How the Press and the CIA Killed Gary Webb’s Career
CounterAttack, Part Two, Excerpted from Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press.
Despite Ceppos’s anger at the Washington Post, the unrelenting attacks from organizations that he held in great professional esteem were beginning to take their toll. It is also quite possible that he was feeling pressure from within the Knight-Ridder empire. To judge from the bleating tone of his pieces about the Webb series in the Mercury News the November 4 article, for example Ceppos may not have had quite the necessary backbone to hold up under pressure.
Ceppos assigned another Mercury News investigative reporter, Pete Carey, to review Webb’s reporting against the charges of the media critics. On October 12 the Mercury News published Carey’s findings, which backed up Webb’s work and actually added new information, particularly regarding the 1986 search warrant against Blandón and his arms-dealing associate, Ronald Lister. But though Webb’s reporting was vindicated, the assignment to Carey was an omen of the paper’s increasing defensiveness.
Another omen was Ceppos’s reaction to charges that Webb had a vested interest in the story because he had a book offer and film offers. The Los Angeles Times reported, inaccurately, that Webb had signed a deal. "This story really pissed off Ceppos," Webb recalls. "He said it made the paper look bad." Webb told Ceppos he didn’t have any deals. Ceppos then told Webb, "I don’t want you to sign any deals and if you sign any book deals or movie deals you can’t work on this story for us anymore."
"That’s kind of asking a lot," Webb says he answered. "This is what most reporters dream of."
"Well, you’ll have to make up your mind," Ceppos said. "You can either do a book deal or you can work on it for us."
Webb went home to talk over the ultimatum with his wife, Sue, a respiratory therapist. She told him, "Screw them. Do the book. Do the movie and let the Mercury News worry about itself."
"I owe it to the paper," Webb answered. "They’re being sniped at." So he called up Hotchkiss at Sterling Lord and told him, "Forget the books. Forget the movie deals. They want me to do more stories. Then I’ll do the book."
Sue had better instincts about the Mercury News than her husband. Having told Webb to give up the deals and write the stories for the paper, Ceppos thus did his reporter out of book and movie advances, then failed to run the stories and finally tried to ruin his career.
The next assault was a double-barreled one from either side of the continent, on Sunday, October 17, in the New York Times, staff reporter Tim Golden was given an entire page on which to flail away at Webb. In the Los Angeles Times, an army of fourteen reporters and three editors put out a three-part series, intended to finish off Webb forever.
Golden’s piece, entitled "The Tale of CIA and Drugs Has Life of Its Own," was remarkable, among other reasons, for the pullulating anonymity of its sources. Golden claimed to have interviewed "more than two dozen current and former rebels, CIA officers and narcotics agents." From these informants, Golden had concluded that there was "scant" proof to support the paper’s contention that Nicaraguan rebel officials linked to the CIA played a central role in spreading crack through Los Angeles and other cities. One conspicuous common link between all the officials quoted by Golden as being critical of Webb is that they remained anonymous. Only Adolfo Calero permitted himself to be identified. Golden’s editors at the New York Times allowed him to offer scores of blind quotes without any identification. The Mercury News never offered Webb that indulgence, nor did he request it.
In truth, Golden’s story had no substance whatsoever. He got his final word on the story from that well-known Uncle Tom to the thumb-sucking crowd, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a black professor from the Harvard University Medical School. Poussaint, who is always being wheeled out in these situations, ascribed the reaction of black America to the Mercury News story as another case of black paranoia. This tendresse for the CIA’s reputation was nothing new for the New York Times. In 1987, its reporter Keith Schneider weighed in with a three-part series dismissing allegations of Contra drug trafficking. A month later Schneider explained to In These Times magazine why he took that approach. He said such a story could "shatter the Republic. I think it is so damaging, the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we could amass." In other words, it would have to be approved by the Agency.
Of all the attacks on Webb, the Los Angeles Times series was the most elaborate and the most disingenuous. For two months the dominant newspaper in Southern California had been derided for missing the big story on its own doorstep. The only way it could salvage its reputation was to claim that there’d been no big story to miss. This is the path it took. It would have been extraordinary if the Times had the decency to clap the Mercury News on the back and praise it for good work, particularly given the disposition of its editor-in-chief at the time, Shelby Coffee III. Coffee came to Los Angeles from the Washington Post, where he had been editor of the Style section. He was regarded there as a smooth courtier in the retinue of Katharine Graham and not in any way as a boat rocker. It would have gone against every instinct for Coffee to have endorsed a story so displeasing to liberal elites. "He is the dictionary definition of someone who wants to protect the status quo," said Dennis McDougal, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, in an interview with New Times, "He weighs whether or not an investigative piece will have repercussions among the ruling elites and if it will, the chances of seeing it in print in the LA Times decrease accordingly."
