The Sad Saga of Gary Webb
The hard-charging investigative reporter's career imploded in the wake of his much-criticized “Dark Alliance” series about the CIA and crack cocaine. But while Webb overreached, some key findings in “Dark Alliance” were on target--and important. Last December Webb committed suicide.
By Susan Paterno
Gary Webb never remembered the unruly Polish name of his hard-boiled colleague at Cleveland's Plain Dealer who called editors unprintable expletives and declared "It's The Big One!" every time he picked up the phone. But he never forgot what the guy taught him: "The Big One was the reporter's Holy Grail, the tip that led you from the daily morass of press conferences and of cop calls and on to the trail of The Biggest Story You'd Ever Write, the one that would turn the rest of your career into an anticlimax." The Big One, Webb remembered, "would be like a bullet with your name on it. You'd never hear it coming."
Susan Paterno (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
Webb's bullet came out of nowhere, a phone call from a seductive young Cuban woman in high heels, a short skirt and a daring décolletage, with a drug-dealer boyfriend. She left a number, no message. Webb could have ignored her call, but that would have been uncharacteristic. He phoned her back, and she introduced him to the unfamiliar world of espionage and drug dealing that he exposed in "Dark Alliance," a 1996 San Jose Mercury News series accusing the "CIA's army" of peddling crack in South Central Los Angeles to support the Reagan administration's efforts to overthrow a socialist government in Nicaragua.
Unfortunately for Webb, he made a few too many errors. The Mercury News posted the series on the paper's Web site, using the power of the nascent alternative media to fan the flames of indignation among African Americans. They, in turn, accused the nation's most powerful newspapers--the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times--of laziness at best, and of genocide at worst. The papers fought back, discrediting Webb and his reporting: The Los Angeles Times, for example, assigned two dozen reporters and published a page-one series of almost 20,000 words, painting the CIA "as law-abiding and conscientious," as one critic put it. But none of the papers adequately investigated the CIA's connection to Central American drug dealers, a relationship the agency confirmed in 1998, two years after Webb's series ran, and a year after he was exiled from journalism.
That revelation barely registered on the radar of the mainstream media, consumed as they were by Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and the ensuing impeachment battle. Webb, meanwhile, became radioactive, unable to find work at a daily newspaper, shunned and isolated from the world of journalism he loved.
In the final analysis, "Dark Alliance" was a series in search of competent editing; the remarkable lack of editorial oversight produced what became one of the most notorious sagas in American journalism. Much of what Webb wrote was accurate: The drug traffickers he profiled were sending money to help the CIA-backed contras in the war in Nicaragua. But his editors allowed him to push the story's thesis far beyond what the facts could support, suggesting drug-dealing contras caused America's crack epidemic with the CIA's knowledge. The story included no CIA response; Webb said his editors never asked for one. Though Webb compiled an impressive circumstantial case, the editors failed to hold the story to what he could substantiate, letting him make leaps in reasoning that would earn failing marks in freshman logic.
"If Gary had had a decent editor, the key mistakes that ended up costing him so dearly would have been caught and dealt with," says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with George Washington University's National Security Archive, an expert on the contra war and an early critic of "Dark Alliance." "He became quite unfairly the victim of piling on in one of the most extraordinary episodes of piling on by the mainstream press ever."
In the aftermath, the Mercury News "did a mea culpa, [the] editors got promoted, and Gary bore the burden of the damage," says Scott Herhold, a Mercury News editor in the late '80s and a columnist there now. The editors who directed the series saw their careers flourish: David Yarnold was promoted to executive editor (he later became editorial page editor and recently left the paper to become an executive with an environmental organization); Paul Van Slambrouck became executive editor of the Christian Science Monitor (he is now a senior editor); Jerry Ceppos is vice president for news at Knight Ridder; and Dawn Garcia is deputy director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford University. All four declined to be interviewed for this article.
Webb never got over it, never acknowledged his serious mistakes and never stopped trying to prove he was right. "Gary was very stubborn," recalls New York Times investigative reporter Walt Bogdanich, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who worked with Webb at Cleveland's Plain Dealer. "He was brilliant; he knew more about public records than anybody I've ever known. But he was sometimes too unwilling to entertain the possibility that there could be another view," Bogdanich remembers. "He could be an intimidating force when you [were] around him. It's hard to disagree with people like that." But, he adds, Webb did "a tremendous amount of good work. And you don't want that lost in the tragedy and controversy."
Always challenging authority, Webb was "a balls-to-the-wall kind of guy," remembers friend and colleague Tom Dresslar, now a press deputy for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. He liked to shoot guns, drive a cherry red sports coupe, rebuild motorcycles, lay wood floors, play hockey, smoke Marlboros and help out friends. He was a "guy's guy," Dresslar says, "the kind of guy you'd go to a bar with, sit down, have some beers, engage in guy talk, sports, hockey, that kind of thing." But they rarely discussed "Dark Alliance."
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how he felt," Dresslar says. "For him to get chewed up by the powers that be in mainstream American journalism, to get shuffled out, exiled and made to eventually quit: You know how the guy feels."
As Webb's identity slipped away, so did his mental stability. Last December 9, he sat alone inside the home he'd carefully crafted and later sold to support his family, knowing the next day movers would put the last of his old life into storage and he'd move into his mother's house, where he'd have to begin again. How did it come to this? He picked up one of his guns, aimed for his temple and squeezed the trigger. His death, says Kornbluh, "was a very sad day" in the history of journalism.
