Mar
01
2005

Taking a Dive on Contra Crack

How the Mercury News caved in to the media establishment

At 2 a.m.—midnight in San Jose—on August 18, 1996, I was at a party at my best friend’s house in Indianapolis. I excused myself, went into a bedroom, plugged into my laptop, and dialed into the Mercury’s website. A picture of a man smoking crack, superimposed upon the seal of the CIA, drew itself on the screen. After more than a year of work, “Dark Alliance” was finally out.

The Mercury News executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, called and congratulated me. The TV networks were calling the paper. We were getting phone calls from all over the world. “Let’s stay on top of this,” he said. “Anything you need, you let us know. We want to run with this thing.” A few days later, I got a $500 bonus check in the mail and a note from Ceppos: “Remarkable series! Thanks for doing this for us.”

Over the next few weeks, we got interview requests from Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Tom Snyder, Jesse Jackson and Montel Williams. I was on CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC and CBS Morning News. The Mercury printed up 5,000 copies of the series, and they were gone in a matter of weeks. The London Times did a story. Le Monde in Paris wrote something. Newspapers in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua called for interviews.

NBC News (9/27/96) did a strong follow-up, finally exposing the drug-related entries in Oliver North’s notebooks to a national TV audience, but it was the only network attempting to advance the story. The establishment papers—the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, the same newspapers that had so confidently reported in the 1980s that there was no truth to these claims of Contra drug trafficking—remained largely silent.

“Where is the rebuttal? Why haven’t the media risen in revolt against this story?” an exasperated Bernard Kalb, former spokesman for the Reagan State Department, demanded on CNN’s Reliable Sources. “It isn’t a story that simply got lost. It, in fact, has resonated and echoed, and the question is, where are the media knocking it down, when that, too, is a journalistic responsibility?”

Kalb’s guest, former Reagan Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland, clucked that he “would expect to see this kind of story in a magazine like In These Times, not in a mainstream newspaper such as the San Jose Mercury News.” No one on Kalb’s show bothered to mention that Eastland had a history of trying to cover up the Contra drug link. In May 1986, his office had planted a false story in the New York Times (5/7/86) stating that the Justice Department had “cleared” the Contras of any involvement in gun running and drug smuggling, a statement the Justice Department was later forced to recant.

No story here

One question I was frequently asked during radio appearances was whether I thought the national media reaction would be different if the series had appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times. My stock answer was that it hadn’t appeared in those newspapers because they’d decided in 1986 that there was no story here. My feeling was that those newspapers’ very familiarity with the story made it more difficult for them to report it. How could they come back 10 years later and admit that the Contras had been selling cocaine to Americans, when they’d already assured us it wasn’t happening?

In early October, I was in New York City getting ready for an appearance on the Montel Williams Show, which was doing a two-day special on the “Dark Alliance” series. About 2 a.m., Jerry Ceppos called. The Washington Post had just moved a story on the wires. It would be in the morning edition (10/4/96), and it was highly critical of the series. He asked me to take a look at it and give him my reaction.

“What did they say was wrong?” I asked.

“They don’t say any of the facts are wrong,” Ceppos said. “They just don’t agree with our conclusions.”

“And their evidence is what?”

“A lot of unnamed sources, mainly. It’s really a strange piece. I’ll send you a fax of it, and we can talk in the morning.”

Cleverly crafted disinformation

The story was headlined “The CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking of Alleged Plot.” I laughed. What plot?

The reporters, Walter Pincus and Roberto Suro, wrote that their investigation

does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed Contras—or Nicaraguans in general—played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States. Instead, the available data from arrest records, hospitals, drug treatment centers and drug-user surveys point to a rise in crack as a broad-based phenomenon driven in numerous places by players of different nationalities, races and ethnic groups.

Ah ha. The old tidal wave theory. Here it comes again. I wondered what “available data” Pincus and Suro had gathered from the 1982-83 era, the dawn of the L.A. crack market, since the DEA and NIDA had admitted a decade earlier that there were no such data.

