The "Dark Alliance" Imbroglio and the Dark End of an Embattled Journalist

by Bill Weinberg

On the morning of Dec. 10, 2004, a moving crew arrived at the Sacramento area home of Gary Webb—legendary and controversial journalist responsible for the "Dark Alliance" sensation eight years earlier. They found a note on the front door: "Please do not enter. Call 911 and ask for an ambulance."

Webb was found inside with two gunshot wounds to the head. Despite this seeming anomaly, the Sacramento County coroner found it was suicide.

The Internet is still abuzz with speculation of foul play. But in an on-line statement, Tom Walsh, Webb’s editor at the Sacramento News & Review, dismissed what he called "[h]earsay presented as fact on activist-conspiracy Web sites. For instance, numerous Web sites reported that Gary was killed with a shotgun (he wasn’t) and that people were seen climbing up to his balcony (there isn’t one)… Spreading rumors does a disservice to Gary’s life and work… Based on the evidence we’ve seen, it was a suicide."

Indeed, it had been a long slide downhill for Webb. After a stint as the most notorious journalist in America, he had been hounded out of respectability and was reduced to consulting work for the California state assembly. He had recently been hired by the News & Review, Sacramento’s alternative weekly.

Webb was catapulted to infamy by his August 1996 "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News—where the California native had shared a Pulitzer with the rest of the staff for coverage of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake. Dark Alliance detailed links between the LA crack trade and the CIA’s "contra" operations in Nicaragua—re-opening a controversy the agency had thought died a decade ago, and blowing it far wider open than the 1986 Congressional hearings on the "Contragate" scandal ever did. Webb would pay a high price for his courage.

The Small Print Giveth and the Big Print Taketh Away

Within a year of the series, both the CIA and the Department of Justice had been shamed by a national outcry into opening unprecedented investigations into the claims—and then had to be shamed into actually releasing the findings. In January 1998, Attorney General Janet Reno suppressed the Justice Department’s official report on the Dark Alliance allegations, claiming the law allowed her to indefinitely keep secret any Inspector General report which might compromise undercover operations or national security.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich objected to Reno’s decision not to release the 400-page report, "A CIA-Contra Crack Cocaine Controversy: A Review of the Justice Department’s Investigations and Prosecutions," but told the press he "must abide by it." Anonymous Justice Department sources conveniently "leaked" that the report found no evidence that the CIA colluded with contras in the cocaine trade. But the outcry persisted, and in July the DoJ did release the Bromwich report—which did indeed find that Reagan administration officials had been aware of cocaine trafficking by contra operatives, and that the CIA had withheld such information from US law enforcement as a matter of policy.

By then, CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz had published the results of his own internal investigation, which also backed up these claims upon careful reading—while largely (not completely) exonerating the specific figures named by Webb as ploughing crack profits in contra coffers. Further corroboration was provided by California’s Rep. Maxine Waters, who in May revealed a CIA-DoJ letter of understanding which had officially freed the agency from reporting drug smuggling by CIA assets—a provision that covered the Afghan mujahedeen as well as the Nicaraguan contras.

But the federal government and Big Media had been acting in concert to delegitimize the series for months—and the attacks on Webb’s work made far bigger headlines than the vindication buried deep in the official reports. "The agency neither participated in nor condoned drug trafficking by Contra forces," was a typical quote from Hitz given prominent coverage—while the small print in his own report indicated otherwise. The Washington Post and other big dailies which attacked the series parroted official denials from the CIA and Justice Department—even as these bodies’ internal reports on the allegations remained secret.

The Contras’ LA Connection: Exposed

Dark Alliance documented links between the architects of the LA crack trade and the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the CIA-created counter-revolutionary army better known as the contras. Webb focused on three key players in the contra-linked cocaine ring that dominated California markets in the 1980s.

Norwin Meneses, the ring’s Bay Area-based boss, was Nicaragua’s best known drug trafficker, and came from a family close to ex-dictator Anastasio Somoza. When Somoza was overthrown in the 1979 Sandinista revolution, Meneses fled to the US. Listed in DEA computers as a major international drug smuggler implicated in 45 separate federal investigations, he nonetheless lived in peace—buying homes, bars, restaurants, real estate and factories throughout the Bay Area. Arrested in Nicaragua on cocaine charges in 1991, his judge expressed open astonishment that he went unmolested by federal drug agents during his years in the US. He currently resides in Nicaragua’s Tipitapa Prison, where he is known as "Rey de la Droga" (King of Drugs).

