. cities during the 1980s. According to Webb, the CIA was aware of the cocaine transactions and the large CIA and Contras cocaine trafficking in the US|shipments of drugs into the U.S. by Contra personnel. Webb charged that the Reagan administration shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to raise money for the Contras, especially after Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which prohibited direct Contra funding.
Webb's reporting generated fierce controversy, and the San Jose Mercury News backed away from the story, effectively ending Webb's career as a mainstream media journalist. In 2004, Webb was found dead from Multiple gunshot suicide|two gunshot wounds to the head, which the coroner's office judged a suicide. Though he was criticized and outcast from the mainstream journalism community, his reportage was eventually vindicated as many of his findings have since been validated: since Webb's death, both the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune have defended his "Dark Alliance" series. Renowned journalist and former Webb colleague Al Giordano states that "the CIA’s internal investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz vindicated much of Gary’s reporting" and observes that despite the campaign against Webb, "the government eventually admitted to more than Gary had initially reported" over the years.
Webb was born to a military family in Corona, California. At 15, Webb began writing editorials for his suburban Indianapolis high school newspaper. At the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, he created his first controversy when he criticized the use of a female drill team to rally students for the war. Webb attended journalism school at Northern Kentucky University, where he was on staff at the student newspaper The Northerner, but dropped out. He started his professional career at the Kentucky Post, then worked as a statehouse correspondent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Webb found a lifelong passion in investigating political corruption|government and corporate crime|private sector corruption. In 1988, Webb joined the San Jose Mercury News as a staff writer. He helped expose freeway retrofitting problems in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and wrote stories about computer software problems at the California Department of Motor Vehicles|DMV.
In August 1996 the San Jose Mercury News published Webb's "Dark Alliance," a 20,000 word, three-part investigative series which alleged that Nicaraguan drug traffickers had sold and distributed cocaine|crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and that drug profits were used to fund the CIA-supported Nicaraguan Contra (guerrillas)|Contras. Webb never asserted that the CIA directly aided drug dealers to raise money for the Contras, but he did document that the CIA was aware of the cocaine transactions and the large shipments of cocaine into the U.S. by the Contra personnel. "Dark Alliance" received national attention. At the height of the interest, the web version of it on San Jose Mercury News website received 1.3 million hits a day. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the series became "the most talked-about piece of journalism in 1996 and arguably the most famous—some would say infamous—set of articles of the decade."
Webb supported his story with documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, subsequently including a 450-page declassified version of an October 1988 report by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz. According to Webb and his supporters, the evidence demonstrates that White House officials, including Oliver North, knew about and supported using money from drug trafficking to fund the contras, and these officials neglected to pass any information along to the Drug Enforcement Administration|DEA. The 1988 report from the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations of the Committee on Foreign Relations led by Sen. John Kerry commented that there were "serious questions as to whether or not US officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua."
|“||If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than 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? 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 ... The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress...||”|
Immediately, denials began to emerge refuting the assertions Webb made in "Dark Alliance." Reports in the The Washington Post|Washington Post (Oct 4, 1996), Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times|New York Times (Oct 21, 1996), tried to debunk the link between the Contras and the crack epidemic. Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser agreed with critics that her paper's response to Webb's series showed "misdirected zeal" and "more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose's answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves." Richard Thieme argued in an opinion piece that the major news outlets focused on attacking Webb or less relevant parts of the story, leaving Webb's thesis largely intact. Overholser concluded there was "strong previous evidence that the CIA at least chose to overlook contra involvement in the drug trade.... Would that we had welcomed the surge of public interest as an occasion to return to a subject the Post and the public had given short shrift. Alas, dismissing someone else's story as old news comes more naturally."
Robert Parry, who in 1985 became the first reporter to accuse the Contras of involvement in drug trafficking, wrote that the Post's denunciation of Webb was ironic, because the paper "had long pooh-poohed earlier allegations that the Contras were implicated in drug shipments" but now "the newspaper was finally accepting the reality of Contra Illegal drug trade|cocaine trafficking, albeit in a backhanded way."
