Moving to end long-standing rivalries and conflicts among federal agencies, CIA Director William H. Webster has created a new Counternarcotics Center to upgrade and plug gaps in U.S. intelligence on international drug trafficking.
Bringing together a dozen diverse agencies that in the past have zealously guarded their sources and information, the new center is expected to have an impact on a full range of activities by the intelligence community. Webster said that he hopes to make it a model for cooperation on other sensitive intelligence issues, such as counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
Prepares Strategy Report
The establishment of the new center, discussed by Webster in an interview with The Times, comes as the Bush Administration prepares for the unveiling next month of its broad strategy for the U.S. war on drugs.
Interagency struggles and turf wars frequently have been cited as a major impediment to federal efforts to block drugs from entering the country, break up distribution networks and apprehend suspects.
"I've been trying to bring us together more than we have in the past," Webster said. "And with the kind of leadership we have in the other agencies now, they're very responsive to it."
Nevertheless, the new center was created over the resistance of some of the participating agencies, particularly the Drug Enforcement Administration, intelligence sources said.
Headquartered in CIA offices in suburban Washington, the new center brings together analysts and operations specialists from branches of the CIA, FBI, DEA, Pentagon, National Security Agency and the State and Treasury departments.
To counter fears of CIA domination of the new unit, its staff reports to Webster in his role as director of central intelligence, the overseer of all U.S. intelligence agencies.
In the past, the Justice Department and such agencies as the FBI and the DEA have clashed with U.S. intelligence agencies over criminal prosecution of drug traffickers. The intelligence agencies have been very wary about the courtroom use of information that might disclose intelligence sources or methods of intelligence collection.
Webster, who headed the FBI and was a federal appellate judge before taking command of the CIA, said that the new center should ease the rival claims on information. "We'll try to build the delivery of intelligence in ways that will ultimately support criminal law enforcement," he said.
William J. Bennett, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, included a provision for a new strategic intelligence center run by the FBI and DEA in an early draft of his proposal for a national drug strategy. But that idea later was dropped because of opposition by elements of the intelligence community, sources familiar with it said Wednesday. The final version of the plan is to be announced by President Bush in a nationally broadcast speech Sept. 5.
Webster said that he is becoming more optimistic about improving U.S. intelligence on the narcotics trade. He said that the United States is getting "an increasingly good handle" on the flow of drugs, including tracing drug crops grown in one country, processed in another and delivered through a third nation.
In an indication that the Bush Administration may push for expanding U.S. training of foreign drug-fighting forces, Webster said: "Unless a country can develop its own capability to deal with the problems that affect their own stability, we'll never be able to do that from long distance."
He stressed the "importance of assisting countries, just as we've assisted them in the past to deal with counterinsurgency problems, to deal with their (drug) cartels, which are in many cases more dangerous than their insurgency movements. I think we've got to be prepared to respond to that.
"Congress has a way of coming to grips with these things when they know that the people want something done," he said.
Creation of the new intelligence center initially was opposed by DEA officials who were concerned over the CIA's traditional reluctance to disclose sources and methods of intelligence collection.
"Our concerns over sources and methods are better understood but not eased," David L. Westrate, assistant DEA administrator for operations, said in an interview Wednesday. "Our concerns are particularly focused where U.S. prosecution (of a drug trafficker) is the only option we have" to disable an operation.
Citing recent U.S. successes in bringing back drug kingpins for trial in the United States, Westrate said: "We don't want to preclude our last option."
Developing an interagency counternarcotics capability originally was put forward by Webster in April in response to the Bush Administration's heightened emphasis on the international drug problem.
"We were up and running in a space of four months," Webster said. "That's almost unheard of around here."
Webster said that he hopes the new drug center will serve as a model for other controversial intelligence issues. "As counternarcotics becomes a community project, it isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to see before too long (that) counterterrorism will become a community one," he said.