Even as President Donald Trump faces ever-intensifying investigations into the alleged connections between his top aides and family members and powerful Russian figures, he serves as commander in chief over a U.S. military that is killing an astonishing and growing number of civilians. Under Trump, the U.S. is re-escalating its war in Afghanistan, expanding its operations in Iraq and Syria, conducting covert raids in Somalia and Yemen, and openly facilitating the Saudi’s genocidal military destruction of Yemen.
Meanwhile, China has quietly and rapidly expanded its influence without deploying its military on foreign soil.
A new book by the famed historian Alfred McCoy predicts that China is set to surpass the influence of the U.S. globally, both militarily and economically, by the year 2030. At that point, McCoy asserts the United States empire as we know it will be no more. He sees the Trump presidency as one of the clearest byproducts of the erosion of U.S. global dominance, but not its root cause. At the same time, he also believes Trump may accelerate the empire’s decline.
McCoy argues that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the beginning of the end. McCoy is not some chicken little. He is a serious academic. And he has guts.
During the Vietnam War, McCoy was ambushed by CIA-backed paramilitaries as he investigated the swelling heroin trade. The CIA tried to stop the publication of his now classic book, “The Politics of Heroin.” His phone was tapped, he was audited by the IRS, and he was investigated and spied on by the FBI. McCoy also wrote one of the earliest and most prescient books on the post-9/11 CIA torture program and he is one of the world’s foremost experts on U.S. covert action. His new book, which will be released in September, is called “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.”
“The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, may already be tattered and fading by 2025 and, except for the finger pointing, could be over by 2030,” McCoy writes. Imagining the real-life impact on the U.S. economy, McCoy offers a dark prediction:
For the majority of Americans, the 2020s will likely be remembered as a demoralizing decade of rising prices, stagnant wages, and fading international competitiveness. After years of swelling deficits fed by incessant warfare in distant lands, in 2030 the U.S. dollar eventually loses its special status as the world’s dominant reserve currency.
Suddenly, there are punitive price increases for American imports ranging from clothing to computers. And the costs for all overseas activity surges as well, making travel for both tourists and troops prohibitive. Unable to pay for swelling deficits by selling now-devalued Treasury notes abroad, Washington is finally forced to slash its bloated military budget. Under pressure at home and abroad, its forces begin to pull back from hundreds of overseas bases to a continental perimeter. Such a desperate move, however, comes too late.
Faced with a fading superpower incapable of paying its bills, China, India, Iran, Russia, and other powers provocatively challenge U.S. dominion over the oceans, space, and cyberspace.
Alfred McCoy is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the now-classic book “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.” His new book, out in September, is “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.”
This week, I interviewed McCoy for the Intercepted podcast. We broadcast an excerpt of the interview on the podcast. Below is an edited and slightly condensed version of the full interview. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss Trump and Russia, the history of CIA interference in elections around the world, the Iran-Contra scandal, the CIA and the crack-cocaine epidemic, U.S. proxy wars, narcotrafficking in Afghanistan, and much more.
CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade
JS: You’ve written this excellent book that will come out from Haymarket books in September called “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and the Decline of U.S. Global Power.” But I want to ask you about a much earlier book that you wrote, “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.” And that details your investigation — and it really was what introduced you to this world of covert CIA operations, client states, mercenaries, local proxies, and you also found yourself in conflict with very powerful individuals in the CIA and the national security state because of what you were researching. Talk about that book and the process that led to writing it and how it was eventually published.
AM: Sure. Now, almost 50 years ago, looking back it was an extraordinary experience. In the space of 18 months to two years, I acquired an amazing education. Up to that point I was a graduate student looking at the history of colonialism in Southeast Asia, writing articles that had lots of footnotes. I was a library rat.
And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research, done by the White House, [it was] determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam were heavy heroin users. There were, if that statistic is accurate, more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.
And so what I did was I set out to investigate: Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.
So I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina, who was then head of a major French helicopter manufacturing company, and he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations, so the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld, the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”
So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went to Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos, whose main cash crop was opium and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills and there were heroin labs — one of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming, in those labs, the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.
And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. And so this heroin epidemic swept the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The Defense Department invented mass urine analysis testing, so when those troops left they were tested and given treatment. And what I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic and that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America when the Contras became involved in the traffic. The CIA looked the other way as their aircraft and their allies were smuggling cocaine from Colombia through Central America to the United States. Same thing in the 1980s, during the secret war in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen turned to opium. The opium production in Afghanistan during that secret war increased from about 100 tons of opium per annum to 2000 tons, a massive increase. Afghanistan went from supplying zero percent of U.S. heroin supply — soared to 65 percent of the illicit heroin supply for the United States came out of Afghanistan. The CIA sent arms across the border through caravans to the Mujahideen fighters and those same caravans came out carrying opium. The CIA prevented the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, from investigating. Again, complicity in the traffic.
