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A Correspondence with the CIA


On June 1 of this year an official of the US Central Intelligence Agency paid a visit to the New York offices of my publisher, Harper and Row, Inc. This CIA official was Mr. Cord Meyer, Jr. (now the CIA’s Assistant Deputy Director of Plans; formerly the CIA official in charge of providing covert financial subsidies for organizations such as the National Student Association, Encounter Magazine, and the Congress for Cultural Freedom).1 Mr. Meyer urged several of his old friends among Harper and Row’s senior management to provide him with a copy of the galley proofs of my history of the international narcotics traffic, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. In this book I show the complicity of various US agencies—particularly the CIA and the State Department—in organizing the Southeast Asian drug traffic since the early 1950s.

Mr. Meyer presented one of Harper and Row’s senior editors with some documents giving the CIA’s view on the Southeast Asian drug traffic. His manner was grave. He said, “You wouldn’t want to publish a book that would be full of inaccuracies, embarrass the United States government, or get you involved in libel suits, would you?”

Harper and Row’s management promised to consider Mr. Meyer’s request and summoned me from Washington, DC, where I was then testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on my findings after eighteen months of research into the Southeast Asian drug traffic. This research included more than 250 interviews with heroin dealers, police officials, and intelligence agents in Europe and Asia.

At a meeting in New York on the afternoon of June 8, Harper and Row’s president, Mr. Winthrop and its senior vice president, Mr. B. Brooks Thomas, told me that they had decided to provide the CIA with a copy of the galley proofs prior to publication for the following reasons:

First, the CIA would be less likely to seek a temporary court injunction barring publication of the book if the Agency were given a chance to persuade itself that national security was in no way endangered by portions of my book; and secondly, Harper and Row felt that a responsible publisher should have enough confidence in the veracity of any of its particularly controversial books to show them to any reputable critic for comment prior to publication.

At first I disagreed strongly with Harper and Row’s decision, arguing that submitting the galley proofs to the CIA could set a dangerous precedent and ultimately weaken First Amendment guarantees concerning freedom of the press. Moreover, in view of what I had learned of the CIA’s operating methods in Southeast Asia I was convinced that the Agency was capable of using unethical means—such as coercing my sources into retracting statements they had made to me about US complicity in the international narcotics traffic—in order to induce Harper and Row to withdraw the book from publication.

After a week of negotiations, however, Harper and Row told me that they would not be willing to publish the book unless I agreed to submit the manuscript to the CIA. Faced with what I believed would be lengthy delays if I took the book to another publisher and the prospect of losing my Harper and Row editor, Elisabeth Jakab, with whom I had worked closely, I capitulated. Thus began more than two months of lengthy negotiations between the CIA, Harper and Row, and myself. Most of what happened during these elaborate negotiations is in the correspondence reprinted below. I have added introductory notes to explain some of the attending circumstances.

Considered collectively, this exchange of letters provides us with another important reminder—perhaps the first since the National Student Association scandals of 1967—of the contempt this most clandestine of our governmental agencies has for the integrity of the press and publishing industry. As the CIA’s letter of July 28, 1972, shows, it was unable to rebut effectively my analysis of its role in the international heroin traffic during the last quarter century. Since the CIA simply had no plausible defense against this charge, it tried to impose prior censorship in order to avoid public scrutiny of its record. If it was not already clear, it now should be obvious to publishers that the Agency cannot be regarded as a responsible critic when its public image is seriously threatened by what is written about it.


1 In this letter, written after Cord Meyer, Jr.’s visit, Harper and Row asked the CIA for official confirmation of their interest in seeing the book. Since the CIA had never before been quite so willing to defend itself publicly, neither Harper and Row nor I expected to hear anything more from the Agency.

June 30, 1972

Cord Meyer, Jr.

1523 34th Street, N. W.

Washington, D. C. 20007

Dear Mr. Meyer:

I understand from Messrs. Canfield, Sr. and Wyeth that you have expressed an interest in being shown the manuscript of our forthcoming book, The Politics of Heroin, by Alfred W. McCoy.

Before making any determination with respect to your request, I would appreciate it if you would confirm it to me in writing, indicating to the extent you deem appropriate any reasons you may have for making such a request.

[B. Brooks Thomas
Vice President and General Counsel
Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.]

