Ceppos was wrong about the proof, of course. At AP, before we published our first Contra-cocaine article in 1985, Barger and I had known that the CIA and Reagan's White House were aware of the Contra-cocaine problem at senior levels.
However, Ceppos recognized that he and his newspaper were facing a credibility crisis brought on by the harsh consensus delivered by the Big Three, a judgment that had quickly solidified into conventional wisdom throughout the major news media and inside Knight-Ridder, Inc., which owned the Mercury News. The only career-saving move -- career-saving for Ceppos even if career-destroying for Webb -- was to jettison Webb and the Contra-cocaine investigative project.
The big newspapers and the Contras' defenders celebrated Ceppos's retreat as vindication of their own dismissal of the Contra-cocaine stories. In particular, Kurtz seemed proud that his demeaning of Webb now had the endorsement of Webb's editor. 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 from the paper in disgrace.
For undercutting Webb and other Mercury News reporters working on the Contra-cocaine project -- some of whom were facing personal danger in Central America -- Ceppos was lauded by the American Journalism Review and received 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 war.
The CIA published the first part of Inspector General Hitz's findings on Jan. 29, 1998. Though the CIA's press release for the report criticized Webb and defended the CIA, 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 of them.
Hitz conceded that cocaine smugglers played a significant early role in the 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."
After Volume One was released, I called Webb (whom I had spent some time with since his series was published). I chided him for indeed getting the story "wrong." He had understated how serious the problem of Contra-cocaine trafficking had been.
It was a form of gallows humor for the two of us, since nothing had changed in the way the major newspapers treated the Contra-cocaine issue. They focused only on the press release that continued to attack Webb, while ignoring the incriminating information that could be found in the full report. All I could do was highlight those admissions at Consortiumnews.com, which sadly had a much, much smaller readership than the Big Three.
The major U.S. news media also looked the other way on other startling disclosures.
On May 7, 1998, for instance, 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 the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan mujahedeen.
In other words, early in those two covert wars, the CIA leadership wanted to make sure that its geopolitical objectives would not be complicated by a legal requirement to turn in its client forces for drug trafficking.
The next break in the long-running Contra-cocaine 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 serious government wrongdoing.
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 the crimes. 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.