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Military Is Easing Its War on Drugs

The Pentagon wants to scale back the $1-billion program and focus more on combating terrorism. Such a move could meet strong opposition in Congress.

October 20, 2002|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Citing the need to redirect resources to the war on terrorism, the Pentagon has quietly decided to scale back its effort to combat international drug trafficking, a central element of the national "war on drugs" for 14 years.

Officials are still weighing how exactly to pare the $1-billion-a-year program, but they want to reduce deployment of special operations troops on counter-narcotics missions and cut back the military's training of anti-drug police and soldiers in the U.S. and abroad. And they want to use intelligence-gathering equipment now devoted to counter-drug work for counter-terrorism as well.

But the military's counter-narcotics effort is highly popular among some on Capitol Hill, where the retrenchment plans could run into trouble. The plans have not yet been spelled out for lawmakers; however, Defense Department memos and interviews with current and former officials make the Pentagon's intentions clear.

Congress ordered a reluctant Pentagon to enter the drug war in 1988, when surging cocaine traffic from South America sparked a sense of crisis in the U.S. and set off calls for stronger measures to fight drugs.

"We should not be relaxing our efforts in the war on drugs," said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and an advocate for the effort. "Terrorism is the highest priority, but drugs are still insidious.... Every time [military officials] bleed off assets, it just opens up the drug corridors again."

Perhaps because of such sensitivities, the Pentagon's plans have been couched in indirect terms. They were signaled this summer in a memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and distributed to senior uniformed and civilian officials.

He said the department had "carefully reviewed its existing counter-narcotics policy" because of "the changed national security environment, the corresponding shift in the department's budget and other priorities, and evolving support requirements." The Pentagon will now focus its counter-narcotics activities on programs that, among other things, "contribute to the war on terrorism," he added.

But even before the Sept. 11 attacks, senior officials including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had bluntly stated their lack of enthusiasm for the anti-drug mission, which they contend is better handled by civilian agencies.

Before becoming secretary, Rumsfeld described military efforts to stop drugs as "nonsense" and said during his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2001 that drugs were "overwhelmingly a demand problem," meaning the problem can be solved only when Americans quit using them.

Thus, some experts believe that the Defense Department may be taking advantage of the war on terrorism to scale back a mission they never wanted.

Lawmakers who support the Pentagon's anti-drug mission have been worried for some time by what they view as signs that the Rumsfeld team intends to scale back the effort.

Early last year, top defense officials asked the Pentagon comptroller to study whether to continue the counter-narcotics work and other "nontraditional" missions. The study recommended paring the program, former defense officials say. And some observers note that Rumsfeld has not named a permanent assistant defense secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict, who is supposed to oversee the anti-drug program.

In an interview, Pentagon counter-drug chief Andre Hollis emphasized that the Pentagon wants to retain parts of the program that have worked well but that all the pieces are being examined to determine whether each "is still a priority mission.... The top priorities now are to defend the homeland and to win the war on terrorism."

Programs Multiplied

Over the years, Hollis said, the counter-narcotics mission has multiplied into 179 separate sub-programs, a number he called "surreal." He said his first assignment when he came to the job in August 2001 was to conduct a "bottom-up review" that would distinguish what the Pentagon does well in counter-narcotics from "what we shouldn't be doing, or that didn't need to be done any more."

In particular, Hollis said, the Defense Department wants to reduce the burden on special operations forces, which are relatively few in number and in heavy demand for terrorism-related missions.

And when possible, he said, the department wants to double up on the use of intelligence gathering equipment. If, for instance, a National Guard helicopter is flying along the California-Mexico border "looking for drug activity, there's no reason why they can't also be looking for terrorists," he said.

But a former senior defense official, who requested anonymity, said the counter-drug operations would inevitably get short shrift if forced to share equipment with anti-terrorism operations.

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