The story grudgingly and often back-handedly admitted that the basic facts presented in the series were correct, and it buried key admissions deep inside, such as the fact that “the CIA knew about some of these activities and did little or nothing to stop them.” Toward the end, Pincus and Suro confirmed that Norwin Meneses and Blandon had met with Enrique Bermudez in Honduras, but without disclosing Bermudez’s relationship with the CIA. CIA agent Adolfo Calero, whom the Post euphemistically described as someone “who worked closely with the CIA,” also admitted to the Post reporters that he had met with Meneses.

Overall, it was a cleverly crafted piece of disinformation that would set the stage for the attacks to follow. It falsely claimed that the series made a “racially charged allegation that the ‘CIA army’ of Contras deliberately targeted the black community in an effort to expand the market for a cheap form of cocaine.” And, despite Blandon’s testimony that he sold 200 to 300 kilos of cocaine for Meneses in L.A. and that all the profits were sent to the Contras, the Post quoted unnamed “law enforcement officials” as saying “Blandon sold $30,000 to $60,000 worth of cocaine in two transactions.”

“Moreover,” the Post declared, “the mere idea that any one person could have played a decisive role in the nationwide crack epidemic is rejected out of hand by academic experts and law enforcement officials.” But they identified neither the academic experts nor the law enforcement officials.

Response refused

I wrote Ceppos a memo pointing out the holes in the Post’s story. “The Pincus piece,” I wrote, “is just silly. It’s the kind of story you’d expect from someone who spent three weeks working on a story, as opposed to 16 months.” The fact that the Post’s unnamed “experts” would reject a scenario “out of hand,” I wrote, was the whole problem. “None of them—whoever they are—has ever studied this before.”

To his credit, Ceppos fired off a blistering letter to the Post, pointing out the factual errors in the piece and calling Pincus’ claims of a “racially charged allegation” a “complete and total mischaracterization.”

“The most difficult issue is whether a casual reading of our series leads to the conclusion that the CIA is directly responsible for the outbreak of the crack epidemic in Los Angeles. While there is considerable circumstantial evidence of CIA involvement with the leaders of this drug ring, we never reached or reported any definitive conclusion on CIA involvement,” Ceppos wrote. “We reported that men selling cocaine in Los Angeles met with people on the CIA payroll. We reported that they received fundraising orders from the people on the CIA payroll. We reported that the money raised was sent to a CIA-run operation. But we did not go further and took pains to say that clearly.”

Ceppos posted the letter on the staff bulletin board, along with a memo defending the series:

We strongly support the conclusions the series drew and will until someone proves them wrong. What is even more remarkable is that four experienced Post reporters, re-reporting our series, could not find a single factual error. The Post’s conclusions are very different—and I believe, flawed—but the major facts aren’t. I’m not sure how many of us could sustain such a microscopic examination of our work, and I believe Gary Webb deserves recognition for surviving unscathed.

The Post held Ceppos’ letter for weeks, ordered him to rewrite it and then refused to print it.

“Like good little boys”

The L.A. Times and New York Times struck next. The week of October 20, 1996, both ran long stories attacking my reporting and the series. They took the same tack the Washington Post had several weeks earlier: admitting that the basic facts were true and then complaining that the facts didn’t mean a thing.

Relying again mostly on unnamed sources, these two newspapers of record claimed Blandon and Meneses hadn’t had “official positions” with the Contras. Drug money had been sent, but not millions; it was only tens of thousands, according to unnamed sources. And experts scoffed at the notion that one drug ring could have supplied enough cocaine to feed the tidal wave of crack that engulfed America, a ridiculous claim I’d never made.

The papers found no need to mention the mass of historical evidence that supported the series’ findings. Without anything approaching documentation, the papers just flatly declared that I was wrong.

