A closer look at the Bush record -- from
the war in Iraq to the war on the environment
take the exit ramp off the Bush presidency in November?
Colin Powell's Legend
Colin Powell's sterling reputation in Washington hides his life-long role
as water-carrier for conservative ideologues.
Recounting the controversial presidential campaign
Is the national media a danger to democracy?
The Clinton Scandals
The story behind President Clinton's impeachment
Pinochet & Other Characters
The Dark Side of Rev. Moon
Rev. Sun Myung Moon and American politics
Contra drug stories uncovered
How the American historical record has been tainted by lies and cover-ups
The October Surprise
The 1980 October Surprise scandal exposed
From free trade to the Kosovo crisis
Other Investigative Stories
Hung Out to Dry: How Webb's
By Georg Hodel
From the Consortiumnews.com's Archives
Editor's Note: We published the following story in
1997 when senior editors at the San Jose Mercury News were pulling the
plug on Gary Webb's investigation into the Reagan-Bush administration's
contra-cocaine scandal. Our article was written by Georg Hodel, a
journalist working with Webb at the Mercury News. We are republishing
Hodel's story now to help readers better understand how Webb's
journalistic career was shattered, beginning his decline toward suicide
--Robert Parry, Editor, December 16, 2004
Hung Out to Dry (Summer 1997)
By Georg Hodel
The "Dark Alliance"
contra-crack series, which I co-reported with Gary Webb, has died with
less a bang or a whimper than a gloat from the mainstream press.
"The San Jose Mercury News has apparently had enough of
reporter Gary Webb and his efforts to prove that the CIA was involved in
the sale of crack cocaine," announced Washington Post media
critic Howard Kurtz, who has written some of the harshest attacks on
Webb. "Editors at the California newspaper have yanked Webb off the
story and told him they will not publish his follow-up articles. They
have also moved to transfer Webb from the state capital bureau in
Sacramento to a less prestigious suburban office in Cupertino."
[Washington Post, June 11, 1997]
Webb got the news on June 5, 1997, from executive editor Jerry Ceppos,
who had publicly turned against the series several weeks earlier with a
personal column declaring that the stories "fell short of my standards"
and failed to handle the "gray areas" with sufficient care. [San Jose
Mercury News, May 11, 1997]
In killing the new stories, Ceppos said Mercury News editors
had reservations about the credibility of a principal Webb source,
apparently a reference to convicted cocaine trafficker Carlos Cabezas,
who has claimed that a CIA agent oversaw the transfer of drug profits to
the contras. Ceppos also complained that Webb had gotten too close to
Ceppos then ordered Webb to the paper's San Jose headquarters the next
day to learn about his future with the newspaper. On June 6, 1997, as
that final decision was coming down, I called Ceppos to protest. I
wanted him to understand the human as well as journalistic costs of what
he was doing, not just to Webb but to other journalists associated with
the story in Nicaragua where I have worked for more than a decade.
I thought he should know that his decision to distance himself from the
"Dark Alliance" series -- combined with earlier attacks from major
American newspapers -- had increased the dangers to me and others who
have been pursuing this story in the field.
Just as Webb has been under personal attack in the United States, I have
faced efforts from former contras to tear down my reputation in
Nicaragua. Ex-contras also have harassed Nicaraguan reporters who have
tried to follow up the contra-cocaine evidence.
In one paid advertisement, Oscar Danilo Blandon, a drug trafficker who
has admitted donating some cocaine profits to the contras in the early
1980s, called me a "pseudo-journalist" and accused me of having some
unspecified links to an "international communist organization." Blandon
also accused Nicaraguan reporters from El Nuevo Diario of
"trying to manipulate" members of the U.S. Congress looking into the
Former contra chief Adolfo Calero declared in an article in La
Tribuna what he thought should be done to these politically suspect
Nicaraguan and foreign reporters. He used metaphorical language that
refers to leftist Nicaraguan journalists as "deer" and fellow-traveling
foreign reporters as "antelopes." "The deer are going to be finished
off," Calero wrote on Feb. 2, 1997. "In this case, the antelopes as
well." As a Swiss journalist, I would be an "antelope."
Less subtly, there have been threatening phone calls to my office. In
late May 1997, a male voice shouted obscenities at me over the phone and
threatened to "screw" my wife who is a Nicaraguan lawyer representing
Enrique Miranda, one of the Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers who has
spoken with congressional investigators.
Earlier I had sent Ceppos a letter which complained that his May 11
"column provoked ... a series of very unfortunate reactions that
seriously affect my working environment and exposes unintentionally
everybody here who has been involved in this investigation." In the
phone conversation on June 6, 1997, Ceppos first denied having received
the letter, but then admitted that he had it. Still, he refused my
request that the letter be published.
A Clear Message
My appeal also did not stop Ceppos from informing Webb later that day
that the investigative reporter would be transferred to a suburban
office 150 miles from his home where he and his wife are raising three
young children. That would mean that Webb would have to relocate from
Sacramento or not see his family during the work week. The message was
clear and Webb did not miss its significance: he saw the transfer as a
clear message that the Mercury News wanted him to quit.
The retributions against Webb were a sad end to the "Dark Alliance"
series which has been enveloped in controversy since it was published in
August 1996. The series linked contra-cocaine shipments in the early
1980s to a Los Angeles drug pipeline that first mass-marketed "crack"
cocaine to inner-city neighborhoods.
