Merging the Incompatible

September 10, 1993

The burden of proof for the merger of the Drug Enforcement Administration into the FBI is on those who propose it. So far they haven't met it. The report of the task force on reinventing government headed by Vice President Al Gore predicts savings of $187 million over five years, but it offers little evidence to back up this claim. The administration needs to make a better case. It hasn't even convinced Attorney General Janet Reno.

Most of the debate over combining DEA and the FBI, which also conducts narcotics investigations, has thus far been carried on behind closed doors. The public stake in ending the narcotics scourge, which is tearing at the social fabric of most urban areas, is too great for back-room decisions.

On paper it might appear that having two police agencies, each part of the Justice Department, investigating the same crimes is inefficient. In some respects it is. Each agency has its own "overhead" of facilities backing up its agents on the street. The two agencies are notorious for expending too much energy on turf battles. Each agency has its strengths and weaknesses. They complement each other as often as they conflict.

That might constitute enough of an argument for merger, were it not for the realities on the street. The cultures of the two agencies are so alien to each other that it seems unlikely they could be melded into a single, effective force. While the FBI has the edge in some areas of sophisticated police work, the DEA usually gets better results in the singularly dirty world of drug pushing. In fact, DEA statistics indicate that it does far better, agent for agent, in the most sophisticated types of investigations than does the FBI's narcotics division.

DEA has the edge over the FBI in another critical area. Much of DEA's work is in other countries, the sources or shipping points for the poison that is peddled on U.S. streets. The FBI also works abroad, but one of its principal missions is counter-intelligence work. Foreign police forces are much less likely to treat the FBI as partners in their domestic operations than they are now with the DEA.

All this begs the question whether the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on criminal investigations, by whatever bTC agency, would be better applied to treating drug addiction as a ** public health problem. If the Clinton administration really wants to fight narcotics abuse efficiently, it should be examining that issue. The argument that the two agencies waste money by duplicating or turf-battling is a confession that the Justice Department's leaders can't make them follow orders. Merging them merely papers over the real problems.

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