Revolutionary Worker #912, June 22, 1997
The Revolution Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in Revolution.
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In the summer of 1996, the San Jose Mercury News ran a three-part series by investigative reporter Gary Webb called "The Dark Alliance." Webb's series exposed links between the CIA-run Contra army in Central America and the crack epidemic that hit many U.S. cities during the 1980s.
Webb's series exposed how two men working with the Contras, Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandón, set up a cocaine ring that targetted the Black communities of South Central Los Angeles and Compton. They supplied tons of cocaine to the Crips and the Bloods, using a local drug dealer, Rick Ross, as their intermediary. This cocaine ended up as crack in ghetto streets. Webb wrote that profits from these drug sales were used to finance the Contra's war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Webb also documented how various U.S. police agencies--including the Drug Enforcement Agency--allowed key figures of this drug ring to operate during the early 1980s.
Webb's hard-hitting series caused a sensation--and got a widespread readership on the Mercury News' internet website. Many people had long suspected that the U.S. government was involved in the transport of drugs into the inner city and were thrilled that someone had successfully documented such important facts. Gary Webb received several awards for his series.
At the same time, Webb and his series came under heavy attack--from the CIA itself and from the mainstream media. After first ignoring Webb's evidence, the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times accused Webb of making false and unsubstantiated charges against the CIA.
In the face of such attack, Gary Webb has not backed down. But meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News published an editorial criticizing itself for running the original "Dark Alliance" series. The Mercury News is also refusing to run four new articles by Webb which contain new information to back up the exposure he has done.
The decision by the Mercury News to back away from the Webb series provoked new debate. The mainstream media treated this Mercury News editorial as proof that Webb's articles made false charges against the CIA. At the same time, many forces have spoken out defending Webb and pointing out that the basic facts of his series have never been disproven.
In the middle of this latest round of controversy, Gary Webb sat down to talk to the Revolutionary Worker.
RW: First I just want to say, speaking for our paper and our readers, we want you to know how much we appreciate the important exposure you've done on the links between the Contras, the CIA and the explosion of crack in the inner cities. And how much we appreciate that you haven't backed down from that. What was it about what you exposed that created such a sensation, do you think? What was it that really caught people's attention and got the government so upset?
GW: The fact that we found out where this cocaine was going. Back in the '80s there had been a number of stories, some of them in the mainstream press, about Contras dealing cocaine in the United States. What we were able to show was 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.
RW: That's interesting, because at the beginning of your series you pointed out that thousands of young Black men were serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine, and that that drug was virtually unobtainable in Black neighborhoods before the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras started bringing it into South Central L.A.
GW: And I think that was just a matter of timing, actually. You know, at that same time you had the cartels in Colombia gearing up. Suddenly there's a lot more cocaine. The volume was greater, the price was cheaper. So, I think that's part of the explanation for that. Before the early '80s it was expensive for everybody. After the cartels got going the price came down because the production went up. But still, that doesn't explain how it got to South Central. And what we explained was how this cheap cocaine got to South Central. And it was through this Contra drug ring that I wrote about.
RW: What did you learn about the relationship between that and the proliferation of crack in Black communities?
GW: Well, the technology to make crack had been around for a while. I found evidence that there were recipes floating around on how to do this conversion from powder to crack with baking soda in the late '70s. The problem was, there just wasn't enough cocaine out there to do it with. And it was too expensive. And what we found was that when you brought in a large quantity of very cheap cocaine, suddenly people that knew how to make crack had the wherewithal to make it. It was the raw material--these folks supplied the raw materials for this crack problem. And that was the connection. It wasn't a situation where the CIA invented crack, or the Contras were bringing in crack. They were just bringing in powder and the drug users on the street had had this knowledge of how to do it for a while but didn't have the material to do it with.
RW: One thing you document is the volume of cocaine that suddenly became available.
GW: The man that headed this drug ring, Norwin Meneses, was one of the biggest cocaine traffickers in Latin America. He was dealing directly with the cartels and he had unlimited access to cocaine, and was able to smuggle literally tons of it into the country. So, if you're gonna make a market like L.A. you've gotta have a lot of dope, and he had access to as much dope as he wanted.
RW: What have you learned, both in writing your original series and since, about how these guys were able to bring so much cocaine into the U.S.?