Like so many journalists who came of age during Watergate, Webb followed a familiar path into the ranks of reporting. He studied journalism at a state university and landed his first job at a small daily, the Kentucky Post. He was striking in a rugged sort of way; he wore his hair in a '70s shag much of his adult life, a reaction to his Marine dad's Saturday morning dictate to get his head shaved at the base barber shop. At the Mercury News, colleagues say he moved through life with a macho swagger, leaving everyone except those closest to him with the impression he was impervious to criticism, confident to the point of arrogant, "fearless," remembers Mercury News colleague and investigative reporter Pete Carey. "He was never the guy who'd wake up in the middle of the night saying to himself, 'Oh Jesus, did I spell that guy's name right?' There was none of that, not in Gary. He'd be like, 'Oh well, shit. So what?' He was something, I can tell you, something right out of the Wild West."
Those who knew him best describe Webb much differently, noting his polite Midwestern manner, his sardonic wit, intelligence and passionate idealism. He was his son's hockey coach, the dad who baked a cake from scratch for his daughter's birthday, the sentimentalist who kept memories of his life carefully wrapped and lovingly preserved, the fix-it man friends frequently called for answers about car engines, computers and household repair, a working-class guy who loved blaring heavy-metal music and reading The Nation and the Village Voice, a reporter known for sleeping little and working 80-hour weeks. He had a tight circle that included almost no one from the Mercury News, says his former wife, Susan Bell, and a sensitive side he rarely showed outside the bounds of his close friends and family.
From the outset of his career, Webb distinguished himself by uncovering official malfeasance, winning national recognition for exposing organized crime in Kentucky coal mines in the late '70s, moving to the Plain Dealer in the '80s, where he earned the sobriquet "The Carpenter" for nailing down facts. While Webb diligently and methodically uncovered local government misdeeds in Cleveland, he closely followed President Reagan's diligent and methodical attempts to overthrow Nicaragua's socialist government.
Throughout the decade, the Reagan administration had tolerated drug smugglers who were helping the contras, a Senate subcommittee reported in 1988. But few in the media took the findings seriously, says Jack Blum, then special counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Unknown to Congress or the committee, the CIA had a secret agreement with then-Attorney General William French Smith that absolved the agency of its legal requirement to report crimes committed by people acting on its behalf. The deal gave the CIA plausible deniability and allowed the administration to launch "a huge campaign to cover up what they were doing, running a war that was off the books," recalls Blum, now a Washington attorney. "The appalling tragedy," he adds, is that "while all this was being investigated, the press was being spun and told all this garbage by the administration."
Blum and the committee's members "were personally trashed. The Reagan administration and some people in Congress tried to make us look like crazies. And to some degree, it worked." Newsweek called Kerry a "randy conspiracy buff," few news organizations carried stories about the committee's findings, and Blum remembers reporters being outright hostile. "The press treated it like, 'These people are wackos!'"
Fast-forward to a steamy Sacramento summer, July 1995, when Webb received a call from Coral Baca, a twenty-something woman he once described as all "cleavage and jewelry." Baca, a strange, shadowy character in the novel of Webb's life with alleged ties to a Colombian drug cartel, wanted Webb to investigate how "a guy who used to work with the CIA selling drugs" had framed her drug-dealing boyfriend. Webb was uninterested in the boyfriend but intrigued by the CIA.
He used Baca as a tour guide through the world of West Coast drug trafficking, racking his brain to remember the details of what had happened in Nicaragua a decade earlier while he was covering state government in Ohio. He called his editor at the Mercury News, Dawn Garcia, and read her the grand jury testimony of Oscar Danilo Blandón, a contra supporter somehow connected to cocaine dealing in South Central Los Angeles. Garcia told him to find out more.
Webb did what he did best: He dug and dug and dug, scribbling notes from indictments, detention-hearing transcripts, docket sheets, U.S. Attorney motions. He returned to Sacramento and spent a week sitting in the California State Library in front of a microfiche copier, a roll of dimes on the table next to him, "growing more astounded each day," he said, sifting through Congressional records, U.S. Customs and FBI reports, internal Justice Department memos, many showing "direct links between the drug dealers and the contras... It almost knocked me off my chair." Back in his office, Webb called Jack Blum. "Why can I barely remember this? I read the papers every day," Webb asked. "It wasn't in the papers, for the most part," Blum said. "The big papers stayed as far away from this as they could... It was like they didn't want to know."
Intrigued, Webb kept digging. Pretty soon he connected Nicaraguan cocaine supplier Blandón to a Los Angeles drug dealer named Ricky Donnell Ross, aka "Freeway" Ricky Ross. From there, he quickly found a Los Angeles Times article about Ross, written by Jesse Katz, with the headline: "Deposed King of Crack." The Times called Ross a "master marketer," the "key to the drug's spread in L.A...the outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles streets with mass-marketed cocaine." Ka-ching. Pay dirt.
By December 1995, Webb had enough information to formally pitch his project in a four-page memo to Garcia. "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 the cocaine go once it got here? Now we know." Webb was nearing the end of his memo, passionately pounding the computer keys, when an e-mail arrived from a friend at the Los Angeles Times asking what he was working on. Webb told his friend he had "no idea what this fucking government is capable of," according to Esquire magazine. He had entered a "netherworld 99 percent of the American public would never believe existed."
In typical Webb fashion, he charged forward with abandon.
