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Sunday, December 12, 2004

Gary Webb, R.I.P. 

Via Zemblan patriot J.M.: Investigative reporter Gary Webb, whose book Dark Alliance began as a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News, is an apparent suicide at age 49:
His 1996 San Jose Mercury News series contended that Nicaraguan drug traffickers had sold tons of crack cocaine from Colombian cartels in Los Angeles' black neighborhoods and then funneled millions in profits back to the CIA-supported Nicaraguan Contras.

Three months after the series was published, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it conducted an exhaustive investigation but found no evidence of a connection between the CIA and Southern California drug traffickers.

Major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, wrote reports discrediting elements of Webb's reporting. The Los Angeles Times report looked into Webb's charges "that a CIA-related drug ring sent 'millions' of dollars to the Contras; that it launched an epidemic of cocaine use in South-Central Los Angeles and America's other inner cities; and that the agency either approved the scheme or deliberately turned a blind eye."

"But the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of those allegations," The Times reported.
The excerpt above comes from Webb's obituary in the L.A. Times, one of the newspapers that helped to discredit his reportage and destroy his career. It naturally omits to mention the subsequent findings by inspectors general Fred Hitz (of the CIA) and Michael Bromwich (of the DoJ), whose own investigations into the CIA-crack cocaine link were prompted in large measure by the public outcry over Webb's allegations:
The new revelations confirmed many of Webb's claims. Meneses and Blandon were admitted to have been (despite previous press denials) "significant traffickers who also supported, to some extent, the Contras." For years they escaped prosecution, until after support for the Contras ended.

Meanwhile the reports opened the doors on worse scandals. According to the reports, the CIA made conscious use of major traffickers as agents, contractors and assets. It maintained good relations with Contras it knew to be working with drug traffickers. It protected traffickers which the Justice Department was trying to prosecute, sometimes by suppressing or denying the existence of information.

This protection extended to major Drug Enforcement Agency targets considered to be among the top smugglers of cocaine into this country. Perhaps the most egregious example is that of the Honduran trafficker Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros. Matta had been identified by the DEA in 1985 as the most important member of a consortium moving a major share (perhaps a third, perhaps more than half) of all the cocaine from Colombia to the United States. The DEA also knew that Matta was behind the kidnapping of a DEA agent in Mexico, Enrique Camarena, who was subsequently tortured and murdered.

A public enemy? Yes. But Matta was also an ally of the CIA. Matta's airline, SETCO, was recorded in U.S. files as a drug-smuggling airline. It was also the chief airline with which the CIA contracted to fly supplies to the Contra camps in Honduras. When the local DEA office began to move against Matta in 1983, it was shut down. Though Matta's whereabouts were well-known, the United States did not arrest and extradite him until 1988, a few days after Congress ended support for the Contras.
Robert Parry of Consortium News summarized the press reaction to Webb's work in his October Salon article, "How John Kerry Exposed the Contra-Cocaine Scandal":
Kerry's vindication in the Contra drug case did not come until 1998, when inspectors general at the CIA and Justice Department reviewed their files in connection with allegations published by the San Jose Mercury News that the Contra-cocaine pipeline had contributed to the crack epidemic that ravaged inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s. (Ironically, the major national newspapers only saw fit to put the Contra-cocaine story on their front pages in criticizing the Mercury News and its reporter Gary Webb for taking the allegations too far.)

On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page story, with two more pages inside, that was critical of the Mercury News. But while accusing the Mercury News of exaggerating, the Post noted that Contra-connected drug smugglers had brought tons of cocaine into the United States. "Even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers," the Post reported . . . .

In the months that followed, the major newspapers -- including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times -- joined the Post in criticizing the Mercury News while downplaying their own inattention to the crimes that Kerry had illuminated a decade earlier. The Los Angeles Times actually used Kerry's report to dismiss the Mercury News series as old news because the Contra cocaine trafficking "has been well documented for years."

While the major newspapers gloated when reporter Gary Webb was forced to resign from the Mercury News, the internal government investigations, which Webb's series had sparked, moved forward. The government's decade-long Contra cocaine cover-up began to crumble when CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz published the first of two volumes of his Contra cocaine investigation on Jan. 29, 1998, followed by a Justice Department report and Hitz's second volume in October 1998.

The CIA inspector general and Justice Department reports confirmed that the Reagan administration knew from almost the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the CIA-backed army but the administration did next to nothing to expose or stop these criminals. The reports revealed example after example of leads not followed, witnesses disparaged and official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged. The evidence indicated that Contra-connected smugglers included the Medellin cartel, the Panamanian government of Manuel Noriega, the Honduran military, the Honduran-Mexican smuggling ring of Ramon Matta Ballesteros, and Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans.

Reviewing evidence that existed in the 1980s, CIA inspector general Hitz found that some Contra-connected drug traffickers worked directly for Reagan's National Security Council staff and the CIA. In 1987, Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veteran Moises Nunez told CIA investigators that "it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC."
For further details, see Parry's exhaustive "Contra-Crack Archives" at Consortium News, or track down a copy of Whiteout, a book-length account of what authors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair describe as the mainstream news media's "smear campaign" against Webb (reviewed here).

UPDATE: Zemblan patriot J.M. also forwards an interview Webb gave the BBC just after Bush's speech at the Republican convention, and as swan songs go it's not half-bad:
I have rarely got angry while watching a politician speak before, but George W Bush managed to make me furious.

We have some of the biggest budget deficits in history yet he accuses John Kerry of being a "tax and spend" liberal.

The war in Iraq has been a disaster in every way, a lie from beginning to end, yet he still pretends it's been an overwhelming success and promises more of the same.

Many of his domestic proposals sounded good, but it was hard to square them with the fact that he's been president for four years and hasn't done any of them - even though his party controls Congress.

His solution to our economic ills is absurd: rein in "frivolous lawsuits" and get rid of government regulations.

If life were only that simple.

I can't imagine anyone who has glanced at a newspaper recently hearing that speech and coming away with anything but bewilderment - or anger, as I did.
UPDATE: Robert Parry, we are pleased to report, has given Gary Webb the obituary he deserved.

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