Gary Webb made a story that could’ve been as prominent as the Watergate Incident. Instead, his life was destroyed.
Webb’s series, whose full title was “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion,” claimed that, in addition to waging a proxy war for the U.S. government against Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government in the 1980s, elements of the CIA-backed Contra rebels were also engaged in smuggling cocaine into the country to fund their counter-revolutionary campaign.
Who was Gary Webb, and What Did He Do?
According to Gary Webb, the ensuing boom of crack cocaine consumption that wreaked havoc on California’s most vulnerable African American neighborhoods was directly related to the covert flow of drugs and money.
Webb’s series gained widespread attention through in-depth talk radio coverage and global availability via the internet, which at the time was still a novel means to promote national news. Some derided it as a conspiracy theory and hailed others as investigative reporting at its best.
“Dark Alliance” was first a PR nightmare for the CIA, albeit it would soon become a personal dilemma for Webb. Dujmovic did not hold back when characterizing the series’ possibly disastrous impact on the agency’s reputation in “Managing a Nightmare.”
The charges are not at all favorable. Many people believe the CIA is participating, if not conspiring, in the spread of crack cocaine in American cities due to a highly-read newspaper series.
The Agency was the tool of a persistent US Government policy to destroy the black community and prevent black Americans from advancing, according to more extreme versions of the narrative that have been making the rounds on talk radio and the internet.
There are several criticisms of the CIA that bring to mind the 1970s. Investigations are both requested and launched. The Congress becomes active.
Webb “did not claim directly that CIA operated the drug trade or even knew about it,” Dujmovic acknowledged.
In actuality, Webb’s portrayal of the Contras as “the CIA’s army” and the accompanying graphics, which suggested a connection between the CIA and the crack fear, was the agency’s main complaints, according to the memo (even though the Contras were quite literally an armed, militant group not-so-secretly supported by the U.S., at war with the government of Nicaragua).
Despite his journalistic qualifications, Dujmovic lamented that Webb’s series “came with no warning” and quipped, “He apparently could not develop a widely available and well-known telephone number for CIA Public Affairs.
The reason for this, according to Webb, was that he “was uninterested in anything the Agency could have to say that would lessen the effect of his series,” as he put it in his letter. (Webb later claimed that he did contact the CIA; efforts to get a response from the agency were not included in the “Dark Alliance” series.)
The CIA refused to return Webb’s calls.
Dujmovic added that much of the “Dark Alliance” information was not brand-new. Indeed, more than ten years prior to the publication of the series, Associated Press reporters Brian Barger and Robert Parry discovered that the Contras had “engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their fight against Nicaragua.”
According to a 1997 article by Peter Kornbluh for the Columbia Journalism Review, the Reagan White House launched “a concerted behind-the-scenes campaign to besmirch the professionalism of Parry and Barger and to discredit all reporting on the contras and drugs” in a move that foreshadowed Webb’s experience.
“Coverage was scant, whether the campaign was the cause or not.”
What Did the Senate Find About the Allegations?
Nevertheless, a special senate subcommittee led by then-senator John Kerry looked into the information provided by the AP and issued a 1,166-page report on covert American activities in Central America and the Caribbean in 1989.
It discovered “substantial evidence” that the Contras were involved in the trafficking of drugs and firearms and that the American administration was aware of this.
As stated in the subcommittee report:
This evidence makes it abundantly evident that drug trafficking was practiced by those who supported the Contras, that drug trafficking organization utilized the Contras’ supply network, and that parts of the Contras deliberately accepted material and financial support from drug traffickers.
In each instance, a U.S. government agency knew about the engagement either when it happened or immediately after.
It was also reported that the head of the CIA’s Central America Task Force said, “Regarding (drug trafficking by the Resistant Forces).
It is not a pair of individuals. There are many individuals there.
Despite such harsh evaluations, the country’s leading newspapers paid little attention to the subcommittee report. Seven years later, Webb would pick up the narrative.
His pieces stood out from the AP’s coverage partly because they linked a topic that many American readers found unimportant—drug trafficking in Central America—to a poignant local tale—the effects of crack cocaine on California’s urban, African American communities.
Oscar Danilo Blandón Reyes, regarded by the U.S. government as Nicaragua’s largest cocaine dealer living in the United States, Ricky “Freeway” Ross, a renowned L.A. drug dealer, and Meneses Cantarero, a significant Nicaraguan player who had allegedly recruited Blandón to sell drugs in support of the counter-revolution, were the subjects of the documentary “Dark Alliance,” which followed their lives.
