See also transcripts from Gary Webb’s original San Jose Mercury News series:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Date: January 16, 1999
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive St., Eugene, Oregon
Gary Webb: I look like an idiot up here with all these mikes, the CIA agents are probably behind one or the other… [laughter from the audience]. It’s really nice to be in Eugene — I’ve been in Madison, Wisconsin talking about this, I’ve been in Berkeley, I’ve been in Santa Monica, and these are sort of like islands of sanity in this world today, so it’s great to be on one of those islands.
One of the things that is weird about this whole thing, though, is that I’ve been a daily news reporter for about twenty years, and I’ve done probably a thousand interviews with people, and the strangest thing is being on the other side of the table now and having reporters ask me questions. One of them asked me about a week ago — I was on a radio show — and the host asked me, “Why did you get into newspaper reporting, of all the media? Why did you pick newspapers?” And I really had to admit that I was stumped. Because I thought about it — I’d been doing newspaper reporting since I was fourteen or fifteen years old — and I really didn’t have an answer.
So I went back to my clip books — you know, most reporters keep all their old clips — and I started digging around trying to figure out if there was one story that I had written that had really tipped the balance. And I found it. And I wanted to tell you this story, because it sort of fits into the theme that we’re going to talk about tonight.
I think I was fifteen, I was working for my high school paper, and I was writing editorials. This sounds silly now that I think about it, but I had written an editorial against the drill team that we had for the high school games, for the football games. This was ’71 or ’72, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, and I was in school then in suburban Indianapolis — Dan Quayle country. So, you get the idea of the flavor of the school system. They thought it was a cool idea to dress women up in military uniforms and send them out there to twirl rifles and battle flags at halftime. And I thought this was sort of outrageous, and I wrote an editorial saying I thought it was one of the silliest things I’d ever seen. And my newspaper advisor called me the next day and said, “Gosh, that editorial you wrote has really prompted a response.” And I said, “Great, that’s the idea, isn’t it?” And she said, “Well, it’s not so great, they want you to apologize for it.” [Laughter from the audience.]
I said, “Apologize for what?” And she said, “Well, the girls were very offended.” And I said, “Well, I’m not apologizing because they don’t want my opinion. You’ll have to come up with a better reason than that.” And they said, “Well, if you don’t apologize, we’re not going to let you in Quill & Scroll,” which is the high school journalism society. And I said, “Well, I don’t want to be in that organization if I have to apologize to get into it.” [More laughter from the audience, scattered applause.]
They were sort of powerless at that point, and they said, “Look, why don’t you just come down and the cheerleaders are going to come in, and they want to talk to you and tell you what they think,” and I said okay. So I went down to the newspaper office, and there were about fifteen of them sitting around this table, and they all went around one by one telling me what a scumbag I was, and what a terrible guy I was, and how I’d ruined their dates, ruined their complexions, and all sorts of things… [Laughter and groans from the audience.] …and at that moment, I decided, “Man, this is what I want to do for a living.” [Roar of laughter from the audience.] And I wish I could say that it was because I was infused with this sense of the First Amendment, and thinking great thoughts about John Peter Zenger and I.F. Stone… but what I was really thinking was, “Man, this is a great way to meet women!” [More laughter.]
And that’s a true story, but the reason I tell you that is because it’s often those kinds of weird motivations and unthinking consequences that lead us to do things, that lead us to events that we have absolutely no concept how they’re going to turn out. Little did I know that twenty-five years later, I’d be writing a story about the CIA’s wrongdoings because I wanted to meet women by writing editorials about cheerleaders.
But that’s really the way life and that’s really the way history works a lot of times. You know, when you think back on your own lives, from the vantage point of time, you can see it. I mean, think back to the decisions you’ve made in your lifetimes that brought you to where you are tonight, think about how close you came to never meeting your wife or your husband, how easily you could have been doing something else for a living if it hadn’t been for a decision that you made or someone made that you had absolutely no control over. And it’s really kind of scary when you think about how capricious life is sometimes. That’s a theme I try to bring to my book, Dark Alliance, which was about the crack cocaine explosion in the 1980s.
So for the record, let me just say this right now. I do not believe — and I have never believed — that the crack cocaine explosion was a conscious CIA conspiracy, or anybody’s conspiracy, to decimate black America. I’ve never believed that South Central Los Angeles was targeted by the U.S. government to become the crack capitol of the world. But that isn’t to say that the CIA’s hands or the U.S. government’s hands are clean in this matter. Actually, far from it. After spending three years of my life looking into this, I am more convinced than ever that the U.S. government’s responsibility for the drug problems in South Central Los Angeles and other inner cities is greater than I ever wrote in the newspaper.
But it’s important to differentiate between malign intent and gross negligence. And that’s an important distinction, because it’s what makes premeditated murder different from manslaughter. That said, it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got a body on the floor, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight, the body.
Many years ago, there was a great series on PBS — I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember this — it was called Connections. And it was by a British historian named James Burke. If you don’t remember it, it was a marvelous show, very influential on me. And he would take a seemingly inconsequential event in history, and follow it through the ages to see what it spawned as a result. The one show I remember the most clearly was the one he did on how the scarcity of firewood in thirteenth-century Europe led to the development of the steam engine. And you would think, “Well, these things aren’t connected at all,” and he would show very convincingly that they were.
In the first chapter of the book on which the series is based, Burke wrote that “History is not, as we are so often led to believe, a matter of great men and lonely geniuses pointing the way to the future from their ivory towers. At some point, every member of society is involved in that process by which innovation and change come about. The key to why things change is the key to everything.”
What I’ve attempted to demonstrate in my book was how the collapse of a brutal, pro-American dictatorship in Latin America, combined with a decision by corrupt CIA agents to raise money for a resistance movement by any means necessary, led to he formation of the nation’s first major crack market in South Central Los Angeles, which led to the arming and the empowerment of LA’s street gangs, which led to the spread of crack to black neighborhoods across the country, and to the passage of racially discriminatory sentencing laws that are locking up thousands of young black men today behind bars for most of their lives.
But it’s not so much a conspiracy as a chain reaction. And that’s what my whole book is about, this chain reaction. So let me explain the links in this chain a little better.
The first link is this fellow Anastasio Somoza, who was an American-educated tyrant, one of our buddies naturally, and his family ruled Nicaragua for forty years — thanks to the Nicaraguan National Guard, which we supplied, armed, and funded, because we thought they were, you know, anti-communists.
Well, in 1979, the people of Nicaragua got tired of living under this dictatorship, and they rose up and overthrew it. And a lot of Somoza’s friends and relatives and business partners came to the United States, because we had been their allies all these years, including two men whose families had been very close to the dictatorship. And these two guys are sort of two of the three main characters in my book — a fellow named Danilo Blandón, and a fellow named Norwin Meneses.
They came to the United States in 1979, along with a flood of other Nicaraguan immigrants, most of them middle-class people, most of them former bankers, former insurance salesmen — sort of a capitalist exodus from Nicaragua. And they got involved when they got here, and they decided they were going to take the country back, they didn’t like the fact that they’d been forced out of their country. So they formed these resistance organizations here in the United States, and they began plotting how they were going to kick the Sandanistas out.
At this point in time, Jimmy Carter was president, and Carter wasn’t all that interested in helping these folks out. The CIA was, however. And that’s where we start getting into this murky world of, you know, who really runs the United States. Is it the president? Is it the bureaucracy? Is it the intelligence community? At different points in time you get different answers. Like today, the idea that Clinton runs the United States is nuts. The idea that Jimmy Carter ran the country is nuts.
In 1979 and 1980, the CIA secretly began visiting these groups that were setting up here in the United States, supplying them with a little bit of money, and telling them to hold on, wait for a little while, don’t give up. And Ronald Reagan came to town. And Reagan had a very different outlook on Central America than Carter did. Reagan saw what happened in Nicaragua not as a populist uprising, as most of the rest of the world did. He saw it as this band of communists down there, there was going to be another Fidel Castro, and he was going to have another Cuba in his backyard. Which fit in very well with the CIA’s thinking. So, the CIA under Reagan got it together, and they said, “We’re going to help these guys out.” They authorized $19 million to fund a covert war to destabilize the government in Nicaragua and help get their old buddies back in power.
