Gary Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who wrote a series of stories linking the CIA to crack cocaine trafficking in Los Angeles, is dead at age 49. We hear an 1998 interview with Gary Webb on Democracy Now! and we speak with his colleague, veteran investigative journalist Robert Parry. [includes rush transcript]
Gary Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who wrote a series of stories linking the CIA to crack cocaine trafficking in Los Angeles, is dead at age 49.
Webb was found Friday morning at his home in Sacramento County, dead of an apparent suicide. Moving-company workers called authorities after discovering a note posted on his front door that read, "Please do not enter. Call 911 and ask for an ambulance." Webb died of a gunshot wound to the head, according to the Sacramento County coroner’s office. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Gary Webb’s 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News titled "Dark Alliance" revealed that for the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs and funneled millions in drug profits to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras.
It provoked a fierce reaction from the media establishment, which denounced the series. Following the controversy, San Jose Mercury News executive editor demoted Webb within the paper. He resigned and pushed his investigation even further in his book "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: we’re joined on the telephone now by Bob Parry, veteran investigative journalist, wrote for AP and Newsweek. His reporting led to the exposure of what’s now called the Iran-Contra scandal. His latest book is called Secrecy and Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty to Watergate and Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ROBERT PARRY: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: I heard it from you this weekend that Gary Webb had died of an apparent suicide. Can you talk about Gary?
ROBERT PARRY: Well, I received a call Saturday from the Los Angeles Times asking if I could comment about Webb’s death. I went on and explained that the Country owes a huge debt to Gary Webb. What he did was revive a story that some of us at AP and then later Senator John Kerry looked into in the mid-1980s of how the Reagan-Bush Administration had financed the contra war in part by allowing the Contras engage in cocaine trafficking. The evidence even in the mid 1980s was quite strong. Kerry did a fairly good investigation that was published in a report in 1989, but throughout this, the Washington Press Corps, the Washington Times, L.A. Times denigrated the story. The Reagan-Bush stories denied them by and large and that’s where the story was left. Kerry was ridiculed for being a conspiracy theorist for following the leads. It was Gary Webb who revived that investigation in 1996 with his series in the San Jose Mercury News, and again, he was assaulted by these same news elements, the New York Times, the Washington Post, L.A. Times, and what he did was he provoked an internal investigation at justice, at the CIA, and those investigations while they — the press releases tended to be protective of the agencies, the information contained in the long reports was devastating. Essentially, the CIA admitted that it was involved with the Contras, who were actively participating in cocaine trafficking. The CIA Inspector General said more than 50 Contras and Contra units were implicated in the cocaine trade, that the CIA knew about it in real time, that it hid the evidence, that it obstructed justice. All of these things were admitted by the CIA itself, by 1998, in response to Webb’s series. The great tragedy, I suppose, of the personal tragedy and professional, is that despite these admissions, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the L.A. Times still refused to deal with the facts. It seemed almost like the editors had more of a stake in covering up the truth than the CIA did. So, Gary Webb’s career was allowed to be ruined. The people who were involved in these — in protecting the CIA from those major papers, their careers blossomed. Jerry Seapost, the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, who sold out Webb and his series received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for ethics because of what he did. So, it seemed like all of the people that did the wrong thing got the benefits, and Gary Webb and people who — including John Kerry, who did honorable work on this topic, received no benefits at all, and in fact were damaged.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Parry, I wanted to play a clip of an interview that we did with Gary Webb on May 20, 1998. It was just after his book, Dark Alliance, was published. He talked about the media reaction to his investigation in the San Jose Mercury News. This is Gary Webb, 1998.
GARY WEBB: I tried to think of another example of uh, of where the mainstream press took off after a reporter, and the only one that I could think of was when the fellow wrote the confessional about who worked at the Wall Street Journal and had been a socialist all of these years, the hue and cry that went up over, my god, we actually let a socialist write our news for us. That’s the only other time that it’s been quite this intense.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we now have your book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. Do you expect a similar explosion from the press or will they deal with it by ignoring it?
