Sunday, October 12, 2014
Kill The Messenger
I don't often plug movies, but I would be remiss if I if I didn't highly recommend "Kill The Messenger," the cinematic version of Nick Schou's book, "Kill The Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb." Webb was a little-known investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News whose blockbuster 1996 series, "Dark Alliance," revealed to the American public how the CIA was complicit, if not overtly involved, in using Nicaraguan drug dealers tied to the Contra freedom fighters to smuggle billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the country, which made its way to the streets of America's largest cities primarily in the form of crack cocaine that could be easily purchased in low-income neighborhoods at affordable prices.
The movie retells how Webb, played by the talented Jeremy Renner, first stumbled onto the Contra-CIA drug connection while investigating the prosecution of LA's notorious crack-cocaine dealer, Freeway Rick Ross, who was supplied by Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan-born national who admitted during testimony at Ross' trial that the CIA protected his drug-smuggling operations which he claimed he operated to help finance the Contras civil war in Nicaragua against Daniel Ortega's Sandinista-led government. The wife of a related drug dealer turned over to Webb grand jury testimony that had been inadvertently produced during her husband's federal drug trial. When the feds learned that Webb had the grand jury testimony, it dismissed the charges against the woman's husband, a fact that would later be used to brandish Webb. The feds used Blandon as a covert paid informant for the DEA to take down Ross' drug operation. Despite operating a major drug trafficking operation, Blandon served only two years in prison and was one of the only non-citizen drug dealers not to be deported from the U.S. following his own conviction during the so-called War on Drugs. Webb's "Dark Alliance" series focused primarily on the ravaging impact the crack-cocaine epidemic had on poor black neighborhoods in South Central L.A., although it proved quite embarrassing to the CIA.
Although Webb's investigative series initially helped win him fame and numerous journalism prizes, including the coveted Pulitzer Price, the CIA with the help of big media turned ferociously on him. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, a renowned paid operative in the media for the CIA, led the vicious attack on Webb. One by one, the Post, followed by the LA Times, which was embarrassed about being scooped for the story by an upstart, upstate newspaper, the NY Times and the major television news networks went out of their way to discredit Webb in order to protect the CIA from the damning disclosures of his reporting, including picking up on personal peccadilloes from his past, such as an extra-marital affair he had with another reporter while working for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer who later committed suicide.
Eventually, the pressure on Webb's editorial bosses at the San Jose Mercury-News became more than they could bear. A number of Webb's original sources recanted their accounts to him under pressure exerted on them while others were simply disappeared. The only people at the CIA who would go on the record were determined to discredit Webb at any expense. Webb got demoted to a smaller office of the newspaper working in Cupertino, California, writing obituaries, while the Mercury-News publicly distanced itself from some of the claims made in Webb's original reporting and issued a public apology. In one of the most moving scenes near the end of the movie, Webb's character, played by Jeremy Renner, recounts during an award ceremony how the first story he wrote as a journalist was about a dog who didn't want to die. As poetic justice, the last story he wrote at the Mercury-News was about a police horse which died of constipation. In the end, his journalism career he said had been reduced to a pile of horse shit. As he left the podium, he handed his editor his resignation letter. In 2004, Gary Webb died at age 49 a broken man, supposedly from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head as he finished packing his belongings to move out the house he had just sold with plans of moving in with his grandmother who lived nearby.
While nobody was paying much attention during the height of Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal, the CIA's Inspector General released a report in 1998 in which it admitted that the CIA had knowledge of the Contras role in smuggling cocaine into the U.S. to fund its war against the Sandinistas, although it denied the CIA played any active role in the drug smuggling operation. Despite the CIA's belated admission, even in death his critics in the media never let up. A shameless Walter Pincus told Schou during an interview for his book that Webb was partially to blame for 9/11 because his "Dark Alliance" reporting had caused the CIA go soft on radical Islamists.
As a side note, there are important Hoosier connections to the Contra-CIA cocaine connection that aren't directly touched upon on in "Kill The Messenger." The air strip in Costa Rice on the border with Nicaragua that was used by the Contras to smuggle arms and cocaine was located on a several thousand-acre ranch owned by John Hull, an Indiana farmer who had formerly lived in French Lick and Evansville before moving to Costa Rica where he became a naturalized citizen. Up to 30 tons of cocaine a year had reportedly been shipped to the U.S. using Hull's air strip. Hull had been introduced to Oliver North, who ran the Iran-Contra operation under the direction of former CIA Director William Casey and Vice President George H.W. Bush by Robert W. Owen, a CIA contract employee working at the time on the staff of Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, who of course later became Bush's Vice President. Investigative reporter Barbara Honneger would later describe the selection of Quayle by Bush as his insurance policy against impeachment for his role in Iran-Contra. Hull, who had also been accused of carrying out assassinations, was later charged by Costa Rican authorities for drug trafficking and using the country for hostile acts in Nicaragua. He fled Costa Rica and returned to the U.S. before he could stand trial. President George H.W. Bush would later deny a request by the Costa Rican government to extradite him back to San Jose to stand trial. Interestingly, Webb lived in a working class neighborhood of Indianapolis when he was in high school where he worked on a student newspaper. He later attended Northern Kentucky University where he earned his journalism degree before landing his first job as a reporter at the Kentucky Post.