America's top drug warrior speaks out

When retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey became the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1996, he inherited one of the most thankless jobs in government. Though he held a Cabinet-level position, the "drug czar" was viewed as a largely ceremonial figure and a lightning rod for criticism of the administration's drug policies. Worse, statistics at that time clearly showed a rising tide of drug use among young Americans.

In coming weeks, however, the office will release a report on the success of its public-private National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which it touts as the largest advertising campaign in history. At the same time, surveys on youth attitudes and levels of drug use indicate that both use and acceptance have leveled off, and in some places declined, in recent years. National Journal correspondent James Kitfield interviewed McCaffrey on those and other issues affecting America's war on drugs.

Q: Youth attitude surveys have recently shown teenagers' disapproval of drugs increasing. Have American attitudes toward drug use turned an important corner?

A: I think our ad campaign is having huge, unexpected consequences. Our purpose was to shape the attitudes of people 9 to 18 years of age, and therefore change their drug-taking behavior. What we've found is that the media campaign is also reaching mentors and adult caregivers of those youngsters, and affecting their understanding of the problem. There are all sorts of people out there who are offended by what they see of drug abuse, but they feel isolated and alone. When they see these advertisements, however, these people realize they are not alone.

Q: Your National Drug Control Strategy for 1999 makes a strong case for devoting more attention and resources to diverting drug offenders into treatment programs through drug courts, and focusing more on prison treatment programs. Given your background in the drug interdiction effort as the former commander of U.S. Southern Command in Panama, I think your strong emphasis of the treatment side of the equation has surprised many people.

A: I think the intellectual underpinnings of the argument for more emphasis on treatment have been widely accepted in recent years. I don't want to overstate the case, because there is no single or simple solution to the drug problem. But you have to remember that I came to this job as a former Army major in Germany in the 1970s, where I saw firsthand the disaster that befell the Army as a result of drug abuse. It damn near destroyed us. Education, prevention, and treatment programs helped the Army get out of that fix. So when I came into this job, I was predisposed to think treatment was part of the solution. Most judges and cops I've talked to feel the same way.

Thus, while four years ago there were about a dozen drug courts nationwide, today there are 600 online or coming online. By the time I leave office, there will be around 1,000. We've also set up the National Drug Court Institute in Alexandria, Va. For all that, the $40 million we invest in drug courts is a tiny fraction of our federal [anti-drug] budget of roughly $18 billion.

Q: You've also spoken out strongly in support of increased drug treatment in federal prisons. A: The prison population is the second piece of the puzzle. Drug courts get the young kids who run afoul of the law, and put them into treatment. For some, it won't work, but for a majority of them, it will. Then you have the 1.8 million Americans already behind bars. Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 50 percent and 85 percent of our prison population has an alcohol or substance abuse problem. It's the dominant single variable that explains why people find themselves behind bars. In many cases, they've also committed other crimes which warrant punishment, but if we don't treat the drug problem while they are behind bars, we're wasting our time. That person will go right back to his or her aberrant behavior once they're out.

Q: How do you respond to a growing number of criminal justice officials who complain that "mandatory minimum" sentences imposed by Congress for nonviolent drug offenses have taken away judicial discretion and are unduly flooding our prisons?

A: Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are out of whack. We have a failed social experiment under way in America right now. That's not to say this is only a medical problem, and not a criminal justice problem. These 4 million chronically addicted Americans commit a disproportionate share of the mayhem in this country.

Having said that, however, the least effective tool imaginable is to greatly extend incarceration and eliminate the whole parole-and-probation process. We argue just the opposite. I would rather see swift punishment, so a 20-year-old male who commits drug crimes knows he is likely to be arrested and tested for drugs. If he tests positive, he will have to undergo mandatory participation in a drug treatment program. How successful he is at breaking the drug cycle at that point should determine how the criminal justice system treats that person.

