Assassination as Policy in Washington: How It Failed Then and Fails Now

Summary: The horrific effects of our long War on Drugs have spread like heroin through the Republic. Wasted resources, wrecked communities, eroded rights. This post looks at a lesser-known example, how it accustomed us to use of assassination. Even less-known is that it failed then just as its failed in the War On Terror.  Today is the 3rd of today’s series about our FAILure to learn, with lessons from the past that we have ignored at great cost. It’s a weakness that can bring the greatest of nations to its knees. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.

Why do they hate our freedom?Flying Terminator

Excerpt from The Kingpin Strategy
Assassination as Policy: How It Failed Us, 1990-2015

By Andrew Cockburn at TomDispatch, 28 April 2015.
Posted with their generous permission.

The Kingpin Strategy Arrives

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was the poor stepsister of federal law enforcement agencies.  Called into being by President Richard Nixon two decades earlier, it had languished in the shadow of more powerful siblings, notably the FBI.  But the future offered hope.  President George H.W. Bush had only recently re-launched the war on drugs first proclaimed by Nixon, and there were rich budgetary pickings in prospect.  Furthermore, in contrast to the shadowy drug trafficking groups of Nixon’s day, it was now possible to put a face, or faces, on the enemy.  The Colombian cocaine cartels were already infamous, their power and ruthless efficiency well covered in the media.

For Robert Bonner, a former prosecutor and federal judge appointed to head the DEA in 1990, the opportunity couldn’t have been clearer.  Although Nixon had nurtured fantasies of deploying his fledgling anti-drug force to assassinate traffickers, even soliciting anti-Castro Cuban leaders to provide the necessary killers, Bonner had something more systematic in mind.  He called it a “kingpin strategy,” whose aim would be the elimination either by death or capture of the “kingpins” dominating those cartels.

Implicit in the concept was the assumption that the United States faced a hierarchically structured threat that could be defeated by removing key leadership components.  In this, Bonner echoed a traditional U.S. Air Force doctrine: that any enemy system must contain “critical nodes,” the destruction of which would lead to the enemy’s collapse.

In a revealing address to a 2012 meeting of DEA veterans held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the kingpin strategy’s inauguration, Bonner spoke of the corporate enemy they had confronted.  Major drug trafficking outfits, he said,

“by any measure are large organizations. They operate by definition transnationally. They are vertically integrated in terms of production and distribution. They usually have, by the way, fairly smart albeit quite ruthless people at the top and they have a command and control structure. And they also have people with expertise that run certain essential functions of the organization such as logistics, sales and distribution, finances, and enforcement.”

Intersection of false assumptions and action.
From article by Carl Richards, New York Times, 11 March 2013.

It followed therefore that the removal of those smart people at the top, not to mention the experts in logistics, would render the cartel ineffective and so cut off the flow of narcotics to the United States.

Pursuit of the kingpins promised rich institutional rewards.  Aside from the overbearing presence of the FBI, Bonner had to contend with another carnivore in the Washington bureaucratic jungle eager to encroach on his agency’s territory. “DEA and CIA were butting heads,” recalled the former DEA chief in a 2013 interview. “There was real tension.” Artfully, he managed to negotiate peace with the powerful intelligence agency, “so now we had a very important ally. CIA could use DEA and vice versa.”

By this he meant that the senior agency could use the DEA’s legal powers for domestic operations to good advantage.  This burgeoning relationship brought additional potent allies. Not only was his agency now closer to the CIA, Bonner told me, but “through them, the NSA.” A new Special Operations Division created to work with these senior agencies was to oversee the assault on the kingpins, relying heavily on electronic intelligence.

This new direction would swiftly gain credibility after the successful elimination of the most famous cartel leader of all.  Pablo Escobar, the dominant figure of the Medellín cartel, was an object of obsessive interest to American law enforcement.  He had long evaded U.S.-assisted manhunts before negotiating an agreement with the Colombian government in 1991 under which he took up residence in a “prison” he himself had built in the hills above his home city. A year later, fearing that the government was going to welsh on its deal and turn him over to the Americans, Escobar walked out of that prison and went into hiding.