In response to these attacks, Webb created a web site that contained primary documents, transcripts, and audio interviews. By January 1997, Webb's editors no longer contacted him about his stories. In March, Webb was informed that the paper was going to address the readers about his series. On May 11, 1997, Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos published an editorial describing the series as an "important work" and "solidly documented," but criticized the series for: a reliance on one interpretation of complicated, sometimes-conflicting pieces of evidence; failing to estimate the amount of money involved; for oversimplifying the crack epidemic; and for creating impressions that were open to misinterpretation through imprecise language and graphics. Webb was reassigned to a suburban bureau 150 miles from his home. Because of the long commute, Webb quit the paper in December 1997.
Webb alleged that the 1997 backlash was a form of media manipulation. "The government side of the story is coming through the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post," Webb stated. "They use the giant corporate press rather than saying anything directly. If you work through friendly reporters on major newspapers, it comes off as the New York Times saying it and not a mouthpiece of the CIA." James Aucoin, a communications professor who specializes in the history of investigative reporting, wrote: "In the case of Gary Webb's charges against the CIA and the Contras, the major dailies came after him. Media institutions are now part of the establishment and they have a lot invested in that establishment."
In 1999, Seven Stories Press published Webb's Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, complete with extensive source citations. The book received mixed reviews.
The book includes an account of a meeting between a pilot (who was making drug/arms runs between San Francisco and Costa Rica) with two Contra leaders who were also partners with the San Francisco-based Contra/drug smuggler Norwin Meneses. According to eyewitnesses, Ivan Gomez, identified by one of the Contras as a CIA agent, was allegedly present at the drug transactions. The pilot told Hitz that Gomez said he was there to "ensure that the profits from the cocaine went to the Contras and not into someone's pocket."
According to Webb, Judd Iverson, a San Francisco defense attorney who represented former Contra Julio Zavala, discovered compelling evidence demonstrating that "agents of the U.S. government were intricately involved in sanctioning cocaine trafficking to raise funds for Contra revolutionary activity." Soon after, members of the Justice Department persuaded U.S. District Court Judge Robert Peckham to seal the documents in the case.
Webb’s reporting on the CIA’s dealings with cocaine dealers was not without its critics. The Nation magazine contributor David Corn, while crediting him that "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," also criticized Webb for overstating the case and for not proving "his more cinematic allegations."
Reason (magazine)|Reason magazine’s Glenn Garvin was critical of Webb’s sources and of the evidence he presented. Garvin wrote that Webb’s evidence that the Contra leadership was selling cocaine is almost entirely drawn from the claims of a few Nicaraguan traffickers facing long jail terms, and argued that they were using the CIA as a convenient scapegoat. Garvin also wrote that every guerilla group, including the Mujahideen, FARC and Shining Path, has used the narcotics trade as a way of bolstering its funding efforts, and that far from the Contra-related drug trade being widespread it came down to a small handful of Contra pilots and their associates who were involved in narcotics. He also argued that while these covert narcotic relationships were alleged to be most rampant, the Contras had the least need for funds, as the United States was supplying them with millions of dollars a year in support.
Supporters and Corroboration
According to historian Mark Fenster,
- [T]he common view among journalists and researchers who have reviewed Webb's stories and have expertise on the Contras and the CIA's role in Nicaragua is that the stories sometimes overstate and overplay the largely testimonial evidence Webb had gathered but were nevertheless neither false nor fantastic. This is true whether the commentators are sympathetic to or critical of Webb. The historical consensus -- to the extent that such a thing is possible concerning controversial covert operations -- indicate that the basic outlines of the Mercury News stories were largely correct.
In 2006 the LA Times published The Truth in `Dark Alliance,’ in which L.A. Times Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky is quoted saying "in some ways, Gary got too much blame...He did exactly what you expect from a great investigative reporter." The article surveys mainstream reporting at the time of Webb's pieces and states that while Webb had committed "hyperbole" and included some unproven allegations, articles by the New York Times "didn’t include the success he achieved or the wrongs he righted – and they were considerable" according to Walt Bogdanich, now a New York Times editor, who had known Webb earlier.
The LA Times piece criticizes its own unfair portrayal of Webb -- "we dropped the ball" -- and notes that "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" and concludes that "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 [on Webb's part]".
Writing in 2005 in the Chicago Tribune, about "the Dangers of Questioning Government Actions," Don Wycliff, the Tribune's public editor, wrote, "I still think Gary Webb had it mostly right. I think he got the treatment that always comes to those who dare question aloud the bona fides of the establishment: First he got misrepresented -- his suggestion that the CIA tolerated the Contras' cocaine trading became an allegation that the agency itself was involved in the drug trade. Then he was ridiculed as a conspiracy-monger." 
