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How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb (2014) (theintercept.com)
137 points by iamjeff on Oct 8, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments

It's really good to see Webb's story reaching a broader audience. I imagine the current generation may never even have heard of it.

For those interested in further reading, Narco News[1] has been an invaluable resource over the years continuing on with muckraking reporting on the drug trade. They broke two big stories over the years with Banamex and with the "house of death" in Ciudad Juarez. Kudos to Al Giordano and others who have carried on exposing the players behind the trade in the spirit of Webb.

[1] http://www.narconews.com/

But it didn't reach a broader audience. Nobody reads books (2006), that's why they made a movie "Kill The Messenger" (2014).

But the movie had a horrible US release despite its huge starpower, was successful only internationally and won some prices on US festivals. It opened on 427 screens (medium), had good reviews and stayed 2 weeks big, but gathered only 2.5M USD. That's a horrible number with that many screens and a 5M budget. An explanation would be the complete lack of advertising by the producers Focus Pictures. It was buried. There was a private petition to re-release the movie after several weeks of silence, which gained huge momentum, and was quite a controversy.

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kill_the_Messenger_(2014_film)...

- http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=killthemessenger.htm

- http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1216491/business?ref_=ttrel_sa_3

Why is that page covered in seemingly unrelated anti-Trump propaganda? What does alleged white supremacy have to do with the narcotics trade?

NarcoNews and Narcosphere (and Giordano) are unrepentantly activist in both tone and aspiration. I think it would be a great disservice to label the outfit(s) as anti-Trump; there is a lot of thoughtful criticism of Sanders, Hillary, Obama, and left-wing movements in both sites. As for intersection between narcotics and politics, note that NarcoNews is perhaps best known for its coverage of the reach of narcodollars in the politics of LatAm and corporate motivation behind the War on Drugs. The pages are littered with this sort of coverage (in fact, it is mainly how they started out).

Here's a gem that describes a new standard of journalistic rivalry we haven't seen before or since:

Rather than some dastardly, covert plot to destroy (or, as some went so far as to suggest, murder) Webb, Schou posits that the journalist was ultimately undone by the petty jealousies of the modern media world. The CIA “didn’t really need to lift a finger to try to ruin Gary Webb’s credibility,” Schou told The Intercept. “They just sat there and watched these journalists go after Gary like a bunch of piranhas.”

..And a view of the elevated conduct of the CIA

In “Managing a Nightmare,” Dujmovic attributed the initial outcry over the “Dark Alliance” series to “societal shortcomings” that are not present in the spy agency.

“As a personal post-script, I would submit that ultimately the CIA-drug story says a lot more about American society on the eve of the millennium that [sic] it does about either the CIA or the media,” he wrote. “We live in somewhat coarse and emotional times–when large numbers of Americans do not adhere to the same standards of logic, evidence, or even civil discourse as those practiced by members of the CIA community.”

Co-incidentally the second paragraph came near the end of the article when I was about to stop my reading anyway.

Just because the declassified material plays the witch hunt on Webb as a happy accident of petty jealousy that obviously does not mean it was not an orchestrated conspiracy.

That was the point I obliquely tried to make.

If you look in the history you'll see that drug trade was always controlled by an empire. British have imported opium into China via Hong Kong. French have joined them in the Second Opium War. And, now the US empire controlls both the major opium producer (Afghanistan) and major opium derivates distributor (Kosovo), using it - as the two, now small, empires I just named - to finance wars and for the benefits of the Oligarchy.

Isn't Albania the distribution center for heroin for Europe?

Albanian Muslims make 95% of Kosovo inhabitants and in connection with drugs and other crimes a lot is written about "Kosovo Albanian Mafia." It seems it makes a difference, probably also because the Albanian Albanians effectively weren't able to travel abroad at least until early 1990-ties.

Po-tay-to po-tah-to.

The 3-part installation can be found here [1] and here [2]. Be warned, it is about 2-3 hours worth of your time, but makes for a really shocking read. [3] provides exhaustive coverage of the aftermath. Giordano's recount of Webb's memorial service just a month after the latter's suicide and his eulogy of sorts is especially moving [4].

1. The Dark Alliance (http://www.mega.nu/ampp/webb.html)

2. San Jose Mercury News (https://longform.org/archive/publications/san-jose-mercury-n...)

3. Inside the Dark Alliance: Gary Webb on the CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (http://www.democracynow.org/2014/10/6/inside_the_dark_allian...)

4. The Life and Times of Gary Webb. His Journalism Was Vindicated, Yet the Industry Kept Him in Exile (http://www.narconews.com/Issue35/article1154.html)

The problem is that his journalism was not vindicated. It was supported after his death by the same people who supported it when it was first published.

