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In Memoriam: Gary Webb

Gary Webb, Pulitzer Prize winner, died last week in what was pretty clearly a suicide. Even if he pulled the trigger of the gun that killed him, he was still a victim punished unjustly for his pursuit of the truth.

It is clear that anyone who has dared to speak out about the CIA and the drug traffic has risked losing his job. In like fashion Celerino Castillo was eased out of DEA, and Robert Parry lost his job at AP. When Gary was absurdly abused by a pack of attack dogs at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, Gary's editors at the San Jose Mercury-Tribune failed to stand by him; and in the end virtually they forced him off the paper by reassigning him to a trivial suburban post.

The guilty consciences of the major newspapers is reflected now in the demeaning obituaries they have written about him. Gary's treatment of the CIA-drug story was not flawless; no one's is or can be. But he deserved far better than he got; and it is the other journalists who attacked him who should now hang their heads in shame.

It is difficult to be the victim of injustice, and not become obsessed by it. As someone else has observed of this tragedy, it is important that we resist the changes imposed on us by the world, by responding instead to the truth that is within us.

For those of us who have had the luck to survive in this struggle while others have died, some of them murdered, our response must be to carry on.

* * * * * *

My Words for Gary Webb's Memorial Service: More than any of us, Gary Webb changed history, and our knowledge of history. For this he paid a terrible price. The authorities we live under took steps to make sure of that.

At this moment when thousands of Americans and Iraqis are dying for a lie, Gary was a victim of his pursuit of truth. It would have been far far better if he had not died, but at least his was a cause worth dying for.

And as for those who maligned him and are still nervously maligning him: what, if anything, will history say of them?

* * * * * *

My description of the gang attack on Webb is available at http://www.copi.com/articles/pds_da_ww.html.


A footnoted version can be read in my Drugs, Contras and the CIA: Government Policies and the Cocaine Economy. An Analysis of Media and Government Response to the Gary Webb Stories in the San Jose Mercury News (1996-2000). Los Angeles: From the Wilderness Publications, 2000. Pp. 50.



See also “Ceppos Backpeddles: San Jose Mercury News Phony Epilogue,” http://www.csun.edu/CommunicationStudies/ben/news/cia/ceppos/


Barbara Bliss Osborn, "Are You Sure You Want to Ruin Your Career? Gary Webb's fate a warning to gutsy reporters," Extra! (March/April 1998), http://www.csun.edu/CommunicationStudies/ben/news/cia/980400.osborn.html.


Georg Hodel, "Hung Out to Dry", The Consortium 2:15 (30 June 1997), http://www.radio4all.org/crackcia/hodel.html

Barbara Bliss Osborn, "Are You Sure You Want to Ruin Your Career? Gary Webb's fate a warning to gutsy reporters," Extra! (March/April 1998),

Excerpts from four excellent memorials:

Robert Parry, "America's Debt to Journalist Gary Webb," Consortium News, 12/13/04, http://www.consortiumnews.com/2004/121304.html

In 1996, journalist Gary Webb wrote a series of articles that forced a long-overdue investigation of a very dark chapter of recent U.S. foreign policy -- the Reagan-Bush administration's protection of cocaine traffickers who operated under the cover of the Nicaraguan contra war in the 1980s.

For his brave reporting at the San Jose Mercury News, Webb paid a high price. He was attacked by journalistic colleagues at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the American Journalism Review and even the Nation magazine. Under this media pressure, his editor Jerry Ceppos sold out the story and demoted Webb, causing him to quit the Mercury News. Even Webb's marriage broke up.

On Friday, Dec. 10, Gary Webb, 49, died of an apparent suicide, a gunshot wound to the head.

Whatever the details of Webb's death, American history owes him a huge debt. Though denigrated by much of the national news media, Webb's contra-cocaine series prompted internal investigations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department, probes that confirmed that scores of contra units and contra-connected individuals were implicated in the drug trade. The probes also showed that the Reagan-Bush administration frustrated investigations into those crimes for geopolitical reasons....

