[What follows is an extended excerpt from Chapter Two of our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press. AC / JSC]
The attack on Gary Webb and his series in the San Jose Mercury News remains one of the most venomous and factually inane assaults on a professional journalist’s competence in living memory. In the mainstream press he found virtually no defenders, and those who dared stand up for him themselves became the object of virulent abuse and misrepresentation. L. J. O’Neale, the prosecutor for the Justice Department who was Danilo Blandón’s patron and Rick Ross’s prosecutor, initially formulated the polemical program against him. When one looks back on the assault in the calm of hindsight, what is astounding is the way Webb’s foes in the press mechanically reiterated those attacks.
There was a disturbing racist thread underlying the attacks on Webb’s series, and on those who took his findings seriously. It’s clear, looking through the onslaughts on Webb in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, that the reaction in black communities to the series was extremely disturbing to elite opinion. This was an eruption of outrage, an insurgency not just of very poor people in South Central and kindred areas, but of almost all blacks and many whites as well. In the counterattacks, one gets the sense that a kind of pacification program was in progress. Karen De Young, an assistant editor at the Washington Post, evoked just such an impulse when Alicia Shepard of the American Journalism Review interviewed her. “I looked at [the Mercury News series] when it initially came out and decided it was something we needed to follow up on. When it became an issue in the black community and on talk shows, that seemed to be a different phenomenon.” Remember too that the O. J. Simpson jury decision had also been deeply disturbing to white opinion. In that case, blacks had rallied around a man most whites believed to be a vicious killer, and there was a “white opinion riot” in response. Now blacks were mustering in support of a story charging that their profoundest suspicions of white malfeasance were true. So in the counterattack there were constant, patronizing references to “black paranoia,” decorously salted with the occasional concession that there was evidence from the past to support the notion that such paranoia might have some sound foundation.
Another factor lent a particular edge to the onslaughts. This was the first occasion on which the established press had to face the changing circumstances of the news business, in terms of registering mass opinion and allowing popular access. Webb’s series coincided with the coming of age of the Internet. The Miami Herald, another Knight-Ridder paper in the same corporate family as the Mercury News, had been forced to change editorial course in the mid-1980s by the vociferous, highly conservative Cuban American presence in Miami. The Herald chose not to reprint Webb’s series. However, this didn’t prevent anyone in south Florida from finding the entire series on the Internet, along with all the supporting documents.
The word “pacification” is not inappropriate to describe the responses to Webb’s story. Back in the 1980s, allegations about Contra drug running, also backed by documentary evidence, could be ignored with impunity. Given the Internet and black radio reaction, in the mid-1990s this was no longer possible, and the established organs of public opinion had to launch the fiercest of attacks on Webb and on his employer. This was a campaign of extermination: the aim was to destroy Webb and to force the Mercury News into backing away from the story’s central premise. At the same time, these media manipulators attempted to minimize the impact of Webb’ s story on the black community.
Another important point in the politics of this campaign is that Webb’s fiercest assailants were not on the right. They were mainstream liberals, such as Walter Pincus and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post and David Corn of the Nation, There has always been a certain conservative suspicion of the CIA, even if conservatives outside the libertarian wing heartily applaud the Agency’s imperial role. The CIA’s most effective friends have always been the liberal center, on the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times and in the endorsement of a person like the Washington Post’s president, Katharine Graham. In 1988 Graham had told CIA recruits, “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”
By mid-September of 1996 the energy waves created by Webb’s series were approaching critical mass and beginning to become an unavoidable part of the national news agenda. For example, NBC Dateline, a prime-time news show, had shot interviews with Webb and Rick Ross and had sent a team down to Nicaragua, where they filmed an interview with Norwin Meneses and other figures in the saga. Webb tells of a conversation with one of the Dateline producers, who asked him, “Why hasn’t this shit been on TV before?” “You tell me,” Webb answered. “You’re the TV man.”
A couple of weeks after this exchange, the program was telling Webb that it didn’t look as though they would be going forward with the story after all. In the intervening weeks, the counterattack had been launched, and throughout the networks the mood had abruptly shifted. On November 15, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell (partner of Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, about as snugly ensconced a member of the Washington elite as you could hope to find) was saying on NBC News in Depth that Webb’s story “was a conspiracy theory” that had been “spread by talk radio.”
