Why Journalist Gary Webb Died
by Robert Parry
Five years ago, a tragedy occurred in
American journalism: Investigative reporter Gary Webb - who had
been ostracized by his own colleagues for forcing a spotlight
back onto an ugly government scandal they wanted to ignore - was
driven to commit suicide. But the tragedy had a deeper meaning.
Webb's death on the night of Dec. 9, 2004,
came as the U.S. press corps was at a nadir, having recently aided
and abetted President George W. Bush in taking the country to
war in Iraq under false pretenses. The press corps also had performed
abysmally in Bush's two presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004,
hesitant to take on the powerful Bush Family.
In retrospect, Webb's suicide could be
viewed as an exclamation point on that sorry era, which had begun
a quarter century earlier with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the
gradual retreat - under right-wing fire - of what had once been
Washington's Watergate/Pentagon Papers watchdog press corps.
Yet, five years after Webb's death, the
U.S. news media continues to scrape along the bottom, still easily
intimidated by the bluster of right-wing media attack groups and
fast-talking neoconservatives - and still gullible in the face
of lies and myths used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the sad tale of Gary Webb remains
instructive for anyone wanting to understand what went wrong with
the U.S. news media and why much more work is needed to rebuild
an independent press corps as a safeguard for the American Republic.
Webb's important historical role began
in 1996 when his "Dark Alliance" investigative series
for the San Jose Mercury News revived public interest in the CIA's
tolerance of cocaine trafficking by President Reagan's beloved
Nicaraguan contra rebels in the 1980s, at a time when Reagan was
promoting a "just say no/zero tolerance/war on drugs."
The scandal of contra cocaine trafficking
and the CIA's protection of these crimes had surfaced in the 1980s,
but the Big Three newspapers - New York Times, Washington Post
and Los Angeles Times - paid the scandal little heed, mostly accepting
the denials of Reagan administration insiders.
So, when Webb shed new light on the scandal
in 1996, the same newspapers subjected Webb to a merciless assault
and rejoiced when Webb's editors caved in to the pressure and
forced Webb to quit in disgrace.
Nevertheless, Webb's series prompted an
internal CIA investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz
who issued two reports in 1998 containing devastating admissions
about the CIA's knowledge and protection of contras known to be
active in the cocaine trade.
The Big Three newspapers' response was
mostly to downplay or ignore Hitz's findings, rather than to correct
Because of this misused power of the Big
Three - in this case, to protect the reputation of the Reagan
administration and their own failings - Webb's reputation was
never rehabilitated. He was unable to find decent-paying work
in his profession; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay
bills; and he was faced with a move out of a modest rental house
So, on Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb
typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children;
he laid out a certificate for his cremation; he taped a note on
the door telling movers - who were coming the next morning - to
instead call 911.
Webb then took out his father's pistol
and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so
he fired once more.
Even with Webb's death, the big newspapers
that had played key roles in his destruction couldn't bring themselves
to show Webb any mercy.
After Webb's body was found, I received
a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that
I was one of Webb's few journalistic colleagues who had defended
him and his work. Back in 1985 for the Associated Press, I also
had co-written with Brian Barger the first story exposing the
I told the L.A. Times reporter that American
history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out
important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the
L.A. Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because
the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents
of the CIA inspector general's final report, which had largely
To my disappointment but not my surprise,
I was correct. The L.A. Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that
made no mention of either my defense of Webb, nor the CIA's admissions
in 1998. The Times obituary was republished in other newspapers,
including the Washington Post.
In effect, Webb's suicide had enabled
senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little
easier, since one of the few people who understood the true and
ugly story of not only the Reagan administration's protection
of the contra-cocaine trafficking but the U.S. media's complicity
in the cover-up was now silenced.
To this day, none of the journalists or
media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb
has been punished for their actions. None has faced the sort of
humiliation that Webb had to endure. Instead, the death of Gary
Webb and the circumstances surrounding it have remained one of
the U.S. news media's dirty little secrets.
In recognition of that continuing injustice,
I believe it's fitting on the fifth anniversary of Webb's death
to remind the American people of what Webb's work helped expose.
Webb's suicide in 2004 had its roots in
his fateful decision eight years earlier to write a three-part
series for the San Jose Mercury News that challenged a potent
conventional wisdom shared by the elite U.S. news organizations
- that one of the most shocking scandals of the 1980s just couldn't
possibly be true.
