Military Is Easing Its War on Drugs

Times Staff Writer

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.

The Pentagon spent about $1 billion on drug-related operations in fiscal 2002, out of a total federal counter-narcotics outlay of $19 billion. The Pentagon has a bigger anti-drug budget than the Coast Guard, Customs Service or the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and accounts for a significant share of federal money spent to fight drugs abroad.

Most of the Pentagon’s anti-drug efforts are in the Western Hemisphere, notably the Andean region, Central America and the Caribbean. Its efforts in Mexico are more limited. The military also offers training and gathers intelligence in Southeast Asia, notably Thailand.

In addition to facing trouble in Congress, the cutbacks could be unpopular with some Latin American governments. Most countries in the hemisphere have taken advantage of training programs the Pentagon has offered.

Colombia: Special Case

While it retrenches elsewhere, the Pentagon intends to continue its growing effort in Colombia, where U.S. military trainers and intelligence personnel have been helping a weak government wage a four-decade war with drug-dealing rebels. The Bush administration regards Colombia as a special case where danger from guerrilla groups involved in drug trafficking could destabilize the region and threaten the United States.

In its drug-interdiction role, the military acts as the lead U.S. agency for gathering intelligence on drug trafficking, and uses an array of aircraft, ships, radar and other eavesdropping tools.


Although barred from conducting drug raids directly, troops provide some real-time technical help -- such as communications and intelligence analysis -- during anti-narcotics operations being carried out by law enforcement and foreign military organizations.

Highly skilled special operations troops and other military personnel also train foreign police and soldiers, as well as U.S. law enforcement personnel. They teach everything from basic infantry skills to languages, first aid, boat handling, swimming and horsemanship.

Hollis said these duties could be scaled back. For example, he said, if Special Forces are training U.S. customs officials in horseback riding, customs should now turn to local ranchers for that. And if the Border Patrol is learning swimming from Special Forces, “they’ll have to go to the local YMCA.”

One high-profile anti-drug operation that may see changes is Joint Task Force 6, based at Fort Bliss, Texas.

The task force conducts counter-drug reconnaissance missions on the Mexican border and provides military training and technical services for local, state and federal civilian agencies. It has provided training and other help for 430 civilian agencies, in such areas as intelligence analysis, language, canine training and marksmanship.

The task force has been asked to review its programs in light of Wolfowitz’s memo. Hollis said reports that the task force “is going to go away ... are just rumors,” but he added that although “people are generally anxious about change, 9/11 changed everything for us. We need to look at the collective good.”

The military’s counter-narcotics efforts have not exactly “won” the drug war, some experts note. The price and supply of cocaine, for example, have been relatively stable since 1989.

“They’re certainly working at the margins in making a difference,” said Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland economist and former director of Rand Corp.'s Drug Policy Research Center.

Liberal critics have argued that by training foreign police and soldiers, the U.S. military has in some cases given new tools to brutal regimes that often abuse human rights.

Yet the Pentagon’s work has led to important drug seizures and arrests, and has helped build U.S. ties and open doors for American military access in many countries. Advocates maintain that it has also helped spread U.S. values overseas, by teaching foreign militaries the idea of civilian control.

The former defense official said that easing the counter-drug duties of the Special Forces “sort of makes sense.” But he said the benefit would be small, because only 200 to 250 Special Forces personnel are used in Latin American counter-drug operations at any one time.

The ex-official said 7th Special Forces Group soldiers used in Latin America are regional specialists who are well-suited to the assignment and would have limited value if transferred to the Middle East or South Asia.

Changes in 2004 Budget

The key unanswered question about the shift in plans, the ex-official added, is how much the administration intends to trim from Pentagon anti-drug spending in the upcoming fiscal 2004 budget, and whether officials plan to shift to other areas the intelligence-gathering ships and planes that have been the backbone of the mission.

Pentagon counter-drug officials have had to struggle to hang on to intelligence-gathering planes, such as Navy P-3s and AWACS surveillance aircraft, which the Joint Chiefs have frequently diverted to missions considered priorities.

Officials of Southern Command, which oversees the Latin American mission, acknowledge that they are able to monitor only 15% of the drug trafficking corridors about 15% of the time.

Top defense officials are expected to work out the details of the shift in counter-drug priorities in the next few weeks.