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U.S. Journalism's Shameful Anniversary

By Robert Parry
December 9, 2005

One year ago, reporter Gary Webb – his life in ruins – killed himself with a handgun. The tragedy made him the final victim of a long-running cover-up protecting the Reagan-Bush administration’s tolerance of drug trafficking by its client army, the Nicaraguan contras.

But Webb’s death also could be blamed on the fecklessness of modern American journalism. The nation’s leading newspapers had driven the 49-year-old father of three to his desperate act rather than admit that they had bungled one of the biggest stories of the Reagan-Bush era – the contra-cocaine scandal.

Webb might be alive today if the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had shown the decency to explain the importance of what the Central Intelligence Agency’s inspector general acknowledged in a two-volume report in 1998.

In that investigation – sparked by Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series for the San Jose Mercury-News in 1996 – CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz found that the spy agency hid evidence of contra-cocaine trafficking in the 1980s, even disrupting federal investigations that threatened to expose the secret.

Though insisting that the CIA didn’t authorize the contra-cocaine trafficking, Hitz’s report revealed that the criminality was even more pervasive than Webb believed (his series had focused on only one contra-cocaine pipeline into California). Hitz’s investigation found more than 50 contras and contra entities implicated in the drug trade.

Hitz also was told by CIA officers that the motive for the cover-up was that they put their mission of overthrowing Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government ahead of law enforcement that might have disrupted or discredited the contra operation.

A careful explication of the CIA’s extraordinary admissions in 1998 would have largely vindicated Webb, who had been driven out of the Mercury-News after the Big Three newspapers and other national publications ganged up on Webb and his story.

Revisiting the scandal in a serious way also would have recognized the brave work on the issue by Sen. John Kerry in the latter half of the 1980s – and corroborated the initial contra-cocaine article that I co-wrote with Brian Barger for the Associated Press in 1985.

Turf Wars

Yet, even as the CIA was – more or less – coming clean in 1998, the Big Three newspapers were determined to protect their turf and spare themselves from criticism for having rebuffed the contra-cocaine story in the 1980s and mocked it again after Webb’s series surfaced a decade later.

In 1998, with public attention riveted on Bill Clinton’s possible impeachment over his sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the Big Three either kissed off the CIA findings with superficial stories – as the New York Times and the Washington Post did – or ignored the CIA’s final report entirely, the course chosen by the Los Angeles Times.

Those journalistic decisions denied the American people a truthful understanding of their recent history and consigned Webb to a professional netherworld where he couldn’t find decent-paying work as a reporter.

With his career shattered, his marriage fell apart. By fall 2004, he found himself living in a rental property on the verge of eviction. On the night of Dec. 9, he typed out four suicide notes for his family, laid out a certificate for his cremation, put a note on the door suggesting a call to 911, and removed his father’s handgun from a box.

Webb then shot himself in the head, though the first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more. His body was found the next day after movers arrived and followed the instructions from the note on the door.

Webb’s suicide offered the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times one more opportunity to set matters right, to revisit the CIA’s admissions in 1998 and to exact some accountability on the Reagan-Bush officials implicated in protecting the contra crimes.

But all that followed Gary Webb’s death was more trashing of Gary Webb. The Los Angeles Times ran a graceless obituary that treated Webb like a low-life criminal, rather than a journalist who took on a tough story and paid a high price. The Times obituary was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.

Later, on March 16, 2005, Los Angeles Times writer Tina Daunt produced a lengthy feature piece about Webb’s death, covering three pages. But again the tone was derisive of Webb personally and dismissive of his work.

While going into detail about Webb’s suicide and into criticism of Webb’s career, the article showed no indication that Daunt had read either the CIA’s two-volume report or another report by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Both reports took swings at Webb, but contained stunning disclosures about both the government’s knowledge of contra-cocaine trafficking and obstructions of drug investigations.

No evaluation of Webb’s work could be complete – or fair – without explaining the CIA’s findings.

For instance, if Daunt had cited the CIA’s conclusion that scores of contra operatives and drug lords had exploited their cozy relationship with the Reagan-Bush administration to smuggle cocaine into the United States, then carping about details of Webb’s original series would seem absurd and even offensive.

Or, if Daunt wanted to mount a serious critique of Webb’s work, she still would have needed to evaluate what was in the government reports, particularly the most exhaustive part known as Volume II of the CIA’s contra-cocaine investigation.