The storm clouds began to gather with the CNN-brokered exchange between Webb and Ron Kessler. Kessler had had his own dealings with the Agency. In 1992 he had published Inside the CIA, a highly anecdotal and relatively sympathetic book about the Agency, entirely devoid of the sharp critical edge that had characterized Kessler’s The FBI. A couple of CIA memos written in 1991 and 1992 record the Agency’s view of the experience of working with Kessler and other reporters.
The 1991 CIA note discusses Kessler’s request for information and brags that a close relationship had been formed with Kessler, “which helped turn some ‘intelligence failure’ stories into ‘intelligence success’ stories.” Of course this could have been merely self-serving fluff by an Agency officer, but it is certainly true that Kessler was far from hard on the Agency. That same CIA memo goes on to explain that the Agency maintains “relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly and TV network.” The memo continues, “In many instances we have persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests or jeopardized sources or methods.”
The next attack on Webb came from another long-time friend of the Agency, Arnaud de Borchgrave. De Borchgrave had worked for News- week as a columnist for many years and made no secret of the fact that he regarded many of his colleagues as KGB dupes. He himself boasted of intimate relations with French, British and US intelligence agencies and was violently right-wing in his views. In recent years he has written for the sprightly Washington Times, a conservative paper owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
The thrust of de Borchgrave’s attack, which appeared in the Washington Times on September 24, 1996, was that Webb’s basic thesis was wrong, because the Contras had been rolling in CIA money. Like almost all other critics, de Borchgrave made no effort to deal with the plentiful documents, such as federal grand jury transcripts, that Webb had secured and that were available on the Mercury News website. Indeed, some of the most experienced reporters in Washington displayed, amid their criticisms, a marked aversion to studying such source documents. De Borchgrave did remark that when all the investigations were done, the most that would emerge would be that a couple of CIA officers might have been lining their own pockets.
That same September 24, 1996, a more insidious assault came in the form of an interview of Webb by Christopher Matthews on the CNBC cable station. There are some ironies here. Matthews had once worked for Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. O’Neill had been sympathetic to the amendment against Contra funding offered by his Massachusetts colleague, Edward Boland. On the other hand, O’Neill had swiftly reacted to a firestorm of outrage about cocaine after the death of the Celtics’ draftee Len Bias, a star basketball player at the University of Maryland. At that time, he rushed through the House some appalling “War on Drugs” legislation whose dire effects are still with us today.
Matthews left O’Neill’s office with a carefully calculated career plan to market himself as a syndicated columnist and telepundit. Positioning himself as a right-of-center liberal, Matthews habitually eschewed fact for opinion, and is regarded by many op-ed editors as a self-serving blowhard with an exceptionally keen eye for the main chance. Clearly sensing where the wind was blowing, Matthews used his show to launch a fierce attack on Webb. First, he badgered the reporter for supposedly producing no evidence of “the direct involvement of American CIA officers.” “Who said anything about American CIA agents?” Webb responded. “That’s the most ethnocentric viewpoint I’ve ever seen in my life. The CIA used foreign nationals all the time. In this operation they were using Nicaraguan exiles.”
Matthews had clearly prepped himself with de Borchgrave’s article that morning. His next challenge to Webb was on whether or not the Contras needed drug money. Matthews’s research assistants had prepared a timeline purporting to show that the Contras were flush with cash during the period when Webb’s stories said they were desperate for money from any source.
But Webb, who had lived the chronology for eighteen months, stood his ground. He patiently expounded to Matthews’s audience how Meneses and Blandón’s drugs-for-guns operation was at its peak during the period when Congress had first restricted, then later totally cut off US funding to the Contra army based in Honduras. Webb told Matthews, “When the CIA funding was restored, all these guys got busted.” After the interview, Webb says Matthews stormed off the set, berating his staff, “This is outrageous. I’ve been sabotaged.”
