Salient. Victoria University Students Newspaper. Volume 38 Number 8. 1975
The Cia: A Little Naked, and a Little Nervous — Part Three
The Cia: A Little Naked, and a Little Nervous
One of the least publicised of the CIA's activities is its support for the heroin business in Southeast Asia. In carrying out its task of 'fighting communism' the CIA has supported allies whose interest in the fight is only partial —their prime concerns have been merely to survive (as in the case of Meo tribes men in Laos, for example) or to make enormous profits from the sale of heroin on an international scale (in the case of the Kuomintang). By assisting these groups the CIA has, ironically, implicated itself in the very criminal activity that the United States government and its agencies have pledged themselves to combatting. In terms of the numbers of people, national governments, and money involved, the CIA's support for the heroin business must be one of its most extensive operations, and almost certainly one of its most compromising.
Alfred McCoy has written: 'American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels (1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) abetting the traffic by covering up for known traffickers and condoning their involvement.(3) and active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin.' (1)
During the late 1940's and 1950's Europe was the major cold war battlefield. To assist them in their fight against communism, the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) and the CIA formed alliances with the Sicilian Mafia, to limit the gains of the Italian Communist party on the island, and the Corsican underworld, to fight Communist strikers in Marseilles. In the late 1940's the newly formed CIA supported the anti-Communist coalition of the Socialist party and a section of the Corsican underworld in breaking a general strike in Marseilles in 1947. By 1950 this combination of political influence and control of the docks created the perfect environmental conditions for the growth of Marseille's heroin laboratories...' McCoy notes that 'Ironically, both the Sicilian Mafia and the Corsican underworld played a key role in the growth of Europe's post-war heroin traffic and were to provide most of the heroin smuggled into the United States for the next two decades'.
During the 1960's local arrests, internal warfare and international law enforcement activity progressively weakened the connection between the growing area, Turkey, and the refining laboratories in Europe. The most important blow to the Mediterranean heroin complex came in 1967, however, when the Turkish government announced plans to reduce, and eventually abolish opium production. The international syndicates were confronted with the problem of finding a new source for morphine base from which to refine heroin. 'Southeast Asia was busily growing more than 70% of the world's illicit opium, and the Chinese laboratories in Hong Kong were producing some of the finest heroin in the world. Moreover, entrenched Corsican syndicates based in Vietnam and and Laos had been regularly supplying the international markets ... with opium and morphine base for almost a decade. Obviously this was an area ripe for expansion'.
Penetration of Southeast Asia by the Western narcotics trade was nothing new by this time. Western adventurers had been coming to Asia for hundreds of years. With their superior military technology they 'had used their warships to open up China and Southeast Asia for their opium merchants and slowly proceeded to conquer the Asian land mass, dividing it up into colonics. Sanctimonious empire builders subjected millions of natives to the curse of opium addiction, generating enormous revenues for colonial development, and providing profits for European stockholders. Thus, the Mafia was following in the wake of a long tradition of Western drug trafficking in Asia — but with one important difference. It was not interested in selling Asian opium to the Asians; it was trying to buy Asian heroin for the Americans.'
It is at this point that the CIA enters the picture. During the mid-fifties the CIA, under the command of Colonel Edward Lansdale, began to operate in Vietnam, trying to strengthen the premiership of Ngo Dinh Diem against the violent subversion of the French intelligence organisations and their 'clients' — the army, gangsters, and religious sects — [unclear: consturning] a powerful force capable of overthrowing Diem and replacing him with a pro-French leader such as Bao Dai.
After numerous and violent clashes the United States, Diem and the CIA emerged as victors. The techniques of counter-insurgency which had been used by the French — the use of opium-growing hill tribesmen as mercenaries, the financing of operations and communities with money from the opium trade, and co-operation with corrupt political cliques — now became available to the CIA. They were soon in use.
'Since opium is not grown inside South Vietnam all her drugs have to be imported — from the Golden Triangle region in the north. Stretching across 150,000 square miles of northeastern Burma, northern Thailand, and northern Laos, the mountainous Golden Triangle is the source of all the opium and heroin sold in South Vietnam'. Since this is a region in which the CIA has strong commitments — supporting anti-communist governments, armies and ethnic minorities, and spying on the People's Republic of China, for example — the Agency has been unable to avoid assuming some role in the politics of heroin. Thus, in exchange for assistance with spying, sabotage, and para-military operations the CIA has armed, financed and trained the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang army which took refuge in northern Burma after defeat in 1949. This army, whose existence is virtually unknown to the outside world, is now firmly entrenched in bases situated in northern Thailand, from where it controls about 90% of Burma's opium trade.
'After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the CIA rearmed remnants of the Nationalist Chinese army who had fled into the (Burman) Shan States and launched three abortive invasions into Western Yunan on the theory that the Chinese masses would rally to their banners.' Since that time the KMT troops have been used for less ambitious tasks, such as cross-border intelligence gathering and the monitoring of radio broadcasts. The CIA is not fussy that, in addition to carrying out its obligations to the Agency, the KMT is a major participant in the heroin business.
