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Gary Webb, 1955 - 2004



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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.


The Pariah

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.

As his words hang in the air, I remember a convict who says he once worked with the United States government and who also tasted Big Boy rules. This man has not gone fishing.

This convict insisted that I hold the map up to the thick prison glass as he jabbed his finger into the mountains. There, he said, that's the place, and his eyes gleamed as his words accelerated. There, in the mountains, they have a colony of two thousand Colombians out of MedellĂ­n, guarded by the Mexican army. I craned my neck to see where his finger was rubbing against the map and made an x with my pen. That's when the guard burst into the convict's small cubicle and ordered him to sit down.

The convict is a man of little credibility in the greater world. He is a Mexican national, highly intelligent and exact in his speech. He is a man electric with the memory of his days working as a DEA informant in Mexico, huddling in his little apartment with his clandestine radio. He said I must check his DEA file; he gave the names of his case officers; he noted that he delivered to them the exact locations of thirteen airfields operated jointly by the drug cartels and the CIA. The man's eyes bugged out as his excitement shredded the tedium of doing time and he returned to his former life of secret transmissions, cutouts, drinks with pilots ferrying dope, bullshitting his way through army checkpoints.

He said, "I'll be out in six months or one year, depending on the hearing. We can go. I'll take you up there."

I have always steered clear of the secret world, because it is very hard to penetrate, and because if you discover anything about it, you are not believed. And because I remember what happened to one reporter who wrote about that work, about the Big Dog getting off the porch, about the Big Boy rules. So I thought about the convict's information and did nothing with it.


Gary Webb in 1998.

 

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