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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 8 - The War of the Poppies



In 1970, more than five centuries after the Christian knights had abandoned their ill-fated crusade against the Turks, the Nixon administration moved to renew the ancient hostilities. Unable to uproot the marijuana plant from Mexico, the Ad Hoc Committee on Narcotics next turned its attention to the Turkish connection. To be sure, Turkey was by no means the sole, or even the largest, producer of opium. The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) had been cultivated for centuries in virtually every country between Yugoslavia and Japan. And according to CIA estimates compiled for the ad hoc committee, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Laos, and Burma all produced substantially more illicit opium than did Turkey. Moreover, after a thirteen-year prohibition, the Shah of Iran had decided in 1969 to plant 20,000 hectares with poppies, which was a 50percent-greater area than Turkey had in cultivation. In all, the CIA estimated, Turkey produced only from 3 to 8 percent of the illicit opium available throughout the world. Nevertheless, Turkey was chosen as the most feasible target by the committee for several reasons. For one, Turkey was assumed to be the most convenient and proximate source for the European heroin wholesalers in the various scenarios, or "systems," worked out by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The putative distribution routes-from Afyon to Beirut to Marseilles to Montreal to New York, etc.-were neatly marked out on the bureau's maps, as if they were readily available tourist itineraries. (For the most part these maps reflected locations where the BNDD already had agents, and did not necessarily include all the smuggling routes.) According to these scenarios, all opium routes led to the Turkish province of Afyon, and alternative routes in Southeast Asia, which were not on the bureau's maps, were deemed of less importance. Second, and more important, Turkey was a NATO ally, dependent on United States military aid, and it could therefore be expected to be more vulnerable to American pressure than "neutral" countries such as Burma and India. Although India was still the world's largest producer of opium-both licit and illicit-the ad hoc committee considered it unlikely that it would bow to American diplomatic or military pressure. Indeed, Elliot Richardson warned that it might respond by denouncing United States "Imperialism." (It was therefore necessary to promote in the press the myth that India's opium was tightly controlled by the government, even though the committee's analysis showed enormous leakage of Indian opium into illicit markets.) In the case of Burma (as well as of Afghanistan and Laos), it was recognized that the central government had virtually no control over the tribes growing and smuggling poppies, and that any American pressure-or incentives given to the central government would be at best unproductive. Iran presented another problem: given the realities of oil politics, it was considered impolitic (and futile) to attempt to restrain the Shah from replanting the poppy in his country. This left Turkey. As one member of the committee put it, "Turkey was the only country where we could expect dramatic results, and that was what the president wanted."

The opium poppy had grown on the rich, shaly plains of Afyon for a millennium or so before the Ad Hoc Committee on Narcotics considered the problem, and it had become an integral part of peasant life in that province of Turkey. The poppy seed provided the oil for cooking, the protein-rich husks of the poppy plant provided nourishment for livestock, the leaves were used in salads, the stalks were burned as heating fuel in the cold Anatolian winters, and the gummy juice of the unripened capsule served as a remedy for most ailments and as a pain-deadener. This substance, which became known as '.afyon" in Turkey and as "opium" in the rest of the world, could also be bartered or sold to passing caravans. Although in the twentieth century Turkish farmers were required by law to sell their entire opium harvest to the government at a fixed price for resale to pharmaceutical manufacturers all over the world (Who used it to manufacture morphine and codeine), many farmers clandestinely siphoned off part of their harvest and sold it at higher prices to black marketeers. William Handley, the American ambassador to Turkey, warned the ad hoc committee that since the suppression of opium in Turkey could deprive tens of thousands of Anatolian farmers of their livelihood, it would prove difficult to persuade the Turkish government that opium should be banned in Turkey while India and other countries expanded their production.

