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Think For Yourself

July 1, 1998, Gary Webb
reprinted from the book 'Dark Alliance' by permission.

In his just-released book, 'Dark Alliance,' deposed Mercury News reporter Gary Webb tells his side of the story behind the award-winning CIA-crack connection that tanked his career.

The Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper
letters@sjmetro.com http://www.metroactive.com/metro/

I N DECEMBER I gathered up all my notes and files and wrote a four-page project memo for my editors, outlining the story as I saw it. I proposed to tell the tale of how the infant L.A. crack market had been fueled by tons of cocaine brought in by a Contra drug ring, which helped to spread a deadly new drug habit "through L.A. and from there to the hinterlands."

"This series will show that the dumping of cocaine on L.A.'s street gangs was the back end of a covert effort to arm and equip the CIA's raging army of anti-Communist Contra guerrillas," I wrote. "While there has long been solid -- if largely ignored -- evidence of a CIA-Contra-cocaine connection, no one has ever asked the question: 'Where did all the cocaine go once it got here?' Now we know."

I met with [my editor] Dawn [Garcia] and managing editor David Yarnold in San Jose, and we spent an hour discussing the progress of the investigation and the proposed series. Yarnold reread the project memo, shook his head and grinned.

"This is one hell of a story," he said. "How soon do you think you can finish it?"

I told him I needed to go to Miami and Nicaragua to do some interviews with [drug trafficker Norwin} Meneses, some former Contras and the Nicaraguan police. If that came off, we might be able to have the series ready by March 1996, in time for the [L.A. drug dealer Ricky] Ross trial, which would give it a hard news angle. But, I said, I wanted to get some assurances right up front from both of them.

Because the story had what I called a "high unbelievability factor," I wanted to use the Mercury's Web site, Mercury Center, to help document the series. I wanted us to put our evidence up on the Internet so that readers could see our documents and reports, read the grand jury transcripts, listen to the undercover DEA tapes, check our sources and make up their own minds about the validity of the story. After seeing the government's reaction to the Contra-cocaine stories of the 1980's, I didn't want to be caught in the old officials-say-there's-no-evidence trap.

The technology now exists for journalists to share our evidence with the world, I told them, and if there was ever a story that needed to be solidly backed up, it was this one. Not only would it help out the story, I wrote in my memo, it would hopefully raise the standards of investigative reporting by forcing the press to play show and tell, rather than hiding behind faceless sources and whisperings from "senior administration officials."

The editors enthusiastically agreed. It would be a good way to showcase the Mercury's cutting-edge Web site, they said, and it was good timing -- management directives were coming out to incorporate the Web page into our print stories whenever possible. We were, after all, the newspaper of the Silicon Valley. This would be a chance to use the Internet in a way that had never been done before, they agreed. No problem. What else?

The second point I made was something I was sure they were tired of hearing about. We're going to need space to tell this story, I told them, a lot more space than the paper usually devotes to its investigative projects. It was the one issue that drove me crazy about working for the Mercury News.

After writing for the Plain Dealer for five years and having as much space as I wanted, I'd found the Mercury's mania for brevity almost unbearable. My forfeiture series, for example, had been held to two parts, and even those stories had been chopped up into bite-sized bits. I'd had other stories held for weeks and even months because I wouldn't give in to editor's demands to cut them in half.

No one reads long stories, I was told. Our focus groups had shown that readers wanted our stories to be even shorter than they already were -- "tighter and brighter" was the answer to dwindling readership. Details were boring. Readers didn't like to having to turn pages to follow jumps. If you couldn't tell a daily story in 12 inches or less, then maybe it was too complicated to tell. For a time, we even had a rule: no stories could be longer than 48 inches. Period. And that was for Sundays.

Daily stories had an absolute max of 36 inches.

"We've got to lay out everything we know," I told Yarnold, "because people are going to come after us on this, and I don't ever want to be in a position where I have to say, 'Oh, yeah, we knew that, but we didn't have the space to put it in the paper.' And I don't think you want to be in position, either."

You'll get as much space as you need, Yarnold assured me. Don't worry about it. Just go out and bring this thing home.

IN MID-APRIL I finished the first drafts and sent them up to my editors, with no clue as to how they would be received. They were like nothing I had ever written before, and probably unlike anything my editors had ever grapppled with either: a tale spanning more than a decade, that attempted to show how two of the defining issues of the 1980s -- the Contra war and the crack explosion, seemingly unconnected social phenomena -- were actually intertwined, thanks largely to government meddling.

The four-part series I turned in focused on the relationship between the Contras and the crack king. It mentioned the CIA's role in passing, noting that some of the money had gone to a CIA-run army and that there were federal law enforcement reports suggesting the CIA knew about it. I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague. Indeed, the more I learned about the agency, the more certain of that I became. The CIA couldn't even mine a harbor without getting its trench coat stuck in its fly.

That the Contras' cocaine ended up being turned into crack was a horrible accident of history, I believed, not someone's evil plan. The Contras just happened to pick the worst possible time ever to begin peddling cheap cocaine in black neighborhoods. That, I believed, was the real danger the CIA has always presented -- unbridled criminal stupidity, cloaked in a blanket of national security.

"The fact that a government-connected drug ring was dumping tons of cocaine into the black neighborhoods in L.A. -- and to a lesser extent in San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, Houston, Oklahoma City, Alabama and New Orleans -- goes a long way toward explaining why crack developed such deep roots in the black community," I wrote. "It's where the seed was planted."

