“For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funnelled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found.”
This was the story that investigative reporter Gary Webb had been waiting for, the crowning achievement of his career. He couldn’t know it, but its sensational opening sentence would end up wrecking his life.
Kill The Messenger is based on a true story, although the accuracy of Webb’s reports remains in dispute. The film shows how, after uncovering a CIA conspiracy to, at the very least, turn a blind eye to drug trafficking that funded the Contras in Nicaragua, Webb was subjected to a sustained attack by the national newspapers he had scooped. It is a fable that echoes loudly in this post-Wikileaks, post-Snowden era.
Webb called his series Dark Alliance. It detailed how a Nicaraguan exile turned US government informant, Danilo Blandon, sold – in his own words, taped by the Drug Enforcement Administration – “about two thousand or four thousand” kilograms of cocaine to a young Los Angeles dealer known as ‘Freeway’ Ricky Ross and used the money to buy weapons for right wing paramilitaries trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime.
On the witness stand, Blandon described a meeting with Nicaragua’s “king of cocaine,” Norwin Meneses, and Enrique Bermudez, a CIA asset. “There is a saying that the ends justify the means,” he testified. “And that’s what Mr. Bermudez told us in Honduras, okay? So we started raising money for the Contra revolution.”
Webb interviewed Ross and Meneses at length. He dug up DEA investigations, FBI reports, congressional testimony, court transcripts and search warrants. Dark Alliance was published in August 1996, as three newspaper reports and a website hosted by the San Jose Mercury News. Key documents and sound files of interviews were made available online – unheard of at the time, in the early days of mass access to the Internet.
“It was the first Internet-era investigative expose,” says Nick Schou, who wrote the book, Kill The Messenger. “I think both Gary and his editors knew that this was going to be subjected to a lot of scrutiny.” To make a logo, the newspaper superimposed the CIA seal over a photograph of an African-American man smoking crack through a glass pipe.
At first, the story was a huge success. Talk radio amplified and expanded it. The website got a million hits a day. The more conspiracy-minded among LA’s African-American community had long suspected that the government had played a role in introducing crack cocaine, and now here was proof. That Webb had never written this was immaterial. The story was out of his control.
“They came in with the drugs,” said LA Congresswoman Maxine Waters. “They came in with the guns. They made the money. And boy, what did they leave in the wake? A trail of devastation, addictions, killings, crack babies.” People joked that the agency’s initials stood for Crack In America.
National newspapers were soon under pressure to come up with a response. Rather than dig deeper into the conspiracy, they set out to pick Webb’s story apart. The Los Angeles times assigned seventeen reporters to the task and ran a counter-series that was longer than Dark Alliance itself. Quoting unnamed agency sources, The New York Times and the Washington Post also pointed out inconsistencies in Webb’s reports and absolved the CIA of blame.
Although Webb had assembled a formidable cache of evidence, his stories rested on the testimony of three convicted felons, and while the CIA’s involvement was strongly implied, he had not been able to prove it – certainly not enough to warrant the inflammatory opening sentence and the choice of logo.
“I don’t think there has ever been a case before or since when one reporter has been subjected to so much scrutiny of their work,” Schou says. “Literally everything he had ever written was held under a microscope.” Some of the attacks were deeply personal, referring to Webb’s infidelities and character flaws that had alienated colleagues.
The Mercury News backed off, printing a clarification that was universally received as a white flag of surrender. In November 1997, Webb handed in a letter of resignation. It was the beginning of a downward spiral of depression and humiliation that would eventually lead to his suicide.
In 1998, the CIA’s Inspector General released a report that confirmed the substance of Webb’s story, namely that the government had protected Contra drug traffickers for years. “The fact that Dark Alliance was able to produce these revelations from the Justice Department and the CIA is history-making,” says Schou. “They had a standing agreement not to report drug trafficking by anyone on the CIA payroll.”
Jeremy Renner, who plays Webb in the movie, presents this vindication as a hollow victory. “His job was never to be accepted,” Renner says. “He’s used to headwind. He’s used to problems. If he’s the guy with the stick, poking the bear, they took the stick away from him.”As the new face of the Bourne franchise, Renner is an interesting choice for the role. The CIA has had its share of good news movies in recent years, notably Argo and Zero Dark Thirty (the agency provided material support and requested changes to Mark Boal’s script), but there is also a pronounced paranoid strain in blockbuster action films. The Bourne Legacy begins with a Guardian journalist’s assassination, to prevent him publishing an expose about two secret CIA programmes.
“It would be perfectly normal for a person to have doubts about the morality of what we just asked you to do,” Edward Norton’s government man tells Renner, after he has killed some civilians. “We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the CIA is capable of anything.
In the last scene, an operative lies to Congress, accusing the agency’s Deputy Director of leaking documents to the press and “criminally assisting an enemy of the United States,” to prevent her exposing the programme. This, too, is not much of a stretch for contemporary audiences who have seen the real life Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lie under oath about whether the National Security Agency collects data from our phones and emails.
“The feeling of most Americans is that there’s been a breach in terms of our civil rights. Whether we’re talking about Wikileaks or Snowden, Gary Webb’s story resonates today” says Schou. Renner agrees: “Kill The Messenger couldn’t be more relevant. Investigative reporting ruffles feathers, and it keeps people accountable when it’s put out there.”
President Barack Obama’s government has used the Espionage Act to prosecute more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Chelsea Manning is in a military prison, Edward Snowden is in exile and Julian Assange is cooped up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. All three have been smeared in the mainstream press as egotistical, unstable attention-seekers. “If you can discredit the messenger, you can discredit the message,” says Schou. It is a lesson Gary Webb learned to his cost.