Soon after the CIA took over this operation, these two drug traffickers, who had come from Nicaragua and settled in California, were called down to Honduras. And they met with a CIA agent named Enrique Bermúdez, who was one of Somoza’s military officials, and the man the CIA picked to run this new organization they were forming. And both traffickers had said — one of them said, the other one wrote, and it’s never been contradicted — that when they met with the CIA agent, he told them, “We need money for this operation. Your guy’s job is to go to California and raise money, and not to worry about how you did it. And what he said was — and I think this had been used to justify just about every crime against humanity that we’ve known — “the ends justify the means.”
Now, this is a very important link in this chain reaction, because the means they selected was cocaine trafficking, which is sort of what you’d expect when you ask cocaine traffickers to go out and raise money for you. You shouldn’t at all be surprised when they go out and sell drugs. Especially when you pick people who are like pioneers of the cocaine trafficking business, which Norwin Meneses certainly was.
There was a CIA cable from I believe 1984, which called him the “kingpin of narcotics trafficking” in Central America. He was sort of like the Al Capone of Nicaragua. So after getting these fundraising instructions from this CIA agent, these two men go back to California, and they begin selling cocaine. This time not exclusively for themselves — this time in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy. And they began selling it in Los Angeles, and they began selling it in San Francisco.
Sometime in 1982, Danilo Blandón, who had been given the LA market, started selling his cocaine to a young drug dealer named Ricky Ross, who later became known as “Freeway” Rick. In 1994, the LA Times would describe him as the master marketer most responsible for flooding the streets of Los Angeles with cocaine. In 1979, he was nothing. He was nothing before he met these Nicaraguans. He was a high school dropout. He was a kid who wanted to be a tennis star, who was trying to get a tennis scholarship, but he found out that in order to get a scholarship you needed to read and write, and he couldn’t. So he drifted out of school and wound up selling stolen car parts, and then he met these Nicaraguans, who had this cheap cocaine that they wanted to unload. And he proved to be very good at that.
Now, he lived in South Central Los Angeles, which was home to some street gangs known as the Crips and the Bloods. And back in 1981-82, hardly anybody knew who they were. They were mainly neighborhood kids — they’d beat each other up, they’d steal leather coats, they’d steal cars, but they were really nothing back then. But what they gained through this organization, and what they gained through Ricky Ross, was a built-in distribution network throughout the neighborhood. The Crips and the Bloods were already selling marijuana, they were already selling PCP, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to sell something new, which is what these Nicaraguans were bringing in, which was cocaine.
This is where these forces of history come out of nowhere and collide. Right about the time the contras got to South Central Los Angeles, hooked up with “Freeway” Rick, and started selling powder cocaine, the people Rick was selling his powder to started asking him if he knew how to make it into this stuff called “rock” that they were hearing about. This obviously was crack cocaine, and it was already on its way to the United States by then — it started in Peru in ’74 and was working its way upward, and it was bound to get here sooner or later. In 1981 it got to Los Angeles, and people started figuring out how to take this very expensive powdered cocaine and cook it up on the stove and turn it into stuff you could smoke.
When Ricky went out and he started talking to his customers, and they started asking him how to make this stuff, you know, Rick was a smart guy — he still is a smart guy — and he figured, this is something new. This is customer demand. If I want
to progress in this business, I better meet this demand. So he started switching from selling powder to making rock himself, and selling it already made. He called this new invention his “Ready Rock.” And he told me the scenario, he said it was a situation where he’d go to a guy’s house, he would say, “Oh man, I want to get high, I’m on my way to work, I don’t have time to go into the kitchen and cook this stuff up. Can’t you cook it up for me and just bring it to me already made?” And he said, “Yeah, I can do that.” So he started doing it.
So by the time crack got a hold of South Central, which took a couple of years, Rick had positioned himself on top of the crack market in South Central. And by 1984, crack sales had supplanted marijuana and PCP sales as sources of income for the gangs and drug dealers of South Central. And suddenly these guys had more money than they knew what to do with. Because what happened with crack, it democratized the drug. When you were buying it in powdered form, you were having to lay out a hundred bucks for a gram, or a hundred and fifty bucks for a gram. Now all you needed was ten bucks, or five bucks, or a dollar — they were selling “dollar rocks” at one point. So anybody who had money and wanted to get high could get some of this stuff. You didn’t need to be a middle-class or wealthy drug user anymore.
Suddenly the market for this very expensive drug expanded geometrically. And now these dealers, who were making a hundred bucks a day on a good day, were now making five or six thousand dollars a day on a good day. And the gangs started setting up franchises — they started franchising rock houses in South Central, just like McDonald’s. And you’d go on the streets, and there’d be five or six rock houses owned by one guy, and five or six rock houses owned by another guy, and suddenly they started making even more money.
And now they’ve got all this money, and they felt nervous. You get $100,000 or $200,000 in cash in your house, and you start getting kind of antsy about it. So now they wanted weapons to guard their money with, and to guard their rock houses, which other people were starting to knock off. And lo and behold, you had weapons. The contras. They were selling weapons. They were buying weapons. And they started selling weapons to the gangs in Los Angeles. They started selling them AR-15s, they started selling them Uzis, they started selling them Israeli-made pistols with laser sights, just about anything. Because that was part of the process here. They were not just drug dealers, they were taking the drug money and buying weapons with it to send down to Central America with the assistance of a great number of spooky CIA folks, who were getting them and that sort of thing, so they could get weapons in and out of the country. So, not only does South Central suddenly have a drug problem, they have a weapons problem that they never had before. And you started seeing things like drive-by shootings and gang bangers with Uzis.
By 1985, the LA crack market had become saturated. There was so much dope going into South Central, dope that the CIA, we now know, knew of, and they knew the origins of — the FBI knew the origins of it; the DEA knew the origins of it; and nobody did anything about it. (We’ll get into that in a bit.)
But what happened was, there were so many people selling crack that the dealers were jostling each other on the corners. And the smaller ones decided, we’re going to take this show on the road. So they started going to other cities. They started going to Bakersfield, they started going to Fresno, they started going to San Francisco and Oakland, where they didn’t have crack markets, and nobody knew what this stuff was, and they had wide open markets for themselves. And suddenly crack started showing up in city after city after city, and oftentimes it was Crips and Bloods from Los Angeles who were starting these markets. By 1986, it was all up and down the east coast, and by 1989, it was nationwide.
Today, fortunately, crack use is on a downward trend, but that’s something that isn’t due to any great progress we’ve made in the so-called “War on Drugs,” it’s the natural cycle of things. Drug epidemics generally run from 10 to 15 years. Heroin is now the latest drug on the upswing.
Now, a lot of people disagreed with this scenario. The New York Times, the LA Times and the Washington Post all came out and said, oh, no, that’s not so. They said this couldn’t have happened that way, because crack would have happened anyway. Which is true, somewhat. As I pointed out in the first chapter of my book, crack was on its way here. But whether it would have happened the same way, whether it would have happened in South Central, whether it would have happened in Los Angeles at all first, is a very different story. If it had happened in Eugene, Oregon first, it might not have gone anywhere. [Restless shuffling and the sounds of throats being cleared among the audience.] No offense, but you folks aren’t exactly trend setters up here when it comes to drug dealers and drug fads. LA is, however. [Soft laughter and murmuring among the audience.]
You can play “what if” games all you like, but it doesn’t change the reality. And the reality is that this CIA-connected drug ring played a very critical role in the early 1980s in opening up South Central to a crack epidemic that was unmatched in its severity and influence anywhere in the U.S.