The mood of the group doing the series, under the leadership of Doyle McManus, could scarcely be described as one of objective dispassion. They referred to themselves as the "Get Gary Webb Team," as Peter Kornbluh reported in the Columbia Journalism Review, and bragged in the office about denying Webb his Pulitzer.
The most important task for the hit squad was to deal with its own backyard. They assigned Webb’s old nemesis Jesse Katz the task of undermining Webb’s assertion that the Blandón/Ross cocaine ring helped spark the crack epidemic in Los Angeles. Katz duly turned in an article claiming that "the explosion of cheap smokable cocaine in the 1980s was a uniquely egalitarian phenomenon, one that lent itself more to makeshift mom and pop operations than to the sinister hand of a government-sanctioned plot." Katz went on to minimize the role of Rick Ross: "How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ricky Ross." Katz then asserted that gangs had little or nothing to do with the crack trade, stating flatly that crack sales did not "fill the coffers of the Bloods and the Crips." He also disputed the idea that crack use had spread across the country from Los Angeles.
This was a substantial turnaround from what the Los Angeles Times and Katz had previously reported, before the task of demolishing the Mercury News became paramount. The drumbeat of the newspaper during the mid- and late 1980s was that the Los Angeles Police Department had to crush the gangs. In a 1987 news story, the Times described the gangs as "the foot soldiers of the Colombian cartels." On August 4, 1989, another news story sympathetically relayed a Justice Department report: "Los Angeles street gangs now dominate the rock cocaine trade in Los Angeles and elsewhere, due in part to their steady recourse to murderous violence to enforce territorial dealing supremacy, to deter cheating and to punish rival gang members. The LAPD has identified 47 cities, from Seattle to Kansas City, to Baltimore, where Los Angeles street gang traffickers have appeared."
As for Ross, on December 20, 1994 the Los Angeles Times had published a 2,400-word investigative report by Katz entitled "Deposed King of Crack Now Freed After Five Years in Prison. This Master Marketer Was Key to the Drug’s Spread in LA." Katz pulled out all the stops in his lead. "If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack’s decade-long reign, if there was an outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick." Katz reported that "Ross did more than anyone else to democratize it, boosting volume, slashing prices, and spreading disease on a scale never before conceived." Katz called Ross "South Central’s first multi-millionaire crack lord" and said "his coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than $500,000 a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars."
A day later, it was Doyle McManus who tried to undermine Webb’s work on the Contra connection. One hopes that McManus felt some slight tinge of embarrassment at his newspaper’s attack on Webb for unethical behavior in signing a book deal (which, as we have seen, Webb had not in fact done). McManus himself had reported on the Iran/Contra scandal, and simultaneously put out a book on the affair, co-written with Jane Mayer. McManus went the familiar route of larding his story with unattributed quotes from Contras, CIA men and associates of Blandón, all of them naturally enough protesting their innocence. "I wish we had been able to identify them by names of course," McManus piously told Alicia Shepard of the American Journalism Review. McManus, apparently in some sort of journalistic race to the bottom with his co-assailants Pincus and Golden, contended that Meneses gave the Contras only $20 to $30 at a time, and asserted that Meneses’s and Blandón’s total contribution was far less than $50,000. This conclusion is derived from McManus’s unnamed informants, and has to be set against court testimony, under oath, from numerous named sources cited by Webb. No less an authority than assistant federal prosecutor L. J. O’Neale, who lowballed the dollar figures for reasons noted earlier, had still produced a number of more than $2 million in a single year.
