Thanks for the Gary Webb Anti-Censorship Award
The late reporter paid a big price for getting the CIA-crack cocaine story right.
I got some nice news yesterday via Counterpunch and PEN/Oakland, the Bay Area branch of PEN, the international literary organization. Every year PEN/Oakland hands out various awards “to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community.”
This year’s Gary Webb Anti-Censorship Award goes to Jefferson Morley, editor of the JFK Facts blog. Mr. Morley has uncovered facts about the Kennedy assassination overlooked by the Warren Commission and other authors.
I’m honored to be honored by PEN/Oakland and its founder, poet-critic Ishmael Reed. And I’m proud to be associated with the legacy of Gary Webb. He was a good man and a good reporter who paid a terrible price for getting a big story right.
For those who may not recognize the name, Gary Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who investigated ties between major Central American drug traffickers and the CIA. His 1995 series, Dark Alliance, exposed how the Agency did business with cocaine traffickers who imported hundreds of kilotons of cocaine into South Central Los Angeles during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
From the Huffington Post
Webb's reporting uncovered the story of how tons of cocaine were shipped into San Francisco by supporters of the CIA-backed Contras and then distributed down to LA to a Nicaraguan named Danilo Blandon, who sold it to a street dealer from South Central, Freeway Rick Ross.
Through this connection Freeway Rick became a crack kingpin and also used his contacts with LA's Crips and Blood street gangs to help distribute crack to many other cities across the country.
The CIA, Webb’s reporting suggested, had fueled the scourge of cocaine addiction in Los Angeles.
Webb was also an early pioneer of online journalism. As Ryan Devereaux put it in a 2014 piece for The Intercept:
Webb showcased the power and reach of online journalism. Key documents were hosted on the San Jose Mercury News website, with hyperlinks, wiretap recordings and follow-up stories. The series was widely discussed on African American talk radio stations; on some days attracting more than one million readers to the newspaper’s website. As Webb later remarked, “you don’t have be The New York Times or The Washington Post to bust a national story anymore.”
That apparently was unforgivable.
The story of the contra-cocaine connection was not new. Reports first surfaced in 1986 when Oliver North’s secret scheme to fund a counter-revolutionary army in Nicaragua was exposed. The State Department investigated
Senator John Kerry launched an investigation in 1988. His staff interviewed the chief of the Agency’s Central American Task Force. “With respect to (drug trafficking) by the Resistance Forces,” the chief said, “it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people.”The Kerry committee final report, issued in 1989, stated "the Contra drug links included... Payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies." The report did not get significant press attention.
When I reported on the story, I found that contra drug traffickers were protected by U.S. officials at the highest level When a Honduran general on good terms with the CIA was implicated in a major cocaine shipment to central Florida, North called on his colleagues across the national security bureaucracy to “cabal quietly” and secure lenient treatment for him. It worked.
(Murray Waas and I told the story in this 1994 Washington Post story, “Favor for a Felon.”)
Webb sought to humanize the impact of the CIA’s actions by connecting the drugs smuggled by CIA contractors to drugs consumed by crack cocaine addicts in urban American in the late 1980s. At the time, poor black communities were flooded with cocaine. As supply grew, the prices fell. Usage, addiction, crime and misery spread.
Webb’s singular contribution was to link the CIA’s lax and cynical use of drug traffickers to support its secret war with the results in contemporary American. And he found a telling example of how the agency’s machinations fueled the rise of a massive crack cocaine operation on the streets of South Central Los Angeles.
While Webb occasionally overstated and simplified the conclusions, the elite media reaction was disproportionate. Instead of correcting and advancing his reporting, major media organizations, including my employer, the Washington Post, attacked him and exonerated the CIA. The Post savaged Webb’s reporting on October 4, 1996, with a story entitled, "The CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking of Alleged Plot." Webb, however, had never alleged a CIA plot against black America.
The Post concluded that "available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed Contras -- or Nicaraguans in general -- played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States." The Post article mainly addressed the Mercury News series' claims about Ricky Ross's and Danilo Blandon's roles in the growth of crack cocaine.
When Webb’s story was widely reprinted around the country, attracting attention in black communities, the elite press struck back. So did the CIA, Devereaux reported, “collaborating where it could with outlets who wanted to challenge Webb’s reporting.”
The New York Times piled on dismissing Webb’s reporting and defending the Agency. The story was not without flaws but Webb’s premise—that the CIA’s close relationship with drug traffickers contributed to the crack cocaine epidemic was what really got him in trouble. Other papers followed the lead of the Post and the Times. The Miami Herald’s Jeff Leen, co-author of a book about the Medellin cartel, debated Webb and and scoffed at his reporting at a packed meeting of Investigative Reporters and Editors in June 1997.
(You can listen to the Webb-Leen exchange here.)
Webb’s editors, yearning for industry respectability, threw Webb under the bus and started retracting claims in the story they had approved. Leen was soon hired by the Post as an investigative reporter. Webb was maligned and effectively exiled from his profession. His slowly life fell apart and he committed suicide in 2004.
(Jeremy Renner plays Webb in the taut 2014 movie, Kill the Messenger.)
Two years later, the Post would claim vindication when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz issued the first volume of his two-volume report on Webb’s allegations. Hitz also offered this artful statement
We have found no evidence in the course of this lengthy investigation of any conspiracy by CIA or its employees to bring drugs into the United States,” Hitz said. “. . . There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.”