Instead, Daunt devoted just one paragraph to the CIA report and then misrepresented the findings. She wrote: “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.”

So, with that inaccurate description of the CIA’s own admissions, the Los Angeles Times pulled a final curtain around Gary Webb’s work and life. But the curtain was just as much a way to conceal an ugly chapter of modern American history and of the Big Three’s failure to fulfill their duty to the public.

Contra-Cocaine Case

In my 1999 book Lost History, I deal at length with the earlier exposure of the contra-cocaine trafficking and the investigations that followed Webb’s series. But on this first anniversary of Webb’s death, I am including a summary of that history below:

The contra-cocaine story first reached the public in a story that Brian Barger and I wrote for the Associated Press in December 1985. Even then we had extensive evidence, including official documents from Costa Rica, alleging that contra units were helping major cocaine traffickers at clandestine air strips and commercial ports.

Though the big newspapers pooh-poohed our discovery, Sen. Kerry followed up our story with his own groundbreaking investigation in early 1986 when Ronald Reagan was at the height of his power and George H.W. Bush was eyeing a run for the White House.

The Reagan-Bush administration did whatever it could to thwart Kerry's investigation, including attempting to discredit witnesses, stonewalling the Senate when it requested evidence, and assigning the CIA to monitor Kerry's probe.

But it couldn't stop Kerry and his investigators from discovering the explosive truth: the contra war was permeated with drug traffickers who gave the contras money, weapons and equipment in exchange for help in smuggling cocaine into the United States.

Kerry also found that U.S. government agencies knew about the contra-drug connection, but turned a blind eye to the evidence in order to avoid undermining a top Reagan-Bush foreign policy initiative.

For his efforts, however, Kerry encountered either media indifference or ridicule. Reflecting the dominant attitude toward Kerry and his probe, Newsweek dubbed the Massachusetts senator a “randy conspiracy buff.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Kerry’s Contra-Cocaine Chapter.”]

In the ensuing years, other confirmation of the contra-cocaine problem did pop up. During the 1991 federal drug trial of Panama’s dictator Manuel Noriega, the U.S. government called to the stand Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder, who testified that the Medellin cartel had given $10 million to the Nicaraguan contras, a claim that one of Kerry’s witnesses had made years earlier.

For once, the Washington Post praised Kerry for his earlier investigation. “The Kerry hearings didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time,” a Post editorial said on Nov. 27, 1991 – without noting that one of the principal reasons for the neglect was the Post's own poor reporting on the scandal.

Webb’s Series

But the Post and the other major newspapers seemed to have forgotten that history when Gary Webb revived the contra-cocaine issue in August 1996 with a 20,000-word three-part series entitled “Dark Alliance.”

The series looked at the impact of the contra-cocaine shipments on the early “crack” cocaine epidemic that devastated African-American communities in South Central Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.

Instead of seeing Webb’s articles as a chance to finally give the scandal the attention it deserved, editors at the major newspapers saw the San Jose Mercury-News articles as an indirect indictment of their dismissive judgments about the issue in the 1980s.

The threat from Webb’s series was compounded by the fact that the Mercury-News’ sophisticated Web site ensured that the stories made a big splash on the Internet, which was just emerging as a rival to traditional newspapers. Also, African-American leaders were furious that U.S. government policies might have contributed to the devastation that “crack” unleashed on their communities.

In other words, the mostly white, male editors at the major newspapers saw their preeminence in judging news challenged by an upstart regional newspaper, the Internet and common American citizens who also happened to be black. So, even as the CIA was prepared to conduct a relatively thorough and honest investigation, the major newspapers seemed more eager to protect their reputations and their turf.

Without doubt, Webb’s series had its limitations. It primarily tracked one West Coast network of contra-cocaine traffickers from the early-to-mid 1980s. Webb connected that cocaine to an early “crack” production network that supplied Los Angeles street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods.

Counterattack

When black leaders began demanding a full investigation of these charges, the Washington news media began circling the wagons.

It fell to Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Washington Times to begin the counterattack against Webb’s series. The Washington Times turned to some former CIA officials, who participated in the contra war, to refute the drug charges.

But – in a pattern that would repeat itself on other issues in the following years – the Washington Post and other mainstream newspapers quickly lined up behind the conservative news media. On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s story.

