Investigative journalist Gary Webb has just published a boo quite likely to rekindle a national debate that appeared to be laid to rest a year ago. The book is "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion" (Seven Stories Press, 548 pages, $24.95). The book ought to recall Webb from the journalistic netherworld to which he has been exiled. Whether it will remains to be seen.
Two years ago, it looked as if Webb would be the next Bob Woodward, a hero because of the corruption he exposed. After Woodward helped bring down U.S. President Richard Nixon with relentless investigative reporting at the Washington Post, Robert Redford played the journalist in the Hollywood version of "All the President's Men."
Webb was not cast immediately by Hollywood on the basis of his series "Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion." But there was talk about a movie version of the August 1996 San Jose Mercury (Calif.) News series, built around Webb's saga of three criminals:
Norwin Meneses, an international drug trafficker who funneled profits to the Nicaraguan Contras as agencies of the U.S. government, during the Ronald Reagan-George Bush administration, allowed his lawbreaking to continue because it served the administration's political ends;
Danilo Blandon, a politicized Nicaraguan sympathetic to the Contras who moved Meneses organization cocaine into the United States, got caught in California, then received a get-out-of-prison free card in exchange for becoming a paid informant to the U.S. government;
Ricky Ross, a Los Angeles dealer who bought Blandon's merchandise, then helped introduce crack, a low-budget form of cocaine, to inner-city customers across the nation.
What received the most attention, as accolades poured in at first, was Webb's reporting that suggested complicity of the Central Intelligence Agency. The opening paragraph spelled it out: "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 Americam guerrila army run by the Central Intelligence Agency..."
Webb's expose - with its national security and racial overtones - met with denials from U.S. government officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Justice Department.
Much of the public, suspicious of those government bureaucracies, rejected the denials. But then something unusual happened. Reporters and editors at three of the nation's most influential newspapers decided they believed the government sources more than they believed Webb. First the Washington Post, then the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, published front-page critiques of "Dark Alliance" suggesting Webb's reporting was unreliable.
Webb's editors, shaken by the extent and virulence of the criticism from bigfoot news organizations, nonetheless defended him publicly. On Oct. 10, 1996, six days after the Washington Post published its knockdown article, Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a letter to that newspaper, defending Webb down the line.
"The Post has every right to reach conclusions different from those of the Mercury News," Ceppos said. "But I'm disappointed in the 'what's the big deal?' tone running through the ... critique. If the CIA knew about illegal activities being conducted by its associates, federal law and basic morality required that it notify domestic authorities. It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of story that a newspaper should shine a light on."
Ceppos' defense seemed to fuel the criticism rather than snuff it out. As the attacks on the Mercury News' reporting began to overshadow the accolades, eventually Ceppos changed his tune. On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a column in his own newspaper discrediting portions of the expose - while refusing to abandon its core findings that "a drug ring associated with the Contras sold large quantities of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles in the 1980s at the time of the crack explosion there" and that "some of the drug profits from those sales went to the Contras."
To my reading, it was a repudiation that repudiated little of significance. Webb's critics, however, read it as a full-fledged apology for a job poorly done. There was certainly nothing halfway about Ceppos' actions after publishing his column. He refused to publish new information Webb had gathered, demoted him within the newsroom, and eventually helped drive him from the newspaper.
Today, it is hard to say how Webb will be remembered by history. But if there is any justice, he will be remembered favorably. His book demonstrates that the original expose was on the right track. Rather than going too far by implicating U.S. government officials in illegal activities, it seems to me the newspaper series did not go far enough.
Based on the evidence in Webb's book, news organizations - especially the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times - should re-examine their knockdown stories. They owe such a re-examination not only to Webb, but also to their readers.
For example, the critics said Webb had failed to prove Blandon channeled significant amounts of tainted drug money to influence the political battle in his Nicaraguan homeland after 1982. If Blandon's influence in Nicaragua indeed ended that early, the importance of
Webb's series eroded, because the Reagan-Bush adminstration had not become heavily involved with the Contras. The evidence Webb presented in the newspaper version seemed strong to me, but many commentators thought otherwise. In Chapter Nine of the book, Webb presents additional evidence about the strength of the Blandon-Meneses Nicaraguan impact through at least 1986.
In addition, Webb's book explains in more detail than the newspaper series these points:
The role of Ricky Ross in the spread of inner-city addiction, a role Webb's critics contended had been exaggerated.
The full extent of the U.S. government agencies' long-term awareness about the impact of the South American drug network in California and points east.
The complicity of the government in protecting drug criminals rather than punishing them.
