drug wars

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interview: myles ambrose


photo of myles ambrose

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 the idea?

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 long after.

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.

Nobody makes you a heroin addict, remember that.  You become a heroin addict because you want to try heroin 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 issue?

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 beds.

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 was happening?

. . .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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