The Long Shadow of Gary Webb's Dark Alliance

Published Street Roots, April 18, 2008

  • Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998.
  • Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, by Nick Schou. New York: Nation Books, 2006

In the first pages of Dark Alliance, prize-winning investigative journalist Gary Webb describes an idea that haunted him as a newspaperman:  one day he would pick up the phone and some stranger on the other end would give him the Big One, the tip that would turn the “rest of [his] career into an anticlimax.” 

For Webb, that phone call came one afternoon in July, 1995; he first saw it in the form of a message scribbled on a pink pad at his desk at the San Jose Mercury News. He returned the call to an Oakland woman who said her boyfriend was in federal court on drug trafficking charges. The government had seized his automobiles, houses, businesses and cash, she told Webb, and at first he thought she was asking him to do a piece on assets forfeiture, a story he’d already written two years before. 

“‘There’s something about Rafael’s case that I don’t think you would have ever done before,’ she persisted. ‘One of the government’s witnesses is a guy who used to work with the CIA selling drugs. Tons of it.’”

He followed that story for 14 months to a series in the Mercury, to a media stampede to discredit him led by the Washington Post, to a prestigious Journalist of the Year award from the Bay Area Society of Professional Journalists, to the loss of his newspaper job, to a longer book version of the story he absolutely stuck by, to joblessness and professional ostracism, to depression and the breakup of his marriage, and finally to a self-inflicted bullet in the brain, eight years after he’d first returned that phone call. It was the Big One, alright.

For some, the story Webb uncovered has a familiar ring:  thousands of kilos of cocaine came into Los Angeles and San Francisco from Colombia, sold to black drug dealers by Nicaraguans supporting the Contras, the guerilla army created and supported by the CIA to fight their war against the Sandinistas. Why revisit that story now?

Three reasons.

Because even though the U.S. has had a mission to Colombia since 1962, and even though Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, and even though our so-called War on Drugs has been raging since Clinton’s 1999 Plan Columbia,  cocaine still pours into this country from there. Webb’s discoveries about the compromised policies of our drug enforcement and intelligence communities can help shed light on this abysmal lack of progress.

And because in the 12 years since Webb first published his series, the prisons of this country have swollen to hold half a million more people, up from 1,078,357 inmates in federal and state prisoners as of December 31,  1995, to 1,570,861 at the end of 2006. (The figures go up even further, of course, when jail population is added in.)  And, as we all know, those prisoners are disproportionately black. African Americans make up 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges (although they only make up 15 percent of drug users) and account for 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison, Arianna Huffington reported one year ago.

Photo: Street Roots

Photo: Street Roots

And because Gary Webb, better than anyone, represents that ideal journalist that Bill Moyers described earlier this month at the Ridenhour Prize awards ceremony, the one “...willing to fight and re-fight the same battles until you go blue in the face, drive the people you work with nuts going over every last detail to make certain you’ve got it right, and then take all of the slings and arrows directed at you by the powers that be–corporate and political and sometimes journalistic...”

Webb was not the first to figure out the CIA connection to drugs. In 1972, University of Wisconsin-Madison historian Alfred McCoy published The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, documenting the CIA’s role in the opium trade which helped them finance anti-Communist guerrillas in Laos. (McCoy has stayed active in his role as agency watchdog: in 2006 he published a volume documenting CIA use of torture going back to their cold war experiments in mind control.)

Webb unveiled the troika that hauled crack into the ghetto – the CIA needing money to finance the Contras who were their proxies in the war against the Nicaraguan “communism” spreading across Central America, Nicaraguan exiles ferrying the drugs and donating back some of the proceeds; and local sellers trying to keep up with a need far more fierce than powder cocaine had ever ignited.

True, Robert Parry and fellow AP writer Brian Barger had tried to move the Contra/cocaine story in 1985, but couldn’t get any traction.

Later, other journalists missed or ignored it, even when Oliver North testified at a congressional hearing on July 9, 1987, and two men jumped up in the audience with a large banner reading, “Ask about the cocaine smuggling” just before they were dragged from the room by the police. The Christian Science Monitor mentioned it briefly, the Washington Post more briefly still. No one followed up. 