McManus tried to establish a scenario in which Blandón and Meneses gave very little to the Contras, to whom they were not connected in any official capacity, and in which Meneses’s cocaine never made it to Rick Ross to be transformed into crack. McManus claimed Ross’s crack came from Colombian cocaine and had nothing to do with the Nicaraguans. In McManus’s version, Blandón and Meneses were incompetent stooges. However, amid all this dogged effort to subvert Webb’s chronology, McManus tripped himself up badly. He alleged that Blandón and Meneses had severed their relationship "entirely by 1983." A few paragraphs later, amid an anecdote designed to establish Meneses as head of a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight, McManus quoted at length a description of a scene at Meneses’s house in San Francisco in November 1984. The unnamed source is identified as a member of the Blandón cocaine ring. He is describing the reaction of Meneses and Blandón to the news that Jairo Meneses, Meneses’s cousin, and Renato Peña Cabrerra, official spokesman for the FDN’s San Francisco group, had just been busted on cocaine charges. Although McManus had just said that Meneses and Blandón had split two years earlier, he now had them in the midst of a division of cash from a cocaine deal. "Danilo and Norwin had done some business deal. The deal is 40 to 50 kilos. The money was all divvied up. There was cash all over the place. Norwin had steaks on the grill. It was going to be a big party. The phone rings and Margarita shrieks, ‘Jairo’s been arrested!’ Well, everybody cleared out in a heartbeat. They grabbed the money and ran. I don’t think anyone turned off the steaks."
It’s hard to imagine an anecdote that could more effectively rebut everything McManus had previously labored to establish.
McManus’s other objective was to assert the moral purity of the CIA. To this end he interviewed Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA officer and staffer at the National Security Council at the time Oliver North was manfully toiling at Reagan’s behest to keep the Contras afloat. Cannistraro told McManus that sometimes CIA station chiefs turn a blind eye to "misdeeds by the foreign collaborators they recruit." Cannistraro referred to this trait as "falling in love with your agent." Cannistraro adamantly insisted, however, that there’s "no tendency to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. It’s too sensitive. It’s not a fine line. It’s not a shaded area where you can turn away from the rules." (In 1998 the CIA Inspector General finally admited to Congress that in 1982 the Agency had received clearance from the Justice Department not to report drug trafficking by CIA assets.) What McManus failed to confide to his readers was that Cannistraro had a deep personal interest in denying any Agency tolerance for trafficking. He had supervised many of the CIA/Contra operations and was then transferred to the NSC, where he oversaw US aid to the Afghan mujahidin. As we shall see, the mujahidin were heavily engaged in the trafficking of opium and heroin. Perhaps the most piquant bit of effrontery in McManus’s attack was his assertion that even if Meneses had been selling drugs in California and remitting the profits to the Contras, the CIA would have had to turn a blind eye, because the Agency was prohibited from domestic spying!
Even after his pummeling by the two big West and East Coast papers, Webb felt he still retained the support of his editors. "They urged me to continue digging on the story so that we could stick to the Washington Post," For the next two months, Webb continued his research. He flushed out more evidence of direct CIA knowledge of Meneses’s operations in Costa Rica and El Salvador. He traced how the DEA made Meneses one of their informer/assets as early as 1985. And he secured more evidence on the controversial money angle, finding that as much as $5 million was channeled back to the Contras from the Blandón/Meneses ring in 1983 alone. Webb turned the stories in to his editor, Dawn Garcia, in January 1997, and the newspaper sat on them. "They didn’t edit them," Webb recalls. "They told me that they had read them, but they never asked me for any supporting documentation. They never asked any questions about them."
Then Webb got a call from a friend, saying that a reporter had requested copies of all of Webb’s clippings. The reporter seemed interested in digging into Webb’s personal background. She particularly asked about an incident in which Webb had fired his .22 at a man who had been trying to steal his prized TR6 and who threatened Webb and his then-pregnant wife. (The man turned out to be a known local crook already convicted of manslaughter.) The reporter pursuing this story was Alicia Shepard of the American Journalism Review. Shepard had formerly worked as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Her story was another smear on Webb’s journalistic ethics, but this time the smears were coming from a source much closer to home. Shepard recounted how Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner (a paper boasting Chris Matthews as its Washington, D.C. correspondent), had filed a petition with the Society of Professional Journalists to have Webb stripped of the Journalist of the Year Award that had just been bestowed on him. This had elicited a stinging letter from the director of the Society of Professional Journalists, emphasizing how Rosenhause had a private agenda, and how the society stood behind Webb.
