U.S. military hopes to pare anti-drug traffic operations

It wants to shift resources to war against terrorism

October 21, 2002|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Pointing to the need to redirect resources to the war on terrorism, the Pentagon has quietly decided to scale back its effort to combat international drug trafficking, a central element of the national "war on drugs" for 14 years.

Officials are weighing how exactly to pare the $1 billion-a-year program, but they want to reduce deployment of special operations troops on counter-narcotics missions and cut back the military's training of anti-drug police and soldiers in the United States and abroad. And they want to use intelligence-gathering equipment devoted to counter-drug work for counter-terrorism as well.

But the military's counter-narcotics effort is highly popular among some on Capitol Hill, where the retrenchment plans could run into trouble. The plans have not been spelled out for lawmakers; however, Defense Department memos and interviews with current and former officials make the Pentagon's intentions clear.

Congress ordered a reluctant Pentagon to enter the drug war in 1988, when surging cocaine traffic from South America sparked a sense of crisis.

"We should not be relaxing our efforts in the war on drugs," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and a key advocate for the effort. "Terrorism is the highest priority, but drugs are still insidious."

The Pentagon's plans were signaled this summer in a memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and distributed to senior uniformed and civilian officials.

He said the department had "carefully reviewed its existing counter-narcotics policy" because of "the changed national security environment, the corresponding shift in the department's budget and other priorities, and evolving support requirements."

The Pentagon will focus its counter-narcotics activities on programs that, among other things, "contribute to the war on terrorism," he added.

Top defense officials are expected to work out the details of the shift in priorities in the next few weeks as they prepare their 2004 budget proposal.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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