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December 20-27, 2006

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Gary Webb

Photograph by Larry Dalton
Vindicated by history: Webb had a strong sense of fairness combined with a droll and often self-deprecating sense of humor.

In His Own Words

Gary Webb on how he got into journalism, took on the CIA and became a target for the mainstream media

editor's note: It's not easy when a colleague, let alone a journalist you hold in the highest regard, commits suicide. When Gary Webb took his own life two years ago, he and I had both been working at the Sacramento News & Review. In the days that followed, I fielded numerous phone calls from well-meaning folks who were convinced that he had been shot by the agency he went after in his famed "Dark Alliance" series. My personal belief is that the CIA didn't need to kill Gary; they'd already set his demise in motion by employing "unnamed sources" to discredit him in the nation's major print media. To the very end, Gary complained that no one had ever disproved a single fact in his series. The fact that so many respected newspapers so eagerly took this bait, and that one of our nation's last true investigative reporters had been driven to such desperation, is something I could not reconcile then or now.

Meanwhile, those of us who were left behind struggled to deal with the tragedy, even as we tried to make some sense of it in print. I called Congresswoman Maxine Waters to ask for her response. "The 'Dark Alliance' series was one of the most profound pieces of journalism I have ever witnessed," maintained Waters, who spent two years following up on investigative reporter Gary Webb's revelations. "Gary's work was not only in-depth, revealing and confrontational, but it single-handedly created discussion and debate about the proliferation of crack cocaine and the role of the CIA."

As the mainstream media abandoned Webb, it was Waters who took up the battle and demanded further investigation. During a public hearing Waters held in the wake of the story, then-CIA Director John Deutch, who reportedly arrived at the hearing's South-Central high school location in a motorcade complete with helicopter cover, told the angry citizenry, "I will get to the bottom of it, and I will let you know the results of what I've found."

Ironically, when the CIA's inspector general finally did issue findings in 1998, the mainstream press opted to look the other way. "The major news organizations effectively hid the CIA's confession from the American people," claimed author Robert Parry, who broke stories on Iran-Contra for the Associated Press and Newsweek. Parry saw the whole incident as "foreshadowing the media incompetence that would fail to challenge George W. Bush's case for war with Iraq five years later."

History, I believe, will continue to reveal the importance of Webb's work. Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, wrote that Webb "deserves to be remembered in the proud tradition of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, George Seldes and I.F. Stone. In this era of 'embedded reporters,'" writes Cohen, "an unembedded journalist like Gary Webb will be sorely missed."

I can hardy claim to have known Gary Webb based on the short time I worked with him. But I did get the sense that he had a very strong sense of fairness as well as a droll and often self-deprecating sense of humor. You get some of that in the following transcript, edited for space, of a talk Webb gave in 1999 in Eugene, Ore.

Bill Forman

Gary Webb: Well, I've been a daily news reporter for about 20 years, and I've done probably a thousand interviews with people, and the strangest thing is being on the other side of the table now and having reporters ask me questions. One of them asked me about a week ago, "Why did you get into newspaper reporting?" And I really had to admit that I was stumped. Because I really didn't have an answer.

So, I went back to my clip books--you know, most reporters keep all their old clips--and I started digging around trying to figure out if there was one story that I had written that had really tipped the balance. And I found it. I was 15. I was working for my high school paper and had written an editorial against the drill team that we had for the high school games, for the football games. This was '71 or '72, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, and someone thought it was a cool idea to dress women up in military uniforms and send them out there to twirl rifles and battle flags at halftime. And I thought this was sort of outrageous, and I wrote an editorial saying I thought it was one of the silliest things I'd ever seen. And my newspaper adviser called me the next day and said, "God, that editorial you wrote has really prompted a response. ... They want you to apologize for it." I said, "Apologize for what? ... I'm not apologizing because they don't want my opinion. You'll have to come up with a better reason than that." And they said, "Well, if you don't apologize, we're not going to let you in [the high school journalism society]." And I said, "Well, I don't want to be in that organization if I have to apologize to get into it." [Laughter from the audience.]

Well, when I went down to the newspaper office, there were about 15 cheerleaders sitting around this table, and they all went around one by one telling me what a scumbag I was and what a terrible guy I was ... and at that moment, I decided, "Man, this is what I want to do for a living!" [Roar of laughter from the audience.] And I wish I could say that it was because I was infused with this sense of the First Amendment ... but what I was really thinking was, "Man, this is a great way to meet women!" [More laughter.]

And that's a true story, but the reason I tell you that is because it's often those kinds of weird motivations and unthinking consequences that lead us to do things, that lead us to events that we have absolutely no concept how they're going to turn out. Little did I know, 25 years later, I'd be writing a story about the CIA's wrongdoings because I wanted to meet women by writing editorials about cheerleaders.

But that's really the way life and that's really the way history works a lot of times. You know, when you think back on your own lives, from the vantage point of time, you can see it. I mean, think back to the decisions you've made in your lifetimes that brought you to where you are tonight. Think about how close you came to never meeting your wife or your husband, how easily you could have been doing something else for a living if it hadn't been for a decision that you made or someone made that you had absolutely no control over. And it's really kind of scary when you think about how capricious life is sometimes. That's a theme I try to bring to my book, Dark Alliance, which was about the crack-cocaine explosion in the 1980s.

