'Damned from Memory': When the Drug War Turns
on Its Own
William Norman Grigg
Recently by William Norman Grigg: Predators
McLaughlin, known to his friends as "Sparky," was
a True Believer in the War on Drugs. He was convinced that his work
as an agent of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement
(BNI) was protecting innocent people from opportunists and thugs
who prey on the weak.
came to the sorrowful realization that the most ruthless elements
involved in the drug trade aren’t found in Latin America or blighted
urban neighborhoods, but in well-appointed offices in Washington,
D.C. and Langley, Virginia.
also came to understand, from first-hand experience, that the Drug
War has created an all-encompassing police state that targets not
only the innocent public, but also law enforcement officers who
become irritants to government-protected criminal cliques.
and three of his colleagues, working with the Drug Enforcement Administration,
identified an east coast drug syndicate that was selling heroin
and using the proceeds to fund a U.S.-supported political campaign
in the Dominican Republic.
was operated by leaders and activists in the Dominican Revolutionary
Party (DRP) on behalf of its standard-bearer, Jose
Francisco Pena-Gomez, who – according to a January 17, 1996
CIA memo obtained by McLaughlin – was the Clinton administration’s
choice to occupy the National Palace in Santo Domingo. (Pena-Gomez,
as it happens, lost the election.)
squad learned that several suspects were to deliver $550,000 in
drug proceeds at a March 28, 1996 DRP fundraiser in Manhattan, they
contacted the DEA and arranged a sting operation intended to bring
about several high-profile arrests, including that of Pena-Gomez
At the last
minute, the operation inexplicably fell apart. Pena-Gomez, who received
a conveniently timed anonymous death threat, was taken into custody
by the NYPD and spirited back to the Dominican Republic. At least
some of the drug proceeds were given to then-Vice President Al Gore
at a DNC fundraiser in Coogan’s Irish Pub in New York City’s Washington
points out that just prior to the sting operation, he had refused
a demand from a CIA agent named Victoria Baylor that he provide
the names of confidential informants within the Dominican drug network.
from Washington stepped in and crushed our attempt to seize over
$550,000 in proceeds from narcotics sales laundered as fundraising
for a third-world political campaign," writes McLaughlin in
his newly-published memoir Damned
from Memory. "Further, several dozen law enforcement
officers stood by on orders from the DEA Sensitive Activities Committee
or some other nameless D.C. entity as these funds illegally left
our country. No one was touching Pena-Gomez or his entourage."
to intervene on behalf of Pena-Gomez, the people who scuttled the
sting retaliated against McLaughlin and his squad. One of the informants
who had helped expose the DRP drug connection was targeted in a
car bomb attack and his house was firebombed. The agents were given
a series of punitive demotions and transfers and threatened with
spurious civil rights lawsuits.
was transferred a considerable distance from his home in Philadelphia
and given contradictory orders that were "aimed at creating
situations where the Attorney General [would] get the justification
to fire us." A "black bag" break-in took place at
McLaughlin’s home. A few weeks later, an intruder broke into the
home office of McLaughlin’s psychiatrist and rifled through the
doctor’s patient files.
the second black-bag job, McLaughlin went to a local club where
he was greeted by a long-time friend on the police force who called
him over to a table already occupied by several other cops. Brimming
with bogus bonhomie, the officer invited McLaughlin to reminisce
about times past – and perhaps to regale the table with potentially
compromising stories about his time on the police force.
Spark," the officer began, "remember when…?"
matter what followed those four little words," McLaughlin recalls.
"I knew he was wired, or one of those police officers around
knew he was being kept under surveillance by people who were determined
not only to ruin his career, but put him in prison. Someone who
had been through a very similar experience had warned McLaughlin
to expect nothing less.
In 1997, McLaughlin
contacted investigative reporter Gary
Webb of the San Jose Mercury News, who the previous August
had published an
expose documenting the
"dark alliance" between street-level drug dealers and
the CIA. Webb’s stories described how a San Francisco-based
drug ring "sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street
gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to an
arm of the Contra guerillas of Nicaragua run by the Central Intelligence
The key figure
in that alliance was "Freeway Rick" Ross, who obtained
cut-rate cocaine from CIA-backed wholesalers; he then converted
the powder into crack, which was sold through local franchises across
the country. A large share of the proceeds obtained from those sales
was given to the Nicaraguan Democratic Front, the largest of several
CIA-organized rebel groups fighting the Soviet-backed Sandinista
drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine
cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known
as the 'crack’ capital of the world," wrote Webb.
"The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion
in urban America – and provided the cash and connections needed
for L.A.’s gangs to buy weapons."
