‘Damned from Memory’: When the Drug War Turns on Its Own

by William Norman Grigg

Recently by William Norman Grigg: Predators With Impunity

John 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. 

He eventually 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.

McLaughlin 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. 

McLaughlin 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. 

The syndicate 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.) 

After McLaughlin's 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 himself. 

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 Heights. 

McLaughlin 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. 

"Someone 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."

Not content 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. 

McLaughlin 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. 

Shortly after 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. 

"Hey, Spark," the officer began, "remember when…?"

"It didn't matter what followed those four little words," McLaughlin recalls. "I knew he was wired, or one of those police officers around him was." 

McLaughlin 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 Agency."

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 government. 

"This 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. 

"We are having one heck of a time with Dominican drug traffickers and the same people you were investigating back in August," McLaughlin told Webb.

"You mean the CIA," Webb immediately replied.

McLaughlin 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.

"Most 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."

Despite the 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. 

A similar fate nearly befell former Immigration and Naturalization Service agent Joe Occhipinti. In the course of a murder investigation in 1988, Occhipinti 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.

According to 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. 

McLaughlin 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.

"I have 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."

It's worth 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.

As Professor 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.”  

According to 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.

In a 1997 interview, Levine told me about a conversation he had with a CIA officer in Argentina eighteen years earlier. 

“There 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 ‘disappeared.'”

In other words, it differed little from what America has now become.

To continue:

“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.