Jeff Cohen, "R.I.P. Gary Webb -- Unembedded Reporter," http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=21&ItemID=6863

Gary Webb, a courageous investigative journalist who was the target of one of the most ferocious media attacks on any reporter in recent history, was found dead Friday after an apparent suicide.

In August 1996, Webb wrote one of the first pieces of journalism that reached a massive audience thanks to the Internet: an explosive 20,000 word, three-part series documenting links between cocaine traffickers, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the CIA-organized right-wing Nicaraguan Contra army of that era. The series sparked major interest in the social justice and African-American communities, leading to street protests, constant discussion on black-oriented talk radio and demands by Congressional Black Caucus members for a federal investigation. But weeks later, Webb suffered a furious backlash at the hands of national media unaccustomed to seeing their role as gatekeepers diminished by the emerging medium known as the WorldWideWeb.

Webb's explosive San Jose Mercury News series documented that funders of the Contras included drug traffickers who played a role in the crack epidemic that hit Los Angeles and other cities. Webb's series focused heavily on Oscar Danilo Blandon, a cocaine importer and federal informant, who once testified in federal court that "whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution." Blandon further testified that Colonel Enrique Bermudez, a CIA asset who led the Contra army against Nicaragua's leftwing Sandinista government, knew the funds were from drug running. (Bermudez was a colonel during the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.)

Webb reported that U.S. law enforcement agents complained that the CIA had squelched drug probes of Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses in the name of "national security." Blandon's drugs flowed into L.A. and elsewhere thanks to the legendary "Freeway" Ricky Donnell Ross, a supplier of crack to the Crips and Bloods gangs.

While Webb's series could be faulted for some overstatement in presenting its powerful new evidence (a controversial graphic on the Mercury News website superimposed a person smoking crack over the CIA seal), the fresh documentation mightily moved forward the CIA-Contra-cocaine story that national media had been trying to bury for years. Any exaggeration in the Mercury News presentation was dwarfed by a mendacious, triple-barreled attack on Webb that came from the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times....

Michael C. Ruppert, "Gary Webb, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Author of Dark Alliance CIA-Drug Series Dead of Reported Suicide: Press Accounts Fail to Mention His Vindication by CIA Inspector General Reports and Congressional Investigations,ā€¯ http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/121304_gary_webb.shtml

December 13, 2004 1400 PDT (FTW) - Gary Webb, 49, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from the San Jose Mercury News made America hold its breath in 1996 when he showed us proof of direct CIA involvement in drug trafficking. For a few months many of us had hope. He reportedly died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head two days ago. His body was discovered at 8:20 AM Saturday as movers reportedly found a note on the door of his residence asking them not to enter but to call for paramedics. Webb's August 1996 series Dark Alliance for the San Jose Mercury News pulled deep covers away from US covert operations and American denial about connections between the CIA and drugs. Gary left a bigger historical footprint than anyone who has ever touched the subject including among others, Peter Dale Scott, Alfred McCoy, Jonathan Kwitny and me. His footprint was made possible in large part for two reasons. First, his reporting was meticulous and produced hard records that could not be effectively denied. Second, prominent African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and representatives Maxine Waters and Juanita Millender-McDonald of Los Angeles and Compton respectively took up the torch lit by Gary and ran with it just before the 1996 presidential election which saw Bill Clinton win his second term just eight weeks after the stories broke. I was there at that time and it is not an understatement to say that much of this country was "up in arms". Waters at one point vowed to make the CIA-drug connections, fully documented by Webb, her "life's work" if necessary.

In death the major press is beating him almost as ruthlessly as they did in real life. No part of the major press has acknowledged that Webb's work was subsequently vindicated by congressional investigations and two CIA Inspector General's reports released in 1997 and 1998. FTW did report on Webb's vindication and his legacy has - at least at the level of authentic journalism - not been lost.

