Context: Research for Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: Fri 30 June, 2000
Interviewee: Gary Webb
Gary Webb was the investigative reporter who first aired allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been complicit in the trafficking of cocaine into the United States as part of its clandestine effort to supply the Contra armies in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Webb’s reporting linked for the first time suspicions that the Agency had employed cocaine traffickers in its supply operations – with a concrete explanation of what all this meant on the ground in the US: the explosion of crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles.
For his efforts, Webb was publicly vilified and eventually lost his job. The story was widely dismissed as a conspiracy theory.
Since then, a number of detractors have climbed down and admitted that the majority of what he wrote was actually correct. In some cases, the truth was worse than he reported.
Public vindication came too late. On December 10, 2004 – unable to find a worthwhile job as an investigative reporter after the wholesale discrediting of his work – Webb committed suicide. That he was found with two bullets in his head provided further fuel for conspiracy theorists, who appear to believe that he was assassinated.
This interview took place in a coffee shop in San Francisco.
Download: Download Interview (PDF)
I started working in 1978 as a reported for a daily newspaper in Kentucky. I’m originally from California but my father was in the Marine Corps so we moved around all over the place and he retired in Indiana. And I did college newspapers when I was in college and I was in College in Kentucky and I got a job at the local newspaper out of school in ’78. Worked there for five years, then I worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in Cleveland for 5 yrs. And I worked for the Mercury News for 9 years.
Mercury News is not a huge newspaper. It’s is what they call a 2nd Tier in terms of circulation – it’s got a circulation of about 300,000 and it’s fairly progressive: one of the Pulitzers they won for Ferdinand Marcos looting his country. They have bureaux in Mexico City, in Tokyo, Illinois – pretty much all over. It had a great reputation as a reporters’ paper. If you filed a story, no matter what it was, you could go off and do it and they’d give you the money and the time to do it – and that’s why I went to work there in the first place. The Paper in Ohio was twice the size but it wasn’t as good a paper. Mercury had a reputation for invest reporting
I did a 17 part series on organised crime in the coal industry. Investigative reporting of state government. In Cleveland I investigated…so basically I was either their lone investigative reporter or one of a team of investigative reporters. When the Mercury News came and asked me to come and work out here they warned someone to come out here and investigate state legislature and state politics and so on.
So you had a history of investigative digging?
Oh yeah – that’s all I’ve ever done since I started. The first editor I ever had when I started was an investigative reporter and once he’d showed me how to do that I never wanted to do anything else because it’s fascinating, it’s a lot of fun. So…that’s pretty much what I did exclusively. I was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize at the Mercury in 1981…
How did you get involved with all this CIA/cocaine stuff in the first place?
In 1993/94 I started writing about the War on Drugs. I got interested in it and especially interested in covering it as if it was a war rather than some social propaganda or some feel-good stuff. I looked at it as a war correspondent might, covering the effect it was having on the American public. I was writing stories about drug testing and the sort of losses of civil liberties that the drug war is causing. I wrote a series about asset forfeiture – the programme that, if they think you are a drug dealer they take you bank account and your house and you have to prove that you’re not, essentially. So I did a series on that and they changed the law as a result. Within two weeks. The programme was so bad that they were shamed into doing something about it. So after that I started working pretty much exclusively on drug stories and I had done a story about an inmate in ***** who had challenged the federal asset forfeiture programme and was very close to winning and getting himself and a bunch of other inmates out of jail or getting their property back, or both.
This woman in Oakland read it and called me and told me that her boyfriend was in that situation and he was a drug trafficker and he was in prison and he was awaiting trial for cocaine trafficking. And she wanted to talk to me about asset forfeiture stuff. I had done a number of stories on it and I wasn’t all that interested and she said that this witness against him in the case was a former CIA operative that used to sell cocaine for the Contras. And at that point I remembered something about that in the ’80s when the first stories came out about the Contras allegedly dealing cocaine but it was always sort of a myth to me. I didn’t think that anything had ever been proven.
I didn’t believe most of the CIA stories. People who had come to me over the years and tried to tell me about CIA stories always turned out to be nuts. Or paranoiacs or something. So I never did them. I had never done a single CIA story. And it was sort of out of my area. I did state issues.