The Reporter Who Exposed the CIA/Crack Connection
by Alan Goodman
Revolutionary Worker #1263, December 26, 2004, posted at rwor.org
RW: Why have you decided to stick to your guns, to take the risks, to tell the story and stick to it?
Gary Webb: Because it’s true.
—RW interview with Gary Webb, July 22, 1997
When a friend called to tell me the news that Gary Webb died, I flashed back to the day in 1997 when I interviewed him in a park near his house outside Sacramento. After finding out that I had played a little organized hockey as a kid, Gary wouldn’t stop trying to sign me up for his over-40 hockey league.
I was struck by what seemed to be an odd mismatch. Here was the guy who had become a hero in the ghettos for exposing the CIA-crack connection. But here he was living deep in conservative "exurbia" as the pollsters now call it, driving 180 miles twice a week to play ice hockey.
Here was a man who was a career journalist of the mainstream press who stumbled upon the hand of the CIA behind the crack plague in the inner cities. And who was simply too honest and stubborn to turn away.
That day in 1997, I wanted to hear the story he had to tell about cocaine and the Nicaraguan contras, but I couldn’t help also wanting to know more about what made him tick.
Gary’s three-part series, "The Dark Alliance," ran in the San Jose Mercury News in the summer of 1996.
He documented that in the early 1980s, two Nicaraguan contras had arrived in the San Francisco area to find buyers for cocaine. He uncovered that they hooked up with Freeway Ricky Ross to funnel wholesale cocaine into the L.A. street scene, how a "pipeline" was set up that ran massive amounts of cocaine into the U.S., and how this whole operation made cocaine available cheap for the first time. Webb’s sources documented that Colonel Enrique Bermudez, a CIA agent leading the Nicaraguan contras, knew that his fundraisers were running drugs.
The money went to buy guns for the CIA-backed contra army that was waging a death-squad war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The drugs were getting through the U.S. borders with high-level help, and triggering a crack explosion in the ghetto streets. And meanwhile the covert CIA contra army was getting the money (under the table) to arm itself—so the Reagan and Bush governments didn’t need to openly fund this war through Congress.
It was an ugly picture.
It’s not that Gary was the first to explore whether the CIA’s Nicaraguan contras were funded with drug money. Various mainstream news sources had leaked out bits and pieces of this story. But previous attempts to put the pieces together in a major mainstream article were systematically suppressed.
Gary was able to connect dots by conducting interviews with folks who risked their lives, ranging from imprisoned drug dealers to sources in Nicaragua, to stitch together an irrefutable indictment.
As Gary told me, "We were able to show where the stuff was being sold, which was the inner cities, in Los Angeles primarily. And we were able to show what the effect of that was, which was to help spark this horrible crack epidemic that went from Los Angeles to hundreds of cities across the United States in the years after that. I think that’s what made people the maddest."
Gary Webb’s series and his subsequent book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion struck a raw nerve — because it hit the streets in the middle of the government’s "war on drugs."
As Gary Webb documented the origins of the crack explosion and the role of the CIA’s Nicaraguan contras, a whole generation in the ghettos and barrios was being targeted, brutalized, harassed, and jailed wholesale. And so it was shocking and infuriating when Webb revealed, in a flash, how hypocritical the federal government’s "war on drugs" really was — that their agents had set up the key illegal drug trafficking routes, opened up U.S. borders, and their vicious contra killers were raking in the cash to fund death squads and invasion in Central America!
Meanwhile, for millions of folks in the middle class, Gary’s carefully documented series, appearing in a mainstream newspaper, was a startling challenge to the official story of why a massive, brutal police occupation had been launched against the ghettos and barrios. People opened their morning paper to learn that "their own government" paid terrorists and assassins commanded by people at the highest levels—like Reagan aide Lt. Col. Oliver North. And that this was secretly funded by pumping tons of cocaine into the inner cities! It was a shocking new look at the government (which you were supposed to respect) and at the situation of the most oppressed and exploited people (who you were supposed to fear and disrespect).
