"Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what 'Kill the Messenger' says," read the recent Washington Post op-ed headline. It's a sad sight, especially at a time when real journalism is shriveling and in retreat, including in the Washington Post news room.
Once again the paper has decided to focus on discrediting a fellow journalist instead of deepening the analysis of the story he highlighted.
Gary Webb put a spotlight on the CIA and the Reagan administrations unholy alliance with anti-communist guerrilla groups and their supporters who were involved in drug trafficking.
Webb's reporting uncovered the story of how tons of cocaine were shipped into San Francisco by supporters of the CIA-backed Contras and then distributed down to LA to a Nicaraguan named Danilo Blandon, who sold it to a street dealer from South Central, Freeway Rick Ross.
Through this connection Freeway Rick became a crack kingpin and also used his contacts with LA's Crips and Blood street gangs to help distribute crack to many other cities across the country.
This story, which is explored in my upcoming documentary, Freeway: Crack in the System, is absolutely key to understanding many of the issues we are struggling with today -- from the mass incarceration of men of color, to the militarization of cops and gangs, to the spread of gangsta rap music and culture, and ultimately to the fundamental corruption and hypocrisy at the core of the war on drugs.
Gary Webb sums up the story in his last major interview just days before his death. Video courtesy of documentary FREEWAY: CRACK IN THE SYSTEM premiering on Al Jazeera America in early 2015.
This is why Webb's "Dark Alliance" series is an essential source, a primary text that every journalism student should study.
While working on our film, I met and interviewed the original source for Webb's story, Coral Baca. And I went to Nicaragua and tracked down Freeway Rick's illusive cocaine supplier, Danilo Blandon.
When I finally introduced myself to Blandon he simply said, "Gary Webb tried to find me, Congresswoman Maxine Waters tried to find me, Oliver Stone tried to find me. You found me."
What I found out was that whatever shortcomings there were in Webb's reporting, his overall thesis was right on target.
Gary was aiming at the government's deceptions and lies. While the Reagan administration was telling youth "Just Say No" to drugs, they were also saying "Just don't know" about their anti-communist allies involved in drug trafficking. Meanwhile, they were deregulating industry, outsourcing manufacturing and defunding social programs in the inner city while at the same time sending thousands of young men of color away to prison for decades for small amounts of crack cocaine.
Gary's breakthrough was finding a story that connected the dots. He didn't say that the CIA was responsible for the crack epidemic but he tried to prove that the CIA was complicit in drug trafficking and in his words "helped spark a crack explosion in urban America."
Webb summed it up in his last major interview conducted just days before his death and featured in our film:
It's not a situation where the government or the CIA sat down and said okay, let's invent crack and sell it in black neighborhoods and let's decimate black America. It was a situation where we need money for a covert operation.The quickest way to raise it is to sell cocaine and you guys go sell it somewhere. We don't want to know anything about it. And you had this bad luck of them doing it right around the time people were figuring out how to make crack.
One can have an honest debate about how much cocaine was actually imported by Contra supporters and how much of that money actually went to support their insurgency. Coral Baca says tons of cocaine came in and millions of dollars went to the Contras. Blandon disagrees, saying, "We were just a pebble, a small rock." And there were other major kingpins besides Freeway Rick, even in LA, like Michael Harris and Bo Bennett.
But to continue to discredit Webb and now Kill the Messenger, the Hollywood movie about him starring Jeremy Renner, seems like cheap shot.
Gary Webb was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who did a lot of great work and certainly should be respected for his efforts to uncover the full extent of the CIA/Contra/cocaine connection.
Journalist Jesse Katz, who wrote the first major profile of Freeway Rick Ross for the LA Times and a few years later joined their attacks on Webb's reporting, admitted to us on camera, "I know that I probably contributed somewhat to his pain and that's one of the least proud parts of my career. I think history has shown that his instincts were sound regardless of whatever mistakes were made along the way."
