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The story of Gary Webb the journalist who stood for the truth and never gave up

30 September 2014

Gary Stephen Webb (August 31, 1955 – December 10, 2004) was an American investigative journalist.

He began his career working for newspapers in Kentucky and Ohio, winning numerous awards, and building a strong reputation for investigative writing. Hired by the San Jose Mercury News, Webb contributed to the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Webb is best known for his “Dark Alliance” series, which appeared in The Mercury News in 1996. The series examined the origins of the crack cocaine trade in Los Angeles and claimed that members of the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua had played a major role in creating the trade, using cocaine profits to finance their fight against the government in Nicaragua. It also stated that the Contras may have acted with the knowledge and protection of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The series provoked outrage, particularly in the Los Angeles African-American community, and led to four major investigations of its charges.

The Los Angeles Times and other major papers published articles suggesting the “Dark Alliance” claims were overstated and, in November 1996, Jerome Ceppos, the executive editor at Mercury News, wrote about being “in the eye of the storm”. In May 1997, after an internal review, Ceppos stated that, although the story was right on many important points, there were shortcomings in the writing, editing and production of the series. He wrote that the series likely “oversimplified” the crack epidemic in America and the supposed “critical role” the dealers written about in the series played in it. Webb disagreed with this conclusion.

Webb resigned from The Mercury News in December 1997. He became an investigator for the California State Legislature, published a book based on the “Dark Alliance” series in 1998, and did freelance investigative reporting. He died by suicide on December 10, 2004.

The “Dark Alliance” series remains controversial. Critics view the series’ claims as inaccurate or overstated, while supporters point to the results of a later CIA investigation as vindicating the series. The follow-up reporting in the Los Angeles Times and other papers has been criticised for focusing on problems in the series rather than re-examining the earlier CIA-Contra claims.

Early career

Webb’s first major investigative work appeared in 1980, when the Cincinnati Post published “The Coal Connection,” a seventeen-part series by Webb and Post reporter Thomas Scheffey. The series, which examined the murder of a coal company president with ties to organized crime, won the national Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for reporting from a small newspaper.

In 1983, Webb moved to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he continued doing investigative work. A 1985 series, “Doctoring the Truth,” uncovered problems in the State Medical Board and led to an Ohio House investigation which resulted in major revisions to the state Medical Practice Act. Webb then moved to the paper’s statehouse bureau, where he covered statewide issues and won numerous regional journalism awards. In 1984, Webb wrote a story titled “Driving Off With Profits” which claimed that the promoters of a race in Cleveland paid themselves nearly a million dollars from funds that should have gone to the city of Cleveland. The article resulted in a lawsuit against Webb’s paper which the plaintiffs won. A jury awarded the plaintiffs over 13 million dollars and the case was later settled. In 1986, Webb wrote an article saying that the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Frank D. Celebrezze accepted contributions from groups with organized crime connections. Celebrezze eventually sued the Plain Dealer and won an undisclosed out of court settlement.

In 1988, Webb was recruited by the San Jose Mercury News, which was looking for an investigative reporter. He was assigned to its Sacramento bureau, where he was allowed to choose most of his own stories. As part of The Mercury News team that covered the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Webb and his colleague Pete Carey wrote a story examining the causes of the collapse of the Cypress Street Viaduct. The Mercury News’s coverage of the earthquake won its staff the Pulitzer Prize for General News Reporting in 1990

Dark Alliance series

Webb began researching “Dark Alliance” in July 1995. The series was published in The Mercury News in three parts, from August 18–20, 1996, with one long article and one or two shorter articles appearing each day. It was also posted on The Mercury News website with additional information, including documents cited in the series and audio recordings of people quoted in the articles. The website artwork showed the silhouette of a man smoking a crack pipe superimposed over the CIA seal. This artwork proved controversial, and The Mercury News later removed it.

Series claims

The lede of the first article set out the series’ basic claims: “For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” This drug ring “opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles” and, as a result, “The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America.”

