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Customs Service to Lead War on Drug Smugglers

May 31, 1987|ROBERT L. JACKSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration moved Saturday to improve coordination in the war on drug abuse by designating the U.S. Customs Service as the leading agency to interdict drug shipments at the nation's borders.

The move followed recent congressional criticism that petty jealousies and duplication of effort by federal law enforcement agencies had contributed to an influx of cocaine and heroin from Latin America despite the Administration's campaign to win the drug war.

President Reagan, in his weekly radio address from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., said the National Drug Policy Board, a Cabinet-level group he established on March 1, "has developed a plan which will add new vigor and a more comprehensive approach to our crusade against drug abuse."

"The strategy is aimed at coordinating a wide range of anti-drug activities going on in our country," Reagan said, including mandatory drug tests for military personnel and many federal employees as well as drug education and rehabilitation programs.

Reagan, in his remarks, said mandatory drug testing in the U.S. military has resulted in a 67% reduction in the use of drugs, and he added: "We need to achieve these kinds of results in our schools as well."

While stopping short of proposing mandatory tests for all schoolchildren, Reagan said Education Secretary William J. Bennett will work with state and local governments "to lead the campaign for drug-free campuses."

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, in a separate announcement, said the drug policy board that he chairs has selected the Customs Service to direct drug interdiction efforts with help from the Coast Guard as "principal deputy."

Smuggling by Land

Meese said the Customs Service will develop "interdiction strategies" for the policy board to consider and will have chief responsibility for combatting drug smuggling by land, mainly attempts to smuggle drugs across the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Customs will share duties with the Coast Guard for intercepting drug shipments by air, and the Coast Guard will have primary responsibility for blocking shipments by sea, Meese said. A new communications and drug intelligence center will be set up and operated by Customs at March Air Force Base, near Riverside, Calif.

"Through the lead-agency approach, the American people can look forward to even more effective law enforcement and even greater reduction of drug use," Meese said.

Customs and Coast Guard officials have been warring for months over who has primary jurisdiction for choking off the flow of drug imports. Customs told a Senate committee last March that it should control intelligence-gathering efforts as well as any communications network established to thwart drug smugglers.

Coast Guard Praised

Customs Commissioner William von Raab praised the expertise of the Coast Guard in blocking drug shipments by sea. But he insisted that Customs has the most experience to combat smuggling by land and by air. However, Adm. Paul A. Yost, commandant of the Coast Guard, said his agency should have control of air as well as sea interdiction efforts within 12 miles of the U.S. shoreline.

The Administration's drug enforcement efforts were sharply criticized last March in a study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. The report said federal officials were intercepting only a small percentage of narcotics smuggled into the United States, at least in part because the responsibilities for detection were fragmented and poorly organized among the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and other agencies.

Illegal drug imports seem to be increasing, the study said, even though Customs and Coast Guard officers "have seized increasing quantities of drugs over the past five years," at a cost of nearly $800 million in the last year alone.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who had commissioned the study as chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations of the Governmental Affairs Committee, said Saturday that although he is pleased with the thrust of Reagan's move, "I am troubled . . . the President has decided to subdivide the interdiction arena into three areas, with joint areas of responsibility remaining for Customs and the Coast Guard."

Nunn, a possible Democratic presidential contender who sponsored an anti-drug amendment last year requiring periodic reports from the President, said he is not convinced that the new interdiction plan "complies with either the spirit or letter of the amendment."

Meese said the Drug Enforcement Administration will coordinate investigations of major narcotics traffickers in conjunction with the FBI, the Customs Service and other federal, state and local agencies.

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