Webb was born into a conservative Catholic military family in 1955 in Corona, California, moving from base to base during his childhood with his housewife mother, his younger brother and his father, a former Marine frogman. The elder Webb reminded one of Webb's boyhood friends of a character out of the "Wild, Wild West" TV show. "He was aggressive, cocky, self-assured," disillusioned with the government, and, "like a lot of middle-aged guys, coming to the end of his run, dissatisfied," recalls Greg Wolf, now an Indianapolis attorney. His father's sense of duty and the Marines' tendency to view the world as good versus evil, "that good will out," helped shaped Webb's worldview, remembers another childhood friend, Bruce Colville.
Webb's father retired from the Marines when Webb was in junior high, found a job as a security guard, and the family settled into a working-class neighborhood in Indianapolis.
In high school, Webb started rebelling, challenging authority in typical teenage ways, questioning his father's orders, writing parodies about the high school drill team, creating a Christmas crossword puzzle in the school paper that spelled out "penis" if done correctly, flouting the rules he thought pointless, smoking "a lot of pot," says Wolf, staging a mock coup of the Third World country he represented at a Model United Nations conference. He was brave, brilliant, funny, adventurous and "always in trouble," says Wolf. "He didn't have any boundaries."
It was the '60s. Webb and his friends were reading radical writers, talking endlessly about politics, embracing the humor and irony of the era. "At a young age, he was always interested in searching. He caught that passion for idealism, for the possibilities, for the romanticism," remembers Colville, who works in theater in New York City. Webb pursued journalism, a field where he could "keep that passion growing. That was our time. We had all been told a Donna Reed version of reality, but what we were told and what we saw were two different things. So we rebelled. We were right at the end of a generation that was going to change the world."
In his early 20s, Webb married his high school sweetheart, Susan Bell, in a Unitarian service where Webb, at the time "a belligerent atheist," allowed no mention of Jesus, says Wolf, who remembers a late-night discussion in which Webb announced he had no fear, not even of death. In his mid-20s, working at the Kentucky Post, Webb challenged and beat two of the state's most powerful officials in a battle to obtain public documents that revealed conflict of interest in the energy office, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and his own appeal when Kentucky's attorney general initially denied access to the information Webb felt the paper was entitled to see.
Not long after, in 1983, he moved to the Plain Dealer, where he fought secretive government officials to make records public, so relentlessly attacking corruption, cronyism, contract fixing and other abuses of power he prompted a television reporter to ask on air, "Why is a Cleveland newspaper investigating our mayor?" He required the strongest editor in the building, with skills and experience that matched his, someone who could challenge him the way he challenged government officials. With Mary Anne Sharkey, the Statehouse bureau chief for the Plain Dealer, he had what he needed, and the partnership produced some of his best work. Together, they exposed corruption and incompetence in state government, prompting indictments and changes in Ohio state law. He decorated his office with heavy-metal posters and floor-to-ceiling stacks of documents, blaring AC/DC, ZZ Top and Mott the Hoople as he pounded out stories, says Sharkey, who remembers him cutting a dashing figure in the newsroom.
Like a lot of maverick reporters, Webb lived on the edge, and it sometimes got him into trouble. In Cleveland, two Grand Prix promoters Webb wrote about sued the Plain Dealer for libel, and a jury awarded them $13.6 million; the Plain Dealer settled another suit involving an Ohio Supreme Court judge for an undisclosed sum, says Sharkey, adding "reporters who are involved in high-wire acts tend to get into lawsuits."
The suits failed to stop the Mercury News from hiring Webb in 1988. By then, he had joined the rarefied and clubby world of the nation's investigative reporters, winning dozens of journalism awards over the years, clearly on his way to a Pulitzer, maybe a few. He had "all the qualities you'd want in a reporter: curious, dogged, a very high sense of wanting to expose wrongdoing and to hold private and public officials accountable," recalls Jonathan Krim, long considered one of the Mercury News' best editors and now a reporter for the Washington Post.
Back then, Webb "was a couple of notches down from cocksure," remembers colleague Herhold, "but he emanated a lot of self-confidence." Though the Plain Dealer was larger, the Mercury News intrigued Webb. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the paper benefited from the region's booming economy, providing the sort of financial strength that gave editors power and independence uncommon in the industry. No topic was taboo and there were no sacred cows, Webb remembered being told; the editors "convinced me that they ran one of the few newspapers in the country with that kind of courage."
The paper hired Webb to work in the Sacramento bureau, about 100 miles from San Jose. Webb moved his wife and two young children to a suburb and continued a tradition he had started in Cleveland, restoring their small house with the help of how-to books, installing wainscoting and custom tile, new cabinets and gardens, while putting in overtime at the paper. Unlike the old-world Plain Dealer newsroom, the Mercury News was the future, all high-tech and steel, striving to take its place among the nation's top tier of metropolitan dailies. One of Webb's first page-one stories accused the Mercury News and other businesses of using government job-training funds unethically. In another series, Webb alienated colleagues by questioning the ethics of Capitol reporters who were moonlighting for agencies they covered.
He spent the next few years exposing incompetence in state government, helping the paper win a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for covering the Loma Prieta earthquake, writing stories investigating faulty construction in highway bridges that collapsed. "That's Gary," remembers friend Colville. "The story you always see is the melodrama. Gary would never focus on 'Oh, isn't this sad.' He's going: 'Why did the fuckin' bridge fall down?' He was always sticking his finger into something and saying, 'This doesn't smell right.'"
