How the media destroyed Gary Webb, the journalist who exposed the CIA drug running operations.
Updated: Jul 10, 2022
Gary Webb was a US Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who broke the story of the CIA involvement in the importation of cocaine into the U.S. In August 1996, Gary Webb published in the San Jose Mercury News a 20,000 word, three-part series entitled "Dark Alliance". The articles detailed the nexus between a California coke kingpin, CIA officials and assets and the Nicaraguan Contra army, whose funding, which had been cut off by an act of Congress in the mid-80s, were a result of selling drugs in the US. Webb found evidence that the CIA had direct contact with powerful crack and cocaine drug smugglers in the US, knew the proceeds were going to fund the murderous Contras movement in Nicaragua, and that the CIA tried to cover it up when other law enforcement agencies began investigating. The story exploded in the US in 1996, and initially it looked to have damaged the CIA beyond repair. But it was Webb and not the CIA who would end up damaged the most by the revelations, all thanks to the “free press” and the mass media.
Gary Webb in 1996.
Ironically, the CIA did little to publicly counter his allegations. Instead, the media did its dirty work for them, most notably the "New York Times", "Los Angeles Times" and the "Washington Post". The mainstream media accused Webb of exaggerating his findings and even in inventing and falsifying them. Encouraged and supported by the CIA, almost all the US major news media launched an aggressive campaign not against the CIA and its drug running operations, but against Webb himself. They went after his story, sources and Webb himself in an unrelentless aggressive campaign that was meant to discredit and destroy both him and his story. In a coordinated attack the Washingtone Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times published tens of articles claiming that Webb’s assertions were bunk. The Los Angeles Times was especially aggressive. The Californian paper assigned no fewer than 17 reporters to “pick apart” Webb and his reporting. While LA times employees denied an outright effort to attack him, 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.”
The L.A. Times' headquarters in El Segundo, California.
This was the General mood in the media in those years, attack the messenger, discredit him and his story and vindicate and defend the CIA. The CIA watched these developments closely, collaborating where and when it could with outlets who wanted to challenge Webb’s reporting. 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 Webb and hist story. Over the month that followed, critical media coverage of the Webb and his story far outnumbered supportive stories, a trend the CIA credited to the Washington Post, The New York Times, and especially the Los Angeles Times. This resulted in Webb’s own editors ending up distancing themselves from their reporter and the story they previously backed. By the end of October, 1996, two months after “Dark Alliance” was published, the tone of the entire CIA-drug story had changed. Most press coverage included, as a routine matter, the now-widespread criticism of Gary Webb and his finding. The “free press” working hand in glove with the CIA had managed to sway public opinion and totally trash and discredit Webb and his story. Webb himself had his reputation, professional credibility and even his life destroyed by the media. However Webb's findings were to be vindicated by none other than the CIA itself who in 1998 was forced to publish a report showing its extensive dealing with Contras and drug dealers who imported and sold drugs to the US.
CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz testifying before a House congressional committee in 1998.
In 1998 the CIA was forced to release a 400 page report that acknowledged the agency had associated with members of the Contra movement who engaged in drug trafficking. The CIA’s defense against Webb’s story had shrunk to a fig leaf: it claimed that "the CIA did not conspire with the Contras" to raise money through cocaine trafficking, just that "the CIA made sure no one could obstruct their drug running operations" and that the CIA even withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the Justice Department, Congress, and even the CIA’s own analytical division. Six weeks after the declassified and heavily censored first volume of the CIA report was made public, its author, Inspector General Frederick Hitz testified before a House congressional committee. Hitz stated that: “During the Contra era, CIA worked with a variety of people to support the Contra program. These included CIA assets, pilots who ferried supplies to the Contras, as well as Contra officials and others. Let me be frank about what we are finding. There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity.” Of course mainstream media and the “journalists” which conspired to discredit and destroy Webb's story, credibility and even his life, largely ignored these findings which exonerated him and his story, and to this day remain unrepentant in how wrong they were. But Webb never could overcome the pain caused by his betrayal at the hands of his journalistic colleagues, his peers. In the years that followed, Webb was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession, the conventional wisdom remained that he had somehow been exposed as a journalistic fraud. His state job ended; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a forced move out of a house near Sacramento, California, and in with his mother.
Webb 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.”
Gary Webb, in his own words.
On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation; and taped a note on the door telling movers, who were coming the next morning, to instead call 911. Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.