Anti-drug task force may provide homeland security blueprint

U.S. Coast Guard Liaison Office, Havana

Aug. 4 dawned here with the promise of another unexceptional day of tropical sunshine and afternoon squalls. Street vendors and beggars were already taking their positions along once-stately Prado Avenue in anticipation of the throngs of European tourists who had taken advantage of cheap holiday packages to visit Cuba. Serving as a backdrop to this seaside boulevard scene were crumbling mansions, their facades pocked with broken windows and supported by wooden props. The few cars rattling in the streets were American antiques from the 1950s, when Fugencio Batista still ran Cuba. The city seemed like a relic of a distant past. Yet the U.S. Coast Guard's man in Havana got wind that morning of a very modern threat.

The previous night, U.S. surveillance aircraft in the Caribbean had lost track of a suspected drug-trafficking vessel as it veered into Cuban waters to escape possible pursuit. That smugglers ply the waters around Cuba is nothing new. During the Civil War, blockade runners carrying Southern cotton bound for Europe regularly evaded Union warships by hiding in Cuba. Rum runners made fortunes here in the Prohibition-era 1920s, eluding capture with their unsurpassed knowledge of the shallow-water shoals, sandbars, and uninhabited islands that dot the Caribbean.

Today, modern smugglers are equally adept at exploiting gaps in international borders. Sleek, cigarette-shaped "go-fast" boats loaded with drugs, illegal immigrants, or possibly worse enable these smugglers to dodge patrols and maneuver through the various law enforcement jurisdictions.

What is new is that Fidel Castro's Cuba helps the United States track the smugglers. Because of the anti-Castro politics of South Florida, the U.S. Coast Guard District 7 headquarters in Miami purposely says little about its liaison office in Havana. In recent years, however, intelligence passed along by the Cubans has become increasingly reliable and specific. When the U.S. Coast Guard official in Havana was alerted by the Cuban Border Guard that an unidentified vessel had been detected traveling fast along the northwest coast of Cuba on the morning of August 4, he immediately sent a secure message to the District 7 Command Center in Miami. The unidentified boat had just earned itself a designation now applied to specific threats approaching the U.S. homeland: It was now a "hard target."

U.S. Coast Guard District 7 Command Center, Miami

Covering the better part of a wall in the Coast Guard's District 7 Command Center in downtown Miami is a classified but decidedly low-tech map that marks with tiny magnets the precise positions of Coast Guard vessels and aircraft. At a center console in the middle of the room, a uniformed watch-team monitors computer screens displaying various data: weather reports, illegal-immigrant sightings in the Florida Straits, and reported fisheries violations, as well as scheduled routes of Coast Guard aircraft and patrol boats.

On one computer screen, a map overlay gives the position of automatic distress signals at sea that have been relayed to the command center. Because the Coast Guard considers search-and-rescue its priority mission, each of those signals would be investigated first, at a cost of tying up a significant amount of Coast Guard patrol assets.

In the early morning of August 4, the watch officer in the District 7 Command Center immediately recognized that the Coast Guard had few assets to devote to intercepting the "hard target" out of Cuba. Coast Guard patrol boats could be diverted to the general vicinity, but without surveillance aircraft to help pinpoint the target, their chances of intercepting the much faster smuggler in a vast expanse of ocean were minimal.

Ten years ago, the Coast Guard Command Center would likely have left it at that, chalking the experience up as another frustrating "miss" in a game of cat-and-mouse against well-financed drug traffickers and smugglers. The outlaws, after all, had become increasingly adept at outmaneuvering the plodding and poorly coordinated interceptors from the U.S. Coast Guard and the border and law enforcement agencies.

The command center watch officer might have contacted the U.S. Customs Service's Miami Air Station to see whether it had any surveillance aircraft in the area, but relations between the two agencies were notoriously fractious in those days. Back then, Coast Guard and Customs Service air stations refused even to coordinate flight schedules or patrol grids to avoid useless duplication of effort.

In the wake of the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged many U.S. inner cities in the 1980s, however, Washington increasingly came to view the powerful drug cartels and their global criminal enterprises as strategic threats to the nation. With more than $400 billion in annual global sales-larger than the auto or oil and gas industries-the drug cartels had vast resources and powerful political connections overseas that put them beyond the grasp of any single U.S. law enforcement or border-control agency.

