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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 34 - Lost Horizons


The proposal for a new narcotics superagency was submitted to Congress on March 28, 1973. Even though the House Committee on Government Operations noted, "The plan was hastily formed.... Administration witnesses were able to give the Sub-Committee only a bare outline of the proposed new organization and its functions," Congress refused to block the reorganization plan which purported to heighten the efficiency of the war against heroin. Accordingly, Reorganization Plan Number Two automatically became effective sixty days later, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created on July 1, 1973. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which itself had been created by Reorganization Plan Number One, in 1967, was absorbed into the superagency, along with the Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement and the Office of National Narcotics Intelligence. In the process John Ingersoll's position as director of the BNDD was abolished, and the directors of the two other offices-Myles Ambrose and William Sullivan-resigned. Five hundred special agents of the Customs Bureau were transferred to this new agency, which employed. on paper, at least, more than four thousand agents and analysts and resembled the FBI as a domestic law-enforcement agency. John R. Bartels, the son of a federal judge who had been recommended for ODALE by Henry Petersen, was now named acting director of this new conglomerate.

If the Watergate burglars had not been arrested and connected to the White House strategists, the Drug Enforcement Agency might have served as the strong Investigative arm for domestic surveillance that President Nixon had long quested after. It had the authority to request wiretaps and no-knock warrants, and to submit targets to the Internal Revenue Service; and, with its contingent of former CIA and counterintelligence agents, it had the talent to enter residences surreptitiously, gather intelligence on the activities of other agencies of the government, and interrogate suspects. Yet, despite these potential powers, the efforts of the White House strategists had been effectively truncated by the Watergate exposures: Ehrlichman and Krogh were directly implicated. in the operations of the Plumbers; Sullivan had been involved in the administration's wiretapping program; and Liddy and Hunt were in prison. The grand design could not be realized, and DEA became simply a protean manifestation of the earlier narcotics agencies.

Bartels soon found, however, that it was not an easy matter to turn this superagency into a conventional narcotics police force. For one thing, when the special offices created by executive order were collapsed into the new agency, Bartels inherited some fifty-three former (or detached) CIA agents and a dozen counterintelligence experts from the military or other intelligence agencies-all of whom, under the original game plan, were supposed to work on special projects designated by the White House strategists. These high-level intelligence agents and analysts had a very different approach to narcotics intelligence from that of the traditional narcotics agent, who operated mainly by spreading "buy money" among his contacts in the underworld until someone attempted to sell him a significant quantity of narcotics. James Ludlum, a former CIA official who took over-the Office of Strategic Services of the new drug agency, explained to me, "My approach was not to arrest a few traffickers but to build the entire intelligence picture of what was going on in the drug world.... I wanted to identify the modus operandi of the major heroin wholesalers, and this meant acquiring a great deal of information which the drug agency did not possess about the patterns of narcotic use." As Ludlum and the other former CIA agents began to demand more definite data on the number of addicts in the United States, their daily consumption habits, the way they routinely contacted dealers, and the names and profiles of the major narcotics traffickers in the world, they soon began stepping on the toes of the traditional narcotics agents. Colonel Thomas Fox, the former chief of counterintelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency, recalled that "they did not seem to possess any systematic intelligence about narcotics traffic," and the revelation of this dearth of information raised embarrassing questions as to what the narcotics agents had been pursuing over the last ten years-and it also raised tensions between the conventional agents and the newer additions. The older agents fought back: Lucien Conein, for example, who was supposed to head "clandestine law enforcement" activities for the new agency, was given a totally isolated office, without staff, and was named chief of overseas narcotics intelligence. (As a friend and associate of E. Howard Hunt's, Conein was also compromised by the Watergate disclosures.)

The integration of some five hundred agents from the Customs Bureau into DEA also raised serious problems for Bartels. Many of the transferred inspectors had been content working for the Bureau of Customs and resented being treated as pawns in what they perceived to be I political game. They had formerly received a large part of their information about narcotics smuggling from their counterparts in the customs bureaus of other nations, according to Eugene Rossides, and the bureaucratic transfer had deprived them of these valuable sources of information. Also, they tended to be confused by the new reporting procedures of the Drug Enforcement Agency. In order constantly to expand the reported value of DEA seizures, they were instructed to participate in as many foreign narcotics operations as possible, even if it only meant supplying anonymous tips to the foreign police agencies. In practice, this meant that whenever a police agency anywhere in the world announced the seizure of an narcotics, the DEA agent in that country was queried as to whether he participated in that operations if he answered affirmatively, the seizure's street value in the United States was credited to the total value seized by the DEA. One former customs inspector, who was stationed in Rome, explained to me:  