Webb's "Dark Alliance" series,
published in August 1996, revived the decade-old allegations that
the Reagan administration in the 1980s had tolerated and protected
cocaine smuggling by its client army of Nicaraguan rebels known
as the contras.
Though substantial evidence of the contra
crimes had surfaced in the mid-1980s (initially in an article
that Brian Barger and I wrote for the Associated Press in December
1985 and later at hearings conducted by Sen. John Kerry), the
major news outlets had refused to take the disclosures seriously.
For instance, reflecting the dominant
attitude toward Kerry and his work on the contra-cocaine scandal,
Newsweek dubbed the Massachusetts senator a "randy conspiracy
buff." [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Kerry's
Contra-Cocaine Chapter" or Robert Parry's Lost History: Contras,
Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Thus, the truth of the contra-cocaine
scandal was left in that netherworld of uncertainty, largely proven
with documents and testimony but never accepted by Official Washington.
But Webb's series thrust the scandal back
into prominence by connecting the contra-cocaine trafficking to
the spread of crack that ravaged Los Angeles and other American
urban centers in the 1980s. For that reason, African-American
communities were up in arms as were their elected representatives
in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Webb's "Dark Alliance" series
offered a unique opportunity for the major news outlets to finally
give the contra-cocaine scandal the attention it deserved.
But that would have required some painful
self-criticism among Washington journalists whose careers had
advanced in part because they had not offended Reagan supporters
who had made an art out of punishing out-of-step reporters for
pursuing controversies like the contra-cocaine scandal.
Also, by the mid-1990s, a powerful right-wing
news media had taken shape and was in no mood to accept the notion
that many of President Reagan's beloved contras were drug traffickers.
That recognition would have cast a shadow over the Reagan Legacy,
which the Right was busy elevating into mythic status.
There was the turf issue, too. Since Webb's
stories coincided with the emergence of the Internet as an alternate
source for news and the San Jose Mercury News was at the center
of Silicon Valley, the big newspapers saw a threat to their historic
dominance as the nation's gatekeepers for what information should
be taken seriously.
Plus, the major media's focus in the mid-1990s
was on scandals swirling around Bill Clinton, such as some firings
at the White House Travel Office and convoluted questions about
his old Whitewater real-estate deal.
In other words, there was little appetite
to revisit scandals from the Reagan years and there were strong
motives to disparage what Webb had written.
Rev. Moon's Newspaper
It fell to Rev. Sun Myung Moon's right-wing
Washington Times to begin the counterattack. The Washington Times
turned to some ex-CIA officials, who had participated in the contra
war, to refute the drug charges.
Then - in a pattern that would repeat
itself over the next decade - the Washington Post and other mainstream
newspapers quickly lined up behind the right-wing press. On Oct.
4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking
down Webb's story, although acknowledging that some contra operatives
did help the cocaine cartels.
The Post's approach was twofold: first,
it presented the contra-cocaine allegations as old news - "even
CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert
operations involved drug traffickers," the Post sniffed -
and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one contra
smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted - that it had not
"played a major role in the emergence of crack."
A Post side-bar story dismissed African-Americans
as prone to "conspiracy fears."
Soon, the New York Times and the Los Angeles
Times joined in the piling on against Gary Webb. The big newspapers
made much of the CIA's internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 - almost
a decade earlier - that supposedly had cleared the spy agency
of a role in contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the CIA's decade-old cover-up began
to weaken on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Hitz conceded
before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe
had lasted only 12 days, the second only three days. He promised
a more thorough review.
Nevertheless, Webb was becoming the target
of media ridicule. Influential Post media critic Howard Kurtz
mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore
the possibility that the contra war was primarily a business to
"Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,"
Kurtz smirked. [Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1996]
Webb's suspicion was not unfounded, however.
Indeed, White House aide Oliver North's chief contra emissary
Rob Owen had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message
about the contra leadership.
"Few of the so-called leaders of
the movement really care about the boys in the field," Owen
wrote. "THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM."
[Capitalization in the original.]
In other words, Webb had been right and
Kurtz had been wrong.
Mercury News Retreat
Still, although Kurtz and other big-name
journalists may have been ignorant of key facts about the contra
war, they still pilloried Gary Webb.
The ridicule also had a predictable effect
on the executives of the Mercury News. By early 1997, executive
editor Jerry Ceppos was in retreat.
