Pubdate: Tue, 1 May 2001 Source: National Defense Magazine (US) Copyright: 2001, National Defense Industrial Association Contact: Website: Author: John Stanton


Experts Caution That Today's Policies Will Undermine Military Readiness

Soon after being sworn in as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld made headlines by delicately questioning current national drug policies. Much to the delight of drug-war critics both in and out of government, Rumsfeld told Congress that "the drug problem in the United States is overwhelmingly a demand problem, and to the extent that demand is there and it's powerful, it is going to find ways to get drugs in this country, to our detriment." He also indicated he would be examining the U.S. role in Colombia, where a shooting war is taking place between drug cartels and the Colombian government.

Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, and a military historian, cautions that it's too soon to predict whether the Bush administration will make any significant changes in national drug policy. "Rumsfeld's statement was one of the most enlightened views to come out of the federal government in years. ... I've talked to many active-duty military personnel in private, and they are the ones who are most passionate against this 'war,' believing that it is a policy action that will lose in the end. They don't want their beloved institutions tarnished in this disastrous effort."

Defense Department officials, policy experts and military analysts interviewed for this article agreed that, despite some recent successes by the U.S. government in seizing large shipments of drugs and capturing smugglers, there is an uneasiness associated with military and defense industry involvement in a war whose cause is decidedly domestic in nature.

In 2001, the White House office of national drug control policy will spend roughly $18 billion, of which approximately $2 billion to $3 billion will be for the Pentagon's activities in the conflict. Another $20 billion will be spent by U.S. states and localities.

"There is a definite food chain in all of this", said a defense industry official. "If you could somehow track one single dollar through this whole process, you'd probably find it travels through the military, defense industry, law enforcement, public health and commercial banks, all of which have a mission or money interest in all this. Everyone is involved in some way."

There are constitutional and organizational reasons why the war on drugs has been "detrimental to military readiness and an inappropriate use of the democratic system," said former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in a recent interview. In 1988, Weinberger became one of the first high-ranking government officials to publicly warn the nation about the problems of involving the military in what he viewed as a domestic law-enforcement problem.

In an editorial published in the Washington Post, he warned that cries for the use of the military made for "hot and exciting rhetoric, but would make for terrible national security policy, poor politics and guaranteed failure in the campaign against drugs."

Nonetheless, Weinberger said, "Something has to be done, and we can't give up because it's a difficult task. Just because you can't stop bank robbers doesn't mean you legalize them, but I would not expand the military's role any further than it is in civilian law enforcement.

"My preference would be for the Coast Guard to have primary responsibility for drug interdiction and, where appropriate, cooperate with military elements. But I do think one-half of our funds should go to supply reduction and one-half to demand reduction."

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Tom Conroy described the drug war as a "steady-state war in which the U.S. is buying time until demand reduces. We have to do something. We can't do nothing."

That viewpoint infuriates Timothy Lynch, a drug policy expert at the Cato Institute, and editor of "After Prohibition," a publication focusing on national drug policy. According to Lynch, the political and military leadership should have heeded Weinberger's advice 14 years ago. "The military needs to be 'detoxed' from its current role, which is entirely inappropriate. One of the most dangerous things is that there are now so many loopholes in Posse Comitatus that it is little more than an assemblage of words."

The drug policies and programs now in place, said Lynch, "have a life of their own. ... I get so tired of hearing that 'something must be done,' or 'we are doing the best we can.' You should never underestimate the power of inertia here in Washington."

"Who in government is going to stand up and say, 'We need to change direction,' or what agency is going to turn down funding for this? This should have been a public health issue, not a military issue."

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel and a military analyst for NBC News, told National Defense that the current national drug policy seems destined to get the nation mired in a Vietnam-like conflict, only this time closer to home, in Colombia. He sees parallels between the political-military thought process that got the United States into Vietnam and the thinking that drives U.S. policy on Colombia. In both instances, contractors, advisors and special forces were dispatched. "It's formulaic," he said.

"We can't wait to do something stupid," said Allard. "Before we deploy, let's ask some intelligent questions," he said. "Our [special operations] soldiers are extremely capable, but the other guys -- the guerillas and drug producers -- have an exit strategy, and we don't."

Special operations forces, he added, are "too easy to commit. Drugs are not [their] primary mission." In terms of civilian involvement, he noted, "I believe that drugs both corrupt the political process and the criminal justice process. That has to be taken into account."

A senior government official with the White House drug policy office agreed with Allard that there are problems inherent with military involvement in the drug war, particularly the public perception that it's a military driven project. "It is a mistake to view this as solely a military problem. ... Our policy is more akin to treating a cancer than fighting a war. Our number-one goal is to prevent abuse, and our goal is a mix of attacking both supply and demand."

The uniformed services are involved in air, land and sea anti-drug support operations. The Navy and the Coast Guard work the waterways, and Air Force pilots in F-16s fly in hot pursuit of drug-smuggling pilots in their Cessnas. Special operations forces are on the ground in Central and South America, advising host government forces on counterinsurgency techniques. They also are active within U.S. borders. According to Brian Sheridan, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, they play a support role in making "America's citizens safe by substantially reducing drug-related crime and violence."

In a statement to Congress, Sheridan indicated that $95 million was spent in 1999 supporting domestic law enforcement with excess military equipment and foreign-language translators. The Defense Department funded schoolhouse-training programs provided to domestic law enforcement personnel.

The U.S. National Guard has 126 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft dedicated to fighting in the drug war. A National Guard official who requested anonymity indicated that, "We have 116 OH-58 helicopters and 10 C-26 fixed-wing aircraft, which are the Guard's counter-drug assets." They are deployed in 32 states across the United States for counter-drug operations. The Guard also is looking at new technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles to use in domestic drug operations.

Dyncorp, a government contractor, in Reston, Va., provides the State and Justice Departments with a one-stop-shop, counter-drug support expertise. The company supports drug-war operations at both the front and back ends -- from airborne crop-dusting in Colombia, to asset forfeiture experts who work at 385 Justice Department sites in the United States.

Dyncorp operates in obscure places such as the Peruvian naval base in Pucalpa and the jungles of Colombia -- where the drugs are produced and shipped. The company is working currently under a $316 million contract for assistance and management of the Justice Department's "asset forfeiture program." According to a Dyncorp spokesman, most of the 1,000 staff members in the program hold "secret" clearances and have been involved in more than 60,000 asset seizures in the United States. Among other things, they provide "criminal-intelligence collection and analysis, forensic support and asset identification and tracking."

Contractors such as Dyncorp and MPRI ( based in Alexandria, Va. ) frequently are caricatured by the news media as "mercenaries" run amok in the war on drugs. In a recent interview, a senior U.S. State Department official bemoaned the fact that, "Dyncorp and the State Department have unfairly become a stalking horse for criticism of Plan Colombia. ... All I can say is that most of the Dyncorp employees down there in Colombia are from Colombia and very few are American. For their security, [all I can say is that] this is a nuts-and-bolts support contract, nothing more."

"Everyone calls us mercenaries, but not one person at MPRI carries a gun, " said Ed Soyster, a retired Army general and MPRI spokesman. "The lieutenant general with a mission has a hell of a lot more latitude than we do. We are held to the letter of the law and, besides, we want to get paid. If we don't meet contract terms, we don't get paid. The contract is the failsafe for abuses. In addition, we are able to do many things that free up the guys in uniform." For example, MPRI manages the Army's ROTC program at 217 universities in the United States.

MPRI is seeking new business opportunities from domestic law enforcement agencies, said Soyster. "Law enforcement guys like to talk to 'cops', not generals." The company is assembling retired and second-career law enforcement officials, such as police chiefs and ex-drug enforcement agents, to develop "change strategies" for the drug war.

For every step forward in the drug war, there seems to be an equivalent step backward, officials said. The total tonnage of illicit drugs interdicted must be measured against gross amounts that make it into the country. According to Coast Guard Adm. Terry Cross, the intelligence community provides classified estimates of total drug flow into the United States. "We interdicted 11 percent of the total amount of cocaine in 2000, which was about 60 metric tons," he said. "It doesn't sound like a lot in terms of percentage of the total, but measured in street value, it's a lot of money."

Drug seizure statistics provided by the U.S. government should be viewed carefully, said Tree, the military historian. "They capture those who are dumb enough to get caught. After three decades of this, we are worse off according to all public health indicators and statistics than we've ever been. If you argue with their numbers or want to change the paradigm from law enforcement to public health, they label you as a 'legalizer.'"

One questionable U.S. policy, according to Lynch, is the practice that encourages a U.S. Navy warship to hoist the Coast Guard flag before firing on a craft suspected of carrying drugs -- with the rationale that a Navy ship flying the Coast Guard flag has transformed into a Coast Guard vessel for purposes of meeting the limitations of Posse Comitatus. It comes perilously close to the military making arrests," said Lynch. "These drug policies have generated so many obscure rules on the books that dangerous games like this can be played." He also questioned why the Coast Guard is operating in waters that are far away from U.S. borders.

Coast Guard cutters operate off the coast of South America, said Cross. Two-thirds of the cocaine is transported through Mexico, and "our very best chance is to get it before it makes its way into Mexico. That dictates that you make that effort a long way from your border. No matter what we do, some drugs will get through, but you have to send a signal that there will be a price to pay for producing and transporting drugs and using them."

About one-half of all cocaine seizures in 2000 were made with the help of Navy warships, along with Dutch and British vessels. If Defense Department assets and the military services were not committed to this mission, said Cross, "we would not be successful by any measure."

Meanwhile, the White House drug policy office recently announced that roughly 26,000 hectares of illicit drug crops were successfully sprayed and destroyed in Colombia. Allard's reaction is "What does that mean?" The side effects of that operation are refugees spilling over into bordering countries, and new coca plantations are moving from Colombia and appearing in the northwest corner of Brazil.

According to eyewitness accounts and the United Nations Global Internally Displaced People Project, Colombia ranks second behind Sudan, with 2 to 3 million refugees crossing over into neighboring countries as the direct result of both the long standing Colombia civil war and the U.S. drug war.

"I just returned from a trip to Colombia," said Tree. "Our policies are causing huge displacements of people. These people are incredibly impoverished. If their crops are ruined, they have few options. The soil is too acidic for the types of crops we are forcing them to grow. They either go to the city for handouts, move into Brazil and chop down a few acres of rain forest to grow new crops, or they turn to the number one and two employers around: the guerillas and the paramilitaries. Our policy is incredibly flawed."

He traveled to a remote area, about 10 kilometers from the border with Ecuador. It is a bleak picture, said Tree. "There's no sign of the state or any organized economy. There's no infrastructure, no newspapers, no radio. ... The first contact that these people -- who have been chewing coca leaves as part of their culture for hundreds of years -- have with the state is with fumigation planes, helicopters, contractors and advisors telling them to destroy their crops. They don't understand why we are attacking them."


Agency Coordinates Counter-Drug Support

Since its inception in 1989, a Defense Department agency in Fort Bliss, Texas, has completed more than 4,800 counter-drug missions in support of more than 430 different local, state, regional and federal law enforcement agencies.

The Joint Task Force Six ( JTF-6 ) staff coordinates military support to civilian agencies, explained spokesman Armando Carrasco. "This unique relationship that exists between the law enforcement community and the military nets what we term a win-win situation," Carrasco said. "The nation's law-enforcement agencies receive invaluable and unprecedented support that they would not otherwise have, and the military gains tremendous training opportunities in new environments that offer unique challenges and situations."

JTF-6's area of operations includes the entire continental United States, with primary focus in the southwest border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"The military support is aimed at enhancing the capabilities of our law-enforcement clients in curtailing illegal drug smuggling activities," said Carrasco. "The military personnel are strictly in a counter-drug support role." Federal law prohibits the use of active duty and reserve military personnel in a direct law-enforcement capacity. Military personnel performing JTF-6 missions cannot search, seize, detain or make arrests.

As a joint-service command, JTF-6 is comprised of active and reserve soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and women. "The personnel and units volunteer to perform specific JTF-6 counter-drug support missions that are directly related to their mission-essential tasks," explained Carrasco.

The funding for JTF-6 activities comes from the Defense Department budget, Carrasco said. The law-enforcement agencies only fund the costs of the required materials, such as engineer construction supplies.

Recently, U.S. Army engineers from the 46th Engineer Battalion, based at Fort Polk, La., deployed to the Arizona border on a projected one-month engineering mission to be completed in support of the U.S. Border Patrol. About 160 active-duty soldiers are conducting operations to improve 2.5 miles of border roads and construct a 1-mile fence.

Among the most popular pieces of equipment are unmanned aerial vehicles, which recently flew in support of two South Texas U.S. Border Patrol sectors. These aircraft are equipped with day/night cameras and infrared sensors. "We were also able to assist the Border Patrol in integrating the Texas Army National Guard C-26 aircraft, a highly sophisticated counter-drug platform, into the overall effort," said Carrasco.