The tempo now began to pick up. On October 1, Webb got a call in San Diego from Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media reporter. “Kurtz called me,” Webb remembers, “and after a few innocuous questions I thought that was that.” It wasn’t. Kurtz’s critique came out on October 2 and became a paradigm for many of the assaults that followed. The method was simplicity itself: a series of straw men swiftly raised up, and as swiftly demolished. Kurtz opened by describing how blacks, liberal politicians and “some” journalists “have been trumpeting a Mercury News story that they say links the CIA to drug trafficking in the United States.” Kurtz told how Webb’s story had become “a hot topic,” through the unreliable mediums of the Internet and black talk radio. “There’s just one problem,” Kurtz went on. “The series doesn’t actually say the CIA knew about the drug trafficking.” To buttress this claim, Kurtz then wrote that Webb had “admitted” as much in their brief chat with the statement, “We’d never pretended otherwise. This doesn’t prove the CIA targeted black people. It doesn’t say this was ordered by the CIA. Essentially, our trail stopped at the door of the CIA. They wouldn’t return my phone calls.”
What Webb had done in the series was show in great detail how a Contra funding crisis had engendered enormous sales of crack in South Central, how the wholesalers of that cocaine were protected from prosecution until the funding crisis ended, and how these same wholesalers were never locked away in prison, but were hired as informants by federal prosecutors. It could be argued that Webb’s case is often circumstantial, but prosecutions on this same amount of circumstantial evidence have seen people put away on life sentences. Webb was telling the truth on another point as well: the CIA did not return his phone calls. And unlike Kurtz’s colleagues at the Washington Post or New York Times reporter Tim Golden, who offered twenty-four off-the-record interviews in his attack, Webb refused to run quotes from officials without attribution. In fact, Webb did have a CIA source. “He told me,” Webb remembers, “he knew who these guys were and he knew they were cocaine dealers. But he wouldn’t go on the record so I didn’t use his stuff in the story. I mean, one of the criticisms is we didn’t include CIA comments in [the] story. And the reason we didn’t is because they wouldn’t return my phone calls and they denied my Freedom of Information Act requests.”
But suppose the CIA had returned Webb’s calls? What would a spokesperson have said, other than that Webb’s allegations were outrageous and untrue? The CIA is a government entity pledged to secrecy about its activities. On scores of occasions, it has remained deceptive when under subpoena before a government committee. Why should the Agency be expected to answer frankly a bothersome question from a reporter? Yet it became a fetish for Webb’s assailants to repeat, time after time, that the CIA denied his charges and that he had never given this denial as the Agency’s point of view.
The CIA is not a kindergarten. The Agency has been responsible for many horrible deeds, including killings. Yet journalists kept treating it as though it was some above-board body, like the US Supreme Court. Many of the attackers assumed that Webb had been somehow derelict in not unearthing a signed order from William Casey mandating Agency officers to instruct Enrique Bermúdez to arrange with Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandón to sell “x kilos of cocaine.” This is an old tactic, known as “the hunt for the smoking gun.” But of course, such a direct order would never be found by a journalist. Even when there is a clearly smoking gun, like the references to cocaine paste in Oliver North’s notebooks, the gun rarely shows up in the news stories. North’s notebooks were released to the public in the early 1990s. There for all to see was an entry on July 9, 1984, describing a conversation with CIA man Dewey Clarridge: “Wanted aircraft to go to Bolivia to pick up paste.” Another entry on the same day stated, “Want aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos.”
“In Bolivia they have only one kind of paste,” says former DEA agent Michael Levine, who spent more than a decade tracking down drug smugglers in Mexico, Southeast Asia and Bolivia. “That’s cocaine paste. We have a guy working for the NSC talking to a CIA agent about a phone call to Adolfo Calero. In this phone call they discuss picking up cocaine paste from Bolivia and wanting an aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos.” None of Webb’s attackers mentioned these diary entries.
A sort of manic literalism permeated the attacks modeled on Kurtz’s chop job. For instance, critics repeatedly returned to Webb’s implied accusation that the CIA had targeted blacks. As we have noted, Webb didn’t actually say this, but merely described the sequence which had led to blacks being targeted by the wholesaler. However, we shall see that there have been many instances where the CIA, along with other government bodies, has targeted blacks quite explicitly in testing the toxicity of disease organisms, or the effects of radiation and mind-altering drugs. Yet Webb’s critics never went anywhere near the well-established details of such targeting. Instead, they relied on talk about “black paranoia,” which liberals kindly suggested could be traced to the black historical experience, and which conservatives more brusquely identified as “black irrationality.”