On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page
column saying the series "fell short of my standards."
He criticized the stories because they "strongly implied
CIA knowledge" of contra connections to U.S. drug dealers
who were manufacturing crack-cocaine. "We did not have proof
that top CIA officials knew of the relationship," Ceppos
The big newspapers and Reagan's defenders
celebrated Ceppos's retreat as vindication of their own dismissal
of the contra-cocaine stories.
Ceppos next pulled the plug on the Mercury
News' continuing contra-cocaine investigation and reassigned Webb
to a small office in Cupertino, California, far from his family.
Webb resigned the paper in disgrace.
For undercutting Webb and other Mercury
News reporters working on the contra investigation, Ceppos was
lauded by the American Journalism Review and was given the 1997
national "Ethics in Journalism Award" by the Society
of Professional Journalists.
While Ceppos won raves, Webb watched his
career collapse and his marriage break up.
Still, Gary Webb had set in motion internal
government investigations that would bring to the surface long-hidden
facts about how the Reagan administration had conducted the contra
The CIA published the first part of Inspector
General Hitz's findings on Jan. 29, 1998. Despite a largely exculpatory
press release, Hitz's Volume One admitted that not only were many
of Webb's allegations true but that he actually understated the
seriousness of the contra-drug crimes and the CIA's knowledge.
Hitz acknowledged that cocaine smugglers
played a significant early role in the Nicaraguan contra movement
and that the CIA intervened to block an image-threatening 1984
federal investigation into a San Francisco-based drug ring with
suspected ties to the contras, the so-called "Frogman Case."
On May 7, 1998, another disclosure shook
the earlier presumptions of the Reagan administration's innocence.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, introduced into the
Congressional Record a Feb. 11, 1982, letter of understanding
between the CIA and the Justice Department.
The letter, which had been requested by
CIA Director William Casey, freed the CIA from legal requirements
that it must report drug smuggling by CIA assets, a provision
that covered both the Nicaraguan contras and Afghan rebels who
were fighting a Soviet-supported regime in Afghanistan and who
were implicated in heroin trafficking.
The next break in the cover-up was a report
by the Justice Department's Inspector General Michael Bromwich.
Given the hostile climate surrounding Webb's series, Bromwich's
report also opened with criticism of Webb. But, like the CIA's
Volume One, the contents revealed new details about government
According to evidence cited by Bromwich,
the Reagan administration knew almost from the outset of the contra
war that cocaine traffickers permeated the paramilitary operation.
The administration also did next to nothing to expose or stop
Bromwich's report revealed example after
example of leads not followed, corroborated witnesses disparaged,
official law-enforcement investigations sabotaged, and even the
CIA facilitating the work of drug traffickers.
The report showed that the contras and
their supporters ran several parallel drug-smuggling operations,
not just the one at the center of Webb's series._The report also
found that the CIA shared little of its information about contra
drugs with law-enforcement agencies and on three occasions disrupted
cocaine-trafficking investigations that threatened the contras.
Though depicting a more widespread contra-drug
operation than Webb had understood, the Justice report also provided
some important corroboration about a Nicaraguan drug smuggler,
Norwin Meneses, who was a key figure in Webb's series.
Bromwich cited U.S. government informants
who supplied detailed information about Meneses's drug operation
and his financial assistance to the contras._For instance, Renato
Pena, a money-and-drug courier for Meneses, said that in the early
1980s, the CIA allowed the contras to fly drugs into the United
States, sell them and keep the proceeds.
Pena, who was the northern California
representative for the CIA-backed FDN contra army, said the drug
trafficking was forced on the contras by the inadequate levels
of U.S. government assistance.
The Justice report also disclosed repeated
examples of the CIA and U.S. embassies in Central America discouraging
Drug Enforcement Administration investigations, including one
into contra-cocaine shipments moving through the international
airport in El Salvador.
Inspector General Bromwich said secrecy
trumped all. "We have no doubt that the CIA and the U.S.
Embassy were not anxious for the DEA to pursue its investigation
at the airport," he wrote.
Despite the remarkable admissions in the
body of these reports, the big newspapers showed no inclination
to read beyond the criticism of Webb in the press releases.
Cocaine Crimes & Monica
By fall 1998, Official Washington was
obsessed with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which made it easier
to ignore even more stunning contra-cocaine disclosures in the
CIA's Volume Two.
