Alfred W. McCoy

Alfred W. McCoy

Alfred W. McCoy studied Southeast Asian history at Yale University. In 1971 he was commissioned to write a book on the opium trade in Laos. During his research he discovered that the French equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency (SDECE), financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade. McCoy also found evidence that after the United States replaced the French in Southeast Asia, the CIA also became involved in this trade. As he later pointed out: "Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism."

Cord Meyer, a senior official in the CIA and a key figure in Operation Mockingbird, became aware of Alfred McCoy's manuscript and made efforts to have the book withheld from publication. The publisher, leaked the story to the media and the book, The Politics of Heroin, was published in 1972. Now in its third revised edition, this book has been translated into nine languages.

Alfred W. McCoy, who is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has spent the past thirty years writing about Southeast Asian history and politics. His publications include Philippine Cartoons (1985), Anarchy of Families (1994), Closer Than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy (2000) and Lives at the Margin (2001).

A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, was published in January, 2006. His latest book is The History of the Philippines (2007).

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Alfred W. McCoy was interviewed by Paul DeRienzo at the Causes and Cures: National Teleconference on the Narcotics Epidemic on 9th November, 1991.

Paul DeRienzo: How did you come to write The Politics of Heroin; CIA Complicity In The Global Drug Trade?

Alfred W. McCoy: In 1971 I was a graduate student doing Southeast Asian History at Yale University. An editor at Harper & Row, Elisabeth Jakab, read some articles in a volume I had edited about Laos, which made some general references to the opium trade in Laos.

She decided this would be a great idea for a book and asked me to do a background book on the heroin plague that was sweeping the forces then fighting in South Vietnam. We later learned that about one third of the United States combat forces in Vietnam, conservatively estimated, were heroin addicts.

I went to Paris and interviewed retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA, an organization called SDECE [Service de Documentation Exterieure et du Contre-Espionage]. In an amazing interview he told me that French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade. [The French protected opium trafficking in Laos and northern Vietnam during the colonial war that raged from 1946 to the French defeat in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.]

The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence.

He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

So I went to Southeast Asia to follow up on that lead and that's what took me into doing this whole book. It was basically pulling a thread and keep tucking at it and a veil masking the reality began to unravel.

Paul DeRienzo: What was the CIA's role in heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia?

Alfred W. McCoy: During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940's to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism. Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism.

Since the 1920's the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, and the United States have prohibited opium and cocaine products from legal sale. These products had already emerged as vast global commodities with very substantial production zones and large markets, large demand for those commodities both in the third world and the first.

The historic Asia opium zone stretches across 5,000 miles of Asian mainland from Turkey to Laos along the southern borders of the Soviet Union and the southern border of communist China. It just so happened that one of the key war zones in the cold war happened to lay astride the Asian opium zone.

During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 (during the Vietnam war) their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980's, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States.

While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you're involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.

Finally, if there were any allegations about the involvement of their allies in the drug trade, the CIA would use their good offices to quash those allegations.

This meant that these drug lords, connected with the CIA, and protected by the CIA, were able to release periodic heroin surges, and [in Latin America] periodic cocaine surges. You can trace very precisely during the 40 years of the cold war, the upsurge in narcotics supply in the United States with covert operations.

Paul DeRienzo: How does the CIA's policies affect drug interdiction? I've spoken for example to former Drug Enforcement Administration officer Michael Levine, who has expressed anger that he was pulled off cases because he got too close to someone who, while being a big trafficker, was also an asset of the CIA.

Alfred W. McCoy: Mike Levine speaks from personal experience. In 1971 Mike Levine was in Southeast Asia operating in Thailand as an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA]. At the same time I was conducting the investigation for the first edition of my book.

Mike Levine said that he wanted to go up country to Chiangmai, the heroin capital of Southeast Asia at that point, the finance and processing center and hub of an enterprise. He wanted to make some major seizures. Through a veiled series of cut outs in the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, instructions were passed to his superiors in the DEA, who told him he couldn't go up and make the bust. He was pulled off the case.