Q: I'd like to turn to the issue of drug supply and interdiction. Colombian officials, whose country supplies virtually all of the cocaine and most of the heroin to American streets, have ceded a huge chunk of the country to insurgent Marxist guerrillas as part of a peace overture. Do you share the concern of the former Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda, who recently resigned to protest Colombia's ceding of the territory to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas?

A: I'm enormously concerned about what is happening in Colombia. If you take a snapshot of where that incredibly important and overwhelmingly law-abiding country is right now, it seems to me they are in a crisis situation and headed in the wrong direction. Coca production in Colombia has doubled in the past three years, the commensurate threat to both our peoples is getting measurably worse, and 40 percent to 50 percent of the land area is no longer under the control of Colombia's democratic institutions such as the army, police, and judicial system.

Thank God, President [Andres] Pastrana is an honest man, and he brought in a good team of people to work with him. Because the solution to Colombia's drug problem had to include a solution to the problem of the guerrillas, who get roughly $600 million annually from the criminal drug organizations, we have been publicly and privately supportive of Pastrana's peace process.

However, the question now is, why would the FARC guerrillas walk away from $600 million a year and control of 40 percent of the land area of Colombia? Only if there is political reward and potential military punishment of such dimensions as to persuade them that they are more likely to achieve their purpose through the political process rather than through terrorist acts. And as I look at the peace negotiation process, it doesn't look as if they've come to that conclusion. So I remain extremely concerned about what's happening in Colombia right now.

Q: Newspaper reports that drug corruption had reached an official close to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and a prominent Mexican business family overshadowed a recent summit between U.S. and Mexican ministers that you attended. These controversies seem to happen every year. Is the glass half full or half empty, in terms of Mexico's fight against drug traffickers and official corruption?

A: There's an enormous level of corruption and violence driven by international drug trafficking organizations inside Mexico, and it represents a fundamental threat to Mexico's democratic institutions. The question is, what are we in the United States going to do about it? My best answer is to work with Mexico for the next 15 to 20 years, in a patient and balanced partnership, to enhance the likelihood that Mexico will develop its own internal institutions to successfully confront the drug organizations.

As to whether the glass is half full or half empty, I think it's inarguable that our cooperation with Mexico has improved over the past five years. Five years ago, there was an enormous amount of animosity between our two governments. Since that time, we've helped train thousands of Mexican police and judges; our Coast Guard has begun routinely docking at Mexican ports; and we have an 85 percent approval rate when requesting to fly drug surveillance missions in Mexican airspace. So in both countries, we're trying to conduct ourselves in a way that will allow us to hand this process over to the next two governments in better shape than we found it. And I'm absolutely convinced that will be the case.

Q: U.S. Coast Guard and State Department officials met in Havana with their Cuban counterparts last week to improve counterdrug coordination. You were recently chastised by some members of Congress for suggesting that the United States should cooperate more closely with Cuban authorities to stem the flow of drugs through that country to U.S. shores.

A: I did get some guff over those comments, but I meant what I said. The point I made was that it's too bad we have the Cuban people living under a goofy, Marxist government with a collapsing economy. Their police and armed forces are barely able to patrol Cuba's air- and sea space, and their national sovereignty is routinely violated by drug trafficking organizations.

For the past five years, however, I also have considerable reason to believe the Cuban government has become more concerned about the increasing amount of illegal drugs showing up inside of Cuba, and I have no reason to believe, from reading intelligence reports, that the Cuban government is presently complicit in the drug trade. In fact, on a case-by-case basis, the U.S. Coast Guard communicates with Cuban border forces, and the Cubans respond by trying to seize, interdict, and arrest those responsible for drug shipments.

My main point is that over time, Cuba will become more vulnerable to drug traffickers because of its geographic position. When the Cuban people are free-and they eventually will be free-it will be to America's advantage if their country is not the center of criminal drug activity directed at the United States. That's all I said.

