Why Journalist Gary Webb Died
Five years ago, a tragedy occurred in American journalism: Investigative reporter Gary Webb – who had been ostracized by his own colleagues for forcing a spotlight back onto an ugly government scandal they wanted to ignore – was driven to commit suicide. But the tragedy had a deeper meaning.
Webb’s death on the night of Dec. 9, 2004, came as the U.S. press corps was at a nadir, having recently aided and abetted President George W. Bush in taking the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses. The press corps also had performed abysmally in Bush’s two presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, hesitant to take on the powerful Bush Family.
In retrospect, Webb’s suicide could be viewed as an exclamation point on that sorry era, which had begun a quarter century earlier with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the gradual retreat – under right-wing fire – of what had once been Washington’s Watergate/Pentagon Papers watchdog press corps.
Yet, five years after Webb’s death, the U.S. news media continues to scrape along the bottom, still easily intimidated by the bluster of right-wing media attack groups and fast-talking neoconservatives – and still gullible in the face of lies and myths used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the sad tale of Gary Webb remains instructive for anyone wanting to understand what went wrong with the U.S. news media and why much more work is needed to rebuild an independent press corps as a safeguard for the American Republic.
Webb’s important historical role began in 1996 when his "Dark Alliance" investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News revived public interest in the CIA’s tolerance of cocaine trafficking by President Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan contra rebels in the 1980s, at a time when Reagan was promoting a “just say no/zero tolerance/war on drugs.”
The scandal of contra cocaine trafficking and the CIA’s protection of these crimes had surfaced in the 1980s, but the Big Three newspapers – New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – paid the scandal little heed, mostly accepting the denials of Reagan administration insiders.
So, when Webb shed new light on the scandal in 1996, the same newspapers subjected Webb to a merciless assault and rejoiced when Webb’s editors caved in to the pressure and forced Webb to quit in disgrace.
Nevertheless, Webb’s series prompted an internal CIA investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz who issued two reports in 1998 containing devastating admissions about the CIA’s knowledge and protection of contras known to be active in the cocaine trade.
The Big Three newspapers’ response was mostly to downplay or ignore Hitz’s findings, rather than to correct the record.
Because of this misused power of the Big Three – in this case, to protect the reputation of the Reagan administration and their own failings – Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated. He was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a move out of a modest rental house near Sacramento.
So, on Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; he laid out a certificate for his cremation; he taped a note on the door telling movers – who were coming the next morning – to instead call 911.
Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.
Even with Webb’s death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction couldn’t bring themselves to show Webb any mercy.
After Webb’s body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work. Back in 1985 for the Associated Press, I also had co-written with Brian Barger the first story exposing the contra-cocaine scandal.
I told the L.A. Times reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the L.A. Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents of the CIA inspector general’s final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.
To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The L.A. Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb, nor the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The Times obituary was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.
In effect, Webb’s suicide had enabled senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little easier, since one of the few people who understood the true and ugly story of not only the Reagan administration’s protection of the contra-cocaine trafficking but the U.S. media’s complicity in the cover-up was now silenced.
To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has been punished for their actions. None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. Instead, the death of Gary Webb and the circumstances surrounding it have remained one of the U.S. news media’s dirty little secrets.
In recognition of that continuing injustice, I believe it’s fitting on the fifth anniversary of Webb’s death to remind the American people of what Webb’s work helped expose.
Webb’s suicide in 2004 had its roots in his fateful decision eight years earlier to write a three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News that challenged a potent conventional wisdom shared by the elite U.S. news organizations – that one of the most shocking scandals of the 1980s just couldn’t possibly be true.
Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series, published in August 1996, revived the decade-old allegations that the Reagan administration in the 1980s had tolerated and protected cocaine smuggling by its client army of Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.
Though substantial evidence of the contra crimes had surfaced in the mid-1980s (initially in an article that Brian Barger and I wrote for the Associated Press in December 1985 and later at hearings conducted by Sen. John Kerry), the major news outlets had refused to take the disclosures seriously.
For instance, reflecting the dominant attitude toward Kerry and his work on the contra-cocaine scandal, Newsweek dubbed the Massachusetts senator a “randy conspiracy buff.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Kerry’s Contra-Cocaine Chapter” or Robert Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Thus, the truth of the contra-cocaine scandal was left in that netherworld of uncertainty, largely proven with documents and testimony but never accepted by Official Washington.
But Webb’s series thrust the scandal back into prominence by connecting the contra-cocaine trafficking to the spread of crack that ravaged Los Angeles and other American urban centers in the 1980s. For that reason, African-American communities were up in arms as were their elected representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series offered a unique opportunity for the major news outlets to finally give the contra-cocaine scandal the attention it deserved.