By the time
McLaughlin contacted Webb, the reporter had already been disavowed
by his editor – not because the stories were poorly sourced or badly
written, but because of a concerted pressure campaign orchestrated
by the CIA and its allies in the media.
having one heck of a time with Dominican drug traffickers and the
same people you were investigating back in August," McLaughlin
the CIA," Webb immediately replied.
asked Webb if in the course of investigating the CIA’s role in fomenting
the crack epidemic he had seen evidence that the Agency had sought
to destroy "the reputation and credibility" of the officers
who had uncovered the connection.
certainly," Webb responded. After McLaughlin briefly described
what had happened in the Pena-Gomez case, the reporter warned him:
"You’re in for a long road full of sh*t; I’m already up to
my neck in it."
fact that subsequent investigations by the CIA’s Inspector General
and a Senate committee vindicated
Webb’s reporting, the writer was ruined, both professionally and
personally. In December 2004, Webb – who was divorced, penniless,
unemployed and unemployable, and facing eviction – became a member
of that exclusive club of suicide victims who somehow managed to
shoot themselves in the head, twice.
fate nearly befell former Immigration and Naturalization Service
Occhipinti. In the course of a murder investigation in 1988,
uncovered a money laundering operation in which several bodegas
operated by members of the Dominican Federation were laundering
drug proceeds on behalf of Seacrest
Trading Company, a Connecticut-based finance company that specializes
in high-interest loans to shady enterprises.
Occhipinti and several other investigators, Sea Crest was actually
CIA front. This helps explain why Occhipinti’s investigation ended
with the investigator himself being prosecuted on civil rights charges
– none of which involved corruption, brutality, or dishonesty –
and sentenced to 36 months behind bars with many of the same Dominican
crime figures he had investigated.
managed to avoid prison. In 2002 he and fellow BNI agent Charles
Micewski filed a civil rights lawsuit against Pennsylvania Attorney
General Mike Fisher and several other state officials. The following
February a federal jury ruled in their favor, granting them a total
of $1.5 million in punitive damages and – much more importantly
– vindicating their account of what had happened to them after they
had investigated one of the many domestic drug networks either created
or protected by the CIA.
I first covered
McLaughlin’s story in 1997 while I was a senior editor at The
New American magazine. Shortly after Damned
from Memory was published I asked him if his view of War
on Drugs had changed as a result of his experiences. "I think
the best thing right now is to stress education," he replied.
He’s seen "The
Needle and the Damage Done" – and also witnessed the violence
and institutional corruption that is the inevitable result of treating
vices as if they were crimes.
seen an informant’s son with nothing but goo left on his arm from
shooting up so much," McLaughlin recalls. As a result of heroin
addiction, the young man "was the walking dead. We saved him
as a little project between ourselves."
noting that this commendable rehabilitation "project"
wouldn’t have happened if the addict had been treated like a criminal.
It’s just as important to remember that the people who profit from
human misery of this kind are empowered by prohibition – and that
the most despicable examples of that criminal caste are "public
servants," not private entrepreneurs.
The "war on
drugs" is a narcotics price support program and a public works project
for the coercive sector (especially the prison-industrial complex).
It also provides an apparently bottomless well of revenue to fund
the projects in subversion and state terrorism carried out by the
CIA and its affiliates.
Alfred W. McCoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison points out,
through drug prohibition, police act as "an informal regulator,
controlling the volume of vice trading and setting the level of
syndication"; this results in the creation of "powerful syndicates
and a high volume of illicit activity."
former DEA undercover operative Michael Levine, "The fundamental
problem with the so-called war on drugs is that both sides are winning
– the drug lords and the 'suits' – because they both are making
a killing" because of prohibition. That’s one reason why investigators
like John McLaughlin are rewarded for gathering up huge volumes
of tiny fish – and severely punished when they disturb any of the
politically protected barracudas.
1997 interview, Levine told me about a conversation he had with
a CIA officer in Argentina eighteen years earlier.
was a small group of us gathered for a drinking party at the CIA
guy's apartment," Levine
recalled. "There were several Argentine police officers there as
well; at the time, Argentina was a police state in which people
could be taken into custody without warning, tortured, and then
In other words,
it differed little from what America has now become.
"At one point
my associate in the CIA said that he preferred Argentina's approach
to social order, and that America should be more like that country.
Somebody asked, 'Well, how does a change of that sort happen?' The
spook replied that it was necessary to create a situation of public
fear – a sense of impending anarchy and social upheaval in which
the people will literally plead with Congress, 'Take whatever rights
you need, but save us....’"
By now it should be clear to any rational person that we need to
be saved from the Prohibitionists.
Norman Grigg [send him mail]
publishes the Pro
Libertate blog and hosts the Pro
Libertate radio program.
© 2012 William Norman Grigg
Best of William Norman Grigg