Looking back, I can barely believe I was permitted to write such a story, but that was the kind of newspaper the Mercury News was at the time. No topic was too taboo, or at least if there was one, I never discovered it. And I was always looking.

The reason I'd left a much larger paper in Cleveland to work for the Mercury News was because the editors convinced me that they ran one of the few newspapers in the country with that kind of courage. There were no sacred cows, they pledged; and for nine years they had been true to their word. Not one of my stories was ever spiked of significantly watered down; nearly 300 of them had appeared on the Merc's front page, including many that wouldn't have stood a chance in hell of being printed in other mainstream newspapers.

SO WHEN DAWN CALLED me with the official reaction to "Dark Alliance," I was gratified but not suprised. They loved it, she said happily. They couldn't wait to get it in the newspaper. They thought it was important, groundbreaking reporting. Congratulations. But there was one hitch. "They thought it was too long," she said. It needed to be cut.

The four main stories ranged between 2,400 words and 3,200 words apiece, and for a major metropolitan daily, that's not a lot of space. For the Mercury, though, it was as if I'd asked for the moon, a raise, a shower in my office and an executive parking place all at the same time.

"They're never going to go for four parts," Dawn warned.

"Yarnold told me I could have as much space as I needed," I reminded her. "I can't do it in less than four parts. I've gotten this thing down as far as I can get it. You're going to start cutting into its spinal cord if you cut it any more." The problem was that the believability of the story hinged on the weight of the evidence. Every fact that was cut would make the story appear more speculative than it really was.

For weeks we wrangled back and forth, and then I got the word. David Yarnold, the managing editor, had decreed that it was three parts or nothing.

Fine, I said. I stitched the second and third parts together into one long part and resubmitted the series.

"Gee," Dawn said. "This second part is kind of long. We need to cut it."

This tug-of-war continued throughout the spring of 1996. She would cut the paragraphs out, I would put them back in. We tried creating sidebars -- small stories that ran alongside the main one -- so we could hit the "magic numbers," the maximum length the editors had set for stories. It was still too long. Finally I put my foot down. No more cuts. The editors relented.

"Okay," Dawn said. "You've made your point. Let's try it again as a four-parter."

I reassembled all the scattered bits and peices and resubmitted it. She read it, approved it and sent it up the editing chain. I got a call a few days later.

"Well, they liked it, and Yarnold agreed four parts is fine. But they want the first part rewritten," she said. "They think it's too feature-y. It should have a harder edge on it, more news. We need to go through and pull out all of the information about the CIA and the Contras and put it in the first day."

"The reason it's got a feature lead is because the series is a feature," I argued. "It's about the three men who started the L.A. crack market. That's the story I want to tell. If we turn this thing into a Contra cocaine story, everyone is going to say, 'Oh, that's old news.' We agreed on this already, remember?"

"That's what they want," Dawn said. "I'm just telling you what they told me."

"Well I'm not writing it that way. I'm tired of this nonsense."

"Just try it, OK? Give it a quick write-through. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and we'll go back to the old way. But we've got to give it a try."

I gritted my teeth. OK. If they wanted a hard edge on this thing, I'd give them one. I sat down at my computer, and in a few minutes I hammered out the paragraph that, with a few changes, would open the "Dark Alliance" series:

"For the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found. This drug network, federal records show, 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. The cocaine it brought into the United States fueled the crack explosion in urban America, and the simultaneous rise in power of the murderous gangs of black L.A."

I hit the transmit button.

Dawn called the next morning. "This is perfect," she said. "This is exactly what they wanted." The rest of the editing went fairly smoothly, and by July 26, 1996, the four-part series was done, edited, and ready to go in the paper, starting Aug. 18.

Late one night, toward the end of July, the phone rang. "Well, I have some good news and some bad news," Dawn began. "The bad news is that David Yarnold is no longer the editor on this series. He took a new job with Knight-Ridder, and he's out of here. The good news is that Paul Van Slambrouck is the new editor, and I showed him the series today and he really likes it and thinks we've got a great story here."

"We've got a brand-new editor on this?" I cried. "Now? And he just read it for the first time today? You're shitting me. So what does this mean?"

"Well, unfortunately, it means it's not going to run on the 18th. He has some changes he wants to make to it."

I sat up and started laughing. "Really? What kind of changes?"

"He thinks it's too long. We need to make it three parts."

I howled. "You can't be serious, Dawn. This is a joke, right?"

"No, I'm sorry. Maybe you should talk to Paul."

Van Slambrouck, the Mercury's national editor and a smart, thoughtful journalist, was apologetic. It wasn't the way he wanted to do things, either. But he thought the series was terrific, and he wanted very much to get it in the paper and hoped I still felt the same way.

"Dawn said you wanted to make some changes."

It needed to come down in length, he said, and we needed more CIA stuff in the first day. I was back to square one.

I sat down and fired off an angry memo to Dawn. Van Slambrouck had asked me to cut 65 inches, I complained. He had suggested that I needed to go through the story myself and be "ruthless" and I'd be able to find 65 inches to cut, no problem. If there were 65 inches left of fat in these stories, I wrote to Dawn, "we both ought to resign because we obviously aren't doing our jobs right."

An additional problem, I reminded Dawn, was that my family and I were in the midst of moving and were taking our vacation while the new house was being readied. During the next three weeks I rewrote the series on a laptop while on "vacation," first in a beach house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then in a motel room in Washington, D.C. and finally in the basement of my in-laws' house in Indiana. It was horrible. I had no way of telling what was being cut back at the Mercury, what was being put back in or what was being rewritten. Five or six different versions were flying around. Don't these people know what they're dealing with here? I wondered. Don't they realize the import of what we're printing?