GW: They had a variety of ways that they did it and they shifted transportation routes whenever one would get discovered or somebody would get busted. Some ways they brought it in cars, some ways they brought it in trucks. During one time period, particularly in the early '80s, they were bringing it up on Colombian freighters and offloading it. And these freighters would stop in Los Angeles, they'd stop in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. Just hit the coast and drop it off that way.
The one thing that we found most interesting was when they started using Salvadoran military planes. It was probably 1984, 1985 when they went to that mode of transportation. And what we found was that there was an airbase in El Salvador that was being used by the Contra resupply operation. Oliver North's Contra resupply operation. And, according to one of the men we interviewed, they were loading the cocaine on the Salvadoran aircraft and flying them into an airbase in Texas, where it was offloaded and shipped elsewhere.
But if you look at what the Senate's Kerry Committee found back in the '80s, there was testimony that drug planes were flying into Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. What better way to protect a cocaine shipment than to have it on a military transport, surrounded by war materials, which nobody was expecting? There was a very interesting story, I believe it was in the Boston Globe, about how there was a program set up by Customs, in which they would not inspect certain flights because they were CIA flights. And there was a great deal of suspicion that these were the planes that were bringing in this cocaine.
RW: What kind of volume are we talking about?
GW: When I interviewed the lawyer for one of these traffickers, he told me it was not uncommon for thousand-kilo shipments to come back to the United States. He said they had these transport planes, which he said they were using to fly humanitarian aid down to the Contras, which would put it in the NHAO Program that the State Department was running.
RW: What's this NHAO program?
GW: Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office. This was set up to distribute $27 million of humanitarian aid after Congress cut off the lethal aid. The Reagan administration went back in and set up the NHAO and proceeded to use these aircraft for what they called "mixed loads." Lethal and non-lethal supplies. And Danilo Blandón's attorney told me that when these planes were coming back, after having delivered the supplies, that they would routinely carry thousand-kilo loads back into the United States. Which is a hell of a lot of cocaine. I mean, you could fit a lot in those C-130s.
RW: And how many people had to turn their backs so that these huge shipments of cocaine could be unloaded at U.S. military bases? And then distributed?
GW: I don't think it would have been all that many, frankly. One of the most common descriptions of this cocaine that I've seen routinely through the Kerry Committee report is that it was packed in green military duffel bags. When you start off-loading military aircraft that have a lot of equipment on them, and you see duffel bags here and there, nobody's gonna question it. So I don't even think the people flying the planes needed to know they were on it. You just had to have somebody there at Ilopango Air Force Base in El Salvador to load the stuff on the plane to get it into the country. And then nobody inspects military aircraft when they come in.
RW: Wasn't this the era of "Just Say No," as official government policy? Nancy Reagan and all? So what government agencies were involved in getting this cocaine into the United States and then distributing it?
GW: That's hard to tell because the people who were doing it weren't directly connected. They were always at arm's length. I'll tell you the agencies that I have found links to. It was the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA and the DEA. And each agency was linked in different ways. There's a significant amount of evidence that shows members of this drug ring were in contact with agents of these agencies while this cocaine trafficking was going on. And they weren't being arrested. So it's kind of hard to explain why since we've gotten a lot of documentation that shows the federal government knew what was going on. At least some portion of it.
RW: What links did you find to the Drug Enforcement Agency?
GW: The DEA links were through Norwin Meneses, the head of the ring. He was working for the DEA. He's been working for the DEA for many years. Which is why it's so astonishing that he's never been arrested in the United States. But also may explain why. It's my opinion that he was protected. And that's the opinion of other people I've talked to--that he was protected.
RW: Have you learned anything since your original series about links between the CIA and this whole operation?
GW: One of the links we found was through an agent in Costa Rica. We talked to one of the couriers for this drug ring who was working for the Meneses organization in San Francisco. And he told us, and identified the agent, gave us the name of the agent, who he said was overseeing the distribution of the funds that he personally took down there. So, there's that.
There's the fact that, as I reported in the original series, they met with a CIA agent and essentially got their fundraising orders from this man, Enrique Bermúdez, who is the head of the FDN, the Contra Army called the FDN.
And we've also found evidence that people in Washington, at least one CIA official in Washington, had fairly specific information on the trafficking that was going on at the Salvadoran air base.
RW: Isn't there a certain deniability built into the way the CIA operates? Into everything they do?