Al Giordano, "Gary Webb: Do What He Did," http://narcosphere.narconews.com/story/2004/12/15/184725/08

LACANDON JUNGLE, CHIAPAS, MEXICO, DECEMBER 15, 2004: I keep imagining the last moments of Gary's life. He is looking down the barrel of a gun. His eyes are puffy from the swell of too many tears. The moving van is coming to his house near Sacramento, a place he never wanted to be in the first place, to which he was exiled years ago for the crime of telling a powerful but uncomfortable truth. Everyone he has ever trusted or loved has abandoned him: By that I mean everyone, including you and me.

What he is about to do requires the utmost in courage: to pull the trigger and plunge into the unknown, perhaps into nothingness, never to write or report or tell his truth to the post-human mortals who couldn't handle his truth anyway.

The hand on the trigger at that moment -- " his " -- is not the first, nor is he acting alone. Gary had to wait in line and take a number behind all those who set his suicide in motion years ago. It was a miracle he didn't do this back when San Jose Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos, now 58 and vice president of the Knight-Ridder news company, cocked the shotgun and pulled the trigger on the most authentic journalistic career of the late 20th Century. That was the day that the bullet flew out of the cartridge and, as if in very slow motion, took years to reach Gary's head...

Gary never wrote with mere ink or pixels. Gary opened up a vein every time he sat down to tell us a new truth and he signed his byline, always, in blood. If you think that his suicide did not send as powerful a message as the stories he investigated and penned in life, think again: Gary was The Last North American Career Journalist. He presided over a transitional era and his death marks the end of that era.

Fellow and sister journalists: The canary has died in the coal mine. Run out of that mine now, and seek alternate routes to truth-telling. There is no longer room for us inside the corporate machine.

All over the world he is mourned today. The companeros here in Chiapas came to me last night. "You knew him. He worked for you. Did he ever come here? Did he know about us?"

As they peppered me with questions I retreated far into myself. Time and space stopped, as it has before in this deep green tropical jungle. I could see it -- the bullet (two bullets say the coroner: Gary was nothing if not thorough and persistent; imagine for a moment what strength it took to get off the second round) off in the distance somewhere over California, those bullets, the first one fired by that traitor-to-journalism-and-truth Jerry Ceppos in San Jose, those bullets that came out the other side of Gary's cranium in Sacramento last week and took a southern turn toward me. And when they are done with me they will come for you. I could see and hear them heading my way last night and so today I type these words in a hurry so as to shoot back before my brains, too, are splattered on the page of history.


Eric Umansky, "Total Coverage: The CIA, Contras, and Drugs The CIA-coke connection was detailed long before Dark Alliance -- and the evidence keeps coming," Mother Jones, August 25, 1998, http://www.motherjones.com/news/special_reports/total_coverage/coke.html

Peter Dale Scott, "What Will Congress Do Now About New CIA-Drug Revelations?" San Francisco Chronicle, 6/19/00, http://www.lightparty.com/WarOnDrugs/WhatWillCongressDo.html

Peter Dale Scott, Review of Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/28/98; Lobster, 36, Winter 1998-9, http://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk/online/issue36/lob36-11.htm (a subscription archive, but well worth it):

Two years ago Gary Webb touched off a national controversy with his news stories linking the CIA and the Nicaraguan Contras to the rise of the crack epidemic in Los Angeles and elsewhere. His gripping new book, richly researched and documented, deserves an even wider audience and discussion.

The book profits from corroborating CIA and police records that have been released in response to his stories. Documents from a drug raid in October 1986 show that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had already stumbled upon the substance of Webb's charges about Nicaraguan drug trafficker Daniel Blandon a full 10 years before Webb's account was published in the San Jose Mercury News.

One sheriff's department document reported that 'the Blandon organization is believed to be moving hundreds of kilos of cocaine a month in the Southern California area.' It added that 'the money goes toward the purchase of arms to aid the "Contra" rebels fighting the civil war in Nicaragua.'

Did these sheriffs' reports in 1986 over-simplify what they had discovered? Possibly. But their fears that the Feds would not allow their case to go forward were rapidly confirmed. The case was dropped; key documents and evidence disappeared from the files; and Blandon, who had been arrested with cocaine in his possession, was released within hours to continue trafficking, 'even as the FBI watched'.