Kurtz lost no time in going after Webb’s journalistic ethics and denouncing the Mercury News for exploitative marketing of the series. As an arbiter of journalistic morals, Kurtz castigated Webb for referring to the Contras as “the CIA’s army,” suggesting that Webb used this phrase merely to implicate the Agency. This charge recurs endlessly in the onslaughts on Webb, and it is by far the silliest. One fact is agreed upon by everyone except a few berserk Maoists-turned-Reaganites, like Robert Leiken of Harvard. That fact is that the Contras were indeed the CIA’s army, and that they had been recruited, trained and funded under the Agency’s supervision. It’s true that in the biggest raids of all the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors and the raids on the Nicaraguan oil refineries the Agency used its own men, not trusting its proxies. But for a decade the main Contra force was indeed the CIA’s army, and followed its orders obediently.
In attacks on reporters who have overstepped the bounds of political good taste, the assailants will often make an effort to drive a wedge between the reporter and the institution for which the reporter works. For example, when Ray Bonner, working in Central America for the New York Times, sent a dispatch saying the unsayable that US personnel had been present at a torture session the Wall Street Journal and politicians in Washington attacked the Times as irresponsible for running such a report. The Times did not stand behind Bonner, and allowed his professional credentials to be successfully challenged.
The fissure between Webb and his paper opened when Kurtz elicited a statement from Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the Mercury News, that he was “disturbed that so many people have leaped to the conclusion that the CIA was involved.” This apologetic note from Ceppos was not lost on Webb’s attackers, who successfully worked to widen the gap between reporter and editor.
Another time-hallowed technique in such demolition jobs is to charge that this is all “old news” as opposed to that other derided commodity, “ill-founded speculation.” Kurtz used the “old news” ploy when he wrote, “The fact that Nicaraguan rebels were involved in drug trafficking has been known for a decade. ” Kurtz should have felt some sense of shame in writing these lines, since his own paper had sedulously avoided acquainting its readers with this fact. Kurtz claimed, ludicrously, that “the Reagan Administration acknowledged as much in the 1980s, but subsequent investigations failed to prove that the CIA condoned or even knew about it.” This odd sentence raised some intriguing questions. When had the Reagan administration “acknowledged as much”? And if the Reagan administration knew, how could the CIA have remained in ignorance? Recall that in the 1980s, the Reagan administration was referring to the Contras as the “moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers,” and accusing the Sandinistas of being drug runners.
Kurtz also slashed at Webb personally, stating that he “appeared conscious of making the news.” As illustration, Kurtz quoted a letter that Webb had written to Rick Ross in July 1996 about the timing of the series. Webb told Ross that it would probably be run around the time of his sentencing, in order to “generate as much public interest as possible.” As Webb candidly told Ross, this was the way the news business worked. So indeed it does, at the Washington Post far more than at the Mercury News, as anyone following the Post’s promotion of Bob Woodward’s books will acknowledge. But Webb is somehow painted as guilty of self-inflation for telling Ross a journalistic fact of life.
On Friday, October 4, the Washington Post went to town on Webb and on the Mercury News, The onslaught carried no less than 5,000 words in five articles. The front page featured a lead article by Roberto Suro and Walter Pincus, headlined “CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking of Contra-Tied Plot.” Also on the front page was a piece by Michael Fletcher on black paranoia. The A section carried another piece on an inside page, a profile of Norwin Meneses by Douglas Farah. A brief sidebar by Walter Pincus was titled, “A Long History of Drug Allegations,” compressing the entire history of the CIA’s involvement with drug production in Southeast Asia a saga that Al McCoy took 634 pages to chart into 300 words. Finally, the front page of the Post’s Style section that Friday morning contained an article by Donna Britt headlined, “Finding the Truest Truth.” Britt’s topic was how blacks tell stories to each other and screw things up in the process.
