When Gary Webb started writing what became "Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion," an investigative project for the San Jose Mercury News, he was pretty sure he had something that would attract attention outside his newspaper's circulation area.
An experienced investigative reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer before joining the Mercury News, Webb knew something about attracting controversy as a result of his work.
But little did Webb suspect that the project, about possible Central Intelligence Agency involvement in crack cocaine sales, would attract the kind of attention - both the lavish praise and the severe criticism - it has.
Since the series appeared (Aug. 18-20, 1996, plus follow ups), praise has come from countless readers. But Webb and his editors have also become targets, as skeptical journalists, outraged politicians and accused bureaucrats have questioned their motives, reporting techniques, editing, presentation and conclusions.
Within the Mercury News' own newsroom, there was some grumbling about the series. The Sun raised questions about Webb's reporting in a Sept. 27, 1996, article on 2A by Mark Matthews, a reporter in the Washington Bureau.
The Washington Post published a front-page article (Oct. 4), reported by four people, and a separate piece (Oct. 2) by its media writer suggesting that Webb's series might be misleading. The Mercury News' top editor replied to the newspaper's internal critics by memo and in meetings. He replied to The Post findings in a detailed letter, then took the unusual step of assigning another investigative reporter from the Mercury News to re-report the Webb series. Pete Carey's findings, mostly supportive but occasionally critical, ran in the Mercury News on Oct. 13.
That did not stem the tide of outside scrutiny. The Los Angeles Times published a three-part series (Oct. 20-22) by a ten-person team finding fault with Webb's work. The New York Times published a front-page article (Oct. 21) that was partly critical. Some journalism commentators - in magazines, syndicated columns, op-ed pieces and on the air - outside those big three newspapers have joined in the criticism. Newsweek (Nov. 11) presented the series as more or less discredited. [See Mercury, 6f]
I think the critics have been far too harsh. Despite some hyped phrasing, "Dark Alliance" appears to be praiseworthy investigative reporting.
Webb's critics seem to assume that he began his research with the intention of "getting" the CIA. Not so. The genesis of Webb's revelations, like the genesis of many journalistic blockbusters, is grounded in an experienced investigative reporter with a prepared mind. The way Webb came to his topic demonstrates, once again that there might be lucky reporters, but there are no lazy, lucky reporters.
In 1993, the Mercury News published Webb's series, "The Forfeiture Racket." While reporting that series, Webb ran across the case of a convicted Los Angeles drug dealer, "Freeway Rick" Ross, whose assets had been seized by law enforcement officers. Webb found the Ross case interesting but could not make room for it in the series.
In June 1995, the U.S. Justice Department released a policy memo on asset forfeiture. Because the policy seemed to conflict with federal court decisions, Webb wrote a story. A woman in Oakland, Calif., saw the story and called Webb. Her boyfriend, a Nicaraguan national, was incarcerated, a victim of the local asset forfeiture policy, she said. Webb replied that he appreciated the call, but simply could not write up every forfeiture case that came to his attention.
The woman was insistent. By the way, she mentioned, drug running and U.S. intelligence agencies had inexplicably been mentioned in her boyfriend's case. She said she had a partially redacted federal grand jury transcript about the case. Did Webb want to look at it? Webb, curiosity piqued, said he would meet the woman.
The transcript introduced Webb to Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes, a Nicaraguan national who had been a cocaine seller in the United States before turning informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Blandon was telling the grand jury what he knew about the Nicaraguans under investigation, including the boyfriend of the woman who had called Webb.
Blandon testified that some of his knowledge about Nicaraguans running drugs in the United States came from Norwin Meneses Cantarero, a higher-up in the drug chain.
Blandon and Meneses had been unknown to Webb, but he was interested in discovering more.
About that time, a judge hearing the case of the incarcerated Nicaraguans ordered disclosure of the grand jury transcript so the defendants could read the words of Blandon, their accuser. The U.S. attorney opposed the judge's disclosure order, saying national security was involved. How about if the government just set aside Blandon's testimony? Then there would be no need to delve into his background or credibility
Now, Webb was really interested. As he called around looking for more information about Blandon and Meneses, he talked to a San Diego lawyer who mentioned a possible link between Blandon and Rick Ross. Webb could sense his separate pieces of string balling together, as sometimes happens when the pursuit of a story is going well.
