'Dark Alliance' reinforces Gary Webb's crack expose The book expansion of the original San Jose newspaper series makes the U.S. government's involvement more convincing.

Books: The Argument

June 14, 1998|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the sun

Investigative journalist Gary Webb has just published a boo quite likely to rekindle a national debate that appeared to be laid to rest a year ago. The book is "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion" (Seven Stories Press, 548 pages, $24.95). The book ought to recall Webb from the journalistic netherworld to which he has been exiled. Whether it will remains to be seen.

Two years ago, it looked as if Webb would be the next Bob Woodward, a hero because of the corruption he exposed. After Woodward helped bring down U.S. President Richard Nixon with relentless investigative reporting at the Washington Post, Robert Redford played the journalist in the Hollywood version of "All the President's Men."

Webb was not cast immediately by Hollywood on the basis of his series "Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion." But there was talk about a movie version of the August 1996 San Jose Mercury (Calif.) News series, built around Webb's saga of three criminals:

Norwin Meneses, an international drug trafficker who funneled profits to the Nicaraguan Contras as agencies of the U.S. government, during the Ronald Reagan-George Bush administration, allowed his lawbreaking to continue because it served the administration's political ends;

Danilo Blandon, a politicized Nicaraguan sympathetic to the Contras who moved Meneses organization cocaine into the United States, got caught in California, then received a get-out-of-prison free card in exchange for becoming a paid informant to the U.S. government;

Ricky Ross, a Los Angeles dealer who bought Blandon's merchandise, then helped introduce crack, a low-budget form of cocaine, to inner-city customers across the nation.

CIA complicity

What received the most attention, as accolades poured in at first, was Webb's reporting that suggested complicity of the Central Intelligence Agency. The opening paragraph spelled it out: "For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin Americam guerrila army run by the Central Intelligence Agency..."

Webb's expose - with its national security and racial overtones - met with denials from U.S. government officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Justice Department.

Much of the public, suspicious of those government bureaucracies, rejected the denials. But then something unusual happened. Reporters and editors at three of the nation's most influential newspapers decided they believed the government sources more than they believed Webb. First the Washington Post, then the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, published front-page critiques of "Dark Alliance" suggesting Webb's reporting was unreliable.

Webb's editors, shaken by the extent and virulence of the criticism from bigfoot news organizations, nonetheless defended him publicly. On Oct. 10, 1996, six days after the Washington Post published its knockdown article, Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a letter to that newspaper, defending Webb down the line.

"The Post has every right to reach conclusions different from those of the Mercury News," Ceppos said. "But I'm disappointed in the 'what's the big deal?' tone running through the ... critique. If the CIA knew about illegal activities being conducted by its associates, federal law and basic morality required that it notify domestic authorities. It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of story that a newspaper should shine a light on."

Changing tunes

Ceppos' defense seemed to fuel the criticism rather than snuff it out. As the attacks on the Mercury News' reporting began to overshadow the accolades, eventually Ceppos changed his tune. On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a column in his own newspaper discrediting portions of the expose - while refusing to abandon its core findings that "a drug ring associated with the Contras sold large quantities of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles in the 1980s at the time of the crack explosion there" and that "some of the drug profits from those sales went to the Contras."

To my reading, it was a repudiation that repudiated little of significance. Webb's critics, however, read it as a full-fledged apology for a job poorly done. There was certainly nothing halfway about Ceppos' actions after publishing his column. He refused to publish new information Webb had gathered, demoted him within the newsroom, and eventually helped drive him from the newspaper.

Today, it is hard to say how Webb will be remembered by history. But if there is any justice, he will be remembered favorably. His book demonstrates that the original expose was on the right track. Rather than going too far by implicating U.S. government officials in illegal activities, it seems to me the newspaper series did not go far enough.

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