Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) as well as the forthcoming book, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and “Nation-Building” in the American Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).
In their 1964 book, The Invisible Government, journalists David Wise and Thomas B. Ross wrote that “there are two governments in the United States today. One is visible. The other is invisible. The first is the government that citizens read about in their newspapers and children study about in their civics class. The second is the interlocking, hidden machinery that carries out the policies of the United States in the Cold War. The second invisible government gathers intelligence, conducts espionage and plans and executes secret operations all over the globe.” In the 45 years since these words were written, we have learned a lot more about how the secret government operates, above and beyond the law, and continues to do so long after the Soviet demise.
Peter Dale’s Scott’s American War Machine represents an important contribution. Building on the themes of The War Conspiracy (1972) and Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1996), Scott, a professor emeritus of English literature at UC Berkeley and founder of its peace studies program, highlights the influence of right-wing cabals connected to Wall Street and the oil and arms industries in driving American foreign policy in a militaristic direction. Carrying out clandestine operations financed through off-the books channels, including the narcotics trade, they exemplify the crisis of democratic accountability in the United States and have yielded disastrous consequences in contributing to the destabilization of volatile regions and to the growth of international terrorism and drug production.
Scott begins the book recounting an incident in which a Vietnam Special Forces veteran who witnessed opium loaded onto CIA Air America planes had a large hole burned into the door of his car the night before their scheduled interview as a warning to keep silent. For Scott, this small act of terrorism exemplifies the repressive dimension of the American government, which most citizens are loath to acknowledge. A major focal point for Scott’s study is the CIA’s support for the drug trade in the Golden Triangle region during the Cold War. U.S. policy, he argues, was driven in part by ideological zealots associated with the drug-tainted China lobby and Office of Strategic Services (OSS), including William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a Wall Street lawyer and “fanatic believer in the value of covert operations and guerrilla struggle” dating to his involvement with white armies in the Russian civil war following the Bolshevik revolution. Decades later, operating under minimal administrative oversight, Donovan and his cohorts used clandestine funds, derived in part from the black market, to organize Guomindang (GMD) irregulars to raid southern China out of Burma, a key source of tungsten. President Truman was only superficially aware of the details surrounding the operation, code named Paper, which empowered opium warlords (Li Mi, Duan Xiwen and Li Wenhuan) and was conducted in flagrant violation of Burmese sovereignty and over the objections of its ambassador.
In Thailand, where U.S. policies undermined the democratic government, the CIA began training paramilitary police units headed by gangster Phao Sriyanond through a front corporation named Sea Supply two years before the Truman administration officially approved $5 million for the development of a constabulary. A key conduit for arms to the GMD in Burma, Sea Supply was run by Lt. Col. Willis Bird and Lt. Col Paul Helliwell, who both served in the OSS’ Kunming station in China during World War II and combined their activities with rollback operations. A mover and shaker in the Republican Party who recruited pro-fascist blue-shirts in South Korea, Helliwell is alleged to have had connections with organized crime and helped Thai officials invest their drug profits in Florida land deals. Bird, a top executive at Sears Roebuck who helped to establish the Thai stock exchange in 1961, was subsequently indicted by the Attorney General’s office for bribing State Department officials in Laos to secure a road-building contract for another CIA front company. In 1953, Donovan was appointed ambassador to Thailand and helped to build up the border patrol police and a police aerial reconnaissance unit (PARU) which later helped to train Hmong guerrillas in Laos and ran paramilitary operations into North Vietnam (the head of PARU, Pattuporn Khramkruan, was arrested at JFK airport in New York with 59 pounds of heroin though never served any jail time because the CIA urged the Justice Department to dismiss the case). Donovan and Helliwell later became paid lobbyists for the Thai dictatorship (at a price tag of $100,000), ensuring continued U.S. governmental support.
The secret war in Laos was another clandestine operation funded by drug monies which yielded disastrous consequences. In the late 1950s, the CIA subverted free elections that brought a neutralist coalition to power and sponsored a right-wing coup by General Phoumi Nosavan, who used drug proceeds to crush the political opposition. In order to justify U.S. escalation against the pro-Communist Pathet Lao, the CIA concocted a story of a North Vietnamese invasion, which Washington Post reporter Joseph Alsop, a scion of the Eastern establishment, reported as fact. With Phoumi eventually driven into exile in Thailand (where his cousin Marshall Sarit Thanarat gave him sanctuary), the CIA created a clandestine army among the indigenous Hmong led by General Vang Pao who kept a torture chamber beneath his house and was later arrested by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) for drug possession. (The agent who arrested him, Bowman Taylor, was subsequently thrown out of the country by Ambassador William Sullivan and Vang was given a brief respite in Miami before returning to his jungle base in Long Tien – all these facts were omitted in his recent New York Times obituary). In 1967, Air Force General Ouane Rattikone took control of the opium trade from the GMD, ensuring ample funding for the secret war. Victor Marchetti, who was at the time an up-and-coming CIA executive, told reporter Joseph Trento years later “we were officially spending $27 million a year on the war in Laos while Shackley [CIA station chief, Ted] was there. The war was costing ten times that amount. It was no secret how they were doing it writes Scott: they financed it with drugs. They gave Shackley a medal for it.” Meanwhile the U.S. Air Force dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, causing the death and maiming of thousands of rice farmers, many of whom never even heard of the United States.