The KMT itself has rather neatly justified its involvement in the business in the following statement of economic pragmatism, by General Tuan in 1967. 'Necessity knows no law. That is why we deal with opium. We have to continue to fight against the evil of Communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium.' (2)
In Laos the CIA decided to use small groups of Americans to organise anti-communist forces capable of collecting intelligence and fighting North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops. As General Lansdale put it, 'I always felt that a small group of Americans organizing the local population was the way to counter Communist wars of national liberation.' In January 1961 the CIA began sending Green Berets, CIA-financed Thai police commandos, and a handful of its own agents into Laos to build up an effective Meo guerilla army under the leadership of Vang Pao, a Laotian commander. Using threats and promises, Vang Pao's officers and the CIA agents flew to scattered Meo villages offering guns, rice and money in exchange for recruits. Operating concurrently with this army which itself purchased opium from Meo tribesmen, Corsican airlines landed at mountain landing strips to pick up raw opium for transport out of Laos.
From Burma, Laos and northern Thailand, drugs move south from a number of collection points, notably Vientiane in Laos, to either Bangkok or Saigon. The Saigon route has been serviced by aircraft flown by Corsican pilots for small charter airlines (known collectively as 'Air Opium') and more recently by the South Vietnamese airforce. Under the command, primarily of Air Vice-Marshall Ky (Currently engaged in a power struggle with Thieu, an old rival) airforce planes flew back from missions to Laos carrying consignments of heroin, the product of local laboratories. In August 1971 the New York Times reported that the director of Vietnamese customs said, 'he believed that planes of the South Vietnamese Air Force were the principal carriers' of heroin coming into South Vietnam. A more objective observation, perhaps, was made by US customs advisers who have stated that the airforce regularly unloads large quantities of smuggled narcotics at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
Ky is not alone in the trafficking of heroin in South Vietnam, in fact he is in very good company. President Thieu while studiously avoiding involving himself personally in political corruption, manipulated his interests in the heroin business through his power broker General Dang Van Quang, the presedential intelligence adviser. While the President has iniated cosmetic anti-corruption campaigns for the benefit of the West, he has himself been an important figure in the highly profitable drug scene.
The preceeding gives only a cursory outline of what is in fact a very complex military and economic situation. McCoy describes a web of corruption, deceit and intrigue which is almost unbelievably complicated when compared to the platitudes and generalisations commonly heard about the countries and governments of Southeast Asia. This web, in which the CIA is intimately involved, has a number of features which are common to other CIA operations such as those described by Philip Agee (an ex-CIA agent) in his book. Inside the Company: CIA Diary'. As is now customary with the CIA, they leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
Because of the embarrssment caused to the US Government by recent disclosures of CIA malpractice. President Ford and Congress have announced the setting-up of various Congressional committees and the 'Blue Ribbon Commission' to investigate the Agency and perhaps recommend legislative curbs on its powers. These promise to be no more that whitewash bodies, as a number of New York Times Weekly Review articles indicate.
'After the disclosure last week that the CIA had spied extensively on antiwar groups and other American dissedents there were quick expressions of outrage on Capitol Hill... The reaction was not suprising. It was, in fact, predictable.
'Every time there has been an intelligence scandal over the last two decades, the response of Congress has been similar. But the expressions of outrage have produced no concrete action ...'
'More than 200 separate measures designed to make the CIA more responsive to Congress have been introduced in the last quarter century. None has been enacted'. New York Times Weekly Review, December 29, 1974, p 1.
Seymour Hersh, in the January 5 edition of the same paper asked whether one strong investigation would be preferable to four separate investigations which could lead to 'a hodge-podge of hearings, many in secret'.
A more recent New York Times Weekly Review article discusses a serious question which the committees are now asking themselves: Will the White House try to limit access to some of the evidence?
'The question arises because of President Ford's refusal to make any commitment on three specific requests conveyed to him by Senator Frank Church of the Senate Elect Committee on Intelligence'.
In response to a request for a written directive to the agencies (CIA, FBI etc.) to co-operate with the committee the President refused; when asked to give the committee a report on the CIA's domestic activities which he received in January from the agency's director the President refused unless the committee formally voted to obtain the report; and when asked for assistance in obtaining the evidence gathered by the Presidential panel, headed by Vice President Rockefeller, the President made no further commitment.
'According to the Senator, Mr. Ford did not rule out the possibility that he might invoke 'executive privilege' and order the witholding of some material and witnesses. He may have been influenced by a warning he is said to have received orally from Mr. Colby (the director) — that the investigations could bring out highly embarrassing matters, including CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders.'
McCoy, Alfred W.,
The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia', New York, 1973, P14.
Subsequent quotations are all from this book.