Gary Webb's Ghost: Almost 20 Years After Gary Webb Revealed the CIA's Role in the Crack Epidemic, Some of Us Still Can't Come to Grips

Drug dealer or dope fiend? Edward Ostrowsky

The American security state had a hand in the crack cocaine epidemic.

The story still sounds incredible, no matter how many times it's told and no matter how old the news becomes. Once in a while, I tell it to someone hearing it for the first time. The reactions are predictable: shock, doubt, dismissal. But sometimes — and, in the age of Edward Snowden and drone strikes, more often — I get a reluctant but resolute acceptance.

This is appropriate, as the story is accurate.

It's hard to be comfortable when your core assumptions are shaken, when what you've known to be true is proven wrong. It's also a challenge to be graceful or even honest, as evidenced by the reactions to journalist Gary Webb and his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series titled “Dark Alliance” which reported the CIA's link to the crack epidemic.

Webb, who died by his own hand in 2004 after he was disowned and drummed out of the news business, is back in the news this month, thanks to Hollywood and Jeremy Renner, who plays the old-school investigative reporter in Kill the Messenger.

The film is mostly an honest rehash of the story Webb told and the price he paid to tell it. Put as simply as possible: Webb found that Nicaraguan drug dealers for years smuggled tons of cocaine into California virtually unmolested. That cocaine was then sold at cut-rate prices to a Los Angeles drug dealer who, with nearly unlimited supply, flooded that city and others with cheap crack. Profits from this arrangement, meanwhile, went to the Contras, an anti-communist army set up by the Central Intelligence Agency back in Nicaragua.

The reaction was furious. Black leaders who watched their communities turn into gang-controlled war zones finally had an answer to a longstanding question: Where did all the drugs come from? Some among them also drew a conclusion: that the CIA played a willing role in what amounted to genocide. In the panoply of everything else, slavery and Jim Crow, redlining and assassinations, massive unemployment and new laws that punished crack users 100 times more heavily than powder cocaine users, this was just the latest racist outrage.

This also gave the ensuing dismissals of Webb's series as a laughable conspiracy theory a predictable script: There's no proof that the CIA tried to destroy black America with crack, there's no proof that top officials knew their agents were abetting drug dealers.

After the CIA-connected Washington Post led a misleading “refutation” of Webb's series — using blind quotes from unnamed CIA officials to contradict what Webb culled from documents — and the Los Angeles Times and New York Times joined the pile-on, the Mercury News crumbled. Webb was taken off the story and the Merc ran a column in May 1997 from executive editor Jerry Ceppos admitting “flaws” in “Dark Alliance.” By Christmas, Webb was out of daily journalism, never to return. Unable to find sufficient work, and still reeling from what he'd found and what it meant about his country and his chosen profession, Webb shot himself in 2004.

The strongest and most valid criticism of Webb's work is that it led people to believe the CIA engineered the crack epidemic. That is also something that Webb never said. The same misleading line used to discredit Webb in the 1990s is being repeated today, and was in the pages of the same San Jose Mercury News as recently as last year.

“I've never fully understood why the CIA would want to start a crack cocaine epidemic,” muses Scott Herhold, the paper's top columnist, who once edited Webb, before adding, “I tend to think the epidemic would have happened anyway.”

Webb never said this, as anyone who has read “Dark Alliance” would know. To continue to suggest otherwise is intellectual dishonesty.

There will never be another Gary Webb and there will never be another “Dark Alliance.” Webb spent more than a year building his story, which required trips to Central America. Daily newspapers in America no longer have the resources to devote one person to one story for that long, even if it means the story of the decade.

In context, “Dark Alliance” is not so outrageous. At the same time, the U.S. government was selling weapons to sworn enemy Iran to get money to the Contras, Donald Rumsfeld was visiting Saddam Hussein, and American support was reaching Osama Bin Laden and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Webb backed up his findings with the most-ironclad sources for which a journalist can hope. He had court documents, grand jury transcripts, and congressional testimony. He was backed up by America's current Secretary of State, John Kerry. “There is no question in my mind that people affiliated with, on the payroll of, and carrying the credentials of the CIA were involved in drug trafficking while involved in support of the contras,” Kerry, then a senator, said to the same Washington Post in 1996.

Kerry, who chaired a Congressional committee that revealed as much in the 1980s, added: “We never found any evidence to suggest that these traffickers ever targeted any one geographic area or population group.” Which means it could have been white suburban teenagers who paid the price. But does anyone really think that the government would have stood idly by during a “bath salts” epidemic?

There will be other investigative journalists scoring other groundbreaking coups. The closest we've come to Webb's find in the two decades since is Edward Snowden's disclosure of the same security state's massive intrusion into the privacy of its own people in the name of “national security.” But these and other revelations are now coming from within, from leakers like Snowden and Chelsea Manning who must trade prison time or a life on the lam — as well as a lifetime label of “traitor” — for the truth.

As of press time Monday, the San Jose Mercury News had yet to review Kill the Messenger or make mention of its role in the drama, other than Herhold's thrice-told half-truths.

The newspaper has this year devoted more column inches to the “secret marriage” of actor Renner than to addressing a story in which it is a main character (albeit a backstabbing villain) and still plays a role today.

Decades later, they are still killing the messenger.

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