The Post’s approach was twofold: first, it presented the contra-cocaine allegations as old news – “even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,” the Post reported – and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted – that it had not “played a major role in the emergence of crack.” A Post side-bar story dismissed African-Americans as prone to “conspiracy fears.”

Soon, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times joined in the piling on of Gary Webb. The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 that supposedly cleared the spy agency of a role in contra-cocaine smuggling.

But the CIA’s decade-old cover-up began to crumble on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only 12 days, the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.

Mocking Webb

Meanwhile, Gary Webb became the target of outright media ridicule. Influential Post media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the contra war was primarily a business to its participants. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz chortled. [Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1996]

Webb’s suspicion was not unfounded, however. Indeed, White House aide Oliver North’s emissary Rob Owen had made the same point a decade earlier, in a March 17, 1986, message about the contra leadership. “Few of the so-called leaders of the movement … really care about the boys in the field,” Owen wrote. “THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Capitalization in the original.]

Nevertheless, the pillorying of Gary Webb was on, in earnest. The ridicule also had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury-News. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos was in retreat.

On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page column saying the series “fell short of my standards.” He criticized the stories because they “strongly implied CIA knowledge” of contra connections to U.S. drug dealers who were manufacturing crack-cocaine. “We did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship,” Ceppos wrote.

The big newspapers celebrated Ceppos’s retreat as vindication of their own dismissal of the contra-cocaine stories. Ceppos next pulled the plug on the Mercury-News’ continuing contra-cocaine investigation and reassigned Webb to a small office in Cupertino, California, far from his family. Webb resigned the paper in disgrace.

For undercutting Webb and other reporters working on the contra investigation, Ceppos was lauded by the American Journalism Review and was given the 1997 national “Ethics in Journalism Award” by the Society of Professional Journalists. While Ceppos won raves, Webb watched his career collapse and his marriage break up.

Probes Advance

Still, Gary Webb had set in motion internal government investigations that would bring to the surface long-hidden facts about how the Reagan-Bush administration had conducted the contra war. The CIA’s defensive line against the contra-cocaine allegations began to break when the spy agency published Volume One of Hitz’s findings on Jan. 29, 1998.

Despite a largely exculpatory press release, Hitz’s Volume One admitted that not only were many of Webb’s allegations true but that he actually understated the seriousness of the contra-drug crimes and the CIA’s knowledge.

Hitz acknowledged that cocaine smugglers played a significant early role in the Nicaraguan contra movement and that the CIA intervened to block an image-threatening 1984 federal investigation into a San Francisco-based drug ring with suspected ties to the contras.

On May 7, 1998, another disclosure from the government investigation shook the CIA’s weakening defenses.

Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, introduced into the Congressional Record a Feb. 11, 1982, letter of understanding between the CIA and the Justice Department. The letter, which had been sought by CIA Director William Casey, freed the CIA from legal requirements that it must report drug smuggling by CIA assets, a provision that covered both the Nicaraguan contras and Afghan rebels who were fighting a Soviet-supported regime in Afghanistan.

Justice Report

The next breach in the defensive wall was a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general Michael Bromwich. Given the hostile climate surrounding Webb’s series, Bromwich’s report opened with criticism of Webb. But, like the CIA’s Volume One, the contents revealed new details about government wrongdoing.

According to evidence cited by Bromwich, the Reagan-Bush administration knew almost from the outset of the contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the paramilitary operation. The administration also did next to nothing to expose or stop the crimes.

Bromwich’s report revealed example after example of leads not followed, corroborated witnesses disparaged, official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged, and even the CIA facilitating the work of drug traffickers.

The report showed that the contras and their supporters ran several parallel drug-smuggling operations, not just the one at the center of Webb’s series. The report also found that the CIA shared little of its information about contra drugs with law-enforcement agencies and on three occasions disrupted cocaine-trafficking investigations that threatened the contras.

Though depicting a more widespread contra-drug operation than Webb had understood, the Justice report also provided some important corroboration about a Nicaraguan drug smuggler, Norwin Meneses, who was a key figure in Webb’s series. Bromwich cited U.S. government informants who supplied detailed information about Meneses’s operation and his financial assistance to the contras.

For instance, Renato Pena, a money-and-drug courier for Meneses, said that in the early 1980s, the CIA allowed the contras to fly drugs into the United States, sell them and keep the proceeds. Pena, who also was the northern California representative for the CIA-backed FDN contra army, said the drug trafficking was forced on the contras by the inadequate levels of U.S. government assistance.

