An August, 1996, series in the San Jose Mercury News by reporter Gary Webb linked the origins of crack cocaine in California to the contras, a guerrilla force backed by the Reagan administration that attacked Nicaragua’s Sandinista government during the 1980s. Webb’s series, “The Dark Alliance,” has been the subject of intense media debate, and has focused attention on a foreign policy drug scandal that leaves many questions unanswered. Investigative reporter Gary Webb – who had been ostracized by his own colleagues for forcing a spotlight back onto an ugly government scandal they wanted to ignore – was driven to commit suicide. But the tragedy had a deeper meaning.
Webb’s death on the night of Dec. 9, 2004, came as the U.S. press corps was at a nadir, having recently aided and abetted President George W. Bush in taking the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses. The press corps also had performed abysmally in Bush’s two presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, hesitant to take on the powerful Bush Family.
In retrospect, Webb’s suicide could be viewed as an exclamation point on that sorry era, which had begun a quarter century earlier with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the gradual retreat – under right-wing fire – of what had once been Washington’s Watergate/Pentagon Papers watchdog press corps.
Yet, years after Webb’s death, the U.S. news media continues to scrape along the bottom, still easily intimidated by the bluster of right-wing media attack groups and fast-talking neoconservatives – and still gullible in the face of lies and myths used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the sad tale of Gary Webb remains instructive for anyone wanting to understand what went wrong with the U.S. news media and why much more work is needed to rebuild an independent press corps as a safeguard for the American Republic.
Webb’s important historical role began in 1996 when his “Dark Alliance” investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News revived public interest in the CIA’s tolerance of cocaine trafficking by President Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan contra rebels in the 1980s, at a time when Reagan was promoting a “just say no/zero tolerance/war on drugs.”
The scandal of contra cocaine trafficking and the CIA’s protection of these crimes had surfaced in the 1980s, but the Big Three newspapers – New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – paid the scandal little heed, mostly accepting the denials of Reagan administration insiders.
So, when Webb shed new light on the scandal in 1996, the same newspapers subjected Webb to a merciless assault and rejoiced when Webb’s editors caved in to the pressure and forced Webb to quit in disgrace.
Nevertheless, Webb’s series prompted an internal CIA investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz who issued two reports in 1998 containing devastating admissions about the CIA’s knowledge and protection of contras known to be active in the cocaine trade.
The Big Three newspapers’ response was mostly to downplay or ignore Hitz’s findings, rather than to correct the record.
Because of this misused power of the Big Three – in this case, to protect the reputation of the Reagan administration and their own failings – Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated. He was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a move out of a modest rental house near Sacramento.
So, on Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; he laid out a certificate for his cremation; he taped a note on the door telling movers – who were coming the next morning – to instead call 911.
Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.
Even with Webb’s death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction couldn’t bring themselves to show Webb any mercy.
After Webb’s body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work. Back in 1985 for the Associated Press, I also had co-written with Brian Barger the first story exposing the contra-cocaine scandal.
I told the L.A. Times reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the L.A. Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents of the CIA inspector general’s final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.
To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The L.A. Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb, nor the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The Times obituary was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.
In effect, Webb’s suicide had enabled senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little easier, since one of the few people who understood the true and ugly story of not only the Reagan administration’s protection of the contra-cocaine trafficking but the U.S. media’s complicity in the cover-up was now silenced.
To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has been punished for their actions. None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. Instead, the death of Gary Webb and the circumstances surrounding it have remained one of the U.S. news media’s dirty little secrets.
In recognition of that continuing injustice, I believe it’s fitting on the fifth anniversary of Webb’s death to remind the American people of what Webb’s work helped expose.
Webb’s suicide in 2004 had its roots in his fateful decision eight years earlier to write a three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News that challenged a potent conventional wisdom shared by the elite U.S. news organizations – that one of the most shocking scandals of the 1980s just couldn’t possibly be true.
Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series, published in August 1996, revived the decade-old allegations that the Reagan administration in the 1980s had tolerated and protected cocaine smuggling by its client army of Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.
