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Sam Smith: The Gary Webb Case


By Editor Sam Smith

The death of investigative reporter Gary Webb has brought an unusually strong reaction from readers, some of whom feel he was assassinated and many more of whom feel he was rottenly treated by his media colleagues for his expose of CIA - drug trade connections. Here's how we are approaching the story:

THE FACTS - We try to report anomalies without going beyond the evidence. For example, in the death of Vincent Foster we have extremely good reason to believe that he did not die at Ft. Marcey Park, but we do not have enough evidence to say whether he was murdered or committed suicide in an inconvenient location - and - if the former - why. We know that official statements on the matter were untrue and that there was intimidation of witnesses and a substantial cover-up involving the White House and law enforcement officials. In other words, more than enough to reopen the case but not enough to conclude it.

In the Gary Webb case, we have a number of weaker anomalies at this point, such as the oddity that, if a suicide, it occurred on the day before Webb had planned to move and that he left a note on the door, telling the movers not to enter but to call 911. Why not call and cancel the move? It brings to mind the suspicious suicide of Kathy Ferguson, one of the figures in the Arkansas scandals. Ferguson purportedly left a suicide note, but she also died next to two packed bags as though she was about to get away.

Then we have the media reports that he died from "gunshot wounds." People who shoot themselves usually only have time for one wound.

One clue still to come: did Webb leave his files with anyone he trusted or have they disappeared? It would have been highly unusual if he had left them for law enforcement officials to find, especially with the threat they might pose to sources. In any case, somebody's got them now.

On the other hand, the public often underestimates the psychological pressures of speaking truth to power or being a whistleblower, a topic I discussed in "Why Bother:"

"Whistleblowers, in the course of doing their jobs, typically stumble upon facts that point to danger, neglect, waste, or corruption. Far too often this discovery is met not with approbation and as a sign of exemplary public service, but rather as a threat to the agency or company. Among the consequences: firing, reassignment, isolation, forced resignation, threats, referral to psychiatric treatment, public exposure of private life and other humiliations, being set up for failure, prosecution, elimination of one’s job, blacklisting, or even death. .

"One such whistleblower, Pentagon official Peter Leitner, had his performance rating lowered, was kept out of meetings, harassed over sick leave, given a trumped-up letter of reprimand, accused of security violations, and threatened with charges of insubordination. Jennifer Long, an IRS auditor, had a similar experience. She told the New York Times: 'They accused me of coming in late when I was at my desk an hour early every day. They instructed me to do something and then wrote me up for doing it. They wouldn't let me talk to anyone, they wouldn't even let me get out of my chair. I wasn't allowed to call my attorney. This went on for two years. They nearly killed me with the way they harassed me. But I knew that they would wear out before I did . . . '

"From the doctor in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People to Karen Silkwood, the nuclear industry worker killed after her car was forced off the road on her way to talk to a reporter, speaking truth to power has proved costly. The Mongolians say that when you do it, you should keep one foot in the stirrup.

"Whistleblowers fall easily into traps that can hurt if not destroy them. They may become monomaniacal, paranoiac, depressed, confused, and terribly lonely. . . Tom Devine, who works for the Government Accountability Project, has been helping whistleblowers for years. Part lawyer, part therapist, Devine presses his cases forward even as he tends to the personal stress of his clients. He has written a 175-page handbook, The Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, to help government and corporate employees do what should be routine: tell the truth. At times he sounds more like a social worker than an attorney: 'To transcend the stress, it helps to be fully aware of and accept what you are getting into. . . The constant, negative pressure whistleblowers face can color your judgment and make you paranoid about every event. Paranoia works in the bureaucracy’s favor if it wants to paint you as an unreasonable, even unstable, person whose charges should not be taken seriously. . . It is better to stay calm - and even to laugh - than it is to seethe with anger. . . It can be liberating to know that you have assumed responsibility for making your own decisions based on your values. . . Along with the pain and fear, there is real satisfaction inherent in taking control of your life. . . Do not surrender to the temptation to become an obsessive ‘true believer’ in the importance of your whistleblowing cause. '

"Devine also warns his readers to expect retaliation and surveillance. One study found that 232 out of 233 whistleblowers reported suffering retaliation; others found reprisals in about 95% of cases."