The Justice report also disclosed repeated examples of the CIA and U.S. embassies in Central America discouraging Drug Enforcement Administration investigations, including one into contra-cocaine shipments moving through the airport in El Salvador.

Inspector General Bromwich said secrecy trumped all. “We have no doubt that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy were not anxious for the DEA to pursue its investigation at the airport,” he wrote.

CIA's Volume Two

Despite the remarkable admissions in the body of these reports, the big newspapers showed no inclination to read beyond the press releases and executive summaries.

By fall 1998, official Washington was obsessed with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which made it easier to ignore even more stunning contra-cocaine disclosures in the CIA’s Volume Two..

In Volume Two, published Oct. 8, 1998, CIA Inspector General Hitz identified more than 50 contras and contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan-Bush administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations, which had threatened to expose the crimes in the mid-1980s.

Hitz even published evidence that drug trafficking and money laundering tracked into Reagan’s National Security Council where Oliver North oversaw the contra operations.

Hitz revealed, too, that the CIA placed an admitted drug money launderer in charge of the Southern Front contras in Costa Rica. Also, according to Hitz’s evidence, the second-in-command of contra forces on the Northern Front in Honduras had escaped from a Colombian prison where he was serving time for drug trafficking

In Volume Two, the CIA’s defense against Webb’s series had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking. But Hitz made clear that the contra war took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld evidence of contra crimes from the Justice Department, the Congress and even the CIA’s own analytical division.

Hitz found in CIA files evidence that the spy agency knew from the first days of the contra war that its new clients were involved in the cocaine trade. According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, one of the early contra groups, known as ADREN, had decided to use drug trafficking as a financing mechanism. Two ADREN members made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981, the CIA cable reported.

ADREN’s leaders included Enrique Bermudez, who emerged as the top contra military commander in the 1980s. Webb’s series had identified Bermudez as giving the green light to contra fundraising by drug trafficker Meneses. Hitz’s report added that the CIA had another Nicaraguan witness who implicated Bermudez in the drug trade in 1988.

Priorities

Besides tracing the evidence of contra-drug trafficking through the decade-long contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the contra-drug problem but didn’t want its exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.

According to Hitz, the CIA had “one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government. … [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the contra program.” One CIA field officer explained, “The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.”

Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations officers handling the contra war hid evidence of contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA’s analytical division. Because of the withheld evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that “only a handful of contras might have been involved in drug trafficking.” That false assessment was passed on to Congress and the major news organizations – serving as an important basis for denouncing Gary Webb and his series in 1996.

Though Hitz’s report was an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it passed almost unnoticed by the big newspapers.

Two days after Hitz’s report was posted at the CIA’s Internet site, the New York Times did a brief article that continued to deride Webb’s work, while acknowledging that the contra-drug problem may indeed have been worse than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles Times never published a story on the release of the CIA’s Volume Two.

Consequences

To this day, no editor or reporter who missed the contra-cocaine story has been punished for his or her negligence. Indeed, some of them are now top executives at their news organizations. On the other hand, Gary Webb’s career never recovered.

The repeated mishandling of the contra-cocaine scandal also was a forewarning of the media’s failure to challenge the case for war with Iraq that George W. Bush sold in late 2002 and early 2003. In the late 1990s, that pattern of journalistic ineptitude deepened as the contra-cocaine case revealed the press corps’ inability to grapple with complex crimes of state.

National journalists came to understand that playing along with the powerful was the best way to protect one’s career, while going against the grain could mean sudden unemployment and a loss of one’s livelihood..

But – on the anniversary of Webb’s death – it should be noted that his great gift to American history was that he – along with angry African-American citizens – forced the government to admit some of the worst crimes ever condoned by any White House: the protection of drug smuggling into the United States as part of a covert war against a country, Nicaragua, that represented no real threat to Americans.

The truth was ugly. Certainly the major news organizations would have come under criticism themselves if they had done their job and laid out this troubling story to the American people. Conservative defenders of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush would have been sure to howl in protest.

But the real tragedy of Webb’s historic gift – and of his tragic end – is that because of the major news media’s callowness and cowardice, this dark chapter of the Reagan-Bush era remains unknown to many Americans.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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