Reporter Gary Webb did a series for the San Jose Mercury-News in 1996 on the role of cocaine traffic in financing the Contra war in Nicaragua during the 1980s. As he opening of the initial article in the series put it:
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, a Mercury News investigation has found.
This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the "crack" capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America - and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy automatic weapons.
It is one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history: the union of a U.S.-backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the Uzi-toting "gangstas" of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.
The series is available at the Dark Alliance Web page maintained by NarcoNews, a news service focusing on Latin America in general and the problems of the "war on drugs" in particular. Apparently, the site was down for some time but is now restored.
Webb's story was not well received among the Establishment press, not to mention parties with more urgent interests at stake. Robert Perry, who had written about the cocaine-contra connection earlier, tells the story that led to Webb's suicide in We All Failed Gary Webb ConsortiumNews.com 12/10/08. He writes of Webb's last years:
Though a number of factors contributed to Webb’s suicide, it was his inability to find meaningful work in his profession that pushed him into a deep depression. Eight years earlier, he had been forced out of his job at the San Jose Mercury News as a result of the ugly controversy that followed publication of his story about contra-cocaine trafficking.
That story prompted a fierce counterattack from major U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times which had all downplayed or dismissed the contra-cocaine scandal when it first arose in the mid-1980s. Unwilling to admit their earlier error, the big papers simply trashed Gary Webb.
With Webb and his story under fierce attack, the executives at the San Jose Mercury News found betraying their reporter a better course for their own careers. Webb was reassigned to a humiliating job and resigned in disgrace.
Even when the CIA inspector general issued his 1998 report, which confirmed much of what Webb had alleged and more, the Establishment newspapers refused to significantly revisit the issue. That would have been far too embarrassing for them, and they faced no powerful interests demanding that they correct their earlier flawed reporting. [my emphasis]
In December 1985, when Brian Barger and I wrote a groundbreaking story for the Associated Press about Nicaraguan Contra rebels smuggling cocaine into the United States, one U.S. senator put his political career on the line to follow up on our disturbing findings. His name was John Kerry.
Yet, over the past year, even as Kerry's heroism as a young Navy officer in Vietnam has become a point of controversy, this act of political courage by a freshman senator has gone virtually unmentioned, even though -- or perhaps because -- it marked Kerry's first challenge to the Bush family.
As the national press was sliding toward the cliff it went over with the Whitewater story, Kerry's investigation failed to catch the imagination of the corporate press, who were reluctant to challenge the noble image of St. Reagan:
The Reagan administration's tolerance and protection of this dark underbelly of the Contra war represented one of the most sordid scandals in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Yet when Kerry's bombshell findings were released in 1989, they were greeted by the mainstream press with disdain and disinterest. The New York Times, which had long denigrated the Contra-drug allegations, buried the story of Kerry's report on its inside pages, as did the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. For his tireless efforts, Kerry earned a reputation as a reckless investigator. Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom Watch dubbed Kerry a "randy conspiracy buff."
But almost a decade later, in 1998, Kerry's trailblazing investigation was vindicated by the CIA's own inspector general, who found that scores of Contra operatives were implicated in the cocaine trade and that U.S. agencies had looked the other way rather than reveal information that could have embarrassed the Reagan-Bush administration.
Even after the CIA's admissions, the national press corps never fully corrected its earlier dismissive treatment. That would have meant the New York Times and other leading publications admitting they had bungled their coverage of one of the worst scandals of the Reagan-Bush era. [my emphasis]
Official investigations in 1998 confirmed much of what Kerry had found and what Perry, Barger and Webb had reported:
While the major newspapers gloated when reporter Gary Webb was forced to resign from the Mercury News, the internal government investigations, which Webb's series had sparked, moved forward. The government's decade-long Contra cocaine cover-up began to crumble when CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz published the first of two volumes of his Contra cocaine investigation on Jan. 29, 1998, followed by a Justice Department report and Hitz's second volume in October 1998.
The CIA inspector general and Justice Department reports confirmed that the Reagan administration knew from almost the outset of the Contra war that cocaine traffickers permeated the CIA-backed army but the administration did next to nothing to expose or stop these criminals. The reports revealed example after example of leads not followed, witnesses disparaged and official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged. The evidence indicated that Contra-connected smugglers included the Medellin cartel, the Panamanian government of Manuel Noriega, the Honduran military, the Honduran-Mexican smuggling ring of Ramon Matta Ballesteros, and Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans.
Reviewing evidence that existed in the 1980s, CIA inspector general Hitz found that some Contra-connected drug traffickers worked directly for Reagan's National Security Council staff and the CIA. In 1987, Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veteran Moises Nunez told CIA investigators that "it was difficult to answer questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction of the NSC."
CIA task force chief Fiers said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued then "because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [Oliver North's fundraising]. A decision was made not to pursue this matter."
Perhaps the most revealing press reaction that Perry describes in Salon was this one:
The Los Angeles Times actually used Kerry's report to dismiss the Mercury News series as old news because the Contra cocaine trafficking "has been well documented for years."
This is actually a standard technique of our dysfunctional press corps: ignore or downplay the story when it breaks, then dismiss later revelations as old news. Stories like George W. Bush's drunk driving and his dubious National Guard record were dismissed by conventional press wisdom in 2004 because they had been surfaced but not seriously explored in the national press in 2000. (Dan Rather's famous report on the latter was an exception, but that didn't work out too well for him.)
I should note here that one of the claims of the original series and of Webb's subsequent book based on it, Dark Alliance (1998), was, as quoted above, that the CIA's Contra financing activities "helped spark a crack explosion in urban America". Though that claim, at least as quoted there, was pretty modest, it was one of the aspects on which his critics hung the "conspiracy theory" epithet. And his analysis did lend itself easily to already-extant theories about how the spread of hard drugs among African-American urban communities was somehow a deliberate plan by the government/ruling class/white elite to control the black population. That notion long predated Gary Webb's series in 1996. Here was his version in the opening article:
While the [Nicaraguan Contra's] war is barely a memory today, black America is still dealing with its poisonous side effects. Urban neighborhoods are grappling with legions of homeless crack addicts. Thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine -- a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices.
And the L.A. gangs, which used their enormous cocaine profits to arm themselves and spread crack across the country, are still thriving, turning entire blocks of major cities into occasional war zones.
But however dramatic that speculation was, the real factual meat of the story was the CIA's collaboration with drug trafficers, which was largely substantiated by the subsequent official investigations.
This story not only involves an important piece of more-or-less contemporary history. It also is an important chapter in the collapse in quality in much of the American press, particularly the national political press corps.
And it's a reminder that guerrilla groups, of all persuasions, can degenerate partly or wholly into basically criminal operations with no meaningful practical political goals. When an insurrectionary process continues as long as the one in Colombia, for instance, the need to finance themselves through extra-legal channels - no government looks cheerfully on fundraising for groups waging armed warfare against it - can lead them to settle into patterns of behavior in which the financing method starts to take precedents over the political goals.