Five thousand miles away, in Washington, however, the Nixon administration decided to escalate the pressures on Turkey to conform to American domestic policy. Initially, in early 1970, it was proposed only that the United States make "Preemptive buys" of opium in Turkey and use it to build up the United States government stockpiles of codeine and morphine. State Department representatives on the committee argued that if the licit price for opium were raised, Turkish peasants would be better able to resist the temptation of selling part of their harvest to illicit traffickers. However, Eugene Rossides, who had taken an active part in Operation Intercept, was a Greek-Cypriot American with little sympathy for the Turks, and he vehemently objected to any plan which would subsidize the Turkish opium farmers. He reasoned that higher prices for licit opium would simply encourage more farmers to plant poppies, and therefore more opium would be produced for both licit and illicit markets. "We are at war," Rossides said metaphorically. "If the Turks refuse to go along with us in this crusade against heroin, we have to consider them enemies rather than allies." At this and subsequent meetings of the ad hoc committee, the rhetoric became more and more that of the first crusade against the infidel Turks. Myles Ambrose subsequently recalled that "they seemed to be totally divorced from the reality of the situation, and I felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party." What was the "reality"? Ambrose continued perceptively, "The basic fact that eluded these great geniuses was that it takes only ten square miles of poppy to feed the entire American heroin market, and they grow everywhere." At one point it was even suggested that Turkey be purged from NATO. Whatever suggestions were made at the committee, however, Krogh insisted that President Nixon realized the strategic importance of Turkey, and would not have allowed NATO to disintegrate over the opium question. Krogh explained, "Nixon was a poker player, and didn't expect the Turks to call our bluff."

Thus, in the spring of 1970, the Ad Hoc Committee on Narcotics decided to make an all-out effort to discourage Turkish production of opium. Through congressional testimony and news releases, Turkey was accused of supplying "up to 80 percent of the heroin smuggled into the United States." Even though the 80-percent estimate quickly became established as a journalistic "fact," it was predicated on a set of very open-ended assumptions. It was assumed, first of all, that about one quarter of Turkish opium was diverted to the illicit market (an estimate largely based on the difference between the expected and the actual yield per acre in 1968), and, second, it was assumed that almost all of this diverted opium was converted into heroin for the United States market. This in turn was based on the third assumption that there was no domestic consumption of opium in Turkey nor any demand for it in countries other than the United States. These assumptions were all extremely problematic. Despite the elaborately articulated systems and colorful maps that the Bureau of Narcotics used in its relations with Congress and the press, it had at the time no reliable means of identifying the source of American heroin. George Belk, the program manager of the bureau's international division, acknowledged in 1972 that scientifically "there is no way known of chemically tracing heroin seized in the United States back to the country, no less area, of its origin." It is all done, the bureau's director explained, "by deductive reasoning." In reality, John Ingersoll explained candidly, "We know that substantial opium goes from Turkey to the wholesalers in Europe, but we don't know what percentage of this ever reaches America."

When in late 1970 Ambassador William Handley attempted to convince Turkish officials that they were responsible for most, if not four fifths, of American heroin, they sharply disputed the underlying assumptions. Turkey had formed, with American financing, a special narcotics field unit of its police force in 1968, modeled after the American agency, and it claimed that only a small fraction of the opium grown seeped into the illicit market, and that this was mainly diverted east, to Iran. Though sympathetic to their ally's heroin problem, Turkish officials insisted that it was politically impossible for them to curtail production at the cost of jeopardizing the livelihood of a large number of Anatolian peasants. The Turkish populace would hardly perceive a heroin problem in America as germane to them. 

"The problem was further complicated by the fact that Turkey was a somewhat shaky parliamentary democracy," Osman Olcay, the foreign minister at the time, explained to me. "Even those in the government and military most sympathetic to the American position realized that no government that threatened a half million Turkish farmers with starvation could remain in power for a day." Not only was the American plan to eradicate the Turkish poppy unpopular with the conservative elements in Parliament, who drew their support from the peasants, but the left-wing parties openly attacked it as American imperialism and interference. Even many moderate Turks argued that the United States was employing a double standard by demanding that Turkey alone suppress its poppy crop while India, Iran, and other countries continued to grow poppy. In light of this political situation in 1970, the best the Turks were willing to offer was to intensify the policing of their fields and borders, and gradually to substitute other crops for poppies.

