In this Issue
I MET GARY Webb a few months after he'd published his groundbreaking series in the San Jose Mercury News alleging that the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles had its roots in the U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua. His basic point: allies of the Contras people who had strong Central Intelligence Agency connections were bringing cocaine into the United States to make money to fund the attack on the Sandinista government.
He was hardly the first person to raise questions about the shadowy characters the CIA used to organize and fund the Contra war. The Associated Press had pointed to the unsavory connections as far back as 1985 and so did the Bay Guardian and numerous other alternative newspapers.
But Webb's story was a lot more direct and hard-hitting. He tied the crack-ravaged streets of South Central L.A. directly to the CIA and that set off a shitstorm. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post all went out of their way to discredit the stories.
When I met Webb, he was just starting to feel the heat. What he told me and he often repeated later was that an old Air Force pilot he'd befriended had warned him that "you get the most heavy flak when you're right over the target."
You can argue that Webb fell a half millimeter short of proving his point. But nobody with any sense can claim there wasn't a huge amount of truth to what he wrote. Yes, the CIA had close links to narcotics kingpins in Central America; yes, drug money was used to support the Contras. Yes, the CIA knew that was going on.
And what infuriates me about the whole tale is the way the Mercury News, a Knight Ridder paper, abandoned Webb and effectively tossed him to the wolves the minute the pressure came down. The paper completely backed off its series, pulled if from the Web, apologized for it and demoted the investigative reporter to a backwater city beat. He quit soon after.
None of the top editors involved in the series were sent packing in disgrace. Nobody else's career was ruined. It all fell on Webb.
Webb was found dead Dec. 10 at his home near Sacramento, the apparent victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I don't know why he died; I just know that Knight Ridder treated him horribly that, in the end, he was more right than wrong.