Every year since investigative journalist Gary Webb took his own life in 2004, I have marked the anniversary of that sad event by recalling the debt that American history owes to Webb for his brave reporting, which revived the Contra-cocaine scandal in 1996 and forced important admissions out of the Central Intelligence Agency two years later.
But Webb's suicide on the evening of Dec. 9, 2004, was also a tragic end for one man whose livelihood and reputation were destroyed by a phalanx of major newspapers -- the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- serving as protectors of a corrupt power structure rather than as sources of honest information.
In reviewing the story again this year, I was struck by how Webb's Contra-cocaine experience was, in many ways, a precursor to the subsequent tragedy of the Iraq War.
In the 1980s, the CIA's analytical division was already showing signs of politicization, especially regarding President Ronald Reagan's beloved Contras and their war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government -- and the U.S. press corps was already bending to the propaganda pressures of a right-wing Republican administration.
Looking back at CIA cables from the early-to-mid-1980s, you can already see the bias dripping from the analytical reports. Any drug accusation against the leftist Sandinistas was accepted without skepticism and usually with strong exaggeration, while the opposite occurred with evidence of Contra cocaine smuggling; then there was endless quibbling and smearing of sources.
So, to put these reports in anything close to an accurate focus, you would need special lenses to correct for all the politicized distortions. Yet, the U.S. news media, which itself was under intense pressure not to appear "liberal," worsened the Reagan administration's fun-house reflection of reality and attacked any dissident journalist who wouldn't go along.
Thus, Americans heard a lot about how the evil Sandinistas were trying to "poison" America's youth with cocaine, although there was not a single interception of a drug shipment from Nicaragua during the Sandinista reign, except for one planeload of cocaine that the United States flew into and out of Nicaraguan in a clumsy "sting" operation.
On the other hand, substantial evidence of Contra-related cocaine shipments out of Costa Rica and Honduras was kept from the American people with Reagan's Justice Department and CIA intervening to head off investigations and thus prevent embarrassing disclosures. The chief role of the big newspapers in this upside-down world was to heap ridicule on anyone who told the truth.
During that time frame of the early-to-mid-1980s, the patterns were set for CIA analysts to advance their careers (by giving the president what he wanted) and mainstream journalists to protect theirs (by accepting propaganda). By 2002-2003, these patterns had become deeply engrained, leaving almost no one to protect the American people from a new round of falsehoods -- aimed at Iraq.
Though I was not in touch with Webb in the last months of his life in 2004, I have always wondered if he saw this connection between his own valiant efforts to correct the historical record about Contra-cocaine trafficking in 1996 and the victory of lies over truth regarding Iraq's WMD in 2002-2003.
In the weeks before Webb's suicide, there also was the intervening fact of George W. Bush's reelection -- and with it, the dashed expectation that the CIA analysts and the mainstream journalists who played along with the Iraq-WMD fabrications might face some serious accountability. At the moment when Webb picked up his father's pistol and put it to his head, there must have appeared little hope that anything would change.
Indeed, we are now seeing yet another replay of this systematic distortion of information, this time regarding Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program. Any tidbit of information against Iran is exaggerated, while exculpatory data is downplayed or ignored.
So, it may be timely again to recount what happened to Gary Webb and to reflect on the dangers of allowing this corrupt disinformation system to press ahead unchecked.
For me, the tragic story of Gary Webb began in 1996 when he was working on his "Dark Alliance" series for the San Jose Mercury News. He called me at my home in Arlington, Virginia, because, in 1985, I and my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger had been the first journalists to reveal the scandal of Reagan's Nicaraguan Contras funding themselves in part by collaborating with drug traffickers.
Webb explained that he had come across evidence that one Contra-connected drug conduit had funneled cocaine into Los Angeles, where it helped fuel the early crack epidemic. Unlike our AP stories a decade earlier -- which focused on the Contras helping to ship cocaine from Central America into the United States -- Webb said his series would examine what happened to the Contra cocaine after it reached the streets of Los Angeles and other cities.