The CIA-Contra-Crack Connection, 10 Years Later
Mon Aug 21, 2006 18:56

The CIA-Contra-Crack Connection, 10 Years Later

Reporter was the victim of his own hyperbole, but he never got credit for what he got right.
By Nick Schou, NICK SCHOU is an editor for OC Weekly. His book, "Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb," will be published in October.
August 18, 2006

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.

"In some ways, Gary got too much blame," said L.A. Times Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky. "He did exactly what you expect from a great investigative reporter."

RIP Gary Webb -- Unembedded Reporter
Gary Webb, a courageous investigative journalist who was the target of one of the most ferocious media attacks on any reporter in recent history, ..


Here are the facts: Gary Webb fired two shots from a .38 caliber revolver into his own head.

Gary Webb's Last Story: The Killing Game

by Ellen Komp

When investigative reporter Gary Webb was found dead of a gunshot wound on
December 10, 2004 the initial reports all called it an apparent suicide,
despite the fact that no crime scene details or reasons why Webb would have
taken his own life were revealed. The LA Times, which led what HTTP://FAIR.org
called "damage control for the CIA" on Webb's San Jose Mercury News series
linking the CIA with drug trafficking, broke the story of Webb's death on
Sunday and all news outlets dutifully followed suit with their reports.

The Sacramento coroner's office, which has been deluged with phone calls
about the incident, confirmed that Webb had been shot two times in a
statement released the following Tuesday. The Sacramento Bee interviewed
Webb's ex-wife, Sue Bell, who said that Webb had been despondent over his
inability to get a job with a major newspaper and the theft of his
motorcycle just before his death helped push him to suicide, in her opinion.
The Bee reported Webb had paid for his own cremation earlier this year, had
just sold his house because he was unable to meet mortgage payments, and
shot himself with his father's .38 caliber gun.

Ed Smith, spokesperson for the Sacramento coroner's office, said by
telephone that the office would release no further information until the
case is closed, in perhaps two months' time. Smith said that it is not
uncommon for suicide victims to be shot twice, but would not say where the
bullets pierced Mr. Webb or if his fingerprints were found on the weapon.
According to Smith, no sheriff's investigator has been assigned to the case
and it was a Sacramento patrol officer who reported Mr. Webb's death to the

Ray Horton of the Humboldt County coroner's office said in an interview for
KMUD radio in Redway that "the flags go up" at his office when a suicide
victim is shot twice. Two-shot suicides almost always involve smaller
caliber weapons, Horton said, adding that the fact that a .38 was used in
Webb's death "should be highly suspicious."

Webb, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, was most famous for writing that
Nicaraguan drug traffickers had sold tons of crack cocaine in Los Angeles
and funneled millions of dollars in profits to the CIA-supported Nicaraguan
Contras during the 1980s. As was Senator John Kerry before him, Webb was
discredited for his investigations, even though a report by the CIA later
confirmed them. In 1997, then-Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos
backed away from Webb's series, and later received an ethics award from the
Society of Newspaper Editors. After quitting the newspaper in December 1997,
Webb continued to defend his reporting with his 1999 book "Dark Alliance:
The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion."

ConspiracyPlanet.com remarks that Webb joins artist Mark Lombardi, J.H.
Hatfield (author of "Fortunate Son"), and journalist Danny Casolaro as the
fourth 'suicide' by a researcher "who had a detailed understanding of the
structure and function of the Bush Crime Family." But liberal commentators
from the Nation to Counterpunch discounted such talk, wondering aloud why
Webb would be targeted so long after his explosive series was published.

Webb was most recently employed by the Sacramento News and Review as a
reporter for their Chico weekly. Chillingly, Webb's last article for that
paper was a cover story that ran on October 21, 2004 titled "The Killing
Game." It was an expose of the US Army's development of video games that
simulate warfare and its use of them to recruit young warriors.

According to Webb's article, the Army and civilian directors of a Navy think
tank at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey joined together in 1999 to
develop "America's Army," an online computer game used to attract computer
gamers into the military.

America's Army was released to the public on the July 4, 2002 (the first
fourth of July after 9/11). There are now more than 4 million registered
users of the game, mostly 13- and 14-year-olds, more than half of whom have
completed the required preliminary weapons training and gone online to play.
The Army says the game has 500 fan sites on the Web, and recruiters have
been busy setting up local tournaments and cultivating an America's Army
"community" on the Internet.

According to Webb's article, the Army has been collecting player information
in a vast relational database system called "Andromeda" that recruiters will
be able to use to look up a player's statistics if one of them shows up in a
recruiting office. Currently, Army game developers are in the process of
creating a statistics-tracking system that can tell how much time a player
spends online, how many kills he's made, which battlefields he's best at,
how many kills he averages an hour and similar minutiae.

"Suppose you played extremely well, and you stayed in the game an extremely
long time," military economist Col. Casey Wardynski told Webb. "You might
just get an e-mail seeing if you'd like any additional information on the

Through an exclusive long-term contract the Army signed with the French
software company Ubisoft, America's Army will be out in a "console" version,
for use with Xbox and Sony game machines. Currently, it is playable only on
high-end PCs, "which reaches a certain demographic for household income,"
Wardynski tells an interviewer. "We'd like to reach a broader audience, and
consoles get you there. For every PC gamer, there are four console gamers."
Also in the works, he says, are an America's Army clothing line, comic books
and toy action figures.

When American's Army was released, Webb reported, Miami attorney Jack
Thompson went on ABC News and threatened to seek an injunction, saying it
wasn't the government's job to provide kill 'em games to youngsters. "He was
deluged with angry e-mail and allegedly received death threats," the article

In an interview by telephone, Thompson said he reported death threats he
received by email through chatrooms to America's Army website administrators
after he appeared on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings in 2002. He
called those idle threats, but opined, "I wouldn't be surprised if DOD
and/or the video game industry had [Webb] killed... A lot of money and power
is at stake." The commercial video game industry is grossing $15 billion
yearly, according to Thompson.

Thompson recently wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain calling for the ouster
of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld because of his support of the
Institute for Creative Technologies (ICI) at the University of Southern
California (USC). Thompson writes, "It is now known that ITC has taken
taxpayer dollars and created an urban warfare virtual reality simulator for
our soldiers a) which is being sold as a commercial game to civilian
teenagers, with Rumsfeld's approval, and b) and which is being used by
foreign terrorists to train their operatives to repulse our troops in Iraq."

On November 20, USC announced it received a second five-year grant for ICI,
with the U.S. Army more than doubling its support to $100 million. The
endowment represents the largest research grant ever received by USC. With
the $45 million the University has spent since 1999, it developed two games,
Full Spectrum Command (PC) and Full Spectrum Warrior (Xbox), which has since
become a top-selling consumer game. Imbued with a high level of artificial
intelligence (AI) capabilities, both games contain features tailored to the
Army's training methods and were developed with teaching personnel at the
infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, according to a USC press release.

In a bizarre coincidence, as reports of Webb's death were circulating,
Oracle software announced it finally succeeded in its hostile takeover of
PeopleSoft. Webb had worked for the state of California as a member of an
audit committee investigating former Gov. Gray Davis' controversial award of
a $95 million no-bid contract to Oracle Corp. in 2001. Tom Dresslar, a
spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, was quoted in Webb's
obituaries around the state as a fellow member of that committee.

During the lead up to the announcement of the Scott Peterson death penalty
verdict on Monday, Fox News ran an interview with Oracle chief Larry Ellison
claiming the US economy is on the upswing, while the news runner at the
bottom of the screen attempted to debunk stories run by all the major
networks that Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko

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