Pubdate: Tue, 11 Jul 2000 Source: Commercial Appeal (TN) Copyright: 2000 The Commercial Appeal Contact: Address: Box 334, Memphis, TN 38101 Fax: (901)529-6445 Website: Author: Lance Gay


WASHINGTON - White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey said Tuesday he wants to turn his office's Internet "cookie" machine back on to find out what turns on kids about drugs.

But lawmakers warned McCaffrey that continuing controversies over White House drug office snooping on Internet users, and paying Hollywood scriptwriters to put anti-drug messages in TV sitcoms, are undermining public confidence in the government's $1 billion, five-year anti-drug campaign.

"We can't afford to have kids thinking that every anti-drug message portrayed on TV was planted by the government. Likewise, we cannot afford to have their parents fearing that they are being spied upon every time they visit a government Web site for information or help," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Reform criminal justice subcommittee.

McCaffrey insisted that payments to Hollywood scriptwriters, and tracking of Internet use of drug sites, are key parts of his advertising campaign to persuade youth about the dangers of drugs, and to reduce drug use in the United States. The retired Army general pleaded with Congress to give him two years more to show his anti-drug efforts can curb youthful drug use.

Mica questioned the effectiveness of the program. He noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's annual drug survey shows teenage drug use increased over the last decade, with 26.7 percent of students reporting they had used marijuana in the previous year in a 1999 survey, almost double the 14.7 percent in 1991. Cocaine also increased over the same period.

McCaffrey told reporters after the session he's planning to expand the use of financial incentives for TV networks and scriptwriters who broadcast anti-drug themes in sitcoms and dramas to include Hollywood's movies.

Over the last two years, the drug office has paid scriptwriters and networks about $22 million for "programming content" - placing anti-drug messages in TV shows. Networks also received credits for airing anti-drug messages in their shows, allowing them to run commercial advertisements in place of government-sponsored anti-drug ads.

McCaffrey said the program has been altered this year, and he will no longer review scripts in advance, or give payments for writers to insert anti-drug themes in scripts. Instead, payments will reward writers and producers who send the anti-drug message only after the movies or TV shows are released.

McCaffrey said up-front payments might interfere in the "creative process" of making a film, but post-release rewards would not.

"I'm not going to inject a message in a film,'' he insisted.

McCaffrey also said he wants to overturn a directive issued by White House chief of staff John Podesta last month, ordering the drug czar to turn off computer-tracking cookies that White House computers were dropping in the personal computers of visitors to anti-drug Internet sites operated by McCaffrey's office.

Cookies are software programs used primarily by advertising firms to track users as they visit Internet sites. Scripps Howard News Service last month reported that cookies used by the White House drug office were connected to the New York advertising firm Doubleclick, which admits it is compiling databases on the Internet surfing habits of some 40 million Americans. When used with other database programs, cookies can be used to identify people by name.

McCaffrey said the monitoring project has been "temporarily put on hold" and the sites have stopped using cookies. "This is a real concern," McCaffrey said, explaining he wants to turn them back on so he can monitor what kids are doing on the anti-drug sites.

"No personal information at all is collected," he said.

While applauding McCaffrey for his zeal over reducing youthful drug abuse, lawmakers questioned his methods. "I'm always concerned about Big Brother looking over your shoulder," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said entertainment producers should be voluntarily putting anti-drug messages in scripts, without government payments. "We are all uncomfortable that this is tied to money,'' he said. "This is something they ought to be doing on their own."

(Lance Gay is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service.)