Why do Ben Bradlee’s heirs want to kill the messenger?
Its lousy journalism and bad for the Washington Post brand. And still we persist
As we, the veterans of the Washington Post, prepare to celebrate the life and legacy of Ben Bradlee at his funeral tomorrow, it is disheartening to see that the newspaper we love continues to compromise its editorial independence in the service of lame insider narratives favored by self-interested Washington factions.
On October 20, it happened not once but twice in the warm bundle that is the Sunday Post.
On the editorial page, the Post declared that “Cuba should not be rewarded for denying freedom to its people.” In this argument, the Havana government’s documented record of human rights abuses justifies—nay requires—the cessation of all normal trade and diplomatic relations. For some reason (spoiler alert: money) this righteous principle has never proven decisive in Post editorials about the U.S. government’s relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or China. The human rights records of those governments are far far far worse than Cuba’s. Yet they are spared the wrath of the Post.
Viewed objectively, editorial page editors Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl have aligned the Post’s editorial mission with a narrative generated and perfected by a powerful, but now-embattled, bureaucratic faction in Washington, known as the Cuba lobby. This narrative holds that the government of Cuba is a pariah state on par with North Korea and must be democratized by economic coercion.
This neo-colonial proposition is not only factually absurd, it has an unblemished record of failure over the last five decades. My friends Hiatt and Diehl seem to think they are idealistic in standing up for Cuban freedom. I think they have hitched the paper’s reputation to a Washington faction that is losing power and will soon be defunct.
A more disturbing example of deference to an insider narrative appeared on the front page of the Outlook section on October 20. It was the Post’s predictable kissoff of “Kill the Messenger,” a modestly budgeted Hollywood film (made by some A-list talent) about Gary Webb, a crusading newspaper reporter who exposed the cozy relations between the CIA and suspected cocaine traffickers in the 1980s.
“Gary Webb was no journalist hero,” Post investigative editor Jeff Leen assured readers. Leen, a former Miami Herald reporter and author of a good book on the Miami drug wars of the 1980s, explained that he had pursued the “extraordinary” allegations that the CIA was involved with cocaine traffickers. He said he found that that “extraordinary proof was always lacking.”
Always? I was an investigative reporter in the 1980s and I was able to find proof more than once.
In 1989, I wrote in the Washington City Paper about Guillermo Tabraue, a Cuban-American trafficker whose cocaine syndicate grossed an estimated $75 million in the 1970s. Tabraue was also suspected of murdering a government informant. He was indicted and arrested. Then the charges were suddenly reduced to tax evasion. The CIA had employed him in some secret capacity in the 1970s, therefore his case could not be brought into court. Tabraue’s relationship with the CIA constituted a “Get Out of Jail free” card.
At the same time, I reported (in a story honed to perfection by City Paper editor Jack Shafer) that a young African-American man was lured to Lafayette Park in 1989 by law enforcement agents—acting at the behest of President George H.W. Bush. The man sold a few ounces of crack cocaine to an undercover officer, and was arrested. Bush held up the bag of crack in a nationally televised speech on drugs. I noted that Keith Jackson of northeast Washington didn’t have any friends in Langley, Virginia. He got a ten year mandatory minimum sentence.
In 1991, I reported in Spin magazine on Leonel Martinez, a Cuban-American trafficker, who imported cocaine into south Florida in 500-kilo shipments. In the early 1980s, Martinez gave $12,000 in campaign contributions to an up and coming south Florida politician named Jeb Bush. Young Jeb supported the contra rebels in Nicaragua just as zealously as his father, the former director of the CIA.
(You’ll be hearing more about this story if Jeb Bush runs for the presidency in 2016).
The Washington Post was not averse to such stories. My reporting helped me land a job at the newsroom on 15th Street in 1992.
In a May 1994 piece for the Outlook section, “Favor for a Felon,” I detailed how Jose Bueso Rosa, a Honduran general close to the CIA, was implicated in a 760 pound cocaine shipment to a remote central Florida airstrip. I uncovered a sworn affidavit from an FBI agent who said that Bueso had been overheard on a wiretap asking if the shipment of “fish flour” had arrived. Needless to say, the general was not in the baking business.
Yet the U.S. government gave him a slap on the wrist. Sources in Miami told me that prosecutors would face a huge and inevitably futile fight with the CIA if they ever tried to put Bueso in the dock of a public courtroom. To save time and money, and serve the minimal needs of justice, Bueso was allowed to plea to lesser charges.
What had Bueso done to merit such tender treatment?
The reasons are still classified but it is known that the CIA and the Reagan White House looked kindly on the Honduran military was because its leaders had created a death squad, known as Battalion 316. As an official inquiry documented, Batallion 316 captured, tortured and liquidated up to 180 suspected leftists traveling between leftist Nicaragua and leftist-controlled territories in El Salvador. (At the end of “Kill the Messenger” one of Webb’s sources links the CIA’s collaboration with drug traffickers to its collaboration with death squads. The Bueso case embodied this linkage.)
