The New Resistance
There is an invisible power which secretly rules.
Professor of Southeast and Asian history at the University of Wisconsin
Author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.
"Allegations linking CIA secret operations and drug trafficking have
persisted on and off ever since the Agency's founding in 1947. Rep. John
Conyers, Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, convened a special seminar
on Capitol Hill to focus on the issue. A distinguished panel of experts
discussed the new revelations as well as CIA covert actions in Southeast
Asia. Their testimony is startling. [See the following transcript of Alfred
McCoy's remarks]. The CIA was invited but declined to appear. " --David
Barsamian, Director, Alternative Radio
In August of last year, the San Jose Mercury newspaper in the San Francisco
Bay Area reported that a syndicate allied with Nicaragua's CIA-backed contras
had delivered tons of cocaine to Los Angeles gangs during the 1980s. The
Mercury concluded, "The contra-run drug network opened the first conduit
between Colombia's cartels and L.A.'s black neighborhoods. It's impossible
to believe that the CIA didn't know." . . . . The Congressional Black
Caucus demanded an investigation. But CIA Director John Deutch shot back,
"The Agency neither participated in nor condoned drug trafficking by
This racially charged debate raises four questions about the CIA and drugs,
questions which now, I believe, demand answers. Did the Agency ever ally
with drug traffickers? Did the CIA protect these allies from prosecution?
Did such alliances and protection contribute significantly to an expansion
of global drug trade over the past fifty years? And finally, did the CIA
encourage drug smugglers to target African American communities?
For the past quarter century I have been looking at this question, focusing
on alliances between the Agency and the Asian drug lords during the half
century of the Cold War. I believe that this history offers precise parallels,
particularly the Afghan operation, that can shed considerable light on the
current debate over alleged CIA involvement in the contra cocaine trade.
Throughout the Cold War, the CIA used gangsters and war lords, many of them
drug dealers, to fight communism. As the Cold War ends, our list of CIA's
assets who use their alliance with the Agency to deal drugs grows ever longer.
It includes Marseilles Corsicans, Lao generals, Thai police, Nationalist
Chinese irregulars, Afghan rebels, Pakistani intelligence, Haitian colonels,
Mexican police units, Guatemalan military, and look through your local paper
for further listings. During the forty years of the Cold War, government
intelligence services-our own CIA included--forged covert action alliances
with some of Asia's key opium traffickers, inadvertently contributing to
an initial expansion of opium production. In one of history's accidents,
a very important accident, the Iron Curtain came crashing down along the
Asian opium zone that stretches for five thousand miles from Turkey to Thailand,
making these rugged, opium-producing highlands a key front of Cold War confrontation.
During the Cold War, the CIA and allied agencies mounted operations in this
opium zone. It found that ethnic warlords were its most effective covert
These leaders exploited the CIA alliance to become drug lords, expanding
opium production and exporting refined heroin. The Agency tolerated such
trafficking and when necessary blocked investigations. Since ruthless drug
lords made effective anti-Communists, and heroin profits amplified their
power, CIA agents, operating alone, half a world away from home, did not
tamper with the requisites of success in such delicate operations. Surveying
the steady increase in America's drug problem since the end of World War
II, I can thus discern periodic increases in drug supply that coincide,
if only approximately, with covert operations in the drug zones.
Let me now turn to Southeast Asia, the site of these earliest CIA alliances
with drug lords. Let's look at the background here because the background
is important. On the eve of World War II, most Southeast Asian governments
sponsored state opium monopolies that sold legal smoking opium to registered
addicts and generated substantial tax revenues. Despite this extensive opium
consumption during the prewar colonial era, Southeast Asia had remained
a major opium consumer but very importantly for our story, a very minor
opium producer. In 1940, Southeast Asia harvested only fifteen tons in a
region that produces today over three thousand tons. Why? Why was it so
low before the war?
Since British colonial India supplied these colonial governments in Southeast
Asia with limitless, low cost opium, Southeast Asian colonial governments
had no reason to encourage local opium production. The sudden growth of
the Golden Triangle opium production in the 1950s appears in retrospect
a response to two stimuli: prohibition and protection. Let me look at each
of these quickly.
Responding to pressures from the UN, Southeast Asia's governments abolished
legal opium sales. They closed the legal opium-smoking dens between 1950
and 1961, thereby creating a sudden demand for illicit opium in the cities
of Southeast Asia.
The second factor: protection. An alliance of three intelligence agencies,
Thai, American and Nationalist Chinese, played a catalytic role in promoting
the production of raw opium on the Shan Plateau of northern Burma. During
the early 1950s, the CIA covert operations in northern Burma fostered political
alliances that inadvertently linked the poppy fields of northern Burma with
the region's urban drug markets. After the collapse of the Nationalist Chinese
government in 1949, some of its forces fled across the border into Burma,
where the CIA equipped them for several aborted invasions of China in 1950.
To retaliate against Communist China for its intervention into the Korean
War, President Truman had ordered the CIA to organize these Nationalist
elements inside Burma for an invasion of China. The idea was that the masses
of southwestern China would rise up in revolt against communism and China
would evidently pull its troops out of Korea, and our troops in Korea would
be saved. The logic was bizarre, and the records for this operation remain
secret, I suspect, because it was one of the most disastrously foolish operations
mounted by any agency of the U.S government.
