Dark Alliance: The CIA, crack, and a journalism scandal

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Gary Webb addressing an audience after the publishing of his “Dark Alliance” series in the “San Jose Mercury News.” Webb’s reporting sparked a national conversation about the role of the CIA in cocaine smuggling and led tot he destruction of Webb’s career.

There’s a new film coming out called “Kill The Messenger.” The hero is an intrepid journalist who discovers the biggest story of his career, a story that takes him from the mean streets of South Los Angeles to the jungles of South America to the corridors of power in Washington D.C. Unlike other Hollywood thrillers, though, this film draws from very real events that happened nearly twenty years ago, events that snowballed into a national political and journalistic scandal. But first some background.

On August 18th, 1996, the San Jose Mercury News started running a three-part investigative news series titled “Dark Alliance.” Written by investigative journalist Gary Webb, it began with this bombshell sentence:

“For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco 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 guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found.”

The “Dark Alliance” series then went on to tell an extraordinary tale, a story of how in the 1980s, a CIA-backed army called the Contras, bent on overthrowing the leftist government of Nicaragua in Central America, raised millions of dollars for their armed struggle by teaming up with a Los Angeles drug dealer named Ricky Ross, or “Freeway Rick.”

Gary Webb addressing an audience after the publishing of his “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News. Webb’s reporting sparked a national conversation about the role of the CIA in cocaine smuggling and led to the destruction of Webb’s career.

The Nicaraguans, the story reported, flooded Los Angeles with cut-rate cocaine, and Freeway Rick figured out how to turn all of that coke into into very profitable crack cocaine that could be sold, through gangs, in South Central Los Angeles and inner-city neighborhoods across the country. The profits from those sales would go back to both Freeway Rick and the Contras fighting their war back in Central America.

In his stories, Webb then went on to suggest that the CIA helped, or at least looked the other way, as the cocaine came into the country. That’s because the CIA cared more about overthrowing the government of Nicaragua than it did fighting drugs in the United States. “The CIA did not tell these guys to make crack cocaine and where to sell it, or anything like that, but they were protecting and turning a blind eye to the people who were flooding the inner city with these drugs,” says journalist Nick Schou.

The upcoming film “Kill the Messenger” is partially based on Schou’s research and takes its title from Schou’s book about Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series. “The story never directly accused the CIA of intentionally allowing anybody to be addicted to crack cocaine,” says Schou, “but the story tended to suggest that. The first thing you would see when you clicked on the Mercury News website was the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency with a person smoking crack superimposed over that image.”

And because of the suggestion that the CIA was involved in the crack cocaine trade, or at least tacitly condoning it, Webb’s series sparked outrage, especially from ordinary citizens and leaders in the African-American community. It was crack cocaine, after all, that was destroying black neighborhoods from South L.A. to Harlem.

To find out if the CIA aided and abetted the crack trade, both the Justice Department and the CIA’s Inspector General launched investigations. And in one of the more unusual episodes in American intelligence history, the then director of the CIA, John Deutsch, flew to Los Angeles and participated in a sometimes raucous town hall meeting at a South L.A. high school. There he sought to refute the connection between the CIA and cocaine smuggling.

“It is an appalling charge,” said Deutsch from the stage. “It cannot go unanswered. No one who heads a government agency can let such an allegation stand. I will get to the bottom of it, and I will let you know the results of what I’ve found.”

“Dark Alliance” also set off a journalistic firestorm. Other newspapers – papers much bigger than the San Jose Mercury News – started looking into the details of Webb’s reporting. The Los Angeles Times was especially aggressive in going over Webb’s facts and conclusions, assigning 17 reporters and editors to the project.

“I think there were a very complex set of emotions going on at the Los Angeles Times, says Jesse Katz. Now a contributing writer to Los Angeles Magazine, Katz was then an L.A. Times national reporter, assigned to Webb’s reporting and then write a series of articles for the paper about “Dark Alliance.”

“On the one hand there was probably some embarrassment,” says Katz referring to the L.A. Times reaction to the series. “What is this big story in our backyard that we don’t have? On the other hand, there was a real sense of curiosity about whether these allegations are in fact true. And if they are what do we do with them. And we put Gary’s work under a microscope. And I don’t think it’s comfortable to have your work put under a microscope. And it’s not comfortable putting somebody else’s work under a microscope,” said Katz.

The Los Angeles Times and other papers found mistakes in Webb’s reporting – some small, some big. The other papers also questioned whether Webb had gone too far in connecting, or trying to connect, the CIA to the scourge of crack cocaine in L.A. and other American cities. “I mean I think you have to tip your hat to Gary Webb” said Katz. “I think he’s got great gumshoe, journalistic instincts. He’s a muckracker. But at looking at his series I felt there were some intellectual shortcuts that he was taking. It was just a little facile in ways.”

Faced with growing scrutiny and questions from other journalists, the San Jose Mercury News, which had once hoped the “Dark Alliance” series would win the paper awards and acclaim, issued a partial retraction of the series.

“Webb was really vocal in his view that that was the wrong thing to do and that that it was cowardly,” said Nick Schou, author of “Kill the Messenger.” “He became an embarrassment to the paper. I think because he started calling out his editors for being cowards.”

There wasn’t happy ending for Gary Webb. After getting a smaller and smaller assignments from the “Mercury News,” assignments which Webb felt insulted his talents, he left the paper, but he had trouble finding regular work as a reporter at other newspapers. Webb slid into both depression and financial troubles.

On December 10th, 2004, Webb was found dead in his Sacramento home, with two gunshot wounds in the head. The coroner’s office ruled it a suicide, but to this day conspiracy theorists have their own ideas about Webb’s death.

And what about the wider aftermath of Webb’s “Dark Alliance” reporting? Althougth Justice Department and CIA internal investigations did not show active CIA participation in cocaine smuggling, they did acknowledge that the Agency was aware cocaine traffickers were in the Nicaraguan Contra movement. These traffickers were smuggling coke into American cities, with the CIA doing little to nothing to stop it. Eighteen years after the publishing of the “Dark Alliance” series and a decade after Gary Webb’s death, the controversy over what Webb discovered in his reporting continues, a controversy that will likely be renewed by the new film.