In response to the drug-trafficking threat, the Clinton administration in 1994 issued the National Interdiction Command and Control Plan, which created an entity unique in the U.S. government. The idea was to give the war on drugs in the Caribbean and Latin America a command-and-control headquarters that would draw on intelligence fused from multiple agencies.

The headquarters, specifically, would marry the strategic intelligence of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Security Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency with the human-intelligence expertise of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Customs Service, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In all, 15 agencies sent representatives to the new headquarters staff, as did nine foreign nations.

In an equally important step, Washington attached the new counterdrug headquarters to the Pentagon's Southern Command, then located in Panama. This move helped exploit the Defense Department's unparalleled capabilities in command-and-control, secure communications, strategic intelligence, and operational planning.

This ambitious combination of agencies, called a "standing joint task force" in military parlance, would come to be led by a Coast Guard admiral, thus taking advantage of that service's unique dual position in both the military and law enforcement worlds. In addition, the new command would include liaison officers from many Latin American and Caribbean countries, as well as from British, French, and Dutch anti-drug agencies and militaries that help patrol the Caribbean islands still linked to their former colonial overseers.

The new headquarters represented the U.S. government's best hope that it could defy operational lines of demarcation and agency stovepipes and blend the capabilities of various agencies and the military services into a synergistic whole. This new entity grew into what today is the obscure Joint Interagency Task Force East, known in acronymspeak as JIATF East.

On Aug. 4, when the watch commander of the Coast Guard's District 7 Command Center received word of the "hard target" exiting Cuban waters, he realized he could not intercept the vessel with Coast Guard assets alone. He then passed the intelligence to the joint task force. Housed in a squat yellow building fitted with dark-tinted windows and bristling with antennas and satellite dishes, the task force headquarters sits hard by a Civil War fort on the southernmost tip of the United States. Like its historic neighbor, Fort Zachary Taylor, the headquarters was built to protect the southeastern approaches to the United States from the pirates of its day.

Joint Interagency Task Force East, Key West, Fla.

For a command that operates largely in secrecy inside the closed U.S. Navy air facility here, and which prides itself on keeping a low profile, the joint task force has become the center of an unusual amount of attention inside the U.S. government in recent months. Its staff recently briefed the Office of Homeland Security and its director, Tom Ridge, who was intrigued by the possibility of using the task force as a model for multiagency counter-terrorism operations in the new Department of Homeland Security. Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, the commander in chief of the Pentagon's new Northern Command, which has military responsibility for homeland defense, also visited recently to study task force operations.

Indeed, experts studying homeland defense stress that mission's close similarities with the war on drugs. The Joint Interagency Task Force East is thus fast becoming an important model for officials who are engineering the largest reorganization of the U.S. government in half a century.

"There is clearly a lot of interest inside the U.S. government at this point about the parallels between the counterdrug and counter-terrorism missions," Coast Guard Rear Adm. R. Dennis Sirois, director of the joint task force, told National Journal. "Whether the target set is terrorists or drug traffickers, the process you go through to thwart them is largely the same: intelligence fusion to identify the threat; monitoring the transit zones to the United States; detecting the bad guys as far away from U.S. borders as possible; and handing off to law enforcement or the military to intercept them. In terms of homeland security, I also think the standing joint task force is a good model. It's the best way we've come up with for focusing the capabilities of all our government agencies in one direction, and on one overriding mission."

The similarities between terrorists and drug traffickers are certainly well understood among intelligence analysts at the task force. As the task force has matured since its 1994 inception, the job of fusing strategic intelligence from U.S. spy satellites and communications intercepts with human intelligence from law enforcement investigations and sources has grown steadily in importance.

Nearly 200 people out of the task force's 350-member staff work in its intelligence directorate. In fiscal 2002, the task force was a voracious consumer of U.S. strategic intelligence, making 1,478 requests for imagery from the nation's secret imaging satellites (amounting to more than 25,000 pictures).

The task force's nearly unmatched "intelligence-fusion" capability-an attribute critical to the counter-terror and homeland defense missions-has become so well-known, it has enticed U.S. law enforcement agencies and foreign nations to cooperate in the war on drugs and to provide staff to the effort.

