Out in the Cold
The Stacks: A DEA Agent at War with the War on Drugs
For most of the ’80s Michael Levine was a high-voltage player in America’s drug wars, until he became convinced that the government’s efforts were misguided and useless.
Mark Kram wrote with style, intelligence, and substance about a good many things, though he is best remembered for his boxing coverage at Sports Illustrated during Muhammad Ali’s heyday in the ’60s and ’70s (nevermind his complicated take on Ali that runs counter to the prevailing sentiment). Kram’s account of the third Ali-Joe Frazier fight, The Thrilla in Manilla, is one of the finest deadline pieces of magazine writing ever, and not just in the world of sports.
But as is demonstrated by the writing in Great Men Die Twice, the new anthology of Kram’s work, he was equally skillful when delving into subjects beyond the sweet science. His portrait of Marlon Brando is fascinating, as is the following profile of former DEA agent Michael Levine, which was originally published in the March 1991 issue of Esquire and is reprinted here with permission. Please sink your teeth into “The Betrayal of Michael Levine” for a glimpse of Kram’s talents as a storyteller. Then cop Great Men Die Twice. It’s a keeper.
With eyes closed, no chop, and plenty of silk, Michael Levine plays late at night on his tenor sax, the counterpoint of distant car horns and sudden voices trading muffugs while passing beneath the open window. Curious, how the sound of a sax so easily fastens to a mood. In certain clubs, the sound sweats raw, drifting sex and imminent possibility. At a union-hall wedding there is a rough, hell-raising smirk to it. Here, the used-up quality of the notes, acoustically jailed, seems to isolate the mythology of the private dick: transient and alone in the wild urban ocean, a man with too much past freed only by dreamy, hour-of-the-wolf trips through “Stardust.”
The film-noir cutout fits to a point, right down to the shabby one-roomer up here on Manhattan’s West Side. Even without the plaintive horn, you can see a lot of boot marks on this man; the face has been somewhere. But very far from the celluloid rag shop of crime—commendations line his walls. For up to a year ago, when he retired, at age 50, he was a high-voltage player in the preeminent social rot of our times—drugs. As an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, he had an international reputation for deceit. Now, free from bureaucratic irons, he is the chronicler of the tale—with a costly license. His marriage is gone. His close friends are dead. To sleep at night, he listens to tapes of falling rain.
* * * * *
Levine ran his fingers over the high-tech surface of a nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson. The feel reassured but made no promises. Problems at home had forced him to transfer to New York as a DEA group supervisor in October 1983, a post without the creative thrill of snaking manipulation, or the creeping menace of exposure. It was simply three or four raids a week by about ten men, their guns drawn in tight, dim hallways, all of them heaving breath, frozen before The Door. Here their impeccable design and technique always seemed a fool’s conceit, reduced to a click of darkest chance.
Direct assault on crack houses was a mad, rote exercise for most agents. A spread of gloomy percentages awaited: doors booby-trapped with shotguns; all kinds of cutting-edge ordnance; African tree vipers (called three-steppers, meaning three steps and you’re dead) loosed on the floor; designer attack dogs, kept hungry and mean, their vocal cords severed to ensure maximum startle. Dobermans would rip and tear, go up and down the body like a typewriter. A pit bull loosed among charging agents in a semidark room would fragment ingot nerves into leaping popcorn; shots were fired from every angle.
Levine flipped open a second gun, a .38, loaded it, then slipped it into his ankle holster. He leaned back and closed his eyes, filled his mind with an old talismanic image, that of a seven-foot, black warrior-god named Pedro Rocamora, assigned to him by a macumbera back in Argentina. He had gone to her to placate a friend after he found a part of his jeans nailed to a wall at home, slashed at the knees and surrounded by black symbols. The old lady told him he would soon be shot in the head by strangers. She would give him Pedro. “Got one with a better name?” cracked Levine. “Pedro doesn’t sound up to it.”
But part of him had stopped laughing long ago. Several weeks after the macumbera, DEA cables reported learning of a $200,000 contract package for the head of un judio trigueño of Argentina. Not much was left of “the Dark Jew” now. All that cunning, point-blank energy, and success drifted like specks in the DEA computer universe. Gone, too, was a clear and perfect belief, as well as the need for super-reality and the angry hunt. From Buenos Aires to Panama to the roulette of the street raids, Pedro had gotten him out of some tight fits.