The show looked at the men’s friendship, how they affected the drug trade in California and elsewhere, and how to crack cocaine laws disproportionately punished African Americans.
While the series’ material was not entirely original, it was the start of something that was: a thorough study that was published outside of the conventional primary media sources and successfully publicized online.
Before Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, Webb demonstrated the strength and scope of web journalism for more than ten years. The San Jose Mercury News website included important documents, hyperlinks, wiretap recordings, and follow-up articles.
The series generated much discussion on African American talk radio stations, drawing more than a million visitors to the newspaper’s website on certain days. “You don’t have to be The New York Times or The Washington Post to bust a national story now,” Webb subsequently said.
But, publications like the Times and the Post appeared to spend significantly more time looking for flaws in the series than they did investigating the issue at its core—the participation of U.S.-backed proxy armies in global drug trafficking—which has received little press.
Particularly combative was The Los Angeles Times. The California newspaper sent at least 17 reporters to rip apart Webb’s reporting while it was covered in its backyard. The Mercury News staff denied any direct attempts to attack it, but one of the 17 called itself the “get Gary Webb, the squad.”
Around that time, a different person reportedly added, “We’re going to take away that guy’s Pulitzer,” according to Kornbluh’s CJR article. Two months after the release of “Dark Alliance,” the L.A. Times spent more words criticizing its rival’s breakout hit than the entire series.
The CIA kept a careful eye on these events and worked with media outlets wishing to refute Webb’s reporting when possible. As soon as “Dark Alliance” was published, media inquiries began, and Dujmovic notes in “Managing a Nightmare” that the CIA was successful in preventing “one major news affiliate” from reporting on the tale.
To undermine the series, the agency allegedly broke its long-standing rules, which he brags about. It is a rare exception to the usual rule that the CIA does not comment on any individual’s alleged CIA ties. Public Affairs could disassociate itself from a specific individual to assist a journalist working on a piece refuting the Mercury News allegations.
The report details how public opinion shifted favoring the CIA around a month and a half after the series was released. The third week of September, according to Dujmovic, “was a turning point in media coverage of this subject,” noting “respected columnists, including notable blacks,” in addition to the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, The Weekly Standard, and the Washington Post.
The agency sent “these more balanced accounts” to the media, “as well as former Agency officers, who represented the Agency in interviews with the media,” Dujmovic stated. The Washington Post was really helpful. Due to the Post’s widespread reputation, other newspapers frequently reprinted its pieces, which helped spark what the Associated Press described as a “firestorm of response” against the San Jose Mercury News.
The CIA attributed this tendency to the Post, The New York Times, “and especially the Los Angeles Times,” and noted that over the course of the subsequent month, critical media coverage of the series (“balanced reporting”) vastly outnumbered positive pieces. The editors of Webb started to separate themselves from their correspondents.
The tone of the CIA-drug tale had shifted by the end of October, two months after the publication of “Dark Alliance,” Dujmovic was happy to report. The Mercury News charges were routinely criticized, as was the case with most journalistic coverage.
In summarizing the experience, Dujmovic noted, “This success has to be in relative terms. “As in combat, averting a rout in the face of enemy numbers can be considered a victory in the field of public relations.”
Undoubtedly, the “Dark Alliance” had weaknesses the CIA could exploit.
The series was “problematically sourced,” according to Kornbluh’s article for CJR, and it was condemned for “repeatedly promising evidence that, on close reading, it did not offer.” He pointed out that there were contradictions in Webb’s timeline of events and that it failed to link the story’s central characters to the CIA conclusively.
Yet Kornbluh also identified issues with the retaliation reports classified as “fair” by the CIA. He claimed that the L.A. Times ignored declassified evidence that supported Webb’s thesis and instead “stumbled into some of the same problems of hyperbole, selectivity, and credibility that it was attempting to expose.”
The New York Times and the Washington Post should have considered this declassified evidence. It was possible to further the contra, drug, and CIA stories rather than only criticizing them, according to Kornbluh.
The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times had neither been willing nor able to revisit a significant story mysteriously abandoned by the mainstream press, report a new dimension to it and thus put it back on the national agenda where it belongs. Kornbluh blamed the Mercury News in part “for the sometimes distorted public furor the stories generated.”
When Gary Webb’s tale is released to a national audience in October, it’s sure to bring up old concerns about the uproar his reporting caused. The hard-charging investigative reporter played by Jeremy Renner in director Michael Cuesta’s film Kill the Messenger is named after a 2006 biography written by award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou, who served as a consultant on the script.