Bueso was sentenced to a five-year sentence at a minimum security facility in Florida known as Club Fed. The kicker of my story was this: Even after Bueso got such lenient treatment, Oliver North, champion of the contras on the National Security Council (and by 1994 a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Virginia) had enlisted Dewey Clarridge, a senior CIA official, in a behind-the-scenes effort to get that mild sentence reduced.
No, my reporting did not show that an evil cabal of CIA men was waging chemical-genocidal war on African-Americans (although I could understand why a working-class grandpa in South Central Los Angeles raising the children of his crack-addicted daughter might see things that way.)
My reporting indicated that there was a U.S. government policy of protecting the CIA’s favorite large-scale cocaine traffickers while pursuing a policy of mass incarceration of small-scale traffickers in the same substance.
I thought there might a hell of a story in all of that, one that in Bradlee’s much quoted macho formulation, I would have “given my left one” to get. I tried to talk up the story around the 15th Street newsroom. But I could see few reporters, male or female, were willing to risk their reproductive glands to make such news.
Nobody except Gary Webb. His series for the San Jose Mercury News, entitled “Dark Alliance,” took a mighty and sloppy swing at this important story in August 1996. Webb reported how the Justice Department, at CIA request, had dropped prosecution of two major northern California cocaine traffickers who shipped their product to Los Angeles, at a time when the South Central neighborhood was suffering from an epidemic in cocaine use, addiction, and related crime and violence.
It was a provocative thesis, poorly argued. The series was badly edited, at least by Washington Post standards. Webb made some factual mistakes, a couple of them serious. His central claim that the CIA’s allies had fueled the crack epidemic in South Central was far from bulletproof. But it wasn’t fanciful. Webb had identified a nexus of official corruption between the CIA and various drug trafficking syndicates that deserved—no, demanded—public exposure.
(Don’t take my word for it. Read the “Dark Alliance” series and decide for yourself. )
The Washington Post’s institutional response was, alas, defensive derision. One factor was the fading but unerasable memory of “Jimmy’s World,” the story of a drug addicted black boy fabricated by reporter Janet Cooke, and approved by Ben Bradlee, in 1982. That humiliation might have played a subliminal role in the newsroom’s collective desire a decade later to avoid another controversial story about illicit drugs in the black community.
But there was a bigger factor. By the mid-1990s, the Washington Post’s senior editors had stopped questioning the veracity of senior CIA officials. They assumed it. So when the Post editors read the allegations printed by the San Jose Mercury News (and available to anyone on that faddish threat to journalistic standards known as the Internet), they were skeptical. In my experience Washington Post editors are willing and able to stand up to the White House or the CIA or some other faction—if they think the news story merits it. On Gary Webb’s story, they preferred to trust the CIA.
In my personal view, such credulity was naive, if not unprofessional. Within the confines of the 15th Street newsroom, however, it was politically realistic. Given the choice of trusting a senior CIA source or taking a chance on a reporter from a first-rate, second-tier newspaper like the San Jose Mercury News, no editor who wanted to get ahead and stay ahead would hesitate.
“Webb is a nut,” Jackson Diehl assured me, shaking his head. “The things some people will put in print.”
The Post assigned to two senior reporters to compose an unusually long 4,000-word piece, which attacked Webb’s reporting, without really addressing the question of whether CIA policy had contributed to the cocaine glut in America. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times did the same thing: lengthy exposes of the faults of Webb’s reporting and little independent reporting.
(With thoughtful decency, Jesse Katz, one of the L.A. Times reporters involved in their hit piece, has expresssed regrets about his role in what he calls a “tawdry” episode.)
There were misgivings in the Post newsroom about the denunciations of Webb, and the Post did run a second, long forgotten, piece documenting how the CIA had collaborated with one trafficking group in Nicaragua. It was a careful, small-bore story that would have made a decent start to a broader investigative series. In fact, it was the next to last story that the Washington Post did on the subject.
The Post’s insular newsroom culture made it easier for the editors to “kill the messenger” than to report on a disturbing fact pattern completely at odds with what senior government officials were telling the Post.
Story Not Pursued
Some journalists, like former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, argue that the Gary Webb story shows that the Washington Post (and the Times and ever other major news organization) are hopelessly corrupt. The people who work at these publications, he writes rather broadly, are “courtiers of power.”
Hedges has reason to be angry but anger doesn’t gather news. Hedges had a productive and well-paying career at the Times. He became addicted to war, learned to hate his addiction, and now he campaigns ceaselessly against the forces of war in Washington and their enablers in the news business. I can sympathize. Nonetheless, we still need news organizations like the Washington Post to act a check on the government—Twitter isn’t up to the job. If the Washington Post has lost its way, it is not enough to curse its name. We need practical strategies to restore the paper’s editorial compass.
