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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein


Chapter 7 - Operation Intercept

 Both sides of the bargain recognize... the supply of sophisticated weaponry is allied usually with general trade and ideological and political links. At what point is the degree of dependence sufficient to affect the feasibility of the coup? 



Though there was little the Nixon administration could do to bring the law and order it promised to the streets of America, it soon found opportunities abroad to battle dramatically foreign drug smugglers. It will be recalled that Captain Hobson had already prepared the public for the theme of foreign devils contaminating Americans with drugs, and that enemy countries were traditionally identified as the major source of the narcotics traffic in the United States. Thus "Japanese militarists" were blamed as narcotics traffickers in World War II; Iranian nationalists were singled out In 195 1 after they nationalized the oil concessions in Iran: revolutionary Cuba was cited as a supplier of American marijuana after Castro seized power in 1957; Communist China was accused of "a continuing twenty-year plan to spread addiction among free people"; the Soviet Union and its satellites were named in the New York Times at the height of the Cold War as major smugglers of heroin; and, in 1962, North Vietnam was added to the list of narcotics offenders by unnamed administration sources. The charges were based more on the needs for propaganda against hostile enemies than on firm evidence of' narcotics traffic.

The Nixon administration. however, decided to extend the war on drugs to friendly nations. which made easier opponents. Thus Mexico was chosen as the first target in the new heroin crusade. Task Force One, which was created by President Nixon in 1969, attempted to combine the talents of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Customs Bureau for a joint operation against Mexican smugglers. The operation was under the dual command of Richard Kleindienst, the deputy attorney general, and Eugene Rossides, the assistant secretary of the treasury for enforcement and operations. Kleindienst, a former campaign director for Barry Goldwater, reluctantly agreed to the task force to demonstrate that law-enforcement agencies in rival departments could jointly solve a problem. Eugene Rossides, who himself had grand ideas of expanding the Treasury's role in the drug war, decided that the Treasury Department's customs bureau should take the lead in the offensive against Mexico. To this end, he appointed his assistant, G. Gordon Liddy, the imaginative man of action, to the task force as his personal aide. In the summer of 1969, under Liddy's guidance, Task Force One issued a report submitting that the highest priority should be "an eradication of the production and refinement in Mexico of opium poppies and marijuana. . . ." Not only was Mexico deemed to be a source of heroin entering the United States, but marijuana was asserted to be the critical "stepping stone" to one's becoming a heroin addict. The task force asserted that "85% of heroin addicts ... started their use of drugs with marijuana" (no evidence was provided for this assertion, however).

 The plan for direct action, known as Operation Intercept, was devised by Liddy and others on the working group drawn from the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice. It called for pressures to persuade the Mexican government actively to suppress the opium and marijuana traffic. (In the early planning stages it was even hoped that private American foundations might finance chemical defoliants to destroy the marijuana and opium crops, -if the Mexican government would agree to use them.) Accordingly, the first pressure came on September 8, 1969. The Eleventh Naval District declared the city of Tijuana, Mexico, off limits to military personnel. A news story provided by the task force to the press suggested this would bring economic disaster to all the bars, brothels, and other border businesses dependent on the American military. Egil Krogh, who was sitting in on the task force as the White House representative, later recalled that after "it was leaked to the military ... that we were planning to shut down the border ... a number of U.S. sailors [were] beaten up in Tijuana [by outraged Mexicans] a week before the President was to meet President Diaz [of Mexico] at Friendship Dam." Of course, this distressed the State Department, but Operation Intercept continued to unfold.

In September, 1969, two thousand customs and border-patrol agents were deployed along the Mexican border for what was officially described as "the country's largest peacetime search and seizure operation by civil authorities." Automobiles and trucks crossing the border were delayed up to six hours in hundred-degree temperatures; tourists appearing suspicious or recalcitrant were stripped and bodily searched. Although more than five million citizens of the United States and Mexico passed through this dragnet during the three-week operation, virtually no heroin or narcotics were intercepted from the tourists. But as Kleindienst pointed out to reporters, the ultimate objective of Operation Intercept was not to seize narcotics but to pressure Mexico to control it at the source by eradicating the production of marijuana and opium poppies in Mexico. Privately, Kleindienst explained to the president and concerned officials of the Department of State that the real purpose was to make the Mexican government more cooperative.