Though substantial evidence of the contra crimes had surfaced in the mid-1980s (initially in an article that Brian Barger and I wrote for the Associated Press in December 1985 and later at hearings conducted by Sen. John Kerry), the major news outlets had refused to take the disclosures seriously.
For instance, reflecting the dominant attitude toward Kerry and his work on the contra-cocaine scandal, Newsweek dubbed the Massachusetts senator a “randy conspiracy buff.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Kerry’s Contra-Cocaine Chapter” or Robert Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Thus, the truth of the contra-cocaine scandal was left in that netherworld of uncertainty, largely proven with documents and testimony but never accepted by Official Washington.
But Webb’s series thrust the scandal back into prominence by connecting the contra-cocaine trafficking to the spread of crack that ravaged Los Angeles and other American urban centers in the 1980s. For that reason, African-American communities were up in arms as were their elected representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series offered a unique opportunity for the major news outlets to finally give the contra-cocaine scandal the attention it deserved.
But that would have required some painful self-criticism among Washington journalists whose careers had advanced in part because they had not offended Reagan supporters who had made an art out of punishing out-of-step reporters for pursuing controversies like the contra-cocaine scandal.
Also, by the mid-1990s, a powerful right-wing news media had taken shape and was in no mood to accept the notion that many of President Reagan’s beloved contras were drug traffickers. That recognition would have cast a shadow over the Reagan Legacy, which the Right was busy elevating into mythic status.
There was the turf issue, too. Since Webb’s stories coincided with the emergence of the Internet as an alternate source for news and the San Jose Mercury News was at the center of Silicon Valley, the big newspapers saw a threat to their historic dominance as the nation’s gatekeepers for what information should be taken seriously.
Plus, the major media’s focus in the mid-1990s was on scandals swirling around Bill Clinton, such as some firings at the White House Travel Office and convoluted questions about his old Whitewater real-estate deal.
In other words, there was little appetite to revisit scandals from the Reagan years and there were strong motives to disparage what Webb had written.
Rev. Moon’s Newspaper
It fell to Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Washington Times to begin the counterattack. The Washington Times turned to some ex-CIA officials, who had participated in the contra war, to refute the drug charges.
Then – in a pattern that would repeat itself over the next decade – the Washington Post and other mainstream newspapers quickly lined up behind the right-wing press. On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s story, although acknowledging that some contra operatives did help the cocaine cartels.
The Post’s approach was twofold: first, it presented the contra-cocaine allegations as old news – “even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,” the Post sniffed – and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted – that it had not “played a major role in the emergence of crack.”
A Post side-bar story dismissed African-Americans as prone to “conspiracy fears.”
Soon, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times joined in the piling on against Gary Webb. The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 – almost a decade earlier – that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of a role in contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the CIA’s decade-old cover-up began to weaken on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only 12 days, the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.
Nevertheless, Webb was becoming the target of media ridicule. Influential Post media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the contra war was primarily a business to its participants.
“Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz smirked. [Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1996]
Webb’s suspicion was not unfounded, however. Indeed, White House aide Oliver North’s chief contra emissary Rob Owen had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message about the contra leadership.
“Few of the so-called leaders of the movement … really care about the boys in the field,” Owen wrote. “THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Capitalization in the original.]
In other words, Webb had been right and Kurtz had been wrong.
The National Security Archive obtained the hand-written notebooks of Oliver North, the National Security Council aide who helped run the contra war and other Reagan administration covert operations, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 1989. The notebooks, as well as declassified memos sent to North, record that North was repeatedly informed of contra ties to drug trafficking. In his entry for August 9, 1985, North summarizes a meeting with Robert Owen (“Rob”), his liaison with the contras. They discuss a plane used by Mario Calero, brother of Adolfo Calero, head of the FDN, to transport supplies from New Orleans to contras in Honduras. North writes: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.” As Lorraine Adams reported in the October 22, 1994 Washington Post, there are no records that corroborate North’s later assertion that he passed this intelligence on drug trafficking to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In a July 12, 1985 entry, North noted a call from retired Air Force general Richard Secord in which the two discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the contras planned to purchase weapons. (The contras did eventually buy the arms, using money the Reagan administration secretly raised from Saudi Arabia.) According to the notebook, Secord told North that “14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs.”