He said it wasn't until he read my book a number of years later that he understood the politics of what was going on and he realized why he had been pulled off. All of the upland drug lords that were producing the narcotic, the heroin, were in fact CIA assets. Now he understands it.

That is not just a single incident, so let's go back to basics. What is the institutional relationship between the DEA an the CIA? The Federal Bureau of Narcotics [FBN] was established in 1930 as an instrument of the prohibition of narcotics, the only United States agency that had a covert action capacity with agents working undercover before World War II. During the war when the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] was established, which is the forerunner of the CIA, key personnel were transferred from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to train the OSS officers in the clandestine arts.

That close institutional relationship between the DEA [direct descendant of the FBN] and the CIA continues up to the present day. The long time head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a man named Harry Anslinger, who headed that bureau from 1930 until his retirement in 1962, was a militant anti-communist who spent a lot of his time in counter-intelligence operations. There's a very close relationship between the two agencies.

During the cold war the main priority abroad for the United States government was anti-communism, and whenever the CIA mounted an operation, every other U.S. agency was subordinated to the CIA's covert operations.

That meant that when the CIA was running one of its covert action wars in the drug zones of Asia, the DEA would stay away. For example, during the 1950's the CIA had this ongoing alliance with the nationalist Chinese in northern Burma. Initially mounting invasions of China in 1950-51, later mounting surveillance along the border for a projected Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia. The DEA stayed out of Southeast Asia completely during that period and collected no intelligence about narcotics in deference to the CIA's operation.

Let's take two more examples that bring it right up to the present. [First] the Afghan operation: from 1979 to the present, the CIA's largest operation anywhere in the world, was to support the Afghan resistance forces fighting the Soviet occupation in their country. The CIA worked through Pakistan military intelligence and worked with the Afghan guerilla groups who were close to Pakistan military intelligence.

In 1979 Pakistan had a small localized opium trade and produced no heroin whatsoever. Yet by 1981, according to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith, Pakistan had emerged as the world's leading supplier of heroin. It became the supplier of 60% of U.S. heroin supply and it captured a comparable section of the European market. In Pakistan itself the results were even more disastrous.

In 1979 Pakistan had no heroin addicts, in 1980 Pakistan had 5,000 heroin addicts, and by 1985, according to official Pakistan government statistics, Pakistan had 1.2 million heroin addicts, the largest heroin addict population in the world.

Who were the manufacturers? They were all either military factions connected with Pakistan intelligence, CIA allies, or Afghan resistance groups connected with the CIA and Pakistan intelligence. In May of 1990, ten years after this began, the Washington Post finally ran a front page story saying high U.S. officials admit that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [leader of the Hezbi-i Islami guerilla group], and other leaders of the Afghan resistance are leading heroin manufacturers.

This had been known for years, reported in the Pakistan press, indeed in 1980 reported in McClean's magazine. In fact in 1980 a White House narcotics advisor, Dr. David Musto of Yale University, went on the record demanding that we not ally with Afghan guerilla groups that were involved in narcotics. His advice was ignored and he went public in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Another example: Let's take the cocaine epidemic. In 1981 as cocaine began surging north into the United States, the DEA assigned an agent named Tomas Zepeda, in June 1981, to open up an office in Honduras. By 1983 Zepeda was collecting very good intelligence indicating that the Honduran military were taking bribes to let the aircraft through their country to come to the United States.

Zepeda was pulled out of Honduras and that office was closed by the DEA. They didn't open another office in Honduras until 1987 because Honduras was a frontline country in the contra war. If Zepeda's reports about involvement of the Honduran military had been acted upon, the DEA would have been forced to take action against the Honduran military officers who were working with the CIA to protect the contras.

In short, there was a conflict between the drug war and the cold war. Faced with the choice, the United States government chose the cold war over the drug war, sacrificing a key intelligence post for the DEA in Honduras.