Maxine Waters made partisan hay out of Dark Alliance before the story was vetted by any other news paper (and more power to her! I don't like Waters, but I'm on her team politically).

Too, Robert Parry defended the story immediately after it was published. Parry is a very reputable journalist, but if you can find the piece where Parry connects the dots this eulogy does, I'd really like to read it, because all I can find are places where Parry writes, in effect, that the government isn't trustworthy and thus a story like Webb's is plausible.

But nobody's argument is that the story is implausible. The problem is that the story isn't reported. There aren't facts that back the accusation up.

It's even worse, because this eulogy doubles down on Webb's original argument. The dodges employed by The Intercept and the rest of Webb's defenders are that Dark Alliance is "true enough" --- that CIA-backed paramilitaries were involved in drug trafficking, and the CIA knew it. But that's not what Webb argued. He made a stronger claim: that the CIA knowingly allowed the Contras to ignite the cocaine epidemic in the US. Even The Intercept isn't willing to back that claim up --- but this article, which you're pointing us to as further context for the story, does.

"the journalist was found dead in his apartment, having ended his eight-year downfall with two .38-caliber bullets to the head."

How did he manage to remain conscious enough to pull the trigger again a second time?

I have a family member that was a police officer in a rural location. They have often had cases of farmers who kill themselves with shotguns, and it surprisingly often occurs that they have to shoot themselves more than once in the head.

In this particular case you're comparing apples to oranges.

Shotguns are very different from a standard .38

First is the obvious difference in projectiles, which can make a huge difference.

Second the .38 (in all likelihood) was a pistol, whereas a shotgun is the length of a rifle. A pistol you can hold it to the side of your head and pull the trigger.. you can't really do this well with a shotgun, which means you're more than likely going to put the gun under your chin and try to get to your brain the long way.

It's somewhat logical that someone might need to shoot themselves twice with a shotgun, not so much with a .38.

It could happen. Jerk of the hand. Depends on trigger pull maybe but could happen.

You would be surprised.

I'll again volunteer to write the un-fun comment here.

The subtext of this Intercept piece isn't the abuses CIA or the drug war. It will seem like it is, if you aren't already familiar with the Webb story, but that's not really what it's about. It's about the Intercept, and the kinds of people who support the Intercept, and their perspective on the state of journalism and their distaste for the journalistic establishment.

The basic Webb story is that he published a bombshell piece for the San Jose Mercury News, establishing a link between the CIA and the crack epidemic of the 1990s, and then had his career destroyed in retaliation.

The full Webb story is more complex than that; in fact, it's complicated enough that it's taught in journalism ethics courses.

Webb's "Dark Alliance" story was important, but Webb prosecuted the story overzealously. The major news outlets of the time --- including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times --- unanimously tore the piece to shreds. Many of the reporters involved had already been on the national drug smuggling beat and noticed factual problems with the piece. All the newspapers involved --- including Webb's own paper, which conceded faults in the story and eventually disavowed it --- noticed that the piece simply failed to present evidence for its most important claim.

In the alternate telling of the Webb story, his career fell apart because he became enraptured with the fundamental truth he perceived in the story he was telling (the CIA introduced crack cocaine to black America) and stopped doing the nuts and bolts job of journalism.

The Intercept sees this as heroic. The piece we're reading is from 2014 because it's in support of a hagiographic movie about Webb. Other journalists don't see it that way. The Washington Post originally had Walter Pincus write the takedown of "Dark Alliance", but Pincus is himself a highly problematic figure in American journalism. But this piece by Jeff Leen at WaPo in 2014 doesn't have Pincus's baggage, and goes into detail about the intersection of Webb's reporting and Leen's own from the same time period:


I'll add: pretty much nobody on the left (where I too reside!) likes Leen's piece. But their criticisms of it are essentially the same as The Intercept's: there's a deep truth to Webb's story --- surely the CIA must have had some hand in the crack epidemic, we feel it in our bones! --- and it's immoral for reporters like Leen to expect Webb to put professionalism ahead of the truth.

Whether or not you believe the CIA of the 1980s could have been involved in the US drug trade (and I would put very few things past the CIA of the 2000s, let alone the 1980s), the question of how reporting should work and what the standards of professionalism are is a vital one. A huge fraction of us believe in fundamental truths that transcend reportable fact, of the power of first principles reasoning and of a web of credibility extending from sources to journalists to our favored analysts. I find this world view terrifying, but I understand why other people have it.