Soon, Levine and his men were moving toward their target. A few weeks before, they had performed a raid with movie director William Friedkin (The French Connection) on board for close-up research. Up against some Rastafarians, Levine and his partner watched shotgun pellets pass between them. Mike went to check on Friedkin and found him understandably bellied to the hall floor. “I love it!” said the director, looking up. “Yeah,” said Mike, “why else would anybody do this shit?” Levine berated himself later for behaving like a danger junkie, a burlesque figure. Those guys quickly vanish from the shelf.
In some neighborhoods of upper Manhattan, you can almost hear the cracking of marrow bones, as crowds of dealers fling themselves at cars of buyers. Inside the buildings, too many lost, young girls lie on beds, strung out from heroin, their pale beauty trickling red down their necks; dazed, stranded wives huddle with children fed and cleaned less than a crate of fighting cocks. Up here, agents like Levine dwelled on an old Yiddish proverb: “If God lived here, they’d break his windows.”
When he jumped out of the car at his end of a pincer movement on West 144th Street, Levine had staying alive on his mind more than ever; there were scores to be settled after all he’d seen. The air was filled with shouts of “Go! Go! Go!” He knifed into a prewar building, saw a door slam at the end of a shadowed hallway. A battering ram dropped the door, and Levine headed for a loud noise in a bedroom. With a gun in his hand, a guy was going out a window. Levine raced forward, only to watch him bounce two stories below, then come up running. Mike jumped—no bounce, just splat. He lay there in pain, feeling his back locking and ankle ballooning.
A row of blackbirds looked silently down on him from the top of the fence. He shut his eyes hard, then opened them. His focus was coming back, and he used the fence to slide halfway up to one foot. Then, out of the corner of his eye he saw a black streak, a kind of preternatural, no-sound laser focus, loosed from the basement by a dealer. Legs folded for the ascent, the Doberman was now close enough for him to see threads of saliva on its teeth. Levine fired, stunning it with a shoulder hit. He fired again, but the nine-millimeter jammed. He got another round in the chamber just in time for a second charge. The shot blew the Doberman’s head off, and Levine’s one leg buckled as he melted down the side of the fence. “Gee, Mike,” shouted a rookie, looking down from the window. “Just like a jungle movie.”
* * * * *
Limping up Broadway at twilight, weaving through mousy psychopaths and encamped dealers, Levine winces as he thinks back to his narrative of that last Harlem run. Though his aim was to attach a face to agents (“they’re the lost legion”), to put some of their work in relief, he senses that he has come too close to the DEA’s menu depiction of the drug war. “The jungle, the street war,” he says, “plays well on TV. The DEA loves the jungle! But the war they don’t want you to know about is out of a John le Carré novel.” Levine’s career would fit with cryptic snugness into such a novel: the driven, tight-visioned operative abandoned by the political whims of theatrically self-conscious superiors; the classic equation of intense belief confronted by hierarchical cynicism. The result produces someone like Michael Levine, now viewed by the DEA as its version of Philip Agee.
Agee, according to the CIA, gave up names in the field and put them in jeopardy. A stone-cold law enforcement type, Levine would cut his throat before endangering colleagues. In some ways he’s a Gordon Liddy without the institutional amorality and obsessive warrior display. Service to a code for him is paramount—until what is asked of the code becomes crazed, sophistic, and produces actions counter to reason and the general good. “Levine’s no Agee,” says a fellow agent. “Mike was the best we’ve ever had. He speaks for a lot of agents. I can’t say any more, okay? You want me to get career cancer?”
Levine was and is a benchmark figure in DEA history. His successes were numerous, his style inescapable. Over a long career, he fired his gun maybe three times, and he had been in some tight spots. “Mike, you see,” says another agent, tapping his head, “was all up here. Up against it, he’d use muscle. To use a gun was failure to him.” He could speak peasant, street, or hidalgo Spanish without a stumble, could spin angel-hair castles of trickery. He’s been a special operations officer on the Southern Cone in Latin America; an undercover agent and a supervisor on then Vice President Bush’s South Florida Task Force; an inspector of worldwide operations; and an instructor in undercover tactics and informant handling. When Robert Stutman, head of the DEA in New York, began his 1987 celebrity raids into the heart of the war, Levine was chosen to lead various senators and the likes of Dan Rather on newsy expeditions.