But that would have required some painful self-criticism among Washington journalists whose careers had advanced in part because they had not offended Reagan supporters who had made an art out of punishing out-of-step reporters for pursuing controversies like the contra-cocaine scandal.
Also, by the mid-1990s, a powerful right-wing news media had taken shape and was in no mood to accept the notion that many of President Reagan’s beloved contras were drug traffickers. That recognition would have cast a shadow over the Reagan Legacy, which the Right was busy elevating into mythic status.
There was the turf issue, too. Since Webb’s stories coincided with the emergence of the Internet as an alternate source for news and the San Jose Mercury News was at the center of Silicon Valley, the big newspapers saw a threat to their historic dominance as the nation’s gatekeepers for what information should be taken seriously.
Plus, the major media’s focus in the mid-1990s was on scandals swirling around Bill Clinton, such as some firings at the White House Travel Office and convoluted questions about his old Whitewater real-estate deal.
In other words, there was little appetite to revisit scandals from the Reagan years and there were strong motives to disparage what Webb had written.
Rev. Moon’s Newspaper
It fell to Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Washington Times to begin the counterattack. The Washington Times turned to some ex-CIA officials, who had participated in the contra war, to refute the drug charges.
Then – in a pattern that would repeat itself over the next decade – the Washington Post and other mainstream newspapers quickly lined up behind the right-wing press. On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s story, although acknowledging that some contra operatives did help the cocaine cartels.
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 sniffed – 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 against Gary Webb. The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 – almost a decade earlier – that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of a role in contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the CIA’s decade-old cover-up began to weaken 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.
Nevertheless, Webb was becoming the target of 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 smirked. [Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1996]
Webb’s suspicion was not unfounded, however. Indeed, White House aide Oliver North’s chief contra emissary Rob Owen had made the same point 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.]
In other words, Webb had been right and Kurtz had been wrong.
Mercury News Retreat
Still, although Kurtz and other big-name journalists may have been ignorant of key facts about the contra war, they still pilloried Gary Webb.
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 and Reagan’s defenders 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 Mercury News 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 administration had conducted the contra war.
The CIA published the first part of Inspector General 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, the so-called “Frogman Case.”
On May 7, 1998, another disclosure shook the earlier presumptions of the Reagan administration’s innocence. 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 requested 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 and who were implicated in heroin trafficking.
The next break in the cover-up was a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Bromwich. Given the hostile climate surrounding Webb’s series, Bromwich’s report also 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 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 drug 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 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 international 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.
Despite the remarkable admissions in the body of these reports, the big newspapers showed no inclination to read beyond the criticism of Webb in the press releases.
Cocaine Crimes & Monica
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 on 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 administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.
According to Volume Two, the CIA knew the criminal nature of its contra clients from the start of the war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
The earliest contra force, called ADREN or the 15th of September Legion, had chosen “to stoop to criminal activities in order to feed and clothe their cadre,” according to a June 1981 draft CIA field report.
According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, two ADREN members made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981.
ADREN's leaders included Enrique Bermudez and other early contras who would later direct the major contra army, the CIA-organized FDN. Throughout the war, Bermudez remained the top contra military commander.
The CIA later corroborated the allegations about ADREN’s cocaine trafficking, but insisted that Bermudez had opposed the drug shipments to the United States which went ahead nonetheless.
Ends and Means
The truth about Bermudez’s supposed objections to drug trafficking, however, was less clear. According to Hitz’s Volume One, Bermudez enlisted Norwin Meneses, a large-scale Nicaraguan cocaine smuggler, to raise money and buy supplies for the contras.
Volume One had quoted a Meneses associate, another Nicaraguan trafficker named Danilo Blandon, who told Hitz’s investigators that he and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet with Bermudez in 1982.
At the time, Meneses’s criminal activities were well known in the Nicaraguan exile community. But Bermudez told the cocaine smugglers that “the ends justify the means” in raising money for the contras.
After the Bermudez meeting, contra soldiers helped Meneses and Blandon get past Honduran police who briefly arrested them on drug-trafficking suspicions. After their release, Blandon and Meneses traveled on to Bolivia to complete a cocaine transaction.
There were other indications of Bermudez’s drug-smuggling tolerance. In February 1988, another Nicaraguan exile linked to the drug trade accused Bermudez of participation in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitz’s report.
After the contra war ended, Bermudez returned to Managua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder has never been solved.
