Agency of Fear
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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 28   The Heroin Hotline



After the president designated Myles Ambrose the administration's "drug czar" in 1972, a nationwide program of public appearances and speeches was arranged for him so that he could focus public attention on the administration's war on heroin. "Anyone who isn't aware that President Nixon has been leading the light against drug abuse hasn't been paying attention," Ambrose said In a typical appearance before the 18th National Republican Women's Conference, at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, in Philadelphia, on May 20, 1972. "As the president's special consultant on drug abuse, I can assure you that this is true and not empty rhetoric.... The fight has been all the tougher because, prior to 1969, the government napped for most of the decade while drug abuse ballooned into a national epidemic." Though Ambrose proved to be a "highly dramatic spokesman" for the administration, according to Krogh, the White House also wanted him to undertake a more "media-oriented approach" which could reach tens of millions of potential voters. At one meeting, in March, 1972, Ehrlichman suggested to Krogh that Ambrose should establish "some sort of hotline system which could be nationally advertised on television throughout the United States. Accordingly, in three weeks of frenetic planning, Ambrose established a national heroin hotline system through which citizens anywhere In the continental United States Could call, without charge, a special ODA LE "Intelligence center" and report suspected heroin sellers in their neighborhood. The intelligence center would then alert a strike force in the area, which would immediately swoop down on the suspect. To make, the hotline operational, ODALE took over a communications center located in a mine shaft in Virginia, which was originally planned by the Office of Emergency Preparedness as a nuclear-attack refuge for high White House officials and was already wired for emergency telephone communications. Geoffrey Sheppard, one of Krogh's young assistants on the Domestic Council, later recalled, "When I first heard that Ambrose intended to put all those narcotics agents in a fortified mine shaft in Virginia, I thought he was being overly paranoid about the possibility of having his center attacked by heroin pushers; they later told me that this was the only facility the White House could find on three weeks' notice which had the necessary telephone cables." In order to process the expected flood of telephone calls from informers, ODALE leased twenty wide-area telephone systems (called WATS lines) from the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Almost the entire staff of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, which had been established in the White House after World War II to plan for nuclear disasters, was requisitioned by Ambrose to man the telephones twenty-four hours a day. Agents who had been transferred to ODALE, from the BNDD were reassigncd to this mine shaft to evaluate the contents of the tips and, if they were relevant, to pass the information on to the appropriately located strike force. Since the success of the hotline depended on national publicity-the entire citizenry of America had to be made aware of ODALE's toll-free number-Ambrose contracted with Grey Advertising Agency, in New York City, for a nationwide publicity campaign. Television licensees across the country were expected to donate tens of millions of dollars' worth of free time on local television stations for these advertisements from Ambrose's office. Since there was no provision in the budget of any federal agency to pay the Grey Advertising Agency for designing this campaign (which presumably would also help alert the electorate to the Nixon administration's fight against heroin dealers), Krogh arranged to finance Grey's work through grants from the always available Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. In his April 7statement to the press Ambrose justified this hotline in terms of a new "citizen's crusade." He explained, "To give each citizen the opportunity to join in this battle, the president has today directed that a national heroin hotline be established and manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Public-spirited citizens having information heroin traffickers are urged to dial this number [800-368-5363]."

Since the hotline required that a large number of narcotics agents be detached from ongoing investigations of major traffickers in order to process telephone calls, BNDD director John Ingersoll was appalled by what he considered to be nothing more than a "White House publicity stunt." He argued that all analyses of heroin transactions showed that the vast preponderance of addicts acquired their heroin supply from other addicts or from persons with whom they had long-term ties, rather than from strangers who might be likely to turn them in. Therefore, the hotline was not likely to produce many valid tips. An audit of the first three months of telephone calls received over the hotline supported Ingersoll's contention. Of 33,313 calls received and evaluated by narcotics agents, 28,079 were deemed useless-obscene calls, pranks, or simply heavy breathing over the phone. Most of the remaining 5,234 were appraised as sincere, but of no immediate use. For example, agents were told merely that "drugs were bad" or that the caller thought "Nixon was doing a good job." Only 113 calls provided any lead at all for the strike forces, and even these calls produced only four cases of arrests and one seizure-two grams of adulterated heroin. which Ingersoll estimated at "a street value of two dollars." Despite such meager results, and the fact that agents were diverted from more profitable investigations, the hotline messages continued on national television. Playing on popular fears, for example, a typical ODALE commercial designed by Grey Advertising would show a person cringing in his room behind barred windows. The message would state, "The pusher should live behind bars, not you," followed by the hotline telephone number. Indeed, the commercials proved so successful with local television station owners as a means of fulfilling their public-service requirements that they continued broadcasting these messages long after the narcotics agents had deserted the fortified mine shaft in Virginia and relinquished the wide-area telephone system to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, those who continued to call the hotline (whether to provide valid tips or simply obscene denouncements) received a recorded message asking them to call their local police. Even after the entire concept of a hotline was abandoned, there was simply no way of "gracefully recalling the commercials," Krogh explained. 

Ambrose's strike forces proved to be very aggressive: they executed well over one hundred no-knock search warrants in the first six months of their existence, compared to only four such warrants executed by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in its entire five-year history. However, they failed to generate as much publicity as had been hoped for, since they were arresting mainly local street pushers. And the night raids on the wrong homes in Collinsville, Illinois, were a source of negative publicity.

Whatever other purposes it may have served, ODALE did not gain the favorable publicity that Haldeman and Ehrlichman desired, even with its hotline. 



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