So a clear pattern. The other thing was when I began to do that investigation and write up the book, I faced enormous pressures. My phone was tapped by the FBI, the IRS investigated, I had an audit as a poverty-stricken graduate student. The Department of Education investigated my graduate fellowship. Friends of mine who had been serving in military intelligence were recruited to spy on me. In other words, what I found was the CIA penetrated every aspect of my life. The head of CIA covert operations, a very famous operative named Cord Meyer Jr., visited the offices of Harper and Row, my publisher, and tried to persuade the publisher to suppress the book, hold the contract, just don’t release the book, claiming that it was a threat to national security.
So what I discovered was not only CIA complicity, complex compromise relationships with covert allies far away in remote places like Southeast Asia, but also the incredible depth of the penetration of the CIA within U.S. society under the conditions of the Cold War. I found my phone, my fellowship, my friends, my publisher, every aspect of my life was manipulated by the CIA. It was a fascinating discovery.
JS: And you write in your forthcoming book, “In the Shadows of the American Century,” “I had crafted a historical method that would prove over the next 40 years of my career surprisingly useful in analyzing a diverse array of foreign policy controversies, CIA alliances with drug lords, the agency’s propagation of psychological torture, and our spreading state surveillance.” Part of the reason it seems that they were concerned about what you were investigating in Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere was that you were tapping into something that was an emerging nexus that the CIA would rely on for decades to come.
AM: Indeed. All of those areas. The method I came up with was very simple. Start far back in the past, as far back as you can go, when the — let’s say the research on torture, although somewhat secret is not controversial because it hasn’t been applied. Go back to the U.S. colonial policy in the Philippines when we started surveillance circa 1898 to pacify the Philippines, and then track it forward step by step all the way to the present, keeping in mind the patterns, the structure of the operation. And then when you get to the present where it becomes secret, highly classified, and very controversial, you understand the structure, so you know where to look, what assumptions are likely to be sound, what hypotheses might work, how you can conduct your analysis and that can lead you to an insight.
For example, let’s take the case of torture, OK? I work on the Philippines as my main area in Southeast Asia that I study, and I was very interested in the overthrow of the Marcos regime. I did some research that contributed to that overthrow. In the aftermath of the overthrow of the Marcos regime, there was this coterie of military colonels that had plotted an abortive coup, that had sparked a so-called People Power Revolution that put a million Filipinos on the streets of Manila calling for Marcos’ downfall, forcing Washington to provide him with aircraft that flew him out to exile in Hawaii and brought democracy. So I was very interested in who these colonels were.
And what I found when I investigated them is that they weren’t line officers, say combat officers, they weren’t even intelligence officers. They were internal security officers who’ve been personally involved in torture. And what I begin to realize is that torture was a transactional experience, that these officers who’ve been trained by the CIA on how to interrogate and use torture, that, as they broke down their victims, they empowered themselves and inspired themselves to this coup to overthrow Marcos.
Well, that also introduced me to the idea that the CIA was training torturers around the globe. And I figured this out in the 1980s, before it was common knowledge. There was some research in the ’70s, people working on this, but we didn’t have the full picture. And what I began to figure out was also the nature of the methods that these colonels were using. Now, look, these are physical guys that were brutally, physically hazed at their military academy, as often happens in such organizations. And so instead of beating physically their victims, they use something counterintuitive. They didn’t touch their victims. They used psychological techniques. And so in 2004, when CBS television published those photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, and nobody knew what was going on. There was that famous photograph of the Iraqi detainee standing on a box with his arms outstretched with phony electrical wires attached to him, he’d been told that if he lowered his arms, he’d be shocked, and he had a bag on his head.
And I looked at that photo and I said, “Those are not bad apples. That is CIA doctrinal techniques. The bag is for sensory deprivation, the arms are for self-inflicted pain, those are the two fundamental techniques of CIA psychological torture.” I wrote a book, “A Question of Torture,” that made that argument. I participated in a documentary that won an Oscar, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” that interviewed me and also made that argument, and it would not be for another 10 years until 2014, when the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee spent $40 million and reviewed 6 million CIA documents and came to a rather similar conclusions. So the method’s useful.
Reagan, Iran-Contra, the CIA, and Crack Cocaine
JS: I often find myself, when I’m watching the news, or in some cases even reading very serious powerful newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post, as they cover Donald Trump and this issue of Russia, it seems as though we are totally detached from history. And in reading your book I was reminded of the rise of Mobutu to power in Kinshasa, and also you went into great depth about the CIA crack cocaine story that ultimately was broken wide open by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News, and then attacked and major news organizations trying to discredit him. Walk us through the Contra War and the connection to the selling of embargoed weapons to Iran and the fact that you had eleven senior officials in Ronald Reagan’s administration actually convicted of selling Iran embargoed arms.
