David Corn graduated from Brown University. As a journalist who has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, The New Republic, Village Voice, Mother Jones and the Washington Monthly.
Other books by Corn include The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (2003) and Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War (2007)
Corn is currently the chief of the Washington bureau for Mother Jones.
Shackley kept a tight rein on the PM squad. He demanded to be informed of all the details of a mission. He ordered the station's cowboys to submit detailed operational plans. Case officers dreaded the time when they had to brief Shackley on a proposed action. Rocky Farnsworth, chief of covert operations, resented the intrusions of Shackley, who had no experience in this field. After a short time of wrangling with Shackley over specifics of various missions, Farnsworth dropped an ultimatum: if you don't quit interfering, I'm out of here. Shackley responded, you're out now. He replaced Farnsworth with Dave Morales, a large, mean-talking veteran of the CIA's coup in Guatemala. Morales was devoutly loyal to Shackley. "He would do anything, even work with the Mafia," Tom Clines recalled. Morales hated communists, and years later bragged to an Agency colleague how he had once in South America parachuted out of an airplane with men he suspected of being communists. Before they all leaped, the story went, Morales sabotaged the parachute packs of the Reds. He had the pleasure of waving good-bye to them, as they plummeted to death.
A nearly impossible job for Shackley was counterintelligence (CI). There were hundreds of Castro agents milling about Miami. "The exile community was penetrated to the fullest degree," said Al Tarabochia, an officer in the Dade County sheriffs intelligence unit. Shackley was desperate to improve CI. He introduced tougher psychological and polygraph tests for potential agents. He demanded that the reports of agents be double-checked. If an agent said he visited a certain town during an infiltration, Shackley wanted someone to be able to tell him that the agent showed up there. No longer were weapons and supplies personally delivered to a resistance group on the island. If JMWAVE had to ferry arms to Cuba, one of Grayston Lynch's team went in, cached the munitions and left. Then the station notified the recipients where they could find the materiel. This lessened the threat of ambush. Shackley ordered station case officers not to use assets affiliated with the exile groups. As much as possible, he wanted unilateral agents, people who answered only to the Agency. Despite all these efforts, Havana remained well aware of JMWAVE and its activities. "Always be forward-leaning" - that was a Shackley pet phrase.
In the 1980s, the CIA-backed contra rebels in Central America hobnobbed with drug-dealers, and the Agency and the Reagan administration, obsessed with ousting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, looked the other way. This is absolutely undeniable. In this past March, Frederick Hitz, then the inspector general of the CIA, testified publicly to Congress that the CIA did not "cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who (were) alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking." Yet his startling admission received practically no notice from official Washington and the national media, which instead were consumed with details (real and imagined) of L'Affaire Monica.
But when the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 ran a three-part series exposing links between contra associates and the Los Angeles crack trade in the 1980s, the major media did pay attention; they assaulted the articles written by reporter Gary Webb. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times each ran pieces critical of Webb's work. The Webb stories were hard to ignore, for they had ignited a firestorm. On black talk radio, hosts and callers decried a supposed conspiracy in which the CIA midwifed the birth of the crack industry. On Capital Hill, members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for investigation. The Mercury News web site, on which the series had been posted, received millions of hits. Webb had begat a national media event.
It had all begun in the summer of 1995, when Webb received a tip from the girlfriend of a drug dealer. Her honey was being tried, and a chief government witness against him was Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan who managed his own cocaine ring in California. In court proceedings, Blandon had claimed he had gotten into the coke business to raise money for the contras. Webb started investigating. He soon had evidence that Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses - a prominent contra supporter in California with an extensive criminal past in Nicaragua - had supplied cocaine to "Freeway" Ricky Ross, a pioneering crack kingpin.
The lead paragraph in the Webb series was a shocker: A Bay Area drug ring had "funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency." Webb noted that the contras were in league with "Uzi-toting 'gangstas' of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles" and that the drug dealers "met with CIA agents" while raising money for the contras via drug sales. The articles implied that Blandon was directly wired to the CIA and that Blandon and Meneses had been protected from prosecution because of their usefulness to the CIA.
Webb had a helluva story. But he botched parts of it. He produced little evidence that the Blandon-Meneses ring raised "millions" for the contras or that Blandon was linked to Langley. Consequently, newspapers that had neglected the contra-drug story in the 1980s now devoted much space to debunking Webb. Eventually, the editor of the Mercury News ran a column widely seen as a retraction, and Webb left the paper.
But Webb had committed a highly useful act. He had kicked open an old trunk and discovered it full of worms - real worms, ugly and nasty. He kept on investigating and produced a book that reflects the positives and negatives of the original series. In Dark Alliance, he fleshes out the drug operations of Blandon and Meneses, and he provides more evidence of their close association to the contras. (Meneses, for example, paid for early contra support events in California.) Webb also places this ring alongside other well-substantiated examples of contra-drug connections: a Honduran general convicted of selling cocaine to finance a murder plot who was supported by Oliver North and other Reagan officials; drug dealers winning U.S. government contracts to supply the contras; the National Security Council plotting with Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up strongman of Panama; the CIA interfering with a major drug prosecution that could reveal contra drug-dealing and embarrass the agency.