The “guy who worked with the CIA selling drugs,” was Oscar Danilo Blandón, a Nicaraguan trafficker who supplied South Central L.A. dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross with cocaine from the Colombia cartels. In 1995, when Webb stepped into the investigation, both Ross and Blandón had been arrested in Los Angeles. 

When Webb interviewed Ross in an L.A. jail in September, Ross couldn’t figure out how Blandón had beaten his rap, which carried a potential life sentence. 

Webb almost immediately got a phone call: the DEA was concerned about rumors of the story he was writing. He found himself summoned to an October meeting with six DEA agents who wanted to kill his story, at least as it concerned the Contras and Blandón. Yet, “Blandón was an international criminal, a man who’d brazenly sold drugs and weapons to gang members for more than a decade.”

Meanwhile, Webb’s Managua contact, Swiss journalist Georg Hodel, had located the 1992 Nicaraguan Supreme Court file of Norwin Meneses, an even bigger trafficker who first brought Blandón into the business, and had located him in a Managua prison. Hodel asked Webb to come down to Nicaragua and talk to Meneses, since part of his defense had been that the Sandinistas punished him because the cocaine he’d sold raised money for the Contras. Hodel had found another person for Webb to talk to, also a drug trafficker, but this guy went missing the day of Hodel’s initial visit request, spirited out of custody and Nicaragua by the DEA and settled in Miami.

In Nicaragua Webb interviewed not only Meneses, but other witnesses, including pilots, who knew of cocaine shipments flown to air bases in El Salvador, Mexico and Texas.

Webb finally met Blandón for the first time in an LA courtroom at a motion hearing on Ross’s case. When he gave him his card and asked that they talk, Blandón allowed as how he couldn’t, on DEA orders.

So Webb supplied Alan Fenster, Ross’s lawyer, with all the questions he wanted to ask Blandón, and that way got them answered under oath – an ingenious ploy from the mind of a reporter who won more than 30 journalism awards, including a Pulitzer.

None of it helped Ross, who got a life sentence.

Webb finished a first draft of his series in April 1996, four parts of 2400-3200 words each, and then endured a four-month editorial process. “They’re never going to go for four parts,” his editor began in her opening volley.  Webb cut, rearranged, cut, pulled more CIA references up to day one, cut, and changed the feature to sound more like a news story, all at the direction of multiple editors. At the end of July, when he had the piece reassembled and ready to go, the Mercury’s national left the paper and his replacement weighed in on the series:  “It needed to come down in length, he said, and we needed more CIA stuff in the first day. I was back to square one.”

Webb’s concern was that they run his piece at sufficient length to include a convincing amount of the massive volume of evidence he had collected. Webb remembered how aggressively the mainstream media had attacked Seymour Hersch and Daniel Schorr back in the 70s for exposing CIA abuses. His best protection turned out to be the Internet: staff created a “Dark Alliance” page on the paper’s new Mercury Center website with “full-color animated maps, one-click access to uncut source documents, unpublished photos, audio clips from undercover DEA tapes and Danilo Blandón’s federal court testimony, a bibliography, a timeline–all in far more depth and detail than we were able to get into the newspaper.”  (The San Jose Mercury News has since removed the series and supplementary material from its website, but some of it is still available on Al Giordano’s Narco News Bulletin at http://www.narconews.com/darkalliance/drugs/start.htm)

When the three-part series finally ran in August, 1996, the mainstream press first ignored it. But, as Webb writes, “In this case the blend of the Internet and talk radio had made the traditional media irrelevant.”  The day he was on National Public Radio, the website got 800,000 hits. HotWired magazine got an email from a black government lawyer who wrote:  “For the first time, my grandmother asked to go online and read something. I couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t look at a computer before.”

