In August 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb broke his famous “Dark Alliance” story, exposing the 1980s exploits of a gang of coke-dealing, CIA-connected Nicaraguan contras. When the story set off a firestorm of controversy in the African-American community, mainstream newspapers such as the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times viciously attacked Webb. In May 1997, the Mercury News backed away from “Dark Alliance,” and Webb retired from journalism. Meanwhile, the CIA and Justice Department conducted investigations of their own that clearly sought to discredit the reporter and his work.
When read closely, however, the reports that came from those investigations only strengthened Webb's findings. While too late to affect the mainstream media's view of “Dark Alliance,” the reports didn't go unnoticed by activists who had closely followed the controversy. More than a year ago, they banded together to plan an independent inquiry of their own. Some suggested the grandiose goal of a truth commission similar to those undertaken in Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa. Others suggested a high-profile event like Bertrand Russell's anti-Vietnam War tribunals of the 1960s, in which U.S. politicians were brought up on headline-winning charges of crimes against humanity.
The result of all this fuss was a May 22 hearing at the University of Southern California that produced no indictments and named no names but focused on gathering as much information on the casualties of the current war on drugs—civil liberties and the truth seemed to top the list—as humanly possible. The hearing drew more participants than audience members and featured what the event's sponsor, Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, described as a panel of “distinguished citizens.”
Because all six commission members had been selected for their on-the-record opposition to the U.S. war on drugs, the hearing seemed as if it would provide few surprises. And that's the way it turned out—except for Santa Ana Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, an outspoken critic on U.S. drug policy, who provided some of the most compelling moments of the weekend. On Saturday morning, for example, Gordan A. Greenberg, an LAattorney specializing in banking and money laundering, argued that the U.S. government's efforts to curtail drug production south of the border had helped America itself become one of the world's emerging drug-producing nations.
Suddenly, Gray interrupted him. “Our government goes through this drug certification process with other countries,” he exclaimed. “But the state of California's largest cash crop today is marijuana. That makes it the second-largest cash crop in the U.S.!” Then, to some of the loudest cheers of the entire hearing, Gray posed the following question, without so much as a wink of irony: “Shouldn't the U.S. decertify the state of California because we're not doing enough in the war on drugs?”
Such outbursts seemed to offer the proceedings an unexpected air of legitimacy and vitality, especially given Gray's conservative appearance (he looks like Newt Gingrich minus 100 or so pounds). Indeed, Gray's presence on the panel was itself a coup for IPS because over the years, Gray has proved himself unpredictable and unreliable when it comes to taking a stand on the war on drugs. On April 8, 1992, Gray, already a well-known Superior Court judge in Santa Ana, called a press conference to announce that he thought the war on drugs was unwinnable, that the criminalization of drugs was a tragic failure, and that, among other things, legal distribution of drugs needed to be considered. Predictably, everyone from then-Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates to the Los Angeles Times ganged up on Gray, calling his proposal “stupid” and insinuating that he was probably smoking something.
As a result, Gray later denied that he ever advocated the legalization of drugs. “I mislabeled it,” he told a group of Republicans at a Costa Mesa hotel in April 1998. Not surprisingly, that came while Gray was waging an uphill campaign for the 46th Congressional District's Republican primary election.
Since his defeat, Gray has kept relatively quiet on the drug war. Until May 22, that is. Unfortunately, Gray disappeared just in time for the most controversial and compelling portion of the weekend hearing: retired UC Berkeley professor Peter Dale Scott and former Newsweek and AP reporter Robert Parry discussing the CIA-contra-cocaine scandal.
The CIA's 1998 report admitted that the agency sought and obtained a 1982 waiver allowing it to stop reporting the drug-dealing activity of its “assets” to the Justice Department. The CIA also admitted that it had ordered its lawyers to intervene in the high-profile “Frogman” case of the 1980s; in that case, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration confiscated several tons of cocaine that were found attached to underwater divers off the coast of San Francisco. According to the report, the CIA's counsel wrote a letter to federal prosecutors in San Francisco, instructing them to return to the CIA several hundred thousand dollars in drug money that police had discovered in the hotel room of the Nicaraguan defendants. The cash, the CIA argued in its secret communiqu, was desperately needed to help pay for weapons and aid for the Nicaraguan contras.
The Distinguished Citizens' Commission's final report will be submitted two months from now.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).