The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission), explicitly criticized the FBI for lack of imagination. I hereby make the same criticism of the 9/11 commission report when it comes to drugs and drug enforcement. The commission just did not get it – this talented group of Americans demonstrated no imagination whatsoever. When it came to drugs, they acted like the hidebound FBI traditional bureaucrats who stopped change in its tracks. The commission moreover did not take advantage of what I term the historic opening lying before it when major change in our destructive drug policy could have been recommended and enacted. It barely mentioned the DEA and when it did, it just dropped the ball.
I do give the commission great credit for the fact that it pointed out, as I have shown, in a number of references that drug enforcement often had a greater priority than the prevention of terror but the Commission’s probing analysis went no further than that. It made one mention of the DEA, in its discussion of other law enforcement agencies in the Department of Justice, to wit: “The department’s Drug Enforcement Administration had, as of 2001, more than 4500 agents. There were a number of occasions when DEA agents were able to introduce sources to the FBI or CIA for counterterrorism use.”
The commission did not take the logical next step and say something like the following: While we are in the process of recommending massive changes in the way the federal government is organized, it is necessary to recognize that the prevention of terror is of an infinitely higher priority than the prevention of drug use. Accordingly, we recommend that virtually all of the resources of the DEA be assigned to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division and to such other units of the FBI as are focused on counterterrorism intelligence gathering and field activity. Drug cases will be pursued only when there is strong evidence that the suspects are involved in violent international organized crime or have some connection to terrorist activity. However, nothing like those thoughts appeared in the massive report.
Such thoughts would run in line with those I put forth during a speech I gave to a criminology conference at the Hebrew university in Jerusalem in 1996. I observed, “What is not generally recognized is that the skills and personnel most successful in enforcing prohibition are also the most effective in curbing terrorism. The greatest successes of the American Drug Enforcement Administration have come from good intelligence, long-range planning and prediction, and undercover work. These are the same skills that other agents have used to penetrate terror networks.
“It goes without saying that society is at greater risk from bombs than drugs.
“All of us would be infinitely safer if the courageous efforts of anti-drug agents in the U.S., Israel and other countries were focused on terrorists aimed at blowing up airliners and skyscrapers [rather] than at drug traffickers seeking to sell the passengers and office dwellers cocaine and marijuana.”
That passage was not, in my mind, the most important part of the talk which was a broad critique of American drug policy along with an argument for legalization of drugs in many countries. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I had almost forgotten I had offered those ideas in that talk until after 9/11 when the passage started to appear in newspapers, on the Internet, and in speeches of other people dealing with American policy toward terror and drugs.
In the minds of some readers, there seemed to be a belief that I had predicted the events of 9/11. Let me put that idea to rest now. A reading of the passage will demonstrate that I had no idea that suicidal barbarians would fly hijacked planes into buildings and thus commit mass murder of innocent people.
At the same time I will accept credit for promulgating the rather simple and commonsensical idea that if nothing else, 9/11 should demonstrate that the skills of courageous anti-drug agents, who are limited in number in resources, would do more good in protecting us from bombs than from bongs. Such simple ideas have been known to change the course of history. I hope that God is listening. It would seem that no one in a position of power in DEA is.
Indeed, the top decision makers there seem to be living mainly in the world of September 10. Despite repeated direct inquiries and a review a good deal of material on the DEA web site, it is difficult to see any major changes in the mission or operations of the agency, now in the era of terror. In August 2004 its Web site indicated that for the fiscal year 2002 it had a total of 9,388 employees, of whom 4,625 were armed Special Agents and 4,763 were support staff, with the budget of $1.8 billion. After 9/11 there was a change in the staffing of the war on drugs because 500 FBI agents who had been working drug cases, in conjunction with DEA, were reassigned to counterterrorism work. This was certainly a positive development, in my opinion. However, President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2005 included an item of $35 million to add 100 new agents so as to make up for the loss of some of the FBI agents.
Every piece of information I could find, however, seemed to indicate business as usual, apart from these changes. The mission statement in August 2004 on the DEA web site seems unchanged from the past, from pre – 911: “the agency responsible for enforcing the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States.” The site crowed about a number of successful cases, such as “Operation Candy Box: Over 130 arrested in American – Canadian Crackdown on Ecstasy and Marijuana Drug Ring.” This operation could have taken place in the world of September 10 rather than afterwards. It also raises the question as to whether or not the people of the United States and Canada were now safer, after this huge effort which focused on two drugs that have rarely caused anyone serious harm. Would we all not have been safer if all those agents had been directed to ferret out the next Ahmed Ressam mixing a lethal bomb mixture in Vancouver or seeking to cross with it into the United States at any one of a dozen border crossing points? That DEA home site in August 2005 reflected similar priorities.
I did find major changes in the rhetoric of DEA. Now the DEA emphasizes how its operations have a major impact in furthering the war on terror. There is some truth in their claims but it is a convoluted truth. The connection between terrorist gangs and drug traffickers is very real because terrorists often finance their operations with the profits from drug trafficking. Therefore when the DEA says that their operations stop terrorism from taking in illegal profits from drug trafficking, they are quite correct. However, the DEA never says that the drug laws and the drug war, which DEA treats as holy text and a holy struggle, makes some plants worth more than gold and diamonds in the open market.
Thus, the DEA leaders and their drug warrior supporters, such as those in the drug czar’s office, have found their voice in the post 9/11 era: we must keep doing more of what we have been doing because it is a crucial force in the war on terror. Such posturing would not have been possible if only the 9/11 Commission had exhibited the intelligence and guts to rush through the historic opening the tragedy had provided and spoken the painful truth that our addiction to prohibition meant we were fighting one war too many, one war that caused more harm than good, and that it ought to be declared lost and finished. Moreover, that declaration would have freed up almost 5,000 armed federal agents and about the same number of support staff – and many more at the state and local level – to focus their attention on protecting our people from explosive and biological agents and not from plants and powers they voluntarily desire to consume.
About the Author: Arnold S. Trebach has been called “The Shadow Drug Czar” and is widely recognized as a pioneer of drug policy reform. He is the founder and past-president of the Drug Policy Foundation, Professor Emeritus at American University, and the author of several seminal books on drug policy reform. These include The Great Drug War (originally from Macmillan with a new edition recently released by UP) and The Heroin Solution (originally from Yale University Press with an updated UP edition expected soon. The Trebach Report contains ongoing commentary on these and other important issues of the day. Fatal Distraction is his latest book.