A 'Worthless and Whiny' Attack on a Genuine Journalistic Hero

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A 'Worthless and Whiny' Attack on a Genuine Journalistic Hero

Since the release of the film Kill the Messenger, there has been renewed focus on journalist Gary Webb's story, which documented how CIA-linked drug traffickers were supplying US drug dealers with cheap cocaine that helped fuel the crack epidemic in the 1980s. For the Post, this means it's time to argue once again that Webb got the story wrong.

In 1996, in the wake of his explosive "Dark Alliance" series for the San Jose Mercury News (8/18-20/96), the Washington Post was one of the major newspapers to attack Gary Webb (FAIR Blog10/21/14).

It's 2014, and they're still at it.

Since the release of the film Kill the Messenger, there has been renewed focus on Webb's story, which documented how CIA-linked drug traffickers were supplying US drug dealers with cheap cocaine that helped fuel the crack epidemic in the 1980s. For the Post, this means it's time to argue once again that Webb got the story wrong.

This time around that task fell to Jeff Leen, an assistant managing editor at the paper. "An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof," he writes  (10/17/14), and by that standard, he thinks Webb failed: "The Hollywood version of his story–a truth-teller persecuted by the cowardly and craven mainstream media–is pure fiction."

But Leen's attempted  takedown falls apart before it ever gets going, with this claim:

Webb's story made the extraordinary claim that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America.

 That is not true. Webb's report showed that a major crack dealer in California was working with suppliers linked to the CIA-backed Contras, who were waging a terrorist campaign in Nicaragua in the hopes of removing the left-wing Sandinista government. Some of the money from the drug trade went to supporting the Contras.

The idea that Webb reported that the CIA itself was directly dealing drugs, and that it was "responsible for the crack epidemic" in this country, is a misrepresentation designed to undermine Webb. And it's not even a new one. As Norman Solomon wrote for Extra! (1-2/97) about the original Webb hit pieces:

Judging the Mercury News series invalid, the preeminent denouncers frequently berated the newspaper for failing to prove what Webb never claimed. The Washington Post, for instance, devoted paragraph after paragraph of its October 4 barrage to illuminating what Webb had already acknowledged in his articles–that while he proves Contra links to major cocaine importation, he can't identify specific CIA officials who knew of or condoned the trafficking.

Webb spoke out about this after the series was published, since the misconceptions about what he reported were so common. As he said in one 1996 lecture, parts of which aired on CounterSpin (10/10/14), his story "doesn't say that the CIA masterminded the influx of crack cocaine into America. What it says is that this Nicaraguan cocaine ring brought tons of cocaine into California."

Leen deceptively asserts that Webb only later admitted this:

 In his book he took pains to distance himself from the crack claim. "I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague,"  he wrote.

 But Webb was saying–and writing–that all along.

Leen goes on to quote from Webb's "Dark Alliance" lead, which quite plainly does not make the sweeping allegation Leen attributes to him:

But the claims Gary made, man, were they extraordinary:

"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 US Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found."

Instead of holding Webb accountable for something he didn't report, let's pretend that this passage is in fact what Webb's reporting set out to prove–that Contra-linked drug traffickers were major players in the cocaine business in the United States, and that their ability to provide cheap cocaine to one major dealer was a major factor in the explosion of the crack epidemic.

It's hard to see how Webb was wrong about any of that. Leen points to a 1998 report from the inspector general of the CIA, Fred Hitz, that he says cleared the agency. But Leen's remarkably narrow reading of the CIA's self-investigation misses the point. The report actually confirmed the core of Webb's series; some would argue it actually showed that the scandal was even bigger than Webb thought.

As Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair of CounterPunch (10/17/14) wrote, the CIA report "proved on close reading to buttress Webb's accusations."

They elaborated:

Hitz's report describes a cable from the CIA's Directorate of Operations dated October 22, 1982, describing a prospective meeting between Contra leaders in Costa Rica for "an exchange in [US] of narcotics for arms." But the CIA's Director of Operations instructed the Agency's field office not to look into this imminent arms-for-drugs transaction "in light of the apparent involvement of US persons throughout." In other words, the CIA knew that Contra leaders were scheduling an arms-for-drugs exchange, and the Agency was prepared to let the deal proceed.

In 1984, the inspector general discloses, the CIA intervened with the US Justice Department to seek the return from police custody of $36,800 in cash that had been confiscated from Nicaraguan drug-smuggling gang in the Bay Area whose leader, Norwin Meneses, was a prominent Contra fund-raiser. The money had been taken during what was at the time the largest seizure of cocaine in the history of California.

