Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book Review: Doug Valentine's The Strength of the Pack

The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA is a book about the corruption of not just an agency, but of an entire state apparatus. Douglas Valentine, whose copiously detailed history of The Phoenix Program (1990) provided the definitive book on that CIA-South Vietnam torture-assassination program, has turned his attention to the way the CIA and its backers suborned the anti-drug war for their own purposes.

He took on the task of describing the creation and evolution of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which as the years went by, became subordinated politically to the CIA's overseas covert operational apparatus. In the end, DEA agents found themselves going after some drug traffickers, while protecting others, particularly those of interest to or supported by the US government for its own purposes. In the meantime, there was also a lot of incidental personal corruption, with millions of dollars there for the taking for those looking to skim some cream off the heady concoction of government covert business and the immense profits of illegal drug trafficking.

Taking advice from Andy Tartaglino, an old Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) man, whose investigation into corruption at the FBN helped bring about the demise of that agency in the late 1960s, Valentine began his investigation into DEA corruption by first exploring the early history of that agency's predecessors, the FBN and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). The equally impressive result of his researches into this earlier history can be found in the 2006 fascinating introductory volume to Pack, The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America's War on Drugs.

The Strength of the Pack begins where Wolf left off, with the merger of the old FBN with the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control into the BNDD, and later, the transformation of the latter during the second Nixon administration into the DEA. Along the way, we meet a heterogeneous collection of sincere drug agents and careerist apparatchiks, Corsican gangsters, Italian Mafia, old OSS men, foreign guerillas and tribal chieftains, corrupt national leaders, MKULTRA operatives, and many, many more. The history takes us from the years of Johnson's Great Society through Vietnam, the French Connection, the ugly Nixon years, Watergate, supporting the opium-running muhajadeen (to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan), all the way to the build-up to the war in Iraq. (As Valentine points out, a key U.S. adviser to the Iraqi Interior Ministry after the U.S. invasion was Steve Casteel, a former high-level DEA agent.)

Doug Valentine is a meticulous researcher, and the book is accordingly well footnoted, and includes photos of key individuals, and some, though not an overwhelming amount, of reproduced documentation. The book is an intense, though entertaining read, as Valentine knows how to carry the reader right into the heart of the unfolding operations. Much of his information, as with The Phoenix Program, comes from interviews with key participants, and many will be the future historians beholden to Valentine for capturing this kind of testimony before it was forever lost.

Valentine is no supposedly "objective' historian, but understands that history is always written from some point of view. It's clear he is outraged at the corruption and hypocrisy of the drug "wars," not to mention sickened by those killed, disappeared, tortured, etc., so that the intelligence agencies -- primarily the CIA -- will not be disturbed in their skullduggery, which often as not is in the service of some of the most corrupt and criminal individuals on the planet.

This is most important because, as Valentine documents, following other authors (whom he generously cites) like Alfred McCoy and Gary Webb, the history of the drug wars and the agencies that presumably fight them is really a history of the subordination of those agencies for political ends. The money and the political leverage that comes from these "wars" is used to bankroll the CIA's covert wars and interventions. Indeed, by the end of the period Valentine documents, he indicates that nearly every overseas DEA agent works in one way or another for the CIA (while at home, the management of DEA was taken over by the FBI). The cost of all this to the American public is immense, both in terms of billions of dollars, but also in terms of attacks on personal liberties, as the counterinsurgency tactics employed abroad are turned increasingly back upon citizens at home.

This is an essential book, and the reader will want to keep it, along with Strength of the Wolf, as a reference work in an area of contemporary history that is solely lacking reference works. In sum, The Strength of the Pack is a seminal work on the history of federal drug law, the creation and transformation of the drug enforcement agencies, and their interpenetration with U.S. imperialist policy abroad, from the days of the Vietnam War through the current narco-terrorism "wars."

Originally posted as an Amazon review

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