It's easy to attack the reporter. It's a lot harder to attack the facts head-on.": Dark Alliance author Gary Webb

Vindication should be sweeter than this. Last week, the CIA conceded that throughout the mid-'80s it had turned a blind eye to the cocaine which came north in the bellies of Contra supply planes. Agency proxies sent these same planes south loaded with guns, ammunition, and the occasional mercenary. Reporter Gary Webb should have been reveling in this news at his Sacramento home, cordless at his side should his former minders at the San Jose Mercury News call to express regret for having forced his resignation after his articles on cocaine trafficking by U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels unleashed a shit storm in 1996.

Instead, while the CIA was grudgingly releasing a handful of details from a brand-new audit of its complicity in drug crimes, Webb was on the phone, juggling his new job with the California State Legislature and publicity interviews about his new book. Published in June, Dark Alliance (Seven Stories Press) details the Pulitzer Prize-winner's original findings, his subsequent reporting about the Contras' drug trafficking, and the slow retreat his editors beat from the story once official Washington demurred.

The newspaper series, published in three parts in August, 1996, alleged that CIA and other U.S. officials turned a blind eye to cocaine traffickers, some of them U.S. operatives, who then funneled narco-profits to the Nicaraguan Contras. Some of the traffickers supplied tons of cocaine to Los Angeles drug dealers believed to be responsible for crack's appearance in the United States. In addition to the published stories, the Mercury News posted supporting documentation on its Web site, drawing what was then a record number of hits as the story inflamed readers across the country.

While the series, titled "Dark Alliance," prompted congressional hearings in Washington, it also drew immediate and sharp criticism from reporters at other mainstream newspapers. Many had covered the Iran-Contra scandals of the mid-'80s and had failed then to follow up on allegations--including testimony heard during a U.S. Senate investigation--that would later become a crucial part of Webb's work. The attacks were unusually vicious, with major news organizations going out of their way to paint Webb as a "wacko conspiracy theorist," as he now puts it.

"It's easy to attack the reporter. It's a lot harder to attack the facts head-on," Webb explains. "What they did was they went to unnamed government sources and the unnamed government sources assured them this wasn't true...So what? I don't think people are particularly swayed by unnamed government sources denying that they've committed crimes. So you've got to add an additional element--that this reporter is unreliable, you can't believe what he writes. Which is what happened time and time again to other journalists during the '80s who were trying to do this story."

While Webb's editors at first defended his work, they eventually published an unusual front-page retraction that failed to note a single factual error in the series, instead describing it on the whole as "flawed." The paper also refused to run additional stories Webb had penned in the months following the original series that bolstered discoveries from his initial 16-month investigation. Soon after the retraction, the paper's top editors transferred Webb to the Mercury News' bureau in Cupertino, a suburban outpost usually reserved for rookie reporters, which was located 150 miles from Webb's home. Offered a settlement he's barred from describing, Webb resigned from his job last November.

All of which complicated Webb's attempts to find an outlet for his book. Several major publishers passed on the project, which was picked up by Seven Stories Press, a small New York-based company that specializes in taking on what it calls larger publishers' "discomfort" books.

Webb suggests that the brevity of the newspaper series limited the amount of evidence he could provide, leaving both him and the paper vulnerable to the skepticism triggered by such controversial allegations. Not counting the documentation posted on the Mercury News' Web site, the three published stories totaled 12,000 words. The book surpasses 165,000 in making its case. Yet at 550 pages, Dark Alliance is both meticulously documented and surprisingly readable. Webb's writing, like his reporting, starts from interviews with former traffickers and Contra suppliers and then backs up these claims with federal documents--many only recently declassified by the CIA. Unlike the attacks on Webb published by the Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Herald two years ago, there are no unnamed sources here. Each paragraph of the book is painstakingly attributed to both human sources and documents; an additional 70 pages of endnotes provide further details on how the story was reported.

If Webb's 1996 series suggested Washington was willing to countenance drug dealing to further a political agenda, Dark Alliance leaves little doubt that top officials at the CIA, DEA, and FBI knew about the illicit drug activity, and that the CIA, the White House, and the Justice Department took pains to keep the truth from becoming known.

This time, Webb's critics have been largely silent. The CIA, on the other hand, hasn't been. And indeed, last week's release of a few tidbits from the still-classified audit suggest that the agency has concluded that it will be impossible to convince Webb's readers that nothing nefarious was afoot. Accordingly, the agency has admitted that its agents did in fact hear allegations that some Contras and their supporters were trafficking in drugs. But the CIA operatives, the audit has been reported to claim, were too caught up with their anti-Sandinista campaign to investigate the charges. (A subsequent Justice Department release denied CIA involvement with specific elements of the L.A. drug trade.)

Having admitted that much, the CIA report is then said to "dismiss" Webb's findings, concluding that the drug dealers he profiled had nothing to do with the agency. This bit of legerdemain appears intended to defuse critics who say the government is covering up its involvement in the crack epidemic. Along with most documents pertaining to CIA operations in Central America in the '80s, the report remains classified, supposedly in the interest of national security. What little is known of its contents appears to have been leaked to the New York Times.

"They just don't want to be embarrassed," Webb says of the CIA report. "The problem is they sort of dug their own grave. They demonized drug trafficking to the extent that they could never admit that they were involved in it themselves. They've spent so much on the war on drugs that people would be outraged to find out that while we were paying billions out of one end, cargo planes full of dope were flying in the other end."

Gary Webb reads from Dark Alliance 7:30 p.m. August 18 at Borders Uptown; call 825-0336.

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