Danilo Blandon, the ring’s Southern California distributor, sold 100 kilos of Meneses’ cocaine a week in the LA area throughout the mid-1980s. In 1992, Blandon was arrested on cocaine charges in San Diego, but got a short sentence after cutting a deal with the DEA to squeal on other California dealers. He was eventually paid over $166,000 in US tax-dollars for his services.

Rick "Freeway" Ross was Blandon’s main connection for neighborhood distribution. They both got fabulously rich. Blandon eventually set Rick up for a DEA sting. He currently resides in San Diego’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

Webb reported that Blandon met with FDN commander Enrique Bermudez in 1981 in Honduras, where the contras established their camps along the Nicaraguan border. "There is a saying that the ends justify the means," Blandon testified at a San Diego cocaine trial. "That’s what Mr. Bermudez told us in Honduras, OK? So we started raising money for the contra revolution." Webb also reported that Blandon and Meneses had met with FDN political boss Adolfo Calero. Blandon’s grand jury and trial testimony as well as affidavits for search warrants and Parole Department reports all indicated that his drug profits were going to contra coffers. In a 1986 affidavit, three confidential informants said that Blandon was still sending money to the contras.

The public response to the revelations was immediate and dramatic. In August 1996, Rep. Waters demanded a Justice Department investigation into the claims. In November, America witnessed the unlikely spectacle of CIA Director John Deutch addressing a public meeting in Watts to answer the Dark Alliance allegations.

The Empire Strikes Back

By then, the Big Three of the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times were all attacking the series, dismissing Webb’s claims as anecdotal and inflated, with headlines like "The CIA & Crack: Evidence Lacking of Alleged Plot" (Washington Post, Oct. 4, 1996). The San Jose Mercury News was on the defensive, with a newsroom war raging between those who saw Dark Alliance as Pulitzer material or a tawdry conspiracy theory.

The Mercury News finally capitulated under the pressure. Editor Joe Ceppos wrote a special column in May 1997 saying the Dark Alliance series "fell short of my standards" and "oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew." The paper never published Webb’s follow-up reports, which he had traveled to Nicaragua for.

If the series was problematic, so were the attacks on it. The New York Times’ wide-eyed reporting of Deutch’s contention that "the agency never had any relationship" with Blandon and Meneses prompted Norman Solomon of the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) to comment that the Times had not "included any suggestion that the CIA might be a dubious touchstone for veracity."

When the Washington Post objected to Webb’s use of the term "the CIA’s army" to "suggest that the agency was involved" in the contra-coke operations, Solomon responded that "referring to the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) as the CIA’s army is solid journalism, highlighting a relationship that is fundamentally relevant to the story. The army was formed at the instigation of the CIA, its leaders were selected and received salaries from the agency, and CIA officers controlled day-to-day battlefield strategies."

Then there was the question of the degree to which the Meneses-Blandon-Ross trio were responsible for saturating LA with crack. Was this an "oversimplification"? Two years before the Dark Alliance series, the very Los Angeles Times that would later belittle Freeway Rick’s role in the LA crack trade called him "the one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine."

There was the distinct whiff of panic in the high-handed dismissals of Dark Alliance by stodgy old respectable dailies. A more balanced assessment by Peter Kornbluh, himself a seasoned investigator of illegal contra operations, ran in the January 1997 Columbia Journalism Review.

Kornbluh called Webb out on sloppy reporting which gave ammo to his opponents. For instance, Webb quoted Blandon’s grand jury testimony that "When Mr. Reagan get in the power, we started receiving a lot of money" so "we started doing business by ourselves." If the Blandon-Meneses ring stopped supporting the contras in 1981, Kornbluh noted, the basic thrust of Dark Alliance—that contra coke fueled the 1980s crack explosion—was contradicted. However, neither Webb nor Kornbluh pointed out that with the 1983 Boland Amendment, Congress cut off contra funds—again necessitating an alliance with the drug lords to fund the FDN. Congressional funds would be revived sporadically later in the decade (with the editorial support of the Washington Post and New York Times).

