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The Pusher Man

by Alfred W. McCoy
Author of The Politics of Heroin : CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade

article by Cockburn on CIA drug coverup
As the winner of the Cold War, the United States has been spared any painful self-examination, any need to question the methods we used or price we paid for victory in the longest of our nation's wars. By contrast, our former enemies, the peoples of Russia and Eastern Europe, have been forced into an endless, agonizing self-reflection as they try to rebuild societies ravaged by decades of authoritarian rule.

Through these struggles for reform and renewal, communism's notorious espionage agencies -- the Stasi, Securitate and KGB -- have been swept away, their files opened and, in some cases, their leaders investigated and even indicted. Alone among the major covert agencies that fought the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency survives, its files still sealed, its crimes unexamined. Not only has the CIA survived, but it has parlayed its claims of victory over communism to win massive budget increases that make it one of the most powerful federal agencies.

In the midst of this smug silence, Alexander Cockburn and his collaborator Jeffrey St. Clair set out to correct the nation's oversight with a detailed indictment of the CIA's many crimes in White-Out: The CIA, Drugs and the Press.

Using the recent controversy over the Contra links to cocaine to launch their bill of particulars, the authors focus on the history of the agency's hypocritical policy toward drugs during the Cold War. Their thesis is stark, even dismal. To fight fascism during World War II, the United States created its first clandestine agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and then used it at war's end to collect German scientists and intelligence operatives who could assist the United States in its struggle against the Soviet Union.

Not only did the OSS and like agencies recruit German rocket scientists, they also sought out the perverse specialists who had directed the Nazi's brutal experiments into human physiology and psychology. After the OSS died and was then reborn as the CIA in 1947, the agency continued the Nazi-inspired experiments into human psychology, focusing on the use of drugs such as LSD and THC for interrogation of suspected spies and double agents.

Moreover, the CIA, in another cynical exercise of its virtually unchecked powers, forged a series of tactical alliances with urban drug dealers and highland drug lords to fight communism across the globe, from Marseilles to Managua, from the Khyber Pass to the Plain of Jars. By stacking anecdote upon incident, the authors chronicle the agency's horrific record of assassination, torture, coups and coverups. To carry out these many missions, the agency has, the authors tell us, allied with Mafiosi, murderers, drug lords and drug dealers on five continents.

By probing these two strands of the CIA's involvement in drugs, Cockburn and St. Clair seek a moral indictment against the agency. They seem to hope that their relentless expose of CIA criminality might somehow shock a self-satisfied American public to demand reform of this clandestine bureaucracy that has remained above the law for over 50 years. Indeed, these chilling details, this succession of grisly incidents, makes for a very disturbing book. Though I have researched many of these incidents for my own work on CIA complicity in drug trafficking, I found myself at times repulsed, even nauseated, by some passages.

I emerged from this netherworld deeply depressed that American society still refused to reform an agency whose covert operations mock our nation's commitment to an international rule of law.

Flaws in book

Though their main allegations are sound and well-sourced, this is not a work without flaws. In their determination to pack almost every known CIA crime into these 400 pages, Cockburn and St. Clair produced a book that is short on analysis and lacking any recommendations for reform. Most important, the authors, as working journalists, invest their formidable energies in amassing a string of incidents often linked only by a loose logic of association ("that reminds me of another CIA story") -- a style that denies their argument a certain coherence.

This problem lies at the core of the book's structure. Even though LSD and heroin are both drugs, there is little connection between the agency's mind-control experiments and its paramilitary alliances with drug lords. Drug experimentation was the work of twisted lab scientists. Relations with drug lords were forged by field operatives trying to mount covert operations in disparate corners of the globe. Though separate topics, in the end they both reveal a great deal about the moral and political costs of investing an executive agency with extraordinary powers.

For Cockburn and St. Clair, and the specialists they cite, the CIA's mind- control experiments have an almost bizarre quality marked by cruelty, illegality and, above all, failure. Take Dr. Sidney Gottlieb and his "house of horrors." In his struggle to perfect the mind-control work of Nazi doctors, this CIA scientist spiked the drinks of colleagues with LSD at a meeting in 1953. One of his unwitting subjects, Dr. Frank Olson, suffered a mental breakdown and eventually jumped to his death from a New York hotel where the agency had confined him for observation -- a crime that the CIA covered up for the next 30 years.

