Title: Kill the Messenger (Movie)
Author: Michael Cuesta
Kill the Messenger, directed by Michael Cuesta.
Date Posted: January 18, 2017
Kill the Messenger (Old Wine in a New Bottle). Directed by Michael Cuesta, screenplay by Peter Landesman from Dark Alliance by Gary Webb and Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou; Studio – Bluegrass Films, The Combine; released 2014.
Review by John Kavanagh and James Burridge
“There’s truth that lives
And truth that dies
I don’t know which
—Leonard Cohen, “Nevermind”
Although some movies are produced and released to take advantage of public interest in recent real-world events (Zero Dark Thirty is a good example), most are subject to the vagaries of financing, cast availability, and intellectual property issues, and this one is in that category. The events it describes took place more than twenty-five years ago, and the film contains no significant new allegations or evidence. This poses the obvious question of why bother reviewing it, particularly because it was a commercial failure and just went to the cable channels. As the timeline below shows, the media shelf life of this matter was about two years—August 1996 to November 1998. The Schou book fared little better than the movie.
* August 1996—“Dark Alliance” series appears in the San Jose Mercury News
* September 1996—DCI Deutch testimony before the SSCI
* October 1996—IG Hitz testimony before the SSCI
* November 1996—DCI Deutch appears at Watts town meeting
* December 1997—Classified IG report is published
* January 1998—Unclassified IG report is published
* November 1998—Webb’s book Dark Alliance is published2
* September 2006—Schou’s book Kill the Messenger is published’
* November 2014—Movie released
This is ancient history for much of the Intelligence Community workforce, a large percentage of which came on board after 2006. The film describes itself as “based on” real events, a distinction that frees the filmmakers to present a story even more unbalanced than the original newspaper series. The combination of this fictional adaptation and real video footage of DCI Deutch, former DO senior official Dewey Clarridge, then-Senator John Kerry (D-MA), and Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) gives the film a deceptive air of veracity.
The film quickly establishes its dramatic plot line. Gary Webb is an obscure reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, working on a story about forfeiture actions against LA drug dealers.
Following a series of loosely related clues, he travels to Nicaragua to interview a jailed cartel figure, who sends him to an LA dealer in federal prison. He reaches an explosive conclusion: the CIA is deeply in league with cocaine dealers and is using drug profits to support the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb is placed under surveillance by mysterious government officials and implicitly threatened, along with his family. His home is ransacked by unidentified men without warrants.
He persists, however, and the series is an overnight sensation, resulting in Congressional outrage and instant fame for Webb as the next Bob Woodward. Intense public interest and increasingly volatile rhetoric lead to a bottom line not even found in the Mercury News series: that CIA’s partnership with drug criminals had directly led to the disastrous crack cocaine epidemic ravaging LA’s African-American neighborhoods. The ideal scapegoat has been found.
From here on, it is downhill for the story, and for Webb. In October 1996, the established media take Webb and the series to task, questioning his methods and his sources, and eventually the paper retracts the series and buries Webb in a regional bureau. In the film, the New York Times and The Washington Post are portrayed as such lapdogs of the CIA that they attack the series without even being asked.
The rest of the movie poses as a morality play, with Webb as the crusading seeker of truth brought down by the dark machinations of the CIA, the FBI, and their media allies—in short, the Establishment. In December 2004, Webb—who had not been able to work in journalism since resigning from the Mercury News in November 1997—killed himself. The closing on-screen epigraph quotes the 1998 Inspector General report out of context and implies that DCI Deutch’s December 1996 resignation was the result of Webb’s revelations. The closing credits are interspersed with real video footage of Webb and his children.
The film leaves the overall impression that Webb was the victim of a broad (albeit loosely organized) conspiracy to refute the conclusions of the series. In fact, the “conspiracy” was more organized than the screenwriters imagined, in contrast to the film’s depiction of the Post and the Times reflexively springing to CIA’s defense without even being prompted.
Movie critic Glenn Kenney wrote that the mainstream media is depicted as “so entrenched in the establishment that it didn’t have to be coerced into serving the interests of the powerful.” In fact, CIA’s Public Affairs Office implemented a formal outreach to make journalists aware of the facts, and the resulting package was given to every journalist who contacted CIA about the series. Former Agency officials were also provided with talking points in the event they were asked to comment.
The film got mixed reviews, closed quickly, and took in about $13 million, less than the production cost. To repeat the question above, why draw attention to a something better left ignored? Someone who entered the IC at the age of 25 in 2015 would have been six years old when the series ran in 1996. There is a vague awareness on the part of many younger IC personnel that bad things were done in the distant past, but the facts and the chronology are not at all clear. For some, the myth that “the CIA helped sell cocaine in American cities to finance the Contras” is as plausible as the Church Committee revelations, the “Family Jewels,” and Iran-Contra.
This movie will be out there on many cable channels for a long, long time, and the story simply isn’t true. Now, a year after theatrical release and on the occasion of its appearance on cable, it needs to be refuted again. It is not the authors’ intent to make the case against the allegations in this brief review; that argument can be found in the coverage of the New York Times and The Washington Post at the time, as well as in professional critiques such as Susan Revah’s 1996 article in The American journalism Review. We hope this brief review will induce Intelligencer readers to go back to those critiques.
 Webb, Gary (1998, 2014). Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, And The Crack Cocaine Explosion. New York: Seven Stories Press
 Schou, Nick (2006). Kill The Messenger: How The CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. New York: Nation Books
 John Kavanagh and James Burridge in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp.129-131 ). John Kavanagh is a retired CIA officer. He currently is a consultant to the intelligence community. James Burridge managed the Intelligence Community’s support to multinational organizations from 1998 until his retirement in 2007. He has also served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department. He now works as an independent contractor at CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence. Jointly and individually they have written ten articles for Studies in Intelligence.
 Cohen, Leonard, “Nevermind” [Recorded by Leonard Cohen] on Popular Problems [CD] Released 2014 by Colombia Records
 Nicholas Dujmovic, “CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story,” in FOIA Collection of Declassified Articles from Studies in Intelligence, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/0001372115
 Susan Revah, “A Furor Over the CIA and Drugs,” American Journalism Review, November 1996. The archives list this article as written bgy Kelly Heyboer, a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.See also “Managing a Nighjtmare: CIA Public Affairs and t he Drug Conspiracy Story,” located at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0ahUKEwjxlsrknczRAhUQ5mMKHYOdDI0QFggcMAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cia.gov%2Flibrary%2Freadingroom%2Fdocs%2FDOC_0001372115.pdf&usg=AFQjCNHrA1hpCGzj6JJiyhy6MRC1m-coBA&cad=rja. Approved for Release 2014/07/29 CO1372115