Ambrose was Commissioner of Customs under Nixon. In 1972, Nixon appointed
Ambrose to head the White House Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) in
order to coordinate federal and local task forces to fight drugs and crime on
the streets. Ambrose came up with the idea of the Drug Enforcement
Administration, which was created in 1973. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
Tell me about Operation Intercept. What did you think when you first heard
Well, I thought it was crazy. It was in the spring of '69. . . . We had these
meetings in the Justice Department and they decided they were going to close
the border. I kind of did a double take about it. They were going to close
the border, and then of course it was decided that they were going to do it as
a kind of a shock treatment to the Mexicans.
I became the Commissioner [of Customs] in July or August of '69. It was
apparent to me that if we were going to do this shock treatment, it was Customs
that was going to have to take the lead in it. . . . The committee voted that
the Customs Service and I would be responsible for it. I figured my name would
be blackened in Mexico forever. . .I think it was September 16th. . .that we closed
the border effectively. And cars were backed up as far as you could see, and
we kept it going maybe five days. We then had big meetings with the Mexican
Minister of this and Minister of that, Secretary of this and Secretary of that.
They promised everything. . .and we went back to where we were before not too
You set up camp in Long Beach?
The headquarters of the Operation Intercept [Communion] was at Long Beach, the
Customs agents' operation out there. I stayed in Los Angeles, and then every
day I'd fly down on one of the helicopters to the border . . .
What did it look like from your helicopter?
The first day it was just incredible. The backup was as far as you could
see--it was miles and miles and miles. After that people realized they
couldn't get across, so they turned around and didn't bother trying. And there
were all kinds of screams. I mean we had screams from congressmen.
What was the process of closing the border?
The entrance points, essentially. You know, you're only technically legally
entitled to come across to the United States at a border entrance point.
But in terms of what you were doing, everyone was being searched.
Just about 100% search most places. Some of them, of course, were very quick,
but every car was going to be stopped. That is absolutely impossible to ask
under ordinary circumstances.
Did you warn the Mexicans?
Well, we told them. The newspapers particularly tried to play it up as if this
was going to be the way we were going to stop drugs from getting in the United
States. Well, obviously it would stop drugs from getting in the United States
for three, four, or five days maybe, but that would be it. It was basically
designed to be a shock treatment, to let the Mexicans know that we were serious
about drug interdiction and they better get their act together.
It just worked for [a few days]?
. . .The Mexicans started some cooperative efforts. And there are many sincere
anti-drug officials in Mexico--don't misunderstand me. We did work very
closely with a number of them. The problem is the corruption in the Mexican
system has always been endemic. It's very, very substantial. . .
[During this period] there were a lot of ideas being tried. After
Intercept, didn't Moynihan argue to have drugs elevated to a national security
Oh yeah. Well, they'd had a cabinet committee on narcotics . . . Pat
Moynihan took a very active interest, and he was trying to get the European
governments and NATO and everybody else involved. . .
I went to one meeting, though which was a kind of a strange meeting. . .There had
been some talk and discussion in newspapers about what was referred to as
"preemptive buying." Opium only came from a couple of places. The Turks were
really cracking down on it. They were cooperating very heavily. But Burma was
a very serious [problem]. [At this meeting] they started talking about the
subject of preemptive buying. And they talked about "Well, we could go to
Burma and we could get all those farmers and we could just let them produce
everything they want and we'll just buy it from them. It would be a lot
cheaper than the interdiction and enforcement efforts." This went on for about
fifteen minutes and it got to be kind of serious.
Finally John Mitchell. . . turned to me and said, "Well Myles, what do you think
about that?" And I said, "You really want to know, General?" He said, "Yeah."
I said, ". . .You can grow opium on probably 70% of the earth's surface. And a
mile or two square area would supply every heroin addict in the world. I'm in
the wrong business if you're going to do this kind of thing. I mean you'll
have a lot of people that you'll be buying up in the next growing season." So
he laughed and he said, "Well I guess that's the end of that.". . .
Everybody was looking for every kind of a solution, every kind of a mechanism,
every kind of a tool, everything you could think of, and we were very creative.
Some of them worked and obviously a lot of them didn't.
Why were drugs a priority with Nixon?