The subsequent search for the fugitive drug lord marked a turning point. The Cold War was over; Saddam Hussein was defeated in the first Gulf War in 1991; credible threats to the U.S. were scarce; and the danger of budget cuts was in the air. Now, however, the U.S. deployed the full panoply of surveillance technology originally developed to confront the Soviet foe against a single human target. The Air Force sent in an assortment of reconnaissance planes, including SR-71s, which were capable of flying at three times the speed of sound. The Navy sent its own spy planes; the CIA dispatched a helicopter drone.

At one point there were 17 of these surveillance aircraft simultaneously in the air over Medellín although, as it turned out, none of them were any help in tracking down Escobar.  Nor did the DEA make any crucial contribution. Instead, his deadly rivals from Cali, Colombia’s other major trafficking group, played the decisive role in the destruction of that drug lord’s power and support systems, combining well-funded intelligence with bloodthirsty ruthlessness.

His once all-powerful network of informers and bodyguards destroyed, Escobar was eventually located by homing in on his radio and gunned down as he fled across a rooftop on December 2, 1993.  Though the matter is open to debate, a former senior U.S. drug enforcement official assured me unequivocally that a sniper from the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Delta Force had fired the killing shot.

Following this triumph, the DEA turned its attention to the Cali cartel, pursuing it with every resource available: “We really developed the use of wiretaps,” Bonner told me.  Patience and the provision of enormous resources eventually yielded results. In June and July 1995, six of the seven heads of the Cali cartel were arrested, including the brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez-Orijuela, and the cartel’s cofounder, José “Chepe” Santacruz Londoño.  Although Londoño subsequently escaped from jail, he would in the end be hunted down and killed.  Continued U.S. pressure for the rest of the decade and beyond resulted in a steady flow of cartel bosses into prisons with life sentences or into coffins.

Kill Chain
Available at Amazon (2015).

Cartel Heads Go Down and Drugs Go Up

The strategy, it appeared, had been an unqualified success.  “When Pablo Escobar was on the run, for all practical purposes, his organization started going down… ultimately it was destroyed.  And that’s the strategy we have called the kingpin strategy,” crowed Lee Brown, Bill Clinton’s “drug czar,” in 1994.

In public at least, no officials bothered to point out that if that strategy’s aim was to counter drug use among Americans, it had achieved precisely the opposite of its intended goal.  The giveaway to this failure lay in the on-the-street cost of cocaine in this country.  In those years, the DEA put enormous effort into monitoring its price, using undercover agents to make buys and then laboriously compiling and cross-referencing the amounts paid.

The drugs obtained by these surreptitious means, however, were of wildly varying purity, the cocaine itself often having been adulterated with some worthless substitute. That meant that the price of a gram of pure cocaine varied enormously, since a few bad deals of very low purity could cause wide swings in the average. Dealers tended to compensate for higher prices by reducing the purity of their product rather than charging more per gram. As a result, the agency’s price charts showed little movement and so gave no indication of what events were affecting the price and therefore the supply.

In 1994, however, a numbers-cruncher with the Institute for Defense Analysis, the Pentagon’s in-house think tank, began subjecting the data to more searching scrutiny. The analyst, a former Air Force fighter pilot named Rex Rivolo, had been tasked to take an independent look at the drug war at the request of Brian Sheridan, the hardheaded director of the Defense Department’s Office of Drug Control Policy who had developed a healthy disrespect for the DEA and its operations.

Having tartly informed DEA officials that their statistics were worthless, mere “random noise,” Rivolo set to work developing a statistical tool that would eliminate the effect of the swings in purity of the samples collected by the undercover agents. Once he had succeeded, some interesting conclusions began to emerge: the pursuit of the kingpins was most certainly having an effect on prices, and by extension supply, but not in the way advertised by the DEA. Far from impeding the flow of cocaine onto the street and up the nostrils of America, it was accelerating it. Eliminating kingpins actually increased supply.