Q: How disappointed were you that negotiations with Panama failed to reach a deal to allow U.S. forces to continue conducting counterdrug surveillance flights out of Howard Air Force Base in Panama?

A: That was a huge disappointment, because there was widespread agreement among senior officials in both governments that it made sense for the United States to remain in Panama, for a lot of good reasons-only one of which was counterdrug operations. A continued U.S. presence would have been good for the investment environment, jobs, and tourism in Panama, and it was overwhelmingly supported by the Panamanian people.

Q: So why did negotiations on Howard collapse at the 11th hour?

A: During the negotiating process--while negotiators were whittling down an A+ deal to a C+ deal--[former Panamanian President Ernesto Perez] Balladares was running against his own negotiators in order to win another term in office. There were numerous times when Panamanian officials would make ludicrous public statements-"We won't let the gringos abuse us anymore"-and I would call them on the phone and ask what they were doing. The reply was that we shouldn't pay any attention, that those comments were just for domestic consumption. If I fault the United States for anything, it's that we didn't go public with the Panamanian people soon enough to let them know what was going on.

Q: It's been reported that your inability to negotiate for alternates for Howard during much of this time has left you with a serious counterdrug surveillance gap in the Caribbean.

A: The continuing dialogue with Panama harmed us in two ways. Politically, it was very difficult to deal with other governments in the region when it wasn't clear what the outcome of talks with Panama would be. Who wants to commit political capital to a hypothetical proposition? The second problem was that as long as we were talking to Panama, I had trouble getting the attention of the U.S. Air Force. [Running] the Andean air interdiction and counterdrug missions is not the Air Force's top priority. Nor is it just the Air Force. Howard is the base from which other U.S. agencies, such as Customs and the [Drug Enforcement Administration], operate. So a lot of our programs in the region will be jeopardized until we re-establish a base of operations. In the meantime, we have a significant shortfall in our surveillance coverage that will impact us for the next two to five years.

Q: A number of members of Congress and the commander of U.S. Southern Command have recently called for the removal of U.S. forces from Haiti. Are you worried that Haiti is in danger of becoming another major staging base for narco-traffickers in the Caribbean?

A: The counterdrug situation in Haiti is abysmal, and we're concerned about the future of the country. The mechanisms of democracy in Haiti seem inoperative, and the new police force, while it is trying, lacks funding and midcareer people. That makes it vulnerable to corruption and threats of violence from the traffickers. So we have a huge problem in Haiti, and to solve it, we have to continue working not only with that country but with its neighbors in the region.

Q: When you accepted this job, a number of skeptics doubted that a four-star Army general could adapt to the give-and-take of the political process.

A: Well, anyone who thinks the armed forces are a totally autocratic and authoritarian institution has probably never seen them at close range. ... I served three tours here, and learned about dealing with Congress and the interagency process under the tutelage of [former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Colin Powell. Powell gave me a piece of advice which I still follow. He told me not to try and anticipate political outcomes, but rather establish a principled position, write it carefully down on paper with all your good ideas, and then use the policy process to sell it to the administration, Congress, and the American people. That's what I've tried to do in this job: put together the best package of supportable ideas, and then go out and sell it. I absolutely believe you can prevail in this town with good ideas.

Q: After years of rising drug use in America, reports indicate that your National Drug Control Strategy is scoring some significant successes. What do you hope to establish as your legacy when you leave?

A: Well, I think the numbers are starting to demonstrate that we're achieving our purpose. By the time my team walks out of these offices, I expect it to be almost inarguable that, broadly speaking, what we're doing makes sense and is working. I think the attentive people in Congress and around the country-as well as in the international community-have heard what we're doing and generally support it as reflective of the best wisdom that exists in the professional community. That's important, because after next year's election, I want the infrastructure behind our anti-drug campaign to be embedded in the interagency process, so that whoever takes over this job, from whichever party, can carry it on with some commonsense leadership.

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