He took a very direct interest in it. Why? I can't tell you his mind, except
that I know that he was very much enforcement-oriented. He wasn't as much for
the treatment side at that stage, because nobody knew a hell of a lot about the
treatment, whether it worked or whether it didn't work--it was still in its
fairly early stages. But enforcement had been a campaign issue. . .
[Tell me about the] rise in the use of heroin.
. . .There was virtually no political involvement at all during the sixties in
the drug problem. It was left to the local jurisdictions to do what they
could. . .And the drug problem rose. And of course we had the Vietnam
concomitant situation. There was no question that the sixties were when the
whole thing really got out of hand.
In the fifties and the early sixties I used to have an expression that the
public isn't going to really care about drug enforcement, drug use, until
heroin left Harlem and went to Scarsdale. And that's what happened. It went
to Scarsdale. We used to estimate in the late fifties and the early sixties
that there were probably 60,000 heroin addicts in the United States. That
figure was subject to some question, but certainly had some validity. In the
late sixties you probably had 70,000 or 60,000 heroin addicts in three blocks
in some areas of the United States. . .
The interesting statistic at that point in '69 and '70--we were losing more
people in the United States from drug overdoses per week that we were losing in
Vietnam. That was a figure that used to scare me. . .
Of course I was always of the belief that one does not become a heroin addict
in the abstract. One never becomes a heroin addict unless one meets another
one who gets them into the [habit]. So I was always of the belief that you
have to work on the street level, to build cases, and also to try to stop the
proliferation of addiction. I put together a paper with the help of some
people in the office suggesting that we establish a short term, temporary
program for the purpose of working particularly the street level to build up
some cases, and then working in conjunction with the other agencies involved. . .
I put this together and I shipped it over. I didn't hear anything for some
months, and then one day I got a call saying, "Put this thing together, we
really want to look at it. But we don't want anyone in the Treasury to know
about it." Boy, that put me on the horns of a dilemma to say the least. So I
used a couple of agents that I had long relationships with, and we put together
the program that later turned out to be ODALE [Office of Drug Abuse Law
Enforcement]. It was designed to be a task force operation [utilizing]
prosecutors, grand juries, local police, Customs, Narcotics, IRS agents, and
Secret Service agents in some cases. . .We had remarkable success. In 18 months
we arrested over 6,000 people, and we broke up the major Harlem underworld
drugs operation. . .
Part of the idea behind ODALE was because drugs were so corrupting, it would
be a good idea to have federal and local [forces] working together. [How were
jurisdiction questions worked out?]
Well, there's no question when you have overlapping jurisdiction, it's a
problem in one respect. But the advantage is it makes it very difficult for
corrupt practices to develop. Because you're not just dealing with your own
guys; you're dealing with somebody else. . .
Describe your position as head of ODALE. . .
I had three hats. I was Special Assistant to the President on Drug Abuse
Enforcement. [I was] a Special Assistant Attorney General, because I was going
to be responsible for a number of prosecutors. And then [I was] Director of
the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement. . .
. . .Despite all these books and articles that have been written, it was clear
from the start of ODALE, that we knew one of the responsibilities we were going
to have was recommending new procedures and new programs, including possible
changes in the way law enforcement operations took place. It became quite clear
after awhile to me that we had to consolidate drug enforcement further, and
that while Customs still had to have an operational capability, it would be
strictly related to border interdiction and so forth. . .
You built ODALE with a sunset clause into it.
Right from the beginning, 18 months, yes. It was not designed to be a
permanent agency and it was not designed to do away with BNDD or Customs or
anybody else. It was designed to see if we could do an effective job of task
force agency cooperation and arrangement at the street level to work. . .to try
to reduce the number of addicts in the United States, and to push people into
treatment programs. That was it. We now had treatment programs. And the
alternative of. . .going to treatment was a big opportunity for people who
thought treatment was going to be the answer. It's never been the complete
answer, but it certainly has helped a lot.
What were your ideas [regarding] treatment? One thing I've heard from a lot
of law enforcement people is that there was a feeling of optimism--that you
would do so much on the law enforcement side, there better be a lot of
Well, that was my pitch. I don't know how many beds we got, but we got a lot,
I can tell you. I know that people I met in the treatment area were very
pleased with what we were doing on the enforcement side. The other part of it,
of course, was prevention and education. And everybody talks about it. They
talk about it to this day and I don't think there has ever been any empirical
evidence that talking to kids in school and telling them, "Don't take drugs,"
is going to stop them from taking drugs. I think we've lacked an ability to
develop a conceptual way of doing this--it may have some impact, and I'm well
out of the scene these days, so I don't pretend to know everything about it.
