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Tribute to 'Dark Alliance' and Gary Webb (pt. 1)
A decade after the "Dark Alliance" newspaper series sent shockwaves around the world with its investigation into crack cocaine/CIA/Contra connections, a tribute is presented to "Dark Alliance" and its investigator/author, journalist Gary Webb....and to the true spirit of journalism that he represented in his time.
Gary Webb, reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, speaking on his "Dark Alliance" investigation to students at City College of San Francisco, 12 February 1997. (Photo courtesy of The Guardsman, CCSF campus newspaper, http://www.theguardsman.com/)
By Brian Covert
It was a beautiful late-winter afternoon in the San Francisco Bay Area and the campus of City College of San Francisco was bustling with students. Although it was the middle of the day, with classes still in session, it was clear from the steady stream of students filing into one of the college’s halls that they had no intention of either attending classes or leaving the campus for lunch. They had come to listen to a newspaper reporter from the nearby San Jose Mercury News talk about his explosive series that was still raising controversy six months after it was published.
Gary Webb’s speech at City College of San Francisco that winter day was being covered not only by the campus press but also by a television production crew from Japan that was filming in U.S. cities on the east and west coasts for a special Japanese prime-time program on the “drug scourge” in several regions of the globe. As an independent journalist based in Japan I had been eagerly following the “Dark Alliance” controversy on the Internet, and as part of our crew now filming Stateside I had arranged to have Webb’s speech at CCSF and an interview with him the next day in Sacramento taped for the Japanese TV program. During that interview, Webb, when asked why the American mainstream media would not want to tell the public about the U.S. government’s role in the “Dark Alliance” scenario, answered: “That’s a damn good question. I mean, to me it seems like a natural story.” And indeed it was.
Webb’s “Dark Alliance” investigation was, in fact, one of the most significant news stories in modern times — just as significant as or arguably more significant, in many ways, than the Watergate investigation of the 1970s — for several reasons. First of all, “Dark Alliance” filled in a critical missing chapter in the longtime connections between the international drug trade, and the United States’ wars abroad and its nationwide drug problems at home. Secondly, the U.S. mainstream news media — especially the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post newspapers — essentially defended the U.S. government from any real complicity in the “Dark Alliance” scenario. Those news organizations set out to debunk the “Dark Alliance” investigation and apparently to destroy the journalistic credibility of Webb himself — an unprecedented act in modern-day mainstream journalism. And just as significantly, “Dark Alliance” at the time was a pioneer in using the then-developing Internet and World Wide Web as effective tools for journalists to use in bringing their investigations before the public.
Regrettably, the Japanese crew’s footage of Webb ended up on the cutting room floor and was not shown when the TV program aired in Japan a few months later in April 1997. But the work and words of the late Gary Webb live on. The following speech by Webb was saved on audio and is presented for the first time anywhere in transcribed form (with minor editing, including to account for drops in sound quality) in this three-part tribute. It is presented here in three main parts to commemorate the three parts of the “Dark Alliance” series that originally ran in the northern California-based San Jose Mercury News on 18, 19 and 20 August 1996. This tribute is also being published today, the second anniversary of Webb’s death from gunshot wounds in December 2004, in this 10th anniversary year of the original publishing of “Dark Alliance” by the Mercury News.
Picture the scene now as Mr. Juan Gonzales, chair of the journalism department of City College of San Francisco, introduces the San Jose Mercury News reporter, and a hush falls over the crowd of about 100 people in the hall as Gary Webb begins to speak....
Thanks a lot for being here. It’s a great day outside; I’m surprised to see that many people inside. But I will try to make it worth your while. As he [Gonzales] said, I’ve been an investigative reporter for 18 years for daily newspapers. I did sports reporting, rock and roll reviews, film reviews and stuff before that. But for about the past 15 years of my career, I’ve been concentrating on primarily government malfeasance or misfeasance, whatever you want to call it. So I’m usually pretty busy.
One of the frustrations I’ve always had in covering government is that you know deep inside that what you’re seeing isn’t really what’s happening. By the time they come out of their committee hearings and by the time the proposals are presented to the public, there have been thousands and thousands of machinations and hundreds of hours of work behind closed doors that the public never knows about. And my job, I’ve always felt, has been to actually get inside that process and see how things that the government does to us get to that point — why things happen the way they happen. And it’s only occasionally that that sort of “information curtain” opens.
