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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein


Chapter 15 -- The June Scenario

  As long as the execution of the coup is rapid, and we are cloaked in anonymity, no particular political faction will have either a motive or an opportunity to oppose us.



In June, 1971, G. Gordon Liddy, a man possessed with a purpose, ascended to the inner circle of power at the White House. His attempt to take over the thousand-man Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms enforcement unit of the Treasury Department on behalf of the White House group had been successfully resisted by the Treasury Department earlier that year, and his immediate superior, Eugene Rossides, had moved to ease him out of that department entirely. But Liddy foresaw that the heroin issue could be the very instrument that the White House group needed to consolidate power within the bureaucracy, and thereby extend its police power. To demonstrate how a few determined men could manipulate the emotions of an entire nation by invoking a few highly visual symbols of fear, Liddy invited his new cohorts in the White House to a series of propaganda films being shown in the National Archives that June. The "Inner circle" that Liddy persuaded to view these films included John Ehrlichman, whose Domestic Council 'had assumed by now undisputed control over all domestic issues; Egil Krogh; Donald Santarelli, who was then slated to head the billion-dollar Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which disbursed money to local police departments; Robert Mardian, who headed the internal-security division of the Department of Justice; and a number of Krogh's young assistants on the Domestic Council. The cycle of films was climaxed on June 13 by the showing of Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film made under the auspices of Hitler and Goering which graphically depicted the way a "national will" could be inculcated into the masses through the agency of controlled fear and frenzied outrage.

Krogh later recalled that he had "considerable apprehension" about hiring Gordon Liddy to work for the White House on the drug program. Rossides had warned him that Liddy was both disloyal and potentially dangerous." Indeed, these were the reasons Rossides tendered for dismissing Liddy from the Treasury Department. Disloyalty to a bureaucracy might mean loyalty to the president, Krogh reasoned. Moreover, given Rossides's record of bureaucratic infighting, Krogh interpreted the potential danger of Liddy as simply his will to act decisively and cut through red tape. Krogh later came to the realization that Liddy had "simply a higher energy level than anyone else" and that therefore he could be extremely persuasive in moving others to action. And as Krogh gradually became persuaded that the drug issue was the best available lever for moving and reorganizing entrenched bureaucracies in the government, Liddy, with his ideas for mobilizing popular support on the drug issue, seemed an "Invaluable addition" to his staff on the Domestic Council.

Nixon's Domestic Council analyzed the implications of launching a heroin crusade for more than a year but found that their plans were always undercut by bureaucrats in the various agencies of the government. With the 1972 election quickly approaching, Krogh decided the time was right for presidential action. Due to a fortunate turn of events earlier that year, a military coup d'etat in Turkey had swept into office Nihat Erim, who was willing to suspend temporarily the cultivation of opium poppies in Turkey-a long-term objective of the Nixon administration-in return for some token compensation. It seemed feasible for the president to pull a publicity coup of his own by meeting with Prime Minister Erim and jointly announcing what the media would assume to be, if properly prepared by the White House staff, a brilliant victory over heroin addiction and crime in America (even though Turkey at the time produced only a small portion of the world's illicit opium).

On another front, Ehrlichman had finally been persuaded by Krogh and Donfeld that a massive federal program to distribute the synthetic narcotic methadone was the only real hope the administration had of reducing crime statistics, if not crime, before the upcoming election.

Despite the tough rhetoric of the Nixon law-and-order campaign, crime had actually risen in the United States, even in Washington, D.C., where the federal government had direct control over the police, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Substantive measures. such as court reform or reorganizing police departments, could not possibly have an effect on crime statistics in time for the 1972 election, Krogh cogently argued. One of the largest categories of arrests in urban centers was narcotics violations-which in most cases merely meant the revolving-door arrests of junkies and their subsequent release a few days later. Donfeld pointed out that if large numbers of addicts received legal methadone rather than illegal heroin, and were enrolled in some sort of treatment program through which the methadone was distributed, narcotics violations could be expected to decrease dramatically in major cities, and this alone might bring about diminished crime reporting by local police departments. Moreover, if addicts received free narcotics from the government, their financial motivation for stealing might be diminished, and this might show up In police reporting. A month earlier, John Mitchell had objected to the methadone scheme on the grounds that there would undoubtedly be enormous leakage of methadone into illegal markets, and it then would become another illegal drug for the Justice Department to deal with. Krogh agreed that a large amount of methadone that was given to addicts to take home with them over weekends would be resold illicitly, but he held that such a diversion of methadone into the illegal market would serve to undercut the price of heroin and thereby both disrupt the illicit market and again reduce the financial burden of the criminal addict. Doubts regarding any large-scale distribution of this untried narcotic by the government remained, but Mitchell agreed not to oppose the election-year plan, if Ehrlichman believed that the methadone program would dramatically reduce crime statistics.

Elliot Richardson was another problem. Despite Krogh's fervent arguments, Richardson prudently refused to accept methadone as a mere election-year expedient. However, as Ehrlichman controlled access to the president, he was confident that Richardson's objections could be watered down and bypassed. According to the "outlines of the discussion with the President" kept by Krogh that month, Ehrlichman effectively skirted the real objections of both Mitchell and Richardson and only told the president, "Although controversial on moral, social, and medical grounds, and although not the answer to heroin addiction, methadone is the most effective technique now available for reducing heroin and criminal recidivism...... Nixon was thus never fully apprised of the depth of dissent among his highest ranking cabinet officers on the methadone question. Advised instead that methadone was the only means at the administration's disposal for reducing crime statistics by election time, the president tentatively approved the methadone program.