One question that I ask people who say, “Oh, I don’t believe this,” is, okay, tell me this: why did crack appear in black neighborhoods first? Why did crack distribution networks leapfrog from one black neighborhood to other black neighborhoods and bypass white neighborhoods and bypass Hispanic neighborhoods and Asian neighborhoods? Our government and the mainstream media have given us varying explanations for this phenomenon over the years, and they are nice, comforting, general explanations which absolve anyone of any responsibility for why crack is so ethnically specific. One of the reasons we’re told is that, well, it’s poverty. As if the only poor neighborhoods in this country were black neighborhoods. And we’re told it’s high teenage unemployment; these kids gotta have jobs. As if the hills and hollows of Appalachia don’t have teenage unemployment rates that are ten times higher than inner city Los Angeles. And then we’re told that it’s loose family structure — you know, presuming that there are no white single mothers out there trying to raise kids on low-paying jobs or welfare and food stamps. And then we’re told, well, it’s because crack is so cheap — because it sells for a lower price in South Central than it sells anywhere else. But twenty bucks is twenty bucks, no matter where you go in the country.
So once you have eliminated these sort of non-sensical explanations, you are left with two theories which are far less comfortable. The first theory — which is not something I personally subscribe to, but it’s out there — is that there’s something about black neighborhoods which causes them to be genetically predisposed to drug trafficking. That’s a racist argument that no one in their right mind is advancing publicly, although I tell you, when I was reading a lot of the stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, they were talking about black Americans being more susceptible to “conspiracy theories” than white Americans, which is why they believe the story more. I think that was sort of the underlying current there. On the other hand, I didn’t see any stories about all the white people who think Elvis is alive still, or that Hitler’s brain is preserved down in Brazil to await the Fourth Reich… [laughter from the audience] …which is a particularly white conspiracy theory, I didn’t see any stories in the New York Times about that…
The other more palatable reason which in my mind comes closer to the truth, is that someone started bringing cheap cocaine into black neighborhoods right at the
time when drug users began figuring out how to turn it into crack. And this allowed black drug dealers to get a head start on every other ethnic group in terms of setting up distribution systems and trafficking systems.
Now, one thing I’ve learned about the drug business while researching this is that in many ways it is the epitome of capitalism. It is the purest form of capitalism. You have no government regulation, a wide-open market, a buyer’s market — anything goes. But these things don’t spring out of the ground fully formed. It’s like any business. It takes time to grow them. It takes time to set up networks. So once these distribution networks got set up and established in primarily South Central Los Angeles, primarily black neighborhoods, they spread it along ethnic and cultural lines. You had black dealers from LA going to black neighborhoods in other cities, because they knew people there, they had friends there, and that’s why you saw these networks pop up from one black neighborhood to another black neighborhood.
Now, exactly the same thing happened on the east coast a couple of years later. When crack first appeared on the east coast, it appeared in Caribbean neighborhoods in Miami — thanks largely to the Jamaicans, who were using their drug profits to fund political gains back home. It was almost the exact opposite of what happened in LA in that the politics were the opposite — but it was the same phenomenon. And once the Miami market was saturated, they moved to New York, they moved east, and they started bringing crack from the east coast towards the middle of the country.
So it seems to me that if you’re looking for the root of your drug problems in a neighborhood, nothing else matters except the drugs, and where they’re coming from, and how they’re getting there. And all these other reasons I cited are used as explanations for how crack became popular, but it doesn’t explain how the cocaine got there in the first place. And that’s where the contras came in.
One of the things which these newspapers who dissed my story were saying was, we can’t believe that the CIA would know about drug trafficking and let it happen. That this idea that this agency which gets $27 billion a year to tell us what’s going on, and which was so intimately involved with the contras they were writing their press releases for them, they wouldn’t know about this drug trafficking going on under their noses. But the Times and the Post all uncritically reported their claims that the CIA didn’t know what was going on, and that it would never permit its hirelings to do anything like that, as unseemly as drug trafficking. You know, assassinations and bombings and that sort of thing, yeah, they’ll admit to right up front, but drug dealing, no, no, they don’t do that kind of stuff.
Unfortunately, though, it was true, and what has happened since my series came out is that the CIA was forced to do an internal review, the DEA and Justice Department were forced to do internal reviews, and these agencies that released these reports, you probably didn’t read about them, because they contradicted everything else these other newspapers had been writing for the last couple of years, but let me just read you this one excerpt. This is from a 1987 DEA report. And this is about this drug ring in Los Angeles that I wrote about. In 1987, the DEA sent undercover informants inside this drug operation, and they interviewed one of the principals of this organization, namely Ivan Torres. And this is what he said. He told the informant:
“The CIA wants to know about drug trafficking, but only for their own purposes, and not necessarily for the use of law enforcement agencies. Torres told DEA Confidential Informant 1 that CIA representatives are aware of his drug-related activities, and that they don’t mind. He said they had gone so far as to encourage cocaine trafficking by members of the contras, because they know it’s a good source of income. Some of this money has gone into numbered accounts in Europe and Panama, as does the money that goes to Managua from cocaine trafficking. Torres told the informant about receiving counterintelligence training from the CIA, and had avowed that the CIA looks the other way and in essence allows them to engage in narcotics trafficking.”
This is a DEA report that was written in 1987, when this operation was still going on. Another member of this organization who was affiliated with the San Francisco end of it, said that in 1985 — and this was to the CIA — “Cabezas claimed that the contra cocaine operated with the knowledge of, and under the supervision of, the CIA. Cabezas claimed that this drug enterprise was run with the knowledge of CIA agent Ivan Gómez.”
Now, this is one of the stories that I tried to do at the Mercury News was who this man Ivan Gómez was. This was after my original series came out, and after the controversy started. I went back to Central America, and I found this fellow Cabezas and he told me all about Ivan Gómez. And I came back, I corroborated it with three former contra officials. Mercury News wouldn’t put it in the newspaper. And they said, “We have no evidence this man even exists.”
Well, the CIA Inspector General’s report came out in October, and there was a whole chapter on Ivan Gómez. And the amazing thing was that Ivan Gómez admitted in a CIA-administered polygraph test that he had been engaged in laundering drug money the same month that this man told me he had been engaged in it. CIA knew about it, and what did they do? Nothing. They said okay, go back to work. And they covered it up for fifteen years.
So, the one thing that I’ve learned from this whole experience is, first of all, you can’t believe the government — on anything. And you especially can’t believe them when they’re talking about important stuff, like this stuff. The other thing is that the media will believe the government before they believe anything.
This has been the most amazing thing to me. You had a situation where you had another newspaper who reported this information. The major news organizations in this country went to the CIA, they went to the Justice Department, and they said, what about it? And they said, oh, no, it’s not true. Take our word for it. And they went back and put it in the newspaper! Now, I try to imagine what would happen had reporters come back to their editors and said, look, I know the CIA is involved in drug trafficking. And I know the FBI knows about it, and I’ve got a confidential source that’s telling me that. Can I write a story about that? What do you think the answer would have been? [Murmurs of “no” from the audience.] Get back down to the obit desk. Start cranking out those sports scores. But, if they go to the government and the government denies something like that, they’ll put it in the paper with no corroboration whatsoever.
And it’s only since the government has admitted it that now the media is willing to consider that there might be a story here after all. The New York Times, after the CIA report that came out, ran a story on its front page saying, gosh, the contras were involved in drugs after all, and gosh, the CIA knew about it.
Now you would think — at least I would think — that something like that would warrant Congressional investigation. We’re spending millions of dollars to find out how many times Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky. Why aren’t we interested in how much the CIA knew about drug traffic? Who was profiting from this drug traffic? Who else knew about it? And why did it take some guy from a California newspaper by accident stumbling over this stuff ten years later in order for it to be important? I mean, what the hell is going on here? I’ve been a reporter for almost twenty years. To me, this is a natural story. The CIA is involved in drug trafficking? Let’s know about it. Let’s find out about it. Let’s do something about it. Nobody wants to touch this thing.
And the other thing that came out just recently,
which nobody seems to know about, because it hasn’t been reported — the CIA Inspector General went before Congress in March and testified that yes, they knew about it. They found some documents that indicated that they knew about it, yeah. I was there, and this was funny to watch, because these Congressmen were up there, and they were ready to hear the absolution, right? “We had no evidence that this was going on…” And this guy sort of threw ’em a curve ball and admitted that it had happened.