I eventually realized that for the most part they did not, which may have been the reason the series got in the paper in the first place. It came in under the radar. Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos would later tell Newsweek that "he read only part of the story" before it appeared in print, an amazing admission if true.

Perhaps my editors thought I was exaggerating the story's significance, trying to gobble up more space than was really justified? It is a common sight in newsrooms to see reporters hype their stories. I knew reporters who worked their editors like PR agents, or lobbyists pimping a bill. But I had never worked that way. I figured my editors know how to read as well as anyone. My paycheck was the same every week, no matter which page they put my story on . . . I also know from my research what kind of backlash would result from a story that dirtied up the CIA, and stressed it repeatedly to my editors. New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh's 1974 expose of Operation Chaos, a massive illegal CIA domestic spying operation, had brought on attacks in the Washington Post (he had no "hard" proof) and Time ("There is a strong likelihood that Hersh's CIA story is considerably exaggerated"), among many others.

AT 2 AM -- midnight in San Jose -- on Aug. 18 1996, I was at a party at my best friend's house in Indianapolis. I excused myself, went into a bedroom, plugged into my laptop, and dialed into the Mercury's Web site. A picture of a man smoking crack, superimposed upon the seal of the CIA, drew itself on the screen. After more than a year of work, "Dark Alliance" was finally out. I emailed [freelance journalist] Georg [Hodel] with the news, went back out to the party and got drunk. The next morning I flew back to Sacramento.

Initially, the silence was deafening. Then we realized why. They had intentionally run the series the week between the Republican and Democratic national conventions. The national media and the nation's politicians were on vacation; nobody was paying much attention to anything, and particularly not a story in a regional Northern California newspaper.

By Aug. 21, though, some radio stations began calling. What was this CIA story we've been hearing about on the Web?

That combination -- talk radio and the Internet -- is what saved "Dark Alliance" from slipping silently below the surface and disappearing without a trace. The Internet wizards at Mercury Center -- Mark Hull, Donna Yanish and Albert Poon -- had done a brilliant, eye-popping job on the "Dark Alliance" Web page. It was something right out of the movies: full-color animanted maps, one click access to uncut source documents, unpublished photos, audio clips from undercover DEA tapes and [drug trafficker Danilo] Blandon's federal court testimony, a bibliography, a timeline -- all in far more depth and detail than we were able to get into the newspaper.

AT THE END of that first week I returned to San Diego for Ricky Ross's sentencing. That was where I had my first inkling of the firestorm I'd touched off. Radio stations were blanketing the newspaper with interview requests. Before heading for the courthouse that morning, I'd done radio shows in Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas and Detroit.

A haggard-looking L.J. O'Neale, the assistant U.S. attorney, spotted me in the hallway outside the courtroom.

"Hey there," I said. "You see the story?"

He scowled and pushed by without saying a word. He'd already fought his way through television camera crews outside the courthouse, and he clearly wasn't pleased with all the attention. Inside the courtroom, reporters jostled for seats.

Fenster asked for a postponement of the sentencing, saying the series had raised significant questions about Blandon and his connections to the CIA. O'Neale protested angrily, accusing Ross of dreaming up the whole CIA plot and feeding it to gullible journalist who was spreading the ridiculous conspiracy theories.

But Judge Huff looked troubled and told O'Neale she wanted some answers from the CIA before she passed sentencing on Ross and his codefendents. And she also wanted the Justice Department to begin deportation proceedings against Blandon immediately. The news made the wires, and the switchboard at the Mercury News lit up. "This place is going crazy!" Dawn reported. "The Web page had something like 500,000 hits on it today!"

The Mercury News executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, called and congratulated me. The TV networks were calling the paper. We were getting phone calls from all over the world. "Let's stay on top of this," he said. "Anything you need, you let us know. We want to run with this thing." A few days later, I got a $500 bonus check in the mail and a note from Ceppos: "Remarkable series! Thanks for doing this for us."

I was on National Public Radio the following Monday and, as always, gave out the Web site address so people could read the series and see our documents. We had 800,000 hits that day. The synergy was amazing. For the first time, people could hear about a story and on the radio -- even one that appeared several weeks earlier and thousands of miles away -- and immediately read it on their computer screens.

Unlike all the previous stories about the Contras and cocaine, this one couldn't be killed off in the traditional manner, by Big Media ignoring it or relegating it to the news briefs. Millions of people were finding out about "Dark Alliance" anyway -- even though not a word had appeared in the so-called national press. That phenomenon was newsworthy of by itself.

"The story had serious legs, moving rapidly through the African American community via email and file downloads, and then into living rooms, offices and churches, and onto streets and into more mainstream black papers and radio broadcasts," HotWired magazine wrote in October 1996. "For the first time, my grandmother asked me to go online and read something. I couldn't believe it. She wouldn't look at a computer before," one black government lawyer emailed the magazine. "This story is causing a sensation among blacks. It's all they're talking about. They are enraged about it, and they can't believe it isn't on every front page in America."

IF THERE WAS ONE THING scarier to corporate journalism than the series itself, it was the image of a future where Big Media was unable to control the national agenda. Irrespective of what the series had said, "Dark Alliance" proved that the stranglehold a relative few East Coast editors and producers had on what became news could be broken. "This story suddenly raises suspicions that the Internet has changed the equation in support of democracy," author Daniel Brandt ruminated in October 1996 on an Internet e-zine. "Unless regional newspapers agree to mild-mannered, regional interest Web sites, all the resources that the elites have invested in monopolizing the Daily Spin could end up spinning down the drain."