In Volume Two, published on Oct. 8, 1998,
CIA Inspector General Hitz identified more than 50 contras and
contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also
detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug
operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the
According to Volume Two, the CIA knew
the criminal nature of its contra clients from the start of the
war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government._The earliest
contra force, called ADREN or the 15th of September Legion, had
chosen "to stoop to criminal activities in order to feed
and clothe their cadre," according to a June 1981 draft CIA
According to a September 1981 cable to
CIA headquarters, two ADREN members made the first delivery of
drugs to Miami in July 1981.
ADREN's leaders included Enrique Bermudez
and other early contras who would later direct the major contra
army, the CIA-organized FDN. Throughout the war, Bermudez remained
the top contra military commander.
The CIA later corroborated the allegations
about ADREN's cocaine trafficking, but insisted that Bermudez
had opposed the drug shipments to the United States which went
Ends and Means
The truth about Bermudez's supposed objections
to drug trafficking, however, was less clear. According to Hitz's
Volume One, Bermudez enlisted Norwin Meneses, a large-scale Nicaraguan
cocaine smuggler, to raise money and buy supplies for the contras.
Volume One had quoted a Meneses associate,
another Nicaraguan trafficker named Danilo Blandon, who told Hitz's
investigators that he and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet with
Bermudez in 1982.
At the time, Meneses's criminal activities
were well known in the Nicaraguan exile community. But Bermudez
told the cocaine smugglers that "the ends justify the means"
in raising money for the contras.
After the Bermudez meeting, contra soldiers
helped Meneses and Blandon get past Honduran police who briefly
arrested them on drug-trafficking suspicions. After their release,
Blandon and Meneses traveled on to Bolivia to complete a cocaine
There were other indications of Bermudez's
drug-smuggling tolerance. In February 1988, another Nicaraguan
exile linked to the drug trade accused Bermudez of participation
in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitz's report.
After the contra war ended, Bermudez returned
to Managua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder
has never been solved.
Along the Southern Front, in Costa Rica,
the drug evidence centered on the forces of Eden Pastora, another
leading contra commander. But Hitz discovered that the U.S. government
may have made matters worse.
Hitz revealed that the CIA put an admitted
drug operative - known by his CIA pseudonym "Ivan Gomez"
- in a supervisory position over Pastora. Hitz reported that the
CIA discovered Gomez's drug history in 1987 when Gomez failed
a security review on drug-trafficking questions.
In internal CIA interviews, Gomez admitted
that in March or April 1982, he helped family members who were
engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. In one case,
Gomez said he assisted his brother and brother-in-law in transporting
cash from New York City to Miami. He admitted that he "knew
this act was illegal."
Later, Gomez expanded on his admission,
describing how his family members had fallen $2 million into debt
and had gone to Miami to run a money-laundering center for drug
traffickers. Gomez said "his brother had many visitors whom
[Gomez] assumed to be in the drug trafficking business."
Gomez's brother was arrested on drug charges
in June 1982. Three months later, in September 1982, Gomez started
his CIA assignment in Costa Rica.
Years later, convicted drug trafficker
Carlos Cabezas alleged that in the early 1980s, Ivan Gomez was
the CIA agent in Costa Rica who was overseeing drug-money donations
to the contras.
Gomez "was to make sure the money
was given to the right people [the contras] and nobody was taking
... profit they weren't supposed to," Cabezas stated publicly.
But the CIA sought to discredit Cabezas
at the time because he had trouble identifying Gomez's picture
and put Gomez at one meeting in early 1982 before Gomez started
his CIA assignment.
While the CIA was able to fend off Cabezas's
allegations by pointing to these discrepancies, Hitz's report
revealed that the CIA was nevertheless aware of Gomez's direct
role in drug-money laundering, a fact the agency hid from Sen.
Kerry's investigation in 1987.
The Bolivian Connection
There also was more about Gomez. In November
1985, the FBI learned from an informant that Gomez's two brothers
had been large-scale cocaine importers, with one brother arranging
shipments from Bolivia's infamous drug kingpin Roberto Suarez.
Suarez already was known as a financier
of right-wing causes. In 1980, with the support of Argentine's
hard-line anti-communist military regime, Suarez bankrolled a
coup in Bolivia that ousted the elected left-of-center government.
The violent putsch became known as the
Cocaine Coup because it made Bolivia the region's first narco-state.