In the early '90s, Bell had a third child, leaving Webb overwhelmed by the emotional and financial pressures of being the family's sole wage earner in a demanding job. Diagnosed with depression, he was prescribed medication; he continued to bury himself in his family and work. He loved the stories but never connected with the Mercury News reporters and editors the way he had with colleagues at the Plain Dealer, never felt the same camaraderie, stuck in a small bureau far away from the newsroom with people who by many accounts resented him at worst and tolerated him at best. It is perhaps why so many at the Mercury News describe Webb as a lone wolf, while reporters and editors in Cleveland remember him as a social magnet, "so dazzling and so cool we all wanted to be around him," says former Plain Dealer Statehouse reporter Mary Beth Lane, now a regional reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.
Inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, Webb got on the ice of reporting and "played with fierceness," says Herhold. "Occasionally, he'd drop the gloves and go after officials. And sometimes, he'd go after editors." In attack mode, Webb made editors at the Mercury News "cower, mostly," Herhold recalls, treating those he deemed incompetent contemptuously, answering their calls with a curt, "What do you want?"
In 1994, after Tandem Computers bought a two-page advertisement attacking Webb's series that insinuated the company was somehow responsible for failures to modernize the state's Department of Motor Vehicles computer system, editors assigned reporter Lee Gomes to investigate.
Gomes did, and wrote a memo to his editors stating one of the stories in Webb's series was "in all its major elements incorrect." The editors read it, says Gomes, now a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, "and said, 'Thank you.' The fact that a big-name reporter could get a big series wrong – that idea had not occurred to them." Responding to Gomes' findings, Webb replied: "Lee Gomes was covering Tandem while its much ballyhooed DMV project was collapsing, yet somehow managed to miss the story entirely."
Though hard to manage, Webb continued to bring recognition to the Mercury News, winning the 1994 H.L. Mencken Award for his exposé of corruption in California's drug asset forfeiture program. It was the government's practice of seizing assets from alleged criminals that brought Coral Baca--and the "Dark Alliance" story--to Webb in the first place.
A CIA agent's testimony against Baca's boyfriend had allowed the government to take everything he owned, leaving him penniless, Baca told Webb. Webb was unimpressed. "Oh, the CIA," he told her. "I don't run across them too often here in Sacramento. See, I mostly cover state government." He thought she was crazy. But her cache of documents changed his mind. For nearly six months, Webb talked to his editor, Dawn Garcia, daily, says Susan Bell. Webb liked Garcia, probably because he could "roll her over," says a friend and former Mercury News reporter. She ran interference with the other editors so well, Webb said, even he was unsure if anyone knew what he was doing.
"The story was handled in a silo," recalls then-Projects Editor Jonathan Krim. "Few people in the paper knew what it was about, what it involved," himself included.
"It was like this secret project," says reporter Pete Carey. Webb and the editors "were afraid the L.A. Times would pick it up and scoop them."
In December 1995, Webb met with Garcia and Managing Editor David Yarnold and told them what he knew: L.A. drug dealer Ross paid cash to Nicaraguan Blandón for cocaine. Blandón funneled the cash to the contras, who used it to buy weapons to fight the socialist Sandinistas who were running Nicaragua. "I recounted for my editors the sorry history of how the contra-cocaine story had been ridiculed and marginalized by the Washington press corps in the '80s, and that we could expect similar reactions to this series," Webb said. To circumvent the mainstream media, Webb proposed posting the series on the Web, putting the Mercury News in the vanguard of American journalism at the time, making the stories "all the more difficult to dismiss." The editors agreed, Webb said, and set him loose.
He went full bore, engendering resentment among his Mercury News colleagues, says a Capitol press corps member who heard the griping about "how much time Gary was spending on the project." But Webb didn't care. He traveled to Nicaragua and into the shadowy underworld of the contras and the CIA, chasing Blandón from San Francisco to Miami and back, following the cocaine supply route through the gritty, trash-littered backstreets of South Central Los Angeles. In mid-April, Webb sent a four-part series to editors Garcia and Yarnold, "with no clue as to how it would be received" and no idea it would take four months to edit. Garcia called with the verdict: "They loved it!" he said she told him, calling it "groundbreaking reporting" with one exception: It was too long.
They argued about length for weeks, Webb recalled, until Yarnold decreed the series would be three parts or nothing. Throughout the spring of '96, Garcia cut, Webb restored, they argued, cutting, pasting, reassembling, going from four parts to three parts to four parts again. Webb wrote a feature lead; Garcia wanted hard news. They argued some more, with Garcia blaming "the editors." "I'm just telling you what they told me," Webb recalled her saying. She urged Webb to harden the lead; fuming, he pounded out in a few minutes what largely became the controversial opening paragraph and sent it to Garcia. "This is perfect!" Webb recalled her saying. "This is exactly what they wanted." They finished editing on July 26, scheduling the first story to run on August 18. Webb closed on a new house, booked a family vacation and got ready to leave for three weeks in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Indiana.
Then Garcia called with a new wrinkle. Yarnold had suddenly left the paper to take a job with Knight Ridder, the Mercury News' corporate parent. Jerry Ceppos, the paper's executive editor, assigned Paul Van Slambrouck to handle the final editing on the series. Webb said Van Slambrouck told him his work was terrific, asked him to put more CIA in the lead, and ordered him to cut 65 inches.