You know, when you’re trying to investigate the government, they’ve got all the information, they’ve got all the files, and they don’t let most of the people who work for them talk to you. So there really is sort of an “information curtain” between the government and the people who are supposed to be benefiting from their work. Only occasionally does this curtain sort of part, where you can get in and see, you know, sort of the skeletons and the intestines of the government. This story [“Dark Alliance”], in particular, is probably the most horrifying one I’ve ever worked on. That was a situation that, you know — like I said, 18 years I been doing this and this was, like, once or twice in a lifetime where all the planets line up right. You know, people, documents surface that have long been hidden and you’re presented with a revelation that really blows your mind, if you’re not ready for it.
And that’s what happened with this story. The last couple of years I’ve been covering the drug war of America, and I’ve written a number of fairly lengthy series of articles about what’s been going on behind the scenes in the war on drugs. It was this vein that I was mining that led me to the tip that started me on this story. I had done a series about “asset forfeitures,” which is this nifty little program that the police came up with where if somebody thinks you’re a drug dealer and they tell the police that, the police can go in your house and take everything you own — which was a very profitable thing. And I did a series on this program in ’93; three weeks later the [California state] legislature abolished it, which I thought was a good thing. Now, in California, at least they have to convict you of a crime before they can take your money or your property or your car. That seems fair.
But I did this story, and I got a call from a woman in Oakland who had seen one of my follow-ups that I had done. And she said, “I got a good story for you. My boyfriend’s been in jail for three years now, allegedly on ‘cocaine conspiracy,’ and he’s never been brought to trial.” They’d taken all his property. And I said, “Well, you know, I sort of just wrote a bunch of stories about that stuff happening. What’s different about this one?” And she said, “Well, what’s different about this one is that the government’s main witness against him is a CIA operative who brought about 40 tons of cocaine into the United States a few years back, and nothing ever happened to him.” And I said, “Well that is interesting” [audience laughs]. And I said, you know, “I get a lot of phone calls from a lot of people saying that the CIA does a lot of things. Why should I believe you?” And she said, “Well, I’ve got the records. I’ve got all these documents that the government gave us under discovery. And before you write me off as a wacko, you really ought to come over here and look at this stuff.”
And that’s what I like to hear! I like to hear people calling me up and saying, “I got the records.” So I arranged to meet her at the San Francisco courthouse where her boyfriend was having yet another hearing on when they were going to bring him to trial. And she handed me a stack of documents that she’d brought, and then I looked at them. I had to, like, get up and walk around because I was so agitated.
‘Thugs and cutthroats’
What it was, one of the key things was a grand jury transcript — a federal grand jury transcript — which in my business is like gold. You almost never see transcripts of federal grand juries; they’re secret forever. And somehow, the government had let this one go and given it to these defendants. And what it said was — and this was in the words of the man who was doing it — that he was a former Nicaraguan government official. In 1979, his government….just lost control of their government; it was overthrown by the Sandinistas. And so he was not very popular in Nicaragua anymore and so he came to the United States, and started working for an organization called the “Contras.” And the Contras were this band of former Nicaraguan National Guardsmen, essentially thugs and cutthroats. The Nicaraguan National Guard had the most corrupt army in Central America under [military dictator Anastasio] Somoza during the mid-’70s. And these guys didn’t like getting kicked out of power, so they got together after the war and said, “Well, now we’ve gotta fight back and take the country back over.” And Danilo Blandón, who was the drug dealer, was one of the founders of this party. He was one of the founders of this movement.
And so what he told the grand jury here in San Francisco was that in 1981, he met a guy named Norwin Meneses, who was another big Nicaraguan drug dealer. And they went down to Honduras and met with the military commander of the Contras, a fellow named Enrique Bermúdez, who had been on the CIA payroll from probably 1980, probably even before that. And he told them, “Hey, we got a war going here. We need some money.” And what he said was that “the ends justify the means.” And since he’s talking to these two cocaine dealers, I don’t think anything much more needed to be said. They went back. And what Blandón testified was that he came back to San Francisco and he went to this, like, “drug dealer school” up here that Meneses put on. He said it took him a couple of days and they showed him how to, you know, measure it, how to weight it, how to tell good cocaine from bad cocaine, how to launder the money, how to hide it in car compartments.
