Author: Alexander Cockburn
Cockburn, Alexander (2010) and Jeffrey St. Clair. Whiteout : The CIA, Drugs, And The Press. Oakland, CO : AK Press
HV5825 .C59 1998
Date Updated: January 18, 2017
Reviewed by James Adams.
For Gary Webb, this should have been “the Big One,” the story that leads to the Pulitzer, fame and glory. In August 1996 he wrote a three-part series in The San Jose Mercury News, entitled “Dark Alliance,” on the origins of the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. The series implied that the Central Intelligence Agency encouraged the drug trafficking and knew that some of the profits were being funneled to the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
At first, the series—on which Webb, a highly regarded investigative reporter, had labored for months—appeared to be getting exactly the reception the Biggest Story You’d Ever Write deserved. Talk radio exaggerated its central thesis of American intelligence run amok, and African-American leaders called for an investigation into why the Government had orchestrated such an attack on blacks and then covered it up. The newspaper’s Web site received over a million hits in a single day. Webb’s executive editor wrote him a memo praising his work and gave him a $500 bonus.
Then it all began to go badly wrong. To hear Webb tell it, he became a victim of his own cowardly editors and an establishment conspiracy led by the mainstream press, who sided with the C.I.A. and ignored his compelling findings. The end result was a long apology by The Mercury News; the banishment of Webb to a minor bureau 150 miles from headquarters, where he covered the death of a police horse; and his eventual resignation from the newspaper. So much for the Big One.
Webb’s book, Dark Alliance, is his effort to tell his side of the story and set the record straight. The core of his argument is that two Los Angeles drug dealers, both Nicaraguans and contra partisans, began the crack cocaine epidemic that was eventually to engulf America. Webb’s key evidence for C.I.A. participation involves the two men, Juan Norwin Meneses Canterero and Oscar Danilo Blandon. Webb places considerable stock in their statements that they sent large sums of money back to the contras and that the C.I.A. knew of their drug-smuggling activities. But it is difficult to find a single source inside any branch of American intelligence that can support the charge of actual C.I.A. involvement in the smuggling.
On the contrary, much of the difficulty with this story is that all the other investigations carried out by newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have, to varying degrees, undermined the Webb thesis. For example, The Los Angeles Times asserted that far from being big-time supporters of the contras, Meneses and Blandon were such incompetent drug dealers that when the rebels needed cash they had none to give them. At most, the Los Angeles Times story said, the duo may have passed on around $50,000, neither a significant sum nor evidence of a huge conspiracy.
In the end, Webb himself appears confused about just how far he is prepared to push the C.I.A.’s involvement. “I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand C.I.A. conspiracy behind the crack plague,” he writes. “Indeed, the more I learned about the agency, the more certain of that I became. The C.I.A. couldn’t even mine a harbor without getting its trench coat stuck in its fly.” Yet the book has a foreword written by Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, one of the most vociferous of Webb’s supporters: “The time I spent investigating the allegations of the Dark Alliance series led me to the undeniable conclusion that the C.I.A., D.E.A., D.I.A. and F.B.I. knew about drug trafficking in South Central Los Angeles. They were either part of the trafficking or turned a blind eye to it, in an effort to fund the contra war. . . . This book is the final chapter on this sordid tale and brings to light one of the worst official abuses in our nation’s history.”
It is the Waters view that is going to become the accepted conspiracist perception of the Webb affair. It matters little that the C.I.A.’s own inspector general said he found no evidence to support allegations of agency involvement in or knowledge of the drug trafficking in the United States. It also matters little that reporters who specialize in writing about the intelligence community have found no clear evidence to support C.I.A. involvement.
Webb does receive considerable support from Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in Whiteout. Cockburn (the author of The Golden Age Is in Us, among other books, and the co-editor of Counterpunch, a newsletter) and St. Clair, a contributing editor to In These Times, believe that the Dark Alliance series provided just the latest illustration in a long list of C.I.A. involvement with drug trafficking. Much old ground is walked through South Asia, Afghanistan and Central America in an effort to prove a continuum. To those familiar with the C.I.A. and its murkier past, there is nothing new here and nothing about the Webb affair that isn’t covered in better detail by Webb himself.
What makes both of these books so unsatisfactory is their inability to reach inside the intelligence community to cross-check sources and allegations. It is not the covert warriors of yesteryear but the lawyers who control the Central Intelligence Agency today, and it is laughable to suggest that today’s C.I.A. has the imagination or the courage to manage a cover-up on the scale that these books suggest. Neither gives us an explanation of how such a huge cover-up might have worked, who the puppeteers are behind it and just why career civil servants should risk jail over such an issue.
Webb has said that the C.I.A. didn’t return his calls; Cockburn and St. Clair give no indication in their book that they even tried such a conventional approach. For investigative reporters determined to uncover the truth, procedures like these are unacceptable. Neither the editors of The San Jose Mercury News nor the publishers of these books should have allowed their writers to take such relaxed approaches to a serious subject.
This book is also part of a review of the book Dark Alliance (1998, 2014)
 James Adams, “Moonlighting?” The New York Times (September 27, 1998).
 Webb, Gary (1998, 2014). Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, And The Crack Cocaine Explosion. New York: Seven Stories Press