THE STRENGTH OF THE WOLF
THE main theme of Douglas Valentine’s book is summed up in its subtitle: the secret history of America’s war on drugs. It is a theme so disturbing that it lifts the narrative well above its narrow focus as a history of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which hunted heroin dealers across several continents from 1930 until it was closed down by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, just as drugs were becoming as ubiquitous as the Beatles.
The problem is simply stated. Every time America’s drug enforcement agencies stumbled on the ‘Mr Bigs’ of the drugs trade they would find that America’s intelligence agencies were there first - and either the trade itself or the individuals involved in it were under CIA protection. So the war against narcotics was lost before it began.
Valentine pursues this exhaustively - and, frankly, exhaustingly - through the FBN’s 38 years. Some of the skulduggery he uncovers is familiar. We are taken inside the Luciano Project, the alliance between the US military and the Mafia during the invasion of Sicily in the Second World War. In Vietnam we are introduced to that extraordinary cast of CIA-backed airlines, opium-producing hill tribes and South Vietnamese generals dealing heroin to Corsican gangsters.
One hapless FBN agent thinks he has uncovered a Viet Cong heroin ring, only to find he’s being conned by South Vietnamese officers into providing air transport for their own drug dealing. Just as he is about to get to the bottom of the affair, he is warned off by the American ambassador in Saigon.
Other episodes are less familiar. There is the uniformed Kuomintang army which decamped to Burma after the communists took over China in 1949, and which spent the next 10 years supplying the opium trade and plotting with the CIA to invade Yunnan province. It appears they were driven out by the Burmese army in the early 1960s and ended up in northern Thailand. Even today, Thai tour companies advertise trips to the village of Mae Salong, where tourists are invited to watch ancient KMT officers, still in uniform, trotting around on horseback.
The real strength of this book is in its painstaking detail. For the most part, The information Valentine presents is compelling, and its credibility is lifted hugely since large parts of the book are based on interviews with surviving FBN agents. The book is at its best when the flavour of mob busting in the 1950s and 1960s is allowed to emerge in the words of the agents.
But there is another side to the baleful influence of the CIA. It gradually becomes clear from Valentine’s narrative that the CIA was as much a partner of the FBN as an opponent. There were good reasons for the spooks to be attracted to the narcotics agents. Firstly, the CIA was forbidden to operate within the United States, but could use the FBN as cover. So, for example, MKULTRA, a secret programme to test LSD on unwitting members of the American public was in effect a combined CIA/FBN operation. Secondly, as the CIA’s own personnel were spies, they could not operate openly abroad. But FBN agents often worked together with and received intelligence from foreign police forces. There was an obvious advantage in making them CIA agents as well. Add in the FBN director Harry Anslinger’s political ambitions, and J Edgar Hoover’s resolute refusal to allow his FBI to cooperate with anyone, and it is often difficult to know just where the FBN stops and the CIA begins.
Further complicating an already complex picture, there is another theme in The Strength of the Wolf which sits rather uneasily with all the conspiracy theories. That the supply of drugs to America’s addicts was guaranteed by American intelligence is a terrific story, but it does rather rely on the idea that the supply of drugs could, at least in principle, be stopped. Yet, despite Valentine’s claim that as an enforcement agency the FBN was more successful than the FBI, all the evidence is that when its agents closed down one drug ring, a replacement was created almost immediately.
To give just one example: in 1964 the FBN broke up a heroin racket run by a group of South American diplomats. But no sooner were they stopped than "other smugglers were eagerly waiting to pick up the slack, and within a year fugitive Tom Buscetta would visit Mexico and Montreal as an emissary of Carlo Gambino and the Badalamenti clan in Sicily, and begin setting up replacement drug routes to the Mafia in New York". As this sort of thing happens time and time again, it becomes clear this is not just because there are too many bad guys.
The whole raison d’être of the FBN was to criminalise addicts, and throughout his career Anslinger campaigned against all attempts to treat drugs as a medical or social problem. The FBN boss, writes Valentine, "cleverly stalemated his critics by emphasising the evils of the Mafia and its phantom communist allies, rather than focusing attention on misguided pharmacists and family physicians dispensing narcotic drugs to middle-class, mostly female, addicts. In this way, the commissioner moved the debate over national drug policy away from the ambiguous issue of demand, which he could not control, to the issue of supply - the grist of his guerrilla warfare organisation’s mill."
Worse, the FBN was complicit in perpetuating the drugs trade. All the agents knew the money they paid to informants went on narcotics, and numerous ‘flash rolls’ - wads of dollars - went on setting up heroin deals in the hope the dealers would later be nabbed. While Johnson may, as Valentine argues, have closed the FBN because it helped put one of his pals in jail, the FBN itself provided plenty of ammunition.
A warning to potential readers. If Valentine’s account is compelling in its detail, the price is that the book is often close to unreadable. Try this paragraph about the Kennedy assassination for size: "It’s almost as if [James Jesus] Angleton was a double agent, and if he was the ‘mole’ he was searching for, it’s possible that SDECE agents working for the KGB may have sent an assassin into Dallas through Angleton’s Brown-Castellani drug network, or through Paul Mondolini. If Angleton was a KGB mole, perhaps he used QJ/WIN (who could have been Mertz) to assassinate JFK, and programmed Lee Harvey Oswald as the unwitting patsy through the MKULTRA Program".
Gordon Brewer is presenter of Newsnight