Along the Southern Front, in Costa Rica, the drug evidence centered on the forces of Eden Pastora, another leading contra commander. But Hitz discovered that the U.S. government may have made matters worse.
Hitz revealed that the CIA put an admitted drug operative – known by his CIA pseudonym “Ivan Gomez” – in a supervisory position over Pastora. Hitz reported that the CIA discovered Gomez’s drug history in 1987 when Gomez failed a security review on drug-trafficking questions.
In internal CIA interviews, Gomez admitted that in March or April 1982, he helped family members who were engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. In one case, Gomez said he assisted his brother and brother-in-law in transporting cash from New York City to Miami. He admitted that he “knew this act was illegal.”
Later, Gomez expanded on his admission, describing how his family members had fallen $2 million into debt and had gone to Miami to run a money-laundering center for drug traffickers. Gomez said “his brother had many visitors whom [Gomez] assumed to be in the drug trafficking business.”
Gomez’s brother was arrested on drug charges in June 1982. Three months later, in September 1982, Gomez started his CIA assignment in Costa Rica.
Years later, convicted drug trafficker Carlos Cabezas alleged that in the early 1980s, Ivan Gomez was the CIA agent in Costa Rica who was overseeing drug-money donations to the contras.
Gomez “was to make sure the money was given to the right people [the contras] and nobody was taking ... profit they weren’t supposed to,” Cabezas stated publicly.
But the CIA sought to discredit Cabezas at the time because he had trouble identifying Gomez’s picture and put Gomez at one meeting in early 1982 before Gomez started his CIA assignment.
While the CIA was able to fend off Cabezas’s allegations by pointing to these discrepancies, Hitz’s report revealed that the CIA was nevertheless aware of Gomez’s direct role in drug-money laundering, a fact the agency hid from Sen. Kerry’s investigation in 1987.
The Bolivian Connection
There also was more about Gomez. In November 1985, the FBI learned from an informant that Gomez’s two brothers had been large-scale cocaine importers, with one brother arranging shipments from Bolivia’s infamous drug kingpin Roberto Suarez.
Suarez already was known as a financier of right-wing causes. In 1980, with the support of Argentine’s hard-line anti-communist military regime, Suarez bankrolled a coup in Bolivia that ousted the elected left-of-center government.
The violent putsch became known as the Cocaine Coup because it made Bolivia the region's first narco-state. Bolivia’s government-protected cocaine shipments helped transform the Medellin cartel from a struggling local operation into a giant corporate-style business for delivering cocaine to the U.S. market.
Flush with cash in the early 1980s, Suarez invested more than $30 million in various right-wing paramilitary operations, including the contra forces in Central America, according to U.S. Senate testimony by an Argentine intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse.
In 1987, Sanchez-Reisse said the Suarez drug money was laundered through front companies in Miami before going to Central America. There, other Argentine intelligence officers – veterans of the Bolivian coup – trained the contras.
Inspector General Hitz added another piece to the mystery of the Bolivian-contra connection. One contra fund-raiser, Jose Orlando Bolanos, boasted that the Argentine government was supporting his contra activities, according to a May 1982 cable to CIA headquarters.
Bolanos made the statement during a meeting with undercover DEA agents in Florida. He even offered to introduce them to his Bolivian cocaine supplier.
Containing the Scandal
Despite all this suspicious drug activity around Ivan Gomez and the contras, the CIA insisted that it did not unmask Gomez until 1987, when he failed a security check and confessed his role in his family’s drug business.
The CIA official who interviewed Gomez concluded that “Gomez directly participated in illegal drug transactions, concealed participation in illegal drug transactions, and concealed information about involvement in illegal drug activity," Hitz wrote.
But senior CIA officials still protected Gomez. They refused to refer the Gomez case to the Justice Department, citing the 1982 DOJ-CIA agreement that spared the CIA from a legal obligation to report narcotics crimes by non-employees. Gomez was an independent contractor who worked for the CIA.
The CIA eased Gomez out of the agency in February 1988, without alerting law enforcement or the congressional oversight committees.
When questioned about the case nearly a decade later, one senior CIA official who had supported the gentle treatment of Gomez had second thoughts.
“It is a striking commentary on me and everyone that this guy’s involvement in narcotics didn’t weigh more heavily on me or the system,” the official acknowledged.
A Medellin drug connection arose in another section of Hitz’s report, when he revealed evidence suggesting that some contra trafficking may have been sanctioned by Reagan's National Security Council.