It was a momentous revelation, running entirely counter to law enforcement cultural attitudes that reached back to the days of Eliot Ness’s war against bootleggers in the 1920s and that would become the basis for Washington’s twenty-first-century counterinsurgency wars. Such a verdict might have been reached intuitively, especially once the kingpin strategy in its most lethal form came to be applied to terrorists and insurgents, but on this rare occasion the conclusion was based on hard, undeniable data.

In the last month of 1993, for example, Pablo Escobar’s once massive cocaine smuggling organization was already in tatters and he was being hunted through the streets of Medellín. If the premise of the DEA strategy — that eliminating kingpins would cut drug supplies — had been correct, supply to the U.S. should by then have been disrupted.

In fact, the opposite occurred: in that period, the U.S. street price dropped from roughly $80 to $60 a gram because of a flood of new supplies coming into the U.S. market, and it would continue to drop after his death.  Similarly, when the top tier of the Cali cartel was swept up in mid-1995, cocaine prices, which had been rising sharply earlier that year, went into a precipitous decline that continued into 1996.

Economics: graph

Economic theory provides the explanation

Confident that the price drop and the kingpin eliminations were linked, Rivolo went looking for an explanation and found it in an arcane economic theory he called monopolistic competition. “It hadn’t been heard of for years,” he explained. “It essentially says if you have two producers of something, there’s a certain price. If you double the number of producers, the price gets cut in half, because they share the market.

“So the question was,” he continued, “how many monopolies are there? We had three or four major monopolies, but if you split them into twenty and you believe in this monopolistic competition, you know the price is going to drop. And sure enough, through the nineties the price of cocaine was plummeting because competition was coming in and we were driving the competition. The best thing would have been to keep one cartel over which we had some control. If your goal is to lower consumption on the street, then that’s the mechanism. But if you’re a cop, then that’s not your goal. So we were constantly fighting the cop mentality in these provincial organizations like DEA.”

Deep in the jungles of southern Colombia, coca farmers didn’t need obscure economic theories to understand the consequences of the kingpin strategy. When the news arrived that Gilberto Rodríguez-Orijuela had been arrested, small traders in the remote settlement of Calamar erupted in cheers. “Thank the blessed virgin!” exclaimed one grandmother to a visiting American reporter.

“Wait till the United States figures out what it really means,” added another local resident. “Hell, maybe they’ll approve, since it’s really a victory for free enterprise. No more monopoly controlling the market and dictating what growers get paid. It’s just like when they shot Pablo Escobar: now money will flow to everybody.”

This assessment proved entirely correct. As the big cartels disappeared, the business reverted to smaller and even more ruthless groups that managed to maintain production and distribution quite satisfactorily, especially as they were closely linked either to Colombia’s Marxist FARC guerrillas or to the fascist anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups allied with the government and tacitly supported by the United States.

Terminator Planet
Available at Amazon (2012).

The Kingpin Strategy Joins the War on Terror

Much of Rivolo’s work on the subject remains classified. This is hardly surprising, given that it not only undercuts the official rationale for the kingpin strategy in the drug wars of the 1990s, but strikes a body blow at the doctrine of high-value targeting that so obsesses the Obama administration in its drone assassination campaigns across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa today.

Rivolo was, in fact, able to monitor the application of the kingpin strategy in the following decade.  In 2007, he was assigned to a small but high-powered intelligence cell attached to the Baghdad headquarters of General Ray Odierno, who was, at the time, the operational U.S. commander in Iraq.  While there he made it his business to inquire into the ongoing targeting of “high-value individuals,” or HVIs.  Accordingly, he put together a list of 200 HVIs — local insurgent leaders — killed or captured between June and October 2007.  Then he looked to see what happened in their localities following their elimination.

