Gary Webb and the Media’s Rush to the Barricades

Edward S. Herman

Every so often the mainstream media’s pack
response to a story throws a powerful light on their deep
collective biases. Such was the case following the publication of
Gary Webb’s series in the San Jose Mercury News on the
CIA’s connection to the drug epidemic in Los Angeles.
Characteristically, the media failed to reproduce or give a
reasonable summary of the contents of the series, although it had
a great deal of interesting detail on a very important subject.
Offering that content, however, was incompatible with the
knocking-down-a-straw-person approach that the media found more
to their liking.

Webb never claimed that the CIA was
directly involved in drug sales by Contra-related individuals, or
that they planned a hit on the black community of Los Angeles. He
found them indirectly involved only in two aspects: the CIA
surely knew about the Contra involvement and did nothing to end
it, and Webb gives compelling evidence that the CIA and other
official forces protected the Contra-related drug dealers who
lived in this country and traveled around freely. Much easier to
deal with Webb by saying that he never proves the CIA were out on
the street selling.

On December 12, a program on Britain’s ITV,
"The Big Story," made claims about the CIA-Contra-drug
connection that went beyond those of Gary Webb. It was contended
there that the CIA "actively encouraged drug-trafficking in
order to fund right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua during the
1980s, and a CIA agent in Nicaragua was employed to ensure the
money went to the Contras and not into the pockets of drug
barons,…" (Christopher Bellamy, in the Independent
[London], December 12, 1996). A main source of the story was
Carlos Cabezas, a former smuggler who had shipped cocaine from
Central America to San Francisco and then taken the proceeds to
the Miami headquarters of Contra leader Adolf Calero and to
Contra groups in Costa Rica. The ITV program also interviewed
Celerino Castillo, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officer
working in El Salvador, who displayed flight plans for drug (and
money) shipments from CIA hangars in El Salvador into and out of
the United States. The New York Times had an article
reporting Calero’s denial of any knowledge of a drug link (Nov.
27), but it hasn’t yet gotten around to Cabezas or Castillo.


The Contra-Drug-Reagan
Connection Context

Honest news reporting of the Webb story
would have put it into the context of the earlier massive
evidence that the Contras were deeply involved in the drug
business, that much of their sales came into the United States in
planes used to bring supplies to those "freedom
fighters" (i.e., our terrorists), and that this was known to
the Reagan administration and was aggressively protected. The
Colombian drug barons also made large gifts to their Contra
friends. A number of entries in Oliver North’s diary make it
clear that he and his fellow felons and sponsors of terrorism
knew, accepted, and facilitated Contra drug dealing. In a
conversation with Richard Secord dated July 12, 1985, for
example, North noted "14 M [million dollars] to finance
[arms stored in a Honduran warehouse] came from drugs." The
evidence of knowledge, protection, and support was overwhelming,
although it came out in a back page trickle, in the alternative
media, and in the Kerry committee hearings and report. (For
further evidence, see Norman Solomon’s excellent "Snow
Job," in the Jan.-Feb. 1997 EXTRA!)

But at the time (1983-1990) the Reagan-Bush
administrations not only aggressively aided, abetted and
protected Contra drug dealing, they engaged in a major and
dishonest campaign to make the Sandinistas the drug trade
villains. Reagan asserted repeatedly before national audiences
that "top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply
involved in drug trafficking," and in one of the most
shameful episodes in U.S. media history, the mainstream media
allowed this dual effort at suppression and transference to
succeed. As an important part of the suppression effort, the
media marginalized the Kerry committee hearings and report of
1989, even deriding Kerry as an extremist and a kook for pursuing
this matter so unrelentingly (a "randy conspiracy buff"
in Newsweek’s putdown). (For more details, Robert Parry,
"Lost History: Contra- Crack Story Assailed," The
, Oct. 28, 1996.)


Old and Stale History

In fending off the Webb story the
mainstream media have had the chutzpah to declare the underlying
facts about Contra-drug-CIA involvement an "old story."
But as the mainstream media downplayed the "old story"
when it was new, not allowing it to become a big story that could
move the public, this line of countering Webb is completely
dishonest. They protected Contra drug dealing back in the 1980s,
permitted Reaganite disinformation on Sandinista drug trading to
more than offset facts on Contra dealing, and now in retrospect
they protect it and the CIA by claiming the story stale, falsely
implying that they had once given it proper attention. There are
other hypocrisies related to this "old story" gambit:
for example, Oliver North and John Poindexter tried to enlist
Panama political boss, long time drug dealer and CIA asset,
Manuel Noriega in the war against Nicaragua. When Noriega refused
to cooperate, the Reagan administration "began to promote
drug allegations against him," and the compliant media found
his drug trading newsworthy (Robert Parry, Fooling America).
When Noriega was put on trial here, the administration trotted
out drug dealers who had testified before the Kerry committee,
but their testimony for Kerry had been discounted by the
mainstream media because they were untrustworthy drug dealers.
Keith Schneider of the New York Times cited "law
enforcement officials" to the effect that Contra-drug links
by Kerry "have come from a small group of convicted drug
traffickers…who never mentioned contras or the White House
until the Iran-Contra affair broke in November [1986]." This
was a lie; Kerry’s initial witnesses made such claims many months
before November. Furthermore, when these same individuals
testified against Noriega, with evidence really seriously
compromised by deals offered by their prison controllers, the
Times and other media treated their claims
"objectively" and offered no reflections on their
earlier more dubious discounting of the evidence of
"convicted drug traffickers."

