Despite critics, a good story Crack and the contras

Three views on the controversy over the C.I.A., its allies and drug dealing

November 17, 1996|By STEVE WEINBERG

When Gary Webb started writing what became "Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion," an investigative project for the San Jose Mercury News, he was pretty sure he had something that would attract attention outside his newspaper's circulation area.

An experienced investigative reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer before joining the Mercury News, Webb knew something about attracting controversy as a result of his work.

But little did Webb suspect that the project, about possible Central Intelligence Agency involvement in crack cocaine sales, would attract the kind of attention - both the lavish praise and the severe criticism - it has.

Since the series appeared (Aug. 18-20, 1996, plus follow ups), praise has come from countless readers. But Webb and his editors have also become targets, as skeptical journalists, outraged politicians and accused bureaucrats have questioned their motives, reporting techniques, editing, presentation and conclusions.

Within the Mercury News' own newsroom, there was some grumbling about the series. The Sun raised questions about Webb's reporting in a Sept. 27, 1996, article on 2A by Mark Matthews, a reporter in the Washington Bureau.

The Washington Post published a front-page article (Oct. 4), reported by four people, and a separate piece (Oct. 2) by its media writer suggesting that Webb's series might be misleading. The Mercury News' top editor replied to the newspaper's internal critics by memo and in meetings. He replied to The Post findings in a detailed letter, then took the unusual step of assigning another investigative reporter from the Mercury News to re-report the Webb series. Pete Carey's findings, mostly supportive but occasionally critical, ran in the Mercury News on Oct. 13.

That did not stem the tide of outside scrutiny. The Los Angeles Times published a three-part series (Oct. 20-22) by a ten-person team finding fault with Webb's work. The New York Times published a front-page article (Oct. 21) that was partly critical. Some journalism commentators - in magazines, syndicated columns, op-ed pieces and on the air - outside those big three newspapers have joined in the criticism. Newsweek (Nov. 11) presented the series as more or less discredited. [See Mercury, 6f]

I think the critics have been far too harsh. Despite some hyped phrasing, "Dark Alliance" appears to be praiseworthy investigative reporting.

Webb's critics seem to assume that he began his research with the intention of "getting" the CIA. Not so. The genesis of Webb's revelations, like the genesis of many journalistic blockbusters, is grounded in an experienced investigative reporter with a prepared mind. The way Webb came to his topic demonstrates, once again that there might be lucky reporters, but there are no lazy, lucky reporters.

In 1993, the Mercury News published Webb's series, "The Forfeiture Racket." While reporting that series, Webb ran across the case of a convicted Los Angeles drug dealer, "Freeway Rick" Ross, whose assets had been seized by law enforcement officers. Webb found the Ross case interesting but could not make room for it in the series.

In June 1995, the U.S. Justice Department released a policy memo on asset forfeiture. Because the policy seemed to conflict with federal court decisions, Webb wrote a story. A woman in Oakland, Calif., saw the story and called Webb. Her boyfriend, a Nicaraguan national, was incarcerated, a victim of the local asset forfeiture policy, she said. Webb replied that he appreciated the call, but simply could not write up every forfeiture case that came to his attention.

The woman was insistent. By the way, she mentioned, drug running and U.S. intelligence agencies had inexplicably been mentioned in her boyfriend's case. She said she had a partially redacted federal grand jury transcript about the case. Did Webb want to look at it? Webb, curiosity piqued, said he would meet the woman.

The transcript introduced Webb to Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes, a Nicaraguan national who had been a cocaine seller in the United States before turning informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Blandon was telling the grand jury what he knew about the Nicaraguans under investigation, including the boyfriend of the woman who had called Webb.

Blandon testified that some of his knowledge about Nicaraguans running drugs in the United States came from Norwin Meneses Cantarero, a higher-up in the drug chain.

Blandon and Meneses had been unknown to Webb, but he was interested in discovering more.

About that time, a judge hearing the case of the incarcerated Nicaraguans ordered disclosure of the grand jury transcript so the defendants could read the words of Blandon, their accuser. The U.S. attorney opposed the judge's disclosure order, saying national security was involved. How about if the government just set aside Blandon's testimony? Then there would be no need to delve into his background or credibility

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