With a semi-limp and three herniated disks, he ended his career after 25 years of service. At a ceremony, a DEA official said, “Of all people, Mike, who would’ve bet you’d make it this far.” Was it disbelief, he wondered, that he hadn’t ended up a red puddle somewhere, or a grudging tip of the hat to his agility and chancy style amid crushing orthodoxy, his proficiency in beating the tricks and traps meant to wreck his cases and career?
Looking back, Levine figures he should have had his ticket punched long before that day. Son of a minor-league loan shark who deserted early, he should have died in the South Bronx, where he ran with a ’50s gang, a “bad Jew kid” pretending to be a Puerto Rican in order to stay whole. After a couple of arrests before age 16, he joined the Air Force, thinking they’d let him be a fighter pilot. He should have died there, too, when a barracks argument evolved and in the scuffle the guy’s gun didn’t fire. The weapon was later tested repeatedly by his sergeant—no problem.
After the Air Force came marriage and the struggle toward an accounting degree at Hofstra, while he tended bar and played sax in a string of cheap-drink joints. The degree got him on as a U.S. Treasury agent, then he made a stop at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It was here that the road turned in a tragic way. His younger brother, David, had become a heroin junkie. Trying desperately to save him, Levine put him in rehab seven times and finally made him live with his wife and kids. He was soft with him, then dogged him to respond. Nothing worked, and as he watched what it was doing to his own family, he had to let him go. A few years later, David put a bullet through his own brain.
Levine switched to the narcotics wing of Customs, carrying a load of revenge and guilt made heavier each time he saw his mother’s face or recalled the squish of his brother’s brains under his shoes as he looked for the suicide note. No more tunneling into gun rings and holdup gangs at ATF; he had a widescreen enemy now—the drug dealer. Customs sent him to Thailand, where he made the first foreign penetration ever, a record heroin score back then, then stayed to work on the periphery of a case involving heroin shipments in the bodies of Vietnamese dead. The DEA was born in 1973. A friend and agent, Sante “Sandy” Bario, told him, “Mike, the future is drugs, and it’s going to be a horror.” He promptly joined the new agency. “Some agents in DEA,” says a colleague, “didn’t want to work with Levine. They liked slow motion. They thought he’d get them hurt. Mike went for the throat every time out.”
The DEA and other agencies are wary of undercover men. They’re too flamboyant, too far out in front of the machinery, so chameleon that the agency is never certain what it is seeing—a clever agent or someone just as corrupt as the dealer. “To agencies,” says Levine, “it’s often a given that you’re unclean, as if they say, ‘What kind of man could do this work?’ And it is scummy. You turn father against son, brother against brother, all of them trying to save their own skins. Ends justifying the means, you never get used to it.”
He recalls a time with the ATF when he infiltrated a neo-Nazi gang and was giving out pamphlets on 86th Street in Manhattan. A Jewish kid, a student, came along, took a pamphlet from him, and tore it up. All the Nazi eyes were on Levine, a new member. “I had to make my bones,” he says. “So I started shoving the kid. He ran, his books falling out of his hands. And I gave him a kick in the ass. The Nazis cheered. I was made. I’ve often thought about that poor kid. I felt like a creep.”
To Levine, undercover was personal expression, not an enforcement device. It demanded razor intellect, an intuitive command of psychology, and still-water calm, knowing that you are a potential victim locked in a zone with your murderer. “If you stumble,” he says, “they’ll recoil. If you’re afraid, they’ll smell it. Undercover is like living with a gun behind your ear. Death can come as slow as a 30-year sentence or as quick as a jailhouse suicide.”
* * * * *
“There is no drug war. It’s a fraud. No other nation in the world has a drug war. The rest have addiction problems. We have war. Why? Because it’s a toy, a grab bag with a lot of big hands in it.”
To Levine, the real news—not the fingertip kind the media like—resides in the actions and motivations of secrecy fetishists, backroom rulers who despise limits, government employees who have begun to control their employers.
