Eighteen years after it was published, “Dark Alliance,” the San Jose Mercury News’s bombshell investigation into links between the cocaine trade, Nicaragua’s Contra rebels, and African American neighborhoods in California, remains one of the most explosive and controversial exposés in American journalism.
The 20,000-word series enraged black communities, prompted Congressional hearings, and became one of the first major national security stories in history to blow up online. It also sparked an aggressive backlash from the nation’s most powerful media outlets, which devoted considerable resources to discredit author Gary Webb’s reporting. Their efforts succeeded, costing Webb his career. On December 10, 2004, the journalist was found dead in his apartment, having ended his eight-year downfall with two .38-caliber bullets to the head.
These days, Webb is being cast in a more sympathetic light. He’s portrayed heroically in a major motion picture set to premiere nationwide next month. And documents newly released by the CIA provide fresh context to the “Dark Alliance” saga — information that paints an ugly portrait of the mainstream media at the time.
On September 18, the agency released a trove of documents spanning three decades of secret government operations. Culled from the agency’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, the materials include a previously unreleased six-page article titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story.” Looking back on the weeks immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the document offers a unique window into the CIA’s internal reaction to what it called “a genuine public relations crisis” while revealing just how little the agency ultimately had to do to swiftly extinguish the public outcry. Thanks in part to what author Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer at the time of publication, describes as “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists,” the CIA’s Public Affairs officers watched with relief as the largest newspapers in the country rescued the agency from disaster, and, in the process, destroyed the reputation of an aggressive, award-winning reporter.
(Dujmovic’s name was redacted in the released version of the CIA document, but was included in a footnote in a 2010 article in the Journal of Intelligence. Dujmovic confirmed his authorship to The Intercept.)
Webb’s troubles began in August 1996, when his employer, the San Jose Mercury News, published a groundbreaking, three-part investigation he had worked on for more than a year. Carrying the full title “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion,” Webb’s series reported that in addition to waging a proxy war for the U.S. government against Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s, elements of the CIA-backed Contra rebels were also involved in trafficking cocaine to the U.S. in order to fund their counter-revolutionary campaign. The secret flow of drugs and money, Webb reported, had a direct link to the subsequent explosion of crack cocaine abuse that had devastated California’s most vulnerable African American neighborhoods.
Derided by some as conspiracy theory and heralded by others as investigative reporting at its finest, Webb’s series spread through extensive talk radio coverage and global availability via the internet, which at the time was still a novel way to promote national news.
Though “Dark Alliance” would eventually morph into a personal crisis for Webb, it was initially a PR disaster for the CIA. In “Managing a Nightmare,” Dujmovic minced no words in describing the potentially devastating effect of the series on the agency’s image:
The charges could hardly be worse. A widely read newspaper series leads many Americans to believe CIA is guilty of at least complicity, if not conspiracy, in the outbreak of crack cocaine in America’s cities. In more extreme versions of the story circulating on talk radio and the internet, the Agency was the instrument of a consistent strategy by the US Government to destroy the black community and keep black Americans from advancing. Denunciations of CIA–reminiscent of the 1970s–abound. Investigations are demanded and initiated. The Congress gets involved.
Dujmovic acknowledged that Webb “did not state outright that CIA ran the drug trade or even knew about it.” In fact, the agency’s central complaint, according to the document, was over the graphics that accompanied the series, which suggested a link between the CIA and the crack scare, and Webb’s description of the Contras as “the CIA’s army” (despite the fact that the Contras were quite literally an armed, militant group not-so-secretly supported by the U.S., at war with the government of Nicaragua).
Dujmovic complained that Webb’s series “appeared with no warning,” remarking that, for all his journalistic credentials, “he apparently could not come up with a widely available and well-known telephone number for CIA Public Affairs.” This was probably because Webb “was uninterested in anything the Agency might have to say that would diminish the impact of his series,” he wrote. (Webb later said that he did contact the CIA but that the agency would not return his calls; efforts to obtain CIA comment were not mentioned in the “Dark Alliance” series).
Dujmovic also pointed out that much of what was reported in “Dark Alliance” was not new. Indeed, in 1985, more than a decade before the series was published, Associated Press journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger found that Contra groups had “engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua.” In a move that foreshadowed Webb’s experience, the Reagan White House launched “a concerted behind-the-scenes campaign to besmirch the professionalism of Parry and Barger and to discredit all reporting on the contras and drugs,” according to a 1997 article by Peter Kornbluh for the Columbia Journalism Review. “Whether the campaign was the cause or not, coverage was minimal.”