Shepard got several Mercury News staffers to go on record with their criticism of Webb and his stories. Economics writer Scott Thrum, investigative editors Jonathan Krim and Chriss Schmitt, editorial page editor Rob Elder, and the most virulent critic of all, Phil Yost, who is the chief editorial writer for the Mercury News. The criticisms consisted mostly of hand-wringing by nervous colleagues who felt that Webb had compromised the newspaper’s "hard-won credibility." Yost simply reiterated the charges made by other newspapers. It was a disgusting demonstration of backstabbing. And it showed clearly that the Mercury News was beginning to distance itself from Webb.
What accounts for the vicious edge to many of these attacks on Webb? One reason for the animosity of the California reporters can be traced back to one of Webb’s earliest investigations for the Mercury News. His story revealed that a number of reporters were moonlighting for the very agencies they were supposed to be covering for example, how a TV reporter in Sacramento was being paid by the California Highway Patrol for coaching officers on how to deal with the press. He uncovered a curriculum for the TV reporter’s class describing how the CHP should call up editors and complain about unfavorable stories. Webb also exposed reporters at the Sacramento Bee and United Press International, who had received state contracts from the California Lottery Commission. Webb says that after this story appeared, his colleagues regarded him as an outsider.
Another reason for ostracism by his colleagues could be what Webb describes as racist attitudes among the Mercury News staff toward the editor of his series, Dawn Garcia. "I don’t think she has a lot of friends in that newsroom, because she came in and she was regarded as one of the Hispanic hires, a quota hire. That’s unfair. She’s a good newsperson. She took a job from someone that was widely liked in the newsroom."
With his stories sitting unpublished on his editor’s desk, some time in early 1997 Webb got a call from Georg Hodel, who had done legwork for him in Nicaragua. Hodel said that he had located four other members of the Meneses/Blandón operation who were willing to talk to Webb. Webb called his editors and said he was going to Nicaragua. They told him they didn’t want him to go until they figured out what to do with his stories. Worried that the drug dealers might disappear, Webb said he’d go anyway, on his own time and money.
Soon after he returned to Sacramento from Nicaragua, Webb got a call from Jerry Ceppos, who had spent much of the winter months being treated for prostate cancer. Ceppos told Webb that he was going to publish a letter in the Mercury News admitting that "mistakes had been made" in the "Dark Alliance" series. Ceppos originally wanted to run the apologia in the Easter Sunday edition. When Webb saw a draft of the column, he was outraged. "This is idiotic," Webb recalls telling Ceppos. "Half this stuff isn’t even true. It’s unconscionable to run this." Ceppos told Webb not to take it personally, that it was just a column and it didn’t mean the paper was trying to hang him out to dry.
Webb insisted that he thought Ceppos’s column was unethical for a number of reasons, including the fact that though it said there had been shortcomings in the series, it made no reference to the fact that six months of further research had substantiated and advanced most of Webb’s original findings. Ceppos replied that they didn’t "want to get into that kind of detail."
Ceppos’s column ran on May 11. It was a retreat on every front, and a shameful day for American journalism. It accused Webb of leaving out contradictory information, of failing to emphasize that the multimillion-dollar figure was an estimate, and of not including the obligatory denials of the CIA. The series, Ceppos said, had oversimplified the origins of the crack epidemic. Ceppos also declared that the series had wrongly implied CIA knowledge of the Contra drug ring.
Predictably, Ceppos’s appalling betrayal of his own reporter was greeted with exuberance by the New York Times, where Todd Purdum used it to legitimize the New York Times’s original attack and to lash out at Webb as a paranoid. Purdum also alleged that Ceppos’s column had been based on "an exhaustive review" written by a seven-member Mercury News team of reporters and editors. Both the "exhaustive review" and the team had never existed, according to Webb. Though Webb had submitted four stories totaling 14,000 words, Ceppos told Purdum that the reporter had only submitted "notes and ideas." Purdum also marshalled disobliging blind quotes from Webb’s Mercury News colleagues.
The Ceppos column was also greeted with glee on the New York Times editorial page, where Ceppos got a patronizing clap on the back for his "courageous gesture." The editorial again affixed blame on Webb, saying that Ceppos’s action "sets a high standard for cases in which journalists make egregious errors." Webb had made no such errors. Down at Langley, the CIA was quick to use Ceppos’s letter to assert that the Agency had been absolved. "It’s gratifying to see," said the Agency’s Mark Mansfield, "that a large segment of the media, including the San Jose Mercury News, has taken an objective look at how this story was constructed and reported."
Nor did the Ceppos letter escape notice by Nicaragua’s right wing, with perilous consequences for those who had worked on the story with Webb and who had been interviewed by him. The Nicaraguan press, chiefly La Prensa, which had been funded for years by the CIA, ran stories denouncing Webb and urging people to sue him, as well as Hodel and others associated with the story. The Nicaraguan papers alleged that the Mercury News would not mount a defense against such libel actions.
It wasn’t long before Georg Hodel became the target of harassment and a possible murder attempt. In mid-June 1997, about a month after Ceppos disowned Webb, Hodel and an attorney for several of the men he and Webb had interviewed were run off the road in Nicaragua and threatened by a group of armed thugs. Hodel and the lawyer escaped and went to a police station to file a complaint. A few days later, a story appeared in one of Nicaragua’s right-wing papers saying that Hodel and his companions had gotten drunk and driven off the road themselves.
Meanwhile, the Mercury News had told Webb that his follow-up stories were being killed and that he was being reassigned to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, 150 miles from Sacramento. Webb filed a grievance against the paper.
The New York Times continued its vendetta. In perhaps the lowest of all the attacks, Iver Peterson, one of the newspaper’s more undistinguished reporters, went back over Webb’s investigative pieces before he embarked on the "Dark Alliance" series. Peterson charged that Webb had a history of playing loose with the facts and having "a penchant for self-promotion." He reached this conclusion after dredging up four libel suits, two of which had been dismissed and two of which had been settled. Webb says no major corrections were ever required. (The Times refused to print Webb’s letter correcting the record, which is reproduced below.) Peterson also quoted from the targets of Webb’s investigations, who, predictably, were not appreciative of the reporter. Back in his Ohio days as a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Webb had exposed Ohio Supreme Court Judge Frank D. Celebrezze as being in receipt of political contributions from organizations tied to the mob. Celebrezze had sued. There was a settlement and no retraction. Peterson dutifully cited Celebrezze’s eager comment that Webb "lied about me and whatever happens to him I think he deserves." It was as if some reporter had used Richard Nixon as a reliable source on the quality of reporting by the New York Times.
However, the coverup and counterattacks had not yet ended. There was the delicate matter of how to deal with the CIA’s own internal probe. It’s a neat trick to get great coverage for a report you haven’t published and that no journalist has actually seen. You need accomplices. The CIA once again used its friends in the press to issue a self-serving news release on its internal investigation of charges that the Agency had connived in Contra drug smuggling into Los Angeles in the early 1980s.
In this particular piece of news management, the CIA outdid itself. In the past, it has relied on its journalistic allies to put the best face on probes that, albeit heavily censored, displayed the Agency in an unpleasing light. But in late December 1997, the CIA elicited friendly coverage, even though the report by the CIA’s own Inspector General remained unpublished and under heavy security wraps.
It will be recalled that a month after Webb’s story first appeared, the CIA’s director John Deutch announced that the Agency’s Inspector General, Frederick Hitz, was launching "the most comprehensive analysis ever done" of CIA activities in this sphere. The gambit of the internal probe was initially confined to the allegations made by Webb, but was then widened to take in any references to drug connections in the CIA’s files. Also launched in the fall of 1996 was a Justice Department review of Webb’s charges. Deutch initially pledged that the CIA report would be finished and released to the public by the end of December 1996. Sixteen months went by.
Then on December 18, 1997 came stories in the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News under headlines such as "CIA Clears Itself in Crack Investigation." CNN picked up the Mercury News’s story immediately, telling viewers that the very paper that had made the initial charges against the CIA was now reporting that "an investigation" had absolved the Agency.
But where was the CIA report that had prompted the stories in the LA Times and Mercury News? Unavailable. Reason? It depended who one called. The stories in the LA Times and Mercury News about the mysterious report were filed on Wednesday, December 17 and appeared in print the next day. Then on Thursday, the Justice Department announced its view that public release of the CIA report would damage current criminal investigations. When called, the CIA’s press department stated that the CIA now wanted to wait until mid-January, when the second part of the Inspector General’s report was supposedly to be finished. Later that Thursday, the Justice Department stated that it would edit the CIA’s and its own probes to purge them of any compromising material.
In other words, one was being asked to believe that after sixteen months the CIA and Justice Department had somehow, entirely by accident, contrived a news "event" that exonerated the CIA in major headlines, without providing any evidence to support such a conclusion. Imagine the fury that would have been unleashed if Webb had written a news story thus shorn of any documentary substantiation.
Friday, December 19 brought stories in the New York Times by Tim Weiner and in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus, who had started the press onslaught on Webb in the fall of 1996. Weiner’s story ran under the headline, "CIA Says It Has Found No Link Between Itself and Crack Trade." Weiner quoted no named sources and relied entirely on our old friend, "a government official who would not allow his name to be used." Pincus quoted three anonymous officials who claimed that the CIA report shows "no direct or indirect link" between the CIA and cocaine traffickers.
Just how thorough was the CIA’s much-touted probe of itself? All indications are that the investigation was far from fierce. The Inspector General had no subpoena power. The CIA’s former chief officer in Central America, Dewey Clarridge, now retired and working for General Dynamics, told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA "sent me questions that were a bunch of bullshit." He refused to be interviewed by the CIA’s investigators. Clarridge, it should be noted, was a central figure in CIA operations with the Contras, whom he conjured into being from an initial recruitment of Argentinian military torturers, and whose assassination schemes he boasts of having recommended. Other people interviewed by the CIA claim to have been bullied by the Agency’s investigators whenever they showed signs of supporting Webb. And what about the author of the stories, Gary Webb? He was never interviewed.
With Webb, we get to the heart of the dust storm. On Saturday, December 13, the San Jose Mercury News announced that Gary Webb had resigned from the paper, after reaching a settlement on a grievance he had filed about his transfer from Sacramento to Cupertino. In the Washington Post and New York Times, Webb’s departure from the Mercury News was flagged, with the implication that somehow it offered further evidence of the conclusiveness of the CIA’s self-examination.
It looks as though the Agency took the opportunity of Webb’s departure to leak a self-serving press release about its conduct. This item was eagerly seized upon by the papers who had been after Webb, and by the Mercury News, which had been terrorized into betraying a fine reporter.
Looking back at the series in mid-1997, Webb said he had nothing to apologize for. "If anything, we pussy-footed around some stuff we shouldn’t have, like CIA involvement and their level of knowledge. I’m glad I did the series because this is a story that gutless papers on the East Coast have been ducking for ten years. And now they’re forced to confront it. However they chose to confront it, they still have to say what the story’s about."
The attack on Gary Webb by his colleagues in the national press was relentless. There are a lot of examples, but perhaps none more blatant than Iver Peterson’s smear on Webb in the New York Times, nearly a year after Webb’s story had appeared. The initial assault was led by four "star" reporters at the nation’s biggest papers: Howard Kurtz and Walter Pincus at the Washington Post, Tim Golden at the New York Times and Doyle McManus (Lt. Colonel of a "Get Webb Team") at the Los Angeles Times. Once these heavyweights drew blood, the editorial pages from across the country came in for the kill. The behavior of the top editors at Webb’s own paper, the San Jose Mercury News, was despicable and cowardly. Even the so-called progressive press took shots at Webb, most notably the Nation, whose David Corn sniped that Webb’s reporting was flawed.
On the other hand, Webb had his defenders. The LA Weekly was quick to reveal the gaping holes in the Los Angeles Times’s saturation bombing of the "Dark Alliance" series. Norman Soloman’s article "Snow Job" for Extra!, the magazine of the media watchdog group FAIR, was a fine piece of work that was useful to us. Robert Parry and his colleagues at The Consortium wrote good press criticism and worked to advance the story. The Consortium also printed a harrowing account from Nicaragua by Webb’s partner, Georg Hodel, showing the dangers of writing about these forbidden topics in a hostile landscape. Similarly, Peter Kornbluh, the investigator at the National Security Archives, wrote a fine piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. Alicia Shepard’s story in the American Journalism Review is neither kind nor fair to Webb, but it does expose the biases and petty jealousies of his colleagues.
As an example of the obdurate and spiteful hostility of the New York Times toward Webb, we include here two letters to the Times correcting serious inaccuracies and exhibitions of bias in the paper’s reporting. The first is a response by Webb to Peterson’s attack noted above. The Times refused to print it. The second is another commentary, which speaks for itself, on Peterson’s story. The Times likewise had refused to print this letter.
To the editor: Since the New York Times allegedly places such a high value on accuracy, I would like to point out some factual errors and omissions in your June 3 story about me and the "Dark Alliance" series I authored last year.