I mean we talk about scandals and then you look at Reagan, and it’s like 11 senior officials convicted of selling embargoed arms to finance the CIA’s death squad the Contras in Nicaragua?
AM: You know, in the Reagan administration the United States was at a low ebb in its global power. The Reagan administration launched the invasion of Grenada. It was the first time in nearly a decade that the U.S. has been able to exercise its global power anywhere beyond the United States successfully, its military power. And then in Central America, the Reagan administration felt very threatened by the collapse of the Somoza regime, one of the U.S. client regimes in Central America, and the Sandinista guerrilla movement capturing the capital Managua in 1979.
And that occurred at the same time as the Soviet Red Army basically occupied Kabul, the capture of the capital of Afghanistan, so the Reagan administration felt threatened, on a kind of far periphery of U.S. power in Afghanistan, and close at home, kind of a gateway to America — in Central America. So the Reagan administration reacted by mounting two major covert operations: one, to push the Red Army out of Afghanistan and two, to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And both of these operations involved tolerating trafficking in opium in Afghanistan by the Mujahideen Muslim guerrilla fighters, and tolerating the trafficking in cocaine in Central America by our Contra allies.
And there were basically two forms of support for the Contras. The one was the arms-for-money deal to provide black money to sustain the Contra revolt for the decade that it dragged on. And the other thing was a kind of hands-off approach. There was a DEA operative, a Drug Enforcement Administration operative, in Honduras that was reporting on the Honduran military complicity in the transit traffic of cocaine moving from Colombia through Central America to the United States. He was removed from the country. And then the CIA, because of Congress cutting off the arms shipments periodically for the CIA, the so-called Boland amendment that imposed a kind of embargo upon U.S. support for the Contras, they needed to periodically warehouse their arms. And what they found was that the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, particularly Roatan Island, was an ideal logistics point right off the coast — it was a major transshipment point for cocaine moving from Colombia across the Caribbean to the United States but it’s also an ideal place for the U.S. to warehouse and then ship its arms to the Contras on the border with Nicaragua and Honduras.
And so, the kingpin, the drug kingpin of the Bay Islands was a notorious international trafficker named Alan Hyde who had 35 ships on the high seas smuggling cocaine from Colombia into the United States. Every U.S. security agency involved, the Coast Guard, the CIA itself, the Drug Enforcement Administration, they all had reports about Alan Hyde being a Class A trafficker, arguably the biggest smuggler in the Caribbean. And to get access to his warehouses what the CIA did was they basically blocked any investigation of Alan Hyde from 1987 to 1992, during the peak of the crack-cocaine epidemic, and so the CIA got to ship their guns to his warehouses and then onward to the border post for the Contras. And Alan Hyde was given an immunity to investigation or prosecution for five years.
That’s — any criminal, that’s all they need, is an immunity to investigation. And this coincided with the flood of cocaine through Central America into the United States. This CIA inspector general in response to protests in South Central, Los Angeles, conducted an investigation also in response to Gary Webb’s inquiries and they released Report 1, they called “The California Connection.” They said that Gary Webb’s allegations that the CIA had protected the distributors, the deal of the Nicaraguan dealers who were brokering the sale of the import cocaine to the Crips and Bloods gangs in South Central, L.A., that that all that was false.
Then they issued, the inspector general in 1998, issued part two of that report, the executive summary said similarly: no case to answer, CIA relations with the Contras in Central America complex, but nothing about drugs. But if you actually read the report, all the way through, which is something historians tend to do, you get to paragraph 913 of that report and there are subsequently 40 of the most amazing revelations, 40 paragraphs of the most amazing revelations stating explicitly in cables and verbatim quotes from interviews with CIA operatives about their compromised relationship with the biggest drug smuggler in the Caribbean, Alan Hyde.
And if you go on the CIA website and you look for that 1998 Inspector General Report, you’ll find a little black line that says paragraphs 913-960 have been excised. Those are those paragraphs. But you can find them on the internet.
JS: One of the fascinating aspects of this — it’s a short part of your book, but I think it’s always important to point this out, the name Robert Gates pops up at the time that the CIA had this relationship with Hyde. Gates was the deputy director of the CIA, and of course now is one of the beloved figures in the bipartisan foreign policy consensus. He was defense secretary under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And Gates, his hands are all over this thing as well.
