Investigative Journalist, "Dark Alliance" Author Gary Webb Dead at Age 49 12/17/04

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Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor, [email protected], 12/17/04

Gary Webb, the prize-winning former San Jose Mercury News investigative reporter whose series on the "dark alliance" between the CIA and Nicaraguan Contras to import cocaine into the US in the early 1980s ignited a firestorm of controversy, died December 10 an apparent suicide. He was found in his suburban Sacramento home suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. A note accompanied his body, but its contents have not been disclosed.

Gary Webb
in Mérida
While Webb was most notorious for the "Dark Alliance" series, which he turned into a 548-page book of the same name, he was a reporter whose interest in drug policy both preceded and extended beyond the murky world of Reagan-era drugs and guns in Central America. In 1993, while at the Mercury News, Webb penned an investigative series on asset forfeiture abuse, "The Forfeiture Racket," which is credited with helping to undo California's forfeiture law. The series, which appeared as the state legislature was confronting the issue, documented widespread abuses and helped turn public opinion against asset forfeiture. The result was a new forfeiture law that required a criminal conviction before property could be forfeited.

But it was "Dark Alliance" that both made Webb's name and ruined his career. While links between Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries who helped finance their war through the cocaine traffic and the CIA had been made previously, Webb's investigative series and subsequent book took it to a new level, arguing that the conspiracy between the CIA and the Contras was directly tied to the crack cocaine explosion of the early 1980s in Los Angeles. The series exploded on the national media-scape like a roadside bomb and led to surreal scenes like that in Los Angeles in the fall of 1996 when the head of the CIA was loudly booed and jeered at a crowded public meeting where attendees held his agency responsible for the crack epidemic.

But "Dark Alliance" quickly came under attack from the largest newspapers in the country -- all of which had failed miserably in reporting the connections between the CIA, the Contras, and the cocaine traffic. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times all attacked Webb's conclusions, and his own paper eventually turned on him. Within a few months of publishing "Dark Alliance," the Mercury News stepped back from its conclusions and took Webb off the story. He resigned rather than accept a humiliating transfer to a state politics beat.

While there were errors in some of the particulars in the series and subsequent book, its broad conclusions have withstood the test of time. That the Reagan administration at best turned a blind eye to drug running by its Central American proxy armies is now well-documented and uncontroversial. That some of the cocaine trafficked by the Contras ended up in the hands of pioneering LA crack entrepreneur "Freeway Ricky" Ross is also undeniable.

But Webb suffered as much from the enthusiasm of his supporters as the slings and arrows of his foes. Some readers were all too eager to loudly cry "genocide" and to turn his carefully documented findings into the stuff of conspiracy theories, making it all the easier to discredit Webb for the ravings of his most extreme followers.

Despite having won more than 30 journalism awards in his career, Webb was effectively marginalized as a mainstream journalist after "Dark Alliance." He found work in the California state assembly until he was laid off after the November elections and had taken a new position with a California political publication, the Sacramento News and Review. But even while at the legislature, Webb returned to reporting on aspects of the drug war. In 1999, he penned a report accusing the California Highway Patrol of unofficially condoning racial profiling, but that report, too, was attacked by its targets.

In 2002, Webb attended the DRCNet-sponsored Out from the Shadows drug legalization conference in Mérida, Mexico, where he signaled his continuing interest in reporting on drug issues by participating in the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism and agreeing to for a time take the helm of the organization itself. But that agreement proved to be abortive, and Webb soon returned to California and the state legislature.

"All he ever wanted to do was write," Webb's ex-wife, Susan Bell, told the Mercury News this week. "He never really recovered from it," she said, referring to the "Dark Alliance" controversy.

"The guy had a fierce commitment to justice and truth. He cared deeply about the people who are forgotten, that we try to shove into the dark recesses of our minds and world," said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for the California attorney general's office who worked with Webb.

On a personal note, I met Gary Webb when he spoke at the Washington, DC, bookstore where I worked as part of his "Dark Alliance" book tour. Even with his mainstream journalism career in tatters, Webb radiated conviction and confidence, along with a keen intellect and a quiet, friendly persona. We had a chance to speak briefly. I encouraged him to continue to seek the truth and expose it to the world. He said he would. And now he is dead by his own hand.

The world can be a tough and lonely place for those who dare to challenge the powers that be. Gary Webb found out the hard way, but he kept on struggling until he could take it no more.

-- END --
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Issue #367 -- 12/17/04

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Editorial: He Would Not Torture | Dr. Hurwitz Convicted on 50 Counts, Faces Life in Prison | DEA Blocks Private Marijuana Research Grow, Path to FDA Approval | DRCNet Interview: Member of the British Parliament Paul Flynn | Investigative Journalist, "Dark Alliance" Author Gary Webb Dead at Age 49 | DRCNet Joins the Blogosphere With New "Prohibition and the Media" Critique | Ayahuasca Church Wins Temporary Victory in Supreme Court | Newsbrief: New Jersey Lawmakers to Ask Court to Stop Needle Exchange Programs | Newsbrief: Reefer Madness Threatens Hawkeye State, Iowa Drug Czar Warns | Newsbrief: Family Files $100 Million Lawsuit in Kenneth Walker Killing | Newsbrief: Alaska District Attorney to Challenge 1975 Court Decision Protecting Marijuana Possession by Adults | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Newsbrief: British Government Tripping on Magic Mushroom Policy | Newsbrief: World's First Random Drug Test of Drivers Results in World's First Random Drugged Driver Bust and Threat of World's First Lawsuit Against the Practice | Newsbrief: Efforts to Suppress Swaziland Marijuana Crop Founder on Poverty, Medical Need, UN Says | Newsbrief: Islamic Militants Kill Russian Drug Cops, Claim They Were Dealers | Web Scan: Afghan Poppies, European Hep C | Apply Now to Intern at DRCNet! | Internship Opportunities at MPP | Seeking Information, Affiliates, Link Exchanges | The Reformer's Calendar

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