The "old story" gambit is a
standard media trick, and can best be seen in its true propaganda
role when we compare their use of "sweet and old"
stories (that allow them to trash an enemy) with stories that are
"stale and old," that are hurtful to the "national
interest." The Katyn Forest massacre in Poland back in World
War II, carried out by an enemy state, is sweet and old; between
Jan. 1, 1988 and June 1, 1990, the New York Times had 20
news articles, five on the front page, and 2 editorials on that
massacre. Much of this material, on a half century old story, was
repetitive. On the other hand, when it was disclosed in 1990 that
the CIA had actually bragged about helping South Africa arrest
Nelson Mandela back in 1962, the Bush administration declared
this an "old story," and the mainstream media
obligingly played it down (the Times had one short back
page notice of the episode). When it was disclosed in 1990 that
the CIA had helped organize and arm secret right-wing armies
throughout Europe after World War II, under the code name
Operation Gladio, and that some of them became terrorist
operations, all three articles in the Times featured the
antiquity of the story as a main reason for giving it slight

The Operation Gladio story was of course
extremely awkward, suggesting a sinister role of the CIA and U.S.
foreign policy in western Europe, including support of rightwing
terror. Equally inconvenient was Kathy Kadane’s study showing
that the CIA and State Department had cooperated enthusiastically
in the Indonesian mass murders of 1965, including providing the
killers with "comprehensive lists of Communist
operatives…down to village cadres." First appearing in the
Herald-Journal of Spartanburg, South Carolina in May 1990,
several of the majors ran the study, reluctantly and with a time
lag. But not the New York Times, which produced instead
one of its classics of damage control, by Michael Wines
("CIA Tie Asserted in Indonesia Purge," July 12, 1990).
Note the use of the word "purge" as description of the
massacre of perhaps a million Indonesians, mainly landless
peasants. But the piece does what the Times did later with
Webb: minimal quotations from Kadane, repetitive denials by CIA
and other officials that Kadane had interpreted their quite clear
statements correctly. Kadane’s story questioned U.S. official
decency and reminded the world of the base on which the
"moderate" Suharto had built his corrupt empire. For
this, it is to the barricades for the newspaper of official


The CIA As A Source

With the Webb story we see the mainstream
media retreating once again to the CIA, as well as various police
forces, as the source of truth. The CIA had denied the
Contra-drug connection in 1986 and 1987 (Parry, "Lost
History: The Kerry-Weld Cocaine War," The Consortium,
November 11, 1996), and the mainstream media in countering Webb
in 1996 were implicitly acknowledging that the CIA had lied on
the very matter at hand. The Webb story broke at a time when the
CIA, Pentagon, and police were being exposed almost daily as
prevaricators. The CIA-Pentagon suppression of evidence on the
risk of chemicals in the Gulf War was drawing headlines in the
same time frame as the debate over the Webb story, but this
didn’t bother the mainstream media at all. It also didn’t bother
the media that they were asking confirmation and disconfirmation
of the parties being accused of crimes or connivance in crimes.

The New York Times drew its
conclusions of "an assortment of connections but no
devastating picture" on the basis of interviews with
"current and former intelligence and law-enforcement
officials, former rebel leaders and Contra supporters," who
"uniformly gave very different descriptions of the
Nicaraguan’s role" (Tim Golden, October 21, 1996). As Joel
Kovel says, "Now there’s hard-hitting impartial journalism
for you. The Times runs the case by the accused, who deny the
charges. Imagine conducting the Nuremberg trials by asking the
Nazi high command whether the Third Reich had ever engaged in
crimes against humanity, and then resting the case."
("The Big Pusher," Anderson Valley Advertiser,
November 27, 1996). The media would never ask ordinary accused
persons if they were guilty of an alleged crime and take their
answer as compelling evidence.

This double standard–credibility as
regards official statements and skepticism toward challenges to
official truth–can be reinforced by a determined administration
that aggressively attacks dissent and penalizes journalists and
media that step out of line. The Reaganites did this in the 1980s
through the Office of Public Diplomacy and other instruments of
disinformation and bullying. Jack Blum, the former special
counsel to the Kerry committee back in the 1980s, noted recently
that "we were subject to a systematic campaign to discredit
everything we did. Every night after there was a public hearing,
administration people would get on the phone [and] call the press
and say the witnesses were all liars, they were talking to us to
get a better deal. That we were on a political vendetta, that
none of it was to be believed, and please don’t cover it."
(His October 23 testimony before the Senate Intelligence
Committee is reproduced in CovertAction Quarterly,
Winter 1996).

