The Senate voted overwhelmingly Friday for a popular election-year plan to step up the war on drugs by giving the armed forces a bigger role in the surveillance and arrest of drug smugglers crossing the nation's southern borders.
As a result of the 83-6 vote, it is now certain that the $299.5-billion defense spending bill that goes to President Reagan later this year will require increased military involvement in combatting illegal drugs. Final details still must be worked out with the House, which last week approved a similar, but more sweeping, measure.
The Senate's drug amendment was the result of two days of intense negotiations involving Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and a number of senators in both parties, including Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who has made the crusade against drugs the centerpiece of his campaign for reelection next November.
Seen as Dangerous Diversion
Although Reagan consented to the measure, it was greeted at the Pentagon as a dangerous diversion of the armed forces away from their primary function of defending the nation against military threat. Civil libertarians also opposed it, contending that it could erode a historical prohibition against using the military as a civilian police force.
Nevertheless, the amendment had overwhelming support among pro-military conservatives in the Senate--including two former secretaries of the Navy, Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and John H. Chafee (R-R. I.)--who argued that the influx of drugs into the United States has grown so enormous that it now threatens the national security.
"Drugs are becoming an emergency equal to any foreign enemy," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). " . . . We are attempting to forge what we would call a war: an assault on drugs."
Opponents of the legislation portrayed it as nothing more than a cynical political ploy to persuade voters that Congress is doing something to combat drugs, even though the measure provides no new funding for the effort and the Senate Appropriations Committee has already trimmed the fiscal 1989 budget for drug abuse prevention.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), the only senator facing reelection who voted against the amendment, estimated that it would take at least $5 billion for the government to adequately combat drugs with improved education, treatment and law enforcement. "If we would only match the intensity of the rhetoric with the funding for the war on drugs," he said.
Arrests on High Seas
Under the Senate amendment, Navy personnel would for the first time be permitted to arrest drug traffickers on the high seas under certain limited circumstances. At present, the military is involved in the arrest of civilians only when National Guard troops are given such powers under state laws to keep the peace in emergencies.
Pentagon officials and civil libertarians have long opposed giving arrest power to military personnel on grounds that they are trained to kill, not to take prisoners.
But Navy officers could not make arrests unless they had been trained to do so and had been deputized by the Coast Guard, which now has responsibility for making such arrests. Nor could military personnel make arrests on U.S. soil, as envisioned in the more radical House-passed measure. To do that would require revision of the Civil War-era Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the military from enforcing civilian law.
The arrest power granted to Navy personnel was clearly the most controversial aspect of the Senate's anti-drug provision, which was an amalgam of two different proposals--one put forth by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and the other by a group of primarily conservative Republicans, including Wilson. Nunn initially opposed giving the military any arrest power, but the Republicans prevailed.
"When we give the military the authority to arrest civilians, we are using a tool of the police state," argued Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who voted against the amendment. "Too many nations that have taken that first step . . . have eventually found themselves subject to military domination of their politics."
Unlike Nunn's original proposal, which would have put the Pentagon in charge of the monitoring and detecting of drug trafficking by all U.S. agencies, including the Customs Service and the Coast Guard, the provision as it was passed by the Senate would permit the President to select an agency to oversee these operations. It calls also for a coordinated command and communications network among all of the agencies involved in the effort.
In addition, it provides $30 million to permit the National Guard to become involved in drug interdiction--a task that some Guard officials have been seeking to make their training operations more realistic.
Until now, the military's role in fighting drugs has been limited primarily to lending some equipment to the other agencies. This legislation would expand it primarily by requiring military surveillance planes to fly more missions designed to detect boats and low-flying aircraft bringing illicit drugs into the United States.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) estimated that a boat or plane carrying illegal drugs arrives at the borders of the United States about 50 times a day, and he noted that military surveillance pays no attention to low-flying aircraft--even though they could just as easily be carrying dangerous weapons instead of drugs.
"It's ironic that we have spent hours debating whether to build a space-based shield against ballistic missiles while we have ignored the Cessna flying at low altitudes," he said.
Wilson, acknowledging that he once opposed using the military to interdict drugs, argued for it as a necessary tool to help local law enforcement. Money spent on interdiction is a much better investment than money spent on combatting drug sales at the retail level, he said.
But Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), who accused those speaking in favor of the amendment of doing nothing more than churning out "rhetoric for press release purposes," estimated that it would require $6.2 billion and 66 highly sophisticated airborne warning and control surveillance planes to adequately carry out the measure.
"We all get up, posture, make our little statements, and it isn't going to make any difference," Glenn said. "It's absolutely ludicrous to think this will solve the problem."
Although the House had voted twice previously to involve the armed services in drug interdiction, it was the first time the Senate has ever gone along with such a move. Just two years ago, members of the Senate treated the House-passed measure with contempt.
In addition to Weicker, Cranston and Glenn, others opposing it were Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N. J.), Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).
In other action on the defense spending bill, which is expected to be passed early next week, the Senate voted:
--56 to 37 against an amendment by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to limit the Navy to 14 deployed aircraft carriers, rather than the 15 it wants. It would have required the retirement of the aging carriers Midway and Coral Sea faster than the Navy is now planning.
--51 to 43 against an amendment by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to cut the Senate authorization for the "Star Wars" program to $4 billion from $4.6 billion and use the $600-million difference for a variety of non-nuclear weapons.