Under protest, he rewrote the series in a beach house on North Carolina's Outer Banks, in a motel room and in the basement of his in-laws' house in Indiana. "It was horrible," he said. "Five or six different versions were flying around... I had no way of knowing what was being cut, what was being put back, or what was being rewritten," prompting him to doubt his editors' competence. "Don't these people know what they're dealing with here? Don't they realize the import of what they're printing? I eventually realized that for the most part they did not, which may have been the reason the series got into the paper in the first place." Ceppos, preoccupied with searching for a managing editor to replace Yarnold, only read parts of the series before it was published.
Webb was in Indiana when the Mercury News published the first installment on August 18, 1996. At a friend's party, he logged onto the paper's Web site, saw the image of a crack smoker superimposed on the CIA seal, and began reading what he'd written: A San Francisco drug ring sold tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs, funneling millions in profits to CIA-run guerrilla armies in Latin America. Before the "CIA's army" started bringing cocaine into South Central, Webb asserted, it was "virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods" but quickly spread nationwide.
After that, the story gets complicated and hard to follow; it features a cast of characters large enough for a Russian novel, with events spanning a decade in a chronology so confusing it demands rereading, rereading and rereading again. To his credit, Webb provided links to the documents he cited, but by the fourth page of the online version of "Dark Alliance," you feel as though you've dropped down Alice's rabbit hole, with the story shifting, changing and contradicting itself as each new fact is added to the litany that came before.
The government and the national news media at first greeted the series' publication with "a deafening silence," as one national journal noted. But the Mercury News' online staff, presciently recognizing the power of the Internet, created a dazzling "Dark Alliance" Web site with color, animated maps, documents and audio clips. They sent e-mails to alert newsgroups of the coming series, attracting "attention and readers from all over the world," Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia reported. While internally, the Mercury News reporters and editors argued bitterly about the series' validity, the story spun into the world and out of the paper's control. With hundreds of thousands of hits on the site daily, millions were finding out about "Dark Alliance" even as the mainstream media ignored it.
"The feedback on the Web and on the radio talk shows fed each other," Slate reported, "with anger at the mainstream media overwhelming anger at the government." Protesters demonstrated at CIA headquarters. The Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP and comedian and activist Dick Gregory demanded an explanation from the CIA, whose spokesman declared the idea of the agency condoning drug operations "ludicrous."
Webb became a celebrity, entertaining six-figure book and movie deals, going on radio shows and Internet chat rooms nationwide, while the national news media fretted. The L.A. Times scrambled to double back on a story it apparently had missed in its own backyard. In the middle of September, a Times editor called Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus, inquiring: "What's this all about? What should we do?" The paper assigned a team to investigate.
Meanwhile, Webb basked in the adulation and embraced his newfound power. He called editors and producers "chickenshit" for ignoring "Dark Alliance" and suggested in an online discussion, "Now we know what CIA stands for--Crack in America," the L.A. Times quoted Webb as saying. He felt emboldened. "It was remarkable to think journalism could have this kind of effect on people," he said, "that people were out marching in the streets because of something you'd written."
At the same time came "the temptations," says friend Greg Wolf. "A movie and book deal, 'The Tonight Show,' all of a sudden he's got literary groupies." His wife urged him to leave the Mercury News and take the deals offered him, but he refused, telling her the paper "had stuck by me this whole time, they really like me, and I owe it to them to finish this story."
Then came the blowback. The national media assaulted the series, slowly at first, then with increasing virulence. None of the attacks had the intensity of the coming fusillade, however. On October 4, the Washington Post launched its first salvo. While Webb had "provided what appears to be the first account of Nicaraguans with links to contras selling drugs in American cities," reported Walter Pincus and Roberto Suro, there was no evidence to support the notion of a CIA-backed contra plot to spread crack cocaine in the inner city, they wrote, a claim the series never made explicitly but led readers to believe. By referring to members of the drug ring as "the CIA's army" and "the army's financiers," the Mercury News left the impression that the CIA was behind the plot, giving the series' critics ample ammunition to attack.
Even so, Ceppos felt the Post story mischaracterized the series, and he sent a letter in protest. The Post refused to publish it. The ridicule worsened when the Los Angeles Times and New York Times assailed "Dark Alliance" a few weeks later.
The L.A. Times' three-day series reported the paper had conducted more than "100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua" and declared "the available evidence.. fails to support any of [Webb's] allegations." But the L.A. Times' "rebuttals were filled with the same types of errors that Gary had made, except on the side of exonerating the CIA," says the National Security Archives' Kornbluh. "They quoted these CIA guys who had a tremendous amount of stuff to hide as though they were telling the truth." It remains baffling to Kornbluh how the L.A. Times "could be so gullible. I remain astounded by the editorial decisions they made, on their gullibility, on the support they offered the CIA..as well as getting a bunch of their facts wrong." McManus says the Times had an obligation to report the CIA's response. "We weighed the evidence we had based on its reliability as we could assess it."
Some members of the Mercury News staff were gleeful enough about the attacks on Webb to prompt Ceppos to write a memo reprimanding them for "gloating," "backbiting" and "whispering." Though Webb refused to admit it, "he was a dead man walking," Esquire magazine correctly predicted.
The media, engaged in a "high level, bicoastal broadsheet newspaper war," as Newsday put it, took the focus off the CIA and put it squarely on Webb. "The fact that the media didn't fully report on this scandal was a major failure," says Kornbluh. "There were parts of Gary's story that needed to be corrected. But more important than correcting those parts was to use that space to advance the story. They didn't have to use all that space to trash him."