In this case the blend of the Internet and talk radio had made the tradional media irrelevant. The public was marching on without them, and the message got through clearly to California's top politicians. The L.A. City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for a federal investigation. Both California senators and a half-dozen congressment wrote letters to CIA director John Deutch and Attorney General Janet Reno demanding an official inquiry. Deutch agreed to conduct one, which infuriated the right-wing Washington Times. Deutch was lambasted on the front page by unnamed critics for "his efforts to curry favor with liberal politicians." And on the editorial page, editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave, a "journalist" with a long history of connections to the intelligence community and the Contras, fumed that "the same old pro-Marxist CIA bashers are at it again" and quoted unnamed former colleagues at "another paper" describing me as "an 'activist' journalist who would dearly love to see the CIA scuttle itself."

In his column, de Borchgrave claimed Congress had given the Contras $100 million before the Boland Amendments went into effect, and chided me for being too young to remember that the CIA had no need for illicit Contra funds in those days. When I appeared on political talk-show host Chris Matthews' live show on CNBC that evening, Matthews eagerly sprung de Borchgrave's crazy timeline on me, demanding to know how I could have written what I did, given the fact that the Contras had plenty of money. After Jack White of Time and I pointed out that he had his "facts" backward, Matthews, during a commercial break, began bellowing at his production assistants, loudly accusing them of attempting to "sabotage" his show.

Soon after Deutch ordered an internal investigation, Attorney General Janet Reno -- at the urging of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich -- followed suit.

Finally, the national news media dipped a toe into the icy waters. Newsweek devoted an entire page to the story in late September, calling it "a powerful series" that had some black leaders "ready to carpet-bomb Langley." Time that month called it "the hottest topic in black America," and said the Web site "provides a plethora of court documents, recorded interviews and photographs. . . . This is the first time the Internet has electrified African Americans."

Soon, 60 Minutes called. "Don't talk to anyone else," a producer told me. "We want this story to ourselves." I got an identical call from Dateline NBC. I told both of them I thought it was unethical for a reporter to refuse to talk to the press. The 60 Minutes producer said that was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. Dateline ended up doing the story.

Over the next few weeks, we got interview requests from Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Tom Snyder, Jesse Jackson and Montel Williams. I was on CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, and CBS Morning News. The Mercury printed up 5,000 copies of the series, and they were gone in a matter of weeks. An employee from the marketing department was assigned full-time to handle press calls. Each evening she emailed a list of interview requests, and by early October the list was three pages long and growing. The London Times did a story. Le Monde in Paris wrote something. Newspapers in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua called for interviews.

It's hard to imagine how many radio stations there are in the United States until they start calling. At home, my phone would begin ringing at 6 a.m. and not stop until 10 p.m. Talk radio was burning up the airwaves, spreading the story and the Web site address from coast to coast. One day, the hits on the Web page climbed over 1,000,000. People in Japan, Bosnia, Germany and Denmark sent me email.

Meanwhile, we continued advancing the story. I teamed up with Pamela Kramer, the Mercury's reporter in Los Angeles, and we wrote several stories about the 1986 police raids on Danilo Blandon's house. We came up with the entire Gordon search warrant, which showed that the police had several informants telling them that drug money was going to the Contras. Our sources provided us with the case file number to the supposedly nonexistent investigatory file at the L.A. County Sheriff's Office, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters and her staff marched in and demanded to see it.

"I told them that the only way they were going to get me out of their office was to give me the file or arrest me," she said. She got the file -- in it were the police reports about the search of [cocaine dealer] Ronald Lister's house, his claims of CIA involvement, and the inventory of strange items seized at his house.

NBC News did a strong follow-up, finally exposing the drug-related entries in Oliver North's notebooks to a national TV audience, but it was the only network attempting to advance the story. The establishment papers -- the New York Times, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- the same newspapers that had so confidently reported in the 1980s that there was no truth to these claims of Contra drug trafficking, remained largely silent.

"Where is the rebuttal? Why hasn't the media rose in revolt against this story?" an exasperated Bernard Kalb, former spokesman for the Reagan State Department, demanded on CNN's Reliable Sources. "It isn't a story that simply got lost. It, in fact, has resonated and echoed, and the question is where is the media knocking it down, when that, too, is a journalistic responsibility?"

Kalb's guest, former Reagan Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland, clucked that he "would expect to see this kind of story in a magazine like In These Times, not in a mainstream newspaper such as the San Jose Mercury News." No one on Kalb's show bothered to mention that Eastland had a history of trying to cover up the Contra drug link. In May 1986, his office had planted a false story in the New York Times stating that the Justice Department had "cleared" the Contras of any involvement in gun running and drug smuggling, a statement the Justice Department was later forced to recant.

One question I was frequently asked during radio appearances was whether I thought the national media reaction would be different if the series had appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times. My stock answer was that it hadn't appeared in those newspapers because they'd decided in 1986 that there was no story here. My feeling was that those newspapers' very familiarity with the story made it more difficult for them to report it. How could they come back 10 years later and admit that the Contras had been selling cocaine to Americans, when they'd already assured us it wasn't happening?

In early October, I was in New York City getting ready for an appearance on the Montel Williams Show, which was doing a two-day special on the "Dark Alliance" series. About 2 a.m. Jerry Ceppos called. The Washington Post had just moved a story on the wires. It would be in the morning edition, and it was highly critical of the series. He asked me to take a look at it and give him my reaction.

"What did they say was wrong?" I asked.