Connections between Walter Pincus and the intelligence sector are long-standing and well-known. From 1955 to 1957, he worked for US Army Counter-Intelligence in Washington, D.C. Pincus himself is a useful source about his first connections with the CIA. In 1968, when the stories about the CIA’s penetration of the National Student Association had been broken by the radical magazine Ramparts, Pincus wrote a rather solemn expose of himself in the Washington Post. In a confessional style, he reported how the Agency had sponsored three trips for him, starting in 1960. He had gone to conferences in Vienna, Accra and New Delhi, acting as a CIA observer. It was clearly an apprenticeship in which as he well knew Pincus was being assessed as officer material. He evidently made a good impression, because the CIA asked him to do additional work. Pincus says he declined, though it would be hard to discern from his reporting that he was not, at the least, an Agency asset. The Washington Times describes Pincus as a person “who some in the Agency refer to as ‘the CIA’s house reporter.'”
Since Webb’s narrative revolved around the central figures of Blandón and Meneses, Pincus and Suro understandably focused on the Nicaraguans, claiming that they were never important players in Contra circles. To buttress this view, the Post writers hauled out the somewhat dubious assertions of Adolfo Calero. As with other CIA denials, one enters a certain zone of unreality here. Journalists were using as a supposedly reliable source someone with a strong motivation to deny that his organization had anything to do with the cocaine trafficking of which it was accused. Pincus and Suro solemnly cited Calero as saying that when he met with Meneses and Blandón, “We had no crystal ball to know who they were or what they were doing.” Calero’s view was emphasized as reliable, whereas Blandón and Meneses were held to be exaggerating their status in the FDN.
Thus, we have Webb, based on Blandón’s sworn testimony as a government witness before a federal grand jury, reporting that FDN leader Colonel Enrique Bermúdez had bestowed on Meneses the title of head of intelligence and security for the FDN in California. On the other hand, we have the self-interested denials to Pincus and Suro of a man who has been denounced to the FBI as “a pathological liar” by a former professor at California State University, Hayward, Dennis Ainsworth.
Just as Kurtz had done, Pincus and Suro homed in on the charge that Webb had behaved unethically. This time the charge was suggesting certain questions that Ross’s lawyer, Alan Fenster, could ask Blandón. Webb’ s retort has always been that it would be hard to imagine a better venue for reliable responses than a courtroom with the witness under oath.
But how did all the Washington Post writers come to focus in so knowledgeably on this particular courtroom scene?
Kurtz never mentions his name, and Pincus and Suro refer to him only in passing, but Assistant US District Attorney L. J. O’Neale was himself being questioned by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department investigators on November 19, 1996. The department’s transcript of the interview shows O’Neale reveling in his top-secret security clearance with the CIA, and saying that “his personal feelings were that Mr. Webb had become an active part of Ricky Ross’s defense team. He said that it was his personal opinion that Webb’s involvement was on the verge of complicity.” While he was speaking, O’Neale was searching for a document. As the investigators put it in their report, “In our presence he called Howard Kurtz, the author of the first Washington Post article, but nobody answered.” Thereupon, also in their presence, he talked to Walter Pincus.
This hint of pre-existing relations between the Washington Post and the federal prosecutor suggests that O’Neale had rather more input into the Post’s attacks on Webb than the passing mention of his name might suggest. And indeed, a comparison between O’Neale’s court filings and the piece by Pincus and Suro shows that the Washington Post duo faithfully followed the line of O’Neale’s attack. Once again, motive is important. O’Neale had every reason to try to subvert a reporter who had described in great detail how the US District Attorney had become the patron and handler of Danilo Blandón. Webb had described how O’Neale had saved Blandón from a life term in prison, found him a job as a government agent and used him as his chief witness in a series of trials. O’Neale had an enormous stake in discrediting Webb.
O’Neale’s claim, reiterated by Pincus and Suro, is that Blandón mainly engaged in sending cocaine profits to the Contras in late 1981 and 1982, before hooking up with Rick Ross. Furthermore, the amount of cocaine sold by Blandón was a mere fraction of the national market for the drug, and thus could not have played a decisive role in sparking a crack plague in Los Angeles. In other words, according to the O’Neale line in the Post, Blandón had sold only a relatively insignificant amount of cocaine in 1981 and 1982 (later the magical figure $50,000 worth became holy writ among Webb’s critics). His association with Ross had begun after Blandón had given up his charitable dispensations to the Contras, and thus was a purely criminal enterprise with no political ramifications. Therefore, even by implication, there could be no connection between the CIA and the rise of crack.
