Managing a Nightmare: How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb

Eighteen years after it was published, “Dark Alliance,” the San Jose Mercury News’s bombshell investigation into links between the cocaine trade, Nicaragua’s Contra rebels, and African American neighborhoods in California, remains one of the most explosive and controversial exposés in American journalism.

The 20,000-word series enraged black communities, prompted Congressional hearings, and became one of the first major national security stories in history to blow up online. It also sparked an aggressive backlash from the nation’s most powerful media outlets, which devoted considerable resources to discredit author Gary Webb’s reporting. Their efforts succeeded, costing Webb his career. On December 10, 2004, the journalist was found dead in his apartment, having ended his eight-year downfall with two .38-caliber bullets to the head. Dark Alliance: The CIA... Webb, Gary Best Price: $19.47 Buy New $54.00 (as of 06:10 EST - Details)

These days, Webb is being cast in a more sympathetic light. He’s portrayed heroically in a major motion picture set to premiere nationwide next month. And documents newly released by the CIA provide fresh context to the “Dark Alliance” saga — information that paints an ugly portrait of the mainstream media at the time.

On September 18, the agency released a trove of documents spanning three decades of secret government operations. Culled from the agency’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, the materials include a previously unreleased six-page article titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story.” Looking back on the weeks immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the document offers a unique window into the CIA’s internal reaction to what it called “a genuine public relations crisis” while revealing just how little the agency ultimately had to do to swiftly extinguish the public outcry. Thanks in part to what author Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer at the time of publication, describes as “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists,” the CIA’s Public Affairs officers watched with relief as the largest newspapers in the country rescued the agency from disaster, and, in the process, destroyed the reputation of an aggressive, award-winning reporter. Against the State: An ... Rockwell Jr., Llewelly... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 EST - Details)

(Dujmovic’s name was redacted in the released version of the CIA document, but was included in a footnote in a 2010 article in the Journal of Intelligence. Dujmovic confirmed his authorship to The Intercept.)

Webb’s troubles began in August 1996, when his employer, the San Jose Mercury News, published a groundbreaking, three-part investigation he had worked on for more than a year. Carrying the full title “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion,” Webb’s series reported that in addition to waging a proxy war for the U.S. government against Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s, elements of the CIA-backed Contra rebels were also involved in trafficking cocaine to the U.S. in order to fund their counter-revolutionary campaign. The secret flow of drugs and money, Webb reported, had a direct link to the subsequent explosion of crack cocaine abuse that had devastated California’s most vulnerable African American neighborhoods.

Derided by some as conspiracy theory and heralded by others as investigative reporting at its finest, Webb’s series spread through extensive talk radio coverage and global availability via the internet, which at the time was still a novel way to promote national news. Kill the Messenger (Mo... Schou, Nick Best Price: $2.07 Buy New $8.85 (as of 03:52 EDT - Details)

Though “Dark Alliance” would eventually morph into a personal crisis for Webb, it was initially a PR disaster for the CIA. In “Managing a Nightmare,” Dujmovic minced no words in describing the potentially devastating  effect of the series on the agency’s image:

The charges could hardly be worse. A widely read newspaper series leads many Americans to believe CIA is guilty of at least complicity, if not conspiracy, in the outbreak of crack cocaine in America’s cities. In more extreme versions of the story circulating on talk radio and the internet, the Agency was the instrument of a consistent strategy by the US Government to destroy the black community and keep black Americans from advancing. Denunciations of CIA–reminiscent of the 1970s–abound. Investigations are demanded and initiated. The Congress gets involved.

Dujmovic acknowledged that Webb “did not state outright that CIA ran the drug trade or even knew about it.” In fact, the agency’s central complaint, according to the document, was over the graphics that accompanied the The Politics of Heroin... Alfred W. McCoy Best Price: $28.17 Buy New $32.95 (as of 06:35 EST - Details) series, which suggested a link between the CIA and the crack scare, and Webb’s description of the Contras as “the CIA’s army” (despite the fact that the Contras were quite literally an armed, militant group not-so-secretly supported by the U.S., at war with the government of Nicaragua).

Dujmovic complained that Webb’s series “appeared with no warning,” remarking that, for all his journalistic credentials, “he apparently could not come up with a widely available and well-known telephone number for CIA Public Affairs.” This was probably because Webb “was uninterested in anything the Agency might have to say that would diminish the impact of his series,” he wrote. (Webb later said that he did contact the CIA but that the agency would not return his calls; efforts to obtain CIA comment were not mentioned in the “Dark Alliance” series).

Dujmovic also pointed out that much of what was reported in “Dark Alliance” was not new. Indeed, in 1985, more than a decade before the series was published, Associated Press journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger found that Contra groups had “engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua.” In a move that foreshadowed Webb’s experience, the Reagan White House launched “a concerted behind-the-scenes campaign to besmirch the professionalism of Parry and Barger and to discredit all reporting on the contras and drugs,” according to a 1997 article by Peter Kornbluh for the Columbia Journalism Review. “Whether the campaign was the cause or not, coverage was minimal.”

Neverthess, a special senate subcommittee, chaired by then-senator John Kerry, investigated the AP’s findings and, in 1989, released a 1,166-page report on covert U.S. operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It found “considerable evidence” that the Contras were linked to running drugs and guns — and that the U.S. government knew about it.

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