In an excerpt from the new book This is Your Country on Drugs, Ryan Grim explains how the press covered for the CIA in the Iran-Contra drug scandal that rocked the black community in the '90s.
An excerpt from the book This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America by Ryan Grim.
In the summer of 1996, the San Jose Mercury News broke the story of the connection between L.A. crack dealers and the U.S. funded Nicaraguan Contras. More than a month later, the Washington Post weighed in with a five-story, roughly 10,000-word broadside that ripped the series apart, debunking its central tenets and wondering aloud what it is about black people that makes them so paranoid.
The Post’s editorial board explained that “the shock of the story for many was not simply the sheer monstrousness of the idea of an official agency contributing to a modern-day plague—and to a plague targeted on blacks. The shock was the credibility the story seems to have generated when it reached some parts of the black community.”
But it wasn’t their fault they were so gullible, the Post assured in a separate piece, blaming a “history of victimization” that had led to “outright paranoia.”
“It doesn’t matter whether the series’ claims are ‘proved’ true,” read another story. “To some folks—graduates of Watergate, Iran-contra and FBI harassment of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—they feel so true that even if they’re refuted, they’ll still be fact to them.”
Facts, indeed, are a funny thing. The Washington Post, while it launched its assault on the Mercury News, had facts at its disposal demonstrating that the story was accurate.
The Post’s longtime Central American correspondent, Douglas Farah, was in El Salvador when the story, written by the Mercury News’ Gary Webb, broke, revealing that the Contras, a confederation of paramilitary rebels sponsored by the CIA, had been funding some of their operations by importing cocaine into the United States. One of their best customers was a man named Freeway Rick—Ricky Donnell Ross—then a Southern California dealer who was running an operation that the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the Wal-Mart of crack dealing.”
“My first thought was, ‘Holy shit!’ because there’d been so many rumors in the region of this going on,” Farah said when I interviewed him for a book on the history of drugs in America 12 years later. “There had always been these stories floating around about [the Contras and] cocaine. I knew [Contra leader] Adolfo Calero and some of the other folks there, and they were all sleazebags. You wouldn’t read the story and say, ‘Oh my god, these guys would never do that.’ It was more like, ‘Oh, one more dirty thing they were doing.’ So I took it seriously.”
Farah immediately hit the streets of Managua, which was in the midst of an election, meaning all the players he needed were right there in town. “I had an amazing run of luck where I had rounded up everybody I needed to see in 24 hours,” says Farah, who filed a lengthy exposé confirming and even advancing Webb’s story. “I thought my story was really cool.”
That’s when he ran into trouble. His story was eventually cut and buried—running on page 18 at a mere 948 words.“I did have a long and dispiriting fight with the editors at the Post because … their basic take was that I was dealing with a bunch of liars, so it was one person’s word against another person’s word, and therefore you couldn’t tell the truth. But it was pretty clear to me,” he says. “I wasn’t in general in confrontation with my editors, but this thing was weird and I knew it was weird.”
The probable cause for the downplaying of Farah’s story: It had run headlong into Post national security reporter Walter Pincus, a veteran journalist who had flirted with joining the CIA and who is routinely accused of having been an undercover asset in the ‘50s. Pincus says his role is overblown and that his involvement with a CIA front group was accidental.
“One of my big fights on this was with Pincus,” Farah recalls, “and my disadvantage was that I was in Managua, and he was sitting in on the story meetings and talking directly to the editors. And we had a disagreement over the validity of what I was finding. At the time, I didn’t realize he had been an agency employee for a while. That might have helped me understand what was going on there a bit.”
Webb based his report on court records and interviews with key drug runners. One of them, Danilo Blandón, was once described by Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O’Neale as “the biggest Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in the United States.”
Webb had been unable to get Blandón to talk, but the cocaine dealer testified at a trial shortly before the series came out. Blandón wasn’t on trial himself, wasn’t facing any jail time and was in fact being paid by the U.S. government to act as an informant. In other words, he had no obvious incentive to lie to make the United States look bad. Nevertheless, in sworn testimony, he said that in 1981 alone, his drug operation sold almost a ton of cocaine—worth millions of dollars—in the United States, and that “whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution.”
Blandón’s boss in the operation was Norwin Meneses, the head of political operations and U.S. fundraising for the Contras. Meneses was known as Rey de la Droga—“King of Drugs”—and had been under active investigation by the U.S. government since the early ‘70s as the California cocaine cartel’s top representative in Nicaragua. The Drug Enforcement Administration considered him a major trafficker, and he had been implicated in 45 separate federal investigations, Webb discovered through government documents. Regardless, Meneses had never served any time in federal prison and lived out in the open in his San Francisco home.