O’Neale had reversed the position he had taken in the days when he was prosecuting Blandón and calling him “the largest Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in the United States.” Now he was claiming that Blandón’s total sales of cocaine amounted to only 5 tons, and thus he could not be held accountable for the rise of crack. This specific argument was seized gratefully by Pincus and Suro. “Law enforcement estimates,” Pincus and Suro wrote, “say Blandón handled a total of only about five tons of cocaine during a decade-long career.”
Imagine if the Washington Post had been dealing with a claim by Mayor Marion Barry that during his mayoral terms “only” about 10,000 pounds of crack had been handled by traffickers in the blocks surrounding his office!
Webb was attacked for claiming, in the opening lines of his series, that “millions” had been funneled back to the Contras. In his statements to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department investigators, O’Neale said, ” Blandón dealt with a total of 40 kilos of cocaine from January to December 1982. The profits of the sales were used to purchase weapons and equipment for the Contras.” O’Neale was trying to narrow the window of “political” cocaine sales. However, during that time Blandón was selling cocaine worth over $2 million in only a fraction of the period that Webb identified as the time the cocaine profits were being remitted to Honduras.
The degree of enmity directed toward Webb can be gauged not only by O’Neale’s diligent briefings of Webb’s antagonists, but also by the raid on the office of Gary Webb’s literary agent, Jody Hotchkiss of the Sterling Lord Agency, by agents of the Department of Justice and the DEA. The government men came brandishing subpoenas for copies of all correspondence between the Sterling Lord Agency, Rick Ross, Ross’s lawyer Alan Fenster, and Webb. The DEA justified the search on the grounds that it wanted to see if Ross had any assets it could seize to pay his hefty fines. But Webb reckons “they were really looking for some sort of business deal between me and Ross. They wanted to discredit me as a reporter by saying he’s making deals with drug dealers.” The raid produced no evidence of any such deal, because there was none.
Cheek by jowl with Pincus and Suro on the Washington Post’s front page that October 4 was Fletcher’s essay on the sociology of black paranoia. Blacks, Fletcher claimed, cling to beliefs regardless of “the shortage of factual substantiation” and of “denials by government officials.” Fletcher duly stated some pieties about the “bitter” history of American blacks. Then he bundled together some supposed conspiracies (that the government deliberately infected blacks with the AIDS virus, that Church’s fried chicken and Snapple drinks had been laced with chemicals designed to sterilize black men) and implied that allegations about the CIA and cocaine trafficking were of the same order. It is true, Fletcher conceded, that blacks had reasons to be paranoid. “Many southern police departments,” he wrote delicately, “were suspected of having ties to the Ku Klux Klan.” He mentioned in passing the FBI snooping on Martin Luther King Jr. and the sting operation on Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Marion Barry. He also touched on the syphilis experiments conducted by the government on blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. “The history of victimization of black people allows myths and, at times, outright paranoia to flourish.” In other words, the black folk get it coming and going. Terrible things happen to them, and then they’re patronized in the Washington Post for imagining that such terrible things might happen again. “Even if a major investigation is done,” Fletcher concluded, “it is unlikely to quell the certainty among many African Americans that the government played a role in bringing the crack epidemic to black communities.”
A few days later, a Post editorial followed through on this notion of black irrationality and the lack of substance in Webb’s thesis. The writer observed that “The Mercury [had] borrowed heavily from a certain view of CIA rogue conduct that was widespread ten years ago.” The “biggest shock,” the editorial went on, “wasn’t the story but the credibility the story seems to have generated when it reached some parts of the black community.” This amazing sentence was an accurate rendition of what really bothered the Washington Post, which was not charges that the CIA had been complicit in drug running, but that black people might be suspicious of the government’s intentions toward them. The Post’s editorial said solemnly that “[i]f the CIA did associate with drug pushers its aim was not to infect Americans but to advance the CIA’ s foreign project and purposes.”
