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Cracked Report

Why did the San Jose Mercury News recant Gary Webb's story about CIA involvement in the War of Drugs?

By Nick Budnick

For most of the last nine years, Gary Webb, Capitol bureau reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, labored quietly in Sacramento, his work largely unknown to the community in which he, his wife and three children have made their home.

Last August, however, Webb stirred up a furor of media coverage around the world with his disturbing series "Dark Alliance," which explored the close relationship between the CIA-backed Contra army in Nicaragua during the 1980s and known drug dealers who spread the crack epidemic through the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

After initially ignoring the story, major media outlets such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post dogpiled on Webb, attacking his reporting in the series and his ethics.

After two decades of award-winning investigative reporting, Webb suddenly finds himself cast as the bad boy of journalism. For Webb, that status became official on May 11 when his boss, the Merc's executive editor Jerry Ceppos, published a column questioning Webb's series, saying it left out some conflicting evidence, oversimplified the spread of crack, and failed to make clear that "we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the [crack-Contra] relationship."

Last week, the paper pulled the series from its web site.

In his office, its walls hung with memorabilia from his days as a college student in Cincinnati, and as a reporter for the Kentucky Post and Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Webb spoke candidly about his work, the mainstream media, and his research that expands upon his earlier findings--which his superiors at the Mercury News have not yet let see the light of day.

Nick Budnick: It's going on a year since the Mercury News published your stories linking the CIA-backed Contras to the importation of cocaine into poor black areas of Los Angeles. How would you sum up the year that's happened since then?

Gary Webb: It's been incredible, and it's been amazing, and it's been disgusting at times.

Nick Budnick: You're referring to the media?

Gary Webb: Well, first of all, I think the public's response was fairly amazing, just the public outcry. I mean, it's not like something you write about and [expect] people start marching in the street. That was a fairly amazing reaction. And I think some of the media follow-up's been fairly disgusting.

Nick Budnick: Why do you think the media reacted the way they did?

Gary Webb: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. One is that the big papers in this country have sort of an institutional history of sitting on this story. You go back and you look at what was written back in the '80s by the three big papers in this country about this Contra-cocaine topic, and most of it was just a pack of lies. And they have continued that sort of "There's nothing here" attitude up until now. So I think that one of the reasons is that they had an institutional history of covering this story up, and this [series] sort of exposed that for what it was. I think the other part of the problem is that you have most of the people that wrote these stories for most of the papers are establishment organs, they are mouthpieces a lot of the time for the government. And I think that's what they're being used for in this case, is the government's side of the story.

Nick Budnick: What exactly are the problems they're saying your stories have?

Gary Webb: They're saying, well, we didn't have proof that [former CIA director] Bill Casey knew about this. They have unnamed sources saying that they didn't [transport] millions of dollars as we said, that these men weren't top Contra officials--as if crimes can be committed and if the top people didn't know about it, then that's OK. That's the sort of bizarre reaction that I've been seeing from these things: that since we didn't have a deathbed confession from William Casey, that means that these [findings] are unproven, that these are unsubstantiated. And that's the thing that I think is the most bizarre about [the reaction], is that nothing can be substantiated unless the government admits it.

Nick Budnick: The government has a long history of that.

Gary Webb: Oh, especially the CIA. When have they ever told the truth to the public about anything? So the idea that they would deny it and claim that nobody knows about it is, to me, par for the course. You go back and you look at every CIA scandal that's come down the pike, and it's the same old stuff: They deny it, and they deny it, and admit what's known, and they deny the rest.

Nick Budnick: Do you have any regrets about the way the series came out? Major regrets?

Gary Webb: The only regret that I've got is that it wasn't longer. I think a lot of these criticisms would have been muted had we taken the space and laid out exactly all we knew. The problem is the series was a lot shorter when it got in the paper than it was when I wrote it. But as far as what actually appeared in the paper, it's accurate, it's truthful, and we can substantiate every word of it.

Nick Budnick: Major news media are using unnamed sources to question what you had in sheriff's ...

Gary Webb: [interjects] Documents and sworn testimony. See, if you have an unnamed source that appears in the Washington Post, suddenly everybody believes it. And I think that's the way these papers have succeeded in keeping this story buried all these years, is because not only have they sat on the story, they've gone after people that have tried to raise it. You look at what happened to Bob Parry, Brian Barger back in the '80s, you look at what happened to the Kerry Committee [the congressional body that looked at CIA-drug trafficking connections]. The people working on the Kerry Committee, they were telling me going into this that they were subjected to these fierce campaigns to discredit what they were doing, they were under federal investigation, their witnesses were harassed. This is a story that the government has tried very hard to keep under wraps and, until we published this stuff, fairly well succeeded in doing.