AM: Yeah, there’s, how am I going to put it? That illustrates the disparity between the formal rhetoric of politics and the geopolitics of the exercise of global power. And the difficulties, the demands, the moral and political compromises required to run, well let’s call it an empire. A global empire. And, from a pure realpolitik imperial perspective, that Contra operation, by seeking an effective complementation between the flow of drugs north, very powerful illicit economic force, and the Contra guerrilla operations, accomplish their objective. You know? After 10 years of supporting the Contras, the Sandinistas lost power for a time in a democratic election. They were finally pushed out of office. The CIA accomplished its mission.
Now, if you compare that with where we are with drugs and covert operations and military operations in Afghanistan, it was very successful in the 1980s, as a result of the CIA’s alliance of the Mujahideen, provisioning of arms and tolerance for their trafficking and drugs, which provided the bulk of their finance. You know, in 1989, the Soviet Red Army left Kabul, they left Afghanistan, the CIA won. Well today, of course, that drug traffic has been taken over by the Taliban and it funds the bulk of the Taliban’s guerrilla operations, pays for a new crop of teenage boys to become fighters every spring, and we’ve lost control of that. So from a realpolitik perspective, we can see a weakening of U.S. controls over these covert operations that are another manifestation of our, of the decline of the U.S. hegemony.
Heroin and the Worsening War in Afghanistan
JS: I want to ask you about Afghanistan given all of the work you’ve done on the intersection of covert operations on behalf of an empire and transnational narcotics trafficking. I think a lot of people who have followed the history of Afghanistan and U.S. involvement there find it hard to believe that the United States is not aware that its actions are fueling the heroin trade and fueling the insurgency there by having a Taliban that relies on it, as you just laid out. Given your historical, analytical work on past crises, what should we be looking for to see whether or not there is a direct U.S. role in facilitating narcotics flow out of Afghanistan?
AM: Sure. Good question. Look, during the 1980s, when that operation was successful, the CIA knew and in fact a man named Charles Cogan who was the head of the CIA operation in Afghanistan, and when he retired he gave an interview to Australian television, and he said, “Look, there was fallout from that operation. OK, yes there was fallout in terms of drugs.” But he said, “Let’s remember the Soviets left Afghanistan.” So the CIA was, and if Charles Cogan was any sign and I think he is, and he was the head of the operation for a while, they very well knew that the mujahideen fighters, the Muslim guerrillas they were arming and equipping, were getting the bulk of their finance and were sustaining their mass base among the farmers of southern Afghanistan through trafficking in opium and heroin. And that provided — I mean it provided 65 percent, the bulk of U.S. heroin supply, the bulk of the world’s supply.
Now, when the United States pulled out of Afghanistan in 1992, we turned our backs on it and the Taliban backed by Pakistan took power, and under the Taliban by 2000, by 1999-2000, the opium harvest more than doubled to 4500 tons. But then the Taliban became concerned about their pariah status and they decided that if they abolished opium they would no longer be a pariah state, they could get international recognition, they could strengthen their hold on power. And so they actually, in 2000-2001, completely wiped out opium, and it went down from 4600 tons to 180 tons, I mean like an incredible — the most, one of the most successful opium eradication programs anywhere on the planet.
They also completely weakened their state, so that when the U.S. began bombing in October 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban quickly collapsed and then what happened was, of course, when the U.S. came back in, what we did was we worked through the CIA. And we put pallets of hundred dollar bills, we sent in $70 million in cash, we mobilized the old warlord coalition in the far north, the warlords there were heavily involved in opium traffic. We mobilize the Pashtun warlords who were all opium traffickers, and when they swept across Afghanistan and captured the countryside in the provincial capitals, they began supervising over the replanting of opium. And, very quickly, the opium harvest began blooming and by 2006 it was up to 8000 tons of opium — the highest in a century providing well over 90 percent of the world’s opium and heroin supply, and a majority of the gross domestic product of Afghanistan.
And, at the local level, the Taliban took control of the cultivation, the processing and the smuggling and they used the profits to rebuild their apparatus. They were completely wiped out in October 2001, they steadily rebuilt and have launched this succession of offensives that now control over half the countryside, so there’s a very clear relationship between the opium crop, which is now beyond our control, we ignored it up to 2004, as it was booming and spreading again. So it’s one of those interesting exercises or instances in which the U.S. loses control over this complementation between the illicit traffic and the surrogate warfare, that complementation that worked so well in Central America. When you’ve lost control of it in Afghanistan, and it’s one more index of our waning control over the world, an ever more complex world.
Note: I've edited out the parts of the interview that don't deal specifically with narcotrafficking or drugs. You can read the full interview here.
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.
Donald Trump and the Coming Fall of American Empire
Even as President Donald Trump faces ever-intensifying investigations into the alleged connections between his top aides and family members and...