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Gore’s FBI-DEA Merger Idea Draws Fire : Bureaucracy: Outgoing chief of anti-drug agency says move would disrupt war on narcotics. House staffers attack plan to shift meat inspections to FDA.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Departing Drug Enforcement Administration chief Robert C. Bonner, responding to Vice President Al Gore’s plans for improving government, on Wednesday called plans to fold the anti-drug agency into the FBI “a serious mistake.”

And national drug policy director Lee P. Brown, noting that the Administration has already been faulted for seeming to downgrade the drug control mission, said in a memo obtained by The Times that the DEA-FBI merger proposal “hardly demonstrates” that curbing illegal drug use is a national priority.

The remarks demonstrate the difficulty President Clinton and Gore face in selling many of their proposals for “reinventing” government, which were presented Tuesday in an report prepared by a task force headed by Gore.

In a similar vein, House Agriculture Committee staff members, mirroring opposition expressed earlier by Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, predicted that Gore’s proposal to transfer meat and poultry inspections from the Agriculture Department to the Food and Drug Administration would be one of the chief “flash points” of disagreement over the plan.

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“Committee members would support the idea of consolidating food inspection into one agency and will be very supportive when the Administration moves all of it into (the Agriculture Department),” one aide said.

Espy had openly opposed the plan to transfer meat and poultry inspections to the FDA, but the White House decided that it wanted to consolidate all food safety activities into an agency that does not have such close ties to the agriculture industry.

The recommended transfer came after criticism of the Agriculture Department’s handling of food inspections in the wake of last winter’s outbreak of E. coli bacterial infections tied to tainted meat. Three people in the Pacific Northwest died in the episode.

Espy opposed the move on grounds that he already had instituted reforms, including the transfer of 200 inspectors to upgrade procedures. While he insists that he will be a “team player” and support the Administration plan, powerful agriculture lobbying groups and their Capitol Hill supporters are lining up in opposition.

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Large trade groups representing the meat and poultry industries, fearful of how the inspection process might change under the FDA, are expected to join forces with members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees to block the transfer, which almost certainly will require legislative approval.

On the drug war front, Bonner, who had already announced plans to step down as DEA administrator next month, said in an interview that merging his agency into the FBI would be “extremely disruptive” and would produce three years of “downtime” in the federal drug effort.

Bonner, a former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and a federal judge there before taking command of the DEA, contended that the merger would destroy the focus of a “single-mission” agency.

A Justice Department official said integration of the agencies short of a full merger would eliminate areas of overlap and duplication involving drug intelligence, training facilities, data processing and their separate air forces.

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However, it is in some of these areas, particularly drug intelligence and training, where the sharpest conflicts between the two agencies now occur.

While debate over the proposals ensued all over official Washington on Wednesday, Clinton and Gore appeared together in a mammoth federal warehouse in suburban Virginia to decry “outrageous” procurement practices that waste billions of dollars a year.

The appearance marked the first of several events planned over the coming days to publicize the plan.

Gore cited examples of wasteful federal buying such as custom-made insect repellent and grossly overpriced aspirin and office supplies. His task force found that the government’s procurement system employs 142,000 people and spends $200 billion a year on supplies and services. It estimated that under the proposed reforms $22.5 billion could be saved by the year 2000.

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Clinton said that while the streamlining initiative would give federal employees greater leeway in purchasing routine items, the new rules would also contain protections against abuse and fraud.

“We’re going to have to give our public employees some more elbow room to make sensible decisions to save people money and yet hold them accountable so that, if errors are made, they’re pointed out,” he said.

Times staff writer John Broder contributed to this story.


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