He said he had two kilos of cocaine and he got sent down to Los Angeles to sell for the Contras. And you know, he claimed he’d never been a cocaine dealer before; he wasn’t very good at it at first. But he eventually became very good at it because he had an MBA in marketing [audience laughs]. This wasn’t your ordinary cocaine dealer. When his ruler [Somoza] got kicked out of power, he [Blandón] was the Nicaraguan government’s director of wholesale markets. And he was financed by the United States….at the University of Colombia at Bogotá to get his MBA — to allegedly develop agricultural markets in Nicaragua. And what he ended up doing was coming to the United States as an exile and setting up a wholesale market for cocaine in South Central Los Angeles, which, up to that point, really didn’t have a cocaine market because the stuff was just way too expensive, even for rich people. The price of cocaine in about 1980, when he started selling it, was $65,000 a kilo — $4,500 an ounce.
But he had it — and a lot of it. And he was getting it from Mr. Meneses, the guy who was one of the cocaine dealers, even before the Contras. This guy [Meneses] was such an accomplished cocaine dealer….And he was really plugged in, too. His brother was, like, Nicaragua’s ambassador to Guatemala. He had another brother who was a police chief in Nicaragua. [Meneses was] another guy who really had an atypical background. But he came to the United States and became a cocaine dealer.
So what happened was, Blandón came down to “cocaine school” with his two kilos and started looking around for some markets. And he found that, “Hey, nobody’s selling cocaine in South Central. It’s wide open.” They’re selling PCP, you know, which isn’t a very cool drug at all. But cocaine was all right; I mean, everybody was doing it, you know. So he went down there and he started selling cocaine. And he had a number of guys working for him and they made inroads — not very quickly because it was still fairly expensive.
But they eventually hooked up with this guy named “Freeway” Rick Ross. And Freeway Rick was another sort of main character. He was a high school tennis star, and he had gotten all the way through high school and was getting ready to go to college on a tennis scholarship when people figured out that he couldn’t read or write. He would pass through [classes] because he was a tennis player. And these colleges don’t want people who can’t read or write, you know. Scholarship or no scholarship, it sort of looks bad. [laughter in audience]
And he was suddenly left without anything to do. And so he went to a vocational school and he started learning how to bind books and he started learning how to do auto upholstery. And his auto upholstery teacher was a cocaine dealer. As Rick got to know him, it just eventually became known to him that the guy was recreational, tooting a little cocaine every once in a while. And he was telling Rick, “What a great market this is, what a great drug this is,” you know, “people spend a lot of money for it. Hard to get — but I know a guy who can get it for you if you want it.” And Rick said, “Well, how much does it cost to get into the cocaine business?” And his teacher told him, “You can get an ‘eight track’ for 300 bucks.” And an “eight track” was a small amount of cocaine.
And so Rick and his friend Ollie [Newell] went out and they stole some wheels and sold them. Actually, I think they went to their high school parking lot and stole some teachers’ cars [audience laughs] and sold the parts, then cut the money. And he [Rick Ross] came to the teacher and said, “OK, we got the money.” And they introduced him to this Nicaraguan guy named Henry [Corrales]. And Henry started selling them little bits of cocaine. And Rick, instead of taking his profits and going out and snorting them, he just went back to Henry and bought twice as much the next time. And it kept going and going and going.
‘Collision of events’
And what happened was, at the same time the guy was setting up this little drug business in South Central, you have this sort of epidemic called “crack” coming up from South America. Crack didn’t just sort of spring out of nowhere, as the sort of popular misconception [goes]: like, in the mid-’80s a couple of basketball players died and suddenly it was a huge “crisis.” It came along very methodically, just like a regular epidemic.
And by 1979, the government’s drug experts were going to Congress and saying, you know, “We got big problems. You better start thinking about what we’re gonna do about it, because there’s this habit that started down in Peru and it’s on it’s way up here, called ‘cocaine smoking’” — which nobody did; they snorted cocaine. Except now, with these cartels that started in Colombia, there was a lot of paste laying around and somebody figured out, “Hey, you smoke this stuff and, man, it’ll really get you high.” And a lot of people started doing it. There was this huge epidemic in Peru in the mid-’70s — you know, bankers, lawyers and [other] people were just, you know, they were winding up in insane asylums. And the Peruvians couldn’t figure this out because, you know, people had been using cocaine in Peru for 10,000 years; nobody ever had any problems with it. But suddenly the insane asylums were filling up with people suffering from this thing called “cocaine psychosis.” And the reason was because they were smoking it.
