A colleague says goodbye
Webb did a huge amount of superb work over the years and in 1990, while working at the San Jose Mercury News, shared a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake. But it was a series he wrote for the paper in 1996 that made him famous at first and then, suddenly, notorious.
The series, called “Dark Alliance,” exposed the CIA’s protection of Latin American cocaine traffickers who operated during the 1980s in conjunction with President Reagan’s infamous “freedom fighters,” the contras of Nicaragua. In essence, Webb reported, the contras paid for their dirty little war to topple the Sandinista government by selling dope, and the CIA looked the other way.
In the series, Webb tracked a West Coast network of contra-cocaine traffickers who had supplied the makings for crack cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs, who then distributed it throughout the country, fueling the crack-cocaine epidemic that devastated inner cities at that time. African-American leaders across the nation were outraged.
As expected, CIA bureaucrats circled the wagons and denied the charges, and much to Webb’s surprise the nation’s premier newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, also attacked his reporting. The pressure was so great that Webb’s own editor, Jerry Ceppos, sold out the story, abandoned his writer and apologized for the series’ supposed failures.
Webb’s career in the front ranks of investigative reporters never recovered. After quitting the Mercury News, he did freelance work, completed a 548-page book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, and took a job in state government. He joined the SN&R staff last summer, writing two strong cover stories, one on how the Army had developed a video game that it could use to identify potential recruits (”The Killing Game,” CN&R, Oct. 21) and an exposé of how Sacramento traffic courts have turned red-light cameras into a money making scam in which the accused have no way of defending themselves.
In a 1999 talk given in Eugene, Ore., Webb summarized his “Dark Alliance” work this way: “What I attempted to demonstrate in my book was how the collapse of a brutal, pro-American dictatorship in Latin America [the Somoza regime in Nicaragua], combined with a decision by corrupt CIA agents to raise money for a resistance movement by any means necessary, led to the formation of the nation’s first major crack market in South Central Los Angeles, which led to the arming and the empowerment of L.A.'s street gangs, which led to the spread of crack to black neighborhoods across the country and to the passage of racially discriminatory laws that are locking up thousands of young black men today behind bars for most of their lives.”
Ironically, Webb’s Contras-cocaine story eventually was vindicated—by the CIA itself, when it published, in 1998, a two-volume report by its own inspector general, Frederick Hitz, documenting that the connection did exist and that the CIA and other American agencies knew of it. It also identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade and detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations from federal scrutiny.
None of the newspapers that had vilified Webb corrected themselves, however, and in fact they pretty much buried Hitz’s damning report. The Los Angeles Times never mentioned it.
And this week, in their obits of Webb, they referred to him as an investigative reporter who was “widely criticized” for his “discredited” “Dark Alliance” series. None acknowledged that he’d turned out to be right.
Before he died, Webb wrote notes to the important people in his life, including his ex-wife and three children, sons Ian and Eric and daughter Christine. He reportedly was despondent about the direction his life was taking.
Webb’s editor at the SN&R, Tom Walsh, said he’d had no indication that anything was wrong, other than a request Webb made for several days’ time off. Webb’s work, he said, was as thorough and ambitious as ever.