“The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA. No one trafficker, even kingpins who sold thousands of kilos and pocketed millions of dollars, ever came close to monopolizing the drug trade,” the L.A. Times (10/20/96) assured its readers in the lead paragraph of a three-day series.

The next day, the L.A. Times (10/21/96) absolved the CIA of any involvement with Blandon and Meneses. Its authoritative sources: former CIA director Robert Gates, former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro and current CIA director John Deutch. “Like good little boys and girls, the Times, the Washington Post et al., toddled off to the CIA and asked the agency if it had ever done such a thing. When the CIA said ‘no,’ the papers solemnly printed it—just as though the CIA hadn’t previously denied any number of illegal operations in which it was later caught red-handed,” columnist Molly Ivins observed (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 12/29/96).

Buried deep within the L.A. Times story were admissions by CIA officials that Contra supporters “were involved in drug running, but they bought villas and did not put it into the FDN.” And the story conceded, “the allegation that some elements of the CIA-sponsored Contra army cooperated with drug traffickers has been well documented for years.” But the story dismissed the idea that “millions” went to the Contras from the Nicaraguans’ drug sales. Unnamed sources said it was around $50,000 or $60,000, which caused former Meneses distributor Rafael Cornejo some mirth.

“Sixty thousand?” he scoffed. “You can raise that in an afternoon.”

“I don’t want to go to war”

The unprecedented attacks by three major newspapers alarmed the Mercury’s editors. I was called to a meeting with Ceppos and the other editors and told that I should quit trying to advance the story. We needed to start working on a written response to the other newspapers, he said. I vehemently disagreed.

“The best way to shut them up is to put the rest of what we know in the paper and keep plowing ahead,” I argued. “Let’s run a story about Walter Pincus’ CIA connections. Let’s write about how the L.A. Times has been booting this story since 1987.” I told them of my discovery that the L.A. Times Washington bureau had been sent a copy of the notes found in Ronald Lister’s house in 1990 and had thrown them away. Ceppos disagreed.

“I don’t want to go to war with them,” he said.

“The best way to answer our critics,” [deputy managing editor] Paul Van Slambrouck told Ceppos, “is to advance the story. Let’s go out and get some more evidence of drug money being sent to the Contras. Let’s get more evidence of this drug ring’s dealings with the Contras.” Ceppos relented, authorizing another reporting trip to Central America. He also assigned L.A. bureau reporter Pamela Kramer and Pete Carey, an investigative reporter, to gather information about the start of the L.A. crack market. He also made another decision: He was changing the logo that the series had used on the Internet and in the reprints. The CIA’s seal was coming off.

“What’s the point of doing that?” I asked. “We documented that these traffickers were meeting with CIA agents. If you change the logo, the rest of the media is going to accuse us of backing away from the story.”

But Ceppos wouldn’t budge. Thousands of reprints with the CIA-crack smoker logo were gathered up and burned, and a CD-ROM version of the series—which had been pressed and ready for distribution—was also destroyed. The Post (10/21/96) and L.A. Times (10/22/96) immediately crowed that the Mercury was retreating from the series.

Inconvenient information

Ceppos called me at home on March 25, 1997, to inform me that he’d made “a very difficult decision.” Mistakes had been made in the series, he said, and the newspaper was going to print a letter to its readers saying so.

“Is this a fait accompli?” I asked. “Or do I get a chance to say something?”

“The decision has been made,” Ceppos said. “I’ll fax you a draft of what we’re considering.”

According to Ceppos’ proposed column, we should have said that Blandon claimed he quit dealing with the Contras in 1983—something that the editors had cut to save space. We had “insufficient proof” to say millions went to the Contras; we should have said it was an estimate. We should have said that we didn’t find proof of involvement of “CIA decision-makers,” whatever that meant. We should have said Ricky Ross wasn’t the only crack supplier in L.A.—but we hadn’t said that. And, finally, Ceppos wrote, the experts were unanimous in saying that the Contras had not played a major role in the crack trade and that the series had “oversimplified” how crack had become a problem. Strangely, Ceppos had borrowed his conclusions from Pete Carey’s never-published crack story.