An April 1, 1985 memo from Robert Owen (code-name: “T.C.” for “The Courier”) to Oliver North (code-name: “The Hammer”) describes contra operations on the Southern Front. Owen tells North that FDN leader Adolfo Calero (code-name: “Sparkplug”) has picked a new Southern Front commander, one of the former captains to Eden Pastora who has been paid to defect to the FDN. Owen reports that the officials in the new Southern Front FDN units include “people who are questionable because of past indiscretions,” such as José Robelo, who is believed to have “potential involvement with drug running” and Sebastian Gonzalez, who is “now involved in drug running out of Panama.”
On February 10, 1986, Owen (“TC”) wrote North (this time as “BG,” for “Blood and Guts”) regarding a plane being used to carry “humanitarian aid” to the contras that was previously used to transport drugs. The plane belongs to the Miami-based company Vortex, which is run by Michael Palmer, one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the United States. Despite Palmer’s long history of drug smuggling, which would soon lead to a Michigan indictment on drug charges, Palmer receives over $300,000.00 from the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) — an office overseen by Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer Alan Fiers — to ferry supplies to the contras.
State Department contracts from February 1986 detail Palmer’s work to transport material to the contras on behalf of the NHAO.
Evidence that NSC Staff Supported Using Drug Money to Fund the Contras In 1987, the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, led by Senator John Kerry, launched an investigation of allegations arising from reports, more than a decade ago, of contra-drug links. One of the incidents examined by the “Kerry Committee” was an effort to divert drug money from a counternarcotics operation to the contra war. On July 28, 1988, two DEA agents testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime regarding a sting operation conducted against the Medellin Cartel. The two agents said that in 1985 Oliver North had wanted to take $1.5 million in Cartel bribe money that was carried by a DEA informant and give it to the contras. DEA officials rejected the idea.
The Kerry Committee report concluded that “senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.”
U.S. Officials and Major Traffickers Manuel Noriega In June, 1986, the New York Times published articles detailing years of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega’s collaboration with Colombian drug traffickers. Reporter Seymour Hersh wrote that Noriega “is extensively involved in illicit money laundering and drug activities,” and that an unnamed White House official “said the most significant drug running in Panama was being directed by General Noriega.” In August, Noriega, a long-standing U.S. intelligence asset, sent an emissary to Washington to seek assistance from the Reagan administration in rehabilitating his drug-stained reputation. Oliver North, who met with Noriega’s representative, described the meeting in an August 23, 1986 e-mail message to Reagan national security advisor John Poindexter. “You will recall that over the years Manuel Noriega in Panama and I have developed a fairly good relationship,” North writes before explaining Noriega’s proposal. If U.S. officials can “help clean up his image” and lift the ban on arms sales to the Panamanian Defense Force, Noriega will “‘take care of’ the Sandinista leadership for us.”
North tells Poindexter that Noriega can assist with sabotage against the Sandinistas, and suggests paying Noriega a million dollars — from “Project Democracy” funds raised from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran — for the Panamanian leader’s help in destroying Nicaraguan economic installations.
The same day Poindexter responds with an e-mail message authorizing North to meet secretly with Noriega. “I have nothing against him other than his illegal activities,” Poindexter writes.
On the following day, August 24, North’s notebook records a meeting with CIA official Duane “Dewey” Clarridge on Noriega’s overture. They decided, according to this entry, to “send word back to Noriega to meet in Europe or Israel.”
The CIA’s Alan Fiers later recalls North’s involvement with the Noriega sabotage proposal. In testimony at the 1992 trial of former CIA official Clair George, Fiers describes North’s plan as it was discussed at a meeting of the Reagan administration’s Restricted Interagency Group: “[North] made a very strong suggestion that . . . there needed to be a resistance presence in the western part of Nicaragua, where the resistance did not operate. And he said, ‘I can arrange to have General Noriega execute some insurgent — some operations there — sabotage operations in that area. It will cost us about $1 million. Do we want to do it?’ And there was significant silence at the table. And then I recall I said, ‘No. We don’t want to do that.'”
