Government Drug Dealing: from “Kill the Messenger” to “Pinocchio”

“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.”

These are the opening sentences of Gary Webb’s three-part series “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion“.  Published for the San Jose Mercury News, Gary Webb’s year long investigation culminated in the “most talked about piece of journalism in 1996“.  It was released on the internet at the same time of its print publication, making it one of the first national security stories to “go viral” by bringing the Mercury‘s website over 1 million hits a day.  “Dark Alliance” prompted congressional hearings by Rep. Maxine Waters, an internal CIA investigation in 1998, and now, 18 years later, a major motion picture starring and produced by Jeremy Renner.

The movie Kill the Messenger is based on the book of the same title by Nick Schou, subtitled How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb.  In the film, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is cryptically warned by a Washington insider, “They’ll make you the story”, and that, more than the CIA-Contra-Cocaine controversy itself, is what the book and movie are about.

In today’s era of Snowden’s NSA revelations and government distrust at an all-time high, the allegations made in the Mercury series and Gary Webb’s follow-up book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Cocaine Explosion seem almost quaint in comparison.  While it was as early as 1986 that the government publicly acknowledged that cocaine smuggling was funding the CIA-backed Contras, Gary Webb was the first one to answer the question of where that cocaine went and where the money came from.  The answer was found in “Freeway” Rick Ross, the “king of crack” who sold $3 million worth of coke a day, bought 455 kilos a week, and in today’s dollar had earnings over 2.5 billion between 1982 and 1989.  Rick Ross was a true entrepreneur in his field.  Unlike typical drug dealers, he didn’t get bogged down in petty street rivalry because the whole nation would be his market.  He would introduce himself to other dealers by giving them a kilo for free and then offering them his price that was $10,000 per kilo lower than anyone else, thereby turning all of his would-be competitors into customers.

The reason “Freeway” Rick Ross had a seemingly never-ending supply of the cheapest, purest product was because his supplier was Oscar Danilo Blandón – a protected CIA asset.  Blandón sold cocaine through Nicaraguan kingpin Norwin Meneses and thereby funded the “freedom fighting” Contras against the Sandinista government.  While Webb’s investigation sparked outrage across the country and prompted many black leaders to accuse the government of purposefully creating crack to destroy inner city minorities, “Dark Alliance” never claimed anything so conspiratorial. What it claimed, and what the CIA’s 1998 investigation later admitted, was that the CIA worked with known criminals as a “means to an end” and merely looked the other way when it came to their drug smuggling activities.

Yet, for such a tame accusation, the major papers of the time unanimously rose against Gary Webb and denounced his reporting, his sources, and his ethics – even making straw man arguments by claiming that he went farther than he did in his accusations.  In the beginning of the attack his editors stood up for him, even writing a letter to the Post saying, “While there is considerable circumstantial evidence of CIA involvement with the leaders of the drug ring, we never reached or reported any definitive conclusion on CIA involvement.  We reported that men selling cocaine in Los Angeles met with people on the CIA payroll.  We reported that the money raised was sent to a CIA-run operation.  But we did not go further.”

But soon his editors betrayed him. The Los Angeles Times assigned 17 reporters to join the “Get Gary Webb Team”, with Nick Schou writing that some former LA Times writers thought it was their mission not to investigate the allegations but to debunk them, commonly saying “We’re going to take away this guy’s Pulitzer”.  Ultimately, they printed more material attacking “Dark Alliance” than the 20,000 words that comprised the series itself.  When the Mercury editor printed a letter acknowledging that some mistakes were made in “Dark Alliance”, it was seen as a full retraction and sealed Gary Webb’s fate as a professional journalist.

While many reviews of Kill The Messenger are favorable, often echoing Nick Schou’s conclusion that “His big story, despite major flaws of hyperbole abetted and even encouraged by his editors, remains one of the most important works of investigative journalism in recent American history”, there are still elements that want to downplay the truth that Gary Webb exposed.

Keeping in the tradition of his former peers at the Washington Post, Jeff Leen, the current assisting managing editor of investigations, says that Gary Webb was “no journalism hero”, that an “extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof”, the Hollywood version of the story is “pure fiction” and finally, he believes it “significant” that the 1998 CIA internal investigation “found no CIA relationship with the drug ring Webb had written about.”

Of course, Gary Webb addressed this problem of the CIA investigating itself in Dark Alliance.  CIA Inspector General Fred P. Hitz appeared before the House Intelligence Committee in March 1998 and after admitting that the agency did not cut off relationships with drug traffickers that supported the Contra program, he testified “the period of 1982 to 1995 was one in which there was no official requirement to report on allegations of drug trafficking with respect to non-employees of the agency, and they were defined to include agents, assets, non-staff employees”.  As Webb explained, “the CIA wouldn’t tell and the Justice Department wouldn’t ask” – so no wonder the CIA didn’t find any relationship to drug traffickers – they didn’t have to keep any records!

That such a response the Post could still be given today reminds me that Walter Pincus, the Washington Post reporter who had been assigned to debunk “Dark Alliance”, had collaborated with the CIA in spying operations in the late 1950s and early 1960s and openly written about it!  It’s also interesting that in promoting their new film, Focus Features presents an article Unbelieveable but True that details six political conspiracies that “turned out to be true”.  The first conspiracy they document is Operation Mockingbird, which details how the CIA recruited and worked with 25 news organizations and 400 journalists to create pro-American propaganda and “help paint the appropriate image of United States foreign policy”.


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