The clash of the icons
Political activist Daniel Ellsberg and Professor Alfred McCoy have something special in common. Based on their actions and accomplishments of nearly 30 years ago, they have achieved the status of icons within the subculture of what passes for the New Left in America.
Icon Ellsberg became a celebrity in 1971 after he leaked the Pentagon Papers, an "act of conscience" that helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. This "act of conscience" also, albeit accidentally, contributed to the demise of President Richard Nixon, whose felonious minions had allowed CIA officer E Howard Hunt and erstwhile FBI agent G Gordon ("the rat-eater") Liddy to burgle confidential files from Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in a slap-happy attempt to discredit the anti-war movement by showing that Ellsberg was mentally deranged.
Icon McCoy became a celebrity in 1972 with the publication of his pioneering book, 'The Politics of Heroin In Southeast Asia'. Since then, McCoy's book and its sequel have provided critical researchers with a compass for charting the CIA's involvement in international drug trafficking.
But somewhere between the Pentagon Papers and 'The Politics of Heroin' is a vast discrepancy, a disturbing clash of facts from which only one icon can emerge with his status fully intact.
Ellsberg's perilous peccadilloes
In examining this clash of facts, let us begin by explaining that Ellsberg was not always a pacifist "dove" intent on ending the Vietnam War. On the contrary, at first he was an aggressive "hawk," a former Marine lieutenant and Defense Department analyst who, in 1965, was assigned as a Pentagon observer to CIA officer/Air Force General Edward Lansdale's Revolutionary Development (RD) Program in South Vietnam. When not engaged in conventional Civil Affairs activities (such as helping the local shell-shocked Vietnamese build perimeter defences around their besieged villages), Ellsberg and his fellow RD advisors dressed in black pyjamas and, under cover of night, would slip into enemy areas to "snatch and snuff" the local Viet Cong cadre.
But functioning as a "shadow warrior" was not Ellsberg's only claim to fame in South Vietnam. More importantly, he had the uncanny ability to reproduce conversations verbatim, a talent that made him a highly prized asset of the CIA station chief in Saigon, John Hart. Hart and the CIA's foreign intelligence staff wanted to know what influential Vietnamese citizens and officials were privately thinking and plotting; so, through his CIA contacts, Ellsberg was introduced into Saigon's most elite, stratospheric social circles, and he began reporting directly back to the CIA station chief on matters of political importance. Or so they say.
If the rumours are true, Ellsberg was not just a superb shadow warrior and spy; his CIA and associated Special Forces comrades also knew him as a swashbuckling swordsman who romanced many women, including the exquisite Germaine. One-quarter French and three-quarters Vietnamese, Germaine was a fixture on the fashionable Saigon scene, and when Ellsberg met her at a swinging Saigon party, the hot-blooded cocksman immediately rose to the occasion, heedless of the fact that Germaine was engaged to an opium-addicted Corsican drug smuggler named Michel Seguin.
It is here, with Ellsberg's notorious love affair with Germaine, that the Clash of Icons has its origins. According to Professor McCoy, at the time Ellsberg met Germaine, Ellsberg's close friend, CIA officer Lucien Conein, was negotiating a "truce" with the Corsican gangsters who supplied South Vietnam's top military officers and government officials with that most lucrative of black market commodities, heroin.
Ellsberg's unusual associates
Legendary CIA officer Lou Conein was an old Vietnam hand who, as a member of Detachment 202 of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), had fought with the French Special Forces in Indochina in World War II. After the war, he married a Vietnamese woman and remained in Vietnam. He joined the CIA upon its creation and, after a tour of duty in Europe, returned to South Vietnam in 1954 as an aide to the above-mentioned Ed Lansdale, to help organise the CIA's secret anti-Communist forces in North Vietnam. As a measure of his knack for deceit and deception, it is worth noting that one of Conein's favourite "dirty tricks" was "to stage funerals without a corpse and bury the coffin filled with weapons for later use by the anti-Communists." (Bart Barnes, The Washington Post, obituary section, 6 July 1998.)
