Gary Webb died from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self-inflicted.

            Webb was a great reporter out of Indiana, whose best-known work exposed the CIA's complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the U.S. onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series, "Dark Alliance," published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the agency.

            There are certain things you aren't meant to say in public in America: that the government has used assassination down the years as an instrument of national policy; and that the CIA's complicity with drug-dealing criminal gangs stretches from the Afghanistan of today back to the year the agency was founded in 1947. The use of torture used to be a similar no-no, but that went by the board this year. Webb stepped over that line and paid for it by undergoing one of the most unfair batterings in the history of the U.S. press. As he himself wrote in 2001, "To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I've written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess."

            Down the decades the CIA has approached perfection in one particular art, which we might term the "uncover-up." This is a process whereby, with all due delay, the agency first denies with passion, then concedes in profoundly muffled tones, charges leveled against it. Such charges have included the agency's recruitment of Nazi scientists and SS officers; experiments on unwitting American citizens; efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro; alliances with opium lords in Burma, Thailand and Laos; an assassination program in Vietnam; complicity in the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile; the arming of opium traffickers and religious fanatics in Afghanistan; the training of murderous police in Guatemala and El Salvador; and involvement in drugs-and-arms shuttles between Latin America and the United States.

            The specific techniques of the uncover-up vary from instance to instance, but the paradigm is constant, Charges are raised against the CIA. The agency leaks its denials to favored journalists, who hasten to inform the public that after intense self-examination, the agency has discovered that it has clean hands. Then, when the hubbub has died down, the agency issues a report in which, after patient excavation, the resolute reader discovers that, yes, the CIA did indeed do more or less exactly what it had been accused of. The accusations are initially referred to in the CIA-friendly press as "unfounded" or "overblown" or "unconfirmed," or -- the final twist of the knife -- "an old story."

            Faithful to the "uncover-up" paradigm, the CIA passionately denied the allegations made by investigators, including Gary Webb, about the agency's alliance with drug-smuggling Contras, its sponsorship and protection of their activities in running cocaine into the United States. Then came the solemn pledges of an intense and far-reaching investigation by the CIA's inspector general. Inspector General Hitz went to work.

            Then, on Dec. 18, 1997, stories in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus and in The New York Times by Tim Weiner appeared simultaneously, both saying the same thing: Inspector General Hitz had finished his investigation. He had found "no direct or indirect" links between the CIA and the cocaine traffickers. As both Pincus and Weiner admitted in their stories, neither of the two journalists had actually seen the report whose conclusions they were purporting to relay to their readers.

            The actual report itself, so loudly heralded, received almost no examination. But those who took the time to examine the 149-page document -- the first of two volumes -- found Inspector General Hitz making one damning admission after another. If one were to look for a spectacularly smoking gun, in the narrower sense of the phrase, the account of Carlos Cabezas, a drug pilot who was making drug/arms runs between San Francisco and Costa Rica, is a suitable candidate. The inspector general's report had to confront the fact that Cabezas told CIA investigators how he had gone to Costa Rica in the spring of 1982 with money for the Contras. There he met with Horacio Pereira and Troilo Sánchez, who were Contra leaders and also partners with the Contra/drug smuggler Norwin Meneses. In the company of these two, Cabezas recalled, was a curly-haired man who said his name was Ivan Gomez. Pereira identified Gomez to Cabezas as the CIA's "man in Costa Rica." Cabezas told the inspector general that Gomez said he was there to "ensure that the profits from the cocaine went to the Contras and not into someone's pocket."

            The second volume of CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz's investigation, released in the fall of 1998, disclosed that the CIA had concealed both from Congress and other government agencies its knowledge that the Contras had from the very beginning decided to smuggle drugs to support its operations: "In September 1981, as a small group of rebels was being formed from former soldiers in the National Guard of the deposed Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a CIA informant reported that the leadership of the fledgling group had decided to smuggle drugs to the United States to support its operation."

            In that single paragraph just quoted we had four momentous confessions by the CIA's own inspector general. One: The Contras were involved in drug running from the very start. Two: The CIA knew the Contras were smuggling drugs into the United States in order to raise money. Three: This was a decision not made by profiteers on the fringe of the Contras but by the leadership. Four: The CIA, even before it got a waiver from the Justice Department, was concealing its knowledge from the Congress and from other U.S. government agencies such as the DEA and the FBI. Remember also that the Contra leadership was handpicked by the CIA, both in the form of its civilian head, Adolfo Calero, and of its military director, Enrique Bermudez.

            Hitz anticipated his written report in his verbal testimony to Congress in May 1998, where he acknowledged the agency's knowledge of Contra/drug links and also disclosed that in 1982, CIA Director William Casey had gotten a waiver from Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith, allowing the CIA to keep secret from other government agencies its knowledge of drug trafficking by its assets, contractors and other Contra figures.

            The 1982 waiver shows clearly that the Reagan presidency was foursquare behind the whole strategy of concealment of what the agency was up to.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.