General earlier sought military control of drug war McCaffrey may get chance to lead fight as drug czar

January 29, 1996|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

WASHINGTON -- About a year ago, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey circulated a classified proposal that the military take full control of the Latin American drug fight -- and drew the wrath of civilian agencies from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the CIA.

It was a brash plan to fuse power now spread among dozens of agencies while raising the military from a limited support role. The proposal quietly died.

It was not the only time the four-star general aggressively clashed with others as commander of Pentagon forces in Latin America. He continues to serve there, pending Senate confirmation as the nation's new drug czar.

"General McCaffrey is willing to step on toes -- and that may be just what we need now in the fight against drugs," said Rahm Emanuel, an assistant to President Clinton, who announced the general's nomination at last week's State of the Union address.

"The general is a man who gets the job done," Mr. Emanuel said. "He also knows how to be a team player."

Still, fans and critics said the president's choice marks a stark shift in personalities from former czar Lee Brown, and perhaps in the role of the low-profile office.

Mr. Brown worked behind the scenes in the drug fight, prodding and cajoling the many agencies involved to work together.

Recent reports, however, show drug use rising among teen-agers, and now Mr. Clinton has chosen an Army general who knows the jungles of Central and South America to lead the battle. Even the White House describes General McCaffrey in strident tones.

"He will not tolerate bureaucratic turf wars or grandstanding on this critical issue," an administration paper said last week.

Critics of the Clinton drug program said they welcome the appointment of a strong director. The question, however, is whether Mr. Clinton will back the tough talk. Congressional Republicans said Mr. Brown's near-absence typified an administration uninterested in the anti-drug effort.

They said the coming presidential campaign, with opponents ready to make the war on drugs an issue, forced the president to act.

Even Democrats have been critical. Mr. Brown grew frustrated because the administration did not pay any attention to him, according to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Few expect the administration to risk ignoring General McCaffrey. Colleagues widely describe him as outspoken and strong-willed, a man whose self-esteem shone brightly even amid the white light of four-star egos.

A Vietnam War hero, General McCaffrey was wounded three times and twice received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism amid conflict.

Running through machine-gun and mortar fire, single-handedly assaulting a bunker complex: "What he did reads like a Hollywood movie script," said John Hillen, a military specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization in Washington.

General McCaffrey also earned commendations for leading a fast-moving mechanized assault in the Persian Gulf war, the "left hook" that helped close a key escape route of Iraqi troops.

He became known nationally in a widely reported incident at the White House in 1993. General McCaffrey greeted a young woman he presumed was a presidential aide, who told him she did not "speak to people in uniform." Clinton critics cited the snub as a sign of White House disdain for the military.

The president later went jogging with the general. General McCaffrey soon won a promotion, and a year later another -- a fourth star and command of the U.S. forces in Latin America.

At the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, General McCaffrey saw firsthand the hodgepodge of agencies wrestling with the drug war. With a military man's desire for unity of command, he developed his plan for tight, centralized control of federal drug-fighting resources, say colleagues who worked alongside him.

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