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Drug Debate Takes Center Stage in Presidential Campaign, Dole Calls for Stronger Military Role


October 1996

With recent reports of rising teen drug use, Presidential hopeful Bob Dole has hammered President Clinton for his drug policy and made the war on drugs one of his top campaign issues. Declaring that President Clinton had "surrendered" in the war against drugs, Dole called for an expanded role of the National Guard, and for military and intelligence services to fight drugs (Bradley Graham, "Military Role in Drug War Debated," Washington Post, August 30, 1996, p. A6; Peter Slevin, "Military antidrug role questioned," Philadelphia Inquirer, August 31, 1996, p. A3; Richard Keil, Associated Press, "Dole urges Guard role in halting narcotics," Star Ledger, September 2, 1996, p. 4).

At a campaign rally in Palos Park, Illinois on August 25, Dole declared that if he is elected, "Within my first 45 days at the White House, I will work ... to seek further ways to use our military power -- particularly technical capabilities -- to fight the war on drugs." The presidential candidate promised to increase military intelligence collection, and to devote more planes and ships to blocking narcotics shipments. He also suggested creating National Guard units with a "rapid-response capability." In a speech to the National Guard Conference on September 1, Dole said he would consider giving the National Guard and the military "lead responsibility for stopping the flow of illegal drugs across our borders." (Katherine Q. Seelye, "Dole Calls for Military Role in Fight Against Drugs," New York Times, August 26, 1996, p. A13; Peter Baker, "Dole pledges to Mobilize Bigger War on Drugs," Washington Post, September 2, 1996, p. A6)

"Been there. Done that," replied a senior Pentagon official. The U.S. military already provides information and assistance to law enforcement in monitoring and detecting drug trafficking. Starting with the Reagan administration in 1981, the U.S. began using military aircraft, ships, radar stations and tethered surveillance balloons to track incoming drug shipments. In addition, the National Guard is already involved in the drug war with building border barriers, destroying marijuana fields, and going on surveillance missions. However, by law, the military is restricted from making arrests or seizures, leaving those law enforcement functions to law enforcement agents.

In 1993, the Clinton administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress reduced the Pentagon's anti-drug budget from $1.1 billion to $800 million, where the funding level has remained stable. Much of that money was shifted away from military support for interdiction and toward helping Latin American countries attack drug trafficking at the source. In addition, many in Congress and the President believe more federal money should be spent on drug treatment and education, but the efforts have been rejected by the GOP-led Congress in 1995 and 1996. Clinton administration officials have criticized Dole for voting against the creation of a Drug Czar in 1988, the anti-drug office Dole now wants to expand, and for voting against a drug-free schools initiative.

An increased military anti-drug effort remains controversial because it diverts military resources, costs are high, and the results are difficult to measure. EBR Incorporated, a Virginia research firm, conducted a study for the White House last year that estimated that spending $500 million to support military assets in blocking Caribbean routes could lower cocaine traffickers' success rate from 69% to 53%. The estimate was highly speculative and administration officials concluded that the possible gain did not seem worth the enormous cost (Office of National Drug Control Policy, "National Drug Control Strategy, 1996: Program, Resources and Evaluation," p. 48-51).

Dole's call has renewed a 15-year debate about the proper role of the military in the drug war. The former Senate majority leader admits that using the military for law enforcement purposes must be approached carefully, but the threat of drugs from abroad, says Dole, is an area where the military has a proper role. Some Pentagon officials agree, saying narcotics trafficking constitutes a national security threat. Still, the less than 1% of the defense budget dedicated to antidrug operations reflects the contention that combating drugs is essentially a domestic law enforcement issue. General Barry McCaffrey, the nation's national drug control policy director, said he "would rather build law enforcement groups -- the Border Patrol, Customs, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

"Does he want National Guard units assisting in the arrest of U.S. citizens?" asked one senior defense official involved in drug policy. Experts say such a move could incite groups that see the government as increasingly intrusive in domestic affairs. On NBC's "Meet the Press" on September 1, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said, "For goodness sakes, we ought not to militarize the border."

Congressional auditors have recently criticized the military program as ineffective. According to drug experts, drug traffickers could lose half of their drug shipments and still have more than enough to supply American demand. They estimate that currently, at best, only 10% to 20% of illegal drugs shipped are seized before they reach their buyers. Military officials are frustrated that their efforts yield such meager results. "We get a couple of kilos of cocaine, big deal," says an Army officer involved in counter-narcotics operations. The Administration says the decline in drug seizures following their cuts to the Pentagon drug budget were due to traffickers switching routes. They say interdiction has not been hindered because previous patrolling was random and wasteful. That observation was supported by U.S. Navy Captain Craig Quigley, a spokesman for the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Virginia. He said, "In the early years we threw a lot of ships and planes and people at the problem, but what we didn't do very well was coordination."

Eric E. Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying Dole's reasoning is wrong. "The ability of the smugglers to circumvent interdiction is almost infinite. The quantity of imported drugs that we consume is practically infinitesimal when compared with the volume of legitimate traffic in which it can be hidden."

Using the armed forces to combat drugs "has powerful political appeal," says Mathea Falco, former Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters in the Carter Administration. "Blaming foreigners for America's recurring drug epidemics provides convenient if distant targets for public anger that might otherwise be directed toward public officials." Falco concludes that "lasting answers to America's drug problems lie here at home, not abroad." One reason is that many drugs are produced illegally in the U.S., not smuggled across our borders. Officials say that drugs are smuggled in such small amounts that even a military, fully mobilized for war, would be unable to stop it all. For instance, an entire year's supply of cocaine could fit into 18 of the 4.3 million 40-foot cargo containers that come into the U.S. each year (David Wood, "Experts say military isn't magic solution to win drug war," Sunday Star Ledger (Newark, NJ), September 1, 1996, p. 53).