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A Drug War? CIA Has Other Priorities for National Security

May 21, 1989|Malcolm Byrne and Jefferson Morley | Malcolm Byrne is an analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington; the views expressed here are his own. Jefferson Morley is Washington editor of the Nation

WASHINGTON — While William J. Bennett has brought his drug war to the streets of Washington, he has so far avoided a no less entrenched drug problem in the nation's capital--the long-standing conflict between law enforcement agencies and the national security bureaucracy.

President George Bush has declared narcotics a national security priority, but a crucial task for Bennett will be to address the fundamental struggle between the goals of his Office of National Drug Control Policy and those of the Central Intelligence Agency, State Department and other agencies that seem to have different views on national security.

Bennett's challenge was underscored in a report, "Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy," released last month by the Senate subcommittee on narcotics, terrorism and international operations. At an April 13 press conference, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee, said his investigation "found that, too often, other foreign-policy interests were permitted to sidetrack, disrupt and undercut the war on drugs."

The Kerry committee report noted, in connection with alleged Contra drug-running, that its investigation was unable to turn up "a single case against a drug trafficker operating in (northern Costa Rica) . . . despite direct testimony that trafficking on the Southern Front was reported to CIA officials."

Not only was the intelligence community laying off drug dealers during the Contra war--on at least four occasions, U.S. officials did business with them. The State Department contracted with a company called SETCO, in 1985 and 1986, to transport supplies to the Contras despite Drug Enforcement Administration information that its founder, Juan Matta Ballesteros, had a history of drug involvement. A 1983 Customs Service report noted that Matta was "a class I DEA violator" and that "American businessmen who are dealing with Matta . . . are smuggling narcotics into the United States." It wasn't until 1988, that Matta was extradited to the United States.

Of all the cases of U.S. Government subversion of the anti-drug campaign, the most notorious involves Panama's Manuel A. Noriega. Noriega is now reviled by the Bush Administration but only three years ago, senior Reagan Administration officials were courting him for his help in fighting the Contra war.

Oliver L. North, according to documents released at his trial, met Noriega in September, 1986, with the approval of National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter. North discussed the dictator's offer of sabotage and other services for the Contras in exchange for U.S. help to "clean up Noriega's image." Three months earlier, the New York Times had run a lengthy article detailing Noriega's involvement with drugs.

The problem of cozy relations between national security operatives and drug traffickers is not new. It has existed at least since 1969, when Richard M. Nixon first declared narcotics a national scourge. Declassified government studies of the early years of the drug war (the only period for which significant documentation has been available until now) reveal Bennett's predecessors being frustrated by the same interagency battles that go on today. Bennett ignores the lesson of these early years at his peril.

The CIA has played a crucial role in the drug war from the beginning. William E. Colby, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, made the point succinctly in 1973 when he said, "As long as there exists a narcotics problem, intelligence agencies will be involved."

That fact brought the CIA into direct conflict with the DEA, according to a 1975 report by the General Accounting Office on the Latin American drug trade. The CIA's mission, the report noted, is to gather intelligence bearing on the overall security of the United States. The DEA, on the other hand, is essentially responsible for keeping drugs out of the country. The GAO concluded that intelligence operatives viewed the DEA as low priority and even a danger to their operations: anti-drug campaigns risked exposing clandestine sources and disrupting sensitive intelligence-gathering efforts. As a result, many local CIA agents simply refused to cooperate with the DEA.

As early as 1971 and 1972, White House aides complained about the CIA's reluctance to share drug intelligence. A top CIA official defended the agency at a White House meeting by saying the drug war required "adjusting agency priorities," according to minutes of the session.

The CIA went further to protect its interest. According to a secret 1976 Justice Department report, the agency tampered with at least four major drug cases between 1972 and 1976, to prevent exposure of "sources and methods." These actions were supported at the agency's top levels. In 1972, Richard M. Helms, then the Director of Central Intelligence, told a Cabinet-level committee that the CIA had a duty "to protect intelligence officers and sources abroad from investigative or legal disclosures."

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