The protagonist for this part of the contra-cocaine mystery was Moises Nunez, a Cuban-American who worked for Oliver North’s NSC contra-support operation and for two drug-connected seafood importers, Ocean Hunter in Miami and Frigorificos de Puntarenas in Costa Rica.
Frigorificos de Puntarenas was created in the early 1980s as a cover for drug-money laundering, according to sworn testimony by two of the firm’s principals – Carlos Soto and Medellin cartel accountant Ramon Milian Rodriguez.
Drug allegations were swirling around Moises Nunez by the mid-1980s. His operation was one of the targets of our investigation at the AP in 1985.
Finally reacting to these suspicions, the CIA questioned Nunez on March 25, 1987, about his alleged cocaine trafficking. He responded by pointing the finger at his NSC superiors.
“Nunez revealed that since 1985, he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National Security Council,” Hitz reported, adding:
“Nunez refused to elaborate on the nature of these actions, but indicated it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC. Nunez refused to identify the NSC officials with whom he had been involved.”
After this first round of questioning, CIA headquarters authorized an additional session, but then senior CIA officials reversed the decision. There would be no further efforts at “debriefing Nunez.”
Hitz noted that “the cable [from headquarters] offered no explanation for the decision” to stop the Nunez interrogation.
But the CIA’s Central American task force chief Alan Fiers said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued “because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [the contra money handled by North]. A decision was made not to pursue this matter.”
Joseph Fernandez, who had been the CIA’s station chief in Costa Rica, later confirmed to congressional Iran-Contra investigators that Nunez “was involved in a very sensitive operation” for North’s “Enterprise.” The exact nature of that NSC-authorized activity has never been divulged.
At the time of the Nunez-NSC drug admissions and his truncated interrogation, the CIA’s acting director was Robert M. Gates, who is now President Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary.
The CIA also worked directly with other drug-connected Cuban-Americans on the contra project, Hitz found.
One of Nunez’s Cuban-American associates, Felipe Vidal, had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker in the 1970s. But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics coordinator for the contras, Hitz reported.
The CIA also learned that Vidal’s drug connections were not only in the past.
A December 1984 cable to CIA headquarters revealed Vidal’s ties to Rene Corvo, another Cuban-American suspected of drug trafficking. Corvo was working with anti-communist Cuban Frank Castro, who was viewed as a Medellin cartel representative within the contra movement.
There were other narcotics links to Vidal. In January 1986, the DEA in Miami seized 414 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipment of yucca that was going from a contra operative in Costa Rica to Ocean Hunter, the company where Vidal worked.
Despite the evidence, Vidal remained a CIA employee as he collaborated with Frank Castro’s assistant, Rene Corvo, in raising money for the contras, according to a CIA memo in June 1986.
By fall 1986, Sen. Kerry had heard enough rumors about Vidal to demand information about him as part of a congressional inquiry into contra drugs. But the CIA withheld the derogatory information.
On Oct. 15, 1986, Kerry received a briefing from the CIA’s Alan Fiers, who didn’t mention Vidal’s drug arrests and conviction in the 1970s.
But Vidal was not yet in the clear. In 1987, the U.S. Attorney in Miami began investigating Vidal, Ocean Hunter and other contra-connected entities.
This prosecutorial attention worried the CIA. The CIA’s Latin American division felt it was time for a security review of Vidal. But on Aug. 5, 1987, the CIA’s security office blocked the review for fear that the Vidal drug information “could be exposed during any future litigation.”
As expected, the U.S. Attorney did request documents about “contra-related activities” by Vidal, Ocean Hunter and 16 other entities. The CIA advised the prosecutor that “no information had been found regarding Ocean Hunter,” a statement that was clearly false.
The CIA continued Vidal’s employment as an adviser to the contra movement until 1990, virtually the end of the contra war.
Hitz revealed that drugs also tainted the highest levels of the Honduran-based FDN, the largest contra army.
Hitz found that Juan Rivas, a contra commander who rose to be chief of staff, admitted that he had been a cocaine trafficker in Colombia before the war. The CIA asked Rivas, known as El Quiche, about his background after the DEA began suspecting that Rivas might be an escaped convict from a Colombian prison.
In interviews with CIA officers, Rivas acknowledged that he had been arrested and convicted of packaging and transporting cocaine for the drug trade in Barranquilla, Colombia. After several months in prison, Rivas said, he escaped and moved to Central America where he joined the contras.
Defending Rivas, CIA officials insisted that there was no evidence that Rivas engaged in trafficking while with the contras. But one CIA cable noted that he lived an expensive lifestyle, even keeping a $100,000 thoroughbred horse at the contra camp.
