In August 1996, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist named Gary Webb risked his life by publishing a series of articles in the San Jose, California Mercury-News newspaper. They showed that the US government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) might be better described as the “Cocaine Importing Agency.”
Webb’s three-part series, titled Dark Alliance, provided documentation about a massive 1980’s international drug-running ring involving US intelligence operatives, California gangsters and drug dealers, and members of the Ronald Reagan-supported anti-Communist armed resistance in Nicaragua, known as the Contras.
In 1998, Webb released a 546 page book version of Dark Alliance. Stung by allegations that his newspaper series was based on vague surmises, Webb went overboard in his book providing documentation, footnotes, references, and an explanation for anything that could be termed ambiguous. The book is a fascinating read, leaving one with the indelible impression that the US government allied itself with drug smugglers and retailers.
The newspaper articles and the book allege that Contra operatives and narcotics smugglers poured tons of cheap cocaine into California during the 80’s, leading to crack cocaine’s popularity, and the rapid growth of murderous street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods.
Some of the profits from cocaine smuggling were allegedly smuggled back to Nicaragua, in the form of military equipment and funding for the Contras. The CIA and US Department of Justice (DOJ), it seemed, knew or should have known about the smuggling, and allowed it to occur anyway.
Webb’s newspaper articles dropped like a bomb on the CIA, DOJ and news media assigned to cover the Contra war in Nicaragua. Government officials initially ignored Webb’s report, then enlisted allies in the media who were embarrassed that Webb had uncovered and had the guts to publish a story that they should have already been on top of.
Webb’s paper backed away from his articles and tried to silence him. The CIA then admitted that some of Webb’s allegations were true. Disgusted by the wimpiness of his editors, Webb quit the paper in 1997, and now works as an investigator for the California legislature and as a magazine writer. Cannabis Culture has exclusive information about the CIA-drugs connection, and will be presenting this information in a series of articles that begins with this focus on Webb.
Later articles will discuss a lawsuit filed by courageous California attorneys Bill Simpich and Katya Komisaruk against the CIA and the US Department of Justice. We will also explore the connection between one of the alleged Nicaraguan CIA operatives, Danilo Blandon, and the Canadian company Hemp-Agro, which was busted last December for allegedly growing marijuana in its Nicaraguan hemp field.
How did you become a journalist?
I worked on my high school and college papers, and started daily journalism in 1978 at the Kentucky Post. It’s an exciting job.
If you’re going to be an investigative reporter, which is what I was from the start of my journalism career, you do stories for a reason ? bettering things, exposing misdeeds. Regular reporters are satisfied just writing a historical record, but I was more interested in seeing journalism used as a tool for social progressive change.
How did you get to the San Jose Mercury-News?
I started there in late ’88 as an investigative reporter assigned to the Sacramento bureau. I had been doing that in Ohio with the Plain-Dealer [newspaper]as an investigative reporter assigned to the capitol. The Mercury-News hired me to do same thing I was doing in Ohio ? investigate government agencies, do in-depth explanatory analysis exposing public corruption. There was a lot of it in Ohio, tons of it. A lot worse than here in California.
More corruption in a bland Midwest state like Ohio than in California?
Oh yeah. I wrote a story about the Chief Justice of Ohio Supreme Court taking money from the mob. He lost the election after that. I did a bunch of stories about bid rigging, contract favoritism, and drug trafficking in the Ohio State government. They had people in the Youth Authority involved in a prescription drug ring. It was embarrassing for the governor. The drug ring was on the payroll in Youngstown, Ohio. Friends of the head of the Department were convicted drug traffickers and they had ghost jobs, running the state’s largest prescription mill. This is during the height of the drug war and Ohio was a zero tolerance state, but they had crooks on the government payroll.
What did you do once you started working in California?
I had carte blanche to investigate what I wanted. In Fall, 1993, I did a series on asset forfeiture that got the California state law changed. It was about how the police were misusing the asset forfeiture law to rob people. The system was so unfairly set up that you could never get your property back, no matter if you were innocent.
I went up and down the state and found cases in different counties and did a two day series called “The Forfeiture Racket.” The legislature sunsetted the law after that. The police and the Attorney General’s office were not happy. [Former California Attorney General] Dan Lungren described me as ‘a friend of the white powder bar.’ One of my highest compliments.
Lungren claimed that none of it ever happened, but he was wrong. I had just spent six months interviewing people and examining records to show that all of this stuff had been taken from people even though many of them had never been charged with a crime. I had a case where they took a welfare check from a mother because she had a joint in her cigarette pack.
They killed the law because of the article; nothing else had been said about it. Now the situation is that they don’t use California forfeiture law; they use fed law. They have a profit sharing deal. It was a lot easier to steal peoples’ property under state law because they could get any state judge to ok it, but now they have to get federal cooperation and the law is used more like it was intended , which is to get major traffickers ? the kingpins instead of the welfare mothers.
How did you get turned on to the CIA story?
I had done a story about a jailhouse lawyer in Lompoc who had successfully challenged federal asset forfeiture statutes nationwide, almost single-handedly. In 1995, a woman in Oakland called and said she read that story and said she liked the fact that I wasn’t writing that asset forfeiture was great and isn’t it terrible that somebody is trying to overturn it, which is what most newspapers were writing.
She said she had a story for me about her boyfriend, a drug trafficker, and his predicament with the federal government. She had documents from her boyfriend’s federal case: internal FBI records, DEA records, grand jury testimony that I probably never would have gotten. And it was this amazing story about a rogue drug trafficker working for the federal government.
I thought it was an interesting story about Nicaraguan drug traffickers held in jail for years without trial and the government takes all their money and doesn’t let them go to court. This was something like what a Third World country would do.
