December 17. 2004
Investigative journalist Gary Webb was a friend of ours. And he was a damn fine reporter and writer. Gary was all you could ask for in a journalist: tough, unafraid, and honest as the day is long. He lived his life to be a check on the powerful, like any good investigative journalist worth his salt. Well, in 1996 he wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury-News on the CIA and that agency's complicity in the cocaine trade in southern California in the 1980s. It wasn't flawless journalism, but it told a very important story, and in fact it prompted an investigation by the CIA's inspector general which subsequently confirmed the pillars of Webb's findings. But the funny thing is that Webb was driven from journalism because of that series. Rather than extending Webb's story by doing their own reporting, major newspapers instead turned on him and were more determined, it seemed, to attempt to undermine and discredit Webb's reporting. Indeed, the ombudsman for The Washington Post at the time, Geneva Overholser, wrote that her own paper and other major media had "shown more passion for sniffing out the flaws in the Mercury News's answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves." In so doing, these newspapers relied on many official sources, which is odd considering the subject of Webb's stories. One can only guess as to their motivations.
In any event, Webb was abandoned by his own paper and could not find work in journalism after that. In September 1998, this magazine published the story of what happened to Gary Webb. Written by Charles Bowden and entitled "The Pariah," it is posted below. Esquire is also very proud to have published Webb's return to investigative journalism, a definitive and exclusive piece on a DEA-run program called "Operation Pipeline" which was a program of official racial profiling, and which involved law enforcement all over the country. Webb's piece, entitled "Driving While Black," was followed a year later by a New York Times story on Operation Pipeline in which the Times took credit for the scoop and did not mention that it was Gary Webb who had first broken the story.
Last week, Gary Webb took his own life. Words cannot express our sympathy to his family and to everyone who loved him. And words cannot express our sadness at the terrible loss, to journalism and to the world.
Two weeks after Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" series appeared in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1996, contributing editor Charles Bowden found himself in a bar, having a few drinks with some narcs (his idea of a good night). "For some reason, Webb's piece came up, and I asked the guys, 'So, what do you think? Is what Webb wrote about the CIA true?'" recalls Bowden, the author of fifteen books, including Blood Orchid and Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future. "And they all turned to me and said, "Of course it is.' That's when I knew that somebody
would have to do this story, and I figured it might as well be me." "The Pariah," Bowden's story on Webb -- a man he describes as "real smart, real straight, lives on a cul-de-sac, family man, all that crap" -- begins on page 150.
Editor's letter [excerpt]:
....The world Charles Bowden leads us into in his story, "The Pariah" (page 150), is, on the other hand, a place few would willingly visit. Reporter Gary Webb chose to enter the alternate universe where the CIA sponsors armies and sometimes finds itself allied with drug dealers who sell their wares in the United States. Webb wrote a newspaper series that documented how the Nicaraguan contras of the 1980s were in part financed by just such an arrangement -- and he was then professionally destroyed for it. Bowden, in the course of reporting this story over the last six months, found considerable evidence that parallels and supports Webb's articles -- including revelations from one of the DEA's most decorated agents, who speaks for the first time about the CIA's complicity in the drug trade. It was not, however, the agency's ties to drug traffickers that Bowden found most disturbing. It was that a man can lose his livelihood, his calling, his reputation, for telling the truth....
Editor, Esquire Magazine
Two years ago, Gary Webb wrote a series of articles that said some bad things about the CIA. The CIA denied the charges, and every major paper in the country took the agency's word for it. Gary was ruined. Which is a shame, because he was right.
By Charles Bowden
HE TELLS ME I'VE GOT TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT WHEN THE BIG DOG GETS OFF THE PORCH, and I'm getting confused here. He is talking to me from a fishing camp up near the Canadian border, and as he tries to talk me about the Big Dog, I can only imagine a wall of green and deep blue lakes with northern pike. But he is very patient with me. Mike Holm did his hard stints in the Middle East, the Miami station, and Los Angeles, all for the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, and he is determined that I face the reality he knows. So he starts again. He repeats, "When the Big Dog gets off the porch, watch out." And by the Big Dog, he means the full might of the United States government. At that moment, he continues, you play by Big Boy rules, and that means, he explains, that there are no rules but to complete the mission. We've gotten, into all this schooling because I asked him about reports that he received when he was stationed in Miami that Southern Air Transport, a CIA-contracted airline, was landing planeloads of cocaine at Homestead Air Force Base nearby. Back in the eighties, Holm's informants kept telling him about these flights, and then he was told by his superiors to "stand down because of national security." And so he did. He is an honorable man who believes in his government, and he didn't ask why the flights were taking place; he simply obeyed. Because he has seen the Big Dog get off the porch, and he has tasted Big Boy rules. Besides, he tells me, these things are done right, and if you look into the matter, you'll find contract employees or guys associated with the CIA, but you won't find a CIA case officer on a loading dock tossing kilos of coke around. Any more than Mike Holm ever saw a plane loaded top to bottom with kilos of coke. He didn't have to. He believed his informants'. And he believed in the skill and power of the CIA. And he believed in the sheer might and will of the Big Dog when he finally decides to get off the porch.
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