Contra military commander Bermudez later attributed Rivas’s wealth to his ex-girlfriend’s rich family. But a CIA cable in March 1989 added that “some in the FDN may have suspected at the time that the father-in-law was engaged in drug trafficking.”
Still, the CIA moved quickly to protect Rivas from exposure and possible extradition to Colombia. In February 1989, CIA headquarters asked that DEA take no action “in view of the serious political damage to the U.S. Government that could occur should the information about Rivas become public.”
Rivas was eased out of the contra leadership with an explanation of poor health. With U.S. government help, he was allowed to resettle in Miami. Colombia was not informed about his fugitive status.
Another senior FDN official implicated in the drug trade was its chief spokesman in Honduras, Arnoldo Jose “Frank” Arana.
The drug allegations against Arana dated back to 1983 when a federal narcotics task force put him under criminal investigation because of plans “to smuggle 100 kilograms of cocaine into the United States from South America.”
On Jan. 23, 1986, the FBI reported that Arana and his brothers were involved in a drug-smuggling enterprise, although Arana was not charged.
Arana sought to clear up another set of drug suspicions in 1989 by visiting the DEA in Honduras with a business associate, Jose Perez. Arana’s association with Perez, however, only raised new alarms.
If “Arana is mixed up with the Perez brothers, he is probably dirty,” the DEA responded.
Through their ownership of an air services company called SETCO, the Perez brothers were associated with Juan Matta Ballesteros, a major cocaine kingpin connected to the murder of a DEA agent, according to reports by the DEA and U.S. Customs.
Hitz reported that someone at the CIA scribbled a note on the DEA cable about Arana stating: “Arnold Arana ... still active and working, we [CIA] may have a problem.”
Despite its drug ties to Matta Ballesteros, SETCO emerged as the principal company for ferrying supplies to the contras in Honduras.
During congressional Iran-Contra hearings, FDN political leader Adolfo Calero testified that SETCO was paid from bank accounts controlled by Oliver North. SETCO also received $185,924 from the State Department for ferrying supplies to the contras in 1986.
Hitz found that other air transport companies, which were used by the contras, also were implicated in the cocaine trade. Even FDN leaders suspected that they were shipping supplies to Central America aboard planes that might be returning with drugs.
Mario Calero, the chief of contra logistics, grew so uneasy about one air-freight company that he notified U.S. law enforcement that the FDN only chartered the planes for the flights south, not the return flights north.
Hitz found that some drug pilots simply rotated from one sector of the contra operation to another. Donaldo Frixone, who had a drug record in the Dominican Republic, was hired by the CIA to fly contra missions from 1983-85.
In September 1986, however, Frixone was implicated in smuggling 19,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. In late 1986 or early 1987, he went to work for Vortex, another U.S.-paid contra supply company linked to the drug trade.
A Fig Leaf
By the time that Hitz’s Volume Two was published in fall 1998, 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.
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 Nicaragua’s 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 contras hid evidence of contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA’s analysts.
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.
Although Hitz’s report was an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it passed almost unnoticed by the big American newspapers. [For more details on the report, see Parry’s Lost History.]
See No Evil
On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitz’s Volume Two was posted at the CIA’s Internet site, the New York Times published a brief article that continued to deride Webb but acknowledged the contra-drug problem may 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 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 rose to become top executives at their news organizations. On the other hand, Gary Webb’s career never recovered.
Unable to find decent-paying work in a profession where his past awards included a Pulitzer Prize, Webb grew despondent. His marriage broke up. By December 2004, he found himself having to move out of his rented house near Sacramento.
Instead, Webb decided to end his life.
Webb’s suicide offered the New York Times, the Washington Post and the L.A. Times one more chance to set matters right, to revisit the CIA’s admissions in 1998 and to exact some accountability from the Reagan-era officials implicated in the contra crimes.
But all that followed Gary Webb’s death was more trashing of Gary Webb.
The L.A. Times ran its mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of the admissions in the CIA’s Volume Two. No one reading this obit would have understood the profound debt that American history owed to Gary Webb, who deserved the lion’s share of the credit for forcing the CIA to make its extraordinary admissions.
Though a personal tragedy for his family and friends, Webb’s suicide conveyed a larger message, too. Gary Webb was a kind of canary in the American mine shaft. His fate represented a warning about the dangers that can befall a nation whose journalists care more about their salaries and status than the truth and the public’s right to know.
The fifth anniversary of Webb’s death should be a moment for reflection, too, by progressives and independent-minded Americans that it is long past time to build media institutions that can support brave journalists who dare to tell difficult truths.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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