A story—perhaps apocryphal—goes that when J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI, his agents would tell him when they were hot on the trail of a fugitive. Certain that the capture was just a matter of time, Hoover would immediately place the fugitive—no matter how obscure or unimportant he might be—on the “Ten Most Wanted” list. When the small-time criminal was then captured, the FBI press office would announce the news of another big capture. The image of the FBI was thus enhanced, and the nation felt safe in the knowledge that Hoover always got his man.
The Underground Empire reminds me of that public relations device. We are assured by the author that the subjects of his investigation into what he claims to be a formidable international drug conspiracy are the biggest, smartest, richest, and most awesome criminals “in the world.” Their influence extends to “the highest levels of government.” And the amount of money they make is so astronomical that it could “alter” the “balances of power” among nations.
But there was, until recently, a little-known organization within the Justice Department fully capable of neutralizing this threat to our continued survival. The name of that organization—which allowed Mills to see its secret files (in exchange, of course, for their being allowed to read the manuscript in advance) was “Centac.” Its leader, perhaps inspired by Hoover’s sense of public relations, was looking for “a sexy name,” considered a variety of abbreviations, and decided upon an acronym for Central Tactical Unit, because it “sounded like something that would be marketable” if “properly wrapped.”
Marketability and proper wrapping seem very much on the mind of the author of The Underground Empire. He tries hard to make Centac’s war on drugs sound like an Ian Fleming thriller or an episode from Miami Vice. The very concept of an Underground Empire—which “flies no flag,” but has “larger armies” and “more power, wealth and status than many nations”—is reminiscent of one of the international villains who threaten to destroy the world in a James Bond movie.
Mills’s supervillains are aligned with governments: he is “convinced”—though his proof is sparse—“of the participation in the drug traffic of high officials in at least thirty-three countries.” In addition, “the PLO and various revolutionary and terrorist groups” are involved. In “many cases,” the finger points directly at “the chief of state.” Nor are the leading countries without an ideological plan: the “troika of narco-nations” who run “a de facto Communist-controlled Latin Cocaine Pact”—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama—have “intentions” that may include “the undermining of American values and will.” Perhaps, if they fail in the “narco” approach, they may try to fluoridate our water.
Now comes the tricky part. Throughout the book, the author tries to put words in the mouths of his sources, so as to have them announce that there is really one central conspiracy and one major conspirator:
[Author]: In other words the United States government is a coconspirator.
[Author]: That’s an interesting proposition. The largest narcotics conspirator in the world is the government of the United States.
[Source]: It would be difficult to prove because of the element of willful intent.
[Author]: I ask [the source], “If the following statement were made to American citizens would you agree with it? ‘Enormously powerful criminal organizations are controlling many countries, and to a certain degree controlling the world, and controlling our lives. Your own government to some extent supports them, and is concealing the fact from you.’ ”
The author describes how he had asked the head of Centac to estimate the number of major drug conspiracies. The answer: “Perhaps only one.” At the beginning, the “suggestion had seemed fantastic.” But now the author “understood in what sense that might be the case.” He assures us that “without the indulgence of the United States government, the Underground Empire could not exist.”
The worst kind of authorized biography is that of a government agency, and this book suffers from all the failings of such an unholy alliance. The agency in question here, Centac, was fighting for its appropriations and indeed its very existence. By the end of the book it has been disbanded, and its director—who proudly declares, “I’m in love with Centac”—is now working with a less sexy and less marketable law enforcement agency (“an expansion franchise, building a new team, and maybe there were more Super Bowls in his future”). The author never gives us an objective account of why his pet agency was disbanded. We do hear the griping of its former director: “The FBI decided that, one, it was successful, and two, it was not a concept in the image of the FBI.”
Reading between the lines of the book, one comes up with a far better reason for dismantling Centac. Its director, the hero of The Underground Empire, has no sense of proportion. The “world war” against drugs—and he draws no distinctions among marijuana, cocaine, and heroin—is the single most important governmental task:
People have to take sides, as they did in World War II, where there was a total commitment within the Allied and Axis camps. One side was going to win and the other side was going to lose. There would be no middle ground. Have these drug-controlled countries decided where they want to stand?… We must clearly identify the enemy, set out to do something that can be done, and then do it. We need a clear victory against a globally accepted enemy.