One of the people said, well geez, what was the CIA’s responsibility when they found out about this? What were you guys supposed to do? And the Inspector General sort of looked around nervously, cleared his throat and said, “Well… that’s kind of an odd history there.” And Norman Dix from Washington, bless his heart, didn’t let it go at that. He said, “Explain what you mean by that?” And the Inspector General said, well, we were looking around and we found this document, and according to the document, we didn’t have to report this to anybody. And they said, “How come?” And the IG said, we don’t know exactly, but there was an agreement made in 1982 between Bill Casey — a fine American, as we all know [laughter from the audience] — and William French Smith, who was then the Attorney General of the United States. And they reached an agreement that said if there is drug trafficking involved by CIA agents, we don’t have to tell the Justice Department. Honest to God. Honest to God. Actually, this is now a public record, this document. Maxine Waters just got copies of it, she’s putting it on the Congressional Record. It is now on the CIA’s web site, if you care to journey into that area. If you do, check out the CIA Web Site for Kids, it’s great, I love it. [Laugher from the audience.] I kid you not, they’ve actually got a web page for kids.
The other thing about this agreement was, this wasn’t just like a thirty-day agreement — this thing stayed in effect from 1982 until 1995. So all these years, these agencies had a gentleman’s agreement that if CIA assets or CIA agents were involved in drug trafficking, it did not need to be reported to the Justice Department.
So I think that eliminates any questions that drug trafficking by the contras was an accident, or was a matter of just a few rotten apples. I think what this said was that it was anticipated by the Justice Department, it was anticipated by the CIA, and steps were taken to ensure that there was a loophole in the law, so that if it ever became public knowledge, nobody would be prosecuted for it.
The other thing is, when George Bush pardoned — remember those Christmas pardons that he handed out when he was on his way out the door a few years ago? The media focused on old Caspar Weinberger, got pardoned, it was terrible. Well, if you looked down the list of names at the other pardons he handed out, there was a guy named Claire George, there was a guy named Al Fiers, there was another guy named Joe Fernández. And these stories sort of brushed them off and said, well, they were CIA officials, we’re not going to say much more about it. These were the CIA officials who were responsible for the contra war. These were the men who were running the contra operation. And the text of Bush’s pardon not only pardons them for the crimes of Iran-contra, it pardons them for everything. So, now that we know about it, we can’t even do anything about it. They all received presidential pardons.
So where does that leave us? Well, I think it sort of leaves us to rely on the judgment of history. But that is a dangerous step. We didn’t know about this stuff two years ago; we know about it now. We’ve got Congressmen who are no longer willing to believe that CIA agents are “honorable men,” as William Colby called them. And we’ve got approximately a thousand pages of evidence of CIA drug trafficking on the public record finally.
That said, let me tell you, there are thousands of pages more that we still don’t know about. The CIA report that came out in October was originally 600 pages; by the time we got ahold of it, it was only 300 pages.
One last thing I want to mention — Bob Parry, who is a fine investigative reporter, he runs a magazine in Washington called I.F. Magazine, and he’s got a great website, check it out — he did a story about two weeks ago about some of the stuff that was contained in the CIA report that we didn’t get to see. And one of the stories he wrote was about how there was a second CIA drug ring in South Central Los Angeles that ran from 1988 to 1991. This was not even the one I wrote about. There was another one there. This was classified.
The interesting thing is, it was run by a CIA agent who had participated in the contra war, and the reason it was classified is because it is under investigation by the CIA. I doubt very seriously that we’ll ever hear another word about that.
But the one thing that we can do, and the one thing that Maxine Waters is trying to do, is force the House Intelligence Committee to hold hearings on this. This is supposed to be the oversight committee of the CIA. They have held one hearing, and after they found out there was this deal that they didn’t have to report drug trafficking, they all ran out of the room, they haven’t convened since.
So if you’re interested in pursuing this, the thing I would suggest you do is, call up the House Intelligence Committee in Washington and ask them when we’re going to have another CIA/contra/crack hearing. Believe me, it’ll drive them crazy. Send them email, just ask them, make sure — they think everybody’s forgotten about this. I mean, if you look around the room tonight, I don’t think it’s been forgotten. They want us to forget about it. They want us to concentrate on sex crimes, because, yeah, it’s titillating. It keeps us occupied. It keeps us diverted. Don’t let them do it.
Thanks very much for your attention, I appreciate it. We’ll do questions and answers now for as long as you want.
Question and Answer Session
Gary Webb: I’ve been instructed to repeat the question, so…
Voice From the Audience: You talked about George Bush pardoning people. Given George Bush’s history with the CIA, do you know when he first knew about this, and what he knew?
Gary Webb: Well, I didn’t at the time I wrote the book, I do now. The question was, when did George Bush first know about this? The CIA, in its latest report, said that they had prepared a detailed briefing for the vice president — I think it was 1985? — on all these allegations of contra drug trafficking and delivered it to him personally. So, it’s hard for George to say he was out of the loop on this one.
I’ll tell you another thing, one of the most amazing things I found in the National Archives was a report that had been written by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa — I believe it was 1987. They had just busted a Colombian drug trafficker named Allen Rudd, and they were using him as a cooperating witness. Rudd agreed to go undercover and set up other drug traffickers, and they were debriefing him.
Now, let me set the stage for you. When you are being debriefed by the federal government for use as an informant, you’re not going to go in there and tell them crazy-sounding stories, because they’re not going to believe you, they’re going to slap you in jail, right? What Rudd told them was, that he was involved in a meeting with Pablo Escobar, who was then the head of the Medellín cartel. They were working out arrangements to set up cocaine shipments into South Florida. He said Escobar started ranting and raving about that damned George Bush, and now he’s got that South Florida Drug Task Force set up which has really been making things difficult, and the man’s a traitor. And he used to deal with us, but now he wants to be president and thinks that he’s double-crossing us. And Rudd said, well, what are you talking about? And Escobar said, we made a deal
with that guy, that we were going to ship weapons to the contras, they were in there flying weapons down to Columbia, we were unloading weapons, we were getting them to the contras, and the deal was, we were supposed to get our stuff to the United States without any problems. And that was the deal that we made. And now he double-crossed us.
So the U.S. Attorney heard this, and he wrote this panicky memo to Washington saying, you know, this man has been very reliable so far, everything he’s told us has checked out, and now he’s saying that the Vice President of the United States is involved with drug traffickers. We might want to check this out. And it went all the way up — the funny thing about government documents is, whenever it passes over somebody’s desk, they have to initial it. And this thing was like a ladder, it went all the way up and all the way up, and it got up to the head of the Criminal Division at the Justice Department, and he looked at it and said, looks like a job for Lawrence Walsh! And so he sent it over to Walsh, the Iran-contra prosecutor, and he said, here, you take it, you deal with this. And Walsh’s office — I interviewed Walsh, and he said, we didn’t have the authority to deal with that. We were looking at Ollie North. So I said, did anybody investigate this? And the answer was, “no.” And that thing sat in the National Archives for ten years, nobody ever looked at it.
Voice From the Audience: Is that in your book?
Gary Webb: Yeah.
Voice From the Audience: Thank you.
Audience Member #1: Well, first of all, I’d like to thank you for pursuing this story, you have a lot of guts to do it.
[Applause from the audience.]
Gary Webb: This is what reporters are supposed to do. This is what reporters are supposed to do. I don’t think I was doing anything special.
Audience Member #1: Still, there’s not too many guys like you that are doing it.
Gary Webb: That’s true, they’ve all still got jobs.
[Laughter, scattered applause.]
Audience Member #1: I just had a couple of questions, the first one is, I followed the story on the web site, and I thought it was a really great story, it was really well done. And I noticed that the San Jose Mercury News seemed to support you for a while, and then all the sudden that support collapsed. So I was wondering what your relationship is with your editor there, and how that all played out, and when they all pulled out the rug from under you.
Gary Webb: Well, the support collapsed probably after the LA Times… The Washington [Post] came out first, the New York Times came out second, and the LA Times came out third, and they started getting nervous. There’s a phenomenon in the media we all know, it’s called “piling on,” and they started seeing themselves getting piled on. They sent me back down to Central America two more times to do more reporting and I came back with stories that were even more outrageous than what they printed in the newspaper the first time. And they were faced with a situation of, now we’re accusing Oliver North of being involved in drug trafficking. Now we’re accusing the Justice Department of being part and parcel to this. Geez, if we get beat up over accusing a couple of CIA agents of being involved in this, what the hell is going to happen now? And they actually said, I had memos saying, you know, if we run these stories, there is going to be a firestorm of criticism.