To show this, the series focused on three men: Ricky Ross, Oscar Danilo Blandón, and Norwin Meneses. Ross was a major drug dealer in Los Angeles. Blandón and Meneses were Nicaraguans who smuggled drugs into the U.S. and supplied dealers like Ross. After introducing the three, the first article discussed primarily Blandón and Meneses, and their relationship with the Contras and the CIA. Much of the article highlighted the failure of law enforcement agencies to successfully prosecute them and stated that this was largely due to their Contra and CIA connections.

The second article described Blandón’s background and how he began smuggling cocaine to support the Contras. Meneses, an established smuggler and a Contra supporter as well, taught Blandón how to smuggle and provided him with cocaine. When Ross discovered the market for crack in Los Angeles, he began buying cocaine from Blandón. Blandón and Meneses’ high-volume supply of low-priced high-purity cocaine “allowed Ross to sew up the Los Angeles market and move on. In city after city, local dealers either bought from Ross or got left behind.”

The third article discussed the social effects of the crack trade, noting that it had a disparate effect on African-Americans. Asking why crack became so prevalent in the Black community of Los Angeles, the article credited Blandón, referring to him as “the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California.” It also found disparities in the treatment of Black and White traffickers in the justice system, contrasting the treatment of Blandón and Ross after their arrests for drug trafficking. Because Blandón cooperated with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he spent only 28 months in prison, became a paid government informant, and received permanent resident status. Ross was also released early after cooperating in an investigation of police corruption, but was rearrested a few months later in a sting operation arranged with Blandón’s help. The article suggested this was in retribution for Ross’ testimony in the corruption case.

Resignation

Webb strongly disagreed with Ceppos’s column and, in interviews, was harshly critical of the paper’s handling of the story. Editors at the paper, on the other hand, felt that Webb had failed to tell them about information that contradicted the series’s claims and that he “responded to concerns not with reasoned argument, but with accusations of us selling him out.” In June 1997, The Mercury News told Webb it was transferring him from the paper’s Sacramento bureau and offered him a choice between working at the main offices in San Jose under closer editorial supervision, or spot reporting in Cupertino; both locations were long commutes from his home in Sacramento. Webb eventually chose Cupertino, but was unhappy with the routine stories he was reporting there and the long commute. He resigned from the paper in November 1997.

Federal investigation results

The reports of the three federal investigations into the claims of “Dark Alliance” were not released until over a year after the series’s publication. The reports rejected the series’s main claims but were critical of some CIA and law enforcement actions.

Justice Department report

The Department of Justice Inspector-General’s report was released on July 23, 1998. According to the report’s “Epilogue,” the report was completed in December 1997 but was not released because the DEA was still attempting to use Danilo Blandón in an investigation of international drug dealers and was concerned that the report would affect the viability of the investigation. When Attorney General Janet Reno determined that a delay was no longer necessary, the report was released unaltered.

The report covered actions by Department of Justice employees in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the DEA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices. It found that “the allegations contained in the original Mercury News articles were exaggerations of the actual facts.” After examining the investigations and prosecutions of the main figures in the series, Blandón, Meneses and Ross, it concluded that “Although the investigations suffered from various problems of communication and coordination, their successes and failures were determined by the normal dynamics that affect the success of scores of investigations of high-level drug traffickers … These factors, rather than anything as spectacular as a systematic effort by the CIA or any other intelligence agency to protect the drug trafficking activities of Contra supporters, determined what occurred in the cases we examined.”

It also concluded that “the claims that Blandón and Meneses were responsible for introducing crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles and spreading the crack epidemic throughout the country were unsupported.” Although it did find that both men were major drug dealers, “guilty of enriching themselves at the expense of countless drug users,” and that they had contributed money to the Contra cause, “we did not find that their activities were responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in South Central Los Angeles, much less the rise of crack throughout the nation, or that they were a significant source of support for the Contras.”