GARY WEBB: That remains to be seen. It will be interesting. They couldn’t ignore it before because it was in the newspapers. Now, it’s in a different arena. Now, Amy, books routinely get ignored that sort of challenge the status quo and challenge common knowledge. It might be more difficult this time, because they had set up such a screaming contest earlier you know, this is not the series anymore. This is 600 pages of documentation, of interviews, and it’s going to be awful lard to dismiss it as, you know, unsubstantiated or not backed up or over hyped. The criticisms directed against the series because the information is there now. It’s laid out, and it’s — you know, I didn’t have to worry about some editor chopping off 15 paragraphs to make sure that the something else could sit on the page. I had the room to tell the story like it should have been told in the first place. Looking back on the whole thing, I think the problem we had in doing the series was that we were overly ambitious. We tried to tell a story in, you know, 10,000 or 12,000 words that really needed about 150,000 words to tell accurately and completely. And I don’t regret doing it. I’m glad we did, otherwise the thing would have never gotten out, but in doing the book, I realized how sort of crippled we were, just by the media and that we were trying to do it in. So, I think it will be interesting to see what the mainstream reaction to the book is, if there is one.
AMY GOODMAN: Gary, the way the mainstream press dealt with the black community responding the way they did, I found remarkably condescending.
GARY WEBB: That was offensive.
AMY GOODMAN: It was basically the attitude was, we understand why the people are so upset. Something terrible has happened to them, and it’s nice — it’s finally nice to be able to blame it on someone or something. So, we understand this kind of over response.
GARY WEBB: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: But its willingness to believe in conspiracy.
GARY WEBB: I don’t think there’s any other word but racist. I have never seen an entire race labeled as conspiracy theorists before. This was really — that’s when I thought they had really gone off the deep end, when they were trying to convince everybody that, well, you know, these black people, you know, they believe anything they’re told, which was when you boil it down, that’s exactly what the articles were saying. They tried to couch it in the scientific and sociological terms as why blacks distrust government. The bottom line is that these folks will believe anything. The Tom Tomorrow did an amazingly good cartoon when he had two New York Times reporters sitting around talking and they said, well, just because the United States government has a history of lying to the American public and there’s ten years of documented evidence with CIA involvement and drug trafficking, they actually think this might be true? The other guy goes, those Negros will believe anything. That was sort of the reaction in a very cut-down form of what these long wheezes in the Post and the New York Times did one the LA Times did one, the Washington Post did one on, oh you know — of course, black people are upset, because they all believe that, you know, Kentucky Fried Chicken will make you sterile, as if they have no reason whatsoever to believe that the United States government doesn’t have their best interests at heart at times. Look at the Tuskegee experiment and you can go on through history to explain why people of color would not trust the government. The other thing that these stories missed was that it wasn’t just black people that were upset by this thing. I mean, I was on a lot of right wing talk radio shows, and the people that called in to those shows were as mad or madder than the black audiences that I have — that I had addressed, because these were people who, I think, like me, believed what they were taught in school about the government. The government always has your best interests at heart. The government would never do anything to harm citizens. Drugs are evil, and they would never want to be involved in it. When they read the story and saw the documentation that we presented, they knew they had been lied to, for about ten years on the drug war thing. And they were really offended. It wasn’t that they grew up distrusting the government. It was the opposite, they grew up believing in it. Here was another example why their faith was misplaced, because American citizens had been sacrificed to fight this crazy war in Central America that really didn’t mean anything to anybody but the people at the CIA.
AMY GOODMAN: Gary Webb, in 1998, May 20, an interview we did when his book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, first came out. This is Democracy Now! We’ll get a final comment from investigative reporter, Bob Parry, as you listen to Gary Webb, your thoughts, Bob?
ROBERT PARRY: Well, I think it’s quite sad that that voice has been silenced. It was tragic and sad that the mainstream press reacted as it did. As I said to the LA Times Saturday when they asked for my comments, which they did not publish, by the way, I said, you’re going to have a hard time dealing with this story, because the LA Times never even reported on the publication of the second volume of the CIA’s report. It was that second volume that went through in great detail, really corroborating not just what Gary Webb had reported, but allegations and evidence that’s far, far worse than what was in the San Jose Mercury News series. The far darker scandal that went far higher up than anyone thought. The CIA evidence tracks the Contra cocaine problem into the White House, Ronald Reagan’s White House. It tracks it into the CIA directly. That’s what the evidence is. I’m putting up a story today on consortiumnews.com that will recount some of the evidence that’s lost to history. It’s just tragic that the LA Times and other major publications cannot face the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you for being with us. People can check the story out at consortiumnews.com. You can go to our website at democracynow.org where we will compile all of Gary Webb’s interviews. Gary Webb, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the San Jose Mercury News date of an apparent suicide.