"They don't say any of the facts are wrong," Ceppos said. "They just don't agree with our conclusions."

"And their evidence is what?"

"A lot of unnamed sources, mainly. It's really a strange piece. I'll send you a fax of it, and we can talk in the morning."

They story was headlined "The CIA and Crack: Evidence is Lacking of Alleged Plot." I laughed. What plot?

The reporters, Walter Pincus and Roberto Suro, wrote that their investigation "does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed Contras -- or Nicaraguans in general -- played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States. Instead, the available data from arrest records, hospitals, drug treatment centers and drug-user surveys point to a rise in crack as a broad-based phenomenon driven in numerous places by players of different nationalities, races and ethnic groups."

Ah ha. The old tidal wave theory. Here it comes again. I wondered what "available data" Pincus and Suro had gathered from the 1982-83 era, the dawn of the L.A. crack market, since the DEA and NIDA had admitted a decade earlier that there was no such data.

The story grudgingly and often back-handedly admitted that the basic facts presented in the series were correct, and it buried key admissions deep inside, such as the fact that "the CIA knew about some of these activities and did little or nothing to stop them." Toward the end Pincus and Suro confirmed that Norwin Meneses and Blandon had met with Enrique Bermudez in Honduras, but without disclosing Bermudez's relationship with the CIA. CIA agent Adolfo Calero, whom the Post euphemistically described as someone "who worked closely with the CIA," also admitted to the Post reporters that he had met with Meneses.

Overall, it was a cleverly crafted piece of disinformation that would set the stage for the attacks to follow. It falsely claimed that the series made a "racially charged allegation that the 'CIA army' of Contras deliberately targeted the black community in an effort to expand the market for a cheap form of cocaine." And, despite Blandon's testimony that he sold 200 to 300 kilos of cocaine for Meneses in L.A. and that all the profits were sent to the Contras, the Post quoted unnamed "law enforcement officials" as saying "Blandon sold $30,000 to $60,000 worth of cocaine in two transactions."

The story also dove right through the "window" that O'Neale had opened at the Ross trial. "If the whole of Blandon's testimony is to be believed," Pincus ad Suro wrote, '[then there is no connection] between the Contras and African American drug dealers because Blandon said he had stopped sending money to the Contras by the time he met Ross." No mention was made of the DEA reports and the sheriff's department affidavit that said Blandon was selling Contra cocaine through 1986, nor of the fact that Ross had been buying Blandon's cocaine long before he actually met him. "Moreover," the Post declared, "the mere idea that any one person could have played a decisive role in the nationwide crack epidemic is rejected out of hand by academic experts and law enforcement officials." But they identified neither the academic experts nor the law enforcement officials.

I wrote Ceppos a memo pointing out the holes in the Post's story. "The Pincus piece," I wrote, "is just silly. It's the kind of story you'd expect from someone who spent three weeks working on a story, as opposed to 16 months." The fact that the Post's unnamed "experts" would reject a scenario "out of hand," I wrote, was the whole problem. "None of them -- whoever they are -- has ever studied this before."

To his credit, Ceppos fired off a blistering letter to the Post, pointing out the factual errors in the piece and calling Pincus' claims of a "racially charged allegation" a "complete and total mischaracterization."

"The most difficult issue is whether a casual reading of our series leads to the conclusion that the CIA is directly responsible for the outbreak of the crack epidemic in Los Angeles. While there is considerable circumstantial evidence of CIA involvement with the leaders of this drug ring, we never reached or reported any definitive conclusion on CIA involvement," Ceppos wrote. "We reported that men selling cocaine in Los Angeles met with people on the CIA payroll. We reported that they received fundraising orders from the people on the CIA payroll. We reported that the money raised was sent to a CIA-run operation. But we did not go further and took pains to say that clearly."

Ceppos posted the letter on the staff bulletin board, along with a memo defending the series. "We strongly support the conclusions the series drew and will until someone proves them wrong. What is even more remarkable is that four experienced Post reporters, re-reporting our series, could not find a single factual error. The Post's conclusions are very different -- and I believe, flawed -- but the major facts aren't. I'm not sure how many of us could sustain such a microscopic examination of our work, and I believe Gary Webb deserves recognition for surviving unscathed."

The Post held Ceppos' letter for weeks, ordered him to rewrite it, and then refused to print it.

Shortly afterward I got an email message from a woman in Southern California. There was a story in the Mercury's archives that I needed to see, she wrote, and provided a date and a page number. I sent it to our library and got a photocopy of the story in the mail a day later. It had run on Feb. 18, 1967."

"How I Traveled Abroad on CIA Subsidy" was the headline. The author was Walter Pincus of the Washington Post.

After disclosures of CIA infiltration of American student associations had exploded that year, Pincus had written a long, smug confessional of how, posing as an American student representative, he'd traveled to several international youth conferences in the late 1950's and early 1960's, secretly gathering information for the CIA and smuggling in anti-Communist propoganda. A CIA recruiter had approached him, he wrote, and he'd agreed to spy not only on the student delegations from other countries but on his American colleagues as well. "I had been briefed in Washington on each of them," Pincus wrote. "None was remotely aware of CIA's interest."

This just cannot be true, I thought. The Washington Post's veteran national security reporter -- a former CIA operative and propogandist? Unwilling to believe this piece of information until I dug it up for myself, I went to the state library and got out the microfilm. The story was there. This was the man who was questioning my ethics for giving [Ross's attorney] Alan Fenster questions to ask a government witness about the Contras and drugs? Jesus, I'd certainly never spied on American citizens.