So, for the record, let me just say this right now. I do not believe--and I have never believed--that the crack-cocaine explosion was a conscious CIA conspiracy, or anybody's conspiracy, to decimate black America. I've never believed that South-Central Los Angeles was targeted by the U.S. government to become the crack capital of the world. But that isn't to say that the CIA's hands or the U.S. government's hands are clean in this matter. Actually, far from it. After spending three years of my life looking into this, I am more convinced than ever that the U.S. government's responsibility for the drug problems in South-Central Los Angeles and other inner cities is greater than I ever wrote in the newspaper.

But it's important to differentiate between malign intent and gross negligence. And that's an important distinction, because it's what makes premeditated murder different from manslaughter. That said, it doesn't change the fact that you've got a body on the floor, and that's what I want to talk about tonight, the body.

What I've attempted to demonstrate in my book was how the collapse of a brutal, pro-American dictatorship in Latin America, combined with a decision by corrupt CIA agents to raise money for a resistance movement by any means necessary, led to the formation of the nation's first major crack market in South-Central Los Angeles, which led to the arming and the empowerment of L.A.'s street gangs, which led to the spread of crack to black neighborhoods across the country and to the passage of racially discriminatory sentencing laws that are locking up thousands of young black men today behind bars for most of their lives.

But it's not so much a conspiracy as a chain reaction. And that's what the [San Jose Mercury News] series and my whole book Dark Alliance is about, this chain reaction. ...

Now, a lot of people disagreed with the scenario. The New York Times, the L.A. Times and the Washington Post all came out and said, "Oh, no. That's not so." They said this couldn't have happened that way, because crack would have happened anyway. Which is true, somewhat. As I pointed out in the first chapter of my book, crack was on its way here. But whether it would have happened the same way, whether it would have happened in South-Central, whether it would have happened in Los Angeles at all first, is a very different story. ...

One of the things which these newspapers who dissed my story were saying was, "We can't believe that the CIA would know about drug trafficking and let it happen." That this agency, which gets $27 billion a year to tell us what's going on, and which was so intimately involved with the Contras they were writing their press releases for them, they wouldn't know about this drug trafficking going on under their noses. But the Times and the Post all uncritically reported their claims that the CIA didn't know what was going on and that it would never permit its hirelings to do anything like that, as unseemly as drug trafficking. You know, assassinations and bombings and that sort of thing, yeah, they'll admit to right up front. But drug dealing, no, no, they don't do that kind of stuff.

Unfortunately, though, it was true, and what has happened since my series came out is that the CIA was forced to do an internal review. The DEA and Justice Department were forced to do internal reviews. The one thing that I've learned from this whole experience is, first of all, you can't believe the government-- on anything. And you especially can't believe them when they're talking about important stuff, like this stuff. The other thing is that the media will believe the government before they believe anything.

This has been the most amazing thing to me. You had a situation where you had another newspaper who reported this information. The major news organizations in this country went to the CIA, they went to the Justice Department, and they said, "What about it?" And they said, "Oh, no, it's not true. Take our word for it." And they went back and put it in the newspaper! Now, I try to imagine what would happen had reporters come back to their editors and said, "Look. I know the CIA is involved in drug trafficking. And I know the FBI knows about it, and I've got a confidential source that's telling me that. Can I write a story about that?" What do you think the answer would have been? [Murmurs of "no" from the audience.] "Get back down to the obit desk. Start cranking out those sports scores." But, if they go to the government, and the government denies something like that, they'll put it in the paper with no corroboration whatsoever.

And it's only since the government has admitted it that now the media is willing to consider that there might be a story here after all. The New York Times, after the CIA report that came out, ran a story on its front page saying, Gosh, the Contras were involved in drugs after all, and gosh, the CIA knew about it.

Now, you would think--at least I would think--that something like that would warrant congressional investigation. We're spending millions of dollars to find out how many times Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky. Why aren't we interested in how much the CIA knew about drug traffic? Who was profiting from this drug traffic? Who else knew about it? And why did it take some guy from a California newspaper by accident stumbling over this stuff 10 years later in order for it to be important? I mean, what the hell is going on here? I've been a reporter for almost 20 years. To me, this is a natural story. The CIA is involved in drug trafficking? Let's know about it. Let's find out about it. Let's do something about it. But nobody wants to touch this thing.

Another thing that came out, but was never reported, was that the CIA inspector general went before Congress in 1999 and testified that yes, they knew about it. They found some documents that indicated that they knew about it. Yeah. I was there! And this was funny to watch, because these congressmen were up there, and they were ready to hear the absolution, right? "We had no evidence that this was going on ..." And this guy sort of threw 'em a curve ball and admitted that it had happened.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I think it sort of leaves us to rely on the judgment of history. ... Because they want us to forget about it. They want us to concentrate on sex crimes, because, yeah, it's titillating. It keeps us occupied. It keeps us diverted. Don't let them do it.

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