GW: Right. You're never going to find the CIA doing anything directly. You know? You will find people who are on the payroll asking somebody else to do something, as you saw with this case. You had a foreign agent, Enrique Bermúdez, asking two men who were cocaine traffickers to go do something for a CIA-run army. And, interestingly enough, in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy. So it's hard to say that these guys were just out there on their own. I've never known cocaine traffickers to be a fairly charitable lot, and why they would want to give part of the proceeds away is an unanswered question.
RW: Do you have a sense of how much money ended up being funneled to the Contras through these cocaine dealing operations?
GW: I can tell you how much went to them in '82 and '83, which is when this courier was working for them. And he said that it was between $5 million and $6 million. As far as the money that went later, it looks to me as if they did it through '83, they did it from '82 to '83. The real CIA money started coming in to the Contras in '83. And it looks like they may have stopped for a while. But then when the Boland amendment came back in...
RW: The Boland Amendment...
GW: The Boland Amendment cut off CIA funding for the Contras back in '84. Then it appears that they geared up again and Meneses relocated to Costa Rica. Danilo Blandón started supplying Eden Pastora, one of the Contra commanders, with housing, trucks and money. And then the L.A. sheriffs found, not only the L.A. sheriffs but the FBI and the DEA had evidence they were doing it in 1986. So, I'm not sure it was a continuous operation. But we have no idea how much the latter years produced. I would doubt seriously that much of this money ever got to the Contras, because if you look at the conditions that they fought in--I mean if all this cocaine was sold here and all the money went to the Contras, they would have won the war and they would have taken over Central America. That's how big this drug operation was. So I'm not sure a whole lot of this money got to the Contras but some of it did.
GW: Five or six million dollars is nothing to sneeze at.
RW: And then you mentioned that you have found links to the State Department. Is that part of this picture?
GW: This is a part of the story that we haven't printed yet. But there was some very curious meetings with State Department officials who were involved in some very interesting things.
RW: Really? Can you give us any more of a clue now?
RW: OK, we'll have to insist that the rest of your series gets printed.
GW: Well, you can insist, but I don't think you're gonna see it in the Mercury News
RW: Since your series appeared there's been quite an intense campaign to discredit you and your series, and to drum you out of mainstream journalism. Can you talk about that?
GW: I think it's been fairly successful. But it's not something that hasn't happened before. If you go back and look at the CIA scandals back in the '70s brought about by Seymour Hersh's exposé, Daniel Schorr's work for CBS. Schorr and Hersh were both subjected to the same sort of discrediting campaign.
RW: Tell our readers some about what you have been subjected to.
GW: Well, I've had stories written about how there's no evidence here. How there's no substantiation for what we say. We had the Washington Post claim that the stories were insinuating that the CIA had targeted Black America. It's been a very subtle disinformation campaign to try to tell people that these stories don't say what they say. Or that they say something else, other than what we said. So people can say, well, there's no evidence of this, you know. It's classic propaganda. You say, well, this story doesn't prove that top CIA officials knew about it. Well, since the stories never said they did, of course they don't. But that's the sort of arguments that were thrown at us. I was accused of signing movie deals with Rick Ross. I did a book proposal that was leaked to the L.A. Times. And the L.A. Times took one part of it and put it in the newspaper to make me look like a conspiracy theorist. My film agent's office was raided by the DEA.
GW: Yeah, they were looking for evidence that I had made some sort of movie deal with Rick Ross. So they were gonna haul him before the grand jury and they had subpoenaed his records, and when he turned them over and they found out that there had been no such deal, they left it alone. But in the meantime, stories appeared in the L.A. Times and the Washington Post about how unethical this was. Rush Limbaugh has gone after me. Oliver North has gone after me. Reed Irvine and his band of merry pranksters over at Accuracy In Media have been just screaming for blood since this story came out.
RW: What did Oliver North have to say?
GW: Oliver North said I was the Janet Cook of the '90s. She was a Washington Post reporter who made up a story and won the Pulitzer Prize, and then they had to give it back. Remember "Jimmy's World"?
In the Nicaraguan press, Adolfo Calero, who is the former chief of the Contras, has come out and said that he has proof that I took money from Rick Ross' attorney to make up this story--which echoed a lot of what the Justice Department was claiming in court, that there had been some sort of unethical collusion between me and this fellow that I interviewed. They've made these claims in his sentencing memorandum.
