The CIA Drug Connections as Old as the Agency
LONDON: Recent news item: The Justice Department is investigating allegations that officers of a special Venezuelan anti-drug unit funded by the CIA smuggled more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States with the knowledge of CIA officials - despite protests by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the organization responsible for enforcing U.S. drug laws.
That is a huge amount of cocaine. But it was hardly a first for the CIA. The agency has never been above using individuals or organizations with known links to drug trafficking if it thought they could help it further its national security mission.
Let us put the Venezuelan case in context: To protect its "assets" abroad, the CIA has ensured that the DEA's concerns outside the country were subordinated to its own. Until recently, no DEA country attaché overseas was allowed to initiate an investigation into a suspected drug trafficker or attempt to recruit an informant without clearance from the local CIA station chief. DEA country attachés are required to employ the standard State Department cipher, and all their transmissions are made available to the CIA station chief. The CIA also has access to all DEA investigative reports, and informants' and targets' identities when DEA activities outside the United States were involved.
In Costa Rica, when the war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government was at its peak and cocaine was beginning to pour into the United States, the DEA attaché wanted to place cameras at clandestine airstrips from which he suspected drugs were being flown to the United States. The CIA resident gave him a list of airstrips on which he was not to place cameras. They were the strips into which the CIA was flying arms for the contras. Some were also strips from which the DEA agent suspected drugs were being flown to the United States.
Shortly after the kidnapping and brutal murder of the DEA's Enrique Camarena in Mexico, Francis Mullen, the DEA administrator, was taken by the CIA station chief in Mexico City to Mexico's director of federal security, a man who, the station chief confided, was a CIA asset. The gentleman, Mr. Mullen told me, denied any knowledge of the affair. He was lying. A DEA investigation revealed that he had been connected - a man on the CIA payroll, no less - to the murder of a U.S. federal agent.
CIA ties to international drug trafficking date to the Korean War. In 1949, two of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated generals, Li Wen Huan and Tuan Shi Wen, marched their Third and Fifth Route armies, with families and livestock, across the mountains to northern Burma. Once installed, the peasant soldiers began cultivating the crop they knew best, the opium poppy.
When China entered the Korean War, the CIA had a desperate need for intelligence on that nation. The agency turned to the warlord generals, who agreed to slip some soldiers back into China. In return, the agency offered arms. Officially, the arms were intended to equip the warlords for a return to China. In fact, the Chinese wanted them to repel any attack by the Burmese.
Soon intelligence began to flow to Washington from the area, which became known as the Golden Triangle. So, too, did heroin, en route to Southeast Asia and often to the United States.
If the agency never condoned the traffic, it never tried to stop it, either. The CIA did, however, lobby the Eisenhower administration to prevent the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the DEA's predecessor, from establishing monitoring posts in the area to study the traffic. Today, the Golden Triangle accounts for about half the heroin in circulation in the world.
During the Vietnam War, operations in Laos were largely a CIA responsibility. The agency's surrogate there was a Laotian general, Vang Pao, who commanded Military Region 2 in northern Laos. He enlisted 30,000 Hmong tribesmen in the service of the CIA.
These tribesmen continued to grow, as they had for generations, the opium poppy. Before long, someone - there were unproven allegations that it was a Mafia family from Florida - had established a heroin refining lab in Region Two. The lab's production was soon being ferried out on the planes of the CIA's front airline, Air America. A pair of BNDD agents tried to seize an Air America.
A pair of BNDD agents tried to seize an Air America DC-3 loaded with heroin packed into boxes of Tide soap powder. At the CIA's behest, they were ordered to release the plane and drop the inquiry.
The CIA was made officially aware of Manuel Antonio Noriega's involvement in the drug traffic in 1972, when Mr. Noriega was chief of intelligence of the Panama National Guard, and a promising CIA asset. The BNDD found evidence that Mr. Noriega was taking payoffs for allowing heroin to flow from Spain, through Panama City airport, and on to the United States. That information was part of a lengthy file on Mr. Noriega compiled by Jack Ingersoll, then chief of the BNDD.
Mr. Ingersoll was aware of Mr. Noriega's ties to the CIA, as was President Richard Nixon. When Mr. Nixon ordered Mr. Ingersoll to Panama to warn the country's military dictator, General Omar Torrijos, about the activities of Mr. Noriega and General Torrijos's brother Moises, Mr. Ingersoll hoped that law enforcement was finally "beginning to get the upper hand in its ongoing struggle with the CIA." He was wrong. The Watergate break-in occurred shortly after his visit. Mr. Nixon needed CIA support; his enthusiasm for the drug war evaporated. Mr. Ingersoll's successors at the newly formed DEA - Peter Bensinger, Francis Mullen and John Lawn - all told me they never saw his file, although they had asked to see everything the DEA had on Mr. Noriega. The material has disappeared.
Shortly after General Torrijos's death in a mysterious airplane crash, Mr. Noriega, with CIA assistance, took command of the Panama National Guard.
No one in the Reagan administration was prepared to do anything about the Noriega drug connection. As Norman Bailley, a National Security Council staff member at the time, told me, "The CIA and the Pentagon were resolutely opposed to acting on that knowledge, because they were a hell of a lot more worried about trying to keep Panama on our side with reference to Nicaragua than they were about drugs." Nowhere, however, was the CIA more closely tied to drug traffic than it was in Pakistan during the Afghan War. As its principal conduit for arms and money to the Afghan guerrillas, the agency chose the Pakistan military's Inter-Services Intelligence Bureau. The ISI in turn steered the CIA's support toward Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist. Mr. Hekmatyar received almost half of the agency's financial support during the war, and his fighters were valiant and effective. But many of his commanders were also major heroin traffickers.
As it had in Laos, the heroin traffic blossomed in the shadows of a CIA-sustained guerrilla war. Soon the trucks that delivered arms to the guerrillas in Afghanistan were coming back down the Khyber Pass full of heroin.
The conflict and its aftermath have given the world another Golden Triangle: the Golden Crescent, sweeping through Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of the former Soviet Union. Many of those involved in the drug traffic are men who were once armed, trained and financed by the CIA.
The writer's latest book, "Black Eagles," deals with the CIA, cocaine traffic and Central America in the mid-'80s. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.