Media Critic Norman Solomon's analysis, "The Establishment's Papers Do Damage Control for the CIA," includes various corroborating evidence that a witch-hunt to discredit Webb was pursued more vigorously than the truth of some of Webb's allegations, including corroboration internal to one such paper, the Washington Post. Notes Solomon:
The Post's ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, was on target (11/10/96) when she re-raised the question of the U.S. government's relationship to drug smuggling and noted that the three newspapers "showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose's answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves."
Citing "strong previous evidence that the CIA at least chose to overlook contra involvement in the drug trade," Overholser found "misdirected zeal" in the Post's response to the Mercury News series: "Would that we had welcomed the surge of public interest as an occasion to return to a subject the Post and the public had given short shrift."
Facing increasing public scrutiny from the fallout after Webb's "Dark Alliance" series, the CIA conducted its own internal investigations. Investigative journalist Robert Parry credits Webb for being responsible for the following government investigations into the Reagan-Bush administration's conduct of the Contra war:
- On December 10, 1996, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block announced the conclusion of his investigation into the issue, publishing a summary of the investigation at a press conference. He announced at the press conference that "We have found no evidence that the government was involved in drug trafficking in South-Central." Nevertheless, the report included information that supported some of the charges. Charles Rappleye reported in the L.A. Weekly that Block's "unequivocal statement is not backed up by the report itself, which raises many questions." Much of the LAPD investigation centered on allegations made in a postscript article to the newspaper's "Dark Alliance" series.
- On January 29, 1998, Hitz published Volume One of his internal investigation. This was the first of two CIA reports that eventually substantiated many of Webb's claims about cocaine smugglers, the Nicaraguan contra movement, and their ability to freely operate without the threat of law enforcement.
- On March 16, 1998, Hitz admitted that the CIA had maintained relationships with companies and individuals the CIA knew were involved in the drug business. Hitz told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that "there are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug-trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations." Senator John Kerry reached similar conclusions a decade earlier in 1987. (See:)
- On May 7, 1998, Rep. Maxine Waters, revealed a memorandum of understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department from 1982, which was entered into the Congressional Record. This letter had freed the CIA from legally reporting drug smuggling by CIA assets, a provision that covered the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan rebels.
- On July 23, 1998, the United States Department of Justice|Justice Department released a report by its Inspector General, Michael R. Bromwich. The Bromwich report claimed that the Reagan-Bush administration was aware of cocaine traffickers in the Contra movement and did nothing to stop the criminal activity. The report also alleged a pattern of discarded leads and witnesses, sabotaged investigations, instances of the CIA working with drug traffickers, and the discouragement of Drug Enforcement Administration|DEA investigations into Contra-cocaine shipments. The CIA's refusal to share information about Contra drug trafficking with law-enforcement agencies was also documented. The Bromwich report corroborated Webb's investigation into Norwin Meneses, a Nicaraguan drug smuggler.
- On October 8, 1998, CIA I.G. Hitz published Volume Two of his internal investigation. The report described how the Reagan-Bush administration had protected more than 50 Contras and other drug traffickers, and by so doing thwarted federal investigations into drug crimes. Hitz published evidence that drug trafficking and money laundering had made its way into Reagan's United States National Security Council|National Security Council where Oliver North oversaw the operations of the Contras. According to the report, the Contra war took precedence over law enforcement. To that end, the internal investigation revealed that the CIA routinely withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the Justice Department, Congress and even the analytical division of the CIA itself. Further, the report confirmed Webb's claims regarding the origins and the relationship of Contra fundraising and drug trafficking. The report also included information about CIA ties to other drug traffickers not discussed in the Webb series, including Moises Nunez and Ivan Gomez. More importantly, the internal CIA report documented a cover-up of evidence which had led to false intelligence assessments.
Aftermath and death
After leaving San Jose Mercury News Webb went to work for the California Assembly Speaker's Office of Member Services and served as a consultant to the California State legislature Task Force on Government Oversight. As a member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Webb investigated charges that the Oracle Corporation received a no-bid contract award of $95 million in 2001 from former California Governor Gray Davis. Webb was hired by the Sacramento News and Review, after being laid off in 2003 with the rest of the former Speaker's staff as part of a house-cleaning when the new Speaker took over.
