When a mainstream media organization describes someone as their ‘national security reporter’, I immediately pigeonhole them as basically public relations flacks for the agencies they cover because often their main method of ‘news gathering’ is to cultivate sources at high levels within the agencies who will feed them self-serving leaks that these reporters then pass on to us. There are some good reporters on this beat, one being Jane Meyer for the New Yorker magazine and James Bamford who writes for a number of publications, but they tend to be the exception.
But the rot is generally widespread and it seems to be definitely true for NPR where Tom Gjelten was awful and his successor Dina Temple-Raston is even worse. But nowhere was the collusion between the media and covert agencies like the CIA and the NSA more apparent that in the way they got together to attack journalist Gary Webb.
While working for the San Jose Mercury News, Webb published in 1996 an explosive series of stories titled Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion about how the CIA-backed Contras in the war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua were also dealing in crack cocaine and were sending it to the US to fund the war and enrich themselves. This cocaine ended up in the streets of inner cities and fueled the crack cocaine epidemic. The idea that the CIA was at least indirectly responsible for the ravaging of largely black communities in the US while the Regan administration was supposedly waging its war on drugs and Nancy Reagan was asking everyone to ‘Just Say No” to them was deeply disturbing and of course the CIA went into full damage control mode, and their main tactic was to try destroy Webb’s reputation.
In this effort, they were greatly aided by major newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times who, instead of using Webb’s stories to trigger their own investigations into this explosive story using their much greater resources, instead devoted much of their energies largely to poking holes in it. In their efforts to do so, they were aided by their sources within the CIA who eagerly fed them any confidential information that would discredit Webb and his story. Since Webb was a solo reporter working for a small regional newspaper and did not have the resources of a major outlet, there were undoubtedly errors in details but these were seized upon to discredit his central thesis.
Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept describes what they did to Webb and likely led to his spiral into depression and eventual suicide in 2004.
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.
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.”
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.”
Veteran investigative journalist Robert Parry looks closely at the allegations that other media made about Webb’s reporting and says that buried deep in a New York Times review of the new film Kill the Messenger about Webb, there is an acknowledgment that he was right in his main story.
The Times’ movie review by David Carr begins with a straightforward recognition of the long-denied truth to which now even the CIA has confessed: “If someone told you today that there was strong evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency once turned a blind eye to accusations of drug dealing by operatives it worked with, it might ring some distant, skeptical bell. Did that really happen? That really happened.”
Although the Times’ review still quibbles with aspects of Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury-News, the Times appears to have finally thrown in the towel when it comes to the broader question of whether Webb was telling important truths.
Devereaux was also interviewed about his article on the radio show On the Media.
One thing that struck me was that if Webb had published his stories now, he would have had more support from the many alternative news outlets that have sprung up following the disgraceful behavior of the traditional ones.
Kill the Messenger has just been released. Here’s the trailer.