The report called several of its findings “troubling.” It found that Blandón received permanent resident status “in a wholly improper manner” and that for some time the Department “was not certain whether to prosecute Meneses, or use him as a cooperating witness.” Regarding issues raised in the series’s shorter sidebar stories, it found that some in the government were “not eager” to have DEA agent Celerino Castillo “openly probe” activities at Ilopango Airport in El Salvador, where covert operations in support of the Contras were undertaken, and that the CIA had indeed intervened in a case involving smuggler Julio Zavala. It concluded, however, that these problems were “a far cry from the type of broad manipulation and corruption of the federal criminal justice system suggested by the original allegations.”

CIA report

The CIA Inspector-General’s report was issued in two volumes. The first one, “The California Story,” was issued in a classified version on December 17, 1997, and in an unclassified version on January 29, 1998. The second volume, “The Contra Story,” was issued in a classified version on April 27, 1998, and in an unclassified version on October 8, 1998.

According to the report, the Inspector-General’s office (OIG) examined all information the agency had “relating to CIA knowledge of drug trafficking allegations in regard to any person directly or indirectly involved in Contra activities.” It also examined “how CIA handled and responded to information regarding allegations of drug trafficking” by people involved in Contra activities or support.

The first volume of the report found no evidence that “any past or present employee of CIA, or anyone acting on behalf of CIA, had any direct or indirect dealing” with Ross, Blandón, or Meneses or that any of the other figures mentioned in “Dark Alliance” were ever employed by or associated with or contacted by the agency.

It found nothing to support the claim that “the drug trafficking activities of Blandón and Meneses were motivated by any commitment to support the Contra cause or Contra activities undertaken by CIA.” It noted that Blandón and Meneses claimed to have donated money to Contra sympathizers in Los Angeles, but found no information to confirm that it was true or that the agency had heard of it.

It found no information to support the claim that the agency interfered with law enforcement actions against Ross, Blandón or Meneses

Dark Alliance book

After his resignation from The Mercury News, Webb expanded the “Dark Alliance” series into a book that responded to the criticism of the series and described his experiences writing the story and dealing with the controversy. It was published in 1998 as Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. A revised version was published in 1999 that incorporated Webb’s response to the CIA and Justice Department reports. The February 2000 report by the House Intelligence Committee in turn considered the book’s claims as well as the series’ claims. Dark Alliance was a 1998 Pen/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award Finalist, 1998 San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, 1999 Bay Area Book Reviewers Award Finalist, and 1999 Firecracker Alternative Booksellers Award Winner in the Politics category.

Death

Webb was found dead in his Carmichael home on December 10, 2004, with two gunshot wounds to the head. His death was ruled a suicide by the Sacramento County coroner’s office. According to a description of Webb’s injuries in the Los Angeles Times, he shot himself with a .38 revolver, which he placed near his right ear. The first shot went through his face, and exited at his left cheek. The coroner’s staff concluded that the second shot hit an artery.

After a local newspaper reported that Webb had died from multiple gunshots, the coroner’s office received so many calls asking about Webb’s death that Sacramento County Coroner Robert Lyons issued a statement confirming Webb had died by suicide. When asked by local reporters about the possibility of two gunshots being a suicide, Lyons replied “It’s unusual in a suicide case to have two shots, but it has been done in the past, and it is in fact a distinct possibility.” News coverage noted that there were widespread rumors on the Internet at the time that Webb had been killed as retribution for his “Dark Alliance” series, published eight years before.

Webb’s ex wife, Susan Bell told reporters that she believed Webb had died by suicide. “The way he was acting it would be hard for me to believe it was anything but suicide,” she said. According to Bell, Webb had been unhappy for some time over his inability to get a job at another major newspaper. He had sold his house the week before his death because he was unable to afford the mortgage.

After Webb’s death, a collection of his stories from before and after the “Dark Alliance” series was published. The collection, The Killing Game: Selected Stories from the Author of Dark Alliance, was edited by Webb’s son, Eric.

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