The CIA-Contra-Crack Connection, 10 Years Later
Reporter Gary Webb was the victim of his own hyperbole, but he never
got credit for what he got right.
By Nick Schou
Angeles Times" -- -- TEN YEARS AGO today, one of the
most controversial news articles of the 1990s quietly appeared on
the front page of the San Jose Mercury News. Titled "Dark Alliance,"
the headline ran beneath the provocative image of a man smoking
crack — superimposed on the official seal of the CIA.
The three-part series by reporter Gary Webb linked the CIA and
Nicaragua's Contras to the crack cocaine epidemic that ripped
through South Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Most of the nation's elite newspapers at first ignored the story. A
public uproar, especially among urban African Americans, forced them
to respond. What followed was one of the most bizarre, unseemly and
ultimately tragic scandals in the annals of American journalism, one
in which top news organizations closed ranks to debunk claims Webb
never made, ridicule assertions that turned out to be true and
ignore corroborating evidence when it came to light. The whole
shameful cycle was repeated when Webb committed suicide in December
Many reporters besides Webb had sought to uncover the rumored
connection between the CIA's anti-communism efforts in Central
America and drug trafficking. "Dark Alliance" documented the first
solid link between the agency and drug deals inside the U.S. by
profiling the relationship between two Nicaraguan Contra
sympathizers and narcotics suppliers, Danilo Blandon and Norwin
Meneses, and L.A.'s biggest crack dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross.
Two years before Webb's series, the Los Angeles Times estimated that
at its peak, Ross' "coast-to-coast conglomerate" was selling half a
million crack rocks per day. "[I]f there was one outlaw capitalist
most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with
mass-marketed cocaine," the article stated, "his name was 'Freeway'
But after Webb's reporting tied Ross to the Nicaraguans and showed
that they had CIA connections, The Times downgraded Ross' role to
that of one "dominant figure" among many. It dedicated 17 reporters
and 20,000 words to a three-day rebuttal to "Dark Alliance" that
also included a lengthy musing on whether African Americans
disproportionately believe in conspiracy theories.
All three major U.S. dailies, The Times included, debunked a claim
that Webb actually never made — that the CIA deliberately unleashed
the crack epidemic on black America. The controversy over this
non-assertion obscured Webb's substantive points about the CIA
knowingly doing business south of the border with Nicaraguans
involved in the drug trade up north.
The Washington Post titled one of its stories "Conspiracy Theories
Can Often Ring True; History Feeds Blacks' Mistrust." The New York
Times chipped in with a scathing critique of Webb's entire career,
suggesting that he was a reckless reporter prone to getting his
"That article included virtually none of the good things Gary did,"
said Webb's former Cleveland Plain Dealer colleague, Walt Bogdanich,
now a New York Times editor. "It didn't include the success he
achieved or the wrongs he righted — and they were considerable. It
wasn't fair, and it made him out to be a freak."
There is no denying that the papers were right on one serious count
— "Dark Alliance" contained major flaws of hyperbole that were both
encouraged and ignored by his editors, who saw the story as a chance
to win a Pulitzer Prize, according to Mercury News staffers I
Webb asserted, improbably, that the Blandon-Meneses-Ross drug ring
opened "the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and
the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles," helping to "spark a crack
explosion in urban America." The story offered no evidence to
support such sweeping conclusions, a fatal error that would
ultimately destroy Webb, if not his editors.
At first, the Mercury News defended the series, but after nine
months, Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a half-apologetic letter
to readers that defended "Dark Alliance" while acknowledging obvious
mistakes. Webb privately (and accurately) predicted the mea culpa
would universally be misperceived as a total retraction, and he
publicly accused the paper of cowardice. In return, he was banished
to a remote bureau in Cupertino, Calif.; he resigned a few months
Meanwhile, spurred on by Webb's story, the CIA conducted an internal
investigation that acknowledged in March 1998 that the agency had
covered up Contra drug trafficking for more than a decade. Although
the Washington Post and New York Times covered the report — which
confirmed key chunks of Webb's allegations — the L.A. Times ignored
it for four months, and largely portrayed it as disproving the "Dark
Alliance" series. "We dropped the ball on that story," said Doyle
McManus, the paper's Washington bureau chief, who helped supervise
its response to "Dark Alliance."
Unable to find suitable employment, a bewildered Webb left
journalism, endured a difficult divorce and battled growing
depression and financial despair. But even his suicide failed to
dull the media's contempt for "Dark Alliance." The L.A. Times and
the New York Times published brief obituaries dismissing Webb as the
author of "discredited" stories linking the CIA to Southern
California drug sales.
Unlike the media pariahs who came after "Dark Alliance" — most
notably fabulists Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Jayson Blair
of the New York Times — Webb didn't invent facts. Contrary to the
wholly discredited reporting on Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass
destruction by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Webb was the
only victim of his mistakes. Nobody else died because of his work,
and no one, either at the CIA or the Mercury News, is known to have
lost so much as a paycheck. The editors involved with the story,
including Managing Editor David Yarnold, survived the scandal to
receive generous promotions.
History will tell if Webb receives the credit he's due for prodding
the CIA to acknowledge its shameful collaboration with drug dealers.
Meanwhile, the journalistic establishment is only beginning to
recognize that the controversy over "Dark Alliance" had more to do
with poor editing than bad reporting.
"In some ways, Gary got too much blame," said L.A. Times Managing
Editor Leo Wolinsky. "He did exactly what you expect from a great
NICK SCHOU is an editor for OC Weekly. His book, "Kill the
Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed
Journalist Gary Webb," will be published in October.
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times