“The DEA,” he says, “they want more power, more people, more funding, more headlines and glory. The politicians, they want a platform easily sold to voters, something that the public can identify and think something’s being done, an illusion that they can throw millions of dollars at and show that they’re challenging the drug barons; the war is great theater for politicians.” The Pentagon and CIA: with the fade of communism, they are building a pretext for maintaining their budgets. Everybody wants a toy. All held together by a phrase: war on drugs. The black humor, the madness, is heartbreaking.
“God knows how many secret elements,” he says, “are out there working under the guise of the drug war. Oliver North was the latest example. His operation was hip deep in contra drug smuggling. He was banned from Costa Rica for his involvement with drug runners. The DEA documented 50 tons of contra coke that was being routed into the U.S. by a Honduran connection. An agent bought two kilos in Lubbock, Texas, and made the arrest. The CIA comes quickly to the rescue. A closed hearing is held. Case dismissed. In the meantime, an agent like my friend Ev Hatcher is murdered in New York over a couple of ounces, and there is the DEA wail of dying for ‘a just cause.’ A ghastly value is at work here.”
Congressional hearings and the media skirted North’s drug involvement; they burrowed for linkage to Bush and constitutional violations. North and his CIA cover skated free. “It was unbelievable,” says Levine. “But if the conduct of the drug war is ever investigated, Watergate and Irangate will look like midgets. One day it’ll happen. Like Peter Kelly, a federal judge in Kansas, said, eventually, in the public good some high people in the administration should be indicted for conspiracy.”
These later revelations only underscore the truths that Levine recognized as far back as 1980. In the U.S., Bario’s warning of “horror” was taking shape rapidly. Despite a previous decade in which drugs had become a visible issue, the stateside atmosphere was still one of complacency, from the White House down to the population, which had begun to view cocaine as a trendy indicator of personal success. Like other agencies, the DEA was arrogant and smug on the exterior, but had little or no grasp of its adversaries, their organizational capability, or their aim to mobilize giant, tentacled structures.
Posted to the embassy in Buenos Aires, Levine worked the boulevard cafés with informers, drug syndicators, and rip-off artists. The Argentine secret police were among the latter. They were fond of drug-world jewelry—not the drugs. The secret police (elements of which worked closely with the CIA) killed and tortured with an almost dull promiscuity; the bones of young ideologues filled the soil. “One of the cops,” says Levine, “pulled me aside and showed me his new invention, a little electric box. Grinning from ear to ear, he said he’d throw a dealer in the car and hook his balls to it.”
Marcelo Ibañez was different. The ex–minister of agriculture in Bolivia, he dressed like a banker going out of business. In undercover, it helps if you can adhere to a target, genuinely like him. Ibañez was a man of intellect and manners. As chief aide to Roberto Suarez, the padrone of Bolivia, he did not relish drug activity, but embraced it as a necessary act of patriotism. Posing as a Mafia prince, Levine said he wanted to expand his U.S. operations. The crucial topic in a drug sting is not the money. It is logistics, delivery, when each side is vulnerable. Ibañez said Suarez could guarantee a thousand kilos a month. Levine negotiated an initial deal for five hundred kilos, to establish trust.
Levine was amazed at the size of Suarez’s operation. What was going on here? He called the DEA and reported the prospect of a thousand kilos. “Come on, Levine,” an official said. “What kind of scam are you trying to run?” Mike says now, “The largest bust by the DEA had been two hundred kilos. And get this, the name of Roberto Suarez wasn’t even in the computer, despite our having five agents in Bolivia. “You don’t understand,” said Ibañez. “Don Roberto is a god there. He feeds our people. Politicians don’t. He does what he wants in my country.” Levine sighed. “That is precisely why I cannot go. I won’t be safe.” Ibañez smiled. “You are a smart man, my friend.”
