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The Wrong Fix

May 12, 1988

Send in the Army--that's the usual prescription whenever someone is looking for a quick fix for a complex law-enforcement problem. And that's what Americans are hearing again as Congress grapples with what to do about stopping or at least slowing the flood of illegal drugs pouring into the United States. The House of Representatives already has passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Duncan L. Hunter (R-Coronado) that would require the armed forces to halt drug trafficking within 45 days, and now several senators are offering less radical--but, in our view, equally unwise--proposals to step up the services' anti-drug efforts.

All of these measures would require extensive amendments or even the repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, a statute that prohibits military involvement in civilian law enforcement except in limited circumstances. The law was enacted to stop the common 19th-Century practice of deploying troops to serve legal summonses, to collect taxes or even--before the Civil War--to ride in posses pursuing fugitive slaves. The Army's involvement in such activities did nothing for its reputation.

The principle that the armed forces should not be used to police civilians, except when local law-enforcement officials are overwhelmed during riots or natural disasters, has served the nation well. Whenever that threshold has been crossed, the consequences have been disastrous: The massive Army surveillance of civilian anti-war activity and the military occupation of American university campuses 15 years ago underscored the dangers of unleashing young soldiers on missions for which they have not been trained. Soldiers are taught to kill reflexively in the heat of battle, not to make the subtle judgments required of police officers enforcing often complicated laws against civilians.

The Pentagon staunchly opposes Hunter's amendment to the $299.5-billion defense spending bill for fiscal 1989, which calls for the armed forces to maintain round-the-clock radar coverage of the nation's borders and help interdict all aircraft and ships carrying narcotics. Ordinarily the Coast Guard or the U.S. Customs Service would make the actual arrests, but members of the armed forces would be authorized to give "hot pursuit" to fleeing drug traffickers.

The Pentagon has raised both philosophical and practical objections. A study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggests that meeting Hunter's goal of eliminating drug trafficking would divert the services from their primary mission of defending the United States and would simply exceed their capability; it would require, for example, half the infantry battalions in the Army as well as more helicopters than the Army owns, more AWACS planes than the Air Force flies and more cruisers and destroyers than there are in the Navy's fleet. The Air Force is said to be particularly worried about the split-second decisions that its pilots would have to make about whether to force down or shoot down a civilian aircraft suspected of carrying drugs.

We have doubts, too, about whether Hunter's scheme or even the less extensive plan that Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is drafting to step up military involvement in the collection of drug-trafficking intelligence would achieve all that the sponsors expect. In 1981 Congress amended the Posse Comitatus Act to allow the services to share some equipment and intelligence with the Coast Guard and civilian law enforcement--which resulted in the capture of some drug traffickers but has had no real effect in staunching the flow of narcotics.

Vast radar networks and stepped-up interdiction may yield more arrests, but, like cockroaches, drug traffickers persist. If the United States' southern border becomes a fortress, other routes will be found to supply consumers. As we have said before, the United States will not stop drug trafficking from abroad until lawmakers figure out how to stop the soaring demand for drugs at home. That, of course, is a problem that is not amenable to a quick election-year fix.

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