By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
This week, an important new movie hits the theaters. It’s called “Kill the Messenger,” and it discusses a couple of scandalous topics: The CIA’s connection to cocaine dealers in the 1980s, and the successful effort by a few elite newspapers to discredit that story.
The film centers on investigative reporter Gary Webb.
While at the San Jose Mercury News, he detailed the ties among the CIA, the Contras fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and drug dealers in the United States.
Here’s the backstory.
In late 1986, Washington, D.C., was rocked by revelations that President Ronald Reagan’s administration had illegally aided the Contras by selling arms to Iran and using some of the proceeds to fund this guerrilla army. Congress, under the Boland Amendment, had banned funding of the Contras in 1983.
The Contras, who were causing tens of thousands of deaths and devastating the economy of Nicaragua, were also involved with drug cartels smuggling cocaine from South America to the United States. This explosive information was uncovered in 1985 when Associated Press reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger wrote a well-researched piece exposing the Contra drug trafficking.
John Kerry, then a U.S. senator, carried out an investigation into illegal Contra activities, including drugs, as head of a Senate subcommittee, which the media paid little attention to. The media also downplayed the final report of Kerry’s investigation, “Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy,” released in 1989.
Reporter Webb picked up the scent in 1996 and exposed the extent of Contra drug dealing in a series of hard-hitting investigative articles published by the San Jose Mercury News.
For his audacity, Webb was subjected to a ferocious campaign to discredit him, a campaign in which fellow reporters at The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times played a particularly sorry role.
The Mercury News did not come to Webb’s aid, either. Instead, it cowered and practically apologized to the Agency.
Unemployed and stigmatized, Webb ended up taking his own life in 2004, even though the CIA had vindicated the gist of his reporting in 1998.
The Agency’s Inspector General Frederick Hitz issued a report acknowledging that the war against the Sandinistas had taken precedence over law enforcement, and that the CIA hid evidence of Contra involvement in cocaine trafficking.
Last month the CIA declassified a number of articles from its in-house journal Studies in Intelligence.
One of these showed that the Agency took active steps to undermine Webb’s series, relying on “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists.” The article boasted that the CIA discouraged “one major news affiliate” from even covering the story.
But the CIA is not supposed to be in the business of squelching stories in the media, and editors are not supposed to kowtow to the Agency, either.
Those are but two of the tragic lessons that emerge in “Kill the Messenger.” We need to heed them before we are misled again.
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, based in Madison, Wis.