The White House, however, was not satisfied with Ambassador Handley's efforts to persuade the Turks, and the ad hoc committee ordered more pressures to be selectively applied against their new adversary. The president's emissaries to NATO maneuvered the alliance into converting its new adjunct, the Committee for Challenges to Modern Societies, into another American antiheroin agency. Since none of our Western European allies had much of a heroin problem, this new arm of NATO was used mainly to harangue the lone Turkish delegate on the committee.

Congress was also recruited into the new crusade against the Turks. Eugene Rossides, believing that Kissinger "was dragging his feet" because he was unwilling to jeopardize the alliance, pressed black congressmen concerned about heroin addiction in their districts to cut off military aid to Turkey. This "hyping-up" of congressmen greatly concerned some members of the National Security Council, since the military aid was being extended to Turkey in return for the use of air bases and radar installations that monitored and tracked Soviet missiles. Rossides's assistant, G. Gordon Liddy, who had moved from Operation Intercept to the working committee to curtail Turkish opium supplies, suggested to Ambassador Handley that the cadavers of heroin addicts who had died of overdoses be sent in body bags to Turkish diplomats. At the time, Handley did not take the suggestion seriously. 

As the election drew nearer, the White House strategists made Handley and other American diplomats uncomfortably aware of the administration's determination to achieve quickly some dramatic breakthrough on the opium front. Indeed, Handley was rudely summoned back to Washington from Ankara. Minutes after his arrival at the White House, a presidential assistant told him, in front of Arthur Downey, a staff member of the National Security Council, "To show you how seriously I view the matter ... I intend to recommend to the president that unless we have an agreement, he should order the Sixth Fleet through the Dardanelles and shell Istanbul. They are committing naked aggression, why shouldn't we respond?" Handley, still not recovered from the seventeen-hour flight, left the room somewhat dazed. Downey, who was present at this meeting in the White House, later explained to me that the president's aide was merely trying to "build a fire under Handley" and the military threat was meant only metaphorically. At another point during this brief visit, Handley was called aside by Liddy, who said in his deadly quiet voice, "Mr. Ambassador, how many bodies have you picked off the streets of New York?" Again Handley fell speechless, while Liddy continued, "I have personally loaded overdosed victims into ambulances, and the Turks are responsible. Tell them that!" Still later, as Handley prepared to return to Ankara, President Nixon personally handed him a press clipping reporting growing concern over "heroin-related deaths" (a broad and somewhat deceptive category which included virtually all deaths of narcotic users, even if they died of old age or were hit by an automobile). The president told him to present the clipping to the Turkish prime minister immediately upon his arrival. When he returned to Ankara, Handley heard from his chief of mission that members of the ad hoc committee were demanding that the State Department fire any "ambassadors who failed to achieve the president's objectives in the drug program."

Fortunately, for Handley at least, the Turkish military forces overthrew the elected government of Turkey in 1971, and installed a government which was less willing to jeopardize American military aid and goodwill over the poppy issue. The new premier, Nihat Erim, told Handley that he was willing to suspend poppy cultivation temporarily before the American election if the United States would agree to compensate the farmers for the lost income and assist them in finding alternative crops and livelihoods. Handley continued negotiating with the Turkish military government through the spring of 1971 and, in June, finally achieved a tentative agreement. With the first victory in sight in his new crusade, President Nixon approved the idea of providing $100 million in aid over three years to Turkish farmers. When Rossides heard of the impending deal, he bitterly opposed "paying a dime" to Turkish peasants, but the president, not willing to allow this major coup to slip from his grasp, immediately authorized Handley to accept the Turkish terms, and invited Premier Erim to America for a joint announcement by the end of the month. (In a lastditch battle Rossides managed to reduce the amount of aid to $35 million, which was finally approved by the Treasury Department.) Although in fact this victory would cut off only a small fraction of the opium growth in the world-less than 8 percent-and even this amount would quickly be replaced by opium from Southeast Asia, India, and other sources, White House strategists realized that if the announcement were properly managed in the press, it would be heralded as a decisive victory against the forces of crime and addiction.



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