The series drew especially strong reactions from the African-American
community which has been devastated by the crack epidemic. In fall 1996,
however, The Washington Post and other major newspapers began
attacking the series for alleged overstatements. The papers also mocked
African-Americans for supposedly being susceptible to baseless
The furor obscured the fact that "Dark Alliance" built upon more than a
decade of evidence amassed by journalists, congressional investigators
and agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration who found numerous
connections between the contras and drug traffickers. Some of that
evidence was compiled in a Senate report issued in 1989 by a
subcommittee headed by Sen. John Kerry. Other pieces came out during the
Iran-contra scandal and still more during the drug-trafficking trial of
Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega in 1991.
But the contras were always defended by the Reagan-Bush administrations
which saw the guerrillas as a necessary geo-political counterweight to
the leftist Sandinista government that ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s.
With a few exceptions, the mainstream media joined the White House in
protecting the contras -- and the CIA -- on the drug-trafficking
evidence. [For details, see Robert Parry's
History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.']
Still, from time to time, even The Washington Post has
acknowledged legitimate concerns about contra drug trafficking. In fall
1996, for instance, after initiating the attacks on "Dark Alliance," the
Post ran a front-page article describing how Medellin cartel
trafficker George Morales "contributed at least two airplanes and
$90,000 to" one of the contra groups operating in Costa Rica. The story
quoted contra leaders Octaviano Cesar and Adolfo "Popo" Chamorro as
admitting receipt of the contributions, although they insisted that they
had cleared the transactions with their contact at the CIA. [Washington
Post, Oct. 31, 1996]
The Post did not mention the name of that contact, an omission
that angered Chamorro. He told me that the CIA man was Alan Fiers, who
served as chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force in the
mid-1980s. Fiers has denied any illicit involvement with drug
traffickers, although he testified to the congressional Iran-contra
investigators that he knew that among the Costa Rican-based contras,
drug trafficking involved "not a couple of people. It was a lot of
While admitting some truth to the contra-cocaine allegations, the
Post story stopped short of any self-criticism about the
newspaper's failure to expose the contra-drug problem in the 1980s as
the cocaine was entering the United States. In the Oct. 31, 1996, story,
the Post only noted that "a broad congressional inquiry from
1986 to 1988 ... found that CIA and other officials may have chosen to
overlook evidence that some contra groups were engaged in the drug trade
or were cooperating with traffickers."
The Post then added obliquely: "But that probe caused little
stir when its report was released." With that indirect phrasing, the
Post seemed to be shunting off blame for the "little stir" onto the
congressional report. The newspaper did not explain why it buried the
Senate report's explosive findings on page A20. [Washington Post, April
14, 1989]. Instead, last fall, the Post and other big papers
focused almost exclusively on alleged flaws in "Dark Alliance."
When that drumbeat of criticism began, Ceppos initially defended the
series. He wrote a supportive letter to the Post (which the
newspaper refused to publish). But the weight of the attacks from major
newspapers and leading journalism reviews eventually softened up the
Mercury News. Inside the paper, young staffers feared that the
controversy could hurt their chances of getting hired by bigger
newspapers. Senior editors fretted about their careers in the
Knight-Ridder chain, which owns the Mercury News.
In the meantime, Webb and I continued following contra-drug leads in
Nicaragua and the United States. The new information eventually became
the basis for Webb's submission of four new stories to Ceppos. Webb has
described these stories as completed drafts although Ceppos called them
Though I have not seen Webb's drafts, I know they include two stories
relating to witnesses in Nicaragua who were part of the cocaine networks
of Norwin Meneses, a longtime Nicaraguan drug trafficker who was based
in San Francisco and who collaborated closely with senior contra
Meneses's operation surfaced with the so-called Frogman case in 1983
when the FBI and Customs captured two divers in wet suits hauling $100
million worth of cocaine ashore at San Francisco Bay. The federal
prosecutor ordered $36,020 captured in that case be given to the contras
who claimed it was their money.
For the new "Dark Alliance" stories, we interviewed Carlos Cabezas who
was convicted of conspiracy in the Frogman case. Cabezas insisted that a
CIA agent -- a Venezuelan named Ivan Gomez -- oversaw the cocaine
operation to make sure the profits went to the contras, not into the
pockets of the traffickers.
Last year, Cabezas outlined his claims in a British ITV documentary.
"They told me who he [Gomez] was and the reason that he was there,"
Cabezas said. "It was to make sure that the money was given to the right
people and nobody was taking advantage of the situation and nobody was
taking profit that they were not supposed to. And that was it. He was
making sure that the money goes to the contra revolution."
The ITV documentary, which aired on Dec. 12, 1996, quoted former CIA
Latin American division chief Duane Clarridge as denying any knowledge
of either Cabezas or Gomez. Clarridge directed the contra war in the
early 1980s and was later indicted on perjury charges in connection with
the Iran-contra scandal. He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush
The new "Dark Alliance" stories also would have examined the claims of
other contra-connected drug witnesses in Nicaragua as well as the career
problems confronted by DEA agents when they uncovered evidence of contra
drug trafficking. But prospects that the full contra-cocaine story will
ever be told in the United States have dimmed with the shutting down of
I am also afraid that Ceppos's decision to punish Webb will strengthen
the campaign of intimidation inside Nicaragua. But beyond the personal
costs to Webb and me, Ceppos's actions sent a chilling message to all
journalists who some day might dare investigate wrongdoing by the CIA
and its operatives.
What's especially troubling about this new "Dark Alliance" tale is
that the investigative spotlight was turned off not by the government,
but by the national news media.
Editor's Post-Script: For more on the aftermath of
this betrayal of the contra-cocaine investigation, see
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb."
to Home Page