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House Votes to Use Military in Fight on Drugs

May 06, 1988|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House, seized by election-year enthusiasm for anti-drug legislation, voted overwhelmingly Thursday to require the armed forces to halt illegal drug trafficking into the United States.

The measure, authored by Rep. Duncan L. Hunter (R-Coronado), gives President Reagan only 45 days "to substantially halt the unlawful penetration of the United States borders by aircraft and vessels carrying narcotics."

It also requires the Pentagon to begin continuous aerial radar coverage of the nation's southern border. It would amend a Civil War-era statute known as the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the military from enforcing civilian laws.

The measure was approved by a vote of 385 to 23 as an amendment to the $299.5-billion defense spending bill for fiscal 1989.

Although the House-passed amendment is certain to be weakened or stripped from the defense bill before it finally clears Congress, the extreme nature of the amendment and the overwhelming vote reflect the growing frustration that most lawmakers feel in dealing with the flow of drugs into the United States. It also demonstrates the political sensitivity of the drug issue as the November election approaches.

"The problem is that our southern borders are just a sieve of cocaine and heroin coming over unchallenged every night," said Rep. Jack Davis (R-Ill.). "We want to bring the front lines i1853124384across our borders."

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) said that the vote marks the end of a defeatist, "Vietnam-type mentality toward the war on drugs" in Congress. He predicted that Congress could be persuaded to accept the use of the military to combat drug trafficking across the nation's southern borders.

"I am convinced that as of this time next year, the military will be involved in drug interdiction," Shaw said. "The lopsided vote shows that the Congress is very serious about getting the military involved."

Military Cooperates

At the Defense Department, a spokesman declined to comment directly on the Hunter amendment. Instead, he noted, the military already cooperates with the Coast Guard and civilian law enforcement in providing equipment, intelligence and training for the war against drugs.

Congressional advocates of a military role in drug enforcement predict that it will be a central part of the omnibus drug legislation that is expected to pass Congress later this year. Congress enacted a similar anti-drug package immediately before the last congressional elections.

In 1986 the House approved a measure virtually identical to the amendment that was adopted Thursday but it was killed in the Senate at the behest of the Defense Department and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Nunn estimated at the time that the measure, among other things, would require recalling the entire U.S. Navy fleet to U.S. waters.

Hunter insisted Thursday that Nunn had exaggerated the impact of the legislation. He argued that the proposal would require American forces stationed along the southern border to divert no more than 5% of their current flight time to the interdiction of drugs.

Calls Role Welcome

Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.) said that National Guardsmen would welcome being given a role in drug interdiction because it would make their training "more realistic."

Sentiment for military enforcement of anti-drug laws clearly has grown since it was last considered in 1986. Just two months ago, Education Secretary William J. Bennett told a White House conference on drugs that he favors a greater role for the military--a position contrary to that expressed by many other Reagan Administration officials.

Nunn is expected to oppose the Hunter amendment again this year. "To say we can cure the drug problem by saying to the military, 'Sic 'em,' is simply unrealistic," he said last week.

He nevertheless acknowledged that he could accept a milder proposal increasing the role of the military in drug interdiction, as long as it does not require U.S. servicemen to make arrests. Nunn asserted that military personnel are not properly trained for that role.

As passed by the House, the Hunter amendment would prohibit U.S. military personnel from making drug arrests except in cases of "hot pursuit" of suspected drug traffickers. It envisions using Coast Guard or Customs Service officials to make arrests.

Funds New Equipment

The legislation would provide $475 million for improved drug interdiction. But most of the money would be devoted to purchasing new helicopters and patrol boats for the Coast Guard, which is already deeply involved in drug interdiction. The legislation would instruct the President to submit a supplemental request to Congress to provide funds for the program.

The House Democratic leadership tried unsuccessfully to keep Republicans from offering the Hunter amendment on the defense bill. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) argued that the provision would be more germane as part of the drug legislation that the Democrats are drafting.

Staff writer John M. Broder contributed to this story.

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