In 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published a series of articles that connected the CIA, the contra rebels in Nicaragua, and the exploding crack trade in Los Angeles. The story launched many conspiracy theories and faced incredible scrutiny from the large news outlets of the day. Bob talks with Ryan Devereaux, a reporter at The Intercept, about a newly released document that details how the agency worked with reporters putting the article under such scrutiny.
BOB: Rumors don’t have to be true to generate a reaction. They merely have to sound...plausible. In 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published a 3-part series by Gary Webb linking the Nicaraguan Civil War, the CIA and, most shockingly, the 80s crack epidemic in America’s inner-cities. Webb’s story went like this: Back in the 80s, the CIA propped up a group of rightwing “contras” dedicated to overthrowing the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The contras financed their revolution by selling huge amounts of cocaine to US traffickers, who refined it into the crack sold by Los Angeles gangs into black neighborhoods. The series fed a pre-existing narrative of African-Americans being targeted by the government -- and thus erupted a firestorm erupted.
MALE VOICE: “What you found here, Gary, is a monster.”
MALE VOICE 2“You have no idea, what you’re getting into.”
MALE VOICE 3: “Are you tell me I should just walk away from this?”
MALE VOICE 2: “You’d be an idiot not to.”
BOB: That’s from a movie out later this month, about Gary Webb titled “Kill the Messenger,” which documents what happened next: a widespread effort, ultimately successful, to discredit Webb and his reporting -- powered by an unusual collaboration between major news organizations and the CIA. Now a declassified CIA report, unearthed by The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux, documents the CIA’s efforts to contain its public relations nightmare.
DEVEREAUX: As Gary Webb would say, in the years that followed, he never believed that there was a sort of vast CIA conspiracy to undermine and destroy Black communities thru the introduction of crack cocaine. But the lede of his story could leave one with that impression especially coupled with the art that accompanied the piece which had a sort of CIA logo with a man smoking combined together. And so the CIA is freaking out about what's going on. They immediately start working with reporters, their briefing former CIA officers who are speaking to the media about the story. They're even as this document notes sort of breaking some of their own rules in commenting on whether or not specific individual people have had relationships to the Central Intelligence Agency so, in short what the CIA did was watch with relief as the biggest papers in the country just ravenously attacked the San Jose Mercury News and went after Gary Webb.
BOB: Why were the other major press so eager to discredit Webb? Is it because Webb's reporting was so wanting? Or is it just because they got scooped? Or is there some other explanation.
DEVEREAUX: I think there's a lot of credibility to the explanation that the LA Times was scooped in its own backyard by a smaller competitor paper. This regional newspaper had basically found this amazing story and run with it in this three part investigation. Webb's story had a whole cast of characters and a lot of moving parts. It was very complicated. But the L.A. Times two years before his story came out had run a piece by reporter Jesse Katz on a drug dealer Freeway Rick Ross and sort of detailing how Rick Ross was this you know, enormous figure in Los Angeles drug trafficking. Two years later Rick Ross appears as a central figure in Webb's reporting. Katz returned to his examination of Rick Ross and it in a sort of strange turn of events published a story responding to Webb's piece that actually downplayed this significance of Ross as a player in the South Central Los Angeles drug scene. Instead of attempting to advance the story they tried to destroy a competitor paper and an award winning investigative journalist.
BOB: Now there are 17 reporters who participated in the debunking process. I assume most or all of them are alive. Have you had a chance to talk to them to find out what was going on with their motivations were?
DEVEREAUX: Author and journalist Nick Schou who wrote the book "Kill the Messenger" interviewed Jesse Katz and in 2013 Katz expressed so serious regret over the way this whole thing played out. I do think in hindsight it definitely seems that at least some journalists who were involved in this process feel that it was over the top.
BOB: Intelligence reporting is a bit of a dance. You the reporting never tell the intelligence agency exactly what you have. And they certainly never tell you but the very bare minimum of what they think they can disclose. In this case...you're saying that the PR strategy was for the CIA to win the trust of these otherwise skeptical reporters by giving them information and access that the reporters normally wouldn't get. Kind of ingratiating themselves. Is that what took place?
DEVEREAUX: What the document suggests is that they were working with a ground base of journalists that they already trusted and when these journalists approached them with an interest in attacking Webb's story, which may have been a way to approach the CIA - 'hey I'm interested in attacking this thing that you're drawing a lot of heat for -- why don't you give me information.' it could have played out like that. And the CIA was more than willing to speak to some of these reporters and sort of cross lines that it doesn't normally cross in addressing very specific things and the media was more than happy to take these anonymous CIA quotes and run with them.
BOB: And how successful were they? What was the effect on Webb's reputation and his career?
DEVEREAUX: I mean, it's complicated there were a lot of deep dives into Webb's reporting and credible reporters did find holes in the reporting.
BOB: For instance there's not a whole lot of evidence that Gary Webb contacted the CIA for comment. Although he said later that there were unreturned phone calls. It never comes up in any of the 3 pieces he wrote. Which is, a huge red flag, is it not?
DEVEREAUX: It's pretty much standard practice to reach out to the agencies that are, you know, in question when you're making bold claims about a particular agency. And in Schou's biography of Webb he also quotes a staffer at the San Jose Mercury News that says that Webb didn't reach out to the CIA for comment because Webb thought that it was sort of useless to reach out to the CIA for comment for something that they were obviously not going to give him any information on.
BOB: Where there other significant gaping holes in the story that these news organizations did locate.
DEVEREAUX: The most substantive criticisms that were leveled at Webb were that his story relied heavily on three convicted drug dealers as sources and some inconsistencies in the time lines that at least one of these individuals that he was focusing on presented. The other concern centered around two words in the lede of his story which was that 'millions of dollars' were involved in this drug ring and 'tons of cocaine' were being peddled on the streets of South Central LA. And reporting that followed in the story didn't seem to support those claims.
BOB: As the other media focused on his reporting, what happened to him and his career?
DEVEREAUX: He was discredited and his paper was discredited. He tendered resignation at the San Jose Mercury News. Sort of moved about in the years that followed but was never ever able to recover the credibility he lost as a result of the attack on his reproting. His depression which of his friends and co-workers suspect was present throughout his life really intensified. His family and friends sort of watched him spiral downward, until he took his own life in 2004.
BOB: What ultimately, do you think, is the legacy of Gary Webb's reporting? The legacy of Dark Alliances?
DEVEREAUX: The CIA, their internal reviews of their own operations revealed that for more than a decade the CIA was not reporting its assets involvement in drug trafficking. This is during the "JUST SAY NO" period when Americans are being told that drugs are the absolute worst thing in the worst - terrible, terrible scourge -- meanwhile the CIA is completely turning a blind eye to its proxy armies who are involved in drug trafficking. I think that without his reporting those revelations have emerged. He felt the 'War on Drugs' was a total hypocrisy. In his original structuring of the story that was the narrative that he really intended to drive home. Disparities in crack cocaine sentencing along racial lines. He was truly ahead of his time in targeting the 'War on Drugs' as a real important social issue that needs critical examination. I think he rightly earned a place among journalists who tried to tell those stories as a legendary important figure.
BOB: Alright Ryan, thank you.
DEVEREAUX: Thanks for very much, Bob.
BOB: Ryan Devereaux is a reporter for The Intercept.