In the weeks that followed, Post columnists piled on the heat. Mary McGrory, the doyenne of liberal punditry, said that the Post had successfully “discredited” the Mercury News. Richard Cohen, always edgy on the topic of black America, denounced Rep. Maxine Waters for demanding an investigation after the Washington Post had concluded that Webb’s charges were “baseless.” “When it comes to sheer gullibility or is it mere political opportunism? Waters is in a class of her own.”
One story in that October 4 onslaught in the Post differed markedly from its companion pieces. That was the profile of Meneses by Douglas Farah, which actually advanced Webb’s story. Farah, the Post’s man in Central America, filed a dispatch from Managua giving a detailed account of Meneses’s career as a drug trafficker, going back to 1974. Farah described how Meneses had “worked for the Contras for five years, fundraising, training and sending people down to Honduras.” He confirmed Meneses’s encounter with Enrique Bermúdez and added a detail the gift of a crossbow by Meneses to the colonel. Then Farah produced a stunner, lurking in the twelfth paragraph of his story. Citing “knowledgeable sources,” he reported that the DEA had hired Meneses in 1988 to try to set up Sandinista political and military leaders in drug stings. Farah named the DEA agent involved as Federico Villareal. The DEA did not dispute this version of events. In other words, Farah had Meneses performing a political mission for the US government, side by side with the story by his colleagues Pincus and Suro claiming Meneses had no such connections.
Shortly after the Post’s offensives on October 2 and October 4, the Mercury News’s editor, Jerry Ceppos, sent a detailed letter to the Post aggressively defending Webb and rebutting the criticisms. “The Post has every right to reach different conclusions from those of the Mercury News,” Ceppos wrote. “But I’m disappointed in the ‘what’s the big deal’ tone running through the Post’s critique. If the CIA knew about illegal activities being conducted by its associates, federal law and basic morality required that it notify domestic authorities. It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of story that a newspaper should shine a light on.”
The Post refused to print Ceppos’s letter. Ceppos called Stephen Rosenfeld, the deputy editor of the editorial page, who suggested that Ceppos revise his letter and resubmit it. Ceppos promptly did this, and again the Post refused to print his response. Rosenfeld said Ceppos’s letter was “misinformation.” Ceppos later wrote in the Mercury News: “I was stunned when the Washington Post rejected my request to reply to its long critique of ‘Dark Alliance.’ The Post at first encouraged me, asking me to rewrite the article and then to agree to other changes. I did. Then, a few days ago, I received a one-paragraph fax saying that the Post is ‘not able to publish’ my response. Among other reasons, the Post said [that] other papers ‘essentially’ confirmed the Post’s criticism of our series. I’ve insisted for years that newspapers don’t practice ‘groupthink.’ I’m still sure that most don’t. But the Post’s argument certainly gives ammunition to the most virulent critics of American journalism. The Post also said I had backed down ‘elsewhere’ from positions I took in the piece I wrote for the Post. But I didn’t. I shouted to anyone who would listen (and wrote that, in another letter to the Post). It was too late. On the day that the Post faxed me, the Los Angeles Times incorrectly had written that reporter Gary Webb, who wrote the ‘Dark Alliance’ series, and I had backed down on several key points. Fiction became fact. As if I had no tongue, and no typewriter, I suddenly had lost access to the newspaper that first bitterly criticized our series.”
The Post’s sordid procedures in savaging Webb were examined by its ombudsman, Geneva Overholzer, on November 10. Ultimately she found her own paper guilty of “misdirected zeal,” but first she took the opportunity to stick a few more knives into poor Webb. “The San Jose series was seriously flawed. It was reported by a seemingly hot-headed fellow willing to have people leap to conclusions his reporting couldn’t back up principally that the CIA was knowingly involved in the introduction of drugs into the United States.” That said, Overholzer then turned her sights on the Post’s editors, saying that the Post showed more energy for protecting the CIA than for protecting the people from government excesses. “Post editors and reporters knew there was strong evidence that the CIA at least chose to overlook Contra involvement in the drug trade. Yet when those revelations came out in the 1980s they had caused ‘little stir,’ as the Post delicately noted. Would that we had welcomed the surge of public interest as an occasion to return to a subject the Post and the public had given short shrift. Alas, dismissing someone else’s story as old news comes more naturally.”