Innocents Abroad

The CIA consorts with criminals? If it didn't, it wouldn't be able to function.

Published November 25, 1996 12:21PM (EST)

in one of the most successful espionage operations of the Vietnam War —
first run by U.S. Army intelligence and then taken over by the Central Intelligence Agency — an American
case officer employed a man and his entire family who were smuggling stolen
U.S. war materiel from Saigon to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Black market M-16s, land mines, mortars, medicine and even stolen Army
trucks were moving from the docks of Saigon into the hands of profiteers on
both sides of Cambodia's civil war, along with the usual booty of Marlboros,
whiskey and Playboys. You could sit at a sidewalk cafe in Saigon and watch
the convoys roll by.

The operation was part sting and part spying, and was judged necessary because it
allowed the CIA-employed smugglers to identify the top Communists and their contacts
inside the U.S.-backed Cambodian government.

Imagine, however, the outrage if the operation had been uncovered by the
media back then: "CIA runs fencing ring — Sells GIs rifles to communists."

All this came to mind with the hysteria over revelations that the CIA
employed people engaged in the drug trade during the Nicaraguan civil war.

What a shock.

Here's a bulletin for the naifs and the history-impaired: U.S. intelligence — like
every other espionage service in the world — does now, always has, and
always will employ criminals. In fact, it depends on them.

Such are the hazards of the spying trade. It's not a nice business. When
the CIA goes out to recruit foreign spies, it often hooks up with drug lords,
mobsters and various other con artists and miscreants. The CIA needs them not only as spies, but for duties related to covert action.

Take, for example, Charles "Lucky" Luciano. At the outbreak of
World War II, Luciano was the capo di tutti capi of
the New York mafia. He controlled, among other things, the New York
waterfront, a critical staging area for war materiel America was shipping
to its beleaguered (if as yet undeclared) ally, Great Britain. Apprehensive about German spies and sabotage, Navy intelligence made a deal
with Luciano: in exchange for keeping the docks open, he would be shielded from prosecution.

It worked.

Fast forward: The Cold War is on. Concerned about Soviet infiltration of
European labor unions, the newly-formed CIA turns to the mob. Corsicans in
Marseilles and the mafia who control Naples — as well as Italy's biggest
political party, the Christian Democrats — are enlisted.
Millions of dollars flow from Washington. "It was the price of doing business," the late CIA director William Colby once told me with a trace — but only a trace — of regret in his voice.

Likewise, when the CIA sought help to topple the bearded upstart Fidel
Castro, it again turned to mobsters like Johnny
Rosselli and his pals, who had controlled Havana's casinos under the previous, U.S.-backed government. Rosselli's attempts fizzled, and the CIA turned elsewhere.

Like the current brouhaha over crack, the contras and the CIA, there was an equally fierce debate about the relationship between the CIA and Laotian opium producers during the Vietnam War, much of it fired by Alfred McCoy's 1972 book, "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia." But how deep did the relationship go? There are "just enough nuggets of truth in the conspiracy
theory that some people will always believe that it is completely true,"
wrote Roger Warner in his 1995 book "Back Fire," a devastating critique of
America's secret war in Laos. The CIA-backed Meo tribesman "did sell opium,"
Warner noted, and a good amount of it did get on U.S. planes to Saigon.
But the evidence is that the CIA was not organizationally involved in
pushing dope.

However, the Communists were, that's for sure. One of Hanoi's key strategies was to
get GIs hooked on heroin.

Despite evidence of such drug-linked "backfires," lately the CIA has been
dragged kicking and screaming into the so-called "War on Drugs." That means
people on one floor of the CIA are working to track down drug smugglers while
another floor is trying to recruit them. The consequences are predictable.

Last week, a federal grand jury in Miami indicted a Venezuelan general for putting a ton of cocaine on American streets in 1990. Gen. Ramon Guillen Davila headed a program set up by the CIA in the late 1980s to infiltrate Colombian gangs shipping cocaine to the United States. As part of the plan, according to the New York Times, "The CIA, over the objections of the Drug Enforcement Administration ... approved the shipment of at least one ton of nearly pure cocaine to Miami International Airport." But the cocaine ended up on the street because of "poor judgment and management on the part of several CIA officers."


Take another more recent war: the war on terrorism. The Bekaa Valley is home
to the Lebanese Hezbollah (the Party of God), Islamic Holy Warriors and other
terrorists backed by Iran. It is also the headquarters of Lebanon's opium
business. To infiltrate the terrorists, the CIA has to hire a few undesirables. Or as ex-CIA official Larry Johnson puts it, "If you want information on
scumbags, you have to hire scumbags to get it."

How to solve the dilemma? The CIA's business is spying and dirty tricks. It works in some of the world's nastiest neighborhoods. If Americans want a CIA, they'll just have to put up with some of its less pleasing aspects. And when the next CIA-drug connection is uncovered — by the press or the FBI — we should all be a little less shocked, shocked!

Quote of the day

Pearl Harbor

"We are ruled by big business and the government as its paid hireling, and we know
it. The big corporations and the hundred-millionaires and billionaires have taken daily control of
our work, our pay, our housing, our health, our pension funds, our bank and
savings deposits, our public lands, our airwaves, our elections, our very
government. It's as if American democracy had been bombed."

— Ronnie Dugger, founding publisher of the Texas Observer, at a convention of a would-be new populist party (from "Texas Meeting Seeks a Rebirth of Populism" in Monday's
New York Times)

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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