Joseph A. Palermo Professor, historian, author

Posted: Updated: 

Few things are better at getting the word out about a past injustice than a Hollywood movie and Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner and directed by Michael Cuesta does so with depth and drama. For the first time the true story about the courageous investigative journalist, Gary Webb, is being told in movie theaters across the country where people can draw their own conclusions unhindered by the noise and static of establishment naysayers in the corporate media.

This powerful film uses an “entertainment” format to assess the compelling evidence that people tied to the Nicaraguan Contras, who President Ronald Reagan called “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” were involved in bringing cocaine back to the United States at the dawn of the crack epidemic.

Writing for the San Jose Mercury-News, Gary Webb had traveled repeatedly to Central America and uncovered what appeared to be the story of the decade: people associated with a U.S.-backed mercenary army had become international drug traffickers. If “agents” or “assets” of the Central Intelligence Agency’s war against Nicaragua were implicated, even indirectly, in importing one gram of cocaine to America’s cities that should have set off alarm bells in the journalistic community and possibly won a Pulitzer Prize for Webb.

Instead, the mainstream press went after Webb in a coordinated smear campaign that ignored the potential abuses he had uncovered and effectively allied itself with the Contras. “Journalists” and editors from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, essentially toed the line of right-wing rags like the Washington Times by citing unnamed sources from the CIA and national security establishment to burnish the image of the Contras and their taskmasters.

Despite a mountain of evidence from witness accounts, law enforcement and court records, a Senate subcommittee inquiry, Oliver North’s notebooks, congressional testimony, and even the CIA’s own internal review that backs up Webb’s original reporting, these mainstream hacks found that the best way to defend the CIA was to sully their colleague Webb.

Webb wasn’t working in a vacuum.  Robert Parry and Brian Barger exposed the Contra cocaine connection for the Associated Press in 1985. Congressional testimony from Oliver North’s liaison to the Contras, Robert Owen, during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings also confirmed the link.

After the attacks on Webb reached a fever pitch, the editors of the San Jose Mercury- News chose not to run his follow-up articles that backed up what he had originally wrote, while publicly pretending to be unaware of Webb’s additional evidence. Webb found himself in a situation that no journalist ever should be in. His own editors at the San Jose Mercury-News not only abandoned him but painted a big target on his back after first forcing him to cut his original story down and insisted he sex it up to highlight some of its more sensational findings. Webb later wrote that his preference always had been a methodical and revelatory series that enabled the facts to speak for themselves. He also wanted to run his own brief response to the Mercury’s retraction of his story but was denied even that professional courtesy. (Dark Alliance, p. 460-461)

The New York Times had not even mentioned Webb’s story when it was first published but ran the retraction by the editor of the Mercury on its front page accompanied by an editorial praising the Mercury for bravely dealing with “egregious errors” from one of its reporters. (p. 462) (The Mercury, which was my hometown paper, has since been reduced to a stripped down newsletter and a joke.)

No one had a better understanding about what was really happening than Webb himself. His detractors among mainstream journalists, he later wrote, had U.S. “officials whispering in their ears” and were dutifully reporting “there was no evidence the CIA knew anything about the dealings of Danilo Blandon, Norwin Meneses, or Freeway Ricky Ross” — a few of the individuals Webb had uncovered as being involved in drug trafficking. “I tried to imagine,” Webb writes, “what the reaction would have been had those same reporters gone to their editors with unnamed sources citing unobtainable reports claiming the CIA was involved in drug trafficking. Journalistic standards can be wonderfully flexible when necessary.” (p. 467)

“Freedom Fighters” or Terrorists?

CIA Director William Casey had filled the ranks of the Contras with fighters from Anastasio Somoza’s notoriously brutal National Guard. In the name of fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Managua, these remnants of the Somoza regime waged a terrorist war against the government and people of Nicaragua that lasted over a decade. It’s not surprising that privatized “cut-outs” working for the CIA, such as Southern Air Transport, which held “national security” clearances to fly in and out of the United States without going through normal customs, would want to fill their planes with something lucrative after secretly delivering arms to the Contras rather than “deadhead” their planes back to the States.

The ever present need for cash to sustain the Contra effort, given the unreliable funding for the operation coming from Congress (with the Boland Amendments banning aid in 1984 and 1985), meant the people behind the effort were always seeking new revenue streams. Indeed, the “Contra” part of the “Iran-Contra Scandal” (selling arms to Ayatollah Khomeini and using the profits to arm the Contras) shows the extent to which the Reagan White House would go to get money for their pet project. The Iran-Contra hearings exposed “the Enterprise” run by retired Air Force Major General Richard Secord and Iranian businessman and CIA “asset,” Albert Hakim, who were enriching themselves on both ends of the arms transactions.

In the 1980s, the human rights abuses of the Contras were well known. They were responsible for all manner of documented atrocities against innocent Nicaraguans including murder, rape, and acts of terror targeting public schools and clinics. They routinely executed prisoners and even killed an American aid worker, Benjamin Linder. The CIA provided them with sabotage manuals that read like a “how-to” book on terrorism. And after all the U.S.-sponsored shedding of innocent blood in Nicaragua the CIA now concedes that arming rebels like the Contras doesn’t even fucking work. Drug dealing would constitute one of their lesser crimes. Yet despite the Contras’ tarnished reputation Walter Pincus of the Washington Post and other shills for the national security state chose to attack Gary Webb instead of doing their jobs.

Maybe Gary Webb Was On To Something

With the invention in 1985 of “crack” cocaine, which is pharmacologically identical to the powder variety but can be packaged and sold in small quantities suitable for smoking, people living in economically impoverished urban neighborhoods had access to the drug as never before. Crack became an inner city currency as well as a business outlet for thousands of small-time dealers in depressed areas. Crack transformed entire neighborhoods and its sales and distribution gave an enormous boost to gang activity. It also became the single largest contributor to the spike in the incarceration rate of young African-American men.

Over the course of a single year, (from October 1988 to October 1989), the Washington Post published 1,565 stories covering various aspects of the crack crisis, which later prompted the paper’s ombudsman to admit that the paper had lost “a proper sense of perspective.”  Newsweek and Time magazines published three cover stories on crack. In June 1986, Newsweek declared crack to be the biggest story since Watergate. And in August 1986, Time deemed crack “the issue of the year.”

In this context of lurid descriptions about crack cocaine the House of Representatives passed a bill that appropriated $2 billion to fight drugs. The Senate strengthened the law to make it even harsher and it was signed into law as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Among its provisions it unleashed the U.S. military in narcotics control operations, enacted capital punishment for some drug-related crimes, loosened the evidentiary requirements in drug trials, and imposed mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine. The act imposed more severe penalties for selling crack than it did for powder cocaine, which set sentencing guidelines that were racially discriminatory.

In December 1988, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who chaired a subcommittee on “Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations,” released a report that cites fifteen of Oliver North’s notebook entries that confirm his suspicions that people connected to the Contras were engaged in drug trafficking. In the report there is an appendix titled “Narcotics and the North Notebooks,” wherein North’s own entries point to evidence that some of the planes used to re-supply the Contras also carried drugs, and that some of the money generated from drug transactions was being funneled back into the operation.

North’s notebooks also revealed a secret meeting he had in London on September 22, 1986 with the Panamanian leader, General Manuel Noriega. North aimed to enlist Noriega’s help in financing the Contras and reported back to national security adviser John Poindexter Noriega’s willingness to do so. Noriega soon became arguably the most famous drug dealer on earth.

According to Webb’s 1998 book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, his original reporting mentioned the CIA only “in passing.” Webb writes: “I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague. Indeed, the more I learned about the agency, the more certain of that I became.” (p. 438)

Neither did Webb intend to become the focal point of the story but simply wanted to do his job as an investigative reporter:

“In mid-April I finished the first drafts and sent them up to my editors, with no clue as to how they would be received. They were like nothing I had ever written before, and probably unlike anything my editors had ever grappled with either: a tale spanning more than a decade, that attempted to show how two of the defining issues of the 1980s–the Contra war and the crack explosion, seemingly unconnected social phenomena–were actually intertwined, thanks largely to government meddling.” (p. 438)

Webb suffered the wrath of his mainstream colleagues in part because he successfully linked two of the biggest stories of the era:

“That the Contras’ cocaine ended up being turned into crack was a horrible accident of history, I believed, not someone’s evil plan. The Contras just happened to pick the worst possible time ever to begin peddling cheap cocaine in black neighborhoods. That, I believed, was the real danger the CIA has always presented–unbridled criminal stupidity, cloaked in a blanket of national security.” (p. 438)

Epic Press Failures/Lessons Unlearned

Shilling for the interests of foreign-policy elites on the part of the U.S. mainstream press, if anything, has gotten worse today than it was during the time the newspapers ganged up on Gary Webb. In the decades since we’ve seen the same establishment press uncritically promote the CIA’s bogus claims that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons. This same press corps greeted as “old news” the exposure of the stunning July 23, 2002 “Downing Street Memo,” which is the smoking gun proving that the Bush Administration had chosen to lie the country into war. More recently, the press has failed miserably in its reportage of the true nature of the conflict between the Kiev government in Ukraine and the Russia Federation.

Given Webb’s unapologetic defense of his reporting and clear-eyed view of the CIA, it’s not unexpected that a host of mainstream “journalists” who owed their careers to kissing the asses of foreign policy elites and U.S. intelligence officials would pile on against him.

Recently, the CIA has been caught red-handed spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee, thereby becoming a fourth branch of government in an egregious violation of the divisions of powers. And the public has not been able to see even a redacted version of the internal report on the CIA’s use of torture during the Bush years.

In 2002-03, “journalists” like the New York Times’ Michael Gordon and Judith Miller proved themselves to be duplicitous tools for amplifying every lie about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that leapt from the imaginations of unnamed officials inside the George W. Bush administration. Miller ended up at Fox News where she belongs; but Gordon continues to cite unnamed sources in his stories. In a September 2014 article covering a U.S. delegation’s visit to Moscow, Gordon cites repeatedly unnamed “American officials” and “Western experts.”

The New York Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, recently sought praise for her launch of “AnonyWatch,” which she explains is “intended to draw attention to the gratuitous use of unnamed sources.” (New York Times, 10/19/14 p. 12) But Sullivan’s example is a local piece about a Brooklyn teacher who was accused of sexually abusing students. Her choice leaves readers to wonder about the far more important abuse of unnamed official sources that occurs almost daily in the Times with reporters like Michael Gordon routinely quoting unidentified intelligence and defense officials who have a stake in spinning stories to serve unstated policy ends.

It’s clear that the nation’s mainstream press has learned nothing from the Gary Webb inquisition or the Iraq WMD fabrications. Stenographers just keep on going, like Jeff Leen at the Washington Post, circling the wagons around their official sources and ensuring that whatever the Pentagon or CIA wants printed is dutifully recorded and disseminated.

The simple fact is this: Gary Webb got the story right and his detractors among journalists did grave harm to their own profession. The editors of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times revealed themselves not only to be Establishment mouthpieces, but also “team players.” If you have a chance to see Kill the Messenger it might be helpful to keep this history in mind, and to draw your own conclusions without relying on the new gang of self-promoters who are writing at this moment retread articles trashing a person who was a thousand times the journalist any of them could ever be.