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
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
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. …