All posts by Ron Jacobs

Book Review: The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs

Corruption, addiction and murder on a large and small scale. This is the story that Douglas Valentine chronicles in his new book The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs (Verso, 2004). Valentine, who is also the author of the definitive story of the US counterintelligence program in Vietnam known as Operation Phoenix (The Phoenix Program), does a thorough job of detailing the crooked and sordid history of the original US agency created to fight the so-called war on drugs. That agency, for those who don’t know the history or have only known the Nixon-created Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Created for fundamentally racist reasons, the FBN was the brainchild of Harry Anslinger — an ambitious law-and-order type guy who devoted his life to protecting America’s upper classes. Anslinger built the agency based on white Americans fears and, in doing so, changed the society’s perspective on drugs from one where virtually everything was legally available to one where the government tried to control every aspect of drug distribution. It is Anslinger and his agency that is responsible for America’s current conception that drug abuse is a police problem and not one better left to health professionals.

Valentine’s central thesis is explained in the book’s introduction. Briefly stated, it is this: “federal drug enforcement is essentially a function of national security, as that term is applied in its broadest sense: that is, not just in defending America from its foreign enemies, but preserving its traditional values of class, race and gender at home, while expanding its economic and military influence abroad.” As the book delves deeper into the story of how this thesis worked out in practice, it becomes clear that this did not always mean that the big-time drug dealers got arrested. Indeed, if they had the right connections and skills (such as those skills required for assassination and those connections that might serve the counterintelligence capabilities of the US), not only were these men not arrested; they were protected in all their enterprises, legal and otherwise.

It’s a tawdry to downright demonic story that comes out in these pages. From questions about the role of big time heroin manufacturers and traffickers in the subversion of governments and democratic movements to stories about MKULTRA (a secret program developed by the CIA to find drugs to use in brainwashing) to LSD experiments on unsuspecting citizens, this book makes it clear that nothing is as it seems in the “war on drugs.” For those who fight battles in this war on a daily basis, be they cops or users, this is not news. The depth of the deception and inhumanity may be, however. The more one reads of Valentine’s work, the more it becomes clear that honest agents and cops have little place in this business. More than once, the reader is provided with the story of an agent’s years of hard work setting up and tracking a big-time trafficker being blown or destroyed some other way because of that trafficker’s connections and use to the national security state.

What is remarkable about this story is that it holds surprises even for those who consider themselves hardened to the realities of government skullduggery. For example, the government’s complicity with various Mafia bosses and their Cuban cohorts make it all but inevitable for questions to be raised about the intelligence community’s involvement in the JFK assassination. In addition, there are several passages that raise the issue of Israel’s role in international drug smuggling since before its inception in 1948 — an involvement, which Valentine believes, continues under the aegis of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Of course, this makes perfect sense if one considers the history of US intelligence “encouraging” its surrogates involved in counterrevolutionary work to use drug trafficking profits to buy guns and other weaponry. After all, US intelligence and Israeli intelligence are more than brothers in arms — they are two arms of the same body.

The tone of The Strength of the Wolf is summed up best with a quote from a conversation Valentine held with FBN agent Jim Attie thirty-five years after he retired. “I’m not proud of what I did. It was a dirty job. It was a form of amorality, and to this day I feel tremendous guilt and have unending nightmares as a result of what I did as a narcotic agent.” Unfortunately, Valentine’s book makes it clear that many agents don’t have such qualms. This history makes it abundantly clear that those who directed them certainly didn’t. All of which leaves us common folk with the nightmare of their policies.

Encyclopedic in its scope, Valentine’s book is an important and necessary story that reads like a coherent speed freak’s monologue — detailed and relentless in its delivery. If nothing else, The Strength of the Wolf makes it abundantly clear that many members of the illegal drug business are on government payrolls and that the US “war on drugs” is really nothing more than one more front in the Empire’s war on those who disagree with its plans for the planet. Furthermore, the book leaves the reader with the feeling that this front has only expanded since the end of the FBN. This book and its story certainly makes one skeptical about anything the government might say or do at home and abroad. If the CIA and Mossad could help the ultra-right counterrevolutionary OAS in Algeria in an attempt to divide the anti-colonialist movement back in the 1950s, who’s to say that they aren’t doing something similar in Iraq?

The Phoenix Rises Again

Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. A prime example is Plan Colombia, the US initiative to send military aid to Columbia to squash leftist insurgencies there under cover of the War on Drugs. The parallels between Plan Columbia and the Vietnam War’s “Operation Phoenix” are notable and numerous, both actions relying on intimidation on the part of paramilitaries. And in both cases, the US was/is directly involved.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is on record as saying he supports the current policy in Colombia, but wants to “try to regionalize the approach, (and) get all of the nations in the area to recognize that the problem is theirs as well as Colombia’s.” What’s left unsaid here is that the US intends to make it their problem whether these countries see it that way or not. The recent construction of forward air bases in Ecuador and El Salvador make this clear.