So by ’79, America’s drug experts knew it was coming and they went to Congress and said, “Oh, we got big problems.” Congress said, “Well, thanks for your testimony, doctor. See you later.” And that’s sort of where it stood. But in 1981, 1982, down in South Central Los Angeles, you got these Nicaraguans coming in with their kilos of cocaine. And after a while it wasn’t just a kilo or two: They had developed a market all up and down the west coast. They were selling it in Seattle, they were selling it in Portland. It wasn’t just, you know, to Black neighborhoods. It was to everybody.
But the problem was, they started selling it in the Black neighborhoods right when this crack epidemic crept into the United States. And so, what you had was this sort of collision of events in South Central, where you have a lot of cocaine coming in because it’s cheap — it’s getting cheaper by the day. Rick Ross’s operation was getting [larger]….Now he was getting requests for “rock.” And he didn’t really know what that was. And he had a couple people he was supplying to and they said, “We don’t want this powder anymore, what we want is ‘rocks’.” Because it gets you higher, it’s like, you know — powdered cocaine is nothing compared to this.
And he started making rock and distributed it. Once you took a drug that was $2,500 an ounce and made it into a drug that could get you just as high for 20 bucks, you got a big problem. You had a problem where a kilo of cocaine could now produce 30 million rocks of crack — one kilo. And suddenly everybody was doing crack cocaine. You know, you didn’t even need a job. It was a big hit. Just like the doctors told Congress in ’79 that it was a big problem in South America and it’s going to be a big problem here — and it was a big problem here. And the sort of, you know, horrifying part about this is: These guys weren’t down there looking around to sell cocaine because they wanted to sell cocaine to themselves; the Nicaraguans were down there selling cocaine for a reason. And that reason was to fund this war of theirs down in Central America.
You know, this took about seven or eight months to put these pieces together and figure out what had happened. And you know, we realized that this was a pretty major story. And so I went down to Nicaragua and I found Norwin Meneses. In 1985, a couple of his deputies got in trouble here....He stayed down there until after the war and then he went back to Nicaragua, where he was almost immediately arrested with 750 kilos of cocaine. And he wound up in jail, and that’s where I found him. I went down to talk to him. And I asked him about Danilo Blandón and I showed him a DEA report that I had gotten that said he had sold 5,000 kilos of cocaine in South Central. And he laughed! And he said, “Well, you might add a zero to that and you’d be a little closer.” Fifty thousand kilos of cocaine he had sold in South Central, according to the man who was selling it.
So the question came up: How did these guys sell that much cocaine — in the middle of the drug war — and never get caught? And we found why: They did get caught! In October 1986, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office executed a massive raid on these drug operations. According to the search warrant affidavits they filed to get these search warrants, these guys were selling cocaine to the Contras in 1986. They had laundered approximately 100 million dollars since the first of the year. They were probably a hundred people, Contra sympathizers, according to this affidavit, that were involved in this drug operation.
‘Working for the CIA’
They had a guy who was a “security consultant” named Ronald Lister, who was a former police officer, who had been working in counterintelligence for a number of years. He was a private security [consultant]….They had a company together that was exporting laser components, radar….They were selling weapons. They were selling weapons to the gangs in Los Angeles. They [L.A. County sheriffs] go, they file these raids, and they don’t find any cocaine at all. The houses had been almost swept clean. They found a house that was vacated and there was a water hose running in the sink [and all down] the floor. And they became convinced that somebody had burned their drug raid.
And they got to one house and they opened the door: A guy [Lister] is standing there in his bathrobe in this $350,000, $400,000 house in Mission Viejo. And he says to the cops — I talked to the cop who went to the door — he says, “What are you doing here?” He said, “Well, we’re executing a search warrant.” He goes, “I know why you’re doing it — what are you doing here?!” And the cops are looking at each other, and the guy says, “Listen, I’m working for the CIA. You’re not supposed to be here.” And this is in the police report, OK? This is in this police report we found. After the sheriff’s office denied that this raid had ever taken place, we found tons of records.
