WASHINGTON -- The Department of Defense has rejected a White House plan for the military to take a new leadership role in the war on illegal drugs, setting back administration efforts to give fresh impetus to a lagging program, according to senior officials.
The refusal leaves stalled a proposal by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy that would have created a unified military authority to coordinate most U.S. counternarcotics operations in Central and South America.
With new obstacles threatening progress made after President Bush escalated the drug fight, the Pentagon posture disappointed officials who had hoped that a military-style battle plan would help the administration wage a more effective campaign.
"I do not understand why they can't act a little more forward-looking," one senior administration official complained.
The Pentagon had jumped to the forefront of the drug fight three years ago in a burst of enthusiasm sparked by concern that its traditional war-fighting mission was evaporating with the decline of the Soviet threat.
Its reluctance now to take on a bigger role was described by senior government sources as a consequence, in part, of the Persian Gulf war, which made some military officers scornful of mere anti-drug operations. But it was said to reflect also a Pentagon wariness about becoming too closely identified with the failure to make inroads against a potentially intractable problem.
The Pentagon's rejection of the plan deprives the White House of what had been envisioned as the centerpiece of its fourth annual anti-drug strategy, to be unveiled today at a news conference.
In a separate case of wrangling within the administration, another high-profile White House proposal -- to make public a most-wanted list of the nation's top drug criminals --
also was turned down, in this case by Attorney General William P. Barr.
Mr. Barr, who blocked the plan during a meeting of the White House Domestic Policy Council, was said to have been concerned that such high-profile publicity could undermine law enforcement efforts aimed at cracking the drug rings.
What remains intact of the new anti-drug strategy, to be released by Bob Martinez, director of the Drug Control Policy office, includes an unexceptional call for a 6 percent increase in federal funding on narcotics operations.
Coming in the wake of disappointing news on the drug front, the unveiling of the strategy also is expected to be marked by administration efforts to claim new successes.
At a news conference today, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan plans to release a new survey of high school seniors showing declines in their use of drugs and alcohol, a glimmer of good news in contrast to studies last year that showed new increases in cocaine and heroin use among hard-core addicts.
As the administration broadens its focus from the stubborn area of drug use, the strategy will propose for the first time plans to discourage use of alcohol among underage minors.
But in its renewed bid to fulfill Mr. Bush's inaugural vow that "this scourge will end," the administration has been confronted in recent months with sobering indications that the job may be more difficult than it appeared.
Despite a near-quadrupling of spending for U.S. anti-drug efforts in Latin America, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a classified report last year that there had been no appreciable decline in cocaine production. More recently, an internal Pentagon memorandum concluded that the "attainment of U.S. objectives is impossible" in Peru, a primary front in the administration's counternarcotics strategy.
In warning that the Andean strategy had "only marginally impacted on narco-traffickers," the report warned against deeper Pentagon involvement in the drug war.
In the latest setback, administration officials said that U.S.-backed anti-drug efforts in Peru had been forced to a halt in the last two weeks by concerns about the role of Maoist Shining Path guerrillas in the fatal crash of a U.S. helicopter.