So, I think they took the easy way out. The easy way out was not to go ahead and do the story. It was to back off the story. But they had a problem, because the story was true. And it isn’t every day that you’re confronted with how to take a dive on a true story.
They spent several months — honestly, literally, because I was getting these drafts back and forth — trying to figure out how to say, we don’t support this story, even though it’s true. And if you go back and you read the editor’s column, you’ll see that the great difficulty that he had trying to take a dive on this thing. And he ended up talking about “gray areas” that should have been explored a little more and “subtleties” that we should have not brushed over so lightly, without disclosing the fact that the series had originally been four parts and they cut it to three parts, because “nobody reads four part series’ anymore.” So, that was one reason.
The other reason was, you know, one of the things you learn very quickly when you get into journalism is that there’s safety in numbers. Editors don’t like being out there on a limb all by themselves. I remember very clearly going to press conferences, coming back, writing a story, sending it in, and my editor calling up and saying, well gee, this isn’t what AP wrote. Or, the Chronicle just ran their story, and that’s not what the Chronicle wrote. And I’d say, “Fine. Good.” And they said, no, we’ve got to make it the same, we don’t want to be different. We don’t want our story to be different from everybody else’s.
And so what they were seeing at the Mercury was, the Big Three newspapers were sitting on one side of the fence, and they were out there by themselves, and that just panicked the hell out of them. So, you have to understand newspaper mentality to understand it a little bit, but it’s not too hard to understand cowardice, either. I think a lot of that was that they were just scared as hell to go ahead with the story.
Audience Member #1: Were they able to look you in the eye, and…
Gary Webb: No. They didn’t, they just did this over the phone. I went to Sacramento.
Audience Member #1: When did you find out about it, and what did you…
Gary Webb: Oh, they called me up at home, two months after I turned in my last four stories, and said, we’re going to write a column saying, you know, we’re not going ahead with this. And that’s when I jumped in the car and drove up there and said, what the hell’s going on? And I got all these mealy-mouthed answers, you know, geez, gray areas, subtleties, one thing or another… But I said, tell me one thing that’s wrong with the story, and nobody could ever point to anything. And today, to this day, nobody has ever said there was a factual error in that story.
[Inaudible question from the audience.]
Gary Webb: The question was, the editors are one thing, what about the readers? Um… who cares about the readers? Honestly. The reader’s don’t run the newspaper.
[Another inaudible question from the audience regarding letters to the editor and boycotts of the newspaper.]
Gary Webb: Well, a number of them did, and believe me, the newspaper office was flooded with calls and emails. And the newspaper, to their credit, printed a bunch of them, calling it the most cowardly thing they’d ever seen. But in the long run, the readers, you know, don’t run the place. And that’s the thing about newspaper markets these days. You folks really don’t have any choice! What else are you going to read? And the editors know this.
When I started in this business, we had two newspapers in town where I worked in Cincinnati. And we were deathly afraid that if we sat on a story for 24 hours, the Cincinnati Inquirer was going to put it in the paper, and we were going to look like dopes. We were going to look like we were covering stuff up, we were going to look like we were protecting somebody. So we were putting stuff in the paper without thinking about it sometimes, but we got it in the paper. Now, we can sit on stuff for months, who’s going to find out about it? And even if somebody found out about it, what are they going to do? That’s the big danger that everybody has sort of missed. These one-newspaper towns, you’ve got no choice. You’ve got no choice. And television? Television’s not going to do it. I mean, they’re down filming animals at the zoo!
[Laughter and applause.]
Audience Member #2: I assume you have talked to John Cummings, the one that wrote Compromised, that book?
br />Gary Webb: I talked to Terry Reed, who was the principal author on that, yeah.
Audience Member #2: Well, that was a well-documented book, and I had just finished reading this when I happened to look down and see the headlines on the Sunday paper. And he stated that Oliver North told him personally that he was a CIA asset that manufactured weapons.
Gary Webb: Right.
Audience Member #2: When he discovered that they were importing cocaine, he got out of there. And they chased him with his family across country for two years trying to catch him. But he had said in that book that Oliver North told him that Vice President Bush told Oliver North to dirty Clinton’s men with the drug money. Which I assumed was what Whitewater was all about, was finding the laundering and trying to find something on Clinton. Do you know anything about that?
Gary Webb: Yeah, let me sum up your question. Essentially, you’re asking about the goings-on in Mena, Arkansas, because of the drug operations going on at this little air base in Arkansas while Clinton was governor down there. The fellow you referred to, Terry Reed, wrote a book called Compromised which talked about his role in this corporate operation in Mena which was initially designed to train contra pilots — Reed was a pilot — and it was also designed after the Boland Amendment went into effect to get weapons parts to the contras, because the CIA couldn’t provide them anymore. And as Reed got into this weapons parts business, he discovered that the CIA was shipping cocaine back through these weapons crates that were coming back into the United States. And when he blew the whistle on it, he was sort of sent on this long odyssey of criminal charges being filed against him, etcetera etcetera etcetera. A lot of what Reed wrote is accurate as far as I can tell, and a lot of it was documented.
There is a House Banking Committee investigation that has been going on now for about three years, looking specifically at Mena, Arkansas, looking specifically at a drug trafficker named Barry Seal, who was one of the biggest cocaine and marijuana importers in the south side of the United States during the 1980s. Seal was also, coincidentally, working for the CIA, and was working for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
I don’t know how many of you remember this, but one night Ronnie Reagan got on TV and held up a grainy picture, and said, here’s proof that the Sandanistas are dealing drugs. Look, here’s Pablo Escobar, and they’re all loading cocaine into a plane, and this was taken in Nicaragua. This was the eve of a vote on the contra aid. That photograph was set up by Barry Seal. The plane that was used was Seal’s plane, and it was the same plane that was shot down over Nicaragua a couple of years later that Eugene Hasenfus was in, that broke open the whole Iran-contra scandal.
The Banking Committee is supposed to be coming out with a report in the next couple of months looking at the relationship between Barry Seal, the U.S. government and Clinton’s folks. Alex Cockburn has done a number of stories on this company called Park-On Meter down in Russellville, Arkansas, that’s hooked up with Clinton’s family, hooked up with Hillary’s law firm, that sort of thing. To me, that’s a story people ought to be looking at. I never thought Whitewater was much of a story, frankly. What I thought the story was about was Clinton’s buddy Dan Lasater, the bond broker down there who was a convicted cocaine trafficker. Clinton pardoned him on his way to Washington. Lasater was a major drug trafficker, and Terry Reed’s book claims Lasater was part and parcel with this whole thing.
Voice From the Audience: Cockburn’s newsletter is called Counterpunch, and he’s done a good job of defending you in it.
Gary Webb: Yeah, Cockburn has also written a book called Whiteout, which is a very interesting look at the history of CIA drug trafficking. Actually, I think it’s selling pretty well itself. The New York Times hated it, of course, but what else is new?
Audience Member #2: Well I just wanted to mention that he states also — I guess it was Terry Reed who was actually doing the work — he said Bush was running the whole thing as vice president.
Gary Webb: I think that George Bush’s role in this whole thing is one of the large unexplored areas of it.
Audience Member #2: Which is why I think Reagan put him in as vice president, because of his position with the CIA.
Gary Webb: Well, you know, that whole South Florida Drug Task Force was full of CIA operatives. Full of them. This was supposed to be our vanguard in the war against cocaine cartels, and if those Colombians are to be believed, this was the vehicle that we were using to ship arms and allow cocaine into the country, this Drug Task Force. Nobody’s looked at that. But there are lots of clues that there’s a lot to be dug out.
Audience Member #3: Thank you, Gary. I lost my feature columnist position at my college paper for writing a satire of Christianity some years ago, and…
Gary Webb: That’ll do it, yeah. [Laughter from the audience.]