So it's been a very sophisticated and very subtle effort to paint me either as a crook or as a lunatic. And if you look back to the '80s, and look at what happened to the reporters who did this story back then, it was the same sort of campaign, except then they were portrayed as communist sympathizers, Sandinista sympathizers. I think Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan who had done a lot of work on this topic down in Costa Rica were accused of being Sandinista agents in government documents. And you know, they were subjected to the same sort of rumor and innuendo campaign in the press down in Costa Rica that my friend Georg Hodel is going through now in Nicaragua, where people are saying it's open season on him, and that the Mercury News has invited people to sue us. It's really amazing to watch.
RW: What's this about the Mercury News has invited people to sue?
GW: That's what the story has said, in the Nicaraguan press, that now the Mercury News has backed off this story and admitted it was all made up, and that anybody who files a lawsuit against these reporters, the Mercury News won't defend. And that was reported in the press down in Nicaragua. All of it was made up.
The most recent thing that's happened is Georg Hodel, my partner, his brother-in-law and the attorney for the men we've interviewed down in Nicaragua, were run off the road the other night and threatened by armed men. When they went to the police and complained about it, the story appeared in the press that they had been drunk and driven off the road themselves. So, it's very interesting to watch. I've never been the center of a propaganda campaign before, but it's funny to watch it unfold.
RW: What did you make of CIA Director Deutch appearing at a meeting in South Central Los Angeles?
GW: It showed me how frightened the Agency was of this story--when has that ever happened? That the head of the CIA would ever go meet the public and answer questions? Not that he did answer them, but he at least appeared to try. That just gives you an indication how deeply this story frightened the people in Washington, that they thought one of the ways to do it was to send John Deutch on a roadshow and tell people that there's nothing here. So I'm not sure it worked. Actually, seeing what happened to him subsequent to that, I think people in Washington realize that might have been a mistake. Because it just fanned the flames even further.
RW: In talking about all the different kinds of attacks that have come down on you and others who have been involved in this series, you used the term "disinformation campaign." Can you explain that a little more?
GW: There was an effort in the '80s, that is fairly well documented, that was called Perception Management. This was a program that was set up inside the State Department by CIA propaganda experts to either (A) badger and bash reporters who were questioning the Contra war and raising issues about Contra cocaine trafficking, and (B) to frighten editors and frighten other reporters into not pursuing the story.
And it's very similar if you look at the results they achieved back in the '80s, to see what's going on here. It's the same sort of thing. Stories are planted about you. They have people, you can identify these people, the people with Accuracy In Media, Reed Irvine's organization, the same people pop up now saying there's nothing to this CIA story, it's all phony, it's all baloney. The same people popped up during the 1980s claiming that there was no massacre at El Mozote down in El Salvador, that it was made up, that Raymond Bonner for the Times was a communist sympathizer. Same people.
And one of the things you learn when you write about intelligence agencies is you learn pattern recognition. Because it may not be the same people all the time, but it's the same pattern. It's the same pattern as the Perception Management efforts of the 1980s. And you gotta hand it to them, it's worked. It has worked. The mainstream press is now convinced that there was nothing to this. Even though there hasn't been a single factual error found in any of those stories.
RW: So, in light of all these attacks on you and the series, why have you decided to stick to your guns, to take the risks. To tell the story and stick to it?
GW: Because it's true. And the bottom line is: it's true. And you get into journalism specifically for this reason. And if I thought the stories were wrong or I'd made a mistake, I would say yes, I was wrong. But I wasn't wrong. And 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. These were crimes that were committed. People get sent to jail for cocaine conspiracies all the time. And this was a conspiracy that brought in thousands and thousands and thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States. Into the inner cities. And nobody has paid a price for it yet, except the people who are living in those neighborhoods.
RW: How have you found ways to fight back and get the story out? And how is that going?
GW: Well, I will say one thing. Every time one of these media attacks came, it generated more controversy. I was back out on the talk radio and I was back out on the Internet, and on television, responding to the latest attack. Frankly, this issue had gone away, I think, for the most part, until my executive editor decided to run his column backing away from the series. And now it's heated all back up again. This latest stunt, with killing the series and taking me off the story and reassigning me, has just added more fuel to the fire.
RW: You should explain what the deal is for our readers.
GW: I did an additional four stories on this topic. Sixteen thousand words. Turned them in in February. And the newspaper just sat on them. Didn't edit them. Didn't look at them. Didn't do anything. They told me they read them. OK, that's what I was told, that they did read them. They never edited them. They never asked me for any supporting documentation. They never asked me any questions about them.