Bolivia's government-protected cocaine shipments helped transform
the Medellin cartel from a struggling local operation into a giant
corporate-style business for delivering cocaine to the U.S. market.
Flush with cash in the early 1980s, Suarez
invested more than $30 million in various right-wing paramilitary
operations, including the contra forces in Central America, according
to U.S. Senate testimony by an Argentine intelligence officer,
In 1987, Sanchez-Reisse said the Suarez
drug money was laundered through front companies in Miami before
going to Central America. There, other Argentine intelligence
officers - veterans of the Bolivian coup - trained the contras.
Inspector General Hitz added another piece
to the mystery of the Bolivian-contra connection. One contra fund-raiser,
Jose Orlando Bolanos, boasted that the Argentine government was
supporting his contra activities, according to a May 1982 cable
to CIA headquarters.
Bolanos made the statement during a meeting
with undercover DEA agents in Florida. He even offered to introduce
them to his Bolivian cocaine supplier.
Containing the Scandal
Despite all this suspicious drug activity
around Ivan Gomez and the contras, the CIA insisted that it did
not unmask Gomez until 1987, when he failed a security check and
confessed his role in his family's drug business.
The CIA official who interviewed Gomez
concluded that "Gomez directly participated in illegal drug
transactions, concealed participation in illegal drug transactions,
and concealed information about involvement in illegal drug activity,"
But senior CIA officials still protected
Gomez. They refused to refer the Gomez case to the Justice Department,
citing the 1982 DOJ-CIA agreement that spared the CIA from a legal
obligation to report narcotics crimes by non-employees. Gomez
was an independent contractor who worked for the CIA._The CIA
eased Gomez out of the agency in February 1988, without alerting
law enforcement or the congressional oversight committees.
When questioned about the case nearly
a decade later, one senior CIA official who had supported the
gentle treatment of Gomez had second thoughts.
"It is a striking commentary on me
and everyone that this guy's involvement in narcotics didn't weigh
more heavily on me or the system," the official acknowledged.
A Medellin drug connection arose in another
section of Hitz's report, when he revealed evidence suggesting
that some contra trafficking may have been sanctioned by Reagan's
National Security Council.
The protagonist for this part of the contra-cocaine
mystery was Moises Nunez, a Cuban-American who worked for Oliver
North's NSC contra-support operation and for two drug-connected
seafood importers, Ocean Hunter in Miami and Frigorificos de Puntarenas
in Costa Rica.
Frigorificos de Puntarenas was created
in the early 1980s as a cover for drug-money laundering, according
to sworn testimony by two of the firm's principals - Carlos Soto
and Medellin cartel accountant Ramon Milian Rodriguez.
Drug allegations were swirling around
Moises Nunez by the mid-1980s. His operation was one of the targets
of our investigation at the AP in 1985.
Finally reacting to these suspicions,
the CIA questioned Nunez on March 25, 1987, about his alleged
cocaine trafficking. He responded by pointing the finger at his
"Nunez revealed that since 1985,
he had engaged in a clandestine relationship with the National
Security Council," Hitz reported, adding:
"Nunez refused to elaborate on the
nature of these actions, but indicated it was difficult to answer
questions relating to his involvement in narcotics trafficking
because of the specific tasks he had performed at the direction
of the NSC. Nunez refused to identify the NSC officials with whom
he had been involved."
After this first round of questioning,
CIA headquarters authorized an additional session, but then senior
CIA officials reversed the decision. There would be no further
efforts at "debriefing Nunez."
Hitz noted that "the cable [from
headquarters] offered no explanation for the decision" to
stop the Nunez interrogation.
But the CIA's Central American task force
chief Alan Fiers said the Nunez-NSC drug lead was not pursued
"because of the NSC connection and the possibility that this
could be somehow connected to the Private Benefactor program [the
contra money handled by North]. A decision was made not to pursue
Joseph Fernandez, who had been the CIA's
station chief in Costa Rica, later confirmed to congressional
Iran-Contra investigators that Nunez "was involved in a very
sensitive operation" for North's "Enterprise."
The exact nature of that NSC-authorized activity has never been
At the time of the Nunez-NSC drug admissions
and his truncated interrogation, the CIA's acting director was
Robert M. Gates, who is now President Barack Obama's Defense Secretary.
The CIA also worked directly with other
drug-connected Cuban-Americans on the contra project, Hitz found.
One of Nunez's Cuban-American associates,
Felipe Vidal, had a criminal record as a narcotics trafficker
in the 1970s. But the CIA still hired him to serve as a logistics
coordinator for the contras, Hitz reported.
The CIA also learned that Vidal's drug
connections were not only in the past._A December 1984 cable to
CIA headquarters revealed Vidal's ties to Rene Corvo, another
Cuban-American suspected of drug trafficking. Corvo was working
with anti-communist Cuban Frank Castro, who was viewed as a Medellin
cartel representative within the contra movement.
There were other narcotics links to Vidal.
In January 1986, the DEA in Miami seized 414 pounds of cocaine
concealed in a shipment of yucca that was going from a contra
operative in Costa Rica to Ocean Hunter, the company where Vidal
Despite the evidence, Vidal remained a
CIA employee as he collaborated with Frank Castro's assistant,
Rene Corvo, in raising money for the contras, according to a CIA
memo in June 1986.
By fall 1986, Sen. Kerry had heard enough
rumors about Vidal to demand information about him as part of
a congressional inquiry into contra drugs. But the CIA withheld
the derogatory information.
On Oct. 15, 1986, Kerry received a briefing
from the CIA's Alan Fiers, who didn't mention Vidal's drug arrests
and conviction in the 1970s.
But Vidal was not yet in the clear. In
1987, the U.S. Attorney in Miami began investigating Vidal, Ocean
Hunter and other contra-connected entities.
This prosecutorial attention worried the
CIA. The CIA's Latin American division felt it was time for a
security review of Vidal. But on Aug. 5, 1987, the CIA's security
office blocked the review for fear that the Vidal drug information
"could be exposed during any future litigation."
As expected, the U.S. Attorney did request
documents about "contra-related activities" by Vidal,
Ocean Hunter and 16 other entities. The CIA advised the prosecutor
that "no information had been found regarding Ocean Hunter,"
a statement that was clearly false.
The CIA continued Vidal's employment as
an adviser to the contra movement until 1990, virtually the end
of the contra war.
Honduras Trafficking__Hitz revealed that
drugs also tainted the highest levels of the Honduran-based FDN,
the largest contra army.
Hitz found that Juan Rivas, a contra commander
who rose to be chief of staff, admitted that he had been a cocaine
trafficker in Colombia before the war. The CIA asked Rivas, known
as El Quiche, about his background after the DEA began suspecting
that Rivas might be an escaped convict from a Colombian prison.
In interviews with CIA officers, Rivas
acknowledged that he had been arrested and convicted of packaging
and transporting cocaine for the drug trade in Barranquilla, Colombia.
After several months in prison, Rivas said, he escaped and moved
to Central America where he joined the contras.
Defending Rivas, CIA officials insisted
that there was no evidence that Rivas engaged in trafficking while
with the contras. But one CIA cable noted that he lived an expensive
lifestyle, even keeping a $100,000 thoroughbred horse at the contra
Contra military commander Bermudez later
attributed Rivas's wealth to his ex-girlfriend's rich family.
But a CIA cable in March 1989 added that "some in the FDN
may have suspected at the time that the father-in-law was engaged
in drug trafficking."
Still, the CIA moved quickly to protect
Rivas from exposure and possible extradition to Colombia. In February
1989, CIA headquarters asked that DEA take no action "in
view of the serious political damage to the U.S. Government that
could occur should the information about Rivas become public."
Rivas was eased out of the contra leadership
with an explanation of poor health. With U.S. government help,
he was allowed to resettle in Miami. Colombia was not informed
about his fugitive status.
Another senior FDN official implicated
in the drug trade was its chief spokesman in Honduras, Arnoldo
Jose "Frank" Arana.
The drug allegations against Arana dated
back to 1983 when a federal narcotics task force put him under
criminal investigation because of plans "to smuggle 100 kilograms
of cocaine into the United States from South America."_On
Jan. 23, 1986, the FBI reported that Arana and his brothers were
involved in a drug-smuggling enterprise, although Arana was not
Arana sought to clear up another set of
drug suspicions in 1989 by visiting the DEA in Honduras with a
business associate, Jose Perez. Arana's association with Perez,
however, only raised new alarms.
If "Arana is mixed up with the Perez
brothers, he is probably dirty," the DEA responded.