Audience Member #3: And I lost my job twice in the last five years because of my activism in the community, but I got a job [inaudible]. But my question is, I knew someone in the mid-’80s who said that he was in the Navy, and that he had information that the Navy was involved in delivering cocaine to this country. Another kind of bombshell, I’d like to have you comment on it, I saw a video some years ago that said the UFO research that’s being done down in the southwest is being funded by drug money and cocaine dealings by the CIA, and that there are 25 top secret levels of government above the Top Secret category, and that there are some levels that even the president doesn’t know about. So there’s another topic for another book, I just wanted to have you comment…
Gary Webb: A number of topics for another book. [Laughter from the audience.] I don’t know about the UFO research, but I do know you’re right that we have very little idea how vast the intelligence community in this country is, or what they’re up to. I think there’s a great story brewing — it’s called the ECHELON program, and it involves the sharing of eavesdropped emails and cell phone communications, because it is illegal for them to do it in this country. So they’ve been going to New Zealand and Australia and Canada and having those governments eavesdrop on our conversations and tell us about it. I’ve read a couple of stories about it in the English press, and I read a couple of stories about it in the Canadian press, but I’ve seen precious little in the American press. But there’s stuff on the Internet that circulates about that, if you’re interested in the topic. I think it’s called the ECHELON program.
Audience Member #4: I’m glad you brought up James Burke and his Connections, because there are a lot of connections here. One I didn’t hear too much about, and I know you’ve done a lot of research on, was how computers and high tech was used by the Crips and Bloods early on. I lived in south LA prior to this, knew some of these people, and you’re right, they had virtually no education. And to suddenly have an operation that’s computer literate, riding out of Bakersfield, Fresno, on north and then east in a very quick period — I’m still learning the computer, I’m probably as old as you are, or older — so I’d like to hear something on that. The whole dislocation of south LA that occurred — the Watts Festival, the whole empowerment of the black community was occurring beginning in the late ’60s and into the early ’70s and mid-’70s, and then collapses into a sea of flipping demographics, and suddenly by 1990 it is El Salvadoran-dominated. And that’s another curious part of this equation as we talk about drugs.
Gary Webb: Well, that’s quite a bevy of things there. As far as the sophistication of the Crips and the Bloods, the one thing that I probably should have mentioned was that
when Danilo Blandón went down to South Central to start selling this dope, he had an M.B.A. in marketing. So he knew what he was doing. His job for the Somoza government was setting up wholesale markets for agricultural products. He’d received an M.B.A. thanks to us, actually — we helped finance him, we helped send him to the University of Bogata to get his M.B.A. so he could go back to Nicaragua, and he actually came to the United States to sell dope to the gangs. So this was a very sophisticated operation.
One of the money launderers from this group was a macro-economist — his uncle, Orlando Murillo, was on the Central Bank of Nicaragua. The weapons advisor they had was a guy who’d been a cop for fifteen years. They had another weapons advisor who had been a Navy SEAL. You don’t get these kinds of people by putting ads in the paper. This is not a drug ring that just sort of falls together by chance. This is like an all-star game. Which is why I suspect more and more that this thing was set up by a higher authority than a couple of drug dealers.
Audience Member #5: Hi Gary, I just want to thank you for going against the traffic on this whole deal. I’m in the journalism school up at U. of O., and I’m interested in the story behind the story. I was hoping you could share some anecdotes about the kind of activity that you engaged in to get the story. For example, when you get off a plane in Nicaragua, what do you do? Where do you start? How do you talk to “Freeway” Ricky? How do you go against a government stonewall?
Gary Webb: The question is, how do you do a story like this, essentially. Well, thing I’ve always found is, if you go knock on somebody’s door, they’re a lot less apt to slam it in your face than if you call them up on the telephone. So, the reason I went down to Nicaragua was to go knock on doors. I didn’t go down there and just step off a plane — I found a fellow down in Nicaragua and we hired him as a stringer, a fellow named George Hidell who is a marvelous investigative reporter, he knew all sorts of government officials down there. And I speak no Spanish, which was another handicap. George speaks like four languages. So, you find people like that to help you out.
With these drug dealers, you know, it’s amazing how willing they are to talk. I did a series while I was in Kentucky on organized crime in the coal industry. And it was about this mass of stock swindlers who had looted Wall Street back in the ’60s and moved down to Kentucky in the ’70s while the coal boom was going on, during the energy shortage. The lesson I learned in that thing — I thought these guys would never talk to me, I figured they’d be crazy to talk to a reporter about the scams they were pulling. But they were happy to talk about it, they were flattered that you would come to them and say, hey, tell me about what you do. Tell me your greatest knock-off. Those guys would go on forever! So, you know, everybody, no matter what they do, they sort of have pride in their work… [Laughter from the audience.] And, you know, I found that when you appeared interested, they would be happy to tell you.
The people who lied to me, the people who slammed doors in my face, were the DEA and the FBI. The DEA called me down — I wrote about this in the book — they had a meeting, and they were telling me that if I wrote this story, I was going to help drug traffickers bring drugs into the country, and I was going to get DEA agents killed, and this, that and the other thing, all of which was utterly bullshit. So that’s the thing — just ask. There’s really no secret to it.
Audience Member #6: I’d like to ask a couple of questions very quickly. The first one is, if you wouldn’t mind being a reference librarian for a moment — there was the Golden Triangle. I was just wondering if you’ve ever, in your curiosity about this, touched on that — the drug rings and the heroin trade out of Southeast Asia. And the second one is about the fellow from the Houston Chronicle, I don’t remember his name right off, but you know who I’m talking about, if you could just touch on that a little bit…
Gary Webb: Yes. The first question was about whether I ever touched on what was going on in the Golden Triangle. Fortunately, I didn’t have to — there’s a great book called The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, by Alfred McCoy, which is sort of a classic in CIA drug trafficking lore. I don’t think you can get any better than that. That’s a great reference in the library, you can go check it out. McCoy was a professor at the University of Wisconsin who went to Laos during the time that the secret war in Laos was going on, and he wrote about how the CIA was flying heroin out on Air America. That’s the thing that really surprised me about the reaction to my story was, it’s not like I invented this stuff. There’s a long, long history of CIA involvement in drug traffic which Cockburn gets into in Whiteout.
And the second question was about Pete Brewton — there was a reporter in Houston for the Houston Post named Pete Brewton who did the series — I think it was ’91 or ’92 — on the strange connections between the S&L collapses, particularly in Texas, and CIA agents. And his theory was that a lot of these collapses were not mismanagement, they were intentional. These things were looted, with the idea that a lot of the money was siphoned off to fund covert operations overseas. And Brewton wrote this series, and it was funny, because after all hell broke loose on my story, I called him up, and he said, “Well, I was waiting for this to happen to you.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “I was exactly like you are. I’d been in this business for twenty years, I’d won all sorts of awards, I’d lectured in college journalism courses, and I wrote a series that had these three little letters C-I-A in it. And suddenly I was unreliable, and I couldn’t be trusted, and Reed Irvine at Accuracy In Media was writing nasty things about me, and my editor had lost confidence in me, so I quit the business and went to law school.”
Brewton wrote a book called George Bush, CIA and the Mafia. It’s hard to find, but it’s worth looking up if you can find it. It’s all there, it’s all documented. See, the difference between his story and my story was, we put ours out on the web, and it got out. Brewton’s story is sort of confined to the printed page, and I think the Washington Journalism Review actually wrote a story about, how come nobody’s writing about this, nobody’s picking up this story. Nobody touched this story, it just sort of died. And the same thing would have happened with my series, had we not had this amazing web page. Thank God we did, or this thing would have just slipped underneath the waves, and nobody would have ever heard about it.
Audience Member #7: I’m glad you’re here. I guess the CIA, there was something I read in the paper a couple of years ago, that said the CIA is actually murdering people, and they admitted it, they don’t usually do that.
Gary Webb: It’s a new burst of honesty from the new CIA.