All they seemed to be interested in was statistics.... The three of us sat around the office in Rome all day, looking through the daily newspapers for any news of narcotics busts.... If there were any, we simply telexed Washington that we had participated in the bust by supplying anonymous information to the Italian police. Washington never questioned any of our claims, and just kept sending us more and more buy money which we were supposedly giving to our informants for the anonymous tips. The whole thing was getting crazier and crazier, and finally I asked to be transferred back to the Customs Bureau. 

The charges of corruption and "papering the record" by disgruntled employees, and their demands to be transferred back to their former agencies, strained relations within the new agency. These charges also fueled a war of leaks between DEA and rival agencies within the administration, which in turn led to reports widely circulated in the press that DEA was seizing far less narcotics coming into the United States than its predecessors-the Bureau of Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

In reality, the task of intercepting narcotics had been unintentionally complicated by the maneuvers of the White House strategists in 1971. The temporary suppression of the Turkish poppy fields may have succeeded in disrupting the normal channels for distributing heroin, but it also brought many new entrepreneurs into the heroin business, and it thoroughly confused the surveillance procedures of the BNDD (which had formerly focused its attention on a few cities such as Istanbul, Marseilles, and Montreal). Moreover, when Turkey resumed the cultivation of poppies, the distribution channels for heroin had been so dispersed and fragmented that it was impossible to check or even roughly estimate the flow of the narcotic into the United States. Mexico had now become a major supplier of "brown" heroin (a discoloration caused by the laboratory process rather than the quality of the opium), and illicit networks had grown up in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia. DEA could report higher seizures on paper, in terms of the street value of drugs seized in other countries, but this had little effect on the narcotics traffic in the United States.

Furthermore, methadone, the synthetic variant of heroin, was now freely available from hundreds of federally financed clinics around the country. This narcotic was spreading from urban centers to small towns, which traditionally had no narcotics problem or narcotics police. Not only was it harder to police heroin and methadone, but the unfavorable publicity which had emanated from the illegal raids conducted by ODALE raised serious questions in the Department of Justice about how drug agents were to proceed with searches and arrests. Formerly, narcotics agents had acted without much inhibition in breaking into a house or rousing a sleeping informant at four A.M. to question him roughly-. now they realized that they might be suspended or indicted for what once had been standard operating procedure.

As the heroin supply became more difficult to intercept, DEA officials focused on heavy users of cocaine and hashish, who for a number of reasons were more easily identified and arrested. Cocaine and hashish, however, had not been connected in the public mind with causing crime or even being highly addictive, and public interest in the activities of the new agency waned-at least as it was measured in the media.

In 1974 dissension within the superagency reached the boiling point. Bartels had been unable to name a deputy director for fear that he would offend the old guard-the agents that had joined the old Federal Bureau of Narcotics and had been subsequently transferred to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, then the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, and finally the Drug Enforcement Agency. When Bartels attempted to introduce some "rationality" into what was largely a "statistics-jimmying operation," according to one of his staff assistants, "the old guard rebelled." A DEA inspector planted a story with Jack Anderson accusing Vincent S. Promuto, a public-relations assistant to Bartels, of associating with dubious characters. Then other stories were leaked to the press charging that Promuto had Introduced Bartels to a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas-a charge which had no apparent basis in fact. The press campaign against Bartels and Promuto by the old guard seemed to be little more than what a decade earlier would have been called "guilt by association." But in the Watergate atmosphere that saturated Washington, D.C., in 1974, the failure by Bartels to investigate these charges was escalated into the charge of a cover-up. Senator Henry Jackson then began investigating these charges, and rebellious officials in the Drug Enforcement Agency began feeding him new morsels.

When it became abundantly clear to the Ford White House, in May, 1975, that Bartels could not control his agency, he was induced to resign and was replaced by Henry Dogin, a lawyer in the Department of Justice. Six months later, Dogin was replaced by Peter B. Bensinger, a political appointee from Chicago. As one executive in DEA commented, "This was nothing more than a power play-the bureaucrats in the drug agency simply destroy anyone who tries to control them, and they use the press as their messenger boys in the battle." He then added, "The heroin problem remains more or less constant-there are no fewer addicts than there were in 1969-all that changes is the way the information about them is manipulated"




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