Moments after the story hit the wires that Gary Webb had been found dead of an apparent suicide, the radical left began hinting that the former San Jose Mercury News reporter who broke the Nicaraguan Contra-Crack Connection story had met with a more sinister fate. Alex Walker, of the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center, got the conspiracy ball rolling with the help of single quotation marks and a bit of idyllic prose:
Elsewhere on the Web we find:
Conspiracy theories aside, Gary Webb’s spectacular fall was the stuff of Greek tragedy, and much like Oedipus and Antigone it was hubris that brought about his doom. That and an inability to discern truth from fantasy.
In 1990, Gary Webb was one of a team of Mercury News reporters awarded the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake. (Not bad for a guy who hadn’t finished journalism school.) Six year’s later Webb was again making headlines, this time with a three-part series focused on two Nicaraguans who claimed they sold drugs to LA’s biggest dope dealer during the 1980s to raise money for the CIA-backed contras. The series, “Dark Alliances,” began:
Webb’s series alleged that the CIA was to blame for introducing crack cocaine into American cities and, by extension, everything from gang wars to crack babies. Some Americans, particularly liberals and minorities, saw Webb’s reportage as confirmation of their suspicion of a “CIA-driven genocide of black Americans.”
The only problem was that Webb’s facts were either wrong or completely insupportable. Three months after the series appeared the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department conducted its own investigation, but found no evidence of a connection between the CIA and Southern California drug traffickers. The L.A. Times also looked into the story, and after reviewing court documents and conducting more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, concluded that the “evidence failed to support any of [Webb’s] allegations.” Soon other reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times found holes in Webb’s story big enough to drive a convoy of newspaper trucks through. Both the Post and Times concluded that Webb had no basis for suggesting that contra drug dealers had targeted black communities, or that the CIA was in anyway involved in the introduction of crack cocaine into the U.S.
Ultimately the Mercury News was obliged to run an embarrassing retraction. “We oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew,” wrote editor Jerry Ceppos. “I believe that we fell short at every step of our process — in the writing, editing and production of our work.”
Meanwhile as everyone else was disavowing Webb’s “reporting,” Sen. John Kerry, chair of a subcommittee investigating the charges, spoke for those who supported the status quo in Central America when he said, “There is no question in my mind that people affiliated with, or on the payroll of the CIA, were involved in drug trafficking while involved in support of the Contras, but it is also important to note that we never found any evidence to suggest that these traffickers ever targeted any one geographic area or population group.” Most Americans, however, tended to agree with Kerry’s then opponent in the Massachusetts senate race Gov. William Weld who said it was “nutty” to think that the CIA would want to pollute America with cocaine.
As Webb’s story (and career) rapidly fell apart he began to grow paranoid, suspecting that the CIA had gotten to the Mercury News management. Shortly after his series was discredited Webb was transferred to a suburban bureau. Before the year was out he quit the paper maintaining that he was “not the first reporter to go after the CIA and lose his job.”
After leaving the Mercury News Webb held various posts in state government while writing his 1999 book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. Miami Herald reporter Glenn Garvin, reviewing the book for the libertarian magazine Reason, said “journalism doesn’t get much worse than Dark Alliance.” The book reads more like a script for an episode of the X-Files than Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporting. Even a ravenous Michael Moore wouldn’t swallow half the bilge in Webb’s book. One fairly typical chapter, Garvin says, explains how “then-Vice President George Bush had flown down to Colombia to strike a bargain with the Medellin cocaine cartel. The agreement was that the cartel could fly as much cocaine as it wanted into U.S. military bases as long as it sold guns to the contras.” In the end, “Webb’s evidence that the contras were selling cocaine is almost entirely drawn from the claims of a few Nicaraguan traffickers facing long jail sentences who were using the CIA-made-me-do-it defense.”
As the '90s came to an end, Webb again ran into trouble while working for a California legislative committee. The Los Angeles Times noted that in 1998, Webb “wrote a report accusing the California Highway Patrol of unofficially condoning and even encouraging racial profiling in its drug interdiction program. Legislative officials released the report in 1999, but cautioned that it was based mainly on assumptions and anecdotes.”
For a while Gary Webb was a regular on San Francisco’s radical red speaker circuit, playing the role of journalistic martyr. Then he was pretty much forgotten. His life continued to unravel as he and his wife Susan Bell divorced, then, according to the AP, he was fired from his job in the California Assembly Speaker’s Office for not showing up for work. Earlier this month movers found a note on Webb’s apartment door asking them to call 9-1-1. The coroner concluded that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
In his book Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras, Glenn Garvin writes that during the Carter Administration some contras almost certainly did sell drugs (and rob banks and steal cars and kidnap rich kids) and some of that cash went to finance their war with the Sandinistas. Every rebel group in the twentieth century, he notes, has behaved similarly. Yet once the U.S. began funding the contras, not only was drug trafficking unnecessary, but it was expressly forbidden by contra leaders as well as Washington. One would like to believe the CIA knew about every Nicaraguan pilot based on the southern front who stashed a kilo of coke aboard his prop plane bound for North America, but as we learned from 9/11, the agency hasn’t always been as omniscient as some of us would like. Agents make mistakes. If Gary Webb taught us anything it is that, apparently, so do Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporters.
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