For those who were living life under the guns of the "war on drugs," Gary’s series was a vindication. It proved to the world what they saw daily or suspected was going on behind the doors of the CIA, the DEA, and other law enforcement agencies. The impact was similar to that of the videotape of the Rodney King beating—confirming reality in a way that couldn’t be denied, for the whole world to see.
In an almost unbelievable event, the head of the CIA, John Deutch, was forced to go to South Central Los Angeles, on November 15, 1996, to face hundreds of residents in an open "town meeting"—hoping to diffuse the explosive anger uncorked by the revelations in Webb’s series. Think about it! How often does the head of the CIA make a pilgrimage to the ghetto to publicly deny his agency’s dirty deeds?!
Gary’s series was intolerable to the powers-that-be. His sources in Central America were subjected to constant threats.
At the same time, the mainstream media, with the New York Times and Washington Post leading the charge, subjected his series to minute scrutiny and denunciation (using a method that is exactly opposite of the way they embrace the absurd lies from Bush, Powell, and the rest of that cabal in power). Rush Limbaugh attacked him on the air.
All these challenges never made any serious dent in the credibility of Webb’s core story. Still, the editor of the Mercury News caved in to the firestorm and printed a partial retraction.
Shortly after that, the management of the Mercury News transferred Gary to a bureau far from his beat and his home. They refused to print four episodes of his series. Determined to defend and complete his story, Gary wrote the book Dark Alliance—the CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.
USA Today said the book spoke to an issue that "feels like a dagger in the heart of African Americans." Congresswoman Maxine Waters wrote that "history is going to record that Gary Webb wrote the truth." The organization FAIR—Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting—said that "Webb’s evidence is as persuasive as his conclusions are disturbing."
Gary Webb paid a personal price for his work. When I talked with him, he was acutely aware that people get killed for revealing the kinds of horrors he uncovered. He was very concerned for the safety of his sources in prison and in Central America. The DEA raided the office of the literary agent who was helping Gary get a book contract.
Shortly before we met, one of Gary’s associates had been run off the road by a military vehicle in Nicaragua. The right-wing Nicaraguan press reported that since the Mercury News retracted parts of the series, people could sue Gary and the paper wouldn’t defend him—in effect encouraging lawsuits against him.
The Mercury News series and the Dark Alliance book got Gary blacklisted from mainstream journalism. Earlier this year he was fired from his job as an investigator for the California state legislature.
This brings me back to other story here: A reporter in search of the truth who, once he found it, refused to be silenced.
I contacted Gary to do an " RW Interview." We wanted to give him a chance to tell his story—fully and deeply without the pressures and censorship of the mainstream media.
I wasn’t sure, to be honest, how Gary would feel about being interviewed by this revolutionary communist newspaper—at exactly the time when he was in such a besieged position. But Gary quickly got back and said he was eager to do it. And as we talked, he told me more about himself.
Gary Webb had put in his time writing for the Kentucky Post and the Cleveland Plain Dealer . His investigative journalism included a story on organized crime in the coal industry. He was part of a team that won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
And Gary didn’t go looking to expose the real forces behind the crack epidemic. The whole thing started when he wrote an article about police using drug-forfeiture laws to ransack peoples’ homes and steal their personal belongings.
That story inspired a woman to get in touch with him—to describe how her boyfriend was victimized in one of these raids. And she mentioned in passing that one of the witnesses against her boyfriend was a guy who worked with the CIA selling "tons" of drugs. It started Gary on a journey to some important truth about the depressed war zones of urban USA and Central America— and this journey led him into some deep, hidden places.
He told me, "This is a story that people need to know—(a) not only to understand what happened, but (b) I mean somebody needs to be held accountable for this."
Later, he dedicated his book to the people, "most of them poor and black," who "paid an enormous price" for the Contra Cocaine connection.
Gary Webb was found dead from a gunshot wound on December 10, 2004. It is being reported as an apparent suicide. His death is a tragic and sad loss. His work on the CIA and crack left a profound mark on the consciousness of broad sections of people. The truth he uncovered has been attacked but cannot be hidden. His courage and journalistic integrity stand as a challenge to all journalists in a time of lies, repression, and enforced ignorance.
RW articles and the Gary Webb interview on the CIA-Cocaine connection: rwor.org/s/cia.htm (share this link!)