Nick Budnick: You started out with your editors were supporting you ...

Gary Webb: Hell, they put it in the paper.

Nick Budnick: Right, they put it in the paper, they supported you when the backlash started coming in ... and everything was OK. It's a great, heartwarming thing for a reporter when your editors back you up, when they're with you. Things seem to be changing. What happened?

Gary Webb: That's a good question, and the part that's the most interesting is the fact that this [reversal] happened after I turned in four more stories that advanced the story further. They weren't interested in printing those. Suddenly we were going to go back and sort of take back all those things we said before. And I really don't have any explanation for that, for the 180 that they did.

Nick Budnick: You turned in four more stories; none of those have appeared. What did they talk about?

Gary Webb: They talked about the relationships between the members of this drug ring and who they were working with in the federal government, which government agencies were aware of their operations. We have other stories about related drug trafficking in Central America that was condoned by the U.S government. Other examples of related drug traffickers who were working for, and in some cases had, U.S. government contracts to supply the Contras. It's just a whole slew of things: We interviewed a man who took the money down there from San Francisco, took the drug money down to Costa Rica, took the money down to Miami and gave it to the Contra officials. We have interviews with him, and a lot of stuff that, like I said, not only substantiates what we wrote in August, but advances the story considerably. And that's just sitting there.

Nick Budnick: No sign that it's going to move?

Gary Webb: No, they haven't even started editing them yet, and I turned them in in February.

Nick Budnick: Did they tell you why?

Gary Webb: No. No, they just said, "Well, we'll get to it, because we have to deal with this stuff that we wrote in August." The initial plan was to go ahead and do these stories, deal with the issues that were raised by other newspapers, and advance the story. And instead of advancing the story, we've dwelled on these other issues which, to my mind, are fairly insignificant, and sort of invited this backlash from the media that claim that we've backed off from the story. I'm certainly not backing off.

Nick Budnick: You're going to get the stories out.

Gary Webb: Well, it's up to the Mercury News. Either they're going to print 'em or they're not going to print 'em. If they don't print them, I think it would be honest to give me the rights to take them somewhere else. I think we'll see where their heart is on this thing. If they decide not to run these stories and then say, "No, you can't have anyone else run them either," I think it will be time for people to start suspecting their motive.

Nick Budnick: How did you get into journalism, what are the driving forces that keep you in journalism, and how do you relate that to what's happening to you today?

Gary Webb: Well, I got into journalism because I like writing. And I got into investigative reporting because it's something that you have to do. To my mind, the press is the only thing that keeps people informed, it's the only fire wall between tyranny and the public. And I think this is a perfect example of telling people stuff that the government doesn't want them to know about vs. what most of the press does, which is tell them what the government does want. That's the thing that keeps me in the business, because I think the press has an obligation to do this kind of stuff. The easiest thing in the world, as far as I'm concerned, is to go to the press conference, write up a story and go home. You can make a very comfortable and very easy living doing that, covering nothing other than government press conferences.

In short, this kind of reaction is something that I've certainly come to expect. I mean, you go after the Man, and the Man bites back. But what are you supposed to do? You certainly can't give up and go home because the New York Times doesn't like your story. Who cares?

Nick Budnick: As far as the substance of what you found and what you're finding, what is the significance for the American people?

Gary Webb: Well, the significance is that these drugs started the first crack market in the United States. I mean, the Contras brought in cocaine and they fueled the first crack market in the U.S. They supplied the Crips and the Bloods with tons of cocaine for a decade. And there's every indication that U.S. government officials were aware of it and didn't do anything about it. So the implications--Jesus, you look at what's happened over the last 10 years to the inner cities because of crack, you look at what's happened to African-Americans because of these crack [sentencing] laws that they passed, and the implications are just enormous. And if the government had a hand in it at all, I think some people need to be called to account for it.

Nick Budnick: When you take a look at the path that you've been on, it seems like you're at maybe a personal crossroads in terms of where this story goes, where your career goes. Where do you see things going five, 10 years down the road?

Gary Webb: I don't look that far ahead. I just look at the next week, the next month. That the problem I've always had in filling out these job evaluations: People say what do you want to do five, 10 years from now? I want to do what I'm doing. I like being a reporter, and I want to be a reporter, and that's all I've ever wanted to do. So if I'm still sitting in this chair, I'm doing the same thing five year s from now, it'll be fine with me, because this is what I want to do.

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Web exclusive to the June 19-25, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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