Schou comments on the recently made public “Managing a Nightmare” document, saying it is consistent with his own reporting. Webb was finally brought down by the petty jealousies of the contemporary media industry, according to Schou, rather than some nefarious, clandestine scheme to ruin (or, as some went so far as to say, murder) the journalist.
Schou told The Intercept that the CIA “didn’t really need to raise a finger to try to undermine Gary Webb’s credibility. They stood there watching the journalists pursue Gary like a school of piranhas.
The way this all played out must have made them happy at Langley, Schou continued.
At least one journalist who played a crucial role in organizing the effort to discredit Webb regrets his actions. In a 2013 radio interview, Jesse Katz, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, recalled the incident and said, “As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wondered[ed] how legit it was, and kind of put it under a microscope.”
This was according to Schou’s report for L.A. Weekly. And we did it in a way that, in retrospect, most of us who were engaged would consider being excessive. With the Los Angeles Times, we had a sizable staff that we loaded onto one lone muckraker in Northern California.
Although Schou readily acknowledges that Webb’s reporting had issues, he contends that the most crucial aspects of his inquiry held up under inspection before being overshadowed by the attacks from the country’s top newspapers.
“I think it’s fair to argue that the narrative might have been better edited and marketed and would have been less offensive when looking at it objectively. Gary could have added a line like, “I phoned the CIA X number of times, and they didn’t respond,” to the account. That wasn’t there,” the man claimed.
The more excellent picture, however, is that he revealed in a thorough, accurate report for the first time in American media history how CIA collusion with Central American drug traffickers had actually affected the selling of drugs north of the border.
Schou is persuaded that Webb’s unfortunate death directly resulted from the slander effort against him.
“It’s hard to view what happened to him without comprehending the death of his career as a result of this story,” he said. “It’s true that he suffered from a severe depression for years and years — and even before ‘Dark Alliance’ to some extent. According to the author, it was the main turning point in his life and work.
“A journalist’s credibility is all they have left,” according to Schou. “If he loses it, he’ll never be able to recover.”
Responses from the CIA
In “Managing a Nightmare,” Dujmovic ascribed the early backlash against the “Dark Alliance” series to “societal inadequacies” that are absent from the spy agency.
As a postscript, he said, “I would propose that ultimately, the CIA-drug tale tells much more about American culture on the eve of the millennium than [sic] it does about the CIA or the media. We live in relatively emotional and crass times when most Americans do not uphold the same standards of reason, evidence, or even civil dialogue as those upheld by individuals in the CIA community.”
Evidently, Webb had a different perspective. In 2002, he discussed his downfall in the book Into the Buzzsaw. Before “Dark Alliance,” Webb claimed, “I was winning honors, gaining promotions, giving college lectures, showing up on TV shows, and presiding over journalism competitions.”
“But, after writing a few tales, I understood how tragically misguided my pleasure had been. It wasn’t because I was meticulous, attentive, and skilled at my job, as I’d imagined, that I’d had such smooth sailing for so long. The reality was that I hadn’t written anything significant enough to censor in all those years.”
How Did Gary Webb Die?
On December 10, 2004, Webb was discovered dead in his Carmichael home with two headshot wounds. The coroner’s office for Sacramento County determined that he committed suicide.
The Los Angeles Times said that Webb shot himself in the right ear with a.38 handgun he had concealed nearby. The first bullet entered his face near his left cheek and left through his face. According to the coroner’s office, the second shot struck an artery.
Following a local newspaper’s claim that Webb had been shot numerous times, the coroner’s office received so many inquiries concerning Webb’s passing that Sacramento County Coroner Robert Lyons confirmed Webb had committed suicide in a statement.
Lyons responded, “It’s unusual in a suicide case to have two shots, but it has been done in the past, and it is a distinct possibility,” in response to a question from local reporters about the potential of two gunshots being a suicide.
According to news reports, there were widespread Internet speculations at the time that Webb had been murdered in retaliation for his “Dark Alliance” trilogy, which had been released eight years before.
Webb’s ex-wife, Susan Bell, told the media that she thought Webb committed suicide. It would be difficult for me to believe it was anything other than suicide, she continued, given the way he was acting.
Bell claimed that Webb had been dissatisfied over his inability to land a job at another significant newspaper for some time. Due to his inability to pay the mortgage, he sold his home the week before he passed away.
A compilation of Webb’s stories from before and after the “Dark Alliance” series was released after his passing. Webb’s son, Eric Webb, edited the compilation titled The Killing Game: Collected Tales from the Author of Dark Alliance.
RIP Gary Webb
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