Webb reminds us that the Reagan-approved contra program attracted lowlifes and thugs the way manure draws flies. He guides the reader through a netherworld of dope-dealers, gunrunners, and freelance security consultants, which on occasion overlapped with the U.S. government. He entertainingly details the honor, dishonor and deals among thieves. (Sometimes the book reads like a hard-to-follow Russian novel, with a large cast of characters in a series of intricate episodes.) All in all, it's a disgraceful picture - one that should permanently taint the happy-face hues of the Reagan years.
Again Webb has trouble chasing the money and fails to thoroughly document how much dirty cash Blandon and Meneses steered to the contras. Was it as little as $80,000 or so, as CIA investigators claim Blandon told them? Or was it millions that were instrumental to the survival of the contras, as Webb implies but does not prove? Was Blandon's drug business originally set up as a cash-for-contras enterprise, as Webb depicts it? That's what Blandon has asserted. But there is evidence, as Webb notes, that Blandon may have been a drug entrepreneur years before he hooked up with Meneses. If so, that would cast doubt on his I-did-it-for-the-contras tale and make that claim sound more like an after-the-fact justification.
There are other problems with Webb's account. His threshold of proof is on the low side. In one instance, he passes on - seemingly with a straight face - the allegations of a drug dealer who claimed Vice President George Bush met with (and posed for a photo with) Colombian dealers to craft an agreement under which the traffickers could smuggle coke into America if they supplied weapons to the contras. And Webb is indiscriminating in his use of the term "CIA agent," making it appear as if Blandon and Meneses were dealing with James Bond-like officials of the CIA, when actually their contacts were Nicaraguan contras on the Agency payroll.
This may seem like hairsplitting. But it's important when evaluating the CIA's culpability. Webb demonstrates that the Agency collaborated with contras and contra supporters suspected of smuggling narcotics. But were Blandon and Meneses in cahoots with the Agency? The evidence only shows they were part of a dark community with which the CIA was merrily doing business. Another fuzzy point in the story is how Blandon and Meneses both ended up on the government payroll as snitches. Webb strongly hints this was due to their contra work.
But, again, the picture is too murky to come to any firm conclusions other than there was something funny about the government's relationship to this pair.
The book has flaws, but Webb deserves credit for pursuing an important piece of recent history and forcing the CIA and the Justice Department to investigate the contra-drug connection. Alas, the Justice Department has been sitting on its report for months. The CIA released one volume that maintained the Agency was not connected to Blandon and Meneses. But the report confirmed there had been a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the contras and that the CIA had ignored that. A second volume - one with a broader view of the contra-drug mess - is now being suppressed by the Agency.
With this book, Webb advances his newspaper series and supplies more muck to make a decent citizen cringe. While exploring this covert territory, Webb took a few wrong turns. But he succeeded in pushing a sleazy piece of the CIA's past into public light. The gang at Langley is still resisting coming clean, and these unholy alliances remain in the dark.
He was the journalist who wrote a famous - or infamous - 1996 series for the San Jose Mercury News that maintained a CIA-supported drug ring based in Los Angeles had triggered the crack epidemic of the 1980s. On Friday, the 49-year-old Webb, who won a Pulitzer Prize for other work, apparently shot himself. His "Dark Alliances" articles spurred outrage and controversy. Leaders of the African-American community demanded investigations. Mainstream newspapers - including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times - questioned his findings. And nearly a year after the pieces appeared, the Mercury News published a criticism of the series; Webb was demoted and soon left the newspaper. Two years later, he published a book based on the series.
Webb's tale is a sad one. He was on to something but botched part of how he handled it. He then was blasted and ostracized. He was wrong on some important details but he was, in a way, closer to the truth than many of his establishment media critics who neglected the story of the real CIA-contra-cocaine connection. In 1998, a CIA inspector general's report acknowledged that the CIA had indeed worked with suspected drugrunners while supporting the contras. A Senator named John Kerry had investigated these links years earlier, and the media had mostly ignored his findings. After Webb published his articles, the media spent more time crushing Webb than pursuing the full story. It is only because of Webb's work - as flawed as it was - that the CIA IG inquiry happened. So, then, it is only because of Webb that US citizens have confirmation from the CIA that it partnered up with suspected drug traffickers in the just-say-no years and that the Reagan Administration, consumed with a desire to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, allied itself with drug thugs.
As the news of Webb's death circulated across the Internet, some of his fans took the opportunity to demand that I issue a posthumous apology to him. Why? Because I had been critical of his series and book. But my criticism was different from that of the mainstream press. I maintained he had overstated the case and had not proven his more cinematic allegations. But I also credited him for forcing the issue and prodding the CIA to come clean. No one at the Times (New York or Los Angeles) or the Post managed to do that. And though there were problems with Webb's work, it is a pity that he was so brutally hounded.
His death is a dark end to a dark story.