Down the Orwellian Memory Hole

For those who cared to look, the cocaine-contra cat was out of the bag ten years earlier. AP’s Robert Parry reported in 1985 that contra groups "have engaged in cocaine trafficking to help finance their war against Nicaragua." The San Francisco Examiner ran a 1986 expose on Norwin Meneses’ links to the so-called "Frogman" cocaine ring broken up in a 1983 Bay Area federal sting. The Examiner reported the Frogman ring had been helping "to finance the contra rebels in Nicaragua." It even reported that the US government returned $36,020 seized as drug money in the Frogman case after "one of the defendants…submitted letters from Contra leaders claiming the funds were really their property."

The Senate Sub-Committee on Terrorism, Narcotics & International Operations—headed by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry—also explored contra-coke connections, and met with official roadblocking.

Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (later blocked from becoming President Clinton’s Mexico ambassador by Sen. Jesse Helms for being "soft on drugs") had been an assistant attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department, and was charged by researchers with blocking the Kerry investigation. Weld "fought not to give us access to basic documents and witnesses under government protection," testified Jack Blum before the Senate in October 1996. Blum, who was a Kerry Subcommittee investigator in 1986, said: "The Justice Department did everything possible to block our investigation. Prisoners were moved so that they couldn’t be located, Justice employees were instructed not to talk to us…"

When the 1,166-page Kerry Report was finally released in 1989, it was buried in the back pages of the national dailies. Nor would Kerry’s probe be invoked by either side in the 2004 presidential debates.

Also in 1989, White House operative Oliver North, National Security Advisor John Poindexter, US Ambassador Lewis Tambs and CIA station chief Joe Fernandez were officially barred from Costa Rican territory after that country’s National Assembly issued a report finding that the contra re-supply outfit they operated south of the Nicaraguan border had doubled as a cocaine ring. This also failed to make stateside headlines.

There had been whole books written on the contra-cocaine connection, the best of which was Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America by Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, published by the University of California in 1991. Five years before Dark Alliance, Scott and Marshall cited an FBI teletype from the Frogman case procured by the Kerry Subcommittee, stating that the source for the ring’s cocaine was the exiled Nicaraguan Sanchez brothers, then based in Costa Rica. One Sanchez brother not mentioned in the teletype was high-ranking FDN leader Aristide Sanchez.

Gary Webb hardly "uncovered" the contra-coke connection. All he did was uncover the LA connection—a significant contribution, no doubt. But far more contra coke probably came in through the contras’ stateside stronghold of Miami. Dark Alliance acknowledged that some of the California coke came in through Miami. Webb traced Freeway Rick’s expansion of the trade to Midwest cities like Cincinnati, but failed to discover the Miami bosses’ other distribution networks.

Descent of the Culture-Vultures

In November 1996, The Washington Post quoted Webb—who was then reported to be seeking a movie deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures—as saying he wanted to "explore a theory" that "the contra war was not a real war at all. It was a charade, a smoke screen…to provide cover for a massive drug operation." This was the line of genuinely irresponsible conspiracy-mongers like Rev. Louis Farrakhan, whose Final Call paper was playing the Dark Alliance revelations for all they were worth, portraying not even a money-making enterprise but a sinister plot to destroy Black America.

There were undoubtedly those who did just see the contra war as a vehicle for their cocaine operations—like Freeway Rick and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. But for the people who were really running the show—like Oliver North, the Reagan/Bush pointman on clandestine contra ops—the reverse was true, of course. Overthrowing the Nicaraguan revolution was the aim of the contra-cocaine operation; the Black folks of crack-plagued Watts were the collateral damage.

The fact that Webb was conniving with Disney/Farrakhan exploitation of the issue merely played into the hands of those who sought to dismiss his own legitimate investigative work. As Hakim Bey has lamented: "every revelation finds its sponsor, its CEO, its monthly slick, its clone Judases & replacement people."

The movie never got made. In 1999, Webb’s full investigation was published as a book entitled Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, by New York’s Seven Stories Press. It received favorable reviews. But by then, Webb had left the Mercury News, and his reputation had been tarnished by endless trumpeting the of the flaws in his courageous work.

Webb, who is survived by two sons and a daughter, was among the last of an ancient breed—a real, gum-shoeing investigative reporter, an idealistic muckraker who believed that nothing is more indicting than the facts. His personal and professional failings were of the kind that all we human animals are susceptible to, and were exploited cynically and mercilessly by the power structure. If his ethic of fighting journalism is allowed to die along with him, this world will indeed be a poorer place.


CIA Inspector General’s report overview

Tom Walsh statement from the Sacramento News & Review

Bill Weinberg on the Afghan “Dark Alliance”


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 17, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution