Despite overwhelming evidence linking the CIA to drug traffickers, that sordid reality remains one of the great taboos of the mainstream U.S. media, which rallies to destroy anyone who points out the facts, a fate that befell journalist Gary Webb, as Greg Maybury explains.
By Greg Maybury
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the suicide of investigative journalist Gary Webb, author of Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, the seminal account of the proliferation in the U.S. of cocaine and its deadly derivative crack. It is timely then that in coming weeks we’ll see the release of the much-anticipated film “Kill the Messenger,” the story of Webb’s brave attempt to blow the lid off the CIA’s complicity in drug smuggling and profiteering throughout the 1980s at the height of the Nicaraguan civil war between the Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.
The journalist , whose death was the end result of a vicious smear crusade, orchestrated by the CIA and conducted by the mainstream media (MSM) , was not the first to draw national attention to CIA links to the drug trade.
Moreover, many people would argue the CIA’s core business was and still is as much about drug production and distribution, gun smuggling and money laundering and any number of other criminal activities as it was about protecting America from the evils of communism and other assorted existential threats to democracy, freedom, truth, justice and the American Way.
Of course, there are plenty of folk from Washington to Timbuktu and back again who will and do deny this with one foot on their grandmother’s gravestone. It should be noted that not all of these people would be working for the CIA, the broader U.S. security, intelligence and law enforcement communities, or for that matter, the MSM.
Yet in his iconic three-part exposÃ© called “Dark Alliance,” originally published in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News, Webb ignited a firestorm by alleging that Nicaraguan Contras, trained and supported by the CIA to fight the country’s leftist Sandinistas, were funded by the traffickers directly responsible for the explosion of crack cocaine in America’s inner cities.
Although Webb did not claim that the CIA had its fingerprints on this development, he left open the possibility that the Agency knew about it and turned a blind eye. The big questions were whether the CIA directly and knowingly facilitated the trade itself and if so, to what ends. Were such “ends” “simply” to finance their own and the Contras’ operations, or as some have suggested, was there some other nefarious purpose such as a deliberate attempt to undermine then destroy the social fabric of black and Latino communities in urban America?
Few would argue the Agency was oblivious to the trade or could lay claim to not being aware of the domestic legal, social and political blowback of doing so. Either way, such revelations as those made by Webb and the questions his exposÃ© posed presented the Agency arguably with its biggest public relations test since the Bay of Pigs disaster. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The CIA/MSM Contra-Cocaine Cover-up.”]
Such is the nature of this story that we need to ransack history a little more in order to appreciate the context of Webb’s revelations and to give us additional perspective.
Truth, Justice and the American Way (Just Say No)
The revelations of CIA involvement in the active, albeit covert, proliferation of drugs marijuana, cocaine, heroin in particular are well documented, albeit not so much on the Agency’s official website. And along with that aspect of its under-the-radar operational “brief” are the illegal arms dealing and money laundering that frequently and by necessity accompany such criminal enterprise. All this not to mention the odd murder or three along the way.
Even in my country of Australia we were not immune from the CIA’s drug-smuggling, money laundering and gun-running enterprises, as anyone vaguely familiar with the Nugan-Hand Bank Scandal would be aware. The full story behind Nugan-Hand would arguably qualify as Australia’s most complex, and as yet unresolved, mysteries in our criminal and political narrative. But there is little doubt that Nugan-Hand throughout most of the 1970s was up to its dirty spook armpits both in Australia and elsewhere in the very enterprises at the heart of the Webb exposÃ©.
Although a story for another time, suffice it to say that despite there being no less than four official investigations including a Royal Commission into the murky machinations of this notorious CIA front that operated up until the murder in Sydney of Frank Nugan in 1980, there is still much we don’t know about what went down. And a big part of the reason why we don’t know is because the CIA with the collusion of its mates in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or ASIO didn’t want us to know. Which is to say the Nugan-Hand “Thing” serves to remind us that the Langley Lads do not like having their dirty linen aired in public, and will resort to any means necessary to prevent this. Frank Nugan’s demise is ample evidence of that.
Which of course brings us squarely back to the Webb story.
In a sense Webb’s revelations were not ground-breaking, yet it was as much about timing as anything that his exposures attracted so much attention. Similar previous revelations by journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger in the mid-1980s during then-President Ronald Reagan’s reign were nipped in the bud or generally failed to gain any traction. The execrable Contras, of course, were Reagan’s favorite “freedom fighters,” yet his wife Nancy was the most high-profile anti-drug campaigner of the era. “Just say no [to drugs]” anyone? It simply would not have been a good look to have such Contra-cocaine activities revealed to the wider public.