Neverthess, a special senate subcommittee, chaired by then-senator John Kerry, investigated the AP’s findings and, in 1989, released a 1,166-page report on covert U.S. operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (summary here). It found “considerable evidence” that the Contras were linked to running drugs and guns — and that the U.S. government knew about it.
From the subcommittee report:
On the basis of this evidence, 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 either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.
The chief of the CIA’s Central America Task Force was also quoted as saying, “With respect to (drug trafficking) by the Resistance Forces…it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people.”
Despite such damning assessments, the subcommittee report received scant attention from the country’s major newspapers. Seven years later, Webb would be the one to pick up the story. His articles distinguished themselves from the AP’s reporting in part by connecting an issue that seemed distant to many U.S. readers — drug trafficking in Central America — to a deeply-felt domestic story, the impact of crack cocaine in California’s urban, African American communities.
“Dark Alliance” focused on the lives of three men involved in shipping cocaine to the U.S.: Ricky “Freeway” Ross, a legendary L.A. drug dealer; Oscar Danilo Blandón Reyes, considered by the U.S. government to be Nicaragua’s biggest cocaine dealer living in the United States; and Meneses Cantarero, a powerful Nicaraguan player who had allegedly recruited Blandón to sell drugs in support of the counter-revolution. The series examined the relationship between the men, their impact on the drug market in California and elsewhere, and the disproportionate sentencing of African Americans under crack cocaine laws.
And while its content was not all new, the series marked the beginning of something that was: an in-depth investigation published outside the traditional mainstream media outlets and successfully promoted on the internet. More than a decade before Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, Webb showcased the power and reach of online journalism. Key documents were hosted on the San Jose Mercury News website, with hyperlinks, wiretap recordings and follow-up stories. The series was widely discussed on African American talk radio stations; on some days attracting more than one million readers to the newspaper’s website. As Webb later remarked, “you don’t have be The New York Times or The Washington Post to bust a national story anymore.”
But newspapers like the Times and the Post seemed to spend far more time trying to poke holes in the series than in following up on the underreported scandal at its heart, the involvement of U.S.-backed proxy forces in international drug trafficking. The Los Angeles Times was especially aggressive. Scooped in its own backyard, the California paper assigned no fewer than 17 reporters to pick apart Webb’s reporting. While employees denied an outright effort to attack the Mercury News, one of the 17 referred to it as the “get Gary Webb team.” Another said at the time, “We’re going to take away that guy’s Pulitzer,” according to Kornbluh’s CJR piece. Within two months of the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the L.A. Times devoted more words to dismantling its competitor’s breakout hit than comprised the series itself.
The CIA watched these developments closely, collaborating where it could with outlets who wanted to challenge Webb’s reporting. Media inquiries had started almost immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” and Dujmovic in “Managing a Nightmare” cites the CIA’s success in discouraging “one major news affiliate” from covering the story. He also boasts that the agency effectively departed from its own longstanding policies in order to discredit the series. “For example, in order to help a journalist working on a story that would undermine the Mercury News allegations, Public Affairs was able to deny any affiliation of a particular individual — which is a rare exception to the general policy that CIA does not comment on any individual’s alleged CIA ties.”
The document chronicles the shift in public opinion as it moved in favor of the CIA, a trend that began about a month and a half after the series was published. “That third week in September was a turning point in media coverage of this story,” Dujmovic wrote, citing “[r]espected columnists, including prominent blacks,” along with the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, The Weekly Standard and the Washington Post. The agency supplied the press, “as well as former Agency officials, who were themselves representing the Agency in interviews with the media,” with “these more balanced stories,” Dujmovic wrote. The Washington Post proved particularly useful. “Because of the Post‘s national reputation, its articles especially were picked up by other papers, helping to create what the Associated Press called a ‘firestorm of reaction’ against the San Jose Mercury News.” Over the month that followed, critical media coverage of the series (“balanced reporting”) far outnumbered supportive stories, a trend the CIA credited to the Post, The New York Times, “and especially the Los Angeles Times.” Webb’s editors began to distance themselves from their reporter.
By the end of October, two months after “Dark Alliance” was published, “the tone of the entire CIA-drug story had changed,” Dujmovic was pleased to report. “Most press coverage included, as a routine matter, the now-widespread criticism of the Mercury News allegations.”