As for Kill the Messenger, I applaud the filmmakers for trying to make a movie about an important issue in a commercial marketplace full of comic book superheroes and recycled old TV shows. It's a sobering irony when the newsroom that once was home to the heroic reporters in All the President's Men now condemns the rare film that tries to keep that tradition alive.
It's also disheartening to hear a journalist celebrate the gang tackling of Webb instead of questioning whether those resources could have been better used to pursue the story instead of burying the reporter. Look how it ended. Webb is dead and Ollie North does TV for Fox.
Like the Washington Post op-ed writer Jeff Leen, I've covered this story for over three decades and I knew Gary Webb. As a young producer for Bill Moyers, we won an Emmy for his expose of the Iran Contra scandal, The Secret Government. I was at the hearings when Oliver North testified and when demonstrators chanted "CIA means Crack In America."
Ten years later I won a duPont Columbia journalism award for my Discovery documentary mini series, CIA: America's Secret Warriors. The series included a brief history examining the allegations that the agency worked with drug traffickers at the end of World War 2 in Sicily, the KMT in China, the Hmong tribesmen using Air America during the Vietnam War, the various anti-communist insurgents in Latin America and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the late '70s and '80s.
The idea that the CIA works with drug traffickers and other criminals and sometimes facilitates their operations and protects them as assets in return for their help in defeating our enemies (i.e. Communists during the Cold War and now Islamic fundamentalists) is not "an extraordinary claim." It's a fact.
And one that is glaringly absent from this article.
Add to that the damning evidence from the Kerry Commission and the CIA's own investigation, as well as the work of scores of other journalists and writers like Robert Parry and Brian Barger, AP reporters who were on this story back in 1985. Where is the story of Manuel Noriega or the testimony of the money launderer for the Medellin cartel, Ramon Milan Rodriguez, who told Sen. Kerry, "Yes, sir. Narcotics proceeds were used to shore up the Contra efforts."
Sen. Kerry's reply: "We were complicitous as a country in narcotics traffic at the same time as we're spending countless dollars to try to get rid of this problem. It's mind-boggling." Sen. Kerry wasn't reprimanded or demoted for those words. He's now the secretary of state.
Probably most damning is the CIA's own internal report which, besides identifying a number of Contra supporters involved in drug running, also uncovered a secret agreement made at the beginning of the Reagan administration between William Casey's CIA and the Justice Department. It stipulated that the CIA didn't have to report criminal activities of its associates, assets and agents like drug traffickers.
From the beginning they knew who they were dealing with and as long as these unsavory agents did our dirty work, they were protected from our criminal justice system. That's what an intelligence agency does, and what often puts it in conflict with our values and with the DEA and other law enforcement agencies.
But this arrangement was never revealed to Congress, which is supposed to oversee the intelligence community, until CIA Inspector General Federick Hitz's report in 1998. The revelations were shocking, although they received much less coverage than the reports discrediting Webb's journalism.
After 9/11 the world changed. Today we hear, "It takes a bad guy to get bad guys." We understand that we may need to work with disreputable characters to get inside terror cells and to eliminate threats. We have become familiar with drone assassinations, torture, mass surveillance and much more in the war on terror. The opium dealing of some of our Afghan allies is hardly surprising or even newsworthy.
Maybe that's why this is the perfect moment to finally tell the truth about our misguided war on drugs. As Tommy McDonald of the Drug Policy Alliance summed it up, "Drugs are bad. But the drug war is worse." Webb was trying to get to the root of that story and figure out how it spun out of control during the crack era.
That's the story that still needs to be investigated and one we will continue to be haunted by until we face up to our own history.
Gary embraced speaking truth to power. He believed it was the journalist role to "piss people off." He sounded the alarm to the digital Hip Hop generation and to the African American community, which was devastated by the spread of crack cocaine.
I liked Gary and remember being dismayed by the shameful media takedown he endured and pained by his untimely death. I know his work certainly was an inspiration for me to revisit this story one more time.