"When I first arrived at JIATF East years ago, it was a lot harder to get agencies such as the DEA, Customs, and the FBI to share intelligence, for fear that sources or methods might be compromised," said a Customs Service official on the task force staff. "Increasingly, however, law enforcement agencies began to realize just what an incredible tool was being offered in terms of the intelligence capability of the Pentagon and national intelligence agencies. That realization made us want to take part in JIATF East. This is the only place you can get a common tactical picture based on intelligence fused from virtually every U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, and military agency."

Task force officials concede that it has taken years and many acrimonious cultural clashes among the multiagency staff to build the trust necessary for such close sharing of sensitive intelligence. Finding common ground between a military mind-set, which respects hierarchy and obedience to rules and regulations, and a more free-wheeling law enforcement ethos that values a "bust" or arrest above nearly all else, has been an especially delicate balancing act.

To ease some of the rivalries, the task force gives the agency or service that originates intelligence considerable latitude in deciding how this intelligence will be disseminated to others at the task force. Such a compromise makes the intelligence-sharing process imperfect and dependent on personalities and case-by-case judgments. Yet the problems and solutions provide lessons with direct implications for the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

"The key is that the agencies involved assign to JIATF very senior and capable professionals who are willing to put our institutional biases aside in order to get the job done, and we're all living and working side by side together, down here in Key West," said a senior DEA agent assigned to the task force. "In that kind of close-knit environment, if you don't get along with someone, it can make your life miserable. Thus the tendency down here is not to sneak around jealously guarding your intelligence information, but rather sharing it to see if it provides a useful piece to the overall puzzle."

Over the past decade, task force analysts say that the intelligence-sharing has brought into clearer focus a symbiotic relationship between terrorist organizations and drug-trafficking cartels. In Colombia, for instance, all of the major guerrilla, paramilitary, and terrorist groups fighting the democratic government there (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; the National Liberation Army, or ELN; and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) fund their organizations largely from the cocaine trade. The same is true of the brutal Shining Path terrorist group in nearby Peru.

In the Middle East, both Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups have likewise been linked to drug trafficking. Before being routed in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, and its Taliban benefactors funded their operations in large part through the heroin trade. More recently, task force intelligence analysts in Key West have seen indications that Qaeda operatives have been recruiting and fundraising in Latin America.

"Anyone who gets involved in this business quickly realizes the strong links between drugs and terror around the world," said Coast Guard Adm. David Belz, who recently stepped down as the task force's director. "In many cases, drugs are a source of funding by which terrorist groups finance their operations. Professional smuggling groups also work closely with these drug cartels and the terror groups to transport illegal drugs, illegal aliens, arms, or any contraband that can make them a profit. So these nonstate actors tend to know one another, and depend on each other for their successes."

So when the task force here received intelligence on Aug. 4 identifying a potential "hard target" exiting Cuban waters, its analysts had even more reason than the Coast Guard did to suspect it of being a drug-trafficking vessel. The task force also had a much clearer picture than the Coast Guard of all U.S. government and allied-nation assets in the region that might be brought to bear on the elusive vessel.

Thus began a series of secure communications from the task force headquarters to the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Customs Service, and to the multinational command center in the Bahamas. These agencies put together a multiagency, multinational dragnet that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.

Customs Service, Miami Air and Marine Branch, Homestead Air Base, Fla.

When the call came in that the task force needed a Customs surveillance plane to help a Coast Guard patrol boat run down the suspected drug smuggler, Miami Air Branch Chief Robert Viator had to shake his head at how dramatically the South Florida theater in the drug war has changed in the past decade.

Viator has never forgotten a groundbreaking ceremony for a combined Customs/Coast Guard air operations center set up several years before the creation of the task force. The Customs commissioner had turned the first lump of dirt and handed the shovel to the Coast Guard commandant, who proceeded to shovel the same mound of dirt back into the hole. "Don't forget," Viator overheard the Coast Guard commandant say, "Whatever you do, I can undo!"

Viator can laugh about the incident now, but admits that it was hard to cooperate at the working level when the heads of the two agencies so obviously disliked each other. Similar tales of dysfunctional competition between the FBI, CIA, and DEA are also part of common lore in the drug war.

In truth, the scars from those interagency battles have taken years to heal, and are still evident in the attitude of a few of Viator's Customs Service old-timers-a fading breed-who like to bad-mouth the Coast Guard as if it were a hopelessly straight-laced cousin who had gone off to ROTC and returned all full of military spit-shine and swagger. Customs Service agents tended to see themselves as the independent bad boys willing to bend a rule until it screams, but who always got the job done.

