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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein


Chapter 11 - The Narcotics Business: John Ingersoll's Version

 ... in sophisticated political units, power is diffuse and therefore difficult to seize in a coup.



In July, 1970, John Ehrlichman approved a memorandum by Krogh's staff that suggested "mounting [a] major operation with [a] code name against heroin traffickers ... to create [an] aura of massive attack on [the] most-feared narcotic." Krogh specifically suggested the code name -Operation Heroin for the domestic crusade. Such an operation required, however, the cooperation (and manpower) of established investigative agencies in the federal government, especially the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in the Justice Department and the Bureau of Customs in the Treasury Department. This presented a bureaucratic problem, however, since both agencies considered themselves to be semi-independent entities and both attempted to define the narcotics business in terms that extended the domain of their agency.

When the Nixon administration assumed office, the effort to control narcotics comprised only a minute part of the police activities of the federal government. Although the government first became involved in narcotics control in 1914, when Congress enacted the Harrison Narcotics Act, the federal enforcement efforts tended to be more symbolic than substantial for at least a half century. Since the Harrison Act was theoretically a revenue law, which required all traffickers in opium, cocaine, and their derivatives to register with the government and pay an excise tax on their total sales, the responsibility for enforcing the law was originally assigned to the Treasury Department. Initially, the handful of agents in the Narcotics Division, headed by Colonel Levi G. Nutt, focused their attention on doctors and pharmacists who were dispensing opiates. (Between 1914 and 1938, some 25,000 doctors were arrested for supplying opiates, and some 40 heroin-maintenance clinics were closed.) Most criminal narcotics traffickers were left to the resources of the local police. In 1930, however, in what was to become a recurring theme in federal narcotics enforcement, a grand jury found that the federal narcotics agents in New York City had falsified their records to take credit for arrests made by the New York City Police Department, and that some of the agents were themselves involved with narcotics traffickers. In the midst of the scandal Colonel Nutt resigned, and the Narcotics Division was reorganized into the semi-independent Bureau of Narcotics. In August, 1930, President Hoover appointed Harry Jacob Anslinger, a career diplomat, as the director of the new bureau. For the next three decades Anslinger was content to wage only a rhetorical campaign, periodically citing lurid examples of the crimes of "dope fiends" to arouse public concern over narcotics and marijuana. Little effort was made to expand the size of the bureau or its law enforcement activities. Indeed, until 1968, the Bureau of Narcotics never had more than 330 agents (most of whom were used in an administrative capacity), or, for that matter, an annual budget of more than $3 million. 

The ascendancy of the narcotics agency within the federal government really began only in the final months of the Johnson administration, when it was decided to move the Bureau of Narcotics from the Treasury to the Justice Department. As part of this belated reorganization the fledgling Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, which had been created only three years earlier in the Food and Drug Administration to regulate amphetamine and hallucinogenic drugs, was merged into the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, or BNDD, in the alphabet-soup world of Washington acronyms. The Johnson administration justified Reorganization Plan Number One, as the transfer was officially called, in terms of efficiency: by consolidating the drug police into a single agency within the Justice Department, investigators and prosecuting attorneys would be able to coordinate their work more expeditiously. Since this same reorganization plan had been resisted earlier by President Johnson (when Robert Kennedy was attorney general), and was now being rushed through in an election year, Eugene Rossides and other officials in the Treasury Department believed that the move was politically motivated. "Drugs have always been a political football," Rossides commented. "Johnson's main reason for moving the Bureau [of Narcotics] from Treasury was to strengthen the crime-busting image of Ramsey Clark."

As it turned out, there was little political profit for Johnson to gain from this move. Ramsey Clark selected John M. Ingersoll, a thirty nine-year-old law-enforcement officer who had helped him plan the crime-control legislation, as the director of the new agency, and asked him for a realistic appraisal of its potential for enforcing the laws. Ingersoll found that the old Bureau of Narcotics, despite a flamboyant public image (which derived in large part from television series such as T-Men), lacked the intelligence-gathering means and techniques for disrupting the major channels of heroin distribution in the United States. At most, its few agents could at times make sensational arrests, which might satisfy the press and politicians but would have little effect on the narcotics business that Ingersoll had a professional interest in curtailing. The other part of the consolidation, the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, had even fewer trained agents, almost no informers, and little experience outside of tracking down pharmaceutical products. As impressive as the reorganization might have looked on paper, it was of little use in launching the sort of national campaign against drugs required by the election-year White House.

Far more serious, however, as Ingersoll and Clark learned to their dismay, agents of the old bureau were heavily involved in a major drug scandal which was being investigated by a special group of Internal Revenue Service agents. Ingersoll immediately assigned nine special inspectors to the case. As the evidence unfolded, in 1968, it became clear to him that a number of federal agents in the New York office were in the business of selling heroin or protecting drug dealers, and that the bureau itself had been the major source of supply and protection of heroin in the United States. Under interrogation, many of the agents openly admitted to being "owned" by dealers. All of this was set forth in the Wurms Report, which was never released by the government. In December, 1968, Ramsey Clark disclosed that various agents were indicted for their part in this illicit activity (most of them were subsequently convicted). Eventually, almost every agent in the New York bureau was fired, forced to resign, or transferred.