Conein departed South Vietnam in 1958 after Lansdale's Catholic protégé, Ngo Dinh Diem, was safely ensconced as President of South Vietnam. Conein spent the next few years in the opium-rich outlands of Iran as a military advisor to the Shah's anti-Communist special forces. In 1962 he returned to Vietnam as the CIA's chief of field operations. He also served as a "floating emissary," reporting directly to the Kennedy White House while secretly coaching the cabal of generals who murdered President Diem and his opium-addicted brother Nhu on 2 November 1963. After the bloody coup d'état, Conein remained in South Vietnam until 1968, but not without further controversy. As noted, McCoy contends that Ellsberg and Conein had formed a fast friendship at the exact same moment Conein was arranging a "truce" between the CIA and unnamed Corsican drug smugglers in Saigon.
Conein, however, adamantly denied the allegation that he arranged a drug-related "truce". In a 1972 letter to McCoy's publisher, Conein explicitly stated that his meeting with the Corsicans "had to do with ameliorating a tense situation engendered by Daniel Ellsberg's peccadilloes with the mistress of a Corsican."
Here we return to the enchantress Germaine, her opium-addicted Corsican fiancé, Michel Seguin, and a new character in our passion play, Frank Scotton. Tall, dark and ruggedly handsome, Scotton, in 1965, was ostensibly employed by the benign US Information Service, though his undercover job was forming assassination squads around Saigon in what was the prototype of the CIA's infamous Phoenix Program. Through this experimental program, which fell under Ed Lansdale's RD Program, Scotton and Ellsberg met and became the best of friends. In fact, it was Scotton who had invited Ellsberg to the party where the fateful meeting with Germaine occurred.
What happened next is subject to conjecture - and it must be emphasised that in order to understand the Clash of Icons, the reader must be aware that rumours, whisper campaigns, and half-truths are the preferred weapons of political warriors. CIA deceptions are meant to misdirect and discredit, so we must examine them closely to discover why we are being deceived, and what is being concealed. Complicating the already convoluted situation is the fact that Ellsberg's closest friends, "Black Luigi" Conein and Frank Scotton, were CIA agents. Which is not meant to cast guilt through association on Ellsberg, but it is intended to warn the reader that one must carefully study the conflicting stories.
Scotton and Conein, in separate interviews with this writer, claimed they had warned Ellsberg to sever his relationship with Germaine. But Ellsberg, they said, would not be kept from his lover's embrace, and that indiscreet decision put the gangster Michel Seguin in the murderous position of having to defend his honour. Both Scotton and Conein claimed that Seguin hired a Vietnamese assassin to kill Ellsberg, but they were able to intercept the assassin before he could carry out his contract.
In an interview with this writer, Ellsberg admitted to having had the affair with Germaine. He also revealed that Seguin had actually put a gun to his head and warned him to stay away from the woman they both loved. But Ellsberg vehemently denied that either Scotton or Conein had intervened on his behalf. Their stories, he said, were standard CIA disinformation, in this case designed to make him seem beholden to former CIA comrades, and thus cast doubt on his motives for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Be that as it may.
In the abstract, it seems logical to conclude that one of the conflicting stories hides an ulterior motive. And in a search of the recorded history of the time, there is only one source that sheds any light on the situation. All we know, according to Professor McCoy, is that CIA agent Lou Conein met with the Corsicans to arrange a "truce" regarding drug smuggling in South Vietnam, and that after this "truce" the Corsicans (including, one would presume, Michel Seguin) continued to serve as "contact men" for the CIA in the drug smuggling business.
However - and this is where the Clash of Icons reaches critical mass - Ellsberg denies that either his CIA mentor, Edward Lansdale, or his CIA friends, Lou Conein and Frank Scotton, were involved with Corsican drug smugglers.
Recapping the clash of facts: McCoy claims that Conein had arranged a "truce" with the Corsicans over drug smuggling in South Vietnam; Conein while alive denied the allegation and said the meeting with the Corsicans had to do with Ellsberg's love affair with Germaine; and Ellsberg denies (1) that Conein and Scotton intervened on his behalf, and (2) that Conein, Lansdale and Scotton were involved with drug smugglers.
Who among this cast of compelling characters is telling the truth? Could a CIA agent with a photographic memory not be aware that his CIA colleagues were involved with drug smugglers? Or is the professor's book fatally flawed? Did the alleged "truce" never occur? The possibility that McCoy is wrong raises an ironic question: was the good professor, who has prompted so many people to question the CIA's role in international drug smuggling, himself misled by dirty trickster Lou Conein, toward the Corsicans and away from the CIA's unilateral drug smuggling operation - an operation that McCoy indeed failed to mention in his books?
