Journalist Gary Webb Gets the Last Word in “Kill the Messenger”
Jeff Cohen from Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College says Webb exposed how the CIA-backed right-wing Contras in Nicaragua were partly supported by cocaine trafficking, which contributed to the crack supply in major US cities
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to To Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Kill the Messenger, opening in theaters across the country this weekend, portrays Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb. Gary Webb was an American investigative reporter best known for his 1996 three-part series Dark Alliance in the San Jose Mercury News. Webb exposed the drug traffickers allied with the CIA right-wing Contra army in Nicaragua. Let’s have a look at the trailer.
Now with us to talk about Gary Webb’s contribution to journalism by exposing the CIA is Jeff Cohen. Jeff Cohen is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media in Ithaca College and the founder of the media watchdog FAIR. He is the cofounder of RootsAction.org. And he joins us from Ithaca, New York.
Thanks for joining us, Jeff.
JEFF COHEN, DIRECTOR, PARK CENTER FOR INDEPENDENT MEDIA: Thank you.
SHARMINI: Jeff, Webb exposed the narco veins of the CIA through his investigative journalism. You were watching some of this unravel. Take us back. Tell us about the time and the importance of the story he broke.
COHEN: Well, the important issue is that big elite newspapers and magazines had suppressed the Contra story beginning from its eruption back in 1985 during the Contra War, when the CIA, under Reagan, had organized and funded, supervised a Contra army, a right-wing army to try to overthrow the socialist government of Nicaragua, the Sandinista government.
And beginning in 1985, Brian Barger and Bob Perry at Associated Press had exposed that some of the Contras and their allies were engaging in drug trafficking. And the big newspapers wouldn’t pick it up. Move to 1987, where Congressman Rangel, the head the House Narcotics Committee, does a preliminary investigation of whether the CIA’s Contras or their allies are trafficking in cocaine. And Congressman Rangel says, we need a more serious investigation. The Washington Post distorted that. He said, here’s a letter to the editor that corrects the record, and The Washington Post refused to publish it.
That same year, 1987, Time magazine, two reporters have worked up this story linking the CIA’s Contras or their associates to drug trafficking, and they can’t get it into the magazine. And one of the reporters is pulled aside by an editor and says, look, Time magazine–this is a word-for-word quote–Time magazine “is institutionally behind the Contras. If this story were about the Sandinistas and drugs, you’d have no trouble getting it in the magazine.”
So you could go on and on. Senator John Kerry did an investigation. He found that Contra allies were engaged in drug trafficking, and they apparently were protected by reasons of so-called national security. That was in 1989. So the mainstream media has–and when that happened, by the way, Newsweek called Senator Kerry a “randy conspiracy buff.”
So that’s the context, Sharmini.
You jump forward, the story’s sort of dormant. And in 1996, in a small daily, a regional daily, the San Jose Mercury, this investigative reporter, Gary Webb, comes forward and he names names. He’s got two Nicaraguan drug traffickers, Danilo Blandón and Norwin Meneses, and he’s able to show that they seem to be protected. At least, law enforcement, drug enforcement was complaining that these guys seemed to have some sort of protection from the federal government.
And then Gary Webb links these two Nicaraguan drug traffickers to one of the most important crack dealers in Los Angeles and other cities. His name is Freeway Ricky Ross. So a story that The New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times had so bottled up is now exploding because of Gary Webb and his 1996 series Dark Alliance, which, thanks to this new medium, the internet, Gary Webb–it was–you know, San Jose Mercury being out in Silicon Valley, it’s one of the first newspapers that had a website. So all this documentation behind this conspiracy where a major crack dealer in L.A., which had a horrible crack problem, is revealed to have gotten a chunk of his cocaine from Nicaraguan drug traffickers linked to the CIA’s Contras. And all the background information is now on the world wide web.
And so I was on tour in ’96 on campuses. I ran into African-American students in every campus. All they wanted to talk about was Dark Alliance. This story was huge in African-American communities and talk radio, among social justice activists. And that’s what led to these three newspapers that had so ignored or suppressed the Contra cocaine story in the 1980s; it led to the most ferocious assault on a reporter ever, and that was the assault on Gary Webb a few weeks after his series appeared.
SHARMINI: Jeff, we know the importance of the work that Webb has done. But what people don’t realize is the influx of drugs, particularly crack cocaine, that this sparked and fueled and the widespread distribution of it in our cities that led to a drug addict epidemic in the ’80s. How–and this was risky business–how did Webb get into that community to unravel all of this?
COHEN: Well, from what I understand, the Hollywood movie that’s opening this weekend talks about how he stumbled into it. Gary Webb had background as an investigative reporter on the drug war. And so he was in a courtroom, and he hears references to the Contras in Nicaragua, which was sort of new for him, semi-new. And he stumbled on this story where he’s in a courtroom and one of these Nicaraguan drug traffickers is saying, yes, he delivered all these drugs into the U.S. and the U.S. government knew about it. So that set off Gary on a six-month to eight-month, nine-month investigation that resulted in Dark Alliance.
And I should say that after the controversy, because of Gary Webb’s series in the San Jose Mercury, it forced–and, I should say, the public uproar that Congresswoman Maxine Waters–there were teach-ins and protests in black communities and other communities across the country. The CIA was forced to have its inspector general do an investigation. That investigation came out in 1998, the final report, October 1998. And it confirmed that there were dozens of Contras or Contra-related entities that were dealing in drugs. The CIA had been told about it, and they apparently looked the other way in the name of overthrowing a left-wing government in Nicaragua. So what was more important to the CIA was overthrowing a progressive government in Nicaragua, and any concerns about drugs coming into this country during the crack epidemic were certainly secondary.
SHARMINI: And further, Webb charged that the Reagan administration actually shielded the inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to raise money for the Contras, especially after Congress banned through the Boland Amendment–which was a series of amendments prohibiting direct funding of the Contra. Tell us about that.
COHEN: Right. It was less that they were shielding the inner-city crack dealers and it was more that they were shielding the people that were–some of the people–not all, but some of the people that were bringing cocaine into the country before it was turned into crack. And many of them were connected to the Nicaraguan Contras. Those are the ones that various investigations have found to have been protected, and that was because of Reagan’s mania to overthrow a progressive government in Nicaragua.
And we should say that Oliver North, the colonel who was involved in what you’re talking about, where the Congress had banned U.S. appropriation, U.S. tax money to go to these right-wing Contras in Nicaragua, Colonel North was part of the undercover supply operation to keep them funded. And if you look at Oliver North’s notebooks, he’s got one reference to $14 million supporting arms coming from drugs. That’s in Colonel Oliver North’s notebook. Another reference is DC-6 out of New Orleans bringing drugs into the U.S.
And so what’s important here is that in about 1989 the U.S. ally Costa Rica, on the southern border of Nicaragua, their narcotics commission did an investigation and found that because of the Contras, their activity on the southern border of Nicaragua, which is Costa Rica, that they were dealing in arms and drug trafficking. And the narcotics commission asked the president to ban certain U.S. leaders from Costa Rican soil. President Arias of Costa Rica, who was a U.S. ally and a hero of the mainstream media at the time, they ordered that Colonel North never set foot in Costa Rica; the U.S. national security adviser, Poindexter (that’s the equivalent of a Condie Rice); the CIA station chief chief in Costa Rica was banned; U.S. Ambassador. They were banned from setting foot in Costa Rica. Associated Press did cover that story. The mainstream dailies refused to touch it.
And, again, part of this is the mainstream dailies, some of the reporters, the elite reporters, are very close with the [CIA] . Some of them are afraid to be accused of being unpatriotic or liberal. And in the early years, ’85, ’86, the Reagan administration still had intimidated many of these reporters.
But the role that The Washington Post, New York Times, and L.A. Times played in attacking Gary Webb when he revived a story they had suppressed, that’s the tragedy. It’s what drove Gary Webb out of journalism. And, sadly, it’s what drove him to his suicide.
SHARMINI: Fascinating story and a sad one.
COHEN: But, thankfully, Gary may have the last word thanks to this Hollywood movie, Kill the Messenger, opening this weekend.
SHARMINI: Thank you so much for joining us, Jeff.
COHEN: Thank you.
SHARMINI: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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