A dramatically expanded American market tantalized, and Ibañez agreed to see Levine in Miami to explore further options. Levine was ready to play out the hit of his career, and one that stands as the most crucial turn in drug war history. He figured on having a big Hollywood setup for Ibañez’s arrival. He would be looking to see criminal royalty. “What I got,” says Levine, “was a twenty-five-hundred-dollar budget, a tract home, not a villa, a pool that looked like a duck pond, a dented green Lincoln instead of a fleet of cars. No Spanish-speaking agent or pilots to collect testimony once our beat-up plane landed in the Bolivian jungle.” With 40 hours left before Ibañez’s arrival, Levine and his agents rushed around town buying linen and family goods and renting a new Cadillac. Ibañez was all business when he turned up; no booze, no women. He poked through the house, looking in cabinets and closets. “Miguel,” he finally said, “this house is not lived in.”
Levine and his men agreed they would make the case in spite of the DEA; it was as if the agency had a motive for it to fail. He convinced Ibañez this house was temporary. To show good faith, he would send his wife (agent Frances Johnson) on the plane. Ibañez was happy again. But that night the head of the DEA in Miami contacted Levine. “You can’t send Frances,” the voice said. “She’s a woman.” Levine shouted, “She’s not a woman, she’s an agent!” He was in retreat again. He had to tell Ibañez that his wife had to stay, only she had the signature to get the money from the vault.
Ibañez was crushed, and Levine still doesn’t know what made him continue. Did he feel excessive pressure to please Suarez? “Suddenly,” says Levine, “he looked over to our agent Richie Fiano. He liked Richie. And he said, ‘I’ll take Richie. I will tell Roberto that he is your brother.’” Going to bed that night, Levine was wary. He looked at Johnson and said, “We’re husband and wife, you have to sleep with me.” Frances bundled up in pajamas, and sure enough, at 2 a.m., Ibañez burst through the door and switched on the lights. “Oh, please forgive! But I want to make sure we start early in the morning.”
Once the Bolivian pickup was made, two Suarez emissaries—Jose Roberto Gasser and Alfredo Gutierrez—met Levine at a Miami bank to collect their $9 million. They were arrested leaving the bank. Levine was astonished at the progress of events in the next few months. Gasser was released by the U.S. attorney. Gutierrez’s bail was lowered, and he jumped back to Bolivia. Angry, Levine kept asking himself, Why did the judge not only lower the bail but refuse to grant a hearing as to the source of the bail money? Why was Gutierrez not tailed while on bail? Why didn’t Gasser even reach the grand jury, a standard procedure? The execution of the case, once suspects were in custody, made a mockery of his operation.
Back in Argentina, he pieced together the why. With the expertise of Argentine factions, the CIA was whipping up a Suarez-backed revolution in Bolivia to deter what they perceived as encroaching communism; that was the priority. Suarez won, and the first thing he and his people did was destroy Bolivian drug-trafficking records. “It’s embarrassing,” an Argentine secret agent told Levine; even to these anti-drug fanatics, communism was more evil. Levine says now, “From that point, our drug war became a South American joke. The moment we turned Bolivia over to drug interests, it was the surrender of our drug effort. The mechanism for mass cocaine production was being protected by our own government. It was a ridiculous, self-inflicted wound. After 1980, drugs soared to a hundred-billion-dollar business. We could have dealt a hard blow to the future of drugs with our Suarez operation. But powerful alliances were born with the CIA and DEA help. They turned Suarez into the head of the drug world’s General Motors and the major supplier of coca base to the Medellín Cartel.”
While simmering in Argentina, Levine thought back to the death of his friend Sandy Bario. In 1978 Bario was arrested by DEA internal security in Texas and accused of dealing drugs. He was soon dead. He took a bite out of a peanut butter sandwich and keeled into convulsions. Early tests showed he’d been poisoned. Later tests revealed no trace of strychnine. And a final autopsy concluded he had “choked to death” on the sandwich. “That didn’t wash among agents,” says Levine. “Many believed he was killed by internal security or the CIA because he knew too much about the U.S. government’s involvement in drug trafficking. Sandy was on my mind when I wrote to a pair of Newsweek reporters, outlining what took place in the Suarez gambit. They either leaked my name to the DEA to curry favor or did it by accident. Afterward, my life was hell. A year and a half of investigations into the tiniest corners. They found only that I kept incomplete records and played my radio too loud in the embassy.” Settle down, a high official advised, ride it out. “The guy paused,” Levine recalls, “and then said, ‘Remember the peanut butter sandwich.’ ”
* * * * *
Working out in the DEA gym, Levine watches another agent violently curling barbells over his chest. Between gasps of air, the agent assails the DEA: “It’s like they want us to go bad. The FBI gets an extra twenty-five grand working this jungle [New York]. They come to work in car pools, and we get nothing.” Another agent, skipping rope, adds his opinion of DEA management: “Christ, they’re all whores.” The talk continues about “suits” and how they cleverly composed their big names and cashed them in: John Lawn, chief of the DEA, went to the Yankees; Robert Stutman became a drug consultant to CBS News. “Hell,” says the rope skipper, “a fucking saint would go bad in this business looking at all this shit.” Levine reflects later, “I won’t go to the gym anymore. It’s a sad situation. The DEA is an unhealthy agency.”