The CIA's inspector general said the Agency took action to have the money returned in order "to protect an operational equity, i.e., a Contra support group in which it [CIA] had an operational interest." Hitz also unearthed a CIA memo from that time revealing that the Agency understood the need to keep this whole affair under wraps because, according to the memo (written by the CIA’s assistant general counsel), “there are sufficient factual details which would cause certain damage to our image and program in Central America.”

The 146-page first volume is full of admissions of this nature but these two disclosures alone–allowing a Contra drug deal to go forward, and taking extraordinary action to recoup the proceeds of a drug deal gone awry–should have been greeted as smoking guns, confirming charges made since 1985 about the Agency’s role.

So the CIA was aware that the Contras–a violent insurgency force the agency was instrumental in developing–were planning to raise funds by selling drugs,  and the agency actually intervened to recover funds for the drug smuggling ring–which was one of the more explosive aspects of Webb's series.

But don't take it from me, Leen writes at one point–even some of Webb's admirers agree he was wrong:

You don’t have to believe me or [Mercury News editor Jerry] Ceppos, or anybody else from the mainstream media on this one. These are the words of Nick Schou, the OC Weekly editor who wrote the book that serves as the basis, with Webb's book, for the movie: "'Dark Alliance' contained major flaws of hyperbole that were both encouraged and ignored by his editors, who saw the story as a chance to win a Pulitzer Prize," Schou wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2006. On the crack explosion claim: "The story offered no evidence to support such sweeping conclusions, a fatal error that would ultimately destroy Webb, if not his editors."

But this is an extraordinarily selective–and deceptive–read of Schou's column. Anyone who clicks on that link would see that Schou's point was that even the CIA admitted that "the agency had covered up Contra drug trafficking for more than a decade," a finding that "confirmed key chunks of Webb's allegations." The  'sweeping conclusions' Schou and others point to concern how much responsibility one should assign these CIA-linked drug traffickers to the crack epidemic, and to some disagreements about how much of their cocaine profits actually went to the Contras.

When Al Giordano and Bill Conroy of NarcoNews (10/20/14) asked Schou about how he was portrayed in the Post's hit piece, he sent them this response:

I'm glad this guy wrote what he did, because it reveals exactly why the movie gets the story so right. The writer of this worthless and whiny op-ed perfectly captures the craven mentality of cowardice of most of Webb's critics at the three major papers. And he totally takes my statement out of context. I do believe that "Dark Alliance" contained major flaws of hyperbole, but they were mostly the story's logo and a few unnecessary phrases that overstated the evidence Webb had at the time. What I've always argued is that had Webb been allowed to keep writing, and had the other papers, including the Post, actually done their job, the true extent of the story would have been revealed. The fact remains that Webb's story nonetheless forced the CIA to admit that the true flaw of Dark Alliance was hardly one of hyperbole but the exact opposite-–the story radically understated the scandal.

 And, it should be noted, Leen doesn't just dismiss Webb's work. He writes:

Beginning in 1985, journalists started pursuing tips about the CIA's role in the drug trade. Was the agency allowing cocaine to flow into the United States as a means to fund its secret war supporting the Contra rebels in Nicaragua? Many journalists, including me, chased that story from different angles, but the extraordinary proof was always lacking.

That came as news to veteran investigative reporter Robert Parry, who co-wrote some of the pieces that documented Contra-drug trafficking in the 1980s for the Associated Press. Parry (Consortium News, 10/18/14) responded that he and his co-author Brian Barger

were looking for something different when we encountered the evidence on Contra-cocaine trafficking. We were trying to figure out how the Contras were sustaining themselves in the field after Congress cut off the CIA’s financing for their war.

We were, in the old-fashioned journalistic parlance, "following the money." The problem was the money led, in part, to the reality that all the major Contra organizations were collaborating with drug traffickers.

He adds that

what Leen says is not true. Leen makes no reference to the groundbreaking AP story in 1985 or other disclosures in the ensuing years. He just insists that "the extraordinary proof" was lacking–which it may have been for him, given his lackluster abilities.

 And Parry makes a more fundamental point, that Leen is wrong when advises that in big-time journalism, an "extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof":

A different rule actually governs American journalism–that journalists need "extraordinary proof" if a story puts the US government or an "ally" in a negative light, but pretty much anything goes when criticizing an "enemy."

Indeed, recent history is full of such examples. Webb tried to ignore this double standard, by investigating links between the CIA, US foreign policy and the drug war. None of his conclusions were comforting to Washington, elite interests or corporate media–and that is what precisely made him a target.

As Parry's piece concludes:

 

Perhaps all one needs to know about the sorry state of today's mainstream journalism is that Jeff Leen is the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for investigations, and Gary Webb is no longer with us.

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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