Again, Webb had never alleged any such conspiracy, but the “no evidence” conclusion made the headlines. Hitz’s elegant denial, as we shall see, misrepresented the Agency’s working relationships with large-scale cocaine traffickers. Leen was still quoting this passage in 2014 in yet another attack on Webb when the movie came out.
That was Washington Post journalism at its laziest. Leen quoted Hitz’s public statement but failed to report on his findings, as detailed in the opening pages of the often-overlooked second volume of his report
What the CIA Admitted
The belated release of Hitz’s second volume, ignored by major news organizations, documented a reality that was actually worse than some of Webb’s most overstated claims. Hitz reported that the Agency officials had working relationships with no less than six (6!) drug trafficking organizations that collectively imported thousands of kilotons of cocaine into the United States while on contract with the CIA or its cutouts.
The Agency was aware of trafficking allegations against these organizations yet said nothing to the State Department, which handed out the contracts. In Hitz’s words, “no information has been found to indicate that this CIA vetting assistance” for the State Department “included information regarding the six companies identified in the Kerry Report as having ties to drug trafficking.” In plain language, the CIA protected a half-dozen traffickers who agreed to assist in the Agency’s counterrevolutionary war in Nicaragua.
The agency, for example, was informed that 400 pounds of cocaine had been seized in a shipment of yucca from one company it had hired. That was no obstacle to getting a contract from the good people of Langley. Agency officials knew the head of the company had been arrested by U.S. Customs in May 1983 as he was preparing to leave the United States with $5.6 million aboard his Lear jet. CIA officials insisted the agency had “no relationship” with the man while simultaneously admitting he was close enough to Agency officials to provide “unsolicited information regarding Sandinista drug trafficking.” President Reagan later used such unfounded reports to criticize the leftist government of Nicaragua. In other words, the Reagan administration relied on a CIA-paid drug trafficker for its denunciations of communist drug trafficking.
Hitz’s findings were both damning and ignored. To supply its guerrilla army in Nicaragua in 1985 and 1986, the CIA relied on an aviation company created by Juan Matta Ballesteros, "a class I DEA violator." Matta was first arrested in the U.S. 1981 with 114 pounds of cocaine and $1.9 million in cash, California’s largest drug and cash haul at that time. He became a major figure in the Colombian cartel and was involved in the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985. When the State Department asked about Matta’s activities, the CIA did not disclose he owned an aviation company on contract with the Agency. Matta was extradited to the United States in 1988 and convicted on drug trafficking charges.
How many tons of cocaine did Matta import into the United States while he was employed by the CIA to support its “freedom fighters?” Hitz didn’t address that question, nor did Webb’s sanctimonious critics.
Leen contented himself with the argument that no one trafficker could make a difference in the supply of cocaine. Thus, he argued, Danilo Blandon could not have contributed significantly to the cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. The Hitz report, however, demonstrated that Blandon was not alone. The Justice Department itself described Matta as “the leader and organizer of a cocaine ring that had smuggled massive quantities of cocaine from South America to Mexico, and from there into Arizona, Southern California, and New York. [emphasis added]”
Leen’s argument against Webb amounted to the claim that the importation of hundreds of pounds of cocaine on a near constant basis by one trafficker did not contribute significantly to the supply of cocaine in Southern California. Thus the CIA was blameless. But Matta’s story provided another stunning example of what Webb reported. Like Danilo Blandon, Ramon Ballesteros Matta was a CIA protected trafficker who supplied Los Angeles amid the cocaine epidemic—and Matta was a much bigger trafficker than Blandon. The Post’s investigative reporters either didn’t read all of Hitz’s report or didn’t care to report any findings that lent credence to Webb’s pioneering journalism. Apologetics, not accountability, was the Post’s priority on this story.
The protection of Matta was not exceptional. According to the information in Hitz’s report, it was standard operating procedure. Alfonso Caballero, the head of another aviation company called DIACSA used by the contra rebels, was later convicted for bringing 900 pounds of cocaine into the United States and laundering $2.6 million. The CIA, which created and funded the contra army, claimed it had “no relationship” with DIACSA while the company was serving as a straw buyer of aircraft for the CIA’s army.
The Agency was aware of the allegations against Caballero and kept quiet. As Hitz put it, “No information has been found to indicate that the Agency provided any information concerning alleged drug trafficking by Caballero or DIACSA to other U.S. Government intelligence or law enforcement agencies or the Congress.” Caballero was the CIA’s guy and they weren’t going to rat him out.
In sum, Hitz confirmed the CIA hired known or suspected drug traffickers as part of the contra war and, as a matter of practice, if not policy, did not inform other government agencies. The CIA’s hands-off stance left law enforcement in the dark and effectively condoned massive cocaine smuggling activities at a time when the Reagan Administration was touting its “Just Say No” approach to drug policy and imposing draconian sentences on African-Americans for possession of mere grams of cocaine.
With rare courage and empathy, Gary Webb sought to expose how this cynical process contributed to the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles and harmed thousands of African-American residents. As Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, Webb accomplished “something that neither the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, nor The New York Times had been willing or able to do — revisit a significant story that had been inexplicably abandoned by the mainstream press, report a new dimension to it, and thus put it back on the national agenda where it belongs.” The Agency’s apologists averted their eyes from the fact pattern and attacked Webb for reporting a reality the CIA wanted to hide.
Webb is rightly remembered as a reporter who was braver than his profession.
I will be proud to accept the award that bears Gary Webb’s name at the PEN/Oakland virtual awards ceremony on December 3, from 2:00-5:00 P.M. PST.
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