Levine himself had been through five DEA administrators, even saw the rise of William Bennett, with his marquee title of drug czar. “None of them knew a thing about drugs,” he says. “And Bennett was merely a bigmouth who was looking for a statistic. Drugs are like the stock market. They rise some points, drop some points. Bennett waited for the curve to come his way, then resigned, claiming the drug corner was turned. Big résumé success. How many corners have we turned since Nixon? Why do the people eat it up while the body count goes up in the cities, families and careers are ruined, and crack babies fill hospital wards? In New York alone, there are seven born per hour. Project that number, and you’re looking at a nation down the road full with psychotics, sociopaths, and lost people. It is truly an American tragedy. How we fought drugs is criminal.”
The danse macabre brushed Levine again toward the end of his career. His family was in ruins as his daughter began to disappear into the drug underscape. The guilt still ached from his brother’s death, and now this. She didn’t have money for drugs; suppliers were turning her on for the fun of it. His mind flashed back to when he was undercover with a biker gang in Buffalo, how he had to watch what they did to 15-year-old druggies—and he could do nothing. “I gave her and her suppliers no peace,” he reflects. “I was a homicidal father who was a drug agent. I wanted them to know that.” He once broke into a party and announced that everyone was under arrest. His daughter ran out the back door. He raced toward this guy squinting drunkenly at a stub of marijuana. Ready to put the cuffs on him, he realized that it was a crushed moth.
Only a court petition absolving the parents from responsibility and forbidding the daughter to associate with the family saved the day. “It was a hard line to take,” he says. “Hard hadn’t worked with David. But after wrenching wars, she chose us.” He heaves a sigh, accenting an already engraved bleakness in his face. “Being a DEA agent takes its toll,” he says. “They have an outside study going now. Misconduct for bribery and other things is up 176 percent in the last several years. Then, there are the suicides. I knew an agent, came in all smiles, went to his office, and blew his brains out. Why? These are some of the best men out there. I’m told the life expectancy of an agent is only five years after hanging it up. But somebody should also study the torture and murder of our brother Kiki Camarena in Mexico. He wrote letter after letter. ‘Does someone have to die?’ he concluded. He did—for Mexican loan debt, oil and trade agreements, and the secret Mexican support for the contras and other CIA programs.”
The Andean Offensive, a growing Pentagon-CIA-DEA presence in Peru and Bolivia, is the most recent tactic in the war and the most dangerous turn in Levine’s view. The objective is to attack coca-base exports and production at its source, with military equipment, even U.S. troops.
This tactic, says Levine, won’t work. “American bankers don’t want it. Their huge loans are being serviced by the crop. Peru and Bolivia don’t want the military because their economies would be in dust. The State Department isn’t too happy, either. They know these people will starve, and hungry people rush toward guerrilla movements, and then you got your kids fighting others named Juan and Carlos who don’t think it’s a good idea to starve because the US.. can’t handle its own hunger for cocaine. The Andean front is just another example of the Pentagon and CIA being lost without the Russians and KGB. We learned nothing from the Panama invasion, with 23 Americans and perhaps thousands of their people dead. For what? Noriega? He picked our pockets for 20 years, and we knew it. He was at best a mid-level drug facilitator, not even a dealer. All that show of force, and Panama still hasn’t altered its banking laws to combat money laundering.”
In becoming an antihero, Levine knows he has violated what he used to preach at DEA undercover classes all over the world: “Don’t get involved any more than you have to. What happens after you’ve done your job is none of your business. Fuck what happens in the courts. The plea bargains. Ambitious prosecutors. Political judges. Bad verdicts. Wrong sentences. Fuck it all. Just learn to survive.” Levine thinks, then says, “Still true. You’ll get offed with all that crap on your mind. But I’ve done my time, and I’ve watched. I’ve earned the right to say no. All through the ’80s, from the media to the people, there’s been an Orwellian yes—yes to government, politicians, and agencies. And there’s an awful game being played out there with drugs.”
But when he speaks to groups or goes on TV or radio, he is the bearer of an unpopular message: Americans are believers. Perpetually amazed Phil Donahue smothers the message in irrelevancies. On PBS, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, bewildered for 12 minutes, finally asks, “You mean we’re being outgunned?” His whole point misses her bat. “The DEA,” he says, “is proud of the job they’ve done with the media.” The PBS anchor Robert MacNeil slides back to a top DEA official named Terry Burke (Levine can’t confront him). “What about it, Mr. Burke?” says MacNeil. “By the DEA’s own admission, he was your top agent. Why shouldn’t we listen to him?” Burke mutters something about “commercial enterprise,” a reference to Levine’s book, Deep Cover, an exhaustive, surgical dissection of a mid-’80s operation called Trifecta, which, “had it not been sabotaged by the DEA,” would have led to the inner chambers of three nations: Mexico, Bolivia, and Panama. “They even tried to send me to Bolivia,” says Levine. “Even though they knew a contract was out on me. I said, ‘Sure, just put it on paper.’ They don’t like that stuff on paper.”
Levine shakes his head at the commercial implications. “If I wanted to make money,” he says, “I’d hire out to defense attorneys.” The day before, the lawyer for Luis Arce-Gómez (an archenemy Levine chased for years and who was finally nailed) solicited his help in preparing a trial defense. Levine also turned down a consultancy to Pan Am, which wanted to prove the DEA was linked to the Lockerbie crash, that the bomb had been planted on a DEA operative. What bothers him most on his rounds are the closed minds. In Pittsburgh, a disc jockey says after Levine—an agent noted for his meticulous care with court evidence—leaves the studio, “Not a thing this guy said would stand up in court.”
His most troubling media affair has been a scheduled segment on 60 Minutes. It was a major piece on their storyboard. “I was told it was a crash program for Don Hewitt,” says Levine. All the pre-production was done, and then suddenly it was canceled. “I always thought,” he says, “that it was because of Robert Stutman, my ex-boss and CBS drug consultant. The last person he would want was me. So I let it pass. The producer said to me, ‘This has never happened before.’ Later, two different sources from CBS revealed much more. Stutman did figure in it, but not out of his dislike for me. Hewitt didn’t want to upset Stutman with a segment on me. He was counting on Stutman for something far bigger.” Stutman supposedly had the goods on the long-rumored marijuana use of a youthful Dan Quayle. Hewitt never got his story. “Why knows?” Levine chuckles.
With colleagues, Levine usually gets a better hearing. They like his rap about “suits” who are masters of phony outrage, “functionaries sexually fascinated by manuals.” Young people support any adult glimpse of authoritarian malpractice. At a small place in Mississippi, a student asks, “Are you telling us not to be DEA agents?” Levine replies, “Certainly not, if you want adventure and action. If you think you’ll make a difference, forget it.” But at CCNY in New York, he has his hecklers. A kid shouts, “You’re a CIA agent of misinformation!” And then a Hispanic hits him with some cool: “Yeah, well, man, you look like you ain’t doin’ too bad yourself.” Levine says, “You wanna see where I live?”
Back at his tomb of an apartment, Levine says, “Nobody, you see, really wants to know, it’s too confusing, the lie is nice and simple.” He runs the scale on his sax, then drifts into “Stardust.” The next morning he will leave for the airport for another trip to a tiny, backland college, where he will try to give a face to men like Ev Hatcher, Sandy Bario, and Kiki Camarena, where he will let his hurt and truth out in therapeutic dribbles, knowing fully that he surely must appear like the dead, armored body of El Cid strapped to a horse riding nowhere.