03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

War On Drugs Doesn't Go Well, CIA Bugs DEA Agent's Coffee Table

The settlement of a 15-year-old lawsuit has resulted in the U.S. agreeing to pay $3 million to a former government worker who accused officials with the CIA and State Department of spying on him with a "bugged coffee table."

Richard Horn, a former special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, alleged that Franklin Huddle, Jr, the former State Department's mission chief at the U.S. embassy in Burma, and Arthur Brown, who worked for the CIA at the time in Burma, planted listening devices in his home while he was stationed in Burma (now known as Myanmar).

Threat Level reporter, Kim Zetter, observes that a close reading of the case suggests that the Justice Department may have decided to pay off the plaintiff in order to "quash the series of damaging legal rulings issued by the influential judge, [U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth], overseeing the case that would have forced them to disclose the classified information."

Horn had been stationed in Burma in the early 1990s as the DEA country attaché to Burma, which ranks as one of the top opium poppy producing countries in the world. He was charged with overseeing the agency's mission in that country of eradicating the opium poppy, which is used to produce heroin.

Horn became the target of the CIA, his attorney alleges, when he refused to portray the oppressive military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC,) ruling Burma in the "worst possible light."

...Horn, according to the letter to [U.S. Sen. Richard] Shelby, had made inroads in gaining the assistance of the SLORC in working toward opium poppy eradication in Burma. Horn's success set in motion a series of overt and clandestine efforts on the part of Huddle and Brown to undermine DEA efforts in the region, Leighton alleges.

The reason, Leighton claimed in a recent phone interview, was that if Horn's strategy proved successful, it would have undercut the State Department's goal of vilifying the SLORC in the eyes of Congress and the public at large.

Around that time, Horn noticed his old coffee table disappeared from his home, and a new, mysterious "oval table" appeared. Quite understandably, he was suspicious.

He later came to believe that the oval table was a listening device...He'd also learned from a former NSA official that similar oval tables were placed in the homes of all U.S. diplomats and officials assigned to the U.S. embassy in Burma.

Some in the agency, of course, claim the CIA's motives are less sinister and more bureaucratic, though DEA sources insist Horn's claims are all true. This might have been a stalemate had it not been for the bugged coffee table and sudden settlement now that an influence judge has come down on the side of Horn. Why bug a DEA agent, and why run from a 15-year-old case the moment a well-known judge rules on it?

This pattern of suppressing facts in the name of The Quest To Eradicate All Drugs is quite familiar. Most recently, Professor David Nutt, the British government's chief drug adviser, was fired after claiming that ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol. Of course, Nutt supported this claim with empirical data. However, facts don't play a role in the War on Drugs, and so he was terminated for daring to point out the truth.

The fact that Horn was making progress with the SLORC didn't matter. What mattered was fitting the Burma piece in the War on Drugs jigsaw puzzle. The "bad heroin guys" had to fit in their "bad heroin guys spot," and any alteration of that story had to immediately be squelched by the CIA. It was unacceptable to imagine a world in which indigenous people could control their own opium production or a viable heroin market existed.

Without question, the SLORC engaged in human rights violations, including murder, the recruitment of child soldiers, forced labor, and political imprisonments. However, the Burmese level their own charges at the CIA, including accusations of an assassination.

Drug markets are always present, but they become especially dominant when the social fabric breaks down. We saw that in Burma, and we see it now in Afghanistan. Drug violence is a byproduct of deeper social unrest, and fighting violence with violence by assassinating dissidents and suppressing uprisings may temporarily silence the outcries and drive drugs underground, but such strategies are like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.

You're only buying a tiny fraction of time. Like prostitution and fighting, drugs will always be with us. And that actually may be okay. The only time drugs seems to take on a negative connotation is when drugs are tied to violence, and that only tends to happen in poor neighborhoods or tumultous countries that experience vast poverty or warfare.

So perhaps it's time to start focusing on preventing poverty and war instead of spending resources on stopping drugs themselves. Imagine a War on War (since "Peace" is a word only used by dirty hippies,) or a War on Poverty. I'd gladly throw my tax dollars at those programs.

The drug market is everywhere. It's in Afghanistan right now, except it's all underground, and no one is saying out loud that the U.S. government is paying off Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president, and a suspected player in the country's booming illegal opium trade.

Accepting the fact that there is a thriving drug market, and there always will be -- and maybe it's time to legalize it in order to regulate and manage it domestically, and accept that autonomous countries have the right to manage their drug markets as they see fit-- just doesn't fit into the CIA's world paradigm, and so they bug coffee tables.

Makes sense, right?

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.

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