THE L.A. TIMES and New York Times struck next. On Oct. 20, 1996, both ran long stories attacking my reporting and the series. They took the same tack the Washington Post had several weeks earlier: admitting that the basic facts were true and then complaining that the facts didn't mean a thing.

Relying again mostly on unnamed sources, these two newspapers of record claimed Blandon and Meneses hadn't had "official positions" with the Contras. Drug money had been sent, but not millions; it was only tens of thousands, according to unnamed sources. And experts scoffed at the notion that one drug ring could have supplied enough cocaine to feed the tidal wave of crack that engulfed American, a ridiculous claim I'd never made.

The papers found no need to mention the mass of historical evidence that supported the series' findings. Without anything approaching documentation, the papers just flatly declared that I was wrong.

"The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA. No one trafficker, even kingpins who sold thousands of kilos and pocketed millions of dollars, ever came close to monopolizing the drug trade," the L.A. Times assured its readers in the lead paragraph of a three-day series.

THE NEXT DAY, the L.A. Times absolved the CIA of any involvement with Blandon and Meneses. Its authoritative sources: former CIA director Robert Gates, former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro and current CIA director John Deutch. "Like good little boys and girls, the Times, the Washington Post et al., toddled off to the CIA and asked the agency if it had ever done such a thing. When the CIA said 'no' the papers solemnly printed it -- just as though the CIA hadn't previously denied any number of illegal operations in which it was later caugh red-handed," columnist Molly Ivins observed.

Buried deep within the L.A. Times story were admissions by CIA officials that Contra supporters "were involved in drug running, but they bought villas and did not put it into the FDN." And the story conceded, "the allegation that some elements of the CIA-sponsored Contra army cooperated with drug traffickers has been well documented for years." But the story dismissed the idea that "millions" went to the Contras from the Nicaraguans' drug sales. Unnamed sources said it was around $50,000 or $60,000, which caused former Meneses distributor Rafael Cornejo some mirth.

"Sixty thousand?" he scoffed. "You can raise that in an afternoon."

According to another unnamed source the Times quoted, Blandon and Meneses were making only $15,000 a kilo in profits.

Unmentioned was Blandon's testimony that he'd sold 200 to 300 kilos for Meneses during the time they were sending money to the Contras, and his admission that all of the profits were being sent to the rebels. Using the Times' own profit figures, that would mean between $3 million and $4.5 million went to the Contras just from Blandon's sales.

And that didn't include the money Meneses' organization -- through Cabezas and Renato Pena in San Francisco -- was sending. Lost in the debate over whether it was millions or tens of thousands, was the inanity of the idea that a reasonably accurate number could ever be found in a business that deals in cash and eschews written records -- it is just as possible that the amounts could have been in the tens of millions.

"No solid evidence has emerged that either Meneses or Blandon contributed any money to the rebels after 1984," the story declared, ignoring the 1986 sheriff's affidavit and the 1986 DEA reports. The story also quoted another unnamed associate who claimed, apparantly with a straight face, that the profit margin in the cocaine business in 1982-84 -- when coke was selling for $60,000 a kilo -- were just too slim to allow million-dollar donations to the FDN.

THE UNPRECENDENTED attacks by three major newspapers alarmed the Mercury's editors. I was called to a meeting with Ceppos and the other editors and told that I should quit trying to advance the story. We needed to start working on a written response to the other newspapers, he said. I vehemently disagreed. "The best way to shut them up is to put the rest of what we know in the paper and keep plowing ahead," I argued. "Let's run a story about Walter Pincus' CIA connections. Let's write about how the L.A. Times has been booting this story since 1987." I told them of my discovery that the L.A. Times Washington bureau had been sent a copy of the notes found in Ronald Lister's house in 1990 and had thrown them away. Ceppos disagreed.

"I don't want to go to war with them," he said.

Fortunately, both Dawn Garcia and Paul Van Slambrouck agreed that we should continue developing the story.

"The best way to answer our critics," Van Slambrouck told Ceppos, "is to advance the story. Let's go out and get some more evidence of drug money being sent to the Contras. Let's get more evidence of this drug ring's dealings with the Contras." Ceppos relented, authorizing another reporting trip to Central America. He also assigned L.A. bureau reporter Pamela Kramer and Pete Carey, an investigative reporter, to gather information about the start of the L.A. crack market. He also made another decision: He was changing the logo that the series had used on the Internet and in the reprints. The CIA's seal was coming off.

"What's the point of doing that?" I asked. "We documented that these traffickers were meeting with CIA agents. If you change the logo, the rest of the media is going to accuse us of backing away from the story."

But Ceppos wouldn't budge. Thousands of reprints with the CIA-crack smoker logo were gathered up and burned, and a CD-ROM version of the series -- which had been pressed and ready for distribution -- was also destroyed. The Post and L.A. Times immediately crowed that the Mercury was retreating from the series.

Georg and I flew to Costa Rica and began interviewing police officials, lawyers, prosecutors and ex-Contras about Meneses' activities there, fleshing out his role as a DEA informant and his drug operation's connections to Oliver North's re-supply network on the Southern Front. In Managua, we interviews police and Blandon's suspected money launderer, Orlando Murillo. I flew back and started writing the follow-up stories; Georg continued hunting for other members of the Meneses drug ring.

He called me in December 1996, barely able to contain his excitement. He'd found Carlos Cabezas, who admitted that he had in fact delivered millions of dollars in drug money to the Contras. Cabezas had names, dates and amounts, Georg said, and pages from his drug ledgers. He'd identified a CIA agent, Ivan Gomez, as having had direct knowledge of it all.