Suppose the documents on Blandon and his Nicaraguan mentor Norwin Meneses, an even bigger drug trafficker and Contra supporter, had been released in the 1980s instead of now. Critics alleging a Contra-drug link would have been proven right, and the CIA's and Reagan Administration's routine denials exposed. The Contras might not have received another nickel. Thus the Administration, instead of arresting Meneses and Blandon, protected them. Later, Blandon became a DEA informant, and apparently so did Meneses.

Webb claims that in the mid-1980s, the flow of cocaine from Blandon to L.A. crack dealer Ricky Ross reached its zenith. This was the period of the Boland amendment prohibiting U.S. government aid to the Contras. It was also when Ross enlarged his network to include a host of smaller crack producers, many of them members of various Crips gangs. By the time Ross was busted in 1987 he and the Crips had expanded their crack empire across the United States. According to Webb, Blandon was also selling 'exotic weapons and communication gear . . . to Freeway Rick and his fellow crack dealers.'

Among the storm of issues raised by Webb's original series, one of the most hotly contested was the importance of Blandon, Ross and the Crips to the crack epidemic that in 1986 burst into public awareness. In the book, Webb musters formidable expert sources for this allegation.

In other respects the book can be criticized. As a journalist trained to write compact stories, he is stronger on street and court detail than on the bureaucratic complexities of Washington. Subtle arguments can become telescoped into punchy summaries that are sometimes oversimplified. Webb is most controversial when implicating the CIA, relying heavily on slippery phrases like 'CIA agent'. To him it is important that in December 1981 a 'CIA agent', Contra commander Enrique Bermudez, 'had given the goddamned order' to Meneses and Blandon to begin trafficking in support of the Contras. In the larger context of such a powerful book, this seems likely to generate needless quibbles, and remains a side issue at best. As even Webb admits, the CIA in 1981 had relatively little daily control over Contra leaders.

More important was the decision of top Reagan advisers (not just in the CIA) to reorganize (as Contras) the old Somoza National Guard, about whose drug and other criminal activities the Nicaraguan bishops had complained back in 1978. Equally disastrous was the initial decision to leave oversight of the Contras to Argentine intelligence officers, for whom the drug-financing of operations was a way of life.

On March 16, 1998, in response to Webb's allegations, the CIA Inspector-General admitted that in early 1982 the CIA secured permission from Attorney General William French Smith not to report on the drug activities of CIA agents, assets and contract employees. This agreement was not fully rescinded until 1995, when Webb began his investigations. Here is the true CIA responsibility for our drug plague: not by giving an 'order', but by condoning the traffic, protecting it, obstructing the efforts of those who tried to combat it and helping to force honest journalists like Webb who reported it out of jobs.

From this 1982 agreement apparently flowed even more bizarre drug aspects of Iran-Contra: special freedom of movement for indicted drug traffickers into and out of the United States, sometimes without having to clear Customs; similar privileges for their trafficking air planes; federal intervention to stop domestic drug cases, or seal or even destroy evidence; a government-protected air base for traffickers in El Salvador (Ilopango) that a DEA agent could not visit; and even CIA-DEA plotting to smuggle wanted or convicted drug traffickers away from Central American law enforcement.

None of these serious allegations has ever been properly investigated. Until they are, it will appear that in the real drug war -- the one between key protected traffickers and the American people -- some parts of the U.S. government are on the wrong side.

If this impression is mistaken, there is an easy way to dispel it. Readers of this pivotal and challenging book should demand that the still-classified studies of Webb's charges (two by the CIA, one by the Justice Department) be released, along with all the still-withheld files on Meneses and Blandon.

[Note: Eventually the Bromwich Justice Report and Hitz CIA Inspector General's Reports were released. They corroborated Webb in part, and added much significant new information. See my Drugs, Contras and the CIA: Government Policies and the Cocaine Economy. An Analysis of Media and Government Response to the Gary Webb Stories in the San Jose Mercury News (1996-2000. Los Angeles: From the Wilderness Publications, 2000. Pp. 50.]