But if we could teach kids not to use drugs, that would be the best method.
. . .Drugs [had become] such a big issue, that it seemed like you were willing
to [push the] limits of the law. What kinds of tactics were you using?
Oh, I wouldn't say the limits of the law. But we did very operative, open
things--no question about it. We did it in conjunction with local police
agencies. For example, we located a bar in Harlem, 125th Street, as I recall,
that was basically a drug operation. And we had undercover agents in there.
We had a bus or a truck pull up and agents went in, of course we had 5-10
people working undercover there at the time. We searched the people and we
identified the people. And it caused a huge furor. . . But it gave a lot of
impact for what we were trying to do. And it needed impact at that point,
because there was no effective law enforcement.
Was that the idea, if you hit a couple of places like that bar, those people
who were working would go tell other people--
Well, yeah, you get caught dealing in drugs, the penalty is pretty severe. So
it scared people to death for awhile. . .
Now, by the time this reorganization plan was in place in what ways had the
laws and tactics changed since 1969 when you came in to be able to fight drugs?
What new tools did you have?
Well, we had more people. We had much greater awareness by the United States
Attorneys' offices. The Justice Department had beefed up their narcotics unit.
We had much greater use of grand juries to bring people in, and if they didn't
want to testify, they took the Fifth Amendment, we held them in contempt or we
gave them immunity. There was a certain degree of--I use this expression very
carefully--of legal harassment. And you make sure it is legal and [use] a lot
of it. So people knew if they were going to be dealing in drugs, they were
going to be facing a lot of problems, from the cops, from us, from the district
attorneys, from U.S. attorneys. . .
In general, when you look back at this period, I think the Nixon
administration was really positing a lot of successes after that first term.
What do you see now as [having] worked and what didn't?
Well, I think the ODALE program worked. You have to understand our target was
heroin. It was a totally different world in the mid-70s, early '80s, when
cocaine and crack hit the world. That's a totally different situation.
I [had] nothing to do with it. I don't know anything about it. All I know is,
it's a horrible situation. I'm told now it is diminishing considerably. But
that exacerbated the problem beyond anything else. . .
[What was Nixon's view regarding treatment vs. enforcement?]
We were talking about it. And the question came up of treatment, whether
Bud [Krogh] raised it or somebody raised it. And Nixon was sitting
there as usual in his kind of reflective quiet way. And he looked out the
window of the helicopter, and he turned to Bud and me and whoever else was
there, and he pointed--we were flying over Brooklyn then--and he said, "You and
I care about treatment. But those people down there, they want those criminals
off the street." And that was the way he said it. And it was probably 99.9%
right. . . .
Do you remember any conversations with him or any of his concerns about what
. . .He was very much interested in effective law enforcement. I mean that was
all there was to it. What could be done to improve it; how we could go about
doing it. He wanted to prove to the American people that something could be
done, because the American people were suffering from this. . .
Did he attach a moral dimension to it?
Oh, yeah. He thought it was a totally immoral situation, and we as a society
had to do something about it. I don't think there's any question about it. . .
And the Black and Hispanic communities [were] where a very substantial
percentage of the addiction was and I met with people from those backgrounds
frequently. And it was sad. . . I became very empathetic toward the people who
were the victims--not the users--but the general populace. You know, nobody
makes you a heroin addict, remember that. You become a heroin addict because
you want to try heroin--I mean that's the way it is. And they have to be
responsible for what they've done. And we all thought, that while you might
feel sympathetic to a person if he became an addict, you also have to realize
that he was the one that got involved with it--that he was the one that made
the decision and people have to learn to make their own decisions in life. And
Nixon felt that way too, I'm sure. I know I did. . .
Now, thirty years later, Richard Nixon's drug policy seems in a lot of ways like
the most practical. Is that how you see it?
I'd just say amen to what you just said. I don't know if there's any question
about it. There's never been one since like it. . . I don't really know [how
effective prevention is]. I mean we've been through the Reagan period of "Just
say no," and I think they were trying very hard on the educational side. I've
heard that almost every school has a police officer come in and talk [about
drugs]. I don't know how effective it is because I'm told that marijuana is
fairly available all over the country. . .
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