"We've got it," Georg cried. "Cabezas is willing to talk on the record."

A week later Georg called me with more good news. Enrique Miranda, the former Meneses aide who'd escaped a year earlier, had been found in Miami and tossed on a plane to Nicaragua. Georg had visited him in prison, and Miranda started talking. Meneses' relationship with the CIA and the Contras was deeper than we'd ever realized, Georg said. "We didn't know how right we were," he laughed. "I can't wait to see what the Washington Post does with this." I could have kissed him.

In January 1997, I sent first drafts of four follow-up stories to Dawn, written as a two-day series. The first part dealt with Meneses' DEA connections and his Costa Rican operation, along with the interviews Georg had done with Carlos Cabezas and Enrique Miranda. I wrote a sidebar about the drug-dealing Costa Rican shrimp company North and the Cuban CIA operatives were using to funnel aid to the Contras.

The second part was a story about the parallel investigations of Contra drug-trafficking done in the summer of 1986 by DEA agent Celering Castillo at Ilopango and L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Gordon, drawing on recently declassified FBI and CIA records at the National Archives and 3.000 pages of once-secret documents about the Blandon raids that had just been released by the L.A. County Sheriff's Office. I also wrote a sidebar on Joe Kelso's attempts to investigate allegations of DEA drug trafficking in Costa Rica. Altogether the drafts ran 16,000 words.

We'd done it. We had an eyewitness, on the record, who'd delivered the drug money. We had DEA records saying Blandon had sent money to the Contras far longer than we'd previously reported. We had a top CIA official admitting the agency had reports of drug trafficking at Ilopango. We had evidence Ronald Lister had been meeting with the CIA's former head of covert operations. I expected the editors to be beside themselves with joy.

I heard absolutely nothing. Aside from Dawn, no one called to tell me they'd read the new stories. No one called with questions. No one even suggested that we begin editing them. They sat.

EXECUTIVE EDITOR Jerry Ceppos called me at home on March 25, 1997, to inform me that he'd made "a very difficult decision." Mistakes had been made in the series, he said, and the newspaper was going to print a letter to its readers saying so.

"Is this a fait accompli?" I asked. "Or do I get a chance to say something?"

"The decision has been made," Ceppos said. "I'll fax you a draft of what we're considering."

According to Ceppos' proposed column, we should have said that Blandon claimed he quit dealing with the Contras in 1983 -- something that the editors had cut to save space. We had "insufficient proof" to say millions went to the Contras; we should have said it was an estimate. We should have said that we didn't find proof of involvement of "CIA decision-makers," whatever that meant. We should have said Ricky Ross wasn't the only crack supplier in L.A. -- but we hadn't said that. And, finally, Ceppos wrote, the experts were unanimous in saying that the Contras had not played a major role in the crack trade and that the series had "oversimplified" how crack had become a problem. Strangley, Ceppos had borrowed his conclusions from Pete Carey's never-published crack story.

I brought a written response to San Jose with me the next day when I met with Ceppos and the other editors in the ornate conference room near the editors' offices. "That 'experts' would disagree with the findings of original research is one of the perils of doing it, as any researcher can tell you," I wrote. "But just because they have a differing opinion -- and when you get down to it, that's all it is -- is a pretty shoddy reason to take a swan dive on a story . . . . How can we honestly say that we don't know millions went to the Contras, or that the CIA didn't know about this, when we've got an eyewitness telling us that he personally gave drug money to a CIA agent? What are we going to do about all that other inconvenient information in the follow-ups? We're going to look awful god-damned stupid running this apology and then printing stories that directly contradict it."

The other editors looked at the table uncomfortably.

"We are going to print those other stories, aren't we?"

Ceppos shook his head slightly.

"We're not" I asked incredulously. "Why not?"

"They're a quarter-turn of the screw," he said. "We're not going to print anything else unless it's a major advance."

I exploded. "You think the fact that the head of this Contra drug ring was working for the DEA is a quarter-turn of a screw?" I shouted. "You don't think the fact that the DEA helped an accused CIA drug trafficker escape criminal charges is a major advance? You've got to be kidding me. Are we even going to pursue this story any more?"

"No," Ceppos said.

"Let me get this straight," I said. "We're killing the other stories. We're not going to do any more investigation of this topic. And we're going to run this mealy-mouthed column that pretends we don't know anything else, tuck our tails between our legs and slink off into the sunset. That's what you've got in mind?"

"You and I have very different views of this situation," he said quietly.

"You got that right."

The result of the stormy meeting was that Ceppos rewrote his column, removing the obvious factual errors but leaving the rest virtually unchanged.

"No matter how many times the words and phrases are tweaked, the end result is still a sham," I responded in a memo. "You're sitting on information that supports what I wrote and pretending to be unaware of it."

AT A FINAL MEETING before the column ran, I predicted that the mainstream press would read the column as a retraction, one that covered everything the series had revealed. "You run this, and all we'll hear is, 'The Mercury News has admitted it isn't true! The Contras weren't dealing cocaine! The CIA had nothing to do with it!" And you know as well as I do, that's not true."

Ceppos' column ran on May 11, 1997, and if there was ever a chance to getting to the bottom of the CIA's involvement with drug traffickers, it died on that day. The New York Times, which hadn't found the original story newsworthy enough to mention, splashed Ceppos's apology on its front page. An editorial lauded Ceppos for his courage and declared that he'd set a brave new standard for dealing with "egregious errors."