The results, he discovered when he graphed them out, offered a simple, unequivocal message: the strategy was indeed making a difference, just not the one intended. It was, however, the very same message that the kingpin strategy had offered in the drug wars of the 1990s.  Hitting HVIs did not reduce attacks and save American lives; it increased them. Each killing quickly prompted mayhem. Within 3 kilometers of the target’s base of operation, attacks over the following 30 days shot up by 40%. Within a radius of five kilometers, a typical area of operations for an insurgent cell, they were still up 20%.

Summarizing his findings for Odierno, Rivolo added an emphatic punch line: “Conclusion: HVI Strategy, our principal strategy in Iraq, is counter-productive and needs to be re-evaluated.”

As with the kingpin strategy, the causes of this apparently counter-intuitive result became obvious upon reflection.  Dead commanders were immediately replaced, and the newcomers were almost always younger and more aggressive than their predecessors, eager to “make their bones” and prove their worth.

The bottom line: how do you measure success?

Rivolo’s research and conclusions, though briefed at the highest levels, made no difference.  The kingpin strategy might have failed on the streets of American cities, but it had been a roaring success when it came to the prosperity of the DEA.  The agency budget, always the surest sign of an institution’s standing, soared by 240% during the 1990s, rising from $654 million in 1990 to over $1.5 billion a decade later.

In the same way, albeit on a vaster scale, high-value targeting failed in its stated goals in the Greater Middle East, where terror recruits grew and terror groups only multiplied under the shadow of the drone.  (The removal of al-Baghdadi from day-to-day control of the Islamic State, for instance, has apparently done nothing to retard its operations.)  The strategy has, however, been of inestimable benefit to a host of interested parties, ranging from drone manufacturers to the CIA counterterrorism officials who so signally failed to ward off 9/11 only to adopt assassination as their raison d’être. …

Copyright 2015 Andrew Cockburn

 ————————————  End of excerpt  ————————————

Learn from mistakes

About the author

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years. In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  See Wikipedia for more details. Some of his books:

For More Information

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  7. Lessons for America from the Russo-Japanese War.

9 thoughts on “Assassination as Policy in Washington: How It Failed Then and Fails Now”

  1. Fabius Maximus,

    “As a result, the agency’s price charts showed little movement and so gave no indication of what events were affecting the price and therefore the supply.”
    I think the most amazing thing is that even if the analysis and sources cited here are off base, the DEA has nothing to show for its efforts by its own accounting! Amazing how long everyone has known that we have no measurable evidence of our actions making a difference.

    PF Khans

    1. PF Khan,

      What Andrew Cockburn is describing — without making the point — is that much of our government (the Deep State) has purposes quite different than the stated ones. Suppressing the sale of illegal drugs is not the DEA’s primary goal. Winning wars is not DoD’s primary goal. So failures in their programs does not produce change. From this we can infer (i.e., guess) at their true goals.

      All this is just another way of saying — as I have said so often for so long — that the Republic is changing.

  2. Decreasing drug use was never the goal, increasing federal agency funding was the goal. The operation was a total success, drug use was increased, bigger DEA CIA and NSA budgets were secured and a larger supply of less organized criminals were formented to chase down, the intention from the start, a perfect operation, no failure anywhere. That is unless you consider the general population, they lose big time in both the USA and in foreign countries but who cares about them? Certainly not the DEA CIA and NSA. The people are way too literal minded to catch the deception and can be counted on to participate in their own abuse and tax dollar shake down every time, the poor fools, Prohibition taught them nothing, they are always ready and willing suckers for this kind of a fedaral con game

  3. What an astounding revelation! Its called CAPITALISM you idiots, its what our country is supposed to be founded on, right? You mean to tell me the same rules that govern legal trade also govern illegal trade? We have an Einstein amongst us, why yes it looks as if they do. So capitalist competitions effect on price is an obscure theory little heard of? amazing undersight here!

    “Confident that the price drop and the kingpin eliminations were linked, Rivolo went looking for an explanation and found it in an arcane economic theory he called monopolistic competition. “It hadn’t been heard of for years,” he explained. “It essentially says if you have two producers of something, there’s a certain price. If you double the number of producers, the price gets cut in half, because they share the market.”