In 1981, Blandón testified, he and Meneses traveled to Honduras to meet Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, the military leader of the Contra army and a full-time CIA employee. “While Blandón says Bermúdez didn’t know cocaine would be the fundraising device they used,” Webb wrote, “the presence of the mysterious Mr. Meneses strongly suggests otherwise.” The reporter drew on court documents and government records to show that anyone remotely involved in, or familiar with, the drug world at the time knew exactly how Meneses went about raising revenue.
Blandón sold the Contras’ product to Ross for prices well-below what other dealers could afford, allowing him to expand his business throughout L.A., then to Texas, Ohio and beyond. Ross told Webb that he owed his rise and his astonishingly cheap coke to Blandón. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been a dope dealer without Danilo,’’ Ross said. ‘‘But I wouldn’t have been Freeway Rick.’’
Pincus brushes off the battle over the Contra story. “Originally, I didn’t do anything about it because I checked it out and didn’t believe it to be true,” he told me. “If you go look at the chronology, I didn’t write about it until the Black Caucus took it up as a serious issue …. To be honest, I can’t remember talking to Doug at the time.”
“I think very highly of Doug Farah. I think he’s an outstanding reporter,” says Robert McCartney, who edited the story. “I don’t remember there being any issue at the time of sort of significant concern over discrepancies in the reporting.”
The Post hadn’t so much discredited Webb’s story about the specific connections between the Contras and Los Angeles dealers, but rather had gone after conclusions that others had drawn about CIA intentions. The two became one and the same and the Post took them both apart.
“This has been a long time, but if I remember correctly, the thesis of Webb’s story was that the CIA deliberately used the Contras to pump crack cocaine into African-American neighborhoods,” says McCartney. Webb hadn’t reported that, but it didn’t matter.
It gets stranger: Pincus says he didn’t actually disagree with Webb’s thesis—that the Contras were running drugs—but rather objected to the idea that the CIA was running drugs. Webb had reported, rather, that the Contras were a CIA-backed army but didn’t pin the trafficking on them directly. “To me, it was no great shock that some of the people the agency was dealing with were also drug dealers. But the idea that the agency was then running the drug program was totally different.”
Pincus’ front-page piece ran at more than 4,000 words and was headlined, “CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking of Contra-Tied Plot.” The evidence, in fact, was not lacking. It was on the editing room floor. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times would also weigh in with stories purporting to debunk Webb’s scoop, but only the Post, as far as I know, did so with independent evidence that backed him up.
Webb’s editor, under pressure, eventually backed off the story. Webb was demoted and sent to a dustbin bureau 150 miles from San Jose. He resigned after settling an arbitration claim and went to work for a small alternative weekly. Over the next several years, his marriage fell apart and his meager wages were garnished for child support. On Dec. 10, 2004, Webb was discovered dead, shot twice in the head with his father’s .38. The local coroner declared the death a suicide.
In 1998, an in-depth investigation by a committee run by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) established that Webb and black Americans suspicious about government complicity in the drug trade, had been, in essence, correct all along.
Yet obituaries in the major papers still referred to his “discredited” series. The Los Angeles Times obit recalls his “widely criticized series linking the CIA to the explosion of crack cocaine in Los Angeles,” noting, “Major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, wrote reports discrediting elements of Webb’s reporting.” The New York Times ran a five-paragraph Reuters obit that remembered Gary Webb as “a reporter who won national attention with a series of articles, later discredited,” making no mention of the fact that subsequent calls for an investigation were heeded, and that the investigation confirmed a great deal of Webb’s reporting.
“Web of Deception” sat atop media critic Howard Kurtz’s write-up in the Post. “There was a time when Gary Webb was at the center of a huge, racially charged national controversy. That was eight years ago, and it turned out badly for him,” Kurtz began. “The lesson,” he concluded, “is that just because a news outlet makes sensational charges doesn’t make them true, and just because the rest of the media challenge the charges doesn’t make them part of some cover-up.”
Farah, who’s now a consultant on the drug trade with the Department of Homeland Security, speculates that the Post’s proximity to the corridors of power made it beholden to whatever the official line was at the time. He said that he saw a “great deal of weight on what the official response was, whether it was Haiti or El Salvador death squads. There was so much Washington influence that it ends up dominating the story no matter what the reality on the ground was.”
“If you’re talking about our intelligence community tolerating—if not promoting—drugs to pay for black ops, it’s rather an uncomfortable thing to do [report on] when you’re an establishment paper like the Post,” Farah says. “If you were going to be directly rubbing up against the government, they wanted it more solid than it could probably ever be done.”
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America. He is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post.
An excerpt from the book This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America by Ryan Grim.