The same thing happened in Afghanistan. During the 1980's from the time that heroin trade started, there were 17 DEA agents based in Pakistan. They neither made nor participated in any major seizures or arrests. At a time when other police forces, particularly Scandinavian forces, made some major seizures and brought down a very major syndicate connected with former president Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan.

(2) Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972)

As long as the narcotics traffic was directed exclusively at Chinese and Vietnamese opium smokers, U.S. congressional complaints about corruption were muted. When in 1968 Senator Albert Gruening accused Air Vice-Marshal Ky of smuggling opium, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon issued a firm, if inaccurate, denial, and the matter was forgotten . But when South Vietnam's narcotics syndicates started cultivating the GI heroin market, the problem was not dismissed so cavalierly. After NBC's Saigon correspondent accused President Thieu's chief adviser, General Quang, of being "the biggest pusher" of heroin to GIs in Vietnam, the U.S. Embassy "filed a top level report to Washington saying it can find no evidence to support recent charges that President Nguyen Vari Thieu and Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky were involved in or profiting from the drug trade." Simultaneously, U.S. officials defended Thieu and Ky publicly by leaking the Embassy report to members of the Saigon press corps in an off-the-record background briefing.

According to a U.S. Embassy official assigned to the drug problem, the U.S. mission "can find no evidence" because it studiously avoids looking for any. It is an unwritten rule among Embassy officials that nobody can mention the names of high-ranking Vietnamese during discussions of the heroin traffic. The CIA avoids gathering information on high-level involvement, and even in its closed-door sessions with high Embassy officials discusses only minor pushers and addicts.

The U.S. mission's handling of the accusations concerning Gen. Ngo Dzu's involvement in the heroin trade is another case in point. Beginning in January 1971, the U.S. army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) began gathering detailed information on Gen. Ngo Dzu's involvement in GI heroin traffic. Although these reports were sent to the U.S. Embassy through the proper channels, the U.S. mission did absolutely nothing. When U.S. Congressman Robert H. Steele told a congressional subcommittee in July 1971 that "U.S. military authorities have provided Ambassador Bunker with hard intelligence that one of the chief traffickers is Gen. Ngo Dzu, the commander of II Corps, the U.S. mission did its best to discredit the Congressman. Rather than criticizing Gen. Ngo Dzu for pushing heroin, the senior U.S. adviser for If Corps declared publicly, "There is no information available to me that in any shape, manner or fashion would substantiate the charges Congressman Steele has made ." In light of the CID report quoted earlier, the U.S. mission has apparently decided to use any means possible to protect the Thieu regime from investigation of its involvement in the heroin trade.

While the U.S. Embassy has done its best to shield the Thieu regime from criticism, the Nixon administration and the U.S. military command have tried to defuse public concern over the GI heroin epidemic by minimizing the extent of the problem. The military offers two main arguments to justify its official optimism: (1) the definitive urinalysis test administered to every Vietnam GI just before he returns to the United States has shown that no more than 5.5 percent of all army personnel in Vietnam are heroin users; (2) since only 8.0 percent of the GI addicts in Vietnam inject, or "mainline," the great majority who smoke or snort heroin are not seriously addicted and will have no problem kicking the habit once they return home.

Unfortunately, the army's first supposition is not true. On June 22, 1971, the U.S. military command ordered every GI leaving Vietnam to submit to a sophisticated test that can detect significant amounts of morphine in the body. Any GI who tested positively was confined to a special detoxification center and could not be allowed to return home until he had "dried out" and could pass the test. From the very first, GIs started devising ingenious ways of beating the system. Supervision of the testing centers has been notoriously lax, and many serious addicts pass by bringing a buddy's "clean" urine to the test and substituting it for their own. Since the urinalysis can only detect morphine in the body if the addict has used heroin within the last four or five days, many addicts dry themselves out voluntarily before taking the test. Army nurses have seen addicts who are in the midst of an agonizing withdrawal pass the test. Contrary to popular myth, addicts can control their intake to some extent, and often alternate "sprees" with brief periods of abstinence lasting up to a week, especially the last few days before payday.