So they go into his house and they find weapons manuals for missiles, air-to-air missiles. They find a security proposal that the government of El Salvador would provide counterintelligence and countersurveillance of the leftist guerillas in El Salvador. They find maps of weapons routes in the country. And the cops say, “Wait a minute, we’re here on a drug raid. What is this?” And they just take it all. They get very excited and they take it all, take it down to the police department. And they pick up Danilo Blandón, and they do find a little bit of cocaine in his house. And they take him out to the police car and he’s going, “The cocaine is mine! The cocaine is mine! It’s not my wife’s! Don’t arrest her, it’s mine!” And they take him down, they figure, well, you know, “We got this guy. We’ve got pay sheets of his drug deals. We got an admission for cocaine possession.” He’s here as a political asylee, OK? It’s real simple — a real simple process to kick him out of the country. And then they get told, “You guys just go back to work,” you know, “this case has been adopted by the federal government. We’re not gonna file charges. They’re gonna take over the case.” And that’s the last they ever hear about him.
And about a month later, the drug dealer [Blandón] goes down to the Immigration and Naturalization Service — like most drug dealers who are usually caught in a raid [audience laughs]. And he goes and applies for permanent citizenship, OK? And he gets it! And he goes to Miami and he opens up a 24-city rent-a-car business, he opens up a restaurant, and he retires. In the meantime, Rick Ross has become the biggest cocaine trafficker in L.A. He’s doing two or three million dollars a day. He’s doing that much a day. And suddenly there’s crack everywhere. His primary [customers] were the Crips and Bloods, who were also getting weapons and sophisticated anti-bugging devices from Danilo Blandón and his friend, the ex-cop [Ronald Lister].
‘The whole world could read this story’
“So let me give you the story” — this is essentially what we say [in the “Dark Alliance” series]. And all of a sudden, everybody goes, “Oh! What are you saying? That the government was involved in this? That the government knew about this? How can you say that?” And we said, “Well, you know, it’s all on the record.” We’d put it on the World Wide Web; all of our documents are posted on the Internet. In case anybody wants to take a look at ’em, I’ll give you the web address: It’s www.sjmercury.com/drugs. [writes it on chalkboard] That’ll get you to the “Dark Alliance” web page.
You know, one of the things that I discovered in my research is that back in 1985, there had been this reporter [Robert Parry] that tried to do this story; actually they got a little bit of it on the AP wire by accident. And immediately what happened was the national media said, “Oh my God! There’s nothing to this! Are you saying the government’s involved? How can you say such a thing?” And this [AP] story just sort of died.
Then in 1988, 1989, a senator from Massachusetts named John Kerry held months and months of hearings on the question of whether the Contras were involved in cocaine trafficking. And they found that, yeah, they were! They had the pilots up there testifying about all the drugs they were flying in and out of the country. And they had the fact that there were four companies that were run by drug dealers that had State Department contracts to haul supplies to the Contras. They had the customs declarations of these CIA agents and the drug dealers who were flying in and out of the country with all this cash. I mean, these guys were smart; they didn’t want to get busted for currency violations: They filled out their forms that said they were taking $400,000 to the Bahamas. So they filed it and went on their way.
You had pilots coming in to testify that they were unloading cocaine in broad daylight on public airstrips. You had the Costa Rican government doing an investigation and deciding that, yeah, these guys were involved in drug trafficking — and so were a number of government officials. And they made them persona non grata! Oliver North can no longer go to Costa Rica. Lewis Tambs, the ambassador [from] the United States, is a persona non grata in Costa Rica. He can’t get into the country. You didn’t see any of this in the United States newspapers. And when somebody asked the Washington Post, you know, “Don’t you think it’s newsworthy that the Costa Rican legislature declared U.S. government officials persona non grata?”, the response was: “Well, just because the Costa Rican legislature says it, it doesn’t mean it’s true.” [laughter in audience]
So, you know, we knew that when we did this story, you know, the shit was going to hit the fan — as it had every time anybody had dared to raise this issue. And we said, “OK, how can we convince people that this is true,” you know, “that we’re not making this stuff up?” So we came up with that [Mercury News web page]. And this is something I think that really honked a lot of people off. We couldn’t just keep this story in San Jose now. In fact, the whole world could read this story. And yes, we went around and told people, “Hey, if you want to read this story, you don’t have to live in San Jose. You can look it up on the Internet.” And a lot of people did look it up on the Internet: I think one day we had 1.3 million hits on our website. And we kept working on the story. We found some additional documentation that said, yeah, you know, what we wrote back in August  was true — documents that we didn’t know existed then.