To me the most telling criticism of the Post’s coverage of Webb’s reporting came from not from moralists but from professionals.
In a November 1996 column, the ombuds(wo)man Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register, noted that some of Webb’s journalism was “unforgivably careless.” She added:
“There is another appropriate response, a more important one, and that is to ask: Is there anything to the very serious question the series raised? Did the U.S. government play any role in supporting or condoning drug smuggling into the United States? Yet The Post (and the others) showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves.”
In early 1997 Peter Kornbluh, a scholar of the contra war at the nonprofit National Security Archive, reviewed Webb’s reporting for the Columbia Journalism Review. He concluded that, whatever Webb’s errors, news organizations had
“…room to advance the contra/drug/CIA story rather than simply denounce it. Indeed, at the Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other major oracles, the course of responsible journalism could have taken a number of avenues, among them: a historical treatment of drug smuggling as part of CIA covert operations in Indochina, Afghanistan, and Central America; an investigation into the alleged obstruction, by the Justice Department and the CIA, of the Kerry Committee’s inquiry in the late 1980s; an evaluation of Oliver North’s mendacious insistence, after the Mercury News series was published, that “no U.S. government official ‘ever tolerated’ drug smuggling as part of the contra war…”
Neither the Post nor any other major news organizations undertook such efforts. They were too busy covering the urgent news that President Clinton had dallied with a White House intern.
Few noticed in January 1998 when the CIA itself confirmed important aspects of Webb’s story. In response to the controversy over “Dark Alliance” CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz compiled a 400-page report on what agency officials had done. Hitz’s reporting showed that the nexus between the CIA and suspected traffickers was actually larger than Webb reported. And Hitz confirmed there was a secret CIA-Department of Justice agreement protecting CIA collaborators accused of drug trafficking.
(Don’t take my word for it. Read the Hitz report and decide for yourself.)
The Post ran a short piece on the Hitz report, tiny by comparison to the attack on Webb, and dropped the story for good.
Webb never recovered from the attack on his reputation. He couldn’t get a job in journalism and committed suicide in 2004, a sad ending to a disturbing story.
Illusion on 15th Street
Two decades later, the Washington Post seems to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.
In his “Gary Webb was no hero” piece, Leen trots out the “conspiracy theorist” straw man once more. (The movie uses real footage of Chris Matthews making this bogus claim and Webb coolly refuting it.) Leen lazily quotes from the CIA’s executive summary of the Hitz report, but does not quote from the report itself, which was full of incriminating detail about the agency’s coddling of numerous cocaine traffickers.
(Leen debated Webb at the 1997 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. Listen to their exchange here.)
Leen seems unburdened by the old-fashioned obligation of balance. He does not mention Jesse Katz’s mea culpa, which was all over the Internet. He does not address the pointed criticism of Geneva Overholser, the Post’s own ombudsman. And he ignores Peter Kornbluh’s careful assessment in CJR, journalism’s leading professional organ. If Leen thinks he need not engage such critics, he needs to think again.
[I have offered Leen a chance to respond. If he does I will insert his comments here.]
Illusions can be costly. Not only is the Post’s attack on the memory of Gary Webb journalistically lame. It is strategically misguided, and I hope the paper’s new ownership will perceive the threat to the bottom line. When Leen talked about “alleged CIA perfidy” in his latest piece, he was trifling with the Washington Post brand in a very careless way. That callow phrase—say it out loud: “alleged CIA perfidy”— invites the suspicion that Post has aligned itself with a secretive lawbreaking agency at the expense of its standards and the public interest.
The Washington Post would do better to summon the spirit of Ben Bradlee at his best. Why not report the still-unknown story of how the U.S. government implemented a secret policy of protecting the CIA’s favorite traffickers from prosecution while pursuing a public policy of mass incarceration of small-time dealers? Then the Post’s readers could decide for themselves if the CIA’s “perfidy”—defined as “deliberate treachery”— was merely “alleged” or actually very real.
Leen’s complacent defense of Langley’s preferred narrative for its indefensible policy of protecting selected drug traffickers is a dismal reminder that, on a timely news story, the Washington Post is still willing to default, wittingly or unwittingly, to the interests of a powerful bureaucratic faction.
That is not a hopeful sign for a news organization seeking to revitalize itself. As we bid farewell to Ben Bradlee, we also say goodbye to an era in American journalism (roughly 1960–1990) that he embodied, for better and worse. It is now past time for the Washington Post newsroom (and boardroom) to recognize that in the New Media ecosystem of the 21st century, more competitive and chaotic than ever, an editorial policy of apologizing for the CIA is unwise and unsustainable, no matter how deep the pockets of the owner.
Jefferson Morley served as the world news editor of washingtonpost.com from 2000 to 2007. He is the editor of the JFK Facts blog (jfkfacts.org) and author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA (University of Kansas Press, 2008).