(3) Edward Hymoff, Saturday Review (1972)

This is the book that the CIA tried to suppress before its publication. (The Agency) should have hired McCoy and his two associates... to research and write this hard-hitting expose... For despite some flaws, the research that went into this book is far superior to the periodic reports that the CIA is itself presently producing about narcotics trafficking...

During the past twenty years only eleven books of any consequence have been written about the international trafficking in narcotics, and McCoy's book is by far the best.... McCoy has documented for us, in greater detail than ever before, what has become a national scandal, and he has documented it alarmingly.

(4) Joel Bainerman, The Crimes of a President (1992)

Alfred McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, wrote the monumental work on the subject of the CIA's involvement in the drug trade: The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia. In 1991 he followed it up with The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.

McCoy has specialized in the area of the CIA's historic ties to the international drug trade. He asserts that the organization's involvement in the Asian drug trade actually dates back to the late 1940s, after the People's Republic of China was proclaimed by Mao Tse-tung. The CIA allied itself with Kuomintang forces that had fled to the Shan states of northern Burma to carry out sabotage against China. They supported themselves via the opium trade by sending caravans of the drug to Laos for sale.

"Whenever the CIA supports a rebel faction in a regional dispute, that faction's involvement in the drug trade increases," McCoy claims. "Just as CIA support for National Chinese troops in the Shan states increased Burma's opium crop in the 1950s, so too did the agency's aid to the mujahideen guerrillas in the 1980s expand opium production in Afghanistan" (The Progressive, July 1991).

Victor Marchetti, who worked for the CIA for 14 years and served as executive assistant to the deputy director under Richard Helms until 1969, is probably the leading critic today of the CIA's "covert" activities. Having seen how things work from the inside, in 1975 he wrote The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, the first book to expose the workings of the U.S. organization. The book has become somewhat of a classic in certain circles. On April 18th, 1972, Marchetti became the first American writer to be served with an official censorship order issued by a court of the United States forbidding him to disclose any information about the CIA. The verdict was eventually overturned.

"I guess people like the book," Marchetti told me one morning at a coffee shop in the National Press Building in Washington. "Every once in a while I get a royalty check for a few hundred dollars from my publishers."

Marchetti was a Soviet military specialist and at one point was probably the U.S. government's leading expert on Soviet military aid to the countries of the Third World. He left the CIA and wrote about its shortcomings. He felt the agency was incapable of reforming itself and that Presidents had no interest in changing it because they viewed it as a private asset.

Out of all the people I interviewed for this book, Marchetti was perhaps the most insightful. He spoke about covert operations and secret agendas of the Bush-Reagan White Houses the way most people would about yesterday's football scores.

"It shouldn't surprise anyone that the history of the CIA runs parallel to criminal and drug operations throughout the world," he says. "The connection stretches back to the predecessor organization of the CIA, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services], and its involvement with the Italian Mafia, the Cosa Nostra, in Sicily and Southern Italy. When the OSS was fighting communists in France they 'mingled' with the Corsican brotherhood, who were heavily into drugs at that time."

Many of these contacts were formulated in the late 1940's when the OSS worked covertly to replace the leftist leaders of the Marseilles dock union, after it was thought that the union might interfere with American shipping in a crisis (The Nation, August 29th, 1987).

Exploiting the drug trade amplifies the operational capacity of covert operations for the CIA. When the CIA decides to enter a region to combat a communist force or country, the purpose is to seek out allies and assets which are effective and won't squeal. The CIA's allies' involvement with narcotics enhances their operational capacity because they are fully integrated into the household economies of the region and monopolize what is usually the largest cash crop in that country. Any group which controls such a lucrative trade commands extraordinary political power that is extremely useful to the CIA. Powerful drug warlords can mobilize people to die. No amount of money in the world can buy this operational capacity.

