I read a piece about Kobe Bryant a couple of days ago. The way it described his fall made me think of Bryant as a parable of America in the Bush years, that maybe even W himself could understand. No longer the big guy leading the winning team to victory over Commie scum, but a street-corner lout, picking on victims quarter his size, trying always to buy his way out of trouble. Don’t leave your sister alone with Uncle Sam! No one want to buy Uncle Sam’s jerseys anymore, same way they don’t buy Kobe Bryant’s.
This business of Uncle Sam’s true face brings me to Gary Webb and why they hated him. Few spectacles in journalism in the mid-1990s were more disgusting than the slagging of Gary Webb in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Squadrons of hacks, some of them with career-long ties to the CIA, sprayed thousands of words of vitriol over Webb and his paper, the San Jose Mercury News for besmirching the Agency’s fine name by charging it with complicity in the importing of cocaine into the US.
There are certain things you aren’t meant to say in public in America. The systematic state-sponsorship of torture by the US used to be a major no-no, but that went by the board this year (even though Seymour Hersh treated the CIA with undue kindness in Chain of Command: the Road to Abu Ghraib) . A prime no-no is to say that the US government has used assassination down the years as an instrument of national policy; also that the CIA’s complicity with drug dealing criminal gangs stretches from the Afghanistan of today back to the year the Agency was founded in 1947. That last one is the line Webb stepped over.He paid for his presumption by undergoing one of the unfairest batterings in the history of the US press, as the chapter from Whiteout we ran on our site yesterday narrates.
Friday, December 10, Webb died in his Sacramento apartment by his own hand, or so it certainly seems. The notices of his passing in many newspapers were as nasty as ever. The Los Angeles Times took care to note that even after the Dark Alliance uproar Webb’s career had been “troubled”, offering as evidence the fact that ” While working for another legislative committee in Sacramento, Webb wrote a report accusing the California Highway Patrol of unofficially condoning and even encouraging racial profiling in its drug interdiction program.” The effrontery of the man! “Legislative officials released the report in 1999”, the story piously continued, “but cautioned that it was based mainly on assumptions and anecdotes”, no doubt meaning that Webb didn’t have dozens of CHP officers stating under oath, on the record, that they were picking on blacks and Hispanics.
There were similar fountains of outrage in 1996 that the CIA hadn’t been given enough space in Webb’s series to solemnly swear that never a gram of cocaine had passed under its nose but that it had been seized and turned over to the DEA or US Customs.
In 1998 Jeffrey St Clair and I published our book, Whiteout, about the relationships between the CIA, drugs and the press since the Agency’s founding. We also examined the Webb affair in detail. On a lesser scale, at lower volume it elicited the same sort of abuse Webb drew. It was a long book stuffed with well-documented facts, over which the critics lightly vaulted to charge us, as they did Webb, with “conspiracy-mongering” though, sometimes in the same sentence, of recycling “old news”. Jeffrey and I came to the conclusion that what really affronted the critics, some of them nominally left-wing, was that our book portrayed Uncle Sam’s true face. Not a “rogue” Agency but one always following the dictates of government, murdering, torturing, poisoning, drugging its own subjects, approving acts of monstrous cruelty, following methods devised and tested by Hitler’s men, themselves transported to America after the Second World War.
One of the CIA’s favored modes of self-protection is the “uncover-up”.The Agency first denies with passion, then later concedes in muffled tones, the charges leveled against it. Such charges have included the Agency’s recruitment of Nazi scientists and SS officers; experiments on unwitting American citizens; efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro; alliances with opium lords in Burma, Thailand and Laos; an assassination program in Vietnam; complicity in the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile; the arming of opium traffickers and religious fanatics in Afghanistan; the training of murderous police in Guatemala and El Salvador; and involvement in drugs-and-arms shuttles between Latin America and the US.
True to form, after Webb’s series raised a storm, particularly on black radio, the CIA issued categorical denials. Then came the solemn pledges of an intense and far-reaching investigation by the CIA’s Inspector General, Fred Hitz. On December 18, 1997, stories in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus and in the New York Times by Tim Weiner appeared simultaneously, both saying the same thing: Inspector General Hitz had finished his investigation. He had found “no direct or indirect” links between the CIA and the cocaine traffickers. As both Pincus and Weiner admitted in their stories, neither of the two journalists had actually seen the report.
The actual report itself, so loudly heralded, received almost no examination. But those who took the time to examine the 149-page document the first of two volumes–found Inspector General Hitz making one damning admission after another including an account of a meeting between a pilot who was making drug/arms runs between San Francisco and Costa Rica with two Contra leaders who were also partners with the San Francisco-based Contra/drug smuggler Norwin Meneses. Present at this encounter in Costa Rica was a curly-haired man who said his name was Ivan Gomez, identified by one of the Contras as CIA’s “man in Costa Rica.” The pilot told Hitz that Gomez said he was there to “ensure that the profits from the cocaine went to the Contras and not into someone’s pocket .” The second volume of CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz’s investigation released in the fall of 1998 buttressed Webb’s case even more tightly, as James Risen conceded in a story in the New York Times on October 120 of that year.
So why did the top-tier press savage Webb, and parrot the CIA’s denials. It comes back to this matter of Uncle Sam’s true face. Another New York Times reporter, Keith Schneider was asked by In These Times back in 1987 why he had devoted a three-part series in the New York Times to attacks on the Contra hearings chaired by Senator John Kerry. Schneider 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.” Kerry did uncover mountains of evidence. So did Webb. But neither of them got the only thing that would have satisfied Schneider, Pincus and all the other critics: a signed confession of CIA complicity by the DCI himself. Short of that, I’m afraid we’re left with “innuendo”, “conspiracy mongering” and “old stories”. We’re also left with the memory of some great work by a very fine journalist who deserved a lot better than he got from the profession he loved.
Footnote: a version of this column ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday. In fact the oddest of all reviews of Whiteout was one in The Nation, a multi-page screed by a woman who I seem to remember was on some payroll of George Soros. She flayed us for giving aid and comfort to the war on drugs and not addressing the truly important question, Why do people take drugs. As I said at the time, to get high, stupid!