In August, 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published its "Dark Alliance" series by reporter Gary Webb, revealing the links between the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras and crack cocaine trafficking in the U.S. The series became a national controversy after wide transmission on the Internet and in independent and black-oriented news media--followed by a savage backlash against the series by national dailies like the New York Times and Washington Post that had spent years downplaying or distorting evidence of the contra-cocaine link (See "Snow Job," Extra!, 1-2/97).
On May 11, 1997, as if displaying the white flag of surrender, Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos published a column in his paper saying that--despite earlier comments standing by the series--he had now concluded that the series fell "short of his standards" by overstating some of its findings. Immediately, Ceppos was profusely hailed as "courageous" in the news outlets that had savaged the series (e.g., Washington Post 5/13/97; New York Times, 5/14/97). Meanwhile, reporter Webb stands by his findings that a Nicaraguan drug ring sold tons of cocaine in Los Angeles, sent millions in drug profits to the contras, and helped create the first mass market in America for crack. On May 16, days after his editor backed away from the contra-crack series and amid rumors that he would soon be fired, Webb was interviewed by Laura Flanders and Janine Jackson on CounterSpin, FAIR's radio show. What follows is an edited transcript.
LF: Writers who bite off a contentious story to cover as you did usually can assume that they have their editors backing them up. I hate to ask you a "how do you feel" question, but how do you feel reading what your editor wrote in the Mercury News this Sunday?
WEBB: I think "puzzled" is a pretty good word for it. If you look at what he actually wrote versus what these alleged shortcomings were it's astonishing that we're backing away from the story. Ceppos says quite clearly the core of the story was documented.
LF: The New York Times drew the conclusion that there was "little hard evidence to support these claims."
WEBB: I think that's wishful thinking. Because the problem is now that the New York Times and Washington Post and L.A. Times have all dug themselves into this corner where if anything comes out that looks like it substantiates the series, they're going to look kind of dopey. I'll give Ceppos the benefit of the doubt--I think he had honorable intentions in explaining to readers where he thought the series fell short. The problem is when you've got a story this explosive and emotional, and the mainstream press is so eager and willing to sweep it away, you sort of play right into their hands.
LF: I want to ask you about some of the criticism. Your series seemed to say that the cocaine ring involving Nicaraguan contra supporter Danilo Blandon and L.A. crack dealer "Freeway" Rick Ross was the first and biggest crack ring. Do you think now that perhaps you should have described it as one of the first and one of the biggest?
WEBB: Actually, we've gotten more evidence since then that that was absolutely right. They were responsible for bringing and selling between 20 and 50 tons of cocaine specifically to South Central Los Angeles and more specifically to the Crips and the Bloods. if somebody could explain to me how you could sell tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods for a decade and not be responsible for spreading crack across the country, I'd love to hear it. The Justice Department has issued reports and their officials have testified that the L.A. gangs spread crack to 32 states and 113 cities. That's a lot of crack to spread all over the country and I haven't found anyone that was doing it before these guys.
JJ: Let me ask about the amounts of money, specifically the millions of dollars in drug profits that you claimed Blandon and his Nicaraguan associate Norwin Meneses sent to the contras. Some of these papers are saying it may have only been $50,000 or $100,000.
WEBB: Their sources for these lower figures are unnamed sources. What we had was Blandon testifying that he'd sold between 200 and 300 kilos of cocaine in Los Angeles for Meneses and he testified that the profits went to the contras. The other part of this ring was operating in San Francisco. There was a story in the San Francisco Examiner ten years ago which quoted one of those traffickers who said that he personally delivered $50,000 to the contras. And in January, we went down and interviewed one of the men who took this money from San Francisco to Costa Rica to Miami and he told us it was millions of dollars. He said it was between 5 and 6 million dollars that he personally delivered in one year.