Audience Member #7: They’ll murder us with kindness. In the Chicago police force, there were about 10 officers who were kicked off the police force for doing drugs or selling drugs, and George Bush or something… I heard that he had a buddy who had a lot of money in drug testing equipment, so that’s one reason everybody has to pee in a cup now… [Laughter from the audience.] The other thing I found, there was a meth lab close to here, and somebody who wasn’t even involved with it, he was paralyzed… And as you know, we have the “Just Say No to Drugs” deal… What do you think we can do to stop us, the People, from being hypnotized once again from all these shenanigans, doing other people injury in terms of these kinds of messages, at the same time they’re selling. Because all this money is being spent for all this…
Gary Webb: I guess the question is, what could you do to keep from being hypnotized by the media message, specifically on the Drug War? Is
that what you’re talking about?
Audience Member #7: Yeah, or all the funds… like, there’s another thing here with the meth lab, they say we’ll kind of turn people in…
Gary Webb: Oh yeah, the nation of informers.
Audience Member #7: Yeah.
Gary Webb: That’s something I have to laugh about — up until I think ’75 or ’76, probably even later than that, you could go to your doctor and get methamphetamine. I mean, there were housewives by the hundreds of thousands across the United States who were taking it every day to lose weight, and now all the sudden it was the worst thing on the face of the earth. That’s one thing I got into in the book, was the sort of crack hysteria in 1986 that prompted all these crazy laws that are still on the books today, and the 100:1 sentencing ratio… I don’t know how many of you saw, on PBS a couple of nights back, there was a great show on informants called “Snitch.” [Murmurs of recognition from the audience.] Yeah, on Frontline. That was very heartening to see, because I don’t think ten years ago that it would have stood a chance in hell of getting on the air.
What I’m seeing now is that a lot of people are finally waking up to the idea that this “drug war” has been a fraud since the get-go. My personal opinion is, I think the main purpose of this whole drug war was to sort of erode civil liberties, very slowly and very gradually, and sort of put us down into a police state. [Robust burst of applause from the audience.] And we’re pretty close to that. I’ve got to hand it to them, they’ve done a good job. We have no Fourth Amendment left anymore, we’re all peeing in cups, and we’re all doing all sorts of things that our parents probably would have marched in the streets about.
The solution to that is to read something other than the daily newspaper, and turn off the TV news. I mean, I’m sorry, I hate to say that, but that’s mind-rot. You’ve got to find alternative sources of information. [Robust applause.]
Voice From the Audience: How can you say that it was all a chain reaction, that it was not done deliberately, and on the other hand say it has at the same time deliberately eroded our rights?
Gary Webb: Well, the question was, how can I say on one hand it was a chain reaction, and on the other hand say the drug war was set up deliberately to erode our rights. I mean, you’re talking about sort of macro versus micro. And I do not give the CIA that much credit, that they could plan these vast conspiracies down through the ages and have them work — most of them don’t.
What I’m saying is, you have police groups, you have police lobbying groups, you have prison guard groups — they seize opportunities when they come along. The Drug War has given them a lot of opportunities to say, okay, now let’s lengthen prison sentences. Why? Well, because if you keep people in jail longer, you need more prison guards. Let’s build more prisons. Why? Well, people get jobs, prison guards get jobs. The police stay in business. We need to fund more of them. We need to give bigger budgets to the correctional facilities. This is all very conscious, but I don’t think anybody sat in a room in 1974 and said, okay, by 1995, we’re going to have X number of Americans locked up or under parole supervision. I don’t think they mind — you know, I think they like that. But I don’t think it was a conscious effort. I think it was just one bad idea, after another bad idea, compounded with a stupid idea, compounded with a really stupid idea. And here we are. So I don’t know if that answers your question or not…
Audience Member #8: To me, the Iran-contra story was one of the most interesting and totally frustrating things. And the more information, the more about it I heard — we don’t know anything about it, I mean, if you look for any official data, they deny everything. And to see Ollie North, the upstanding blue-eyed American, standing there lying through his teeth, and we knew it… [Inaudible comment, “before Congress and the President”?] What galls me is that these people who are guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors are now getting these enormous pensions, and we have to pay for these bums. It sickens me!
Gary Webb: Right.
Audience Member #8: And I actually have a question — this is my question, by the way, I know you have a thousand other questions [laughter from the audience] — but the one that stays with me, and has always bothered me, was the Christic Institute, and I thought it was fantastic. And they were hit with this enormous lawsuit, and they had to bail out. This needs to be [“rehired”?] because they knew what they were doing, they had all the right answers, and they were run out of office, so to say, in disgrace, because of this lawsuit.
Gary Webb: The question was about the Christic Institute, and about how the Iran-contra controversy is probably one of the worst scandals. I agree with you, I think the Iran-contra scandal was worse than Watergate, far worse than this nonsense we’re doing now. But I’ll tell you, I think the press played a very big part in downplaying that scandal. One of the people I interviewed for the book was a woman named Pam Naughton, who was one of the best prosecutors that the Iran-contra committee had. And I asked her, why — you know, it was also the first scandal that was televised, and I remember watching them at night. I would go to work and I’d set the VCR, and I’d come home at night and I’d watch the hearings. Then I’d pick up the paper the next morning, and it was completely different! And I couldn’t figure it out, and this has bothered me all these years.
So when I got Pam Naughton on the phone, I said, what the hell happened to the press corps in Washington during the Iran-contra scandal? And she said, well, I can tell you what I saw. She said, every day, we would come out at the start of this hearings, and we would lay out a stack of documents — all the exhibits we were going to introduce — stuff that she thought was extremely incriminating, front page story after front page story, and they’d sit them on a table. And she said, every day the press corps would come in, and they’d say hi, how’re you doing, blah blah blah, and they’d go sit down in the front row and start talking about, you know, did you see the ball game last night, and what they saw on Johnny Carson. And she said one or two reporters would go up and get their stack of documents and go back and write about it, and everybody else sat in the front row, and they would sit and say, okay, what’s our story today? And they would all agree what the story was, and they’d go back and write it. Most of them never even looked at the exhibits.
And that’s why I say it was the press’s fault, because there was so much stuff that came out of those hearings. That used to just drive me crazy, you would never see it in the newspaper. And I don’t think it’s a conspiracy — if anything, it’s a conspiracy of stupidity and laziness. I talked to Bob Parry about this — when he was working for Newsweek covering Iran-contra, they weren’t even letting him go to the hearings. He had to get transcripts messengered to him at his house secretly, so his editors wouldn’t find out he was actually reading the transcripts, because he was writing stories that were so different from everybody else’s.
Bob Parry tells a story of being at a dinner party with Bobby Inman from the CIA, the editor of Newsweek, and all the muckity-mucks — this was his big introduction into Washington society. And they were sitting at the dinner table in the midst of the Iran-contra thing, talking about everything but Iran-contra. And Bob said he had the bad taste of bringing up the Iran-contra hearing and mentioning one particularly bad aspect of it. And he said, the editor of Newsweek looked at him and said, “You know, Bob, there are just some things that it’s better the country just doesn’t know about.” And all these admirals and generals sitting around the table all nodded their heads in agreement, and
they wanted to talk about something else.
That’s the attitude. That’s the attitude in Washington. And that’s the attitude of the Washington press corps, and nowadays it’s even worse than that, because now, if you play the game right, you get a TV show. Now you’ve got the McLaughlin Group. Now you get your mug on CNN. You know. And that’s how they keep them in line. If you’re a rabble rouser, and a shit-stirrer, they don’t want your type on television. They want the pundits.
The other question was about the Christic Institute. They had it all figured out. The Christic Institute had this thing figured out. They filed suit in May of 1986, alleging that the Reagan administration, the CIA, this sort of parallel government was going on. Oliver North was involved in it, you had the Bay of Pigs Cubans that were involved in it down in Costa Rica, they had names, they had dates, and they got murdered. And the Reagan administration’s line was, they’re a bunch of left-wing liberal crazies, this was conspiracy theory. If you want to see what they really thought, go to Oliver North’s diaries, which are public — the National Security Archive has got them, you can get them — all he was writing about, after the Christic Institute’s suit was filed, was how we’ve got to shut this thing down, how we have to discredit these witnesses, how we’ve got to get this guy set up, how we’ve got to get this guy out of the country… They knew that the Christic Institute was right, and they were deathly afraid that the American public was going to find out about it.
