We’ve all seen a television show or a movie about an undercover narcotics cop who become crooked. He loses the trust of his colleagues, then his family. Soon, the only contacts he has are with the world of drug dealers that he originally set out to destroy. Now picture this scenario of the criminal cop on a worldwide scale and condoned by various governments and their agencies, including that of the United States. Let’s go a step further and understand that not only are these governments condoning these rogue activities, they consider them valuable to their national security. So, they allow drug dealers to bring huge amounts of heroin and cocaine into the country while at the same time others on the government payroll are arresting drug dealers not favored by US intelligence.
The scenario described above is but one aspect of the so-called war on drugs waged by the United States government. The “war” as it is being fought is, like all wars, much different than originally advertised. Even if there were pure motives ascribed to this war at its inceptions, those motives have long since disintegrated into an abyss of duplicity, denial, and atrocity. Like its progeny the global war on terror, the US war on drugs is a war that its antagonists never want to end since its termination would mean an end to their profit and status. Indeed, an end to the war on drugs would mean an end to the very agencies designed to fight it and the billions of dollars those agencies take from the taxpayers every year. Also like the global war on terror, the war on drugs is against an enemy that does not exist in terms of sovereignty persons, but as a phenomenon impossible to defeat. Therefore, it is an endless pursuit. In addition, it is a pursuit where the individual actors are often on both sides of the battle: where a drug dealer is also an informer and where a terrorist is also a CIA plant. To top it all off, these two wars on phantasms are interlinked. From the poppy fileds and heroin labs of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the coca fields and cocaine labs of Colombia (with many other places in between), the funding of terror and insurgent groups and the funding of forces fighting them is connected to the international drug trade.
The web of individuals, criminal groups, and other organizations involved in the international drug trade is multidimensional and complex. This is also the case with the individuals and agencies enlisted by the US government to fight that trade. The federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are among those who have attempted to catalog the elements involved in the drug trade. Author Douglas Valentine (The Phoenix Program) is one of the few that have attempted to catalog and describe the web woven by the government agencies supposedly fighting that trade. In so doing, he has described a system riddled with corruption and criminality. Sometimes this is the work of individuals enlisted by the agencies; sometimes it is the result of interagency turf battles; and sometimes it is agency policy.
Valentine’s first book on the subject is titled The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs. This book told the history of Henry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in all of its corrupt detail and racist assumptions. The stories between the book’s covers have enough fodder for a dozen Hollywood movies or a multitude of crime novels. His latest on the subject, The Strength of the Pack: The People, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA, covers the period beginning with the dissolution of the FBN, the short tenure of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and the creation and continued existence of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It is a voluminous work with more characters than the proverbial Russian novel. Impeccably researched and documented, The Strength of the Pack details the cowboy attitudes of BNDD and DEA agents and the criminal acts with which they were often involved. It is the story of a bureaucracy constantly at odds with itself and with other agencies, especially the CIA. The conflict with the CIA was directly tied to that agency’s use of drug running enterprises in its counterintelligence endeavors. It is the author’s contention that this conflict was a product of the CIA’s pursuit of its anticommunist agenda no matter what the cost. This contention is supported by the facts presented. There are mafia drug dealers let go and murderers employed by the CIA left to continue their criminal pursuits–all because of the role they played in Washington’s war against the Soviet Union.
The US war on drugs begun by Richard Nixon preceded the war on terror by almost twenty years. The destruction of the Bill of Rights Americans currently accept as fact began then. No Knock warrantless searches, torture of suspects, and the assassination of foreign individuals became accepted practice under the DEA. Indeed, some of these became law. Like the war on terror, the war on drugs preys on the fear of the unknown. Likewise, it presents the use of force as the most effective means to fight the war, despite decades of evidence proving that this is not the case. Also, like the war on terror, the war on drugs has created a bureaucracy and a subsidiary industry in the private sector that exists only to perpetuate itself. This is arguably a primary reason why marijuana remains illegal in the United States–because too many people on the supposedly right side of the law make a living from its illegality.
Valentine seeks the truth in his books. In doing so, he uncovers a lot of ugliness regarding the men and women who say they are protecting us. For some readers, his revelations about the US-run assassination program in Vietnam called the Phoenix program or his detailing of the corruption and criminality of those hired by the US government to keep heroin and cocaine away from America’s youth might be too much. This in itself is reason enough to read his books. The facade of morality that the DEA hides behind should be torn away if this country is to ever have a sane and humane drug policy. Just as importantly, that facade needs to be destroyed if it is ever to have a sane and humane foreign policy.
As Valentine’s books make perfectly clear, there is more than a bit of venality behind almost every bureaucrat and political appointee presented to the populace in any given year. Donald Rumsfeld or Hilary Clinton, Robert McNamara or William Colby, the men and women that run the United States are, after all, human. Some would argue that they define humanity’s baser elements.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org