Despite the ongoing assault against the Mercury News, Ceppos continued to support Webb: He hammered the paper's critics and arrived at the newspaper's in-house awards in a combat helmet, a joke meant to poke fun at the paper's battering. A few brave and respected allies publicly backed Webb, but they did little to quell the national media's outrage. "The Mercury News asked for it," Newsweek said. Webb was obsessive and a bit conspiratorial; he had editors who "weren't paying attention."
Webb responded arrogantly: "[N]othing in their stories says there is anything wrong with what I wrote. In fact, they have confirmed every element of it."
The government was getting worried. While the CIA publicly disavowed Webb's findings--the director appeared in Watts to denounce the Mercury News and dispute any CIA connection to drug trafficking--by November an explosion of grassroots outrage had prompted three federal probes, two by the CIA and one by the Justice Department.
With the Mercury News staff divided, Webb became more and more isolated. He launched a counteroffensive: He found an article the Post's Pincus had written about attending a youth conference in Ghana in the summer of 1960 on a CIA subsidy. He analyzed the L.A. Times coverage in the '80s and discovered McManus had written a 1987 story quoting drug enforcement officials rebutting allegations that the contras had trafficked in cocaine. At a strategy meeting with Mercury News editors, Webb proposed writing "a story about Walter Pincus' CIA connections. Let's write about how the L.A. Times has been booting this story since 1987." But Ceppos disagreed, Webb said, telling him he wanted to avoid a war.
The Mercury News editors "were behind him 100 percent," Susan Bell remembers Webb telling her, prompting Webb to relentlessly and publicly defend his work, producing follow-up stories, spending his vacation time and money, flying to Florida where he found more connections between drug traffickers and the CIA.
When he returned, he said, "just like that, it was over."
At every turn, Webb had stubbornly refused to back down. And that was, perhaps, his fatal flaw, suggests former Mercury News editor Jonathan Krim. "A lot of the story was accurate and important. There was a drug operation. No question it had links to people in intelligence services. It was dirty as hell," Krim says. But Webb made "an anthropological leap," when he called the drug operation "the genesis of the crack epidemic in America. That assertion.. didn't hold up under further scrutiny. The tragedy of Gary was that when presented with that information, he simply couldn't accept it and let go of his work. But," he adds, "the willingness to print the story with that assertion was an institutional failure. Somewhere, somebody along the line, someone should have said: 'Are we sure about this? Can we say that?' You cannot simply blame everything on the reporter."
On March 25, 1997, Ceppos called Webb and told him the paper was going to publish a retraction admitting the series' mistakes, enumerating those errors: Webb had omitted testimony that suggested the Nicaraguans kept crack profits for themselves after 1982 rather than funneling them to the contras. He had oversimplified the crack epidemic's genesis in the United States. And with insufficient evidence, he had claimed top CIA officials knew about contra drug trafficking. Finally, the series lacked--and needed--a response from the CIA.
The next day, Webb drove two hours to San Jose, preparing his rebuttal. He'd put the blame where he thought it belonged--squarely on the editors--and demand they publish his version next to their retraction. As far as he was concerned, it was Garcia and company who cut the series from four parts to three, eliminating the evidence that would have provided the proof they were now saying the stories lacked. It was Van Slambrouck who wanted greater emphasis placed on the CIA's involvement. It was Ceppos who was ignoring the follow-up stories that would prove "the entire series is 100 percent accurate."
The meeting left everyone bloodied. Ceppos called Webb's rebuttal too personal; he had no intention of publishing it or the follow-up stories. Webb exploded, predicting his attackers would celebrate Ceppos' retraction as their vindication, accusing the paper of crawling "into bed with the rest of the apologists who wanted the CIA drug story put back in its grave once and for all."
The national news media (and AJR Editor Rem Rieder) applauded Ceppos' column with front-page stories and editorials commending him for repudiating the series. The New York Times called it "a courageous gesture" to correct "an inflammatory and inadequately substantiated series of articles" that had been "poorly written and edited and misleadingly packaged." A CIA spokesman praised the media for taking "an objective look at how this story was constructed and reported." The Society of Professional Journalists gave Ceppos the 1997 National Ethics in Journalism Award.
At the Mercury News, staff members "openly delighted in seeing Webb..tarnished after scoring what first seemed like the biggest journalistic achievement of his career," the New York Times reported. Ambitious young reporters hoping to climb out of the regional backwaters and "move on to bigger papers are the most upset with Mr. Webb," the Times wrote, quoting staff members demanding to know if he or the editors "would be disciplined." Garcia, Yarnold and Van Slambrouck remained publicly silent; Ceppos made his column his coda.
"The damage done to the Mercury News was palpable," recalls a former Mercury News editor, who requested anonymity because he fears retaliation. "I fault the editors, not the reporter. The job of an investigative reporter is to dig and dig and dig and push the envelope as hard as he can push. The job of an investigative editor is to demand [the story is] bulletproof." The Mercury News editors "never fully took responsibility," he adds. "Gary Webb bore plenty responsibility. But when the shit hit the fan, the editors backpedaled as fast as they could."
Undaunted, Webb launched an all-out defense of his work in newspapers, on television, on the radio and on the Internet, accusing the mainstream media of ignoring the story because they were too close to intelligence agencies. "The press had gone from being a watchdog to being a guard dog," he said on a radio show. On another show, the host urged listeners to call Ceppos and demand he publish Webb's follow-ups, the stories "he [was] suppressing."
Webb had crossed a threshold. Ceppos accused him of aligning himself with "one side of the issue."