Howard Kurtz, the media critic for the Washington Post, called for a comment. "It's nauseating," I told him. I had never been more disgusted with my profession in my life. It wasn't because outrages were unknown in the newspaper business. They weren't. Shortly before I arrived at the Plain-Dealer, the paper printed a front-page retraction of a story that had appeared more than a year earlier, revealing that former Teamsters Union president Jackie Presser was an FBI informant.

Presser was indeed an informant, as the FBI confirmed years later. But truth had taken a back seat to realpolitik. Court records later revealed that the paper had been pressured into retracting the story by New York mob boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, who'd asked his attorney, Roy Cohn, to intercede with the Newhouse family, which owned the Plain Dealer.

Whether similar pressures were applied to Ceppos from outside the newspaper is something I do not know, not do I particularly want to. I would prefer to believe the theory advanced by my editor, Dawn Garcia, who suggested that Ceppos's treatment for prostrate cancer in the winter of 1996-97 had been a factor. That extended illness, combined with pressure from other editors, had taken their toll, she believed.

It's a plausible explanation, because there really were only two ways the newspaper could have gone with "Dark Alliance" at that point -- forward or backward. The series had created such a superheated controversy that it had become impossible to simply do nothing. Ceppos, who had stood by the story bravely at key moments, simply may not have had the endurance, at that period of his life, to ride the story out.

If the Mercury continued pursuing the story and publishing follow-ups, editor Jon Krim worried in a memo, the editors needed to be ready "to deal with the firestorm of criticism that is sure to follow." The other way out was to back out: confess to some "shortcomings," take some quick lumps and move on, which is the course Ceppos chose. It was certainly the course of least resistance, as the happy reaction of the national media proved.

THE CONTROVERSY raged for another month, and the issue gradually became what Ceppos reportedly had dreaded: he was being accused of suppressing information. He was convering things up. Talk radio had a field day. In Washington, DJ Joe Madison, who'd been making hay with the story for months, urged the listeners of his 50,000-watt station to call Ceppos and demand that he print the stories he was suppressing. Letters and email from outraged readers began pouring in.

Ceppos, who'd not spoken to me since his column ran, called me at home in early June. He was killing the follow-ups, he shouted. I was off the story for good. He couldn't trust me anymore because I'd "aligned myself with one side of the issue."

"Which side is that, Jerry? The side that wants the truth to come out?"

He wasn't getting into a debate, he told me. I was to report to his office in two days "to discuss your future at the Mercury News."

It was a very one-sided discussion. Reading from a prepared statement, Ceppos told me that my editors had lost faith in me. I needed closer supervision, which I couldn't get in Sacramento. I needed to regain their faith and thier trust, and the only way to do that was to accept a transfer to the main office in San Jose. If I refused, I would be transfered against my will to the West Bureau in Cupertino, the newspaper's version of Siberia -- a somnolent training ground for new reporters and a pasture for older ones who'd fallen from favor. It made little sense, because the reporters there had no direct supervision, either. Whichever I decided, I had to report in 30 days.

And by the way, Ceppos said, Pete Carey was going to take over the Contra drug story, and I was to give him all the cooperation he requested.

That night I sat down with my wife, Sue, and my children and gave them the news. In one month, I was going to have to start working in Cupertino, 150 miles away. I'd have to drive there on Mondays and come home on Fridays. In the meantime, I'd fight the transfer through the Newspaper Guild.

My 6-year-old daughter looked at me strangely. "Are you still going to sleep here?"

"No, I won't be able to," I told her. "I have to live in another place during the week. But I'll be home on the weekends." She got up, went into her room, and closed the door.

RELUCTANTLY I WENT, spending July and part of August in the Cupertino bureau under protest. I was assigned such pressing matters as the death of a police horse, clothing collections for Polish flood victims and summer school computer classes. I went on a byline strike, refusing to put my name on any story written while I was working under protest.

To the chagrin of my editors, who were under orders to keep me away from any decent assignments, I turned a press release rewrite about a San Jose landfill into a front-page story. It was the last piece I wrote for the Mercury -- a page-one story with no one's name on it, which reportedly infuriated Ceppos.

Occasionally, Pete Carey would call with a question or two. He wasn't having much luck corroborating Carlos Cabezas' statements, he told me. He'd been trying to locate the Venezuelan CIA agent Cabezas said he worked with, Ivan Gomez, but couldn't. He'd tried directory assistance in Caracas and complained about how many Ivan Gomezes there were in the phone book. I felt saddened that my two-year investigation had come to this.

I never heard another word from him about it, and none of the follow-up stories ever ran. On Nov. 19, 1997, the Mercury News agreed to settle my arbitration but, amusingly, required me to sign a confidentiality agreement swearing that I would never disclose its terms. Nineteen years after becoming a reporter, I quit the newspaper business.

Bob Parry, the AP reporter who first broke the Contra drug story in 1985, sent me a note of condolence. "Like you, I grew up in this business thinking our job really was to tell the public the truth," he wrote. "Maybe that was the mission at one time. Maybe there was that Awakening in the 1970's with Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the CIA scandals, etc.

"But something very bad happened to the news media in the 1980's. Part of it was the 'public diplomacy' pressures from the outside. But part of it was the smug, snotty, sophmoric crowd that came to dominate the national media from the inside. These characters fell in love with their power to define reality, not their responsibility to uncover the facts. By the 1990's, the media had become the monster.

"I wish it weren't so. All I ever wanted to do was report and write interesting stories -- while getting paid for it. But that really isn't possible anymore and there's no use crying over it.

"Hang in there," he concluded. "You're not alone."

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