Webb wrote Ross in prison. Did he know Blandon? Sure, Ross replied; Blandon was a supplier of crack cocaine when Ross was selling the substance to Los Angeles' inner-city blacks. Wow, Webb thought. It appeared Blandon had drug connections, national security connections and connections to the contras, the CIA-endorsed army that fought Nicaragua's socialist government.
With help from a reporter in Managua, Webb made contact with Meneses, who had escaped prosecution for his drug running in the United States but run afoul of the Nicaraguan authorities. Meneses agreed to talk, partly, Webb suspects, because he felt betrayed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Webb slowly realized what he was uncovering might be linked to the Iran-contra political scandal during the Ronald Reagan-George Bush administrations. Webb reviewed a 1988 report issued by the U.S. Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations, chaired by John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
There it was. The committee report said, in part, "It is clear that individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement ,X either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."
"Dark Alliance" was coming together. As published, the day one headline said: "America's Crack Plague Has Roots in Nicaragua War/Colombia-San Francisco Bay Area Drug Pipeline Helped Finance CIA-backed Contras."
The day one lead said: "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."
Key day one findings:
Blandon and Meneses, the Nicaraguan men supplying cocaine to Ross, the Los Angeles dealer, for resale "met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A I"
A result of the Nicaraguan-Californian connection was "the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles," providing availability of a drug "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."
The pipeline provided "the cash and connections needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy automatic weapons," and eventually "helped spark a crack explosion" in other U.S. cities.
Meneses, the Nicaraguan supervisor of the cocaine sales in the United States, was known to law enforcement authorities, but "the CIA or unnamed national security interests" hampered prosecution, according to sources cited by Webb.
As for foreign policy implications, Meneses and Blandon used cash from sales to Ross "to buy weapons and equipment for a guerrilla army" in Nicaragua that was "the largest of several anti-communist groups commonly called the contras." The CIA and other elements of the U.S. government hoped the contras would help overthrow the Nicaraguan socialists who had come to power in 1979.
On the newspaper's Internet site, Webb supplied the text of documents he relied upon, including grand jury proceedings, sworn court testimony, congressional hearings and investigative files from law enforcement agencies.
Despite the voluminous documentation, or perhaps because of it, much of the controversy over "Dark Alliance" revolves around this question:
Does the Mercury News series say outright that the CIA knowingly sponsored the California-based Nicaraguans in the crack cocaine sales business? Not really, though Webb certainly serves up tantalizing, apparently credible evidence. Consider: He quotes a federal public defender in Los Angeles as saying police believed the CIA compromised the investigation of one of two key Nicaraguan drug dealers in California.
The same dealer is quoted by Webb as implying, during testimony to a federal grand jury in San Francisco, "that his cocaine sales were, for a time, CIA-approved.'
The statement of the lawyer for that dealer is portrayed like this by Webb: "Blandon's lawyer, Brunon, said in an interview that his client never told him directly that he was selling cocaine for the CIA, but the prominent Los Angeles defense attorney drew his own conclusions from the 'atmosphere of CIA and clandestine activities' that surrounded Blandon and his Nicaraguan friends. 'Was he involved with the CIA? Probably. Was he involved with drugs? Most definitely. Were those two things involved with each other? They've never said that, obviously. They've never admitted that. But I don't know where these guys get these big aircraft I'"
I am impressed with Webb's reporting - even after carefully considering the criticisms by fellow investigative journalists whom I respect.
Webb found himself with an important story building after learning the connection between Nicaraguan drug sellers and a Los Angeles customer. He took the story where it seemed to lead - to the door of U.S. national security and drug enforcement agencies. Even if Webb overreached in a few paragraphs - based on my careful reading, I would say his overreaching was limited, if it occurred at all - he still had a compelling, significant investigation to publish.