 In examining more closely the roots of the corruption, Ingersoll found that the nefarious working relationship between narcotics agents and traffickers was deeply ingrained in the system used by the Bureau of Narcotics to assure a constant number of arrests every year (which was the agency's main index of performance). In this system every agent had a quota of arrests he was supposed to make, and his promotion and tenure depended on his fulfilling this quota. Agents, however, could not fulfill their arrest quotas with any degree of certainty without the active collusion of persons who were in the narcotics business. Such illicit help was necessary because the sale of narcotics is a crime for which there is no complainant to alert police: both the buyer and seller are willing participants in the transaction. Nor are federal agents likely to be in a position to observe such transactions: most heroin users buy their supply from a relative, friend, or fellow addict they have known for several years in extremely private circumstances. (The pusher who lurks vampire-like in schoolyards and other places, and approaches strangers with his wares, is largely a television myth.) And the possibility of searching suspects for heroin at random is limited by court rulings which require a search warrant.

Under these circumstances federal agents found that they could fill their monthly arrest quotas only with the collusion of an informer, who could arrange to have street addicts attempt to sell them heroin. The informers in the best position to make such an arrangement with a narcotics agent were traffickers in the heroin business who, in turn, needed the agents' protection. Like the Athenians who sent a sacrifice of a set number of youths to the Cretan Minotaur each year, heroin dealers supplied the quota of arrestees for federal agents, and, eventually, went into business with the agents.

State and local narcotics agents were similarly dependent on the informer. For example, the chief narcotics officer in Baltimore claimed in a conference on narcotics informants, sponsored by the Drug Abuse Council in 1975, that there were 800 active criminal narcotics informers working with the police in Baltimore, and most of these informers were in fact dealers who had a de facto franchise from the police department which they preserved by turning in "competitors" not on the police payrolls. If this was the case in other large cities, as most of the narcotics officers at the conference suggested, then many, if not most, of the established narcotics distributors were probably in the employ of local police departments. 

Since street arrests would always be difficult-if not impossible - without informants Ingersoll reluctantly came to the conclusion that the quota system would almost ineluctably tend to corrupt agents in the field. After studying the problem, Ingersoll was determined not only to replace all the agents who had become entangled with their informers but also to do away with the informer system itself.

When the Nixon administration came into office, Ingersoll therefore presented the problem to the new attorney general, John N. Mitchell, and proposed that the bureau abandon the policy of arresting street addicts and dealers (which necessitated using informers) and instead concentrate its efforts on the major traffickers who smuggled the bulk of the heroin supply into the United States. Under this strategy the bureau would change its index of performance from arrests made to the value of heroin shipments seized. Mitchell, ever sensitive to the dangers of another scandal in the Department of Justice, readily approved this approach. (Subsequently he was able to explain in press conferences the low level of arrests by t he bureau by saying, "the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs ... changed their mode of operation to concentrate on the large international and interstate distributors, leaving to the states and localities the responsibility for the enforcement of the drug laws with respect to the pushers on the street.")

Since the new strategy required deploying American narcotics agents overseas, where bulk seizures could easily be made, Mitchell sent new -guidelines (actually drafted by Ingersoll) to the Customs Service, which traditionally had the responsibility for interdicting contraband. It designated the BNDD as the agency that should control narcotics smuggling abroad, and instructed Customs to support the bureau's efforts.

By 1970, the bureau was fully engaged in the business of international narcotics seizures. With the help of computers and intelligence experts Ingersoll identified nine "primary systems" of heroin distribution throughout the world. Scores of agents, with large amounts of "buy money," were dispatched to Marseilles, Naples, Hamburg, Hong Kong, and Bangkok to make contact with foreign traffickers. By stationing agents abroad, the bureau was able to claim credit for "cooperative" arrests that occurred in these countries (even if they had not participated in them). Thus the bureau reported in 1970 total worldwide seizures (the bulk of which took place in France, Italy, and Thailand) of 1,593 pounds of heroin, morphine, and opium with a street value of $311 million. The street value was estimated by calculating the retail price at which the heroin would have been sold if it had reached the United States and been fully diluted into the maximum number of portions that could be sold on the street.