And then I was told that the paper was going to run this column backing away from certain aspects of the story that was run in August. And I objected very strongly. I went out after the column went out and I defended my reporting and I defended what I'd written, and I would not take it back. So, the next move was to take me off the story, tell me they weren't going to run the follow-ups. And now they're trying to reassign me to a bureau about 150 miles from where I live because they need to keep a closer eye on me. They need me closer to the main office so they can keep a close eye on what I'm doing. So, that's where things are at right now. The problem is that according to our union contract you can't transfer somebody from city to city without their permission. You certainly can't do it for punitive reasons. And you absolutely can't do it because a reporter decides to defend his reporting. So that's the next issue to be sorted out.
RW: So you have four more episodes of this story that are sitting there?
GW: That are dead. They're not gonna run them.
RW: Can you talk about what general areas they cover?
GW: It was the general areas about who else in the United States government knew about it. The links between other agencies and members of drug rings. Their activities in Costa Rica. The activities in El Salvador. These abortive police efforts in Los Angeles to try to bring these guys to justice, and how those got screwed up and turned around. Oliver North's involvement with drug traffickers in Costa Rica, at least his network's involvement with drug traffickers in Costa Rica. There was a lot of information there. It took us several months to pull it all together. And nothing ever happened. This stuff just sat. And sat, and sat, and sat.
RW: Before the interview we were talking about the kinds of support you've gotten, including the postings at the Mercury News web site. What's that meant to you?
GW: It's been very interesting, because the reaction from the public has been uniformly supportive. I mean, I have not gotten more than one or two phone calls from people who say `I think this is crap and you're making it all up and you should be shot,' or something. The public reaction has been almost unanimous. People were horrified to read it but they were happy to see it out. They were very surprised to see it out. And the one thing it reinforced for me was how deeply the public mistrusts the mass media in this country. And not just on the left wing, and not just on the right wing. But across the spectrum people don't believe they're being told the truth. And I think when they see something like this happen, where sometimes the truth gets out accidentally, and you see this mad scramble to try to put it back in the bottle, it only reinforces their suspicions. And frankly, it should. This has been an extraordinary thing. You know, when this contra cocaine story first broke, back in '85, the only reason it broke is that the Associated Press put it on the Spanish wire by accident. They had been doing the same thing.
RW: Tell that story. That's an interesting story.
GW: In December of '85, two AP reporters in Washington, Brian Barger and Bob Parry, wrote a story about contra cocaine trafficking in Costa Rica. Again, they turned the story in, it was edited, and re-edited, and re-edited, and re-edited and watered down, and weakened and re-edited. And never run. It just sat in the system. And one day, one of the foreign service editors saw this story sitting there, thought it was an interesting story, translated it into Spanish, and sent it out on the Spanish-language wire and it appeared in newspapers in Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. And I talked to Parry about this, and he said the next day they came in and the phones were ringing and people were saying, what a wonderful story. And he didn't know how it had gotten out. And once it got out it was a little too late to put in. But the reaction from the American press was just the opposite. The Washington Post stuck it way inside. I don't think the New York Times even mentioned it. And Parry and Barger eventually lost their jobs at AP. Parry went to pick up the story at Newsweek, and eventually got run out of Newsweek. So again, it's pattern recognition. You see what happens when somebody does something like this.
RW: Anything else you wanted to say?
GW: I was talking to someone, a radio d.j. in Kansas the other day, and he said one of the interesting fall-outs of the series has been that the Kansas legislature repealed the sentencing differential between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, so now at least if you get caught with powder it's the same penalty as being caught with crack. And that was a direct result of the series. So at least there has been some improvement in the law. But you know, that was one of the most troubling aspects of this. When you look at where this cocaine went into, and the reaction it had. And the damage that it caused. And the Congressional reaction was to punish the people that were selling the stuff, even harder than the people who were bringing the powder in. What resulted was this vast disparity in the number, and race, of people who were going to jail on federal cocaine trafficking charges. Now most of them are Black. And you know, people are right. These folks in the neighborhood don't bring the stuff in. They don't have the planes. They don't have the boats. They don't grow it there. But they're the ones that are paying the heaviest price for it. Which, no matter what side of the political spectrum you're on, it's just not fair.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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