Through their ownership of an air services
company called SETCO, the Perez brothers were associated with
Juan Matta Ballesteros, a major cocaine kingpin connected to the
murder of a DEA agent, according to reports by the DEA and U.S.
Hitz reported that someone at the CIA
scribbled a note on the DEA cable about Arana stating: "Arnold
Arana ... still active and working, we [CIA] may have a problem."
Despite its drug ties to Matta Ballesteros,
SETCO emerged as the principal company for ferrying supplies to
the contras in Honduras.
During congressional Iran-Contra hearings,
FDN political leader Adolfo Calero testified that SETCO was paid
from bank accounts controlled by Oliver North. SETCO also received
$185,924 from the State Department for ferrying supplies to the
contras in 1986.
Hitz found that other air transport companies,
which were used by the contras, also were implicated in the cocaine
trade. Even FDN leaders suspected that they were shipping supplies
to Central America aboard planes that might be returning with
Mario Calero, the chief of contra logistics,
grew so uneasy about one air-freight company that he notified
U.S. law enforcement that the FDN only chartered the planes for
the flights south, not the return flights north.
Hitz found that some drug pilots simply
rotated from one sector of the contra operation to another. Donaldo
Frixone, who had a drug record in the Dominican Republic, was
hired by the CIA to fly contra missions from 1983-85.
In September 1986, however, Frixone was
implicated in smuggling 19,000 pounds of marijuana into the United
States. In late 1986 or early 1987, he went to work for Vortex,
another U.S.-paid contra supply company linked to the drug trade.
A Fig Leaf
By the time that Hitz's Volume Two was
published in fall 1998, the CIA's defense against Webb's series
had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the
contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking.
But Hitz made clear that the contra war
took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld
evidence of contra crimes from the Justice Department, the Congress
and even the CIA's own analytical division.
Besides tracing the evidence of contra-drug
trafficking through the decade-long contra war, the inspector
general interviewed senior CIA officers who acknowledged that
they were aware of the contra-drug problem but didn't want its
exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist
According to Hitz, the CIA had "one
overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government. [CIA officers]
were determined that the various difficulties they encountered
not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the contra
One CIA field officer explained, "The
focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war."
Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA
analysts that CIA operations officers handling the contras hid
evidence of contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA's analysts.
Because of the withheld evidence, the
CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that "only
a handful of contras might have been involved in drug trafficking."
That false assessment was passed on to Congress and the major
news organizations - serving as an important basis for denouncing
Gary Webb and his series in 1996.
Although Hitz's report was an extraordinary
admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it passed almost
unnoticed by the big American newspapers. [For more details on
the report, see Parry's Lost History.]
See No Evil
On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitz's
Volume Two was posted at the CIA's Internet site, the New York
Times published a brief article that continued to deride Webb
but acknowledged the contra-drug problem may have been worse than
Several weeks later, the Washington Post
weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles
Times never published a story on the release of Volume Two.
To this day, no editor or reporter who
missed the contra-cocaine story has been punished for his or her
negligence. Indeed, some of them rose to become top executives
at their news organizations. On the other hand, Gary Webb's career
Unable to find decent-paying work in a
profession where his past awards included a Pulitzer Prize, Webb
grew despondent. His marriage broke up. By December 2004, he found
himself having to move out of his rented house near Sacramento.
Instead, Webb decided to end his life.
Webb's suicide offered the New York Times,
the Washington Post and the L.A. Times one more chance to set
matters right, to revisit the CIA's admissions in 1998 and to
exact some accountability from the Reagan-era officials implicated
in the contra crimes.
But all that followed Gary Webb's death
was more trashing of Gary Webb.
The L.A. Times ran its mean-spirited obituary
that made no mention of the admissions in the CIA's Volume Two.
No one reading this obit would have understood the profound debt
that American history owed to Gary Webb, who deserved the lion's
share of the credit for forcing the CIA to make its extraordinary
Though a personal tragedy for his family
and friends, Webb's suicide conveyed a larger message, too. Gary
Webb was a kind of canary in the American mine shaft. His fate
represented a warning about the dangers that can befall a nation
whose journalists care more about their salaries and status than
the truth and the public's right to know.
The fifth anniversary of Webb's death
should be a moment for reflection, too, by progressives and independent-minded
Americans that it is long past time to build media institutions
that can support brave journalists who dare to tell difficult
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W.
Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be
ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy &
Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq
and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'
are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.