If someone told you today that there was strong evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency once turned a blind eye to accusations of drug dealing by operatives it worked with, it might ring some distant, skeptical bell.
Did that really happen?
That really happened. As part of their insurgency against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, some of the C.I.A.-backed contras made money through drug smuggling, transgressions noted in a little-noticed 1988 Senate subcommittee report.
Gary Webb, a journalist at The San Jose Mercury News, thought it was a far-fetched story to begin with, but in 1995 and 1996, he dug in and produced a deeply reported and deeply flawed three-part series called “Dark Alliance.”
That groundbreaking series was among the first to blow up on the nascent web, and he was initially celebrated, then investigated and finally discredited.
Pushed out of journalism in disgrace, he committed suicide in 2004.
“Kill the Messenger,” a movie starring Jeremy Renner due Friday (Oct. 10), examines how much of the story he told was true and what happened after he wrote it. “Kill the Messenger” decidedly remains in Webb’s corner, perhaps because most of the rest of the world was against him while he was alive.
Rival newspapers blew holes in his story, government officials derided him as a nut case and his own newspaper, after initially basking in the scoop, threw him under a bus.
Webb was open to attack in part because of the lurid presentation of the story and his willingness to draw causality based on very thin sourcing and evidence. He wrote past what he knew, but the movie suggests that he told a truth others were unwilling to. Sometimes, when David takes on Goliath, David is the one who ends up getting defeated.
“There were flaws in his writing and flaws in his life,” Renner, who plays Webb in the film, said in a phone interview. “But that doesn’t mean he was wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean he deserved what he got.”
The film argues that the same reflexes in the newspaper business that hold others to account can become just as merciless when the guns are pointed inside the corral. Big news organization like The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post tore the arms and legs off his work.
Despite suggestions that their zeal was driven by professional jealousy, some of the journalists who re-reported the story said they had little choice, given the deep flaws. Tim Golden in The New York Times and others wrote that Webb overestimated his subjects’ ties to the contras as well as the amount of drugs sold and money that actually went to finance the war in Nicaragua.
But Webb had many supporters who suggested that he was right in the main.
In retrospect, his broader suggestion that the C.I.A. knew or should have known that some of its allies were accused of being in the drug business remains unchallenged. The government’s casting of a blind eye while also fighting a war on drugs remains a shadowy part of American history.
Webb eventually wrote his own book, “Dark Alliance: The C.I.A., The Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion,” and Nick Schou, a journalist who covered significant parts of Webb’s downfall, wrote “Kill the Messenger: How the C.I.A.’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb.”
Both books deeply inform the movie, making the argument that journalism more or less ate itself while the government mostly skipped away with its secret doings intact.
Webb was a talented investigative reporter who concentrated on local corruption when he worked at The Cleveland Plain Dealer and then The San Jose Mercury News.
When he was first approached about C.I.A. duplicity, he was deeply skeptical.
But when the tipster, the girlfriend of a drug dealer on trial, said her boyfriend had ties to the C.I.A., she had enough evidence to convince him to read that 1988 report from a special Senate subcommittee documenting instances in which drug dealing by crucial allies, including some in Nicaragua, was tolerated in the name of national security.
Major news outlets gave scant attention to the report.
Webb was not the first journalist to come across what seemed more like an airport thriller novel.
Way back in December 1985, The Associated Press reported that three contra groups had “engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua.” In 1986, The San Francisco Examiner ran a large exposé covering similar terrain. Again, major news outlets mostly gave the issue a pass.
It was only when Webb, writing 10 years later, tried to tie cocaine imports from people connected to the contras to the domestic crisis of crack cocaine in large cities, particularly Los Angeles, that the story took off.
Webb zeroed in on “Freeway” Ricky Ross, a gang-affiliated drug boss in Los Angeles, who flooded streets with crack. He then drew a line from Ross to the C.I.A.-backed contras, writing, “The cash Ross paid for the cocaine, court records show, was then used to buy weapons and equipment for a guerrilla army named the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense,” or the FDN, one of several contra groups.
The headline, graphic and summary language of “Dark Alliance” was lurid and overheated, showing a photo of a crack-pipe smoker embedded in the seal of the C.I.A.
The three-part series would, the summary promised, reveal, among other things, how “a drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the ‘crack’ capital of the world.”
But if the series was oversold, it certainly delivered on the promise of what the web could do for journalism. A pioneering effort in transparency, the report was accompanied by a digital library of source documents, a timeline of events and a list of characters, among other web-only features that have now become commonplace.
It was, by most accounts, the first newspaper series to go viral before there were even words to describe the phenomenon.
At first, major news outlets shrugged. But leaders of the drug-ridden communities did not, drawing a line that Webb had not by suggesting that the C.I.A. had deliberately set out to addict urban black populations.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., led protests by the Congressional Black Caucus, and the comedian Dick Gregory was arrested after trying to put crime tape at the entrance to the C.I.A. headquarters.
But Webb’s victory lap was short lived, as other news organizations responded with significant stories, and his editors at The Mercury News backed away slowly, then all at once.
The paper walked back the findings in a 1997 letter to readers signed by the executive editor at the time, Jerry Ceppos.
“I feel that we did not have proof that top C.I.A. officials knew of the relationship” between members of a drug ring and contra leaders paid by the C.I.A., he wrote, adding that the series “erroneously implied” that the connection between Ross and Nicaraguan traffickers “was the pivotal force in the crack epidemic in the United States.”
In a phone call, Ceppos said good news organizations should hold themselves accountable to the same degree they do others.
“We re-reported the series, and I don’t know of too many publications that have done that,” he said. “We couldn’t support some of the statements that had been made. It was our re-reporting that influenced me the most.”
He added that he had no regrets about that open letter to Mercury readers.
“I would do exactly the same thing 18 years later that I did then, and that is to say that I think we overreached,” he said.
Peter Landesman, an investigative journalist who wrote the screenplay, was struck by the reflex to go after Webb.
“Planeloads of weapons were sent south from the U.S., and everyone knows that those planes didn’t come back empty, but the C.I.A. made sure that they never knew for sure what was in those planes,” he said.
“But instead of going after that, they went after Webb, who didn’t really know what he had gotten into or where he was. The most surprising thing in doing the work to write this movie is how easy it was to destroy Gary Webb.”
Even at the time, some thought the backlash against Webb was misplaced.
Geneva Overholser, then the ombudsman of The Washington Post, wrote that the newspaper “showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves.”
Golden, who had an extensive background covering the C.I.A. and Central America, said the hand that struck Webb was mostly his own.
“Webb made some big allegations that he didn’t back up, and then the story just exploded, especially in California,” he said in an email. “You can find some fault with the follow-up stories, but mostly what they did was to show what Webb got wrong.”
The director of “Kill the Messenger,” Michael Cuesta, has also directed several episodes of “Homeland” and knows the C.I.A. has many faces. He said he worked to shrink a sprawling story with global dimensions by showing how it landed on one man.
“There were many things that went wrong,” he added, “the packaging of the story, how it was received and grew, the fact that he was not backed up by his editors. But I was struck by the fact that journalism, which had been the source of his purpose, his bliss, turned on him. It’s tragic.”
While Webb died alone, after two self-inflicted gunshots, he lived long enough to know that he did not make the whole thing up.
In 1998, Frederick P. Hitz, the C.I.A. inspector general, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that after looking into the matter at length, he believed the C.I.A. was a bystander – or worse – in the war on drugs.
“Let me be frank about what we are finding,” he said. “There are instances where C.I.A. did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug-trafficking activity, or take action to resolve the allegations.”
However dark or extensive, the alliance Webb wrote about was a real one.