The ‘Real Deal’ Cocaine Cowboys
Now for those vaguely familiar with the intrigues of America’s premier black-ops and “dirty tricks” brand, none of this is likely to come as any great surprise. What is less well known is the MSM’s complicity in covering up (or at least turning a blind eye to) this operational facet of this most enterprising of U.S. government organizations. These include but are hardly exclusive to such venerable bastions of responsible, fair and accurate reportage such as the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times. And that’s just the print media!
In short, the MSM was not interested in Parry and Barger’s earlier revelations or initially in those of Webb’s. Again, not unusual, as anyone familiar with the corporate media’s longstanding incestuous ties to the intelligence and national security communities. Operation Mockingbird anyone?
In a biography of the Washington Post’s long-time publisher, Katharine Graham, entitled Katharine the Great, author Deborah Davis quotes a CIA operative discussing with Graham’s husband, Phil Graham, the ease of getting journalists to write CIA propaganda and cover stories: “You could get a journalist cheaper than a good call girl, for a couple hundred dollars a month.”
That media monoliths have indeed gone out of their way to disparage and bully smaller, less influential media outlets and even destroy the careers and lives of those people who dared to reveal these activities to the broader public is something that is well documented if not widely known. And what they did to Gary Webb was possibly the best if not the most extreme example of it.
Yet by the time Webb began raising the issue again around the mid-1990s, the cocaine epidemic was not only in full swing (as was the so-called War on Drugs), it was dawning on folk just how destructive an impact it was having especially on the poorer inner city communities across America. The chickens had come home to roost, and the story sent shockwaves of rage and indignation across America’s urban minority communities in particular.
Although Reagan was long out of office by this time, the Gipper’s already tarnished legacy over the related arms-for-hostages Iran-Contra scandal would have taken another major hit had Webb’s allegations gained traction in mainstream media circles and then the wider public, which at one point it looked like they would. After all, it all went down on Reagan’s watch.
Moreover, Webb’s revelations occurred just as the Internet was assuming a more prominent, influential role in the dissemination of major news stories. This development signaled a game changer in the means by which the broader public could access news outside the purview of the MSM. It’s fair to say the MSM was threatened by this.
Of even greater concern to the CIA, was not so much Reagan’s legacy but the Agency’s own reputation. Webb’s revelations were a warning to the CIA that serious blowback was a-brewing, and its PR team had to do something drastic about. No problem there the CIA understood “blowback,” especially where it might affect the Agency’s credibility.
It was one thing having a rep for removing duly elected leaders from office by whatever means necessary including assassination; fomenting revolution in Third World countries by engaging in destabilizing black operations and propaganda; and conspiring to initiate regime change by funding right-wing death squads; but to be seen having a direct hand in or even an indirect connection to the drug epidemic that was sweeping America was another thing altogether. This was a little too close to home, and could well have been a game changer for the Agency. And not in a good way for the folks at Langley!
As indicated, the CIA’s previous connection to the drug trade had already been documented at least two decades earlier, none more so than in Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, published in 1971. This seminal book demonstrated what its title promised, but it covered the Vietnam War era and the CIA’s involvement in the heroin drug trade in Southeast Asia. At the time of Webb’s series, it was all about cocaine , and crack cocaine , the source of which was South and Central America during the time of the Nicaraguan conflict. So in a sense, same cowboys, different horse!
Since then we have had journalists, activists, researchers, whistle blowers and authors such as Jonathan Kwitny and Peter Dale Scott who have documented in well-researched detail the criminal corruption that prevails at the highest levels of the U.S. government. This is especially the case with the drug business.
And for those looking for further corroboration of Webb’s journalistic integrity and by extrapolation, the venal, self-serving and vindictive nature of the corporate media, you need go no further than read Nick Schou’s Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. Along with being a fitting tribute to the man and an equally fitting coda to his legacy, it is a savage indictment of America’s major news organizations, most of whom still purport to be bastions of fair and balanced reportage in an age when we need such more than ever.
We can only hope the film does justice to Webb’s story and its release generates a resurgence of public interest in the Contra-cocaine scandal. Plus, something like people demanding more responsible, unbiased, ethical, insightful and fearless news-gathering and analysis from the corporate media.
As Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, wrote in the forward to Webb’s book version of Dark Alliance, “It may take time, but I am convinced that history is going to record that Gary Webb wrote the truth. The [media] establishment refused to give him the credit that he deserved.There are a few of us who congratulate Gary for his honesty and courage. We will not let this story end until the naysayers and opponents are forced to apologize for their reckless and irresponsible attacks on [him].”
Rupert Murdoch, are you listening old son? Or are you still hacking peoples’ phones and bribing public officials to get the scoop on what’s going down in order to keep feeding us hapless saps the news that you and your ilk want us to hear rather than the news we need to hear?
Greg Maybury is a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia.