Although I never met Gary Webb in person, he was a friend who helped save my tail-end from the long arm of the FBI.
I had just finished up a major expose about former FBI agent Lok Lau in October 2003. The story exposed the fact that the Bureau had used Lau to spy on China in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lau claims that in the wake of his dangerous spying mission, the FBI discarded him, eventually firing him in 2000.
The newspaper that I wrote the story for, a small weekly in Texas, went to press on Wednesday and hit the streets on Friday. The story detailed Lau’s career and was based, in part, on court documents filed with the federal court in Sacramento, Calif. — where Gary lived.
I recall that while reading over the paper the Friday the story came out, I got a call from a source. She told me the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento had filed a motion with the court seeking to declare the public court records I had based the story on as classified for national security reasons. The court pleadings even went a step further: They asked that the government be allowed to seize and scour clean any computers that the FBI suspected might have stored copies of the documents exposing Lau’s covert China spying mission.
That meant my computer as well.
What was mind boggling about the whole affair is that when we went to press on Wednesday, the court documents — pleadings in Lau’s employment discrimination case against the FBI — had been on file with the federal court for some three weeks. They were clearly public documents. However, two days later, after the newspaper was printed and to the readers, the government was trying to put the documents back into the vault under the shroud of national security.
That’s where Gary Webb came in. I had communicated with Gary previously by e-mail concerning my investigative reporting. He would offer me insight and suggestions on my stories, but mostly he would give me encouragement. When you,re in the bunker, with shells going off all around you, it’s good to have a warrior like that to turn to, someone who’s been in that bunker many times before and survived to write yet another story.
So after learning my computer was being targeted by the FBI, I gave Gary a call. At the time, he was working as an investigator for the California state Legislature. I remember asking him, “What the hell do I do now? I gave him a rundown on the story. He suggested I get the documents being targeted by the government out into the sunlight. He gave me a contact at the California First Amendment Coalition. I reached out to them and that same day, Friday, I wrote a story about the whole affair for the coalition, and they posted the story with the court documents on their Internet site. I also sent a copy of the documents along to Al Giordano. He too put the documents up on the Net.
The next week, the story went global after the Associated Press picked it up. I believe the media exposure, coupled with the brave souls who stood up to the FBI’s bluff and posted the court documents on the Internet, created enough of a blowback that the federal judge in the case decided to back away from the FBI’s strong-arm request to seize computers. The judge rejected that part of the government’s motion and to this day has not reconsidered that decision. However, he did rule that the public court documents should be redacted and sealed. (Lau’s case is currently on appeal.)
But Gary didn’t stop there. He took up the charge and dove into Lau’s story himself and several weeks later published a long expose on the case through the Asia Times Asia Times. He had advanced the story even further and in the process provided me with more shelter from the storm.
Gary and I stayed in touch over the course of this past year, off-and-on by e-mail. He was a big Roxy Music fan, and I remember sending him some obscure stuff I hunted down on the Web about the band’s history. We also communicated about the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism held this past summer in Bolivia. He had been a professor at the school the prior year and was invited back again. I was looking forward to finally meeting him in person.
Unfortunately, Gary said he couldn’t swing the trip to Bolivia. I figured we would hook up another time for a beer and a war story or two. His final words to me were to make sure I said hello to Narco News, Luis Gomez, a fellow authentic journalist for whom Gary had great respect.
So I never met Gary before his untimely death this past weekend, but I didn’t need to. He was a friend in my heart, as he continues to be, even now.
And as I read the obits in the commercial media about his death, all of which mention his famous series for the San Jose Mercury News exposing the CIA/Contra crack connection — and all of which go to great lengths to discuss how the “big dogs of the commercial press discredited the series — I keep in mind the words of social theorist Erich Fromm:
Historically…those who told the truth about a particular regime have been exiled, jailed, or killed by those in power whose fury has been aroused. To be sure, the obvious explanation is that they were dangerous to their respective establishments, and that killing them seemed the best way to protect the status quo. This is true enough, but it does not explain the fact that the truth-sayers are so deeply hated even when they do not constitute a real threat to the established order. The reason lies, I believe, in that by speaking the truth they mobilize the (psychological) resistance of those who repress it. To the latter, the truth is dangerous not only because it can threaten their power but because it shakes their whole conscious system of orientation, deprives them of their rationalizations, and might even force them to act differently. Only those who have experienced the process of becoming aware of important impulses that were repressed know the earthquake-like sense of bewilderment and confusion that occurs as a result. Not all people are willing to risk this adventure, lest of all those people who profit, at least for the moment, from being blind.
Gary did speak the truth, and in so doing, opened many eyes and has changed the world in the process. His story continues…
BILL CONROY writes for Narconews/Narcosphere, where this essay originally appeared.