After their invasions of 1950 were repulsed with heavy casualties, these
Nationalist troops camped along the border for another decade and turned
to opium trading to finance their operations. Forcing local hill tribes
that produced opium, the Nationalist troops supervised a massive increase
of opium production on the Shan Plateau of Burma. After the Burmese army
evicted them in 1961, the Nationalist forces established a new base camp
just across the Burma border in Thailand and from there dominated the Burma
opium trade until the mid-1980s. By the early 1960s, when this CIA operation
finally ended, Burma's opium production had risen from fifteen to three
hundred tons, thus creating the opium zone that we now call the Golden Triangle.
As in Burma, so in Laos, distance would insulate the Agency from the consequences
of its complicity in the drug trade. Let's look at the background to Laos.
During their own Vietnam War, French military integrated opium trafficking
with covert operations in a complex of alliances that the CIA would later
inherit. After abolition of the opium monopoly in 1950, French military
imposed centralized covert controls over an illicit drug traffic that linked
the Hmong tribal poppy fields of Laos with the opium dens then operating
in Saigon, generating profits that funded French [covert] operations during
their Vietnam War from 1950-1954. When America replaced the French in Vietnam
after 1954, the CIA fell heir to these covert alliances and their involvement
in opium trading. In Laos during the 1960s the CIA battled communists with
a secret army of 30,000 Hmong highlanders, a secret war that implicated
the CIA in that country's opium traffic. Although the Agency did not profit
directly from the drug trade, the combat strength and covert action effectiveness
of its secret army was nonetheless integrated with the Laotian opium trade.
How and why?
The answer lies in the CIA's doctrine of covert action and its consequent
reliance upon the influence of local military leaders or warlords. In Laos
a handful of CIA agents relied on tribal leaders to motivate their troops
and Lao generals to protect the cover of this operation. After fighting
in Vietnam spilled over into Laos in 1965, the CIA recruited 30,000 Hmong
highlanders into this secret army, making the tribe a critical CIA asset.
Between 1965 and 1970 the Hmong guerrillas recovered downed U.S. pilots,
battled local communists, monitored the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and, most importantly,
protected the radar that guided the U.S Air Force bombing of North Vietnam.
By 1971, according to a U.S. Air Force study, every Hmong family had lost
members. To fight this secret war, the CIA sent in American agents in a
ratio of one for every thousand Hmong guerrillas, numbers that made the
Agency dependent upon tribal leaders who could mobilize their people for
this endless slaughter. The CIA gave its chosen client, Hmong General Vang
Pao, control over all air transport into Hmong villages scattered across
the mountain-tops of northern Laos-the shipment of rice, their main subsistence
commodity, into the villages and the transport of opium, the tribe's only
cash crop, out to markets. With his chokehold over the household economy
of every single Hmong family, General Vang Pao was transformed from a minor
tribal warlord into a powerful man who could extract boy soldiers for slaughter
in an endless war. Since opium trading reinforced the authority of these
Hmong officers, the CIA found it necessary to tolerate the traffic.
The CIA's policy of tolerance towards its Laotian allies did not change
even when they began producing heroin to supply U.S. combat forces fighting
in South Vietnam. In 1968-1969, CIA assets opened a cluster of heroin laboratories
in the Golden Triangle region where Burma, Thailand and Laos converge. When
Hmong officers loaded opium on the CIA's Air America and the Lao army's
commander-in-chief opened a heroin lab to supply U.S. troops in South Vietnam,
the Agency was silent. In a secret internal report compiled in 1972, the
CIA Inspector General said the following to explain their inaction: "The
past involvement of many of these officers in drugs is well-known. But their
goodwill considerably facilitates the military activities of Agency-supported
All of this heroin was smuggled into South Vietnam. Where? By 1971, according
to a White House survey, 34%, or more than one-third, of U.S. troops were
addicted to heroin. Instead of trying to restrain drug trafficking by its
Laotian assets, the Agency participated in, engaged in, concealment and
cover-up. When I went to Laos to investigate in 1971, the Lao army commander
very graciously opened his opium account books to me, but the U.S. Mission
stonewalled. In a Hmong village where we were investigating opium shipments
on Air America, CIA mercenaries ambushed my research team. A CIA operative
threatened to murder my Lao interpreter unless I quit my investigations.
When my book The Politics of Heroin was in press, the CIA's Deputy Director
for Plans pressured my publisher to suppress it. The CIA's General Counsel
demanded deletions of all references to Agency complicity.
After my book was published, unaltered, CIA agents in Laos pressed my sources
to repent and convinced investigators from the House Foreign Relations Committee
that my allegations were baseless. Simultaneously, however, the CIA's Inspector
General conducted a secret internal investigation that confirmed the core
of my allegations: "The war has clearly been our overriding priority
in Southeast Asia, and all other issues have taken second place," the
Inspector General said in defense of their inaction on drugs. "It would
be foolish to deny this, and we see no reason to do so."
Why didn't my exposé of CIA complicity produce a firestorm of protest
back in the 1970s? Indeed, by 1974 Southeast Asian syndicates were supplying
a quarter of the demand for U.S. heroin with Golden Triangle heroin. But
Asia was too remote for any allegations of CIA complicity to pack a political
Alfred McCoy serves as director of the federally funded Center for Southeast
Asian Studies and holds degrees from Columbia University, Berkeley, and
Yale. His testimony will continue in the next issue of NCX. The transcript
of this special seminar on CIA secret actions and drug trafficking came
to NCX from David Barsamian, noted journalist, interviewer, and Director
of Alternative Radio.