At one meeting in early June, with H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and others, Krogh noted that the president expressed a desire to have changes in personnel through the federal agencies dealing with the drug problem. According to the memorandum in the President's File of that meeting, "he wants people brought in from outside of the government ... and he wants a sense of urgency injected throughout the whole program. The President said that no one's feelings should be spared ... the President wants the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to be shaken up; he wants budgets cut and government hacks fired." This was also the moment Krogh and Ehrlichman were waiting for to reorganize the government bureaucracies. A "special-action office," operating directly out of the White House under the aegis of Krogh, would take over the operations of various agencies in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Such a move would particularly undermine NIMH and HEW, which had advocated a scientific rather than a law-and-order approach to the drug problem. Krogh advised Ehrlichman that "bureaucratic sluggishness has made it difficult for NIMH to accept and implement new ideas ... note the philosophic direction of NIMH and why it has not helped development." Ehrlichman in turn told the president, "There is no mechanism to insure concerted action. Efforts and coordination of the seven agencies dealing with drugs failed even at the Domestic Council level." He thus recommended to the president at the beginning of June that a joint-action group on drugs be established by executive order and include members of both his Domestic Council and Henry Kissinger's National Security Council. This group, according to the outline of the discussion with the president, was to have responsibility for the "inter-relations of law enforcement agencies" and for coordinating "International considerations to domestic considerations."

Before a heroin crusade could be properly launched, however, public attention had to be focused on the drug menace. Krogh thus planned a scenario which would begin in early June with the deliberately leaked news of American ambassadors in various countries being recalled over the drug issue. It would then reach an exciting climax with President Nixon's proclaiming to both houses of Congress a national emergency over the heroin epidemic. And it would finally be resolved on June 30 by the well-publicized announcement that Turkey had agreed to an opium ban. According to the June scenario, heroin crises would be periodically intensified as the president was proposing new legislation to Congress. When Krogh asked Haldeman in a memorandum on June 7, "Should new drug abuse legislation be introduced (1) to [create a more] unified authority (2) to add new authority in the area or (3) to add visibility to the President's program?" Haldeman, always businesslike, answered that the purpose of proposing new legislation was (3)-in other words, public relations. The second stage in the June scenario was to convene an emergency cabinet meeting. Ambassadors were to be urgently recalled from Turkey, NATO, Thailand, and France, with someone leaking to the press that "the president has a plan" to eradicate opium. Three days before the meeting, it would further be officially announced that the ambassadors were on their way home, and that "the president would propose new initiatives." An arrangement was made with ABC Television secretly to televise portions of the cabinet meeting, so it could later be released to the American public, with the White House reserving the right to edit the tape for its own benefit. It was also planned that at the meeting Ingersoll would brief the cabinet on the dimensions of the epidemic, and the president would ask Ingersoll, who was proving increasingly troublesome to the White House group, some embarrassing but difficult questions, according to the handwritten scenarios prepared by Krogh and his staff.

The president's declaration of a national emergency was to be a masterpiece of fear-mongering, rivaling the rhetoric of Governor Nelson Rockefeller in New York State, which had provided Nixon's speech writers with vivid metaphors for public hysteria over heroin. Nixon's speech would compare "the epidemic" to a cancer spreading across the youth of the nation. This cancer would threaten the safety of every citizen, not only through the possibility of addiction but also by precipitating a national crime wave. The very nation would be imperiled by this new threat. The president would then propose a I sweeping reorganization of government and supplemental appropriations for the law-enforcement agencies. After the speech, according to the scenario, high administration officials would brief members of the press on the emergency and the president would meet privately with media executives. Meanwhile, Charles Colson, a special counsel to the president, was to arrange major leaks-to Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report-of the spreading heroin crisis.

Finally, at the end of June, the scenario called for the prime minister of Turkey be flown to the United States to meet with President Nixon and jointly announce the opium ban. If all went well, the scenario planners hoped that the public-and the news media would accept this as a first victory in the war against heroin and endorse other elements in the president's crusade, including the reorganization of the bureaucratic agencies of the government. The scenario assumed that congressmen would not be able to resist the drumfire of publicity about the "drug menace" or to vote against any element of the president's crusade without appearing to their constituents to be soft on drugs. As one of Krogh's assistants later explained to me, "If we hyped the drug problem into a national crisis, we knew that Congress would give us anything we asked for."

The carefully orchestrated scenario unfolded as planned during the first two weeks in June, 1971. Surreptitious news stories about the emerging heroin crisis began surfacing in the nation's press. Congressmen demanded immediate action. On Monday, June 14, as scheduled, five American ambassadors were recalled to Washington and harangued by President Nixon about the threat of a national drug crisis. On June 13, 1971, with the final draft of President Nixon's speech declaring a national emergency over the heroin issue, the White House planners had seemingly succeeded in manufacturing a crisis to which Congress would respond with funds and reorganization authority. That night, however, an unforeseen event preempted their publicity drive: the New York Times decided to begin publishing the Pentagon Papers.

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