I am convinced that the judge who was hearing the case was part and parcel to the problem. He threw the case out of court and fined the Christic Institute, I think it was $1.3 million, for even bringing the lawsuit. It was deemed “frivolous litigation.” And it finally bankrupted them. And they went away.
But that’s the problem when you try to take on the government in its own arena, and the federal courts are definitely part of its own arena. They make the rules. And in cases like that, you don’t stand a chance in hell, it won’t happen.
Voice From the Audience: But if you cannot get the truth in the courts, if you cannot write it in the papers, then what do you do?
Gary Webb: You do it yourself. You do it yourself. You’ve got to start rebuilding an information system on your own. And that’s what’s going on. It’s very small, but it’s happening. People are talking to each other through newsgroups on the Internet. People are doing Internet newsletters.
Voice From the Audience: Do you have a website?
Emcee: Let’s use the mike, let’s use the mike.
Gary Webb: The question is, do I have a website. No, I don’t, but I’m building one.
[Inaudible question from the audience.]
Gary Webb: Well, let’s let these people who have been standing in line…
[Commotion, murmuring. Someone calls out, “Please use the mike.”]
Audience Member #9: When you mentioned prisons a moment ago, I couldn’t help but remember that it is America’s fastest-growing industry, the “prison industry” — which is a hell of a phrase unto itself. But it seems that the CIA had people aligned throughout Central America at one point, and El Salvador, with the contras, and in Honduras and Nicaragua, and in Panama, Manuel Noriega…
Gary Webb: Our “man in Panama,” that’s right.
Audience Member #9: Yeah. But something went wrong with him, and he got pinched in public. And I’m interested to know what you think about that.
Gary Webb: The question is about Manuel Noriega, who was our “man in Panama” for so many years. What happened to Noriega is that — I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that he was a drug trafficker, because we knew that for years. What it had to do with was what is going to happen at the end of this year, which is when control of the Panama Canal goes over to the Panamanians. If you read the New York Times story that Seymour Hersh wrote back in June of 1986 that exposed Noriega publicly as a drug trafficker and money launderer, there were some very telling phrases in it. All unsourced, naturally, you know — unattributed comments from high-ranking government officials — but they talked about how they were nervous that Noriega had become unreliable. And with control of the Panama Canal reverting to the Panamanian government, they were very nervous at the idea of having somebody as “unstable” as Noriega running the country at that point. And I think that was a well-founded fear. You’ve got a major drug trafficker controlling a major maritime thoroughway. I can see the CIA being nervous about being cut out of the business. [Laughter from the audience.]
But I think that’s what the whole thing with Noriega was about — they wanted him out of there, because they wanted somebody that they could control a little more closely in power in Panama for when the canal gets reverted back to them.
Audience Member #9: Was there much of a profit difference between Nicaragua and Panama as far as the drugs went?
Gary Webb: Well, what Noriega had done was sort of create an international banking center for drug money. That was his part of it. Nicaragua was nothing ever than just a trans-shipment point. Central America was never anything more than a trans-shipment point. Columbia Peru and Bolivia were the producers, and the planes needed a place to refuel, and that’s all that Central America ever was. The banking was all done in Panama.
Audience Member #10: You talk about how they sat on their stories, the newspapers? Why did they suddenly decide to pursue the stories?
Gary Webb: Which stories are these?
Audience Member #10: The stories about the crack dealing and the CIA. Why did they suddenly decide that, well, actually…
Gary Webb: The question was — correct me if I’m wrong — the question raised the fact that the other newspapers didn’t do anything about this story for a while, and then after I wrote it they came after me. Is that what you’re asking?
Audience Member #10: Well, yeah, and then eventually the CIA admitted it… and I mean, why are people asking, it sat for a long time, and then suddenly everyone was on it. What was the turning point that made them decide to pursue it?
Gary Webb: The turning point that made them decide to pursue the story was the fact that it had gotten out over the Internet, and people were calling them up saying, why don’t you have the story in your newspaper? You know, I don’t think the subject matter frightened the major media as much as the fact that a little newspaper in Northern California was able to set the national agenda for once. And people were marching in the streets, people were holding hearings in Washington, they were demanding Congressional hearings, you had John Deutch, the CIA director, go down on that surreal trip down to South Central to convince everyone that everything was okay… [Laughter from the audience.] And all of this was happening without the big media being involved in it at all. And the reason that happened was because we had an outlet — we had the web. And the people at the Mercury News did a fantastic job on this website.
And so, news was marching on without them. There’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin who’s done a paper on the whole “Dark Alliance” thing, and her thesis is that this story was shut down more because of how it got out than for what it actually said. That it was an attempt by the major media to regain control of the Internet, and to suggest that unless they’re the ones who are putting it out, it’s unreliable. Which I think you see in a lot of stories. The mainstream press gladly promotes the idea that you can’t believe anything you read on the Internet, it’s all kooks, it’s all conspiracy theorists… And there are, I mean, I admit, there are a lot of them out there, but it’s not all false. But the idea that we’re being taught is, unless it’s got our name on it, you
can’t believe it. So they can retain control of the means of communication anyway.
Audience Member #11: You mentioned Iran-contra, which was private foreign policy in defiance of Congress, which means it was a high crime. From there, we get more drugs, we get erosion of civil liberties and the loss of the Fourth Amendment, which you mentioned. And we have to get that back, because without it, we’re just commodities to one another. So what I’d like to ask you is, what are you working on now? And do you have your own journalistic chain of reaction? Are you going to be doing something that connects back to this?
Gary Webb: The question is what am I doing now — believe it or not, I’m working for the government. [Laughter from the audience.] I work for the California legislature, and I do investigations of state agencies. I just wrote a piece for Esquire magazine which should be out in April on another fabulous DEA program that they’re running. Actually, part of it’s based here in Oregon, called Operation Pipeline. That story is coming out in April, and Esquire told me they want me to write more stuff for them, they want me to do some investigative reporting for them, so I’ll be working for them. And I’m putting together another book proposal, and a couple of other things. I’m not going to work for newspapers any more, I learned my lesson.
Audience Member #12: A year ago the editor of your newspaper was here to speak, sponsored by the University of Oregon School of Journalism. Before I got up here, I took a casual look around — I don’t know all of the members of the journalism faculty, but I didn’t recognize any. We did have a student here who got up and asked a question. That leads to this question: I’d like, if you don’t mind, to ask if there is someone from the University of Oregon journalism faculty here, would they mind being acknowledged and raising their hand?
Gary Webb: All right, there’s one back there.
Audience Member #12: There is one. Okay. [Applause from the audience.] I’m pleased to see it. There is that one person. My point is, I think much of what you’ve said this evening constitutes an indictment — and a valid indictment — of the university journalism programs in this country. [Applause.] Most Americans and I believe — and I’m interested in your reaction — that it reinforces that indictment when we see, to that person’s credit, that she is the only faculty member from our school of journalism to hear you tonight.
Gary Webb: I think the general question was about the state of the journalism schools. The one thing journalism schools don’t teach, by and large, is investigative reporting. They teach stenography very well. That’s why I consider most of journalism today to be stenography. You go to a press conference, you write down the quotes accurately, you come back, you don’t provide any context, you don’t provide any perspective, because that gets into analysis, and heavens knows, we don’t want any analysis in our newspapers.
But you report things accurately, you report things fairly, and even if it’s a lie you put it in the newspaper, and that’s considered journalism. I don’t consider that journalism, I consider that stenography. And that is the way they teach journalism in school, that’s the way I was taught. Unless you go to a very different journalism school from the kinds that most kids go to, that’s what you’re taught. Now, there are specialized journalism schools, there are master’s programs like the Kiplinger Program at Ohio State, that’s very good.
So, I’m not saying that all journalism schools are bad, but they don’t teach you to be journalists. They discourage you from doing that, by and large. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the journalism professors, I just think that’s the way things have been taught in this country for so long, that they just do it automatically. I’d be interested in hearing the professor’s thoughts about it, but that’s sort of the way I look at things. I spent way too many years in journalism school. I kind of got shed of those notions after I got out in the real world.
[End of transcript.]
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Transcriptions from the original San Jose Mercury News series:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7