But it's worth reflecting on a little?

But it seems to be way more than a hand-wavy "feel it in our bones" certainty.

Critics seem to focus on casting doubt on very specific issues with the story and then proceed to write off the entire narrative without analyzing the other very real and supportable assertions.

Certainly no investigative journalism is complete so far as the reporter isn't able to uncover 100% of the facts (especially when covering the activities of CIA). But unravelling enough should warrant that the story be told and considered anyway.

Before I rebut any part of this, can we level set a bit? Have you read the original stories, any of the 90's takedowns of the story from the NYT, the WaPo, or the LA Times, or any of the recent takedowns?

In other words: am I rebutting your specific opinions about Webb's story, or am I rebutting your core belief that the CIA is responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic?

Leen's take, which you offer us, is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Webb's story did not deliver. This is not the lesson I took away from this story.

For me, Marc Cooper summed it up better in this comment, made after Webb's death (apologies for the ads): http://www.laweekly.com/news/gary-webb-rip-2139247

The national media had a chance to pursue this story, but they chose to dismiss it. My hometown paper, the LA Times, led the charge -- this was back when it was a decent paper and a worthy companion to the NYT and the WP.

It was as described in Marc's piece: they decided to fact check Webb's piece and focus on the every possible gotcha in a very long -- too long -- series. Rather than trying to advance the story, or document what parts were true.

(It did not help Webb's case that self-promoting nuts like Maxine Waters were taking the story even farther.)

And is it not a scandal that one arm of the US government was prosecuting drug crimes as if they were important, and another was studiously looking the other way?

another un-fun comment: our government has a habit of murdering inconvenient journalists, which far eclipses any academic qualms regarding incorrect details amidst a morass of intentional deception on the topic of government sponsored drug trafficking.

when systems are designed to operate far outside the fold of the acceptable, they tend to attempt to be inscrutable. it's no surprise that a journalist couldn't crack the case with 100% accuracy, given that his adversary worked actively to prevent outside knowledge.

You seem to be looking at it objectively, and you make good points. I'll try to add my comments, which may be a bit less fine grained than yours. The below may be a bit rambly, apologies for that.

That said, I do think that there is very much more to this story than the view perpetrated by the CIA and the large news organizations at the time.

I believe that the CIA found themselves under attack and used every means (as any bureaucracy typically does) to defend themselves. In this case, I believe their tool was good old fashioned American Media. This is an organization whose very mission includes manipulating media for their own (supposedly American) ends.

The CIA as evidenced by the above article surely put these journalists on to any mistakes Webb had made (and he did make some mistakes, but that does not make an entire central thesis incorrect) and then allowed for the media to do their job.

But let's not pretend that the journalists from the NY Times and Washington Post didn't have skin in the game, as with all political reporting, you play a game between making your sources happy and printing the "truth". If these reporters did not at least somewhat placate their CIA sources, they could be in real danger of losing access. Losing access to officials in Washington DC to a reporter of such news organizations is tantamount to death (of their career of course). So we're not dealing with the perfect unbiased journalism, and when you add further personality issues in the mix, things get even more complex in terms of deciding where the truth actually lies.

So when other journalists were turned on to the story and attacked, they weren't just attacking the story, they were attacking the individual. And when journalists smell blood in the water, they truly are piranhas (I would submit the latest Trump debacle for example). So yes, some journalists attacked Webb, but even so, this does not make him wrong. In the Leen article, yet again from the Washington Post, the attack isn't on the story, this story is all about Webb. My favorite argument from the piece (to paraphrase) "There were rumors of CIA involved in the drug trade, but me and other reporters couldn't find evidence of this." Well that's a great argument, I guess since you couldn't find evidence, it must not exist? There are others issues with that article, again, paraphasing: "According to Webb, the CIA was only bringing in 100 kilos/week, that's not enough to supply the entire US cocaine market." Shit, the CIA is only bringing in 100 Kilos/week, that must mean Webb is wrong?... If Leen reads Webb's article to mean that the CIA is the only supplier of Crack Cocaine into the US, that's on his reading comprehension, not the authors. Leen's article leaves a lot to be desired as a modern look at Webb's articles.

And as you mentioned, the CIA and the rest of the Military of the 1980's truly had their hands dirty, especially as it concerned South America. Despite the "Drug War" starting in this period, the destruction of Communism was still the prime and central goal of the US administration. That makes me think that there is more than a small probability that the CIA was at least in some ways part of the cocaine problem.

It may have been rouge agents, it may have been institutional corruption, but do I believe that the CIA through action or knowing inaction allowed the crack epidemic to grow unchecked? Absolutely.

More than a few times we've shown we will turn our backs for the "greater mission." (My favorite version of this story includes opium in Afghanistan, here is just one episode of hundreds/thousands?: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/world/asia/21marja.html and also: http://archive.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/04/recent_scenes_f... Image Number 8. )

Do I think we'll hear more about this story in another 50 to 75 years when all the principles are dead and more data comes to light? Yes. Personally, I think it'll vindicate Webb, but of course, as usual, a little late.

My arguments may have been a bit circumstantial. But I choose to look at it from a holistic perspective, looking at the political culture of the time, in order to best understand the specifics and how they fit in to this very weird aspect of American history.

But if it does come out in 50 years that I'm wrong, you can come back and remind me. :)

You say "it may have been rogue agents, it may have been institutional corruption", but you truly believe (&c &c).

Can you apply evidence to those beliefs, or is this just something you really believe? You can believe whatever you'd like, but I'm just going to point out that people believe some pretty... interesting... stuff.

> A huge fraction of us believe in fundamental truths that transcend reportable fact, of the power of first principles reasoning and of a web of credibility extending from sources to journalists to our favored analysts. I find this world view terrifying, but I understand why other people have it.

I would argue that there's some (good) reasons to have this kind of belief though, given what we've seen.

The very basis of the CIA's clandestine operations is to abuse people's usual reliance on those mechanisms by subverting some part of that process. That's "plausible deniability" in a nutshell -- that there exists at least one place you can't actually connect that logical chain you suggested.

Once you "lift" every step of the chain to include the idea of "this step is likely being manipulated by experts to misinform me", the minimal explanatory model is often not the same as the minimal explanatory model would be without that. I would argue that this is the discrepancy that you're pointing out when people deal with the CIA/NSA/etc: the minimal model people think of must account for the massive amount of lying, including to their nominal overseers like Congress; the minimal assumption for lying is that they're up to something, not that they're just lying, because lying (even for them) does have a slight cost, and historical data shows that when they were lying in the past... they were usually experimenting on humans, building up blackmail profiles of civic leaders, illegally performing their duties, etc.

Ergo, you get people with models that have HUGE priors that those agencies are up to something targeting various communities, and so stories which doesn't have the usual amount of evidence are still enough evidence to suggest that the CIA/NSA/etc is up to something targeting that group. I'm not arguing that most people are reaching the correct priors -- just that the overreactive priors are "less wrong" than the null priors your complaint suggests they should use.

I would argue that the insistence on "background" priors, in the face of decades of consistent and premeditated behaviors on the part of the CIA/NSA/etc, is the exactly opposite of journalistic integrity: it's specifically refusing to report what you know (and is good for the public to know, too), by getting rid of your knowledge of what the real priors are and not reporting on that. I find a lot of the same "dishonesty" in reporting on issues of culture or race, again, often presented behind a veneer of integrity, when really, it's capitulation to social power -- either to not offend the government or cultural norms.

I understand what you're saying and I understand why people believe this to be the case. But help me understand something:

How are you not arguing that journalists should report what they feel, rather than what they know?

I'm very ready to believe you aren't saying that, but I can't reconcile what you wrote with that question.

> How are you not arguing that journalists should report what they think, rather than what they know?

I changed your question slightly, but I hope I preserved the intent of it. If not, please let me know!

I guess my point is that "knowledge" I have is just a special class of "thoughts" (or "beliefs") I have, where my surety in them is above some particular threshold. It's certainly not the case that most of my knowledge is absolute and couldn't (theoretically) be wrong. (At least, as I think you're meaning it, we could reasonably say I "know" my bed is in my bedroom, even though, strictly speaking, I'm in my living room and it might be elsewhere.)

I would argue that the journalists are then reporting knowledge: that they have good (established, documented) reason to think that the priors are some particular way (which would be knowledge), and given those priors with some facts, the CIA/NSA/etc is up to some class of actions, of which the told story is an example member, which is again knowledge, because we can have a stronger belief that the class of actions is correct than the particulars. An example might be: you're not sure that I cut the victim with a knife, but the slash marks all over his body indicate some kind of cutting instrument. Is it not useful to talk about me slashing him?

Similarly, I would argue that I expect journalists to report knowledge in the usual sense, but allow them to present knowledge about things like priors or that something is in a class of behaviors, rather than just knowledge that a specific behavior occurred. (Which is what I get out of your text, but I don't think is actually what you're trying to claim.)

It's certainly common in mathematics to introduce talking about a class of objects with a few definite examples, and I feel that the reporters telling "fictionalized but consistent with facts" stories to exemplify the class of things we know the CIA is up to (or capable of) is meaningful and useful journalism. That kind of writing helps us picture and understand what the class of (likely) actions really looks like, particularly if we read multiple sources which picked different examples from the class. Of course, I think we both agree that journalists could be clearer about when they're doing that kind of thing, and the field of journalism could obviously do better on epistemology in general.

I guess my argument could be summarized as: the knowledge being shared by those kinds of reports isn't about the specific actions of the CIA being discussed in the story, but rather, the CIA priors versus background priors (in context and historical pieces) and the knowledge that the CIA is up to something of the flavor in the article.

I also have a lot of sympathy for your position, and get where you're coming from, but let me ask you this: how do you think journalists should professionally convey information about CIA behavioral priors (eg, that they're systemic liars and career criminals) and sufficient evidence (in light of those priors) to suggest the CIA is doing something against a community when they don't have sufficient evidence for any particular claim, eg, that it was actually CIA officers selling crack versus enabling selling crack by claiming drug dealer phone numbers were agency ones to police versus just not doing anything to stop it because it served their ends?

Surely you agree that journalists should be able to present the claim that the CIA willfully failed in their duty to protect black communities from foreign drug interests, and even probably actively worked against them, without having to get bogged down in the specifics of which actions you think they perpetrated when if there's sufficient circumstantial evidence that something unusual occurred.

Otherwise, how would you ever write a story about the actions of experts in plausible deniability?

Thanks for volunteering, it is important to hear the other side too. That being said you did not convince me at all. Whatever holes or mistakes there were in Webb's reporting is completely irrelevant - he brought a story of cataclysmic proportions with literally live-saving effect for millions. Whatever holes and mistakes could have been scrutinized in the years to come by legions of academics. Apropos, just because the recently declassified material plays the witch hunt on Webb as a happy accident that obviously does not mean it was not an orchestrated conspiracy.

The problem is that he told a story of cataclysmic proportions, but did not report that story. Whether his story is true as he framed it remains unknown.

I am under the impression that the fact that CIA helped Contras smuggle cocaine to US was later confirmed, am I wrong?

So even just recently, we have had several shows "Holywoodizing" the narco crap:

* Narcos (S1,S2)

* The Infiltrator

in both, the CIA are fucking criminals

now we have this... im confused. there is blatant BLATANT corruption in the US - and instead of doing anything about it we turn it into ENTERTAINMENT???

The CIA has been portrayed as the bad guy in movies for a long time and that's the way the want it.

Why? Because they want everybody to get used to the idea that they're above the law without having to come out and say it directly.


To me, the DEA and the War on Drugs came across as culpable as the CIA in Narcos.

The complete and utter lack of self awareness on behalf of the DEA agents made the show, especially the second season, extremely tough to watch. Not once does the show ever introspect and try to figure out the underlying reasons behind all the violence and destruction.

TBH you're correct - I was using the CIA as an umbrella in that statement....

but anyone who even just skimmed the "school of americas" history (read, CIA DEA DELTA BLAH BLAH) would be pretty disgusted with what happened during that period... and it still goes on today.

In addition to film being entertainment, it's one of the most effective mediums for communication we have right now. Case in point: way more folks are aware of the Narcos subject matter than previously.

Now whether or not we can transition communication to action is another question entirely...

How about finding and killing bin laden? In my opinion CIA acknowledges the multi-dimensional and grey world, we live in. They are human they make mistakes, but if past 60 years are a record, they did a good job.

What if Ben Laden was the instrument of the CIA like the contras were? What if no jounalist dares to investigate it after what happened to Webb?


What if Ben Laden was the instrument of the CIA like the contras were? What if no jounalist dares to investigate it after what happened to Webb?

That's the whole point isn't it? Terrorize the internal opposition to silence

RJ Hillhouse wrote a book, "Outsourced", that comes close at time to advancing this point-of-view.


The CIA has had 60 years of "illegal" coups and overthrows of democratically-elected governments. Many would find nearly everything that the CIA has done to be extremely unethical, un-humanitarian.

That said, I agree that the CIA has done a great job. Unethical? Sure. Effective? Absolutely. There have a been a few major f*ck-ups, but for the most part the CIA has an extremely good track record of shaping the world to the liking of the US (or at least to the liking of top strategists and leaders of the US).

Isn't a huge chunk of that "grayness" caused by the CIA et al. in the first place? I would much rather see all that effort put into meta-societal research, in the open, to try to figure out how to make the world's people want to converge to stability naturally instead of constantly creating and trying to control instability.

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