Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Knight-Ridder Reporters at Odds

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Knight-Ridder Reporters at Odds

Article excerpt

Miami Herald staffer zaps San Jose Mercury News' CIA drug link series

At the start of a debate over a series about a CIA link to a drug-smuggling operation, Miami Herald reporter Jeff Leen called its author a "nice guy" and an "aggressive reporter who was honorable intentions."

That was the first and last compliment Leen bestowed on San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, whose "Dark Alliance" series touched off a furor in which black leaders demanded an investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency and various newspapers attacked the accuracy of the stories alleging that the cocaine influx started the crack epidemic in the United States.

Leen went on to describe Webb's series as a "catastrophe of monumental proportions that is tragic for him and for all of us. This is a piece of investigative reporting that people are going to remember from the nineties, and we are all going to be judged by it."

As he has countless times in the past, Webb defended his work as a "pretty damn good story" on which he spent a year-and-a-half researching a suggested CIA connection to drug dealing that extended in the 1980s from a rebel army in Nicaragua to street gangs in South Central Los Angeles and beyond.

Webb and Leen held their verbal slugfest before a rapt, overflowed crowd of more than 500 members of the Investigative Reporters and Editors holding their 20th annual convention in Phoenix recently. Both are staffers for Knight-Ridder newspapers.

Leen, who has covered the illegal drug trade for the Herald since the mid-1980s, charged that Webb failed to support allegations of CIA involvement in the drug-running, and he scoffed at his figures on the amount of cocaine brought in, supposedly to"service the entire country."

"If you write about a CIA-sponsored conspiracy to flood black America with cocaine, there has to be a CIA-sponsored conspiracy," he said. "Everybody tried to break this story in the 1980s and nobody did. Did the CIA case officers know? Did the contract officers know? You have to have evidence."

Alluding to Webb's disclosure that Contra suppliers shipped 100 kilos of cocaine a week to drug kingpin "Freeway" Ricky Ross, Leen termed the sum "nothing."

"These were not major, high-level dealers," he went on.

"In Miami in 1981, one Medellin cartel operator alone brought in 19 tons of cocaine and he was one of five dealers in the Miami area."

Leen said the assumption that 100 kilos of cocaine were enough to blanket the country "is like telling me the titanic could cross the Atlantic with a V-8 engine or that if Hoover Dam broke in Arizona, New York City would be flooded. …

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