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How the “Piranha Press” Collaborated with the CIA to Discredit Gary Webb

Alex Constantine - March 14, 2024

Excerpts from "Managing a Nightmare: How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb," by Ryan Devereaux
The Intercept, September 25 2014

Eighteen years after it was published, “Dark Alliance,” the San Jose Mercury News’s bombshell investigation into links between the cocaine trade, Nicaragua’s Contra rebels, and African American neighborhoods in California, remains one of the most explosive and controversial exposés in American journalism.

The 20,000-word series enraged black communities, prompted Congressional hearings, and became one of the first major national security stories in history to blow up online. It also sparked an aggressive backlash from the nation’s most powerful media outlets, which devoted considerable resources to discredit author Gary Webb’s reporting. Their efforts succeeded, costing Webb his career. On December 10, 2004, the journalist was found dead in his apartment, having ended his eight-year downfall with two .38-caliber bullets to the head. ...

On September 18, the agency released a trove of documents spanning three decades of secret government operations. Culled from the agency’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, the materials include a previously unreleased six-page article titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story.” Looking back on the weeks immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the document offers a unique window into the CIA’s internal reaction to what it called “a genuine public relations crisis” while revealing just how little the agency ultimately had to do to swiftly extinguish the public outcry. Thanks in part to what author Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer at the time of publication, describes as “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists,” the CIA’s Public Affairs officers watched with relief as the largest newspapers in the country rescued the agency from disaster, and, in the process, destroyed the reputation of an aggressive, award-winning reporter.

(Dujmovic’s name was redacted in the released version of the CIA document, but was included in a footnote in a 2010 article in the Journal of Intelligence. Dujmovic confirmed his authorship to The Intercept.) ...

Though “Dark Alliance” would eventually morph into a personal crisis for Webb, it was initially a PR disaster for the CIA. In “Managing a Nightmare,” Dujmovic minced no words in describing the potentially devastating  effect of the series on the agency’s image:

The charges could hardly be worse. A widely read newspaper series leads many Americans to believe CIA is guilty of at least complicity, if not conspiracy, in the outbreak of crack cocaine in America’s cities. In more extreme versions of the story circulating on talk radio and the internet, the Agency was the instrument of a consistent strategy by the US Government to destroy the black community and keep black Americans from advancing. Denunciations of CIA–reminiscent of the 1970s–abound. Investigations are demanded and initiated. The Congress gets involved. ...

Newspapers like the Times and the Post seemed to spend far more time trying to poke holes in the series than in following up on the underreported scandal at its heart, the involvement of U.S.-backed proxy forces in international drug trafficking. The Los Angeles Times was especially aggressive. Scooped in its own backyard, the California paper assigned no fewer than 17 reporters to pick apart Webb’s reporting. While employees denied an outright effort to attack the Mercury News, one of the 17 referred to it as the “get Gary Webb team.” Another said at the time, “We’re going to take away that guy’s Pulitzer,” according to Kornbluh’s CJR piece. Within two months of the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the L.A. Times devoted more words to dismantling its competitor’s breakout hit than comprised the series itself.

The CIA watched these developments closely, collaborating where it could with outlets who wanted to challenge Webb’s reporting. Media inquiries had started almost immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” and Dujmovic in “Managing a Nightmare” cites the CIA’s success in discouraging “one major news affiliate” from covering the story. He also boasts that the agency effectively departed from its own longstanding policies in order to discredit the series. “For example, in order to help a journalist working on a story that would undermine the Mercury News allegations, Public Affairs was able to deny any affiliation of a particular individual — which is a rare exception to the general policy that CIA does not comment on any individual’s alleged CIA ties.”

The document chronicles the shift in public opinion as it moved in favor of the CIA, a trend that began about a month and a half after the series was published. “That third week in September was a turning point in media coverage of this story,” Dujmovic wrote, citing “[r]espected columnists, including prominent blacks,” along with the New York Daily News, the Baltimore SunThe Weekly Standard and the Washington Post. The agency supplied the press, “as well as former Agency officials, who were themselves representing the Agency in interviews with the media,” with “these more balanced stories,” Dujmovic wrote. The Washington Post proved particularly useful. “Because of the Post‘s national reputation, its articles especially were picked up by other papers, helping to create what the Associated Press called a ‘firestorm of reaction’ against the San Jose Mercury News.” Over the month that followed, critical media coverage of the series (“balanced reporting”) far outnumbered supportive stories, a trend the CIA credited to the PostThe New York Times, “and especially the Los Angeles Times.” Webb’s editors began to distance themselves from their reporter.

By the end of October, two months after “Dark Alliance” was published, “the tone of the entire CIA-drug story had changed,” Dujmovic was pleased to report. “Most press coverage included, as a routine matter, the now-widespread criticism of the Mercury News allegations.”

“This success has to be in relative terms,” Dujmovic wrote, summing up the episode. “In the world of public relations, as in war, avoiding a rout in the face of hostile multitudes can be considered a success.” ...

But Kornbluh also uncovered problems with the retaliatory reports described as “balanced” by the CIA. In the case of the L.A. Times, he wrote, the paper “stumbled into some of the same problems of hyperbole, selectivity, and credibility that it was attempting to expose” while ignoring declassified evidence (also neglected by the  New York Times and the Washington Post) that lent credibility to Webb’s thesis. “Clearly, there was room to advance the contra/drug/CIA story rather than simply denounce it,” Kornbluh wrote. ...

Discussing the newly disclosed “Managing a Nightmare” document, Schou says it squares with what he found while doing his own reporting. Rather than some dastardly, covert plot to destroy (or, as some went so far as to suggest, murder) Webb, Schou posits that the journalist was ultimately undone by the petty jealousies of the modern media world. The CIA “didn’t really need to lift a finger to try to ruin Gary Webb’s credibility,” Schou told The Intercept. “They just sat there and watched these journalists go after Gary like a bunch of piranhas.”

At least one journalist who helped lead the campaign to discredit Webb, feels remorse for what he did. As Schou reported for L.A. Weekly, in a 2013 radio interview L.A. Times reporter Jesse Katz recalled the episode, saying, “As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder[ed] how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope. And we did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”

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