The attempted knockdowns by the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times do raise legitimate questions about possible overreaching by Webb. After studying the knockdown articles carefully, I think that maybe ' and I stress the "maybe" ' Ross, Blandon and Meneses were less important in the initial spread of crack cocaine than Webb believes. And maybe Blandon and Meneses sent lower amounts of money to the contras than Webb believes.
Otherwise, I found the lengthy knockdown articles unpersuasive. times, they sound downright silly. For example, the Washington Post reporters write: "Blandon's own accounts and law enforcement estimates say Blandon handled a total of only about five tons of cocaine during a decade-long career. That is enough to have damaged many lives, but it is a fraction of the nationwide cocaine trade during the 1980s. I Meneses, who was Blandon's original supplier, may have handled more cocaine than Blandon at times. But experts said no single drug network, much less a pair of crack dealers, can be held accountable for the rise of crack."
Only five tons? The Post reporters sound more than naive - they sound heartless, despite their reference to damaged lives. Do they understand how much crack cocaine reached actual users as a result of those five tons?
Furthermore, consider the Washington Post sourcing. Of course, Blandon is going to downplay his involvement; he had been in lots of trouble with the law already. As for law enforcement estimates, on what are the estimates based? If the Post reporters know, they failed to share their knowledge with readers. Furthermore, these unnamed law enforcement sources have a strong interest in downplaying Blandon's trafficking, given that they allowed him to operate untrammeled for many years. The contrary evidence cited in the Mercury News series is at least as persuasive as the Post's evidence.
Toward the end of its knockdown article, the Post includes an important, and seemingly overlooked, sentence: "The fact that Ross and Blandon are responsible for the sale of large quantities of cocaine to African-Americans is not at issue." That sentence validates the importance of the Mercury News series, even if overreaching did creep in.
Equally disturbing to me about the three knockdowns is the suggestion that Webb misbehaved by discussing his tentative findings, about five months before the Mercury News series ran, with Ross' defense lawyer, Alan Fenster, before Ross' trial. As a result of the Webb-Fenster discussions, the defense attorney asked Blandon, by then a federal government informer testifying against Ross, about a possible CIA role. Webb then used Blandon's testimony in his series.
Why is that an ethical transgression? By the time of the Webb-Fenster discussions, Webb had a pretty good idea that Blandon would not talk frankly to a reporter. Webb also had a pretty good idea that the CIA and other government agencies involved in national security or drugs would stonewall him.
So what better technique that to submit questions through a lawyer to a witness testifying under oath, with a judge in the courtroom to sustain any prosecution objections about the form or content of those questions?
It looks to me as if many critics of Webb are holding him to a higher standard of evidence than they usually insist upon for their own stories. Many of the recent articles that criticize his work rely on sources no more reliable ' and, in some cases, perhaps less reliable ' than Webb's own sources.
Webb's sources were almost all men and women with something to gain or lose by telling less than the whole truth. But the same was the case for some of the sources ' a few of them unnamed ' quoted by the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times reporters.
That is why Webb relied so heavily on documents and sworn testimony. What else could he do? Would it have been realistic for him to expect prosecutors, DEA agents and CIA officials to admit their complicity? Of course not. Would it have been realistic for Webb to expect the drug dealers, Nicaraguan or Angelino variety, to tell the whole truth?
Of course not. Webb attempted an investigation with a high degree of difficulty. He uncovered revelatory connections between government national security considerations (which I consider the government to have exaggerated) and the fallure to prosecute dangerous drug dealers.
Even if it turns out the CIA had no direct complicity, those connections are an important story. In parts two and three of the series, Webb presents the connections compellingly. (My opinion of the presentation in part one is much lower. I had to read it three times to understand it.) Perhaps most important from my perch, Webb and his editors put a great deal of documentation on the newspaper's Internet site, for any reader to evaluate.
Later findings might erase my praise; I certainly cannot totally discount the skepticism of so many talented colleagues. But I think Webb should receive an "A" for effort, and - until I see convincing evidence to the contrary - an "A-minus" for execution.
Steve Weinberg is the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.