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Fighting the Drug War, Congress Opens Door to Intelligence Misdeeds

May 29, 1988|James Bamford | James Bamford is author of "The Puzzle Palace," an analysis of the National Security Agency.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A spectator arriving late in a Senate gallery might have thought the United States and the Soviet Union were on the edge of Armageddon. There was heated talk of "the enemy," and "a threat to our national security." Shortly after, the Senate voted to send U.S. armed services into battle--not, however, against the Soviet war machine, but against an even older enemy: drugs.

Like a drowning man flailing helplessly against the waves, the Reagan Administration's anti-drug program is gasping in a sea of cocaine, marijuana and heroin. After giving aid and comfort to such notorious drug barons as Panama's Gen. Manuel A. Noriega for many years, the Coast Guard and Customs Service, under a new Administration policy, are now seizing yachts carrying a stray marijuana seed. The House and the Senate, desperate to prove in an election year that they are tough on drugs, voted overwhelmingly, in separate bills, to send in the Marines--and the other armed forces.

These actions by Congress, like the Tonkin Gulf vote nearly a quarter of a century earlier, are more the product of hysteria than rational judgment. In addition to manning reconnaissance planes that look for border penetrations, the military will now be permitted to work closely with law enforcement agencies and even, under certain circumstances, to arrest civilians. This overturns the 110-year-old Posse Comitatus Act, banning the military from enforcing civilian laws.

Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci and other Pentagon officials have warned that the military is not equipped for this and they fear domestic involvement. "This country, for over 200 years," said Pentagon spokesman J. Daniel Howard, "has kept the military out of civilian law enforcement. The United States military has not been in power to arrest American citizens, and we don't think that it is the time now to break that precedent."

A less visible but perhaps more serious problem with anti-drug hysteria is that it could lead to the secret involvement of U.S. military intelligence agencies in illegal domestic espionage activity on behalf of drug-enforcement operations. One area of potential concern in these measures was the little-noted provision that the secretary of defense urge state governors to draw up plans for using the National Guard in drug-fighting efforts. Except in a national emergency, local governors direct the National Guard.

Some in the intelligence community express dismay that a number of National Guard units have requested sophisticated eavesdropping equipment, including mobile vans. Even before the new congressional measures were passed, the highly secret National Security Agency, in an extraordinary action, vetoed the National Guard request for eavesdropping gear because of "concerns that state authorities might misuse the equipment for the purpose of spying on political enemies," according to a recent report of the House Armed Services Committee.

The committee, however, believing NSA's objections were based more on questions of turf than civil liberties, overruled the agency and directed the secretary of defense to provide equipment once "adequate safeguards are in place."

Using the military to spy on U.S. citizens is not unprecedented. During the late 1960s and early '70s, when the hysteria was focused on Vietnam War protesters, the Army was used by the White House and Justice Department, secretly and illegally, to conduct domestic espionage activities. A congressional report revealed, "an estimated 100,000 individuals were the subjects of Army surveillance." Among those spied on were Jesse Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then-Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III.

Army agents infiltrated private organizations, demonstrations and meetings, including the Poor Peoples' March on Washington and a coalition of church youth groups from Colorado Springs. Army agents even attended a Washington elementary school Halloween party, suspecting a local "dissident" might attend. At the same time, other army units began conducting widespread illegal eavesdropping operations. The unit, then known as the Army Security Agency, was authorized to "jam" domestic radio broadcasts or transmit false information.

On a quieter scale than the open vote in Congress, officials are now discussing increasing the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and the NSA in halting the drug flow. U-2 spy planes, once used to monitor missile silos deep in the Soviet Union, are now being secretly used to hunt drug smugglers.

The CIA has historically had more to do with opening doors to drug dealers than with closing them: providing money and aircraft to major drug dealers during the secret war in Laos in exchange for cooperation; turning a blind eye to Noriega, and, some say, permitting a major drug operation to be conducted with aircraft used in the Contra re-supply program.

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