Reporters who lack or lose the support of their bosses can end up much like government whistleblowers and it's not a happy role. One of the first notes I got after Webb's death came from ex-LA narcotics detective Michael Ruppert, another whistleblower. I was struck by how personally Ruppert had taken it and wrote back, "I've known others who cared too much and took the route Gary Webb appears to have taken. The trick, Colman McCarthy said, is even if you can't change the world is not to let the world change you. We are here to witness what we believe is right; what history does with our puny efforts is its business."

"I like how the anthropologist Ernest Becker put it: "The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped by more 'knowing,' but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes."

THE CONTEXT - It was, I believe, during Edwin Meese's nomination hearings that I first noticed that Washington news coverage had dramatically changed from a skeptical attitude towards politicians to a courtroom standard: politicians were innocent until proved guilty. This shift was one of the greatest gifts the media ever gave to the cruel, corrupt and contemptible.

Imagine if one chose a spouse, an employee, or a friend by such standards, wiping away all judgment save for guilt provable in a court of law. Yet that is precisely what the media has taught us. It even almost got Bernie Kerik in as homeland security czar despite the best efforts of the far more traditional New York City press to tell us who this guy really was. Washington - its media and its other elite - simply didn't believe it until the nanny problem - a clear and provable matter, albeit inconsequential one compared, say, to wondering what Kerik's ties to the mob were.

This recent obsession with courtroom standards for story-telling - unprecedented in journalistic or even human history - makes some curious assumptions. Firstly, one need not follow any such standard in positive stories about politicians or their actions. The mere fact that they are in power is all the proof you need that they are doing right. The only people who need to prove anything are their critics.

Secondly, it assumes, that events are connected to each other in clear organizational lines with identifiable individuals at each stop. It is, to borrow a phrase, a sort of conspiracy theory: nothing happens without someone telling it to.

If those in the Washington media had majored in environmental sciences or anthropology, rather than in political science or great-man-history, they would understand that life isn't' really like that at all. They would know that we are all part of cultures and environments and much of what we do reflects these without anyone ordering us to do anything. We just do things the way we know they're done. Including in Washington. In the media. In the CIA.

As Gary Webb himself said in 1999, "I do not believe -- and I have never believed -- that the crack cocaine explosion was a conscious CIA conspiracy, or anybody's conspiracy, to decimate black America. I've never believed that South Central Los Angeles was targeted by the U.S. government to become the crack capitol of the world. But that isn't to say that the CIA's hands or the U.S. government's hands are clean in this matter. Actually, far from it. After spending three years of my life looking into this, I am more convinced than ever that the U.S. government's responsibility for the drug problems in South Central Los Angeles and other inner cities is greater than I ever wrote in the newspaper. But it's important to differentiate between malign intent and gross negligence. And that's an important distinction, because it's what makes premeditated murder different from manslaughter. That said, it doesn't change the fact that you've got a body on the floor."

The story was not a new one. Going back to the end of World War II, the CIA started making deals with the devil, unconcerned by the consequences. It worked with the Mafia - including studied indifference to its drug trade - because the mob was anti-communist. Long before Gary Webb's series it encouraged the importation of heroin into the U.S. by supporting drug-growing allies in Cambodia and later in Afghanistan. The history of the CIA is in no small part the history of behavior that, in normal life, would be considered at best criminal negligence. And it is a story in which the major media has shown little interest.

We wrote at the time of the Webb series: "The Washington Post and New York Times have engaged in unusually intense spin work on the CIA-Contra story. The Times even printed an op-ed piece by ex-CIA chief John Deutch in which he made the fatuous claim that 'I know of no evidence that the CIA has ever directed or knowingly condoned drug smuggling into the United States.' The papers have used complaints about details of the San Jose Mercury News series to obscure the central point made by MN editor Jerry Ceppos months before his recent mea culpa that has the Langley lackeys licking their chops. Ceppos noted that the claim that "people associated with the CIA also sold many tons of cocaine has not been challenged." The CIA has a long history of outsourcing its dirty work to drug runners and other criminals. There is strong corroborating evidence such as that from Oliver North's diaries and Senate hearings that CIA-friendly dailies like to pretend doesn't exit. While the MN pieces may have been somewhat jingoistic in giving California all the credit for the crack epidemic, the Mercury News was far closer to the truth than the Post and the Times."

Even if Webb overstated his case, he told the story far better than either the Post or the Times have to this day. It is bad enough for them to have misled their readers so badly, to disparage another journalist for trying to get the story right is despicable. - Sam Smith



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