The Truth Hurts
An Interview With Gary Webb
By Nick Budnick
July 21, 1997: It has been almost a year since the San Jose Mercury News published its controversial investigative series, "Dark Alliance," by Gary Webb. The story reported that Nicaraguan drug dealers, with ties to the CIA-backed Contras, sold tons of cocaine to African Americans in Los Angeles--fuelling the crack epidemic--and sent money back home to fund the war. While the story didn't directly state that the CIA condoned the transactions, it strongly implied that the CIA, at the least, should have known, and if it did know, the agency turned a blind eye to the drug trade and may have helped the Nicaraguan dealers beat the rap.
The series was reprinted in several daily and weekly newspapers, including the Albuquerque Journal, but didn't receive much national media attention for weeks. Finally, after much protest from inner-city residents, big papers like the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran stories attacking Webb's reporting as inaccurate and misleading. For all the hype, though, the heavy hitters never attacked the basic assertions in the article but said, rather, that the CIA may or may not have known of the operation (the original story never made a specific claim either way in this regard), that the Merc's estimates of how much money made it back to the Contras were misleading and that the crack epidemic's beginnings were more complicated than the story implied. So what if a few Contra-connected dealers were selling a few rocks to a few inner-city kids?
A lot of people did care, it turns out. Webb has consistently stood behind his reporting, and other writers--among them Norman Solomon, whose writing appears in Weekly Alibi on a regular basis--took up the fight. The big papers' attacks were based on a number of "senior CIA officials" who were never identified. Just as they claimed Webb ignored evidence that didn't serve his purpose, so did other writers complain that Webb's critics presented refutations filled with distorted facts. The daily papers solely attacked the series to the point that it prompted the Washington Post's ombudsman to opine, "Overall, the Post's focus seems to have been misplaced."
In May, Merc editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a mea culpa column detailing what he saw as some of the story's failings, particularly that estimates were not clearly labeled as estimates, that sometimes conflicting evidence was not presented as it should have been and that, "Through imprecise language and graphics, we created impressions that were open to misinterpretation." But Ceppos added that Webb disagreed with this summation of the story's flaws.
Since then, Webb has been transferred to the San Jose suburb of Cupertino, where he has been working on daily assignments. He says that though he has material that would further develop the story, the Merc has not printed it and he believes they never will. His union has challenged his transfer to Cupertino, and the groups will soon meet at an arbitration hearing. Of his transfer, Webb told Weekly Alibi last week: "They didn't like the fact that I disagreed with their stand on the series. They didn't like the fact that I wouldn't take back what I wrote. That's the reason I'm here."
By Nick Budnick
For most of the past nine years, Gary Webb, Capitol bureau reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, has labored quietly in Sacramento, his work largely unknown to the community in which he, his wife and three children have made their home.
Last August, however, Webb stirred up a furor of media coverage around the world with his disturbing series "Dark Alliance," which explored the close relationship between the CIA-backed Contra army in Nicaragua during the 1980s and known drug dealers who spread the crack epidemic through the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
After initially ignoring the story, major media outlets such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post dogpiled on Webb, attacking his reporting in the series and his ethics.
After two decades of award-winning investigative reporting, Webb suddenly finds himself cast as the bad boy of journalism. For Webb, that status became official on May 11 when his boss, the Merc's executive editor Jerry Ceppos, published a column questioning Webb's series, saying it left out some conflicting evidence, oversimplified the spread of crack and failed to make clear that "we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the (crack-Contra) relationship."
In his office, its walls hung with memorabilia from his days as a college student in Cincinnati and as a reporter for the Kentucky Post and Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Webb spoke candidly about his work, the mainstream media and his research that expands upon his earlier findings--information his superiors at the Mercury News have yet to publish.
It's going on a year since the Mercury News published your stories linking the CIA-backed Contras to the importation of cocaine into poor black areas of Los Angeles. How would you sum up the year that's happened since then?
It's been incredible, and it's been amazing, and it's been disgusting at times.
You're referring to the media?
Well, first of all, I think the public's response was fairly amazing, just the public outcry. I mean, it's not like something you write about and (expect) people start marching in the street. That was a fairly amazing reaction. And I think some of the media follow-up has been fairly disgusting.
Why do you think the media reacted the way they did?
Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. One is that the big papers in this country have sort of an institutional history of sitting on this story. You go back and you look at what was written in the '80s by the three big papers in this country about this Contra-cocaine topic, and most of it was just a pack of lies. And they have continued that sort of "there's nothing here" attitude up until now. So I think that one of the reasons is that they had an institutional history of covering this story up, and this (series) sort of exposed that for what it was. I think the other part of the problem is that most of the people who wrote these stories for most of the papers are establishment organs, they are mouthpieces a lot of the time for the government. And I think that's what they're being used for in this case--the government's side of the story.
What exactly are the problems they're saying your stories have?
They're saying, well, we didn't have proof that (former CIA director) Bill Casey knew about this. They have unnamed sources saying that they didn't (transport) millions of dollars as we said, that these men weren't top Contra officials, as if crimes can be committed and if the top people didn't know about it, then that's OK. That's the sort of bizarre reaction that I've been seeing from these things: that since we didn't have a deathbed confession from William Casey, that means that these (findings) are unproven, that these are unsubstantiated. And that's the thing that I think is the most bizarre about (the reaction)--that nothing can be substantiated unless the government admits it.
The government has a long history of that.
Oh, especially the CIA. When have they ever told the truth to the public about anything? So the idea that they would deny it and claim that nobody knows about it is, to me, par for the course. You go back and you look at every CIA scandal that's come down the pike, and it's the same old stuff: They deny it and they deny it, (then) admit what's known and they deny the rest.
Do you have any regrets about the way the series came out? Major regrets?
The only regret that I've got is that it wasn't longer. I think a lot of these criticisms would have been muted had we taken the space and laid out exactly all we knew. The problem is that the series was a lot shorter when it got in the paper than it was when I wrote it. But as far as what actually appeared in the paper, it's accurate, it's truthful and we can substantiate every word of it.
Major news media are using unnamed sources to question what you had in sheriff's ...
(interjects) Documents and sworn testimony. See, if you have an unnamed source that appears in the Washington Post, suddenly everybody believes it. And I think that's the way these papers have succeeded in keeping this story buried all these years--not only have they sat on the story, they've gone after people who have tried to raise it.
You look at what happened to Bob Parry and Brian Barger (two Associated Press reporters who worked on the CIA/Contra/drug connection story in 1985 and were widely criticized by the government and the media) back in the '80s, you look at what happened to the Kerry Committee (the congressional body that looked at CIA-drug trafficking connections). The people working on the Kerry Committee, they were telling me going into this that they were subjected to these fierce campaigns to discredit what they were doing, they were under federal investigation, their witnesses were harassed. This is a story that the government has tried very hard to keep under wraps and until we published this stuff, fairly well succeeded in doing.
You started out with your editors supporting you ...
Hell, they put it in the paper.
Right, they put it in the paper, they supported you when the backlash started coming in ... and everything was OK. It's a great, heartwarming thing for a reporter when your editors back you up, when they're with you. Things seem to be changing. What happened?
That's a good question, and the part that's the most interesting is the fact that this (reversal) happened after I turned in four more stories that advanced the story further. They weren't interested in printing those. Suddenly we were going to go back and sort of take back all those things we said before. And I really don't have any explanation for that, for the 180 that they did.
You turned in four more stories; none of those have appeared. What did they talk about?
They talked about the relationships between the members of this drug ring and who they were working with in the federal government, which government agencies were aware of their operations. We have other stories about related drug trafficking in Central America that was condoned by the U.S government. Other examples of related drug traffickers who were working for, and in some cases had, U.S. government contracts to supply the Contras. It's just a whole slew of things: We interviewed a man who took the money down there from San Francisco, took the drug money down to Costa Rica, took the money down to Miami and gave it to the Contra officials. We have interviews with him, and a lot of stuff that, like I said, not only substantiates what we wrote in August, but advances the story considerably. And that's just sitting there.
No sign that it's going to move?
No, they haven't even started editing them yet, and I turned them in in February.
Did they tell you why?
No. No, they just said, "Well, we'll get to it, because we have to deal with this stuff that we wrote in August."
The initial plan was to go ahead and do these stories, deal with the issues that were raised by other newspapers and advance the story. And instead of advancing the story, we've dwelled on these other issues which, to my mind, are fairly insignificant, and sort of invited this backlash from the media that claim that we've backed off from the story. I'm certainly not backing off.
You're going to get the stories out.
Well, it's up to the Mercury News. Either they're going to print 'em or they're not going to print 'em. If they don't print them, I think it would be honest to give me the rights to take them somewhere else. I think we'll see where their heart is on this thing. If they decide not to run these stories and then say, "No, you can't have anyone else run them either," I think it will be time for people to start suspecting their motive.
How did you get into journalism, what are the driving forces that keep you in journalism, and how do you relate that to what's happening to you today?
Well, I got into journalism because I like writing. And I got into investigative reporting because it's something that you have to do. To my mind, the press is the only thing that keeps people informed, it's the only fire wall between tyranny and the public. And I think this is a perfect example of telling people stuff that the government doesn't want them to know about. What most of the press does is tell them what the government does want. That's the thing that keeps me in the business, because I think the press has an obligation to do this kind of stuff. The easiest thing in the world, as far as I'm concerned, is to go to the press conference, write up a story and go home. You can make a very comfortable and very easy living doing that, covering nothing other than government press conferences.
In short, this kind of reaction is something that I've certainly come to expect. I mean, you got after the Man, and the Man bites back. But what are you supposed to do? You certainly can't give up and go home because the New York Times doesn't like your story. Who cares?
As far as the substance of what you found and what you're finding, what is the significance for the American people?
Well, the significance is that these drugs started the first crack market in the United States. I mean, the Contras brought in cocaine, and they fueled the first crack market in the U.S. They supplied the Crips and the Bloods with tons of cocaine for a decade. And there's every indication that U.S. government officials were aware of it and didn't do anything about it. So the implications, Jesus, you look at what's happened over the past 10 years to the inner cities because of crack, you look at what's happened to African Americans because of these crack (sentencing) laws that they passed, and the implications are just enormous. And if the government had a hand in it at all, I think some people need to be called to account for it.
When you take a look at the path that you've been on, it seems like you're at maybe a personal crossroads in terms of where this story goes, where your career goes. Where do you see things going five, 10 years down the road?
I don't look that far ahead. I just look at the next week, the next month. That's the problem I've always had in filling out these job evaluations: People say what do you want to do five, 10 years from now? I want to do what I'm doing. I like being a reporter, I want to be a reporter and that's all I've ever wanted to do. So if I'm still sitting in this chair, doing the same thing five years from now, it'll be fine with me, because this is what I want to do.
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