LF: The national outlets that attacked you accused you of overreaching, whereas our reaction at FAIR was that, if anything, the series was too narrow and would have benefited from a focus on the years of accumulated evidence—prior to your report—linking cocaine importing to the contra network and the decades of CIA-drug complicity going back to Burma, Laos and Afghanistan. Was there any discussion when you were putting together your series about including some of that information for context?
WEBB: It didn't even get that far because I turned in a four-part series and was told that I had to hack it down to a three-part . . . so it wasn't even a question of getting into the broader historical context of CIA complicity with drug traffic. I think you're right—I think one of the shortcomings in the series is that it didn't go far enough, not that it went too far.
LF: Mercury News Editor Jerry Ceppos is getting praise for being courageous, but he's also telling reporters that you never submitted follow-up articles but just notes. Is that true?
WEBB: No, that's not true at all. I'm certainly not in the habit of turning in notes. In February, I turned in four very long, very detailed stories that explained what the exact relationships between members of this drug ring and various government agencies were—the interviews that we did with the man who took the money down there. We also talk about Oliver North's connections to these traffickers in Costa Rica and the drug ring's supply of money to not only the FDN, the smaller contra army in Costa Rica called UDN-FARN and the ARDE army which was run by Eden Pastora. Pastora last year admitted to Congress that he had been getting money from Blandon in 1985, which only substantiates what we wrote that this went on for a lot more than one year.
LF: With respect to the lasting effect of what is now clearly a backlash, it's clear that some of the evidence that has in the past been established and was simply referred to again in your article is now up for debate. There were articles— referring to the call for investigation by Maxine Waters and others—that talked about your story as having added the explosive suggestion "that the CIA knew about the drug trafficking." This is something that we've had on the record since the Kerry subcommittee of the 1980s. What possibility is there now of sort of reclaiming those basic facts?
WEBB: I think it makes it a lot more difficult first of all for these investigations to proceed, because everybody's going to say: Well, we're off on a wild goose chase because the Mercury News has backed down on the story and I certainly haven't. The other problem is that I had naively believed that the knowledge the American public had about CIA involvement with drug traffic was more extensive than it turned out to be. One of the things I like about what's happened is that this issue is now back before the public and people can look at Ceppos's column, they can look at the series and they can make up their own minds about what actually was said, what actually needed to be proven more and just put more pressure on the government to come clean on these things.
JJ: Well it's clear that the Washington Post and the New York Times would like for this story to simply disappear. What efforts do you know that CounterSpin listeners might be able to plug into to keep the story alive, since it's clear that many people simply following these major news outlets will think that it's now dead?
WEBB: It might help to try to talk to some of the reporters who tried to break the story back in the 1980s— Martha Honey, Tony Avirgan, Bob Parry, Brian Barger. This is stuff that has sort of gone down the memory hole, unfortunately. And unless people are reminded of it, it's part of the hidden history of this country and a lot of major outlets would probably [like it] to remain part of the hidden history.
LF: Some people might think that it's generous of you to be saying that this outcome offers a chance at more public attention—because it may be the end of your career at the Mercury News.
WEBB: I don't think that's true. If the Mercury News starts firing reporters for writing true stories, we might as well just burn the First Amendment of the Constitution right now.
LF: Then what's your message to other reporters who may be very scared watching your experience?
WEBB: To keep plugging away, because the truth always comes out in the end and that's the one thing that sort of keeps me going. You can look back at what happened to Raymond Bonner. He was reporting on the massacre in El Salvador and the same thing was going on with him, everybody was saying he was a Communist sympathizer, he's making this up. You know, they dug up the skeletons last year and everybody now knows that Raymond Bonner was accurate and the New York Times was sort of a gutless wonder when they yanked him off the beat—so I mean history bears out the truth of these things.
LF: If people want to read the original series and the whole debate that's followed it, where can they find that on the Web?
WEBB: Well, they can find it on the Mercury website. How much longer they're going to be able to find it there is a pretty good question. For the time being, you can read this stuff at www.sjmercury.corn/drugs.