"Which side?" Webb shot back. "The side that wants the truth to come out?"
Ceppos demanded Webb come to San Jose to discuss his future. At the meeting, Ceppos read from a prepared statement. Webb had a choice: Work in the San Jose office or move to the Cupertino bureau, "the newspaper's version of Siberia," in Webb's view. He took Cupertino, 120 miles from Sacramento, "because he didn't want to be with those guys in San Jose," recalls Bell. He cried the day he left. The children were little, "they were so upset, and they didn't want their daddy to go. And he didn't want to go; he didn't want to leave his family. He felt betrayed," she says. He should have listened to her, he told her. He should have taken the movie and book deals and moved on. "He took it very personally."
Throughout the summer of 1997, Webb kept his byline off his stories, mundane matters having to do with a police horse, a clothing drive for flood victims, summer school computer classes. He fought the transfer through the Newspaper Guild, believing "every day I showed up would be an act of defiance." He told Esquire, "This is what I did, this was me. I was a reporter. This was a calling; it was not something you do eight to five."
Meanwhile, in San Jose, the paper promoted Van Slambrouck to deputy managing editor; Knight Ridder, the Mercury News' corporate parent, defended Ceppos against a conservative columnist's call to have him fired "for a gross act of journalistic malpractice." On the contrary, Clark Hoyt, then Knight Ridder's vice president for news, told the Washington Post, "he's handled it superbly. I'm very proud of him."
The burden took its toll on Webb. By the end of the summer of 1997, 25 publishers had turned down his book proposal. Depression set in with a vengeance, remembers Bell, as Webb faced the future. Even if he won arbitration, he had no desire to stay at the Mercury News. But if he couldn't be a reporter, he had no idea what to do. He decided to settle with the paper, even though it meant resigning. It took him a month to sign the letter. "I saw it as a surrender," he told Bell, "like signing my death certificate." On December 10, 1997, Webb resigned, took a job as an investigator for the state Legislature and began working on a book for a small publisher, sometimes staying up all night writing, telling Bell when she fretted, "You can sleep when you're dead."
By January 1998, obsessed with the affair between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the media had forgotten about Webb and "Dark Alliance."
But little by little, with virtually no media attention, federal reports on the episode became public, producing "concrete evidence disproving, once and for all," the CIA's long-standing assertion that it had nothing to do with drug trafficking to benefit the contra war, Kornbluh says. While the investigations found no evidence that the CIA had supplied or sold drugs in Los Angeles, they did find the agency had withheld information about contra crimes from the Justice Department and Congress, and had recruited drug traffickers to run an undeclared war that took precedence over law enforcement (see "The CIA and Drug Trafficking,"). The CIA had one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government, the agency's inspector general reported. The government findings indicated "the CIA turned a blind eye at best to information that suggests drug trafficking by contra operatives," Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) said at a congressional hearing in 1998.
Though hardly a vindication of Webb, the report marked one of the most extensive internal probes the CIA had ever launched, and it strengthened Webb's resolve to win the war his series had unleashed. In the tragic arc of Webb's life, this was a crucial turning point: the instincts, idealism and stubbornness that had served him so well as an investigative reporter clouded his ability to clearly assess himself. A cowboy to the end, he walked alone into the third and final act of his life.
He fantasized about starting over. He threw himself into his job with the state, growing distant from his family, eventually leaving Bell for another woman, a friend recalls, a relationship that ended badly. He worked feverishly in his job and on his book, which was published in the fall of 1998. The Washington Post gave "Dark Alliance" a mixed review, criticizing Webb for botching parts of the story but praising him for "pushing a sleazy piece of the CIA's past into the public light. The gang at Langley is still resisting coming clean, and these unholy alliances remain in the dark." The Los Angeles Times dismissed it as old news; the New York Times chastised Webb, the San Jose Mercury News editors and the book's publisher for their "relaxed approaches" to reporting the facts of such "a serious subject."
Webb continued to work for the Legislature, investigating state government with the same fervor he had as a reporter, pairing up on several projects with Tom Dresslar, an old Capitol press corps colleague who'd also left to work for the state. Dresslar knew Webb mostly from what he had heard from Mercury News reporters, so he was skeptical about their partnership. "Any skepticism was quickly dashed," Dresslar recalls. "He worked his ass off." Sometimes he and Webb stayed up until two or three in the morning preparing for hearings the next day. A report Webb wrote on the California Highway Patrol's racial profiling--it served as the basis for his 1999 Esquire piece "Driving While Black"--prompted the Assembly speaker to denounce his work and the ACLU to file and win a class-action lawsuit on behalf of minority motorists.
As the capital's political alliances shifted, so did its priorities, leaving Webb in a job with a mandate to get politicians reelected. "Most of the time," says Dresslar, "his talents were wasted." In February 2004, Webb and a few others were laid off. He called Bell--discouraged, scared, crying--on what would have been their 25th wedding anniversary. He said he'd never find another job in daily journalism; she disagreed and urged him to try. With his daughter's help, they assembled 50 packets--clips, résumés, letters--and sent them off. Nothing happened. He called everyone he knew in newspapers. No offers. "It was crushing," recalls a friend.
He tried and failed at a new relationship. His children, now older and more independent, had less time for him. At every turn, he found failure; even so, he kept trying, refusing to ask for help--"he wasn't that type of person," says Bell--and hiding the pain from those he loved most. In May, about to lose his health insurance, he stopped taking his anti-depressants, he told Greg Wolf. "That was the last I heard from him." Bell encouraged him to see a therapist. "Thank you for your concern," he e-mailed her. "But I can't afford it."
