Magazine article Insight on the News

Is the Drug Czar Skirting the Law?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Is the Drug Czar Skirting the Law?

Article excerpt

The head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is under fire for manipulating data in a report to Congress to cover shortcomings in his federal antidrug program.

Bill Clinton's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, has had no shortage of trouble recently. First, he provoked outrage by paying TV producers to let him edit scripts to promote the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's, or ONDCP's, antidrug message. Then he got into even more trouble when Salon, a liberal Internet magazine, discovered that he was paying publishers to run antidrug editorials. And McCaffrey's problems only got worse when it was discovered that his office's Website was allowing advertisers to store "cookies" on visitors' computers, potentially allowing advertisers to track what other Websites they visit.

Now McCaffrey's office is in more hot water. Insight has discovered that ONDCP manipulated data in a formal report to deceive Congress, a likely violation of federal law. The move concealed from congressional budget makers the shortcomings of ONDCP's $195 million per year media campaign to promote antidrug awareness. The campaign is the only program ONDCP directly manages.

The doctored document, "Performance Measures of Effectiveness: 2000 Report" is supposed to fulfill ONDCP's obligations under Public Law No. 105-277, which seeks to reduce waste by requiring ONDCP to set "quantifiable and measurable" goals and then file annual reports with Congress detailing progress. If goals are not met, Congress can eliminate programs that don't work.

To this end, ONDCP includes in its report a section called "Progress at a Glance," two pages that color code each of its goals: green for goals that are "on target" and red for those "off target."

It's here that the deception began. In the section describing its media campaign, ONDCP listed its goal to "increase the percentage of youth who perceive drug use as harmful" in green. This meant that it was on target to increase the proportion of American youth who see drug use as harmful to 80 percent by 2002. But was ONDCP really on target?

In 1996 only 59.9 percent of 12th-graders -- the group that ONDCP used to measure youth perception -- saw regular marijuana use as harmful. By 1998, the proportion had fallen to 58.5 percent and, by 1999 it was at 57.4 percent.

For three consecutive years, risk perception among 12th-graders fell below the 1996 levels. Given these bleak numbers, ONDCP should have marked this goal in red, indicating that it was not on target. To get the numbers to come out right, officials made two changes (which they did not point out in the report) in the way they calculated risk perception. First, they changed a figure called the "base year," from which they judged progress. The original base year was 1996; the new one was 1998.

By making the change, they accomplished two things. First, they made the downward trend -- one that might have jeopardized funding for their program -- look less severe. Second, since the most recent data came from 1999, a 1998 base year left less room for long-term comparison. Using a 1996 base year would show a trend for three years: 1997, 1998 and 1999. But by starting in 1998, officials could now report that, although there had been a decline, it had been only for one year.

But even this more modest decline never made it into the report. That's because McCaffrey's officials made a second change: They started to use eighth-grade data instead of the 12th-grade data. Conveniently, eighth-graders typically see drug use as more risky than 12th-graders, hovering in the lower 70 percent range compared to the upper 50 percent range for 12th-graders. By changing the data source, officials found they could boast that they were less than 7 percent from their 2002 goal, compared to the 23 percent shortfall with the original 12th-grade data.

ONDCP officials cooking the report to Congress now waived their magic wand a third time by misreporting data which they obtained from a University of Michigan study called "Monitoring the Future. …

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