The former head of Centac has a simple solution to the international drug problem. The United States government should threaten every drug-producing country:
Tell them—don’t ask them—tell them, “Stop that shit. At midnight tonight. Finish. Now….
“You have ten seconds to give me your decision. Ten, nine, eight….” By the time you hit a three count they’d say, “Wait a minute now….” But the American government has it completely reversed. We give in to the narcotics traffickers for fear of losing something that it is not possible to lose.
Wow! No wonder the FBI was worried. J. Edgar Hoover never thought of that. Telling them to stop instead of asking them. Counting to ten.
The book is full of braggadocio from Mills’s informants:
“When Centac targets an organization, intelligence has already identified its characteristics. We write an operational plan, select our staff, marshal our forces, and attack. From that moment on, the target is doomed. Centac has never lost. And we do not merely prune criminal organizations so they grow back stronger. We uproot the entire tree, chop it to splinters, burn it, and bury the ashes. That tree will never grow again.”…
No criminal [Mills continues] who has to work with others can escape Centac, because he can’t wipe out what he’s already done. It will always be there. And we will find it, and exploit it. The Centac methodology can destroy any criminal group in the world.
Most of The Underground Empire consists of detailed accounts of how Centac conquered three major international conspiracies. One of them involved an organization headed by a young man named Donald Steinberg. Steinberg’s “company,” which specialized in importing marijuana, had as its goal an annual sales figure “of a billion dollars—$2.75 million a day, more than the income of US Steel, Xerox, and General Foods combined.” To support this hyperbole, the author provides few reliable figures on the actual size of Steinberg’s business. After making him out to be one of the biggest drug dealers in the world for most of the book, we learn on page 1105 that after Steinberg pleaded guilty to a continuing drug conspiracy, he received the minimum sentence—a sentence that could have him back on the street in about six and a half years. He was given this deal in exchange for testifying against alleged underlings (who also received minimum sentences). By the end of the book, Steinberg and his organization are broke. His “major international conspiracy” ends up sounding like a very minor league operation.
Why does Mills exaggerate Steinberg’s importance? The apparent answer goes back to J. Edgar Hoover’s tactic of putting small-time fugitives who were about to be caught on the “most wanted” list. Mills was able to interview Steinberg. He was not able to get interviews with some of the really big drug dealers. By declaring Steinberg to be a really big drug dealer, Mills heightens the importance of his subject. By making Steinberg part of a vast international conspiracy—though the evidence here is flimsy at best—Mills enhances the importance of his book.
Throughout The Underground Empire, we are offered conclusions based largely on surmise: “It was an unprecedented suggestion. Drug profits so immense they might affect the American economy as a whole? Unbelievable—and too frightening to acknowledge.”
It’s impossible to verify most of Mills’s assertions. Some are allegedly based on “classified documents” and “numbered-copy classified” reports. Others come from witnesses of doubtful reliability—undercover agents and informers whose very survival has depended on their ability to deceive.
Nor was the author himself beyond a bit of deception in the interests of “the cause.” During the Steinberg conspiracy trial, a government agent approached James Mills to advise him that the defense wanted to call him as a witness. His testimony could be critical since he had interviewed Steinberg—who was the government’s star witness. Mills, once warned, “stayed away from the telephone,” thus apparently evading his obligation to provide truthful evidence. He wasn’t going to help any defense lawyer “earn his fee.”
One of Mills’s most important sources—the one he relies on to make alleged connections between the CIA, the Underground Empire, and the thirty-three drug-supporting nations—is a former professional hit man named Mike Decker. A typical government stool pigeon, Decker seems constantly to brag about his information and prowess. When he finally testified before a congressional committee, the senators were apparently unable to verify enough of his claims to justify public disclosure of his testimony. Nor did prosecutors credit his evidence. Indeed, they dropped charges against a defendant because Decker swore that he had seen him where he probably could not have been. Yet Mills asks the reader to believe this obvious blowhard. He even suggests that we believe claims Decker is unwilling to make for himself:
“Have you ever worked for the CIA?”