In those days, if it was clear that an agency was not going to get the lion's share of the credit for a drug bust-as the Customs Service certainly wouldn't for helping run down a drug-running boat far out at sea-then it would often refuse to spend its operational dollars or risk its assets in order to help.

Those days are gone. The new watchwords are "teamwork" and "seamless operations," and Viator figures this new vision is necessary if the Customs Service, Coast Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Border Patrol, and many other agencies are soon to be combined in a Department of Homeland Security. If those agencies are already working together efficiently when the new department stands up, Viator reasons, there will be all the less cause for someone from Washington to come down and tell them how to do their jobs.

When the the Homestead Customs office heard from the task force about the "hard target," Viator's staff checked aircraft availability and got the OK to launch one of their twin-engine Citation jet aircraft, each of which is equipped with a specially modified F-16 search radar.

The Customs Service is unique among law enforcement agencies in having its own fleet of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, and the Miami station keeps an aircraft on eight-minute alert, 24 hours a day. Within minutes, the plane had powered out of the air station's gleaming new hangar at Homestead and was banking into a darkening sky for an at-sea rendezvous with a Coast Guard patrol boat.

Coast Guard Patrol Boat Drummond, in the Florida Straits

Lt. John Kennedy and his crew aboard the 110-foot Coast Guard patrol boat Drummond were running at full power with lights out on the moonless night of Aug. 4, receiving updates on the hard target's speed and course from a U.S. Navy P-3 patrol aircraft. But one of the Drummond's engines caught fire. As the boat slowed from 30 knots to nearly dead in the water, the engine room reported that a gauge had burst on a high-pressure line, spraying fuel over the engine's hot turbocharger.

The crew narrowly averted a major engine room fire, but by the time they had fixed the problem and got the Drummond under way again, the P-3 plane had run low on fuel and broken off the pursuit in order to land and refuel in Nassau, Bahamas.

"Typical," Kennedy thought to himself. Just when it seemed you were about to bring a chase to an end, a patrol aircraft would run low on fuel and have to abandon the search. Without its "eyes in the sky," a 110-foot patrol boat on a moonless night was unlikely to get close enough to a sleek smuggling vessel to lock in on its exact location, much less make an intercept.

At 9 p.m., however, the watch officer aboard the Drummond reported picking up, with the ship's upgraded maritime surface radar, a target traveling at 37 knots about 8 miles to the south. "Got you!" Kennedy thought, and ordered his pilot to steer an intercept course. Kennedy now had to hand off the contact to another surveillance aircraft quickly, or the "go-fast" boat would outrun his radar coverage.

Fifteen minutes later, the crew of the Drummond distinctly heard the thrum of the vessel's multiple outboards as it passed, an estimated 1,000 yards off the patrol boat's bow. Both boats were running without lights, and Kennedy had his deck gunner manning the Drummond's .50-caliber machine gun.

"You don't even know I'm here," thought Kennedy, "and I could blow you out of the water if I had authorization."

As the faster boat began to put distance between itself and the Drummond, the Coast Guard boat's VHF radio crackled to life. It was a Citation patrol aircraft flying overhead, requesting exact coordinates. Kennedy made the handoff to the Customs Service aircraft and then used his satellite radio to help direct a Coast Guard cutter, the Tampa, into position on the radar picket line.

As he climbed down from the bridge around midnight to log some sleep, Kennedy marveled at how many people had joined the chase and how well it was all coming together. It was almost as if an unseen hand was orchestrating the whole pursuit from afar.

Operations Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, U.S. Embassy, Nassau, Bahamas

When the suspected smuggling boat veered into Bahamian waters after being tracked by a picket line of U.S. aircraft and ships for more than 800 miles and 24 hours, task force command-and-control staffers knew they had reached what they call the "magic moment."

JIATF East has legal authority as the lead agency only in the "detection and monitoring" phase of a counterdrug operation; because of its status as a military standing joint task force, the posse comitatus law bars it from engaging in law enforcement activities. Therefore, in any pursuit, JIATF East must hand off tactical control to a law enforcement agency that can make a final arrest.

In the 1990s, this shifting of tactical control routinely took many hours and numerous calls to Washington. But now, after nearly a decade of tweaking and operational experience in drug pursuits, the task force has whittled the "magic moment" down to a matter of minutes.