Despite such setbacks, the CIA, the authors tell us, still regarded the human mind an important Cold War battleground and poured millions into these experiments of dubious scientific value. In their determination to test various drug concoctions on unsuspecting subjects, CIA agents injected North Korean prisoners, spiked drinks at a New York City party house, pumped hallucinogens into children at summer camp, paid San Francisco prostitutes to slip designer drugs to their customers and collected powerful toxic compounds from Amazon tribes.

In 1963, the CIA's inspector general stumbled across the project in a routine audit and eventually compiled a 24-page report for the CIA director condemning these experiments for putting "the rights and interests of all Americans in jeopardy."

But powerful backers such as Richard Helms criticized the resulting suspension on grounds that it weakened the CIA's "positive operational capacity to use drugs" and the program soon revived. During the Vietnam War, when Helms himself was CIA director, agency researchers drugged one group of Viet Cong prisoners with LSD, wired their brains with electrodes, and then, when the experiment failed, shot the prisoners and burned their bodies.

Unfortunately, the authors leave readers with an impression that these CIA scientists were a bunch of bungling Dr. Strangeloves on a laboratory spree. But there is more, much more, to this story. Though Dr. Gottlieb could be capricious and even cruel, his efforts seem almost innocent when compared to the CIA's more serious research into human psychology.

Barbaric torture that became the hallmark of military dictatorships for 20 years

In January 1997, the Baltimore Sun published extracts from the CIA's "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual -- 1983," the latest edition of a torture how- to handbook distributed to Latin American armies for 20 years.

Starting in 1950, the CIA sponsored academic research into what Christopher Simpson called, in his book Science of Coercion, "the relative usefulness of drugs, electroshock, violence, and other coercive techniques." For more than a decade, the agency, working through foundations and other government units, funded much of the basic psychology research at universities across the United States. Once academics resolved the relevant theoretical questions about coercion, in-house CIA researchers applied their findings to develop sophisticated torture techniques.

Thus, instead of Dr. Gottlieb's LSD or the soldier's natural inclination to physical brutality, the agency's manual teaches psychological tactics to break down a subject's "capacity to resist": Start with a pre-dawn arrest to shock; strip- search to humiliate; and confine in a windowless room to disorient. Through "persistent manipulation of time" by "retarding and advancing clocks, disrupting sleep schedules," the CIA-trained questioner can, the manual tells us, break a subject's will, driving "him deeper and deeper into himself, until he is no longer able to control his responses in an adult fashion."

At the height of the Cold War, the CIA used this manual to train military interrogators in Latin America and perhaps Southeast Asia, propagating and legitimating the systematic, barbaric torture that became the hallmark of military dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s.

While the agency's mind control followed a classical scientific progression from lab experimentation to everyday application, its alliances with drug lords were the accidental discoveries of the agency's paramilitary specialists in covert battlegrounds scattered across three continents.

The most important of these covert alliances came in Asia as the CIA probed communism's soft underbelly. In one of history's accidents, the Iron Curtain fell along an Asian opium zone that stretches for 5,000 miles from Turkey to Thailand. In Burma in the 1950s, Laos in the 1970s, and Afghanistan in the 1980s, the CIA used highland warlords to mobilize tribal armies against the Soviet Union and Communist China.

These leaders exploited the CIA alliance to become drug lords, expanding opium production and exporting heroin. The agency tolerated such trafficking and, when necessary, blocked investigations. Ruthless drug lords made effective anti- communist allies and heroin profits amplified their power.

By 1971, 34 percent of U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam were heroin addicts

In their three chapters on CIA operations in Asia, Cockburn and St. Clair, summarizing my own book on this same subject, produce a succinct history of agency complicity with these Asian drug lords. Since this is still, for most Americans, a hidden history, it needs a brief summary lest readers regard the idea of CIA alliances with Asian warlords as a fable from the frames of the "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip.

Starting in 1950, only three years after its foundation, CIA agents in northern Burma fostered political alliances that, inadvertently, linked that country's poppy fields with Southeast Asia's urban drug markets. After the collapse of the Nationalist Chinese government in 1949, some 14,000 troops had fled across the border into northeastern Burma. To retaliate against Communist China for its intervention in the Korean War, President Truman ordered the CIA to organize these Nationalist remnants for an invasion of southwestern China.

After three separate incursions in 1950-51 failed, the Nationalist troops camped along the Burma borderlands for another decade, turning to opium to finance their operations. During the early 1950s, when the CIA was still actively involved, its proprietary airline Civil Air Transport flew the opium from Burma to Thailand. There the CIA's local ally, police commander Phao Sriyanod, provided the Nationalist Chinese forces with logistics support and exported their opium to markets in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

After the Burmese Army evicted them in 1961, the Nationalist Chinese irregulars established new base camps just across the border in Thailand and from there dominated Burma's opium trade until the early 1980s. By forcing local hill tribes to produce the drug, these Nationalist Chinese troops presided over a massive increase of poppy cultivation in northeastern Burma -- from 18 tons in 1958 to an estimated 400 to 600 tons by 1970.

In Laos during the 1960s, the CIA battled communists with a secret army of 30,000 Hmong tribesmen, tough highlanders whose only cash crop was opium. When Hmong officers loaded opium on the CIA's Air America and the Royal Lao Army's commander opened a heroin laboratory, the agency was silent.

"The past involvement of many of these officers in drugs is well known," the CIA's inspector general said in a secret 1972 report, "yet their goodwill ... considerably facilitates the military activities of Agency-supported irregulars."

By 1971, 34 percent of U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam were heroin addicts -- all supplied from laboratories operated by CIA assets. When the American soldiers finally left Saigon, heroin followed them home. By 1974, Southeast Asian syndicates were supplying a quarter of U.S. demand with Golden Triangle heroin. But Asia was too remote for allegations of CIA complicity to pack any political punch.

The CIA did everything possible to conceal this drug dealing by its Laotian assets. When I went to Laos to investigate the heroin traffic in 1971, the Lao army commander graciously opened his opium accounts, but the U.S. mission stonewalled. In a Hmong village where we were investigating opium shipments on the agency's Air America, CIA mercenaries opened fire on my research team. A CIA operative threatened to murder my Lao interpreter unless I quit. When my book was published a year later, CIA agents in Laos pressed my sources to recant and convinced the House Foreign Relations Committee that my allegations were baseless.

Simultaneously, however, the CIA's inspector general conducted an internal investigation, quoted at length in White-Out, that confirmed the core of my allegations. "The war has clearly been our overriding priority in Southeast Asia, and all other issues have taken second place," the inspector said in defense of their inaction on drugs. "It would be foolish to deny this, and we see no reason to do so."

Though Cockburn and St. Clair offer a good summary of my work, their argument, perhaps their bias, leads them astray at one critical point. "Reviews of McCoy's book were hostile," they write, "suggesting that his hundreds of well-sourced interviews and reporting amounted to conspiratorial rumor-mongering by a radical opponent of the war." Not true.

If it had not been for the national press, the CIA may well have succeeded in its attempt to suppress my book. When my manuscript was at Harper & Row, the CIA's deputy director for covert operations called on the publisher and won the right to a prior review. During the 10 days that the CIA had my manuscript, the media launched a barrage of criticism -- the Washington Post published an angry editorial, NBC aired an hour-long documentary, and The New York Times carried a front-page story. Facing such sharp criticism, the agency backed down, and my book was published unaltered.

Admittedly, the media were probably fighting for their own press freedoms, threatened by the agency's prior review, and might have otherwise ignored the story. Indeed, only a few years later The New York Times and Washington Post would fail to pursue very similar stories of drug dealing by agency assets in Afghanistan and Central America.

by McCoy about Dark Alliance

The heart of Cockburn and St. Clair's book concerns the major CIA covert operations of the 1980s. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the Sandinistas seized Nicaragua, prompting two CIA operations that soon became mired in the narcotics traffic.

During the 1980s, the CIA, working through Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence, spent $3.2 billion on the Afghan resistance. Before this massive operation started, Pakistan and Afghanistan had harvested limited amounts of opium for markets in nearby Iran. Apart from a few crude labs in Tehran, there was little local heroin production and almost no exports.

Within two years, however, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands had become the world's top heroin producer, supplying 60 percent of America's demand and an even larger share of Europe's rapidly expanding market. In Pakistan itself, the number of heroin addicts soared from zero in 1979 to 1.2 million only six years later.

Again, agency assets controlled this heroin trade. As CIA-backed guerrillas seized territory inside Afghanistan, they ordered local farmers to plant poppy and pay a revolutionary tax in opium. Across the border, Afghan leaders and local dealers operated heroin laboratories under the protection of Pakistani intelligence, the CIA's chosen conduit in this secret war. During this decade of wide-open heroin dealing by agency assets that supplied a half million American addicts, the U.S. media was, like the CIA itself, silent on drug dealing by our covert-action allies.

In Central America, sheer proximity complicated the CIA's task of concealing its alliances with drug dealers. Unlike the CIA's Asian drug lords, the Contras and their allies did not produce narcotics and had to make money by smuggling cocaine directly into the U.S., where they risked arrest and media exposure. As it was then doing in Afghanistan, the CIA ignored the traffic and intervened to block investigations. And, as Cockburn and St. Clair point out with a sharply accusing finger, the American media again cooperated by ignoring reports of Contra alliances with cocaine smugglers.

Apart from an almost accidental AP report in 1986 and a later CBS documentary, the media ignored the story until 1996, when The San Jose Mercury News tried to establish a direct connection between the Contra war and the distribution of drugs in the United States. According to reporter Gary Webb, this "dark alliance" began in the early 1980s when the Contra revolt against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government was failing for lack of funds. In 1981, the CIA hired ex-Nicaraguan army Colonel Enrique Bermudez to organize what became main Contra guerrilla army, the FDN. Bermudez then turned to two Nicaraguan exiles in the U.S. to supplement meager agency support with drug profits.

In California, Danilo Blandon, the former director of Nicaragua's farm marketing program, used his formidable business skills to open a new drug- distribution network for the Contras. Sensing the potential of the Los Angeles market, Blandon allied with the then neophyte, now legendary, drug dealer "Freeway Rick" Ross to convert tons of cocaine into low-cost crack and thus exploit what was still an untapped market among the city's poor blacks. With seemingly limitless supplies of cheap cocaine from Central America, Ross systematically undercut rival dealers and built a booming drug business that spread up the California coast and across the Midwest. During its decade of operation, this crack-distribution network, according to White-Out, enjoyed a de facto immunity from prosecution. Whenever the DEA, Customs, the Los Angeles County Sheriff, or Congress tried to investigate, the CIA and the Justice Department denied information on grounds of "national security."

With Alfred McCoy

After this overwhelming catalog of crimes, Cockburn and St. Clair are content to conclude on an ironic note. Last year, on its 50th anniversary, the CIA looked into a future without communism and proclaimed its new mission as the fight against international crime, particularly drug trafficking. "If they were alive to read the CIA's prospectus," the authors write, "the ghosts of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky ... Barry Seal, and thousands of others would surely have laughed at the effrontery of their old partner in crime."

Yet, this question of the CIA's future seems far too important for us to leave it, as the authors do, at the level of simple irony, no matter how delicious. I would argue instead that we need to put aside the comfortable self-assurance from our Cold War victory and begin asking some hard questions about the CIA's future.

Now that the Cold War is over, do we really need a CIA armed with the extraordinary powers that place it beyond the law? If so, do we want the CIA to fight the drug war with the same covert-action arsenal it used in the Cold War?

There is good reason to doubt the CIA's usefulness in the war on drugs. As an intelligence, espionage and covert-action agency, the CIA has developed an ingrained institutional culture for operating outside the law. Unless we are to adopt President Nixon's option of wholesale assassination of drug lords, the CIA is ill-equipped for the fight against crime.

Above all, we need to ask whether we want the CIA to preserve its Cold War powers to conduct covert operations effectively exempt from both legal restraint and legislative oversight. There is reason to believe that the CIA's reliance on criminals for these special missions was not just a product of the Cold War. Rather, the CIA often needs criminals and their mastery of the "clandestine arts" to carry out these covert operations -- whether destabilization of hostile regimes, assassination of foreign leaders or mobilization of mercenary armies.

In fact, these alliances with drug dealers and drug lords were not just an aberration, an expedient born of the Cold War. They are an integral part of the CIA's covert operational capacity.

Now, nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War, it seems that we are faced with a clear choice. We can either deny the agency the authority to conduct covert operations, or we can accept that future clandestine missions will involve CIA in criminal alliances.

Alfred W. McCoy teaches in the history department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

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Albion Monitor November 14, 1998 (

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