Ingersoll was fully aware that these seizure statistics were somewhat misleading. Most of the heroin had actually been confiscated by foreign police in foreign countries, and it could not be definitely established that it was ever destined for the American market. Moreover, the value of the confiscated heroin was exaggerated manyfold by using the street-level calculus. For example, a kilogram of heroin seized in France in 1970 could be replaced by the trafficker in France for about $5,000; yet the Bureau of Narcotics would report the street value for that same seized kilogram at $210,000, or roughly forty times what the heroin was actually worth to the trafficker. Measuring the value of confiscated heroin in terms of street value is analogous to measuring the value of rustled cattle in terms of the price per pound of steak in the finest New York restaurant (in both cases, the retail price reflects distribution costs and profits that never actually occurred). Ingersoll was concerned that inflating the value of heroin could eventually encourage amateurs to enter the business as dealers, but when he suggested using a more realistic measure of the value of seizures, such as replacement cost, both White House and Bureau of Narcotics press officers strenuously objected. Any such change, they claimed, would be disastrous, since the press would presume that the lower figure indicated a sharp decline in the bureau's performance. For example, after U.S. News & World Report revealed in 1970 that only 3 percent of the drugs being seized were "hard drugs," as opposed to marijuana (in what appeared to Ingersoll to be a leak from the Treasury Department in the ongoing interagency war), Krogh asked Ingersoll in a memorandum, "How can 'hard drugs' be defined to show that much more than 25% of the seizures were of hard drugs?" The problem was that the magazine was defining seizures in terms of the weight of the seizures. Ingersoll replied in another memorandum, "Rather than redefine 'hard drugs' to suit our purposes, perhaps we could approach the situation by redefining our seizures in terms of ... specific units for each drug.... A unit of hard drugs could be one injection and a unit of marijuana could be one cigarette. This method would deflate the marijuana figure by a factor of 50-100 in relation to heroin." The ever-present G. Gordon Liddy attempted to solve this same problem by suggesting the development of an "Index of successful performance." This novel criterion would divide the total weight of the drug seized in the year by the total number of estimated users in the population. Since there were presumed to be 100 times as many marijuana users as heroin users, it would appear that the government was, according to Liddy's calculus, twenty-five times as successful in seizing heroin. In any case, Ingersoll continued reporting the higher street value of seizures.

The strategy also proved quite successful with Congress. When Ingersoll was questioned by members of the House Appropriations Committee in 1970 as to why his bureau produced substantially fewer arrests despite a 50-percent increase in its operating budget, he cited the hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of seized heroin (measured by its street value) as evidence that his agency was becoming increasingly effective against the higher-level heroin wholesalers. The committee apparently was persuaded by his argument, since it recommended a further increase in the bureau's appropriation for the following year. By 1971 the BNDD had grown considerably, with a force of 1,500 agents and budget of some $43 million (which was more than fourteen times the size of the budget of the former Bureau of Narcotics).

Although Ingersoll had been successful in expanding the Bureau of Narcotics from a minor domestic law-enforcement agency to an international agency, the White House had some different objectives for the bureau. Krogh pointed out to Ingersoll that a series of private polls, commissioned by the White House staff, indicated that the American electorate considered heroin "to be a prime problem," and believed that the Nixon administration was not doing enough to control it. In particular, Krogh believed that this lack of public awareness of the Nixon administration's efforts-and successes-in reducing narcotics traffic stemmed from the bureaucratic inertness of Ingersoll's agency. Not only had the number of arrests made by federal officers actually decreased during the Nixon administration, but the BNDD press-relations officers were no longer emphasizing federal police operations against domestic drug pushers and "drug fiends." Instead, stories were being fed to the press about seizures o heroin in faraway and exotic countries. Even more distressing to the White House, in 1971 the- BNDD began revising upward its estimates of the number of heroin addict-users in the United States: the number escalated from 69,000 In 1969, to 322,000 in 1970, and then to 560,000 in 1971. All three estimates, however, were based on the same 1969 data, the higher numbers being projected by using different statistical formulas rather than discovering new addicts. In Ingersoll's view the inflated estimates served the bureau's interests by showing Congress a greater need for appropriations to control the narcotics business. But with an election only one year away, such an "escalation" of addicts during the Nixon tenure was not the publicity the White House wanted. Geoffrey Sheppard, one of Krogh's young assistants, complained, "Those guys in the Bureau of Narcotics were creating hundreds of thousands of addicts on paper with their phoney statistics." But Ingersoll proved impervious to a barrage of phone calls from Krogh and his staff. Krogh then intervened by ordering that all press statements and public speeches on narcotics be coordinated and cleared by his office (Richard Harkness, a former NBC correspondent, was appointed as the White House press coordinator for matters concerning drug abuse). Krogh further suggested that a large number of well-publicized arrests by narcotics agents would be most helpful in calling public attention to the administration's new war on drugs. Though Ingersoll agreed to coordinate his public statements with the White House, he adamantly refused to change the bureau's policy of deemphasizing street arrests. He again argued that such "revolving door" arrests would relieve neither crime nor the drug problem, and would only serve to lead federal agents into working again with underworld informers. Krogh cut the discussion short by saying, "We cannot accept your thesis." Ingersoll, who was concerned that his professional reputation might be severely tarnished if he reverted to the policy of mass-produced arrests for political purposes, appealed to John Mitchell for support. Mitchell, who, at least to Ingersoll, seemed concerned about the "long arm" of John Ehrlichman bypassing his authority in the Department of Justice, told Ingersoll that he, "not Krogh, [was] in charge of the bureau's policy." Since Ingersoll had acquired supporters both in Congress and in the law-enforcement establishment, he could not easily be fired. Thus, in 1971 Krogh was stymied, at least temporarily, in his attempt to control the narcotics police.


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