These attacks were effective; it became
hazardous to report facts hurtful to the terrorism effort. Many
reporters supported the U.S. intervention anyway and didn’t need
pressure to conform. Many others, under discipline from above, as
well as harrassment from the administration and rightwing
pundits, caved in. Keith Schneider of the New York Times,
who did a fine job of helping the administration discredit those
claiming a Contra-drug connection, explained that the Contra-drug
story "can shatter a republic," so that "to run
the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we
can amass" (In These Times, August 5, 1987, cited in EXTRA!
Update, October 1996). But with the administration
assailing all hostile witnesses as unreliable, it turns out that
there can never be enough "solid evidence."

Government propaganda can effectively
control media operations when official confirmation is made the
ultimate definition of truth. The limiting, revealing case was
Robert Parry’s and Brian Barger’s experience with Associated
Press back in 1985. These reporters got numerous solid interviews
in Costa Rica pointing to a Contra-drug connection, but they were
told back in New York that the story couldn’t run until "we
obtain an on-the-record confirmation from a government
officialThat would be "solid evidence."


Mainstream Media vs Black
Community Gullibility

Sometimes the CIA withholds important facts
because they would disturb a convenient propaganda story. The
classic case is the alleged Soviet-Bulgarian plot to kill the
Pope in 1981–the Pope was shot by a right-wing Turkish fanatic,
and the propaganda machine urged that the KGB was behind it (and
eventually the gunman was persuaded in an Italian prison to
finger the KGB). During the Gates confirmation hearings in 1991,
however, former CIA professional Melvin Goodman disclosed that
the CIA had penetrated the Bulgarian secret services and knew
very well that the propaganda line was false, but the leaders of
the CIA and Reagan administration kept them quiet, and the
gullible media were gulled. In reporting the Gates hearings in
some detail, the New York Times suppressed this Goodman
testimony, which showed so conclusively that the paper had served
as an agency of disinforming propaganda.

They were gulled easily, and are regularly
gulled easily when a propaganda claim fits their biases and is
convenient to establishment policy. In the Bulgarian Connection
case they got on a gullibility bandwagon, failed to ask hard
questions, and displayed pack journalism at its most

It is therefore funny to see the
mainstreamers now accusing the black community of gullibility,
conspiratorial thinking, and "paranoia" in accepting
Gary Webb’s case for CIA involvement in the LA drug trade. If the
mainstream media get on propaganda bandwagons that serve elite
interests, like the KGB-Bulgarian Connection, or the alleged
"political correctness" movement sweeping the American
universities with a new wave of "McCarthyism," or
currently the threat of welfare dependency and the imminent
bankruptcy of Social Security, this is just democratic
newsmaking, not a conspiracy–tacit or otherwise–or remarkable
gullibility, let alone systematic propaganda service. When black
people believe Gary Webb is on to something important, the media
sneer at their lack of sophistication. And amusingly, the media
all get on the same bandwagon of black conspiracy tendencies–the
Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the
liberals one after the next–Michael Kazin, Mary McGrory, Howard
Kurtz, and Richard Cohen–all chimed in with their patronizing
regrets at black irrationality.


The Honest Framing That Didn’t

The drug problem is alleged to be very
important in this country, leader after leader declares
"war" on it, and billions are being spent to fight it.
If this were a serious war, any evidence that the government was
encouraging the drug trade in any way should be sensational news
and a top story. If, on the other hand, this war is phoney, and
takes a back seat to many other matters, like say overthrowing
the government of Nicaragua by terrorism, so that the integrity
of the drug war is of small importance, we can understand the
mainstream media’s performance.

Webb assembled a great many compelling
facts pointing to Contra funding through the sale of drugs in Los
Angeles, and CIA and FBI involvement at least to the degree that
the Contra-related funders were protected and left alone. The
mainstream media could have framed the story around the
compromising of the drug war by U.S. officials, as Webb did, and
as ITV did in Great Britain on December 12. Instead they framed
it around Webb’s alleged (and occasionally real) exaggerations,
denials by those charged, and black conspiracy tendencies. They
rushed to the barricades to defend the national security
apparatus and to keep intact the memory of the now entrenched
mythical history of the war against Nicaragua–we fought for and
helped bring "democracy" to that lucky country,
ultimately through a free and fair election.


The Threat of the Internet

One interesting positive feature of the
Webb tale is that his original articles in a local newspaper,
though initially ignored by the national media, were quickly and
widely disseminated in the black community and activists
throughout the country via the Internet. The mainstream media of
course pooh-poohed this as a dangerous outbreak of conspiracy
pathology, but it was in fact a form of democratic communication
that was able to bypass the solid phalanx of media Swiss Guards.
The Internet gets an A for democratic service in this case.