One big reason the magic moments are now so short is the now-routine deployment of Coast Guard law enforcement detachments aboard U.S., British, French, and Dutch warships operating in the Caribbean. The mere presence of a Coast Guard team aboard a warship automatically makes it a law enforcement platform. During drug busts these ships even fly the flag of the Coast Guard.

In the case of the suspected drug smuggler on August 4, the task force shifted tactical control to a small, multiagency, multinational command center housed in the upper floor of the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, called Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos.

OPBAT-the result of a memorandum of understanding between the United States, the Bahamas, and the United Kingdom (which acted as signatory for its protectorates Turks and Caicos)-essentially denies smugglers a favorite tactic: finding sanctuary from U.S. law enforcement in the national waters of the Bahamian, Turks, and Caicos island chain, with its more than 700 inhabited and uninhabited islands.

Upon receiving intelligence from the task force that a suspected drug smuggler was entering Bahamian territorial seas, the OPBAT command center immediately launched Coast Guard and U.S. Army H-60 helicopters stationed in the Bahamas, each carrying an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a counterpart from the Bahamian anti-narcotics squad.

Once they could see the suspected smuggler boat, OPBAT helicopters pursued it until the boat beached itself on the north end of Bimini. The smugglers disappeared into the jungle, and the OPBAT team recovered 30 bales of illegal drugs thrown over the boat's side in the last desperate minutes of the chase. Bahamian police arrested one of the suspects on Aug. 6.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Bryan Seale, the director of the OPBAT operations center, looked back at the operation with great satisfaction. "Because neither the Bahamas nor OPBAT had the fixed-wing aircraft to track that drug smuggler 800 miles across the Caribbean, we relied on JIATF East, working with the Coast Guard, Customs Service, and U.S. Navy, to keep eyes on the target until it got close enough for OPBAT to put our helicopters in the air, with the authority of the Bahamian police onboard," he said. "That's an example of international and multiagency cooperation that you will find virtually nowhere else, and if our strategy in homeland security is really to push our borders out and develop a layered defense against potential terrorists and other threats, then this is a model we may want to emulate on a larger scale."

Office of the U.S. Interdiction Coordinator, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington

The after-action review of the Aug. 4 chase looks fairly typical for a Joint Interagency Task Force East operation. Human intelligence out of Cuba combined with strategic intelligence to identify the likely origin, destination, and nature of the threat. Tactical command-and-control, directed by the task force command center, provided more than 30 hours of long-range aerial surveillance by Navy, Coast Guard, and Customs Service fixed-wing aircraft.

Then came the handoff of tactical control to law enforcement, which used some 25 hours of coordinated operations by Army and Coast Guard helicopters stationed overseas to produce an endgame with a smuggler's boat beached on Bimini. Finally, international cooperation between Bahamian police and DEA agents built a case and led to an arrest. The net result: 1,623 pounds of marijuana and 30 pounds of cocaine will never reach American streets.

So could the next intercept be a cadre of Qaeda terrorists armed with a half-ton of explosives or a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon? That question is what has many officials in Washington studying the task force here and its counterpart on the West Coast for lessons that can be applied to the counter-terrorism and homeland security missions.

For instance, should the east and west task forces be reassigned to the new Northern Command, where its mission could be better coordinated with that of the proposed Department of Homeland Security? What can the task force teach the new department about merging disparate agency cultures? Or about coordinating a defense against the threat of international terrorism through close cooperation with U.S. intelligence entities and foreign-nation liaisons? What, in effect, would the U.S. government have done differently if the August 4 chase had involved not a drug smuggler carrying bales of illicit narcotics, but a suspected terrorist transporting a bomb.

"If you look at them closely, the counterdrug and counter-terrorism missions not only look very similar, but our defense against both threats will have to be performed the same way," said Coast Guard Capt. Steve Branham, executive director of the staff of Adm. Thomas Collins, the U.S. interdiction coordinator, who also serves as commandant of the Coast Guard. "In a very real sense, a transnational threat is a transnational threat, regardless of whether you are talking about drug traffickers, terrorists, illegal narcotics, or weapons of mass destruction. The assets the U.S. government uses to investigate, detect, and monitor those threats, and the methods we have for interdicting them and apprehending the suspects, are virtually the same. When all of this government reorganization shakes out, I wouldn't be surprised to see our counterdrug operations subsumed within the larger mission of homeland security."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook