Commentary Magazine


Agency of Fear, by Edward Jay Epstein

Of Drugs & Bureaucrats

Agency of Fear.
by Edward Jay Epstein.
Putnam. 352 pp. $9.95.

Many newspapermen are called “investigative reporters” these days, but their “investigations” generally consist in printing leaks handed to them by one group of bureaucrats trying to further their own interests against another group of bureaucrats. In Edward Jay Epstein’s case, however, the term “investigative reporter” really does seem appropriate.

Epstein has often uncovered material that no one else even dreamed existed, and he has used this material—in Inquest, News from Nowhere, and many essays—to illuminate important public matters ranging from the John F. Kennedy assassination to the Black Panthers. In his new book, Agency of Fear, Epstein turns his investigative talents to a previously unreported story involving the efforts of the Nixon administration to do something about drug abuse in the United States, and the result is a dismal reminder of Nixon and a fascinating glimpse into how the Washington bureaucracy operates.

Having made law-and-order a key issue in 1968, Nixon wanted to be able to report a decrease in street crime by the 1972 elections. Yet it is hard for a President to do anything about mugging, burglary, and rape—the sorts of crime people fear most—because responsibility for enforcing the laws rests with local officials. The administration therefore launched a publicity campaign to underline its tough stand on crime; the electorate remained largely unimpressed. Next came a proposal to restrain crime in the only place where local law enforcement is a federal concern—Washington, D.C. Nixon directed Egil Krogh, whom he had placed in charge of the law-and-order issue, to “stop crime in the District of Columbia.” Krogh, later famous for his role in the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, did his best, but the task was an impossible one. He then tried to come up with some new ideas.

One suggestion seemed especially promising. It aimed to pare away crime statistics by cutting the supply of imported heroin. Since addicts commit the lion’s share of urban crime, reducing the addict population would cause the crime rate to plunge. Or so the reasoning went. But things are not so simple. Epstein looks at the history of addiction to see whether it does produce waves of crime. He finds that where addicts have criminal records, their crimes, “without exception,” precede their addiction. Many criminals use heroin, but “there is little persuasive evidence suggesting that it is the cause rather than an effect in most cases.” Studies also show that addicts prefer low-risk crimes such as shoplifting and stealing from parked vehicles. (Lessening the chances of being caught is important, since going to jail obviously makes it more difficult to get drugs.)

The administration was unaware of all this. Krogh saw an issue which the President might influence, since it is federal authority that prevents heroin from entering the country. He brought his case to John Ehrlichman who worried about the absence of research but decided anyway that a war on narcotics would be the only way to lower crime statistics by 1972.

The first stage of the “war” was an assault on international drug traffic, which aimed to scuttle foreign narcotics rings and snap their transit routes to the United States. Nixon set up Task Force One, a joint effort of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Treasury’s Customs Bureau. In its short, energetic life, Task Force One caused six-hour delays at the United States-Mexico border and subsequent loss of employment for Mexicans who worked on the American side. Relations between the two countries soured, and, as Krogh repoted to Ehrlichman, the efforts of Task Force One had no effect on drug traffic. Then there was an Ad Hoc Committee on Drugs. The Committee chose Turkey, with its high dependence on American aid, as the best spot to procure “dramatic results,” by curtailing the opium business. The result, however, was that, for a period that coincided with the U.S. election campaign, less than 8 per cent of the world’s total opium product was prevented from being cultivated in Turkish fields.

So far, the administration had not been able to lower crime rates. Crime had actually gone up slightly. Nixon’s men saw their dreams trampled in bureaucratic hurly-burly as strife among agencies with a stake in treating addiction—there were nine of them—became ever sharper. In 1971 they initiated a plan to unite all government treatment programs in one White House office. Simultaneously, a hard-sell media campaign was planned to enliven public concern over the heroin threat. Rumors of an enormous narcotics epidemic seeped into the papers. Nixon called ambassadors home for urgent meetings. And, contrary to the findings of its own commissioned study, the White House announced that heroin addiction was increasing wildly along with the crime it supposedly caused. Voters were indeed frightened by this “drug menace,” and an alarmed Congress poured money into narcotics enforcement.

____________

 

All for naught. To turn fear into political capital, people had to become aware of the administration’s narcotics-enforcement campaign, and they were not. Krogh hoped that a passel of drug arrests would correct this, but the Justice Department declined to cooperate. Enforcement officials, including Attorney General John Mitchell, had long since understood that mass arrests of small-time pushers only encouraged a corrupt harmony between informers and agents.

At this point the ever resourceful G. Gordon Liddy proposed to establish a White House office with its own police powers. It could make the arrests needed to convince people of the administration’s resolve. Liddy’s plan had an extra feature. The new office would be a cover for investigating leaks that had lately become a torrent. Nixon would not trust this task to the FBI or CIA, and had already tried, in vain, to get around them by setting up his own investigative organ. Liddy’s plan, by concentrating on narcotics, sidestepped the jealousy of the FBI and did not require legislative assent since it was to be purely a matter of White House organization. Nixon approved and issued an executive order in January 1972 creating the Office of Drug Abuse and Law Enforcement (ODALE), under the direction of Myles Ambrose, a former New York lawyer.

Money came from funds Congress had intended for the assistance of local police. Lawyers, investigators, and specialists were hired or requisitioned from BNDD, Customs, the IRS—five hundred within one month. (The CIA refused to supply agents for a domestic intelligence-gathering unit.) To Obtain a good-looking record of arrests, they executed no-knock search warrants left and right, suffering a bad press for an occasional break-in at the wrong address. But the new office did not live up to their hopes, and Krogh then went ahead with plans for it to absorb the narcotics-enforcement authority remaining in BNDD, Customs, and the IRS. The finished product would be a major government agency, different from others with investigative powers only because Nixon would control it directly. This plan looked like a winner. To top things off, J. Edgar Hoover finally died and Nixon had a chance for some real pull at the FBI. He chose L. Patrick Gray, a former campaign office manager, as director.

Then the Watergate break-in supervened and all the narcotics-war/ drug-agency restructuring plans exploded in the administration’s face. Bureaucrats whom the White House had threatened, slighted, outmaneuvered, or dispossessed did their best to get even. CIA director Richard Helms, who could have asked the FBI to stop its Watergate investigation, did not. FBI chieftains, galled by Gray’s appointment, leaked information about the White House-Watergate connection. IRS bureaucrats repaid the White House for swallowing up their agents and power by spilling Nixon’s damning tax returns into print.

Still, in July 1973, the narcotics superagency known as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) actually came into existence. Congress was not about to vote down a major anti-narcotics measure. DEA had the cherished intelligence powers it was conceived to wield and the talent to do much more, but its authors were disgraced and mostly powerless. The conglomerate DEA buzzed off aimlessly in intra- and interbureau bickering. What Nixon might have done with DEA remains a question we may only guess at.

____________

 

The reporters who covered the Watergate and related stories are often credited with hard work and shrewd insights. Why did that work and insight fail to uncover the sensational story told here? The answer is that people in the know were not talking—certainly not people in ODALE/DEA, who also were the only ones who knew of the shady plans. The point is that since investigative reporters cannot subpoena witnesses or discourage perjury, they write at the pleasure of bureaucrats who dribble out information to suit themselves.

What suited the bureaucrats is the real subject of Epstein’s book. The bureaucrats, entirely for reasons of self-preservation, opposed Nixon all the way in his drug-agency plans and played a quiet but vigorous part in undoing him. Since credit for exposing Nixon usually goes to others, this is news; but the bureaucracy should not be applauded for its resistance to the President. He wanted things his way, and they wanted things theirs.

The really ominous message of Epstein’s book, whatever one might think of Nixon, is that the bureaucracy was almost bound to win. In fact, not only did it win, but it emerged in fine shape and is growing like a weed. Compared even to Richard Nixon, this unrestrained growth and increasingly independent power of the federal bureaucracy would seem to pose by far the greater threat to our system of government.

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