Times Staff Writer

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But since 2002, the military has withdrawn many of those resources, according to more than a dozen current and former counter-narcotics officials, as well as a review of congressional, military and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.”

“The spike in narcotics shipments via Central America we ignore at our own peril,” said Burton, who at the time was chairman of the international relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. “They could be carrying weapons, terrorists and other things that could destroy not only the youth of America, but American cities.”

The weakening of the U.S. drug interdiction effort comes just as U.S. authorities have had some major successes in the drug war, led by the Pentagon’s Joint Interagency Task Force-South, based on Key West, Fla. Authorities have seized increasing amounts of cocaine since 2001, including a record 300,000 pounds in 2005, although records show that seizures dropped off sharply in 2006, to 230,000 pounds.

Counter-narcotics officials, including some in the Pentagon, acknowledge that the large recent seizures are only masking more fundamental problems caused by the sharp decline in drug interdiction assets.

The recent successes were due in part to improved interagency cooperation and U.S. efforts to bolster the Colombian government’s counter-narcotics program. They were also aided by a windfall of intelligence gained from a program known as Operation Panama Express, which allowed authorities to pinpoint major shipments of drugs, documents show. That intelligence has largely dried up as Colombian drug lords have tightened their operational security, making the Pentagon’s detection and monitoring assets in the so-called transit zones ever more crucial, according to U.S. documents and officials.

“What you’ve had is a significant downsizing of the counter-narcotics effort in the transit zones, and that has very direct national security implications,” said Robert B. Charles, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs from 2003 to 2005. He said the loss of resources threatened to “consign future generations of young Americans to a deluge of cocaine and heroin.”

Perhaps the most important link in the drug interdiction chain is the Pentagon’s aerial patrols. Without them, a U.S. military ship can detect only about one out of every 10 suspected drug vessels (one out of five if the ship has a helicopter on board), according to statistics from the Joint Interagency Task Force-South. With the planes, whose radars can cover hundreds of miles, the military’s odds improve to seven out of 10.

Department of Defense aerial patrol-hours in the transit zones declined from 6,062 hours in fiscal 2002 to a low of 1,432 in 2005. They rose to 2,296 in the most recent fiscal year, which ended in October, but since then, the Pentagon has grounded much of its fleet of P-3s for long stretches because of a lack of pilots, money for flying time or maintenance issues, documents show.

Military officials say the aerial surveillance situation is dire, and likely to get much worse. That’s because most of the Pentagon’s drug planes are Vietnam-era P-3s that were mothballed for years before being brought back into service for the drug war. Many of them have been redeployed to war zones or for use in counter-terrorism operations, Frothingham said. Those remaining have such severe wing corrosion that they’re in the shop much of the time, U.S. documents and officials say. Many of them have no working radar. But their replacements won’t be ready until at least 2012.

The Pentagon has also redirected other planes used to spot smugglers -- including fighter jets and high-flying reconnaissance planes -- toward other missions, and turned down requests to use unmanned drones in the drug war.

Things aren’t much better at sea, where there is a continuing lack of Navy resources to intercept drug runners who are using “go fast” multi-engine boats that are often 40 feet long, travel at up to 40 knots, and can carry several tons of cocaine.

In the Eastern Pacific transit area, four U.S. ships are dedicated to patrolling an area larger than the continental United States.

Two years ago, U.S. authorities discovered that smugglers were easily avoiding military boats by navigating far into the eastern Pacific Ocean with the help of at-sea refueling vessels. In comparison, for every four days of patrol, U.S. military ships spend an average of eight days traveling to and from the transit zone to refuel, said Rear Adm. Jeffrey J. Hathaway, director of the JIATF-South.

Frothingham’s tiny counter-narcotics office at the Pentagon is still looking for a solution because the department’s leadership won’t commit military tankers for the task. A senior Pentagon budget official said the British government recently pledged to provide a tanker in the Pacific, but only temporarily.

Homeland Security agencies, the Coast Guard in particular, have moved boats and planes to the region to intercept smugglers, but documents show that in most cases, the U.S. presence remains far below what it was before Sept. 11, 2001.

In May, the Pentagon decided to withdraw its Caribbean-based Black Hawk helicopters for use elsewhere.

The Justice Department protested, calling the helicopters a linchpin in the U.S. counter-drug effort because they ferried law enforcement agents among the thousands of islands that cocaine traffickers use as transshipment points.

That opposition has pushed back the withdrawal of the Black Hawks until October, but counter-narcotics officials say the larger problem is that no other agency has received funding to keep them operating.

As the U.S. fortifies its border with Mexico, counter-narcotics officials warn that smugglers could simply move east and penetrate the vast Gulf Coast.

In response to such threats, various U.S. agencies had for years been using radar-equipped tethered aerostats to provide continuous and long-range monitoring of smugglers by land, air and sea.

The Pentagon took over the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, or TARS, in 1992 and shut down three of the balloons in the Bahamas in 1994.

Then, in 2001 and 2002, it shut down three others in Texas, Louisiana and Florida, leaving virtually the entire Gulf Coast uncovered -- from Florida to east Texas, and part of the Caribbean as well.

The Pentagon won’t put the radar balloons back up because it believes the money is better spent elsewhere, Frothingham said.

In November 2005, the Government Accountability Office raised serious concerns about the shortcomings in the interdiction effort, and said it was particularly troubled by the lack of strategic planning by the Pentagon and Homeland Security to deal with a major redeployment of drug war assets that it believed would only get worse, not better.

The GAO, the independent investigative arm of Congress, requested that the Pentagon and Homeland Security Department devise comprehensive plans on how to maintain the drug interdiction effort with dramatically fewer resources.

More than a year later, the GAO’s Jess T. Ford said in an interview that he had seen few signs of progress.

“If that trend continues,” he said, “it just means we are going to miss more and more opportunities.”