On December 10, 2004, he was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head. Sacramento County coroner Robert Lyons determined that it was suicide. Webb's ex-wife, Sue Bell, said that Webb had been depressed for some time over his inability to get a job at another major newspaper.
- Webb's 1999 book, Dark Alliance, substantiated these allegations with copious references.
- Kornbluh, Peter (January/February 1997). "The Storm over "Dark Alliance"". Columbia Journalism Review. http://archives.cjr.org/year/97/1/d-alliance.asp. Retrieved 2008-02-01.
- U.S. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. Drugs, Law Enforcement, and Foreign Policy. (S. Rpt.100-165). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1988. PDF (9.47 Mebibyte) (9.5MB)
- Borjesson, Kristina (Ed.) (2002). Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-972-7. Includes chapter 14 by Gary Webb.
- Bowden, Charles (1998-09-01). "The Pariah". Esquire (magazine). Archived from the original on 2006-12-08. http://web.archive.org/web/20061208060422/http://www.esquire.com/features/articles/2004/041217_mfe_webb_1.html. Retrieved 2008-02-01.
- Thieme, Richard (2004-12-14). "My Last Talk with Gary Webb". CounterPunch. http://www.counterpunch.org/thieme12142004.html. Retrieved 2008-02-01.
- Norman Solomon|Solomon, Norman. (Jan./Feb. 1997). "Snow Job". Extra!. Retrieved Jul. 20, 2006 from the Internet Archive.
- Robert Parry|Parry, Robert. (1996). "Contra-Crack Story Assailed". ConsortiumNews.com. Retrieved Jul. 21, 2006.
- Osborn, Barbara Bliss. (Mar./Apr. 1998). "Are You Sure You Want to Ruin Your Career?". Extra!. Retrieved Jul. 21, 2006.
- Webb 1999, pp. 92-95.
- Gary Webb Is Dead
- Reason Magazine - Hooked on Fantasies
- Fenster, Mark. (2008) Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (revised edition). University of Minnesota Press. 0816654948, pp. 2-3.
- L.A. Times - The truth in `Dark Alliance’
- Chicago Tribune - Dangers of Questioning Government Actions
- FAIR - Snow Job The Establishment's Papers Do Damage Control for the CIA
- Rappleye, Charles. (Dec. 13, 1996). "Sherman's Contra-Diction". LA Weekly. Retrieved copy of original article Jul. 21, 2006 from California State University Northridge.
- s:CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz
- Pincus, Washington Post, Mar. 17, 1998.
- The Ultimate Gary Webb - American History Information Guide and Reference
- Stanton, Sam. (Dec. 15, 2004)."Reporter's suicide confirmed by coroner." The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved Jul. 20, 2006.
- Borjesson, Kristina (Ed.) (2002). Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-972-7. Includes chapter 14 by Gary Webb.
- Celerino III Castillo & Dave Harmon (1994). Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras & the Drug War. Sundial. ISBN 0-88962-578-6 (paperback) ISBN 0-8095-4855-0 (hardcover; Borgo Pr; 3rd ed.; 1995).
- Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair (1999). Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press. Verso. ISBN 1-85984-139-2 (cloth), ISBN 1-85984-258-5 (paperback). Cites 116 books.
- Frederick P. Hitz (1999). "Obscuring Propriety: The CIA and Drugs". International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 12 (4): 448–462. doi:10.1080/088506099304990. PMID 1097168. Note: Hitz, then CIA Inspector General, was the person who first mentioned the secret agreement between CIA and the Department of Justice, in March 1988, when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.
- Robert Parry (1999). Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & "Project Truth". Media Consortium. ISBN 1-893517-00-4.
- Nick Schou (Charles Bowden, preface) (2006). Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Gary Webb. Nation Books. ISBN 1-56025-930-2.
- Peter Dale Scott & Jonathan Marshall (1991). Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21449-8 (paperback, 1998 reprint), ISBN 0-520-07312-6 (hardcover, 1991), ISBN 0-520-07781-4 (paperback, 1992 reprint).
- Webb, Gary (1998). Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. Seven Stories Press. ISBN 1-888363-68-1 (hardcover, 1998), ISBN 1-888363-93-2 (paperback, 1999).