Senior officials ignored Fiers’ opinion. On September 20, North informed Poindexter via e-mail that “Noriega wants to meet me in London” and that both Elliott Abrams and Secretary of State George Shultz support the initiative. Two days later, Poindexter authorized the North/Noriega meeting.
North’s notebook lists details of his meeting with Noriega, which took place in a London hotel on September 22. According to the notes, the two discussed developing a commando training program in Panama, with Israeli support, for the contras and Afghani rebels. They also spoke of sabotaging major economic targets in the Managua area, including an airport, an oil refinery, and electric and telephone systems. (These plans were apparently aborted when the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November 1986.)
José Bueso Rosa Reagan administration officials interceded on behalf of José Bueso Rosa, a Honduran general who was heavily involved with the CIA’s contra operations and faced trial for his role in a massive drug shipment to the United States. In 1984 Bueso and co-conspirators hatched a plan to assassinate Honduran President Roberto Suazo Córdoba; the plot was to be financed with a $40 million cocaine shipment to the United States, which the FBI intercepted in Florida. Declassified e-mail messages indicate that Oliver North led the behind-the-scenes effort to seek leniency for Bueso . The messages record the efforts of U.S. officials to “cabal quietly” to get Bueso off the hook, be it by “pardon, clemency, deportation, [or] reduced sentence.” Eventually they succeeded in getting Bueso a short sentence in “Club Fed,” a white collar prison in Florida.
The Kerry Committee report reviewed the case, and noted that the man Reagan officials aided was involved in a conspiracy that the Justice Department deemed the “most significant case of narco-terrorism yet discovered.”
FBI/DEA Documentation In February 1987 a contra sympathizer in California told the FBI he believed FDN officials were involved in the drug trade. Dennis Ainsworth, a Berkeley-based conservative activist who had supported the contra cause for years, gave a lengthy description of his suspicions to FBI agents. The bureau’s debriefing says that Ainsworth agreed to be interviewed because “he has certain information in which he believes the Nicaraguan ‘Contra’ organization known as FDN (Frente Democrático Nacional) has become more involved in selling arms and cocaine for personal gain than in a military effort to overthrow the current Nicaraguan Sandinista Government.” Ainsworth informed the FBI of his extensive contacts with various contra leaders and backers, and explained the basis for his belief that members of the FDN were trafficking in drugs. A DEA report of February 6, 1984 indicates that a central figure in the San Jose Mercury News series was being tracked by U.S. law enforcement officials as early as 1976, when a DEA agent “identified Norwin MENESES-Canterero as a cocaine source of supply in Managua, Nicaragua.” Meneses, an associate of dictator Anastasio Somoza who moved to California after the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, was an FDN backer and large-scale cocaine trafficker.
Testimony of Fabio Ernesto Carrasco, 6 April 1990 On October 31, 1996, the Washington Post ran a follow up story to the San Jose Mercury News series titled “CIA, Contras and Drugs: Questions on Links Linger.” The story drew on court testimony in 1990 of Fabio Ernesto Carrasco, a pilot for a major Columbian drug smuggler named George Morales. As a witness in a drug trial, Carrasco testified that in 1984 and 1985, he piloted planes loaded with weapons for contras operating in Costa Rica. The weapons were offloaded, and then drugs stored in military bags were put on the planes which flew to the United States. “I participated in two [flights] which involved weapons and cocaine at the same time,” he told the court. Carrasco also testified that Morales provided “several million dollars” to Octaviano Cesar and Adolfo “Popo” Chamorro, two rebel leaders working with the head of the contras’ southern front, Eden Pastora. The Washington Post reported that Chamorro said he had called his CIA control officer to ask if the contras could accept money and arms from Morales, who was at the time under indictment for cocaine smuggling. “They said [Morales] was fine,” Chamorro told the Post