However, such crude and overt pressures caused a furor of indignation in Mexico. Mexican officials protested that Operation Intercept was undermining the Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America, and that the Mexican government would not submit to such harassment on its borders. Though the State Department looked at Operation Intercept as dangerously undercutting our diplomatic efforts in all of Latin America, and Henry Kissinger's National Security Council became concerned that the continuing search-and seizure operation on the Mexican border might interfere with hemisphere defense arrangements, White House officials, according to Krogh, were impressed with the wealth of publicity that the administration's effort was receiving in the nation's press. The Justice Department's BNDD thus continued to brief reporters on the tools and techniques that would be later activated, including a remote sensor device capable of detecting the presence of marijuana and opium poppies from planes flying over fields in inaccessible mountainous regions. The device was to be further perfected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under an agreement with the Mexican government. The Associated Press was supplied with aerial photographs of tens of thousands of cars backed up in Mexico and customs inspectors searching cars at border crossings. The Customs Bureau briefed the press on the operations of its patrol planes and ships as if it were a wartime operation, and periodic announcements were made of the seizures of marijuana. The Associated Press reported, "Pleasure boats, fishing vessels, cargo ships and ocean liners are being searched." By the end of September, however, the State Department's press office counterattacked by briefing reporters on the damage that Operation Intercept was wreaking on United States-Mexican relations. Incidents were described, as later reported in the New York Times, where "delays as long as six hours have kept outraged motorists waiting in line in the broiling sun ... some travelers have been obliged to strip naked ... thousands of Mexican workers have lost their jobs in the United States because of the customs inspection delay ... millions of innocent people have been harassed. Border cities are facing economic collapse and tempers are wearing thin. . . ." President Diaz was even quoted as saying that Operation Intercept had created "a wall of suspicion" between Mexico and America. By mid-October the State Department had won that battle of the leaks, and the White House recognized that Operation Intercept was now generating negative publicity, according to Krogh. The task force thus was quietly withdrawn from the Mexican border, and, in return for $1 million in aid for the purchase of light aircraft, the president of Mexico agreed to sign some protocols which changed Operation Intercept in name to Operation Cooperation, which was then totally abandoned without further fanfare.

Although Egil Krogh later noted in a White House memorandum (July 23, 1970) that "Operation Intercept ... received widespread media coverage," he did acknowledge to Ehrlichman that it had had no effect on the drug traffic. Others in the White House doubted the public-relations value of the Mexican adventure. To demonstrate the danger of such under-takings, Daniel Patrick Moynihan cited New York Times stories that suggested that Operation Intercept, by temporarily interrupting the marijuana traffic, had caused children to switch to heroin. Though there was little reason to believe that children would addict themselves to heroin because marijuana was temporarily more expensive, Moynihan used these stories to temper White House enthusiasm for such foreign adventures. Nevertheless, the inner circle at the White House continued to recommend the more highly dramatized crackdowns with code names like Operation Intercept. A 1970 crime-control memorandum circulated by the Domestic Council noted that the "feasibility of mounting major operations with code names against heroin trafficking [would] create an aura of massive attack on our most feared narcotic." The memorandum recommended launching an election-year Operation Heroin modeled after Intercept. Moynihan, still worried about more Operation Intercept fiascoes, proceeded to persuade President Nixon that heroin control should be elevated to the status of a national security problem. The president agreed and created the Ad Hoc Cabinet Committee on Narcotics, which was to be chaired by Henry Kissinger, then his national security advisor.

The ad hoc committee included the more illustrious figures of the early Nixon administration: Pat Moynihan; John Mitchell and his deputy, Kleindienst, who held that all law-enforcement matters should be the business of the Justice Department (which would include IRS as well as narcotics operations); the ambitious Eugene Rossides; John Ingersoll, the Democratic-appointed director of the BNDD; Richard Helms, the independent-minded director of the CIA; and Elhot Richardson, the undersecretary of state. Myles Ambrose was not a member, but he attended a couple of the meetings as an observer. Kissinger, who evidenced little interest in the heroin problem, rarely attended the committee meetings, which were then chaired by his deputy, General Alexander, Haig. (On one typical occasion Kissinger arrived an hour late, joked about his having to translate the Vietnam peace negotiations from German to English for the president, then promptly left.) Though Moynihan at times sparred with Mitchell, most of these officials, though impressive in their own spheres of action, had little special knowledge about heroin and therefore had to rely on working groups to establish facts-all of which added to the confusion.

Kissinger, Richardson, and Haig spent most of their efforts dampening the enthusiasm of White House zealots to launch a new heroin crusade which might again threaten diplomatic relations with important allies. Meanwhile, the White House, usually through John Mitchell, made it known to the ad hoc committee that it wanted another dramatic effort. The crusaders thus sought another country in which to crusade.



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