I brought a written response to San Jose with me the next day when I met with Ceppos and the other editors in the ornate conference room near the editors’ offices. “That ‘experts’ would disagree with the findings of original research is one of the perils of doing it, as any researcher can tell you,” I wrote.

But just because they have a differing opinion—and when you get down to it, that’s all it is—is a pretty shoddy reason to take a swan dive on a story. . . . How can we honestly say that we don’t know millions went to the Contras, or that the CIA didn’t know about this, when we’ve got an eyewitness telling us that he personally gave drug money to a CIA agent? What are we going to do about all that other inconvenient information in the follow-ups? We’re going to look awful god-damned stupid running this apology and then printing stories that directly contradict it.

A turn of the screw

The other editors looked at the table uncomfortably.

“We are going to print those other stories, aren’t we?”

Ceppos shook his head slightly.

“We’re not?” I asked incredulously. “Why not?”

“They’re a quarter-turn of the screw,” he said. “We’re not going to print anything else unless it’s a major advance.”

I exploded. “You think the fact that the head of this Contra drug ring was working for the DEA is a quarter-turn of a screw?” I shouted. “You don’t think the fact that the DEA helped an accused CIA drug trafficker escape criminal charges is a major advance? You’ve got to be kidding me. Are we even going to pursue this story any more?”

“No,” Ceppos said.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “We’re killing the other stories. We’re not going to do any more investigation of this topic. And we’re going to run this mealy-mouthed column that pretends we don’t know anything else, tuck our tails between our legs and slink off into the sunset. That’s what you’ve got in mind?”

“You and I have very different views of this situation,” he said quietly.

“You got that right.”

The result of the stormy meeting was that Ceppos rewrote his column, removing the obvious factual errors but leaving the rest virtually unchanged.

“No matter how many times the words and phrases are tweaked, the end result is still a sham,” I responded in a memo. “You’re sitting on information that supports what I wrote and pretending to be unaware of it.”

At a final meeting before the column ran, I predicted that the mainstream press would read the column as a retraction, one that covered everything the series had revealed. “You run this, and all we’ll hear is, ‘The Mercury News has admitted it isn’t true! The Contras weren’t dealing cocaine! The CIA had nothing to do with it!’ And you know as well as I do, that’s not true.”

Aligned with the truth

Ceppos’ column ran on May 11, 1997, and if there was ever a chance of getting to the bottom of the CIA’s involvement with drug traffickers, it died on that day. The New York Times (5/13/97), which hadn’t found the original story newsworthy enough to mention, splashed Ceppos’ apology on its front page. An editorial (5/14/97) lauded Ceppos for his courage and declared that he’d set a brave new standard for dealing with “egregious errors.”

Howard Kurtz, the media critic for the Washington Post, called for a comment. “It’s nauseating,” I told him.

The controversy raged for another month, and the issue gradually became what Ceppos reportedly had dreaded: He was being accused of suppressing information. He was covering things up. Talk radio had a field day. In Washington, DJ Joe Madison, who’d been making hay with the story for months, urged the listeners of his 50,000-watt station to call Ceppos and demand that he print the stories he was suppressing. Letters and email from outraged readers began pouring in.

Ceppos, who’d not spoken to me since his column ran, called me at home in early June. He was killing the follow-ups, he shouted. I was off the story for good. He couldn’t trust me anymore because I’d “aligned myself with one side of the issue.”

“Which side is that, Jerry? The side that wants the truth to come out?”

He wasn’t getting into a debate, he told me. I was to report to his office in two days “to discuss your future at the Mercury News.”

Gary Webb left the Mercury News shortly after being exiled to the paper’s Cupertino bureau. Unable to get another job at a major newspaper, he died on December 10, 2004, an apparent suicide. This article is excerpted from his 1998 book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.