Says Alfred McCoy: "In the mountain ranges along the southern rim of Asia-whether in Afghanistan, Burma, or Laos-opium is the main currency of external trade and thus is a key source of political power. Since operations involve alliances with local power brokers who serve as the CIA's commanders, the agency, perhaps unwillingly or unwittingly, has repeatedly found its covert operations enmeshed with Asia's heroin trade. By investing a local ally such as Liekmatyar or Vang Pao with the authority of its alliance, the CIA draws the ally under the mantle of its protection. So armed, a tribal leader, now less vulnerable to arrest and prosecution, can use his American alliance to expand his share of the local opium trade" (The Politics of Heroin, 1991).

Marchetti agrees: "Drug dealers are in a position to know things, to get things done. They have muscle and no qualms about using it. This is attractive to the covert operators."

(5) Alfred W. McCoy, The Long Shadow of CIA Torture Research, Counterpunch (29th May, 2004)

The photos from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison are snapshots, not of simple brutality or a breakdown in discipline, but of CIA torture techniques that have metastasized, over the past 50 years, like an undetected cancer inside the US intelligence community.

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led massive, secret research into coercion and consciousness that reached a billion dollars at peak. After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, this CIA research produced a new method of torture that was psychological, not physical--best described as "no touch torture."The CIA's discovery of psychological torture was a counter-intuitive break-through--indeed, the first real revolution in this cruel science since the 17th century. In its modern application, the physical approach required interrogators to inflict pain, usually by crude beatings that often produced heightened resistance or unreliable information. Under the CIA's new psychological paradigm, however, interrogators used two essential methods, disorientation and self-inflicted pain, to make victims feel responsible for their own suffering.

In the CIA's first stage, interrogators employ simple, non-violent techniques to disorient the subject. To induce temporal confusion, interrogators use hooding or sleep deprivation. To intensify disorientation, interrogators often escalate to attacks on personal identity by sexual humiliation.

Once the subject is disoriented, interrogators move on to a second stage with simple, self-inflicted discomfort such as standing for hours with arms extended. In this phase, the idea is to make victims feel responsible for their own pain and thus induce them to alleviate it by capitulating to the interrogator's power.

In his statement on reforms at Abu Ghraib last week, General Geoffrey Miller, former chief of the Guantanamo detention center and now prison commander in Iraq, offered an unwitting summary of this two-phase torture. "We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees," the general said. "We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations. And we will no longer use sleep deprivation in any of our interrogations."

Although seemingly less brutal, "no touch" torture leaves deep psychological scars on both victims and interrogators. The victims often need long treatment to recover from trauma far more crippling than physical pain. The perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating cruelty and lasting emotional problems.

After codification in the CIA's "Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation" manual in 1963, the new method was disseminated globally to police in Asia and Latin America through USAID's Office of Public Safety (OPS). Following allegations of torture by USAID's police trainees in Brazil, the US Senate closed down OPS in 1975.

After OPS was abolished, the Agency continued to disseminate its torture methods through the US Army's Mobile Training Teams, which were active in Central America during the 1980s. In 1997, the Baltimore Sun published chilling extracts of the "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual" that these Army teams had distributed to allied militaries for 20 years.

In the ten years between the last known use of these manuals in the early 1990s and arrest of Al Queda suspects since September 2001, torture continued as a US intelligence practice by delivering suspects to allied agencies, including Philippine National Police who broke the trans-Pacific bomb plot in 1995.

Once the War on Terror started, however, the US use of "no touch" torture resumed, first surfacing at Bagram Air Base near Kabul in early 2002 where Pentagon investigators found two Afghans had died during interrogation. In reports from Iraq, the methods are strikingly similar to those detailed over 40 years ago in the CIA's Kubark manual and later used by US-trained security forces worldwide.

Following the CIA's two-part technique, last September General Miller instructed US military police at Abu Ghraib to soften up high-priority detainees in the initial disorientation phase for later "successful interrogation and exploitation" by CIA and Military Intelligence. As often happens in "no touch" torture sessions, this process soon moved beyond sleep and sensory deprivation to sexual humiliation. In the second, still unexamined phase, US Army intelligence and CIA operatives probably administered the prescribed mix of interrogation and self-inflicted pain - outside the frame of these photographs.