“Indirectly. Operation Phoenix in Vietnam.”
“Other than that?”
He takes a deep breath, lets it out.
“No. Not really.”
“You say not really.”
“Not directly. I mean…you know…nothing…nothing directly.” He laughs again at the evasion. “I think that’s the easiest way to put that.”
“Anything indirectly, other than Phoenix?”
I can’t be sure if Decker has worked for the CIA and is reluctant to lie, or if he has not worked for the CIA and is reluctant to lie. Maybe in his romanticism he wants to be thought of as a CIA operative, and hates to dispel the rumor. Or maybe not.
The exchange and conclusion are typical of the level of proof Mills seems to demand in order to draw his explosive conclusions and unlikely connections.
In the end The Underground Empire must be seen for what it is: a one-sided polemic which presents, uncritically, the point of view of a disgruntled narc whose beloved Centac was dismantled by people in government who had a more appropriate sense of what government should be doing. After reading it I was relieved that Centac had been dismantled. Even as portrayed through the writings of an unabashed admirer. Centac reflected some of the worst potential abuses of small-minded bureaucrats vested with power disproportionate to the evils they were authorized to combat.
In waging a “world war” against narcotics, Mills’s heroes seem to regard any means as justified. No price is too high. No individual rights or safeguards must be allowed to get in the way. Defense lawyers—who are often perceived as necessary evils by some prosecutors—are portrayed, at best, as bothersome obstacles, and, at worst, as coconspirators with the defendants they represent.
Mills relates a conversation between one of his heroes and a defense lawyer:
Mangan ran into a former law partner of Steinberg’s onetime attorney, Jim Reilly. The lawyer asked how things were going.
“We’re working on Grandson of Steinberg.”
“Yeah. We’re gonna keep it simple by only indicting attorneys.”
It wasn’t true, but maybe it would worry Reilly. When it came to lawyers, you had to take what you could get.
Another of his heroes was asked where a prominent defense lawyer was living:
“He’s still in Beverly Hills.”
“He was never indicted?”
“Couldn’t get that good a thread of evidence against him.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, the lawyer has “a good reputation in the legal profession and for some reason attorneys aren’t inclined to go after attorneys.” Especially when they are innocent of any crimes. But if Centac had prevailed, such technicalities would hardly have stood in the way. All’s fair in love, war, and the fight against drugs.
When prosecutors or government agents are suspected of crimes or improprieties, it is always a “setup” or a misunderstanding. Mills never pauses to inform his readers about the very large dark side of the prosecutor’s moon, especially in the enforcement of drug laws. It is well known—and thoroughly documented—that narcotics officials all too often fall prey to the temptation of big money, potent drugs, and the way of life of the Donald Steinberg crowd. There are hints of this throughout the book, but it is never brought out because this is an authorized account which takes one side without bothering to balance its arguments.
Near the very end of The Underground Empire, Mills offers a few careful and responsible observations about the relationship between drug dealers and intelligence agencies:
The interests and methods of intelligence agencies are in many cases identical to those of high-level criminals. Both seek power, or the paths to power, through bribery, blackmail, and intimidation. So it is natural that as one progresses upward through layers of crime one finds more and more intelligence agents. They take power where they can get it. The world that international criminal groups have created is precisely the kind of world intelligence people seek out and populate. They are not only within it, but of it. If an intelligence agent finds that his asset, the man with the power, happens to be the world’s biggest drug trafficker—well, so be it. If you’ve worked hard to get him in your pocket and then see his power threatened, you’ll work hard to help him hang on, even if it means a little smuggling—drugs, guns, sacks of cash….
The CIA, in its pursuit of intelligence and influence, often courts the same powerful figures Centac pursued as criminals. But the external threat is always deemed more pressing than the internal threat, and intelligence wins precedence over law enforcement.
Such sensible, if somewhat obvious, observations are tucked away among so many hundreds of pages of hyperbole that they seem lost. The credibility of much of The Underground Empire can be summed up by the tongue-in-cheek remark about the author by one of his heroes:
Ohhh, mercy. If you were Pinocchio, your nose would be from here to Delray Beach.
October 9, 1986