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