When a screenwriter suggested they write a miniseries that summer, he threw himself into the work, but the project fizzled. He took a job with the weekly Sacramento News and Review, earning half what he had at a daily. He wrote five stories between September and November, all the while looking back to where he had been before "Dark Alliance" catapulted him into the world he now inhabited, living alone, financial pressures mounting. "It seems being a reporter all my life doesn't qualify me for much of anything else aside from flackery, and I'd rather starve than do that," he said in an e-mail to a friend. "The job's OK, but it's hard to really enjoy it."
He was getting reckless, driving too fast, making excuses when friends called to go out for beers; he stopped playing hockey and showing up for his daughter's soccer games, pulled away from his motorcycle buddies, worried about his ability to support his family. Friend Bruce Colville tried to contact him by e-mail and phone, hoping to arrange a visit in the fall. But Webb never responded. In Webb's mind he had become what the media had dubbed him: a failure, discredited, damaged, an unworthy role model for his children. Staring down 50, unable to afford even a cell phone, he saw no hope. Life "was a crapshoot and he wasn't willing to play the game anymore," says a friend. "He didn't have the energy to keep trying. It was just too painful."
Instead, he started planning for his death, secretly signing over his possessions and bank accounts to his family, purchasing a cremation certificate, selling his Carmichael house for more than $300,000. In December, as the anniversary of his Mercury News resignation loomed, he took unpaid leave from his job to pack his remaining life into boxes, spending more time with his children, working for hours with son Eric on a family history project for school. The next day, he asked Bell if he could stay with her after he moved. "I can't be alone," he told her. "I've been alone for too long." She suggested he stay with his mother. In retrospect, Bell believes, "he wanted to be stopped, there's no doubt in my mind. He did not want to die. If on the last day of his life someone called him up and offered him a job at a newspaper, he'd be here today."
But that didn't happen. On the day he died, his motorcycle broke down. A man who appeared to be in his early 20s offered him a ride. Webb took it and gave him $20 for his trouble. By the time Webb returned to the parking lot where he'd left the motorcycle, it was gone, stolen by the same man, according to a detective with the Sacramento sheriff's department. "Gary was too trusting," Bell says. "He'd try to help people all the time. He trusted this kid, he trusted hitchhikers, he trusted Jerry [Ceppos] when he said, 'I'll stick by you 100 percent.'" The last betrayal and the loss of his motorcycle, she says, were "the final signs that he should carry out his plan."
His mother drove him home that day, where he continued packing up the house he had restored with a craftsman's precision. He noticed a framed poster he'd carted around with him since his days at the Kentucky Post, a paean to the paper's readers that promised "no fetters on our reporters, nor must they bow to sacred cows"; to never "tamper with the truth"; to "give light [so] the people will find their own way." He chucked it in the trash.
He put his favorite movie--"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"--in the DVD player and his favorite album--"Ian Hunter Live"--on the turntable, stacked the remaining boxes neatly in the corners of his living room, leaving his Social Security card, cremation certificate and car keys on the kitchen counter. He mailed four letters to his family, wrote an ominous note and taped it to the front door. He repaired to the bedroom, pulled out a revolver, and sent a bullet through his cheek. The second time he tried, he hit a major artery. "There's no way [to know] if he died suddenly," says Ed Smith, assistant Sacramento County coroner, "or if he bled to death."
The movers arrived the next day, December 10, the anniversary of his resignation from the Mercury News. They saw the note on the door: "Please do not enter. Call 9-1-1 for assistance. Thank you."
When Bell sorted through what he'd left behind, she found the movie in the DVD player, the album on the turntable and the Kentucky Post poster in the trash. She fished the poster out of the garbage, repaired the broken glass and hung it in the office in her small suburban Sacramento house, a shrine to Webb so his children can remember the man he was: the awards on the walls, the editorial cartoons lambasting the media's treatment of him, his books neatly arranged on the shelves, his research meticulously tabbed to where he had left it. In his letter to Bell, he tried to explain his profound regrets about her and the children, but he had no answers. "All I want to do is write, and if I can't do what I love, then what's the sense of going on?" she says he wrote, adding, in case anyone asks, "tell them I never regretted anything I wrote."
After his death, hundreds of friends and family members packed into a small room at the Sacramento Doubletree Hotel for his memorial service, filling the chairs, standing in every corner, spilling into the hall. No one from the Mercury News sent regrets, says Bell, "not even a card. He wrote a lot of good stories for them. No matter how they felt about 'Dark Alliance,' they should have had respect for what he'd written before."
At the service, the family showed videos, the friends gave eulogies. "That boy couldn't stop worth a damn," remembered a hockey buddy. "Gary couldn't stop himself when he had his sights on something, whether he was chasing [a] puck or pursuing [a] story." When Bell stood to convey one of Webb's last wishes, sent to his son Eric in a suicide note, no one stirred. "If I had one dream for you," he wrote, "it was that you would go into journalism and carry on the kind of work I did, fighting with all your might and talent the oppression and bigotry and stupidity and greed that surrounds us. No matter what you do, try to do that in some way."
Unless otherwise noted in the story, Gary Webb's quotes and recollections about the editing process of the San Jose Mercury News series "Dark Alliance" come from his book, "Dark Alliance," an essay he wrote for "Into the Buzzsaw" or a first-person account titled "Dark Defiance." ###