The CIA Dope Calypso, as Allen Ginsberg once called it, extended beyond the Vietnam War years into Latin America, where the CIA for decades protected “assets” involved in the drug trade, including Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, Chilean intelligence director Manuel Contreras and Mexican intelligence officer Miguel Nazar Haro who used drug monies to fund death squad operations. The CIA also supported Cuban exiles controlling the drug trade out of Miami who were involved in the assassination of leftist Chilean minister Orlando Letelier and likely JFK. According to Scott, the War on Drugs is a fraud that frequently helps to alter market share in favor of CIA protected traffickers and government officials against their rivals who are targeted under much publicized DEA raids. In the last three decades, deregulatory measures have made it easier for traffickers to launder money in U.S. and international banks, allegedly including Castle in the Bahamas, Citibank and Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) which provided the infrastructure for the CIA intervention in Afghanistan.
In the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter cut the CIA’s budget and broke ties with long-standing U.S. clients in the wake of the Church committee hearings, ex-operatives led by Shackley, Edwin Wilson and Thomas Clines organized a “shadow” CIA which Scott says continued to fund right-wing security forces through private means and initiated a successful lobby campaign alongside defense contractors to restore the far-right to power. Foreshadowing the Obama age, the election of a relatively progressive leader thus represented only a mild road block for the U.S. war machine (as Scott terms the right-wing cabal). It later effectively weathered the Iran-Contra crisis, which like Watergate, brought temporary public scrutiny on their activities, but only minor slaps on the wrist.
During the Reagan era, the center of global drug production shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the site not coincidentally of the largest CIA covert interventions since the secret war in Laos. Against the warning of David Musto, a drug policy adviser to the Carter administration, the U.S. again allied with leading regional narco-traffickers, including Lt. Gen. Fazle Haq of the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar of the anti-Soviet mujahidin who was also known for pouring acid in the face of women who did not wear the veil. Remnants of these organizations subsequently helped to form Al-Qaeda, which the CIA tacitly supported during the Kosovo bombings (in backing the drug-tainted Kosovar Liberation Army-KLA) and beyond, a fact suppressed, Scott charges, by the 9-11 commission and mainstream media.
Controversially, Scott argues that the 9-11 terrorist attacks reflect the working of the American “deep state” and were possibly analogous to the Gulf of Tonkin in being manufactured by intelligence agents with elements from the drug trafficking underworld to mobilize public support for the neoconservative agenda of re-colonizing the Middle East. Pointing to the history of CIA false flag operations, he notes that elements of the national security establishment withheld information from the FBI in its efforts to locate one of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mindhar, in August 2001 and employed double-agents responsible for past terrorist atrocities.
In his final chapter, Scott points out more authoritatively that in fighting the War on Terror, the U.S. has poured billions of dollars into the corrupt and brutal warlords of the Northern Alliance, who have turned Afghanistan into the world’s leading narco-state. While the media has focused on the Taliban’s support for the drug trade (which actually amounts to only 12 percent), the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a CIA “asset” who heads a paramilitary group targeting top Taliban commanders, has allegedly used drug proceeds to fund state terror operations as has close friend Sher Muhammed Akhundzada, governor of the Helmand province who was found with more than nine tons of opium in his office by the DEA in 2005 (he subsequently took up a seat in the Senate). In Scott’s view, the futile escalation of the Af-Pak war reflects Obama’s acquiescence to the war machine, which is driven in part by a desire to access oil pipelines through Central Asia. The poisonous political culture in the United States since 9-11 meanwhile has contributed to the marginalization of dissenting voices, including sensible insiders promoting moderate reductions in military spending, making the only hope for the future the emergence of a mass-based popular movement of 1960s vintage.
Scott has written a provocative account of CIA machinations and their link to spikes in global drug production, war and terrorism. His chapters on Thailand and the Far East are especially well-grounded and of great use to historians. Some of the finer points that Scott raises are debatable and based on pure speculation (the evidence for a cover-up surrounding 9-11 fits into this category and is flimsy). And at times he overestimates the power of special interests and the CIA at the expense of engaging in a deep structural analysis of the military industrial complex and U.S. political system. Scott nevertheless is a creative thinker who deserves credit for delving into the netherworld of clandestine operations and global corruption which most academics choose to ignore. Finding connections that others would miss, he usually acknowledges where the evidence is weak and urges other scholars to investigate further, which they should. At his core, Scott is an idealist who believes that in exposing the sinister forces accounting for the spread of unnecessary violence, an aroused citizenry can mobilize to rein them in. The stakes today are especially high, because if left unchecked, the pattern of warfare and destabilization which Scott describes may lead to a global confrontation of truly catastrophic proportions as well as irreversible environmental damage and the economic bankruptcy of the United States.