@XXSERIES = The statement that a state audit "cleared" Tandem Computers for its part in a $50 million computer debacle at the California Department of Motor Vehicles is incorrect. The audit, by California Auditor General Kurt Sjoberg, corroborated the findings of my investigation and the Tandem project was scrapped at considerable cost to the state’s taxpayers. Moreover, two state officials who approved and oversaw this project and then went to work for Tandem paid large fees to settle conflict of interest charges lodged by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. These charges were filed as a result of my reporting, which won the California Journalism Award in 1994.
@XXSERIES = The statement that the Mercury News "never published a follow-up story" to the Tandem series is also false. Several follow-ups were published, including stories I wrote about the Auditor General’s report and the fines paid by the former state officials.
@XXSERIES = (It might have been useful to note that the reporter who criticized my Tandem stories, Lee Gomes, was covering Tandem while its much-ballyhooed DMV project was collapsing, yet somehow managed to miss the story entirely.)
@XXSERIES = Since your reporter, Iver Peterson, did not question me about my Tandem stories, perhaps it’s not surprising that these errors and omissions occurred.
@XXSERIES = Finally, I found it amusing that while Mr. Peterson spent many inches airing vague complaints from people I’ve investigated, he would neglect to mention that I have won more than 30 journalism awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize half a dozen times, and sent a number of corrupt or incompetent government officials and businessmen to jail or early retirement by exposing their misdeeds.
@XXSERIES = Granted, this kind of reporting makes few friends and prompts libel suits, but being well-loved and lawsuit-free has never been part of a reporter’s duties as I understand them.
@BODY TEXT AU = Gary Webb, June 3, 1997
To the editor: A Times reporter [Iver Peterson] has seen fit to lead a story (6/3) on the San Jose Mercury New’s "Dark Alliance" series with the stunning news that a request was placed on the agenda of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to strip the series’ author, Gary Webb, of his 1996 Journalist of the Year award. Gratified as I am, as president of the organization, to see that our monthly agenda is of such interest to a national newspaper, in the interests of ethical journalism, which SPJ is dedicated to furthering, please allow me to correct the misleading impression that you have knowingly fostered with that lead paragraph.
Putting an anecdote in the lead paragraph of a news story implies that it has some representative significance, and indeed your writer goes on to state that the agenda item "illustrates" how Webb’s series "continues to echo among journalists."
Actually, it illustrates no such thing. One person, an editor at a competing newspaper, has been insisting for nearly a year that the award be withdrawn, and she reiterated her request after appearance of the Mercury News column clarifying (not retracting) its series. As a courtesy to that one person, the item was placed on our agenda. But as your writer was aware because he asked me that person was in no way representative. In fact, she is the only person who has expressed such a view to us, and she acknowledges that she has other reasons to be angry with the San Jose Mercury News.
When the board finally discussed the issue at the member’s request, there was no sentiment for withdrawal of the award. The discussion was brief, mostly centered on the irresponsibility of the Times’s story.
Your reporter’s determination to prove a point with a misguided example is disturbing, but even more so is the fact that he knew in advance that it was misleading and even wrote that "Chances are remote that Webb will lose the award because of one request." The reporter knew that the person who brought our meeting to his attention had an interest in inflating the significance of her own request. In other words, his informant’s interest illustrated his informant’s interest. Period.
Indeed, if the SPJ chapter meeting had had the importance that the Times’s article implied, shouldn’t the paper have reported the results of the meeting after it was held?
If the suggestion of potential retraction of Gary Webb’s SPJ award continues to echo among journalists, it echoes because those journalists have read it in the New York Times and perpetuated the misimpression by calling us to find out what happened at the meeting, hyped by the Times and its source.
I suggested that the Times'<W0>s energy in bludgeoning flaws in the Mercury News series and personally attacking its author be matched by an equal or greater determination to explore the far more important story of the degree of US government complicity in the Contras’ dealing in drugs that have devastated so many American communities. That is the story that the major news media have downplayed for more than a decade, while newspapers such as yours devote unprecedented lineage to debunking, in the most personal terms, the efforts of a reporter at another newspaper.
Peter Y. Sussman, President, Northern California Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists June 6, 1997
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One Response to “How the Press and the CIA Killed Gary Webb’s Career”
How the Press and the CIA Killed Gary Webb’s Career
[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."