In October, the Washington Post came out with an article critical of Webb’s findings, a hatchet job three weeks in the making meant to dispose of 14 months of Webb’s work. Mercury executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, wrote a rebuttal which the Post refused to print. By the time Webb figured out that the Post writer, Walter Pincus, had formerly worked with the CIA, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times had followed suit. At the Mercury, Ceppos began to pull away from his own reporter. As Webb notes in his book, the Mercury had to go forward or backward at this point; Webb submitted further stories but the paper didn’t run them. Finally, he was reassigned to the Cupertino bureau. Rather than move his family, he tried for two months the 150-mile commute. Finally he quit the paper altogether. 

“My story,” Webb writes in Dark Alliance, “seemed to exemplify the hypocrisy of the whole War on Drugs. The crack dealers went to prison, while the men who made crack possible–the cocaine importers–walked away whistling. I laid the series out in just those terms, beginning it in the early 1980s with the critical role played by the Nicaraguan ‘freedom fighters’ in founding L.A.’s crack market and ending it in the early 1990s, with the passage of the anti-crack laws that were then packing the prisons with thousands of young black dealers...”

The thrashing he took from the prestige media was largely in defense of the CIA. Yet, as Webb writes in the book, his series had “...mentioned the CIA in passing, noting that some of the money had gone to a CIA-run army and that there were federal law enforcement reports suggesting the CIA knew about it.”

Meanwhile, South Central L.A. was stirred up and the community got its congresswoman, Maxine Waters, stirred up too. In the cacophony of controversy and condemnation, many forgot what Webb had actually written. He did not say that the CIA had a plot to get blacks hooked on cocaine; he did say that the Nicaraguan drug dealers found them an easy market, particularly once cocaine had been rendered as the very affordable and highly addictive crack. And he said that the Nicaraguans, who had been sending money and guns to their kinsmen in Central America, were quite willing to supply automatic weapons in the hood as well. And he said that this rich business funded the Contra army the CIA had created and did so in front of the averted eyes of the CIA.

(Others would come along later to speculate why crack first surfaced precisely in Oakland, precisely in the seventies, and took down precisely Huey Newton, against whom the FBI had already tried all their other weapons, but those paranoid speculations were outside the scope of Webb’s series and his book.)

Just as he finished the book version, Webb learned that “for thirteen years–from the time Blandón and Meneses began selling cocaine in L.A. for the Contras–the CIA and Justice had a gentleman’s agreement to look the other way.”  Fred P. Hitz, CIA Inspector General, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee in March 1998 and testified, in language appropriately awkward to the situation, that “there are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity.”  When pressed by a Congressman to state this more directly, Hitz admitted that a secret agreement had been “hammered out” in 1982 between CIA and French Smith, then U.S. Attorney General. “...the period of 1982 to 1995 was one in which there was no official requirement,” Hitz explained, “to report on allegations of drug trafficking.”  Thus ends Webb’s book.

For the end of the story, we have to turn to Nick Schou’s Kill the Messenger, which came out two years ago and picks up the story where Webb left off. Schou provides a brief bio of Webb (born in California, 1955; childhood in Hawaii, high school in Indiana, college in Kentucky), notes some of the prizes he won, first on the Kentucky Post and then at the Mercury, and reprises the CIA-Contra-cocaine story, his version a more convenient but less lush read, sans footnotes and indexing and without the relentless layering of evidence that characterizes Webb’s work. Finally, Schou chronicles the dark months leading up to Webb’s suicide.

There will always be those who deem it impractical to kill yourself twice, and the two bullets found in Webb’s skull have given rise to wide speculation, much of it on the Internet, that his death was not a suicide but an assassination. But Nick Schou, himself an investigative journalist of stature and a fond colleague of Webb’s, believes it was suicide and makes a convincing case. If Webb’s death involved a conspiracy, Schou could not find it.      

Dark Alliance,” Webb wrote in his Author’s Note, “does not propound a conspiracy theory; there is nothing theoretical about history. In this case, it is undeniable that a wildly successful conspiracy to import cocaine existed for many years, and that innumerable American citizens–most of them poor and black–paid an enormous price as a result.

“This book was written for them, so that they may know upon what altars their communities were sacrificed.” 

Copyright Martha Gies, 2016. No portion of this site may be used without written permission.