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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 19 - World War III


 On August 2, 1971, Nelson Gross, of Saddle River, New Jersey, was chosen to lead a worldwide attack on illicit drugs. As A New Jersey politician, Gross had been successful in staging a quiet revolt against the older wing of the Republican party in New Jersey, thus gaining a modicum of power for himself in 1968. He failed to win elected office as a congressman or senator, even though he ran loyally on President Nixon's law-and-order theme. After his defeat for the Senate in 1970, Gross asked Nixon for a position in foreign policy, and Nixon appointed him senior advisor and coordinator for international narcotics matters at the Department of State. In theory, the "global war against drugs was to be coordinated by the newly created (September, 1971) Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control, which held its first meeting on network television and included such illustrious figures as Secretary of State William Rogers, who nominally chaired the new committee, Attorney General John Mitchell, Secretary of the Treasury John Connally, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, and CIA director Richard Helms. The committee met on only three other occasions before it was phased out after the 1972 election, and most of the day-to-day tactical decisions were left to Gross and Egil Krogh, who was, in addition to his other duties, executive director of the cabinet committee.

Although a battle had temporarily been won in Turkey, the war against heroin was anything but over-at least as far as Gross and Krogh were concerned. The 1972 election was little more than a year away, and there was the dramatic possibility for further victories in the war against heroin. The rapidly expanding BNDD (its budget had trebled in four years) advanced the theory that there still remained a large Turkish stockpile of opium, which would explain the need for drug agents in the foreseeable future. According to the convenient stockpile theory, every Turkish poppy farmer had squirreled away a hoard of opium as a dowry for his daughter's marriage and for other future emergencies. Even though they were now being forced by their government to plow under their opium crops, they could reach into this presumed hoard and sell it to traffickers for the American market.

President Nixon had already publicly demanded the eradication of the poppy flower from the entire world, and Gross concluded that America could not wait for the screw worm to be developed. The Golden Triangle was not only producing ten times as much illicit opium as Turkey ever produced but supplying about 20 percent of the American soldiers in Vietnam with pure heroin. Gross foresaw that it was only a matter of time before this Golden Triangle heroin found its way into the American market, and he decided to consult Graham Martin, who had been ambassador to Thailand and to Italy before becoming ambassador to South Vietnam. Much to Gross's surprise, but not necessarily to the White House staffs, Ambassador Martin, in a state of exasperation, reported in no uncertain terms that the only way of disrupting the supply of opium from the Golden Triangle was to organize assassination teams to kill the few key traffickers that controlled the trade. Though New Jersey politics in Gross's day were fairly tough, assassinations seemed extreme.

Instead, Gross decided to -make heroin a primary foreign-policy objective of the United States. He ordered fifty-odd American embassies around the world to draw tip fiction plans which specified how American diplomats in those countries could stimulate interest in the heroin problem to persuade the host government to conform to American narcotics objectives, and to detail ways in which the CIA and State Department intelligence could be used to discover and intercept heroin traffic. Gross further wanted American diplomats to threaten any country that refused to cooperate in the effort with an immediate cutoff of economic and military aid. He even suggested the use of the American veto to prevent the World Bank and other international financial organizations from extending credit to such countries. There was considerable concern in the higher councils of the State Department that such "heroin diplomacy," as Gross called it, would lose more friends for the United States than it would net traffickers, and might endanger what they considered more long-term foreign-policy objectives, such as the safety of the United States. Henry Kissinger's National Security Council also had its doubts about heroin diplomacy, especially since less than two months before Gross assumed his command in the new global war, the secret report of a White House task force with representatives from both the National Security Council and the State Department concluded, "application of aid sanctions would be ineffective and counterproductive except where degrees of U.S. support establish overwhelming diplomatic dependence (Vietnam)." The White House task force recognized that aid sanctions might result in favorable publicity for the president, but listed against this advantage six drawbacks. 

1. would exasperate relations and make cooperation even less likely.

2. may create internal political repercussions making it difficult for governments to cooperate (Turkey, Pakistan, India).

3. Would be counterproductive to other major U.S. security and foreign policy needs (Southeast Asia, Turkey).

4. Cannot be applied to countries where we provide no aid (France, Burma, Lebanon, Bulgaria).

5. Could not be applied easily within international financing institutions ... unless we invoke extreme action of veto.

6. A11 threats subject to our bluff being called 

When Gross read the "international working group report," as it was called, he knew he was playing with fire in threatening to cut off American aid, but he also believed that " our bluff wouldn't be called. He thus began the main counterinsurgency effort against heroin by inducing Laos and Thailand, which were militarily dependent on the United States, to form mobile strike forces with American advisors. These strike forces could then be employed against narcotics traffickers in the Golden Triangle. In Laos, "irregular" narcotics police, as the State Department put it, burned a group of huts suspected of being used for converting opium into heroin, before a more formalized groupe social dinvestigation was created to enforce the newly promulgated narcotics laws (written by the American embassy in September, 1971).

In Thailand, U.S. aid financed the creation of a task force known as SNO (or, less acronymously, the Special Narcotics Organization), which attempted to intercept opium caravans in northern Thailand and to intimidate Thai officials involved in the traffic. For example, one SNO colonel, recruited by the CIA, simply went to leading Thai officials and told them in a quiet voice that they would be killed if they continued in the opium business. (Many withdrew, and others were killed, according to the unverified claims of CIA officials.) Among the traffickers in the Golden Triangle were private armies of Nationalist Chinese. Gross and his CIA advisor on the working committee believed that it would be more effective to buy them out of the opium business than to threaten them. Despite the cabinet committee's stated policy against preemptive buying of opium, which Eugene Rossides and John Connally in the Treasury Department insisted on, a deal was struck in March, 1972, with a band of Chinese in northern Thailand. In return for land in Thailand for "farming" and "assistance," which was to be financed mainly through the United States, though laundered through the United Nations, they delivered twenty-six tons of brownish material that supposedly constituted their entire opium stockpile, and pledged to remain out of the opium business for several years. The deal subsequently appeared somewhat embarrassing when unevaluated CIA reports were leaked to columnist Jack Anderson by some American missionaries interested in arranging opium purchases for competing Nationalist troops. These reports said that the brownish material which was delivered and incinerated in front of news cameras was in fact heavily weighted with cow fodder. The BNDD, which had sampled the narcotics randomly and found a "high content" of opium, disputed Anderson's charges. (If the bureau's samples were indeed random and accurate, it would seem that the CIA reports which emanated from the missionaries were inaccurate.) In any case, the possibility for counterinsurgency warfare was ultimately limited by the always-present danger of embarrassing leaks about the United States government's buying opium or arranging the intimidation (or assassination) of our allies in Southeast Asia.

Gross also attempted to spread the American heroin crusade to the rest of the world by convincing underdeveloped nations that narcotics was a major problem for them as well as for America, and that they should immediately create a special narcotics police force modeled on the American Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The United States would provide the equipment, propaganda, and necessary narcotics agents to train the local forces. Cambodia, for example, was given $20,000 to create the Kharnir Narcotics Unit and received "technical guidance provided through bimonthly visits of Bureau of Narcotics personnel from Saigon." Afghanistan received training for one Afghani police officer and $60,000 for "an aerial survey of opium poppy cultivation areas." The number of narcotics advisors in American embassies abroad proliferated at such a rate that Daniel Patrick Moynihan complained in a telex, when he was ambassador to India, "One can scarcely enter an American embassy in some parts of the world without being surrounded by narks. The cable traffic that crosses an American ambassador's desk concerns drugs more than any other single issue of domestic importance. Visiting bureaucrats are more likely-on a statistical basis-to be concerned with drug matters than any other subject."

In the midst of his far-flung global war against heroin, Gross became the target of a grand jury in New Jersey investigating corruption in his former bailiwick. As his own indictment grew nearer, he reluctantly had to return from his peripatetic travels to Afghanistan (where he helped arrange the return of Timothy Leary from Kabul) and other opium-producing regions, to prepare his own defense. In early 1973 Gross was indicted and convicted of several felonies, including conspiracy to bribe and evasion of taxes. Without his irrepressible enthusiasm, the global war was quietly disassembled by the State Department, which now returned to its more traditional role.



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