The CIA's unilateral drug smuggling operation
There is ample evidence to support the theory that, in 1970, the CIA began to make a concerted effort to conceal its involvement in international drug trafficking. 1970 was the year when reports of that fact were finally being reported in the mainstream American media; and, not surprisingly, 1970 also was the year when the US Senate launched a potentially explosive investigation into the CIA's Phoenix "assassination" Program, a special unit of which was providing security for the CIA's unilateral drug smuggling operation.
But what is especially intriguing is the additional fact that in June 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the aptly named Pentagon Papers, shifting blame for the increasingly unpopular and unwinnable Vietnam War from the CIA to the US military, while also, obscured in the process, distracting public attention from that year's House of Representative's investigation of Phoenix, an investigation that might have provided additional evidence of the CIA's involvement in drug smuggling.
Ellsberg is aware of the rumour that his former CIA comrades, Conein and Scotton, asked him to leak the Pentagon Papers for the above stated reasons. But he shrugs the insidious rumour off as yet another instance of crass CIA disinformation. And yet, while it is definitely politically incorrect within the New Left to even make the suggestion, is it in fact unthinkable that Ellsberg might have suffered a whisper campaign in order to prevent his friends from being indicted for drug smuggling? Moreover, by denying that Conein had intervened on his behalf, Ellsberg is able to disassociate himself from the great prevaricator.
The politics of heroin in America
After Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, the CIA's plot to cover up its unilateral drug smuggling operation moved forward with greater intensity. According to the Justice Department's still classified DeFeo Report, Conein in the spring of 1971 was called out of retirement by CIA officer E Howard Hunt and asked to become an advisor to President Nixon's drug czar, Egil Krogh, on matters regarding "problems of narcotic control in Southeast Asia and the Pentagon Papers (italics added)."
Consider that in 1971 the relationship between the French intelligence service and Corsican drug smugglers was exposed in a series of spectacular drug busts, which were made in America with the assistance of the CIA. Concurrently, Conein was called out of retirement and immediately, in June 1971, told McCoy about the "truce" with the French-connected Corsicans.
Consider also that Egil Krogh's investigators had stumbled upon the CIA's unilateral drug smuggling operation, and that in July 1971, President Nixon had declared the burgeoning war on drugs to be a matter of national security. Nixon went after the CIA and quick as a flash, E Howard Hunt (Conein's comrade from OSS Detachment 202) bungled the bugging of the Watergate Hotel. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who had just been assigned to cover the war on drugs, was approached by the still anonymous Deep Throat and, based on unsubstantiated rumours, began incrementally reporting Nixon's political machinations, thus engendering the Watergate scandal and effectively neutralising Nixon and his war on drugs.
In the summer of 1972 came the publication of McCoy's book, which mapped out the CIA-supported drug smuggling operation in Burma and Laos. But no CIA officers were ever indicted for drug smuggling. Indeed, at the time it was to the CIA's advantage to expose that particular drug smuggling operation, which featured French-connected Corsicans, because the exposure diverted public attention from the CIA's unilateral drug smuggling operation and allowed the CIA's hierarchy to boast that it was actually helping wage the war on drugs operation, as amazing as that may sound.
That same summer of 1972, Lou Conein became a consultant to the newly created Office of National Narcotics Intelligence (ONNI) at the Department of Justice. After the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was formed in July 1973, Conein became chief of a DEA special operations unit that in 1975 was investigated by the US Senate for the dubious distinction of assassinating drug lords.
Today only questions remain. Why did Conein meet the Corsicans in 1965? Was the rumour of an assassination attempt on Ellsberg concocted to provide Conein with a plausible cover story for his "truce" with the Corsicans? If so, why does Ellsberg deny that his CIA comrades - Lansdale, Conein and Scotton - were involved in drug smuggling, as McCoy contends? And, finally, was McCoy himself led in a wide circle around the CIA's unilateral drug smuggling operation?
Unless these questions are resolved by Ellsberg and McCoy, the truth about CIA drug smuggling, Watergate, and the Pentagon Papers will continue to elude historians, and this quiet Clash of Icons will serve only to perpetuate the myths, mysteries, and half-truths that define American history operation - a history that hauntingly reflects standard CIA operating procedures.