And yet, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post — papers that had ignored this story since 1987 — suddenly decided, “Well, there’s something here. Let’s take a look at it.” And so they went and they talked to the government. The government said — not on the record, of course, nobody wants to go on the record with anything — but they had high-level assurances that this stuff was just nonsense: that “Yeah, these guys were Contras but they weren’t ‘Contra officials’.” They didn’t have little cards that said they were Contra officials. And “Yeah, these guys were big drug dealers, but they weren’t the biggest drug dealers in the world; they only sold five tons.” And this was in the Washington Post. I’m not making this stuff up! [laughter in audience]. And “Yeah, they donated money to the Contras from this drug operation, but we have an anonymous source that says it was $50,000.” Meanwhile, we’ve got grand jury testimony and public sworn testimony that says it was between 12 and 18 million dollars....
And so this had been the sort of level of criticism that was raised against the series. And you know, like I said, we’re perfectly happy to show this to anybody in the universe — what we’re basing our story on. We’ve posted the documents on the website. And it’s really significant stuff. I mean, I was really delighted to see this. I came up with some undercover DEA tapes where this Nicaraguan [Blandón] was bragging about all the thousands of kilos of cocaine he sold to “those Blacks.” And he said, “You know, I only sell to Blacks because they go through this stuff fast. I don’t even need warehouses. I bring this stuff in, and you don’t even need the warehouse.” This was on these DEA tapes.
‘Damn, this is great’
One important part of the story I forget to mention is that when I finally tracked down Danilo Blandón, the guy who brought all this dope into South Central, you know what he was doing? He was working for the U.S. government! [laughter in audience] He wasn’t in jail — he was a DEA informant! See, after he retired to Miami, he got into a little problem with GM. And he told about this in court, which I found rather fascinating: It was all these problems with General Motors, a line of credit that he set up with Chrysler — you know, just drove him crazy, drove him to bankruptcy. So he had to get back into the cocaine business.
And so he went back to Los Angeles and started selling down in South Central again; he came up here and started selling in San Jose, started selling in the Bay Area. And then he got caught. And so, what did the federal government do? They had this guy that sold all these tons and tons and tons of cocaine for all these years. His mandatory sentencing, according to the prosecutor, was off the charts — that’s what he said in court. He [Blandón] got 28 months. Suddenly he decided, “I have a lot to tell these guys.” And the federal government said, “Oh yeah, yeah, tell us about it. Meanwhile, why don’t you come and work for us? We’ll make you a citizen, we’ll make your wife a citizen. We’ll start a new business for you.” And so he started a new business down in Nicaragua. And the government’s paid him at last count — the last they’ve admitted to — $166,000 for working for the DEA. And what is his case, what is the first case he gives them? Freeway Rick Ross — the guy he was selling all this cocaine to.
I think this is the first time in history that you get a drug trafficker and instead of going up the ladder, you go down the ladder: You get the guy’s [buyer] instead of the supplier. And the reason they couldn’t get a supplier is because Mr. Meneses was also working for the DEA. These guys didn’t go to jail! They became government employees. And they became informants for the federal government. And that’s what Mr. Blandón is now. That’s where I found him; that’s what he was doing. And he was getting ready to testify against Freeway Rick. After he had decided he would be a good guy now and go work for the government, he sets up Ross on a drug sting. He got him. And now Rick Ross is looking at life without parole.
….He [Blandón] was on the witness stand, and I thought, “Damn, this is great.” He was up there as a federal witness — under oath — with the Justice Department and the DEA standing up there before a jury, swearing this man always tells the truth. But there’s nobody else in the courtroom but me, and I’m writing all this down. And after this whole thing is over with, a DEA agent walks up to me and he goes, “Nice going, asshole” [audience chuckles]. And I just kind of smiled and nodded, thanked him for his concern [audience roars]. And I went back, and we did the story….