If one recalls US involvement in Indochina in the early 1960s, there was also a push to “regionalize” that conflict in order to pursue Vietnamese revolutionary forces into their places of refuge in Cambodia and Laos. In Laos, another aspect of this operation was the hiring of Laotians opposed to the Pathet Lao insurgency to interrogate, torture, and kill civilian supporters of the Pathet Lao. It was the leaders of some of these US-created paramilitaries who eventually helped the CIA set up a heroin dealing operation. Since the infusion of U.S. money as part of Plan Colombia, the role of the right-wing paramilitaries has become more pronounced. In fact, the numerous massacres of “suspected guerrilla sympathizers” by these forces (over 70 killed in the first 17 days of 2001) is reminiscent of the role played by various Vietnamese extralegal armies just before the massive U.S. military involvement in that country back in the early 1960s. There were a number of counterinsurgency programs operating in southern Vietnam at the time under a variety of agencies. Foremost in all of these programs’ missions, however, was the isolation of revolutionary forces from the general population and intimidation of the civilian population to prevent them from actively supporting the revolutionaries. These extralegal forces were usually composed of career criminals, former Vietnamese Army troops accused of excessive brutality while in uniform, defectors from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, and released prisoners. They achieved their goals by psychological intimidation, physical torture, imprisonment, and murder — all of which they learned from their CIA and US military trainers. Some of Colin Powell’s early military career was spent in the jungles of Vietnam leading squads of these men.

Eventually, the various programs were coordinated under one CIA-managed operation known as Operation Phoenix. This program of planned assassination resulted in the deaths of nearly 50,000 Vietnamese. The modus operandi used in Operation Phoenix was further refined during the US war in Central America during the 1980s. By refined, it is generally meant that the methods stayed the same, but greater US deniability is created, usually by having local troops and agents commit the actual torture and murder. As for Powell, he continues to support this type of operation, calling it the “drain the sea” approach in his 1995 memoirs. Until recently, US advisors were supposedly only in Colombia to train members of the regular army. In fact, various reports from Latin American media have reported the presence of US “trainers” actually helping to carry out raids and other missions in the Colombian countryside. All of this was set up in 1991, under the tutelage of the U.S. Defense Department and the CIA. This was accomplished under a Colombian military intelligence integration plan called Order 200-05/91.

The role the paramilitaries play is one that supplements the strategy of the regular Colombian army. Indeed, some of the players are members of both. Sometimes the role is purely intelligence — that is, gathering names of suspected revolutionaries — and other times their role is much more murderous. To put it succinctly, the paramilitaries commit the war crimes that the Colombian regular army can’t due to public relations concerns of the Colombian and US governments. Some officers were trained at the School of the Americas (SOA) in Georgia — a notorious military training center that specializes in interrogation, torture and other “counterterror” methods. Many of those officers have certainly transferred their training at this school and by advisors in Colombia to their after-hours paramilitary activities. Human Rights Watch reports that at least seven SOA graduates are highly involved with the paramilitary. With the assistance and training of the CIA, DEA, and the US military and their private contractors, these armies conduct search-and-destroy missions in the Colombian countryside, easing the way for the regular armed forces to move in and hold territory. In an article in The San-Antonio Express News, it was pointed out that the most impressive offensive by one of the paramilitaries – the AUC – “has come in Putumayo province, which will be ground zero in the military phase of Plan Colombia – the place where American-made helicopters will land American-trained troops to do battle with forces protecting the coca fields.” (1/17/01) In other words, this is where the Colombian military intends to begin its offensive against the revolutionary forces. It is no coincidence that the AUC has concentrated its attacks there.

It is important to note that the United States is not very supportive of the current peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. This is because a negotiated peace would ruin their plans for the region. One cannot reiterate enough that the US does not want a settlement that would legitimize the revolutionary forces in any way. The only acceptable solution as far as the US is concerned is total victory over the rebel forces. This was clearly stated by the Pentagon well before Plan Colombia was put into action. Any other result would create a situation that would force the US to negotiate with the FARC and ELN — something it is philosophically opposed too. A similar scenario arose in Vietnam in the early 1960s: much of the Saigon government wished to reach an agreement with the NLF revolutionary forces in order to preserve some power for themselves and prevent further Americanization of the war. The US response to this desire was to increase its military presence and isolate those elements that preferred negotiations over military engagement. This may already be happening in Colombia where negotiations are taking place between FARC and the government while US-led forces cooperate with the local paramilitaries in counterrevolutionary and fumigation efforts.