Military Expands Role in War on Drugs U.S. Special Units Trying to Help Civilian Officials; Some Question the Move

By Jim McGee 1996, The Washington Post | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Military Expands Role in War on Drugs U.S. Special Units Trying to Help Civilian Officials; Some Question the Move


Jim McGee 1996, The Washington Post, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Through night-vision goggles, the drug smugglers resembled a pack team in an old Western movie: three riders and nine horses, winding single file down a rugged ravine in the Coronado National Forest near Nogales, Ariz.

Army Special Forces soldiers, watching the remote mountain pass from two camouflaged observation posts in the trees, waited until the procession had sauntered past before issuing an alert over a secure radio channel.

At Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., a U.S. Forest Service officer sitting in the base command center jotted down the Green Berets' information and relayed it to a National Guard OH-58 helicopter crew, which took off and headed for the ravine. Using an infrared radar system and map coordinates provided by the Army, the helicopter crew soon spotted the horses and riders. Within minutes, a posse of sheriff's deputies and Forest Service officials driving Ford Broncos had arrested the smugglers and seized their booty: 2,404 pounds of cocaine. The Coronado Forest episode, which occurred last year, may have had more dramatic sweep than most drug busts. But the case was typical in illuminating the extent to which the U.S. military has become embedded in the nation's drug war, as the Pentagon increasingly is drawn into domestic police missions long considered the province of civilian law enforcement agencies. With little public fanfare and scant congressional scrutiny, the military's domestic role has become broad and deep. Since 1989, when Congress and President George Bush formally ordered the military into the drug fight, the Pentagon has spent more than $7 billion on counterdrug operations. Last year, more than 8,000 active-duty and reserve soldiers, sailors and Air Force staff took part in 754 counterdrug support missions on U.S. soil that led to 1,894 arrests. Special Forces teams monitor the Rio Grande, Marines patrol the California desert, and Army intelligence officers watch for criminal activity from investigative centers in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Greenbelt, Md. The Army squad that spotted the smugglers in Arizona was part of Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6), the Defense Department headquarters that links the nation's military forces with domestic law enforcement agencies. In promoti ng a partnership between military and civilian forces, JTF-6 circulates to police departments a 55-page "Operational Support Planning Guide" marketing the use of Green Beret units, Navy SEAL teams and Marine reconnaissance patrols. Many supporters of the military's involvement in drug enforcement, citing the threat to the nation's social and economic order, believe the Pentagon's duties should be even greater. "I think it should be getting larger," said Rep. Bill Zeliff, R-N.H., chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight national security, international affairs and criminal justice subcommittee. "We should use the military. It all boils down to: Do we want to declare war on drugs or don't we?" For some military commanders, counterdrug operations provide useful training while making soldiers feel that they're involved in a vital mission. Civilian law enforcement officials are generally grateful for the technological acumen and professional competence the armed forces provide, particularly with sophisticated surveillance and communications systems. "Even if there was an argument that someone else ought to be doing it," said retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, "the fact that (the military) is there argues for it being used." An Uncertain Dividend The billions spent mustering the military for anti-drug duty has yielded an uncertain dividend. The availability of cocaine, heroin and marijuana in U.S. cities has not decreased, according to federal drug officials. And critics contend the military has edged toward a legal threshold that has been a singular feature of U. …

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