    1. William,

      You appear to consider yourself quite smart by mocking those who make accurate analysis, especially odd since the report described was original thought when published. Let’s see some your own original work and compare it with that of experts.

      By the way, many website delete comments like yours — calling people idiots is a reliable sign of trolls. That is a sensible practice, but I prefer to wait for confirming evidence.

  4. I find the report typical of journalism today: It stands on the side of the road and throws stones at houses on both sides of the streets. Sure there is an element of men in government that using the war on drugs as a means of enhancing their departments budget but the vast majority of DEA folk see the decimation that drugs are causing on the street. Lets put the shoe on the other foot and ask what you would do to stop the wreckage caused to your community when you have a 16 year old that is using ‘cut’ heroin. A daughter selling herself for a fix. All i tend to hear is ‘legalize the drugs’.

    Drugs are legal for addicts in many areas and are supplied free at treatment centers. The problem is that the High is the illegality of defying the authorities and the norm.
    The thrill is breaking new ground and being on the cutting edge.

    The Chinese are making legal drugs that are flooding the market; legal because they have not been banned yet. They are cheap and easy to use and kill before being addictive.
    It is easy to sit on the sidelines and carp and criticize but what is to be done?

    1. zander,

      “Sure there is an element of men in government that using the war on drugs as a means of enhancing their departments budget but the vast majority of DEA folk”

      I think this is really missing the point. The 2 groups you refer to are called “leaders” and “followers”.

      ‘ask what you would do to stop the wreckage”

      Adopt policies similar to those of the other developed nations. You emotional appeal is quite odd, since the effects you describe result from the drug war — much as we saw during prohibition. The fantastic profits of drugs spur marketing, their illegal nature means there is no regulation. The 40 years of failure for the war on drugs trade suggests that people should point to young girls on drugs as failures of the policy you advocate — not arguments against reform.

      That you point to China and not the experience of our fellow developed nations is quite typical of drug warriors. It was also the primary theme of the debates about ObamaCare, as if the rest of the world was blank.

      In brief, your comment nicely illustrates the decay of our ability to see the world. No nation, no matter how powerful, can survive self-imposed blindness and amnesia.

  5. Thanks for the great reply. I accept your logic and your argument.
    The 16 year old would not be on the street without the enterprise being illegal and sure the criminal element would be removed from the equation which will in turn remove massive problems.
    You are right the market will decide; The legalization of drugs will not make a difference to drugs and alcohol being in themselves dangerous and addictive…
    You say… The fantastic profits of drugs spur marketing, their illegal nature means there is no regulation.
    DO you imagine that once the drugs are legalized the addiction and danger will be removed and big business will run the enterprise without the criminal element that was driving the marketing ? I’m sure that they will try to broaden and deepen the gap in the market the way that SAB Millar and Anheuser-Busch Inbev have done. Alcoholism didn’t disappeared with prohibition and drug addiction will follow the trend that alcohol abuse has since prohibition.
    I fear that what you will have is a large domestic criminal enterprise running the show legally rather than a shadowy offshore cartel. The 1% will win again and the recreational drugs problem will grow in size and diversity.
    One good thing will be that the IRS will score to give to the wasters in Washington.
    You win !

    1. 7zander,

      “Alcoholism didn’t disappeared with prohibition and drug addiction will follow”

      That framing is the single most common cognitive error I see in comments. Human affairs are seldom binary. Problems are managed, ills reduced in magnitude and frequency — not elimated.

      You can go to a world without alcoholism. It’s called Heaven. You die to get there.

      As for the rest — to consider the activities of our heavily regulated alcohol industry as similar to the drug cartels seems a bit out there. Who can sell booze to people, where it can be sold, to whom it can be sold, how it can be advertised, its cost — are all tightly regulated.

      The far lower profit margins of alcohol vs (for example) heroin put a ceiling on the intensity of the marketing consistent with profits.

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