2 The CIA, in reply, challenged Harper and Row by stating categorically that it could rebut all my charges about its complicity in the international narcotics traffic. We were surprised, however, that the CIA made no reference to “national security” as one of its concerns in requesting to review the manuscript. Rather, the Agency made its request purely on grounds of government privilege.

Central Intelligence Agency Washington, D.C. 20505

5 July 1972

Mr. B. Brooks Thomas

Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Dear Mr. Thomas:

Mr. Cord Meyer has asked me to respond to your letter to him of June 30th in connection with the book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, by Alfred W. McCoy.

As you are no doubt aware, Mr. McCoy testified on 2 June 1972 before the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. His testimony included allegations concerning support of the international opium traffic by U. S. agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, and numerous other allegations concerning participation in the opium traffic by both Americans and local personnel in Southeast Asia.

In the light of the pernicious nature of the drug traffic, allegations concerning involvement of the U. S. Government therein or the participation of American citizens should be made only if based on hard evidence. It is our belief that no reputable publishing house would wish to publish such allegations without being assured that the supporting evidence was valid. It was on this basis that Mr. Meyer talked to Mr. Canfield and Mr. Wyeth. It is Mr. Meyer’s understanding that they agreed with this position and, therefore, said that a copy of the galley proofs would be made available to us. If this were done, we believe we could demonstrate to you that a considerable number of Mr. McCoy’s claims about this Agency’s alleged involvement are totally false and without foundation, a number are distorted beyond recognition, and none is based on convincing evidence. We are not alone in this position as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs also considers Mr. McCoy’s claims to be essentially based on rumor or hearsay.

Mr. Nelson Gross, the Secretary of State’s Senior Advisor and Coordinator for International Narcotics Matters, wrote on 8 June 1972 to Senator Proxmire, the Chairman of the Subcommittee before which Mr. McCoy appeared, and refuted a number of Mr. McCoy’s major allegations. In testimony before an informal congressional panel of U. S. Representatives in New York City on 9 June 1972, Mr. Gross again refuted allegations made by Mr. McCoy but in more detail.

Ordinarily this Agency does not respond to public criticism. However, in this case we are under the strongest directives to support the U. S. Government’s effort against the international narcotics traffic and are bending every effort to do so. We believe we cannot stand by and see baseless criticism designed to undermine confidence in that effort without trying to set the record straight. This, of course, in no way affects the right of a publisher to decide what to publish. I find it difficult to believe, however, that a responsible publisher would wish to be associated with an attack on our Government involving the vicious international drug traffic without at least trying to ascertain the facts.

I trust I have made quite clear our reason for asking to see the text of Mr. McCoy’s book prior to publication and have also given you reason to consider your own responsibilities in this matter.

Lawrence R. Houston
General Counsel

3 When I was shown the CIA’s request I told Harper and Row that the CIA, by failing to mention national security as its major reason for requesting the right to review the galley proofs, had undermined the logic behind Harper and Row’s stated reasons for submitting the galley proofs to the Agency. When Harper and Row told me that it still wanted to have the book reviewed by the CIA, I withdrew my consent in the letter that follows. More significantly, the strident tone of the CIA’s letter of July 5 to Harper and Row—which coincided with the publication of a CIA rebuttal to some of my charges in the Washington Evening Star on the same day—finally convinced me that the CIA was really making a serious effort to discredit me and suppress my book.

I believed I stood very little chance of countering the CIA’s pressures successfully so long as negotiations remained private. I flew to Washington, DC, on July 16—the day before I delivered this letter to Harper and Row—and told several Washington reporters about the negotiations with the CIA (Harper and Row had told me it was planning a press conference about the CIA’s request at a yet undecided future date.)

New Haven, Connecticut
July 17, 1972

Mr. B. Brooks Thomas

Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Dear Mr. Thomas:

I cannot agree to the request by the Central Intelligence Agency to receive an advance copy of the page proofs of my book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.

I believe that a fundamental principle is at stake. A basic tenet of our democracy is that government agencies are subject to public scrutiny. Our democracy cannot long survive if powerful government agencies have the right to review and possibly censor criticism before it reaches the American people.

The American people have the freedom to read and the right to information from diverse sources, and the right to judge for themselves what to believe. No government agency can try to abridge these rights and this fundamental freedom in any way.

  1. 1

    For details on Cord Meyer, Jr.’s career see R. Harris Smith, OSS (University of California Press, 1972), pp. 372-375; New York Times, March 30, 1967, p. 30.

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