Sun readers with photographic memories will recall my article defending the Webb series on the front page of the Sun's Perspective section Nov. 17, 1996. While I could not then vouch for the accuracy of every fact in the series, my investigative reporting background led me to express confidence in his documentatio - despite criticism by a handful of my investigative colleagues whose careers I admire. Now that I have finished Webb's book I am even more impressed with his reporting. Unless his critics can disprove his reporting with evidence rather than innuendo, they should help him complete the expose instead of carping unproductively.
Webb is not the first veteran, award-winning investigative reporter whose high-stakes exposes have been attacked by misguided colleagues. Consider:
Earlier this decade, James Steele and Donald Barlett of the Philadelphia Inquirer, two of the most meticulous journalists who have ever lived, found themselves excoriated in some quarters for their series "America: What Went Wrong?" and two follow-ups, all of which became influential books. Their reporting demonstrated in excruciating detail how U.S. government officials, working closely with multinational corporations, sabotaged the standard of living for millions of American citizens. Yet critics denied that the evidence said what it said. The criticism showed up mostly in personal columns and editorials; there was nothing akin to the front-page knockdowns aimed at Webb's reporting.
Then, an ABC News investigation produced by Walt Bogdanich, demonstrating how tobacco companies boosted addictive nicotine levels in cigarettes, caused numerous journalists to criticize his techniques as well as the story's substance. Again, nobody mounted a full-scale reporting effort to discredit the story. ABC News management did, however, cave in to legal challenges from tobacco behemoth Philip Morris, then made Bogdanich's professional life so uncomfortable that he left for another network. His years of solid exposes at the Cleveland Plain Dealer on government and labor union corruption; his Wall Street Journal Pulitzer Prize for uncovering incompetence in medical laboratories; his stunning book that exposed hospital misconduct ("The Great White Lie") - none of that convinced his critics that he might be right about the nicotine story and they might be wrong.
After the Webb implosion at the Mercury News, Seymour Hersh, a legendary investigative reporter for nearly 30 years, suffered verbal and written attacks from colleagues for his expose of the Kennedy administration, "The Dark Side of Camelot." Yet my reading of his documentation suggests the book is carefully reported.
The attacks against Webb, though, were different, representing the full force of entire news organizations. What is going on? Despite the perils of generalization, this is what seems to be going on:
Many journalists know little or nothing about information
gathering. They believe they can approximate the truth by starting out ignorant, informing themselves solely by talking to lots of people in important positions who have agendas to advance, then quoting those self-interested sources at length. Journalists who operate like that - and my two decades as a trainer retained by news organizations to teach information gathering suggest they are the majority-almost never break new ground. They are more stenographers than journalists.
So when Webb and other masters of information-gathering do break new ground, the stenographer types are incredulous. Something as dramatic as Webb's expose simply cannot be true in their minds.
It seemed obvious in late 1996 that at least some critics of Webb's newspaper series failed to carefully examine the massive documentation that he placed on the Mercury News World Wide Web site. Almost every paragraph of the three-day series was keyed to documents from criminal court records, FBI transcripts, search warrant affidavits, Congressional hearings and the like. Documents like that might contain falsehoods, to be sure, but they are frequently what
experienced journalists refer to as "the highest and best evidence." Webb is not a federal prosecutor with subpoena power, paid informants and court-sanctioned electronic surveillance. He is a journalist armed only with a sharp mind, an aggressive manner and the First Amendment. The evidence he managed to gather for the newspaper series was amazing.
Critics unwilling or unable to evaluate Webb's evidence on the Internet two years ago can now look at the 70 pages of source notes in his book. I am not an expert on international drug dealings, so it is possible some of Webb's evidence is less compelling than I think. Webb critics such as investigative reporter Jeff Leen, a superb journalist who covered the drug world for the Miami Herald and recently moved to the Washington Post, will undoubtedly let me - and Webb - know if we are wrong . But, as far as I can discern, the evidence is of the "highest and best" variety page after page.
Books are widely recognized in U.S. society as the ultimate repository of knowledge. Webb's detractors have an obligation to read his book. If they still believe his expose is off base, they should tell audiences how they know that, then present their own highest and best evidence to the contrary. If, on the other hand, they finally realize that Webb's expose is sound, they owe it to him, their own news organizations, their audiences and history to admit it.
Steve Weinberg, a former investigative reporter for magazine and newspapers, including the Des Moines Register, is the author of seven non-fiction books. His biography of Armand Hammer was the first to expose the tycoon's unethical and illegal activities. From 1983-1990, he served as executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, an international organization journalists based at the University of Missouri. He still serves as editor of IRE's bimonthly magazine, the Journal.
Pub Date: 6/14/98