Remembering Gary Webb Ten Years Later

by rthieme on October 16, 2014

Seeing “Kill the Messenger” reminded me that I wrote this ten years ago. Webb and his example meant a lot to me. But it also prompted an endless echo in my mind. If we don’t tell the truth, then they win, he said, and after they stripped him of his reason to live – more effective than killing him, because the only marks on the body are his own – the left-over human being will do the job for them. The words, “who won? who won? …” echo endlessly down the hallways of time.

I have learned the silence can be as effective as ridicule for “controversializing” a person and shifting the focus from what they say to a false image of who they are. Accompanied by changing what they say to “what we say they said” as they did with Webb, an individual does not have the resources of the “authoritative voice” magnified by those in the media who amplify it for a multiplicity of reasons. (The absurd or ignorant comments made about my recent book written by a team of scholars and dedicated researchers over five years, “UFOs and Government: A Historical Inquiry” and tin-foil-hat wearing accusations are a case in point. Our historical analysis of how the government set policies and executed them over fifty years is supported by nearly one thousand citations, making the data bullet proof, all to government documents and other primary sources. We speculate about nothing – we don’t mention aliens, or interpret in any way the phenomenology of the “thing itself” in ways that continue to baffle our physicists – we simply present a narrative more supported by voluminous corroboration than most “news” – which has resulted in the book being in over 50 university libraries – and it is ignored, muffled by a combination of “they wrote a book about aliens” (not mentioned) and “say nothing, move on.”

For the 21 years I have worked as a writer and professional speaker, I have tried to speak with what someone in an audience in Canberra last month said was “fearless honesty.” That effort, on the margins and the edges, eclipsed by shout shows fighting for shelf space in the narrowing American mind, is all I can do. But when I revisit Gary’s trajectory – the CIA admitted what he said, not what they said he said at the time and savaged him for saying, only ten years later – I am mindful of the loss of innocence his death meant for me, how his words became ironic or tragic, a true “Chinatown moment.” Only ten years were needed for the admission of illegality and criminal activity to be irrelevant. Accountability? To Congress? to “the people?” It went away long ago. The best safest response to knowing that is, as I hear often from audiences –

“I don’t want to know that!”

Because knowing precipitates choices we would rather not make. Not wanting to know is an inevitable predictable response to the magnified power and untouchability of structures we have created.

This is offered in celebration and support of those who tell the truth as best they can, constrained as they are by jobs and families and serious concerns about reputation and career, much less avoiding jail, whether journalists or far-seeing individuals who see the big picture long before others can get it in focus, and are ridiculed for seeing and saying it clearly. It works best to not ask the question, “who wins?” not when a well-meaning colleague then takes us by the arm and gets us home, saying, “It’s Chinatown, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”…/my-last-talk-with-gary-webb/

“I Knew It Was the Truth and That’s What Kept Me Going”

My Last Talk with Gary Webb


The San Jose Mercury News reports that “Gary Webb, a former Mercury News investigative reporter, author and legislative staffer who ignited a firestorm with his controversial stories, died Friday in an apparent suicide in his suburban Sacramento home. He was 49.”

I was heartsick. Just knowing that Webb was alive was enough to keep me going through difficult nights.

The Mercury News says that “Webb, an award-winning journalist, was … perhaps best known for sparking a national controversy with a 1996 story that contended supporters of a CIA-backed guerrilla army in Nicaragua helped trigger America’s crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. The ‘Dark Alliance’ series in the Mercury News came under fire by other news organizations, and the paper’s own investigation concluded the series did not meet its standards. Mr. Webb resigned a year and a half after the series appeared in the paper. He then published his book, `Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.’

Of course the newspaper did not report that he resigned only after months of commuting to a dead-end assignment 150 miles from his family and home to which he had been exiled. Forced to work so far from his family, Webb grew depressed and made a sane choice.

So he was not a stranger to depression. Conspiracy stories are already suggesting that his suicide was something else, but I know he would want more than anything for solid investigative work to stitch together all of the pieces, that we not impose a pattern prematurely. That’s what he did for his stories and it’s the least we can do for him.

Besides, why kill him now? As I said in my blog-piece three days ago:

Voices of clarity and conscience are effectively controlled and spun into irrelevance rather than silenced. Marginalization is more effective than assassination it leaves no dead heroes as leaders, after all – and there’s no blood.

Webb understood that.

His Dark Alliance series was attacked not for what it said (the CIA initially denied then later admitted there were connections between operatives and drug cartels) but for what attackers claimed it said. Webb expected that kind of distortion and created a web site loaded with primary documents, transcripts and audio tapes of interviews so interested parties could read and hear for themselves what sources had said. It was one of the first times the Web was used to support a mainstream story that way and the site had over a million hits.

But a person can only say “I didn’t say that … I didn’t say that …so many times. The mass mind soon accepts the oft-repeated distortion as reality.

Or as a friend, a political consultant, recently said, “You can’t always change reality but you can always change the facts.”

Or as Joseph E. Levine said, “You can fool all of the people all of the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough.”

Or as I said three days ago:

the manipulation of the herd by the substitution of symbols and images largely irrelevant to matters at hand, used so efficiently in the recent election, makes persons of clarity and conscience feel impotent and ineffective.

In May 2000, I was exploring a story with some dark edges to it. I was anxious and needed encouragement to persist. I asked Gary about the consequences of his investigation and its impact on his life. Above all, was it worth it?

“Yes,” he said. “The CIA admitted it. I know it was the truth, and that’s what kept me going. I knew I was right.

He added, “My eyes were wide open. I knew what I was getting into. My kids suffered but I had the paper behind me – I thought.” After his paper withdrew its support, he drew on the energy of people who knew the truth of the streets. “Support came from all sorts of places,” he said. “Especially African Americans.”

And his wife? “She was OK with it,” he laughed. “She was used to me getting death threats.”

Webb joked that colleagues often said he was naive rather than cynical. We agreed that a cynic might be nothing but a disappointed idealist. If we accept reality as it is without expectations to the contrary, we’re never disappointed.

Gary spoke of his work in terms that I used for ministry. He had been mentored by a journalist who taught him that his work was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Thats what the best bishops taught me too.

I was once asked by Jean Feraca on Wisconsin Public Radio, why are so many of your heroes assassinated?

She rattled off Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Jesus.

Maybe, I said, assassination is the ultimate form of censorship for those who cant help but tell the truth.

Dark Alliance was Gary Webb’s best shot at doing that.

“You get one chance in a lifetime to do the right thing,” he said. “If you don’t do it, you surrender, and then they win.”

The passion for truth and justice is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance run that requires a different kind of training, a different degree of commitment. Our eye must be on a goal that we know we will never reach in our lifetimes. Faith is the name of believing in the transcendent, often despite all evidence to the contrary.

But what are the options?

Webb knew what he was up against. He said of the CIA, “Richard, these are the worst people on earth that you’re dealing with – they lie, plant stories, discredit and worse for a living and have the resources and the experience.

But somebody’s got to do it [tell the truth]. Otherwise they win.

The choice is to do the work – or surrender.”

And I am grieving for someone who did the work. And never surrendered.

Rest in peace.

RICHARD THIEME is an author and public speaker focused on change, the human side of technology, and the issues that matter to us most. A collection of his work, “Islands in the Clickstream,” was published this year by Syngress Publishing.

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