How did you nail down the real story?
I went back to DC and the national archives. I talked to people who’d been involved in investigation of Contras and drugs back in the 1980’s. I had an unpleasant meeting with the DEA in San Diego. They were pissing and moaning like how dare I write things that would expose an undercover informant of theirs who had sold dope to the Crips and Bloods and they were so worried about exposing him.
They offered to make a deal that if I left him out of the story they would get me an interview with the drug kingpin that I really wanted to talk to, and that’s when I knew something was very wrong: how does the DEA act as a press agent for drug kingpins? That’s when I knew something was very messed up here.
Can you summarize what the newspaper series said?
The series said that there was a drug ring in LA and San Francisco that had sold cocaine in the US for dozens of years, and during the 80’s they were selling cocaine and using the money for the Contras. In LA they were selling it in South Central to a Crip- connected wholesaler named Freeway Ricky Ross, and some of this was going back to Contras in the form of weapons and equipment like night vision goggles.
Evidence strongly pointed to the fact that CIA knew about this; we had documents that there was a meeting between traffickers and an agent in which he instructed them in doing this.
A lot of black leaders note that crack cocaine devastated young blacks, especially black males, and they say claim that the US government engaged in deliberate genocide.
My story didn’t touch on racial motivations in the cocaine supply, but the end results of what was started was the crack panic of 1986 and the sentencing laws and mandatory minimums that came out of that. And these laws have tended to disproportionately affect black males. It was easy to trace the continuum ? look at the covers of Time and Newsweek about crack and crack babies. But I don’t believe the government agents were racially motivated; they were motivated only by money for the contras in Nicaragua.
Was it surprising to you when your own newspaper sold you out on this issue?
The paper’s lawyers and editors examined everything I did, and we did a webpage where people could examine all the documents. This was a totally solid, well-researched story. I had worked for a year on it. The government had largely tried to stop me, by delaying or not complying with my Freedom of Information Act requests, by providing these totally censored documents. After the series came out, the government said it was old news that had already been examined and dismissed.
The black community said that if government knew about drugs coming into our communities, then why didn’t they do something about it. Fellow journalists made excuses for why they didn’t write about this for ten years even though they had plenty of information. The reporters for big papers and television get a big plum beat like the Justice Department or the CIA, and their natural inclination is to protect those agencies and their sources.
The reporter is at the mercy of what his sources tell him. Most journalists are not going to ruin their relationship with their agency. I was not assigned to the CIA, so I was in the unique position of being able to tell the truth, just go in there and slash and burn and walk out. I don’t care what the government thinks of me; my job is to expose them.
But your newspaper sucked!
The Mercury-News initially backed me and then came under attack from the rest of the media, so then they decided to shuffle away from the thing. The editor said there were gray areas we should have explored more, without mentioning that they had cut the story from four parts to three and only given 12,000 words which isn’t enough to tell a story ten years long that took my 500 page book to tell properly.
They tried to reassign me and I said no, you are taking a dive and suppressing additional stories that corroborated what we had written, that took it farther into the DEA and other government agencies. They said we will not run those stories, and instead ran a mealy-mouth apology for telling the truth.
The government by then was denying it, unnamed sources in the Post and Times were denying it. It had taken me a year of research to do this thing; it was very complex, very sequential. I was saying that all other papers are full of shit, they haven’t done their research and I had piles of documents and the editors said ‘Yeah we know you’re right, but we want you to shut up.’ I took sick leave and eventually quit in 1997.
It doesn’t seem like you are too bitter about having moved on.
Now I work as investigator for California legislature, and write for Esquire magazine. I did a relevant article about Operation Pipeline, highway drug interdiction programs that single out Latinos, blacks, hippie-looking people. Pulls them over, interrogates them, looking for drugs and guns. It runs roughshod over civil liberties in the name of the drug war.
The reason we hear so much about racial profiling on highways is because 48 states are doing this. The government has not denied that it does this. I wrote about New Jersey and the governor there admitted it was true. The state highway commissioner there lost his job. Here in California the Highway Patrol is under fire for their interdiction zones in accord with Operation Pipeline.
I got arrested because I am a journalist who visited Steve Kubby. Do you ever get worried that the government is going to harm you for your work as a journalist?
Not really. What are they going to do to me? The story is out there. Anything they do to me just makes it bigger. The CIA put up a big website in response to what I wrote and they released lots of documents, but they are downplaying what I said.. They de- emphasize negative information and play up what exonerates them, which is what you’d expect when an agency tries to investigate itself.
They fail to mention that the drug traffickers were meeting with CIA agents during that entire period. That was the guts of my story. They name the names and corroborated the meetings, but they never mention that these people were Contras who were on the CIA payroll, under orders from the CIA and presumably doing the CIA’s bidding. There are a lot of very damning admissions in their reports.
This interview is for a pot magazine. Did you find out anything about CIA involvement with marijuana smuggling?
There was this one drug ring with the Contras with a major Colombian cannabis exporter, Mike Palmer’s drug ring in Detroit. They were flying tons in C-130’s. Just bringing in major, major dope in ’77-78.
I believe Palmer was busted down in Colombia in ’79-80, recruited by DEA/CIA in ’81, and then ran an airline for the Contras. He continued to smuggle dope for Contras while working for CIA. The federal prosecutor for Detroit called this the biggest marijuana ring in the country.
Have you discovered anything that gives you insight into the drug war?
I think that 50 years from now America will look back on this drug war like we look back on the Communist witch hunt of the 1950’s and say ‘how did we ever let things get this crazy?’
I think this drug war is the government’s propaganda effort to make us surrender civil rights that we wouldn’t have surrendered otherwise unless we believed we were in a crisis.