“This success has to be in relative terms,” Dujmovic wrote, summing up the episode. “In the world of public relations, as in war, avoiding a rout in the face of hostile multitudes can be considered a success.”
There’s no question that “Dark Alliance” included flaws, which the CIA was able to exploit.
In his CJR piece, Kornbluh said the series was “problematically sourced” and criticized it for “repeatedly promised evidence that, on close reading, it did not deliver.” It failed to definitively connect the story’s key players to the CIA, he noted, and there were inconsistencies in Webb’s timeline of events.
But Kornbluh also uncovered problems with the retaliatory reports described as “balanced” by the CIA. In the case of the L.A. Times, he wrote, the paper “stumbled into some of the same problems of hyperbole, selectivity, and credibility that it was attempting to expose” while ignoring declassified evidence (also neglected by the New York Times and the Washington Post) that lent credibility to Webb’s thesis. “Clearly, there was room to advance the contra/drug/CIA story rather than simply denounce it,” Kornbluh wrote.
The Mercury News was partially responsible “for the sometimes distorted public furor the stories generated,” Kornbluh said, but also achieved “something that neither the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, nor The New York Times had been willing or able to do — revisit a significant story that had been inexplicably abandoned by the mainstream press, report a new dimension to it, and thus put it back on the national agenda where it belongs.”
In October, the story of Gary Webb will reach a national moviegoing audience, likely reviving old questions about his reporting and the outrage it ignited. Director Michael Cuesta’s film, Kill the Messenger, stars Jeremy Renner as the hard-charging investigative reporter and borrows its title from a 2006 biography written by award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou, who worked as a consultant on the script.
Discussing the newly disclosed “Managing a Nightmare” document, Schou says it squares with what he found while doing his own reporting. Rather than some dastardly, covert plot to destroy (or, as some went so far as to suggest, murder) Webb, Schou posits that the journalist was ultimately undone by the petty jealousies of the modern media world. The CIA “didn’t really need to lift a finger to try to ruin Gary Webb’s credibility,” Schou told The Intercept. “They just sat there and watched these journalists go after Gary like a bunch of piranhas.”
“They must have been delighted over at Langley, the way this all unfolded,” Schou added.
At least one journalist who helped lead the campaign to discredit Webb, feels remorse for what he did. As Schou reported for L.A. Weekly, in a 2013 radio interview L.A. Times reporter Jesse Katz recalled the episode, saying, “As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder[ed] how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope. And we did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”
Schou, too, readily concedes there were problems with Webb’s reporting, but maintains that the most important components of his investigation stood up to scrutiny, only to be buried under the attacks from the nation’s biggest papers.
“I think it’s fair to take a look at the story objectively and say that it could have been better edited, it could have been packaged better, it would have been less inflammatory. And sure, maybe Gary could have, like, actually put in the story somewhere ‘I called the CIA X-amount of times and they didn’t respond.’ That wasn’t in there,” he said. “But these are all kind of minor things compared to the bigger picture, which is that he documented for the first time in the history of U.S. media how CIA complicity with Central American drug traffickers had actually impacted the sale of drugs north of the border in a very detailed, accurate story. And that’s, I think, the take-away here.”
As for Webb’s tragic death, Schou is certain it was a direct consequence of the smear campaign against him.
“As much as it’s true that he suffered from a clinical depression for years and years — and even before ‘Dark Alliance’ to a certain extent — it’s impossible to view what happened to him without understanding the death of his career as a result of this story,” he explained. “It was really the central defining event of his career and of his life.”
“Once you take away a journalist’s credibility, that’s all they have,” Schou says. “He was never able to recover from that.”
In “Managing a Nightmare,” Dujmovic attributed the initial outcry over the “Dark Alliance” series to “societal shortcomings” that are not present in the spy agency.
“As a personal post-script, I would submit that ultimately the CIA-drug story says a lot more about American society on the eve of the millennium that [sic] it does about either the CIA or the media,” he wrote. “We live in somewhat coarse and emotional times–when large numbers of Americans do not adhere to the same standards of logic, evidence, or even civil discourse as those practiced by members of the CIA community.”
Webb obviously saw things differently. He reflected on his fall from grace in the 2002 book, Into the Buzzsaw. Prior to “Dark Alliance,” Webb said, “I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests.”
“And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job,” Webb wrote. “The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.”
Photo: Webb: Bob Berg/Getty Images; Kill the Messenger: Chuck Zlotnick/Focus Features; Contras: Bill Gentile/Corbis