WASHINGTON — Stretched thin from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sharply reduced its role in the war on drugs, leaving significant gaps in the nation's narcotics interdiction efforts.
Since 1989, Congress has directed the Pentagon to be the lead federal agency in detecting and monitoring illegal narcotics shipments headed to the United States by air and sea and in supporting Coast Guard efforts to intercept them. In the early 1990s, at the height of the drug war, U.S. military planes and boats filled the southern skies and waters in search of cocaine-laden vessels coming from Colombia and elsewhere in South America.
But since 2002, the military has withdrawn many of those resources, according to more than a dozen current and former counter-narcotics officials, as well as a review of congressional, military and Homeland Security documents.
Internal records show that in the last four years the Pentagon has reduced by more than 62% its surveillance flight-hours over Caribbean and Pacific Ocean routes that are used to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and, increasingly, Colombian-produced heroin. At the same time, the Navy is deploying one-third fewer patrol boats in search of smugglers.
The Defense Department also plans to withdraw as many as 10 Black Hawk helicopters that have been used by a multi-agency task force to move quickly to make drug seizures and arrests in the Caribbean, a major hub for drugs heading to the United States.
And the military has deactivated many of the high-tech surveillance "aerostats," or radar balloons, that once guarded the entire southern border, saying it lacks the funds to restore and maintain them.
The Department of Defense defended its policy shift in a budget document sent to Congress in October: "The DOD position is that detecting drug trafficking is a lower priority than supporting our service members on ongoing combat missions."
Members of Congress and drug-control officials have said the Pentagon's cuts and redeployments have hamstrung the U.S. drug interdiction effort at a time when an estimated 1,000 metric tons of inexpensive, high-quality cocaine is entering the country each year.
It's hard to gauge the precise effect of the pullback because authorities say they only know the amount of narcotics they are seizing, not how much is getting through -- especially with fewer surveillance planes and boats to gather intelligence.
In the budget report to Congress, the Pentagon estimated recently that it detected only 22% of the "actionable maritime events" in fiscal 2006 because it "lacks the optimal number of assets."
Even when they did detect suspected smuggling vessels, U.S. authorities had to let one in every five go because they lacked the resources to chase them, Pentagon officials conceded in their report.
"We have not stopped trying to fix that gap. We're very much concerned about it, and working very hard to try and fix these problems," Edward Frothingham III, acting deputy assistant Defense secretary for counter-narcotics, said in an interview. "DOD is in no way lessening our support" for the war on drugs, he said. "But in the post-9/11 world, some of these assets are needed elsewhere."
With Pentagon support dropping, the Coast Guard and other Homeland Security agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection are trying to play a greater role in the interdiction effort. But current and former officials within those agencies say they do not have the resources to do the job because they, too, have had to dramatically redistribute resources since the sweeping post-Sept. 11 reorganization that made Homeland Security the front line in keeping terrorists out of the United States.
"I can't stand here and tell you drugs aren't coming into the U.S. by sea. It happens," said Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a Coast Guard spokesman. "There are huge challenges, but we are making a dent."
(The Justice Department, through the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, also has a central role in the drug war, but it is more focused on arresting narcotics traffickers in the U.S. than on interdiction.)
The cutbacks continue at a time when the Pentagon has officially reclassified the drug interdiction effort as part of the broader war on terrorism, citing intelligence showing growing ties among terrorists, drug dealers and organized-crime syndicates.
"In the post-9/11 world, where both securing and detecting threats to our nation's borders have become critical national security objectives, we cannot continue to neglect the fact that narco-traffickers are breaching our borders on a daily basis," according to a report that was quietly issued last month by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources.
At a November 2005 hearing before another House subcommittee, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said the lack of available military assets and the amount of drugs getting through "just boggled my mind."