Officials seek to transfer State drug program to Justice Department

The chairman of the House International Relations Committee said the State Department's aviation program for eradicating illicit drugs abroad has failed and should be transferred to another federal agency.

In an Oct. 1 memo, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said the State Department has failed to adequately stop opium production in Colombia, and therefore all authority, budget and personnel of its "Air Wing" program should be transferred to the Justice Department. Hyde sent the memo to Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"It is clear to me that we need some shifting and consolidating of functions within agencies in order to accomplish our goals in this vital fight against illicit drugs abroad," Hyde wrote.

The Air Wing program is operated by the State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) Affairs agency, and is based at Patrick Air Force Base in Melbourne, Fla. The program operates helicopters and airplanes in Central and South America to support host nations in the eradication of illegal drug crops and the detection, monitoring and interdiction of drug trafficking.

An INL spokeswoman said on Tuesday that INL is "extremely capable" of managing the program and does not believe it should be transferred to another agency. According to a fact sheet from INL, the program eradicated coca production by more than 15 percent and opium poppy production by 25 percent in 2002. Additionally, the program has consistently received high marks in government reviews and was awarded the first federal aviation program award for outstanding achievement in aviation management in 2001 by the General Services Administration, the fact sheet said.

However, in August, John McLaughlin, the director of the Air Wing, issued a scathing seven-page report in which he said the State Department could no longer adequately manage the program and that the Air Wing was at its lowest state of readiness ever. In the report, McLaughlin recommended that the aviation program be reassigned to another agency that has expertise in leading complex operational programs, with the Justice Department being an ideal candidate.

McLaughlin identified several key problems in how INL manages the Air Wing, including a shortage of pilots because of fewer training sessions during the last year; all-time low staffing levels, which create safety concerns; erratic budgeting, which has led to inefficiencies and hindered campaign planning and mission execution; and the agency's failure to promptly address the problem of increasing ground fire in Colombia.

McLaughlin added that all of his concerns have been repeatedly brought to the attention of senior managers at the State Department, but have not elicited effective support and changes. He claimed the Air Wing was a "counter-culture" in the State Department's world of interagency policy coordination and diplomacy.

"The magnitude of the Air Wing operations now exceeds our ability to find workarounds that had, for years, allowed us to succeed within an agency that is not operationally or technically oriented," McLaughlin wrote. "The recently recognized importance of aerial eradication programs argues for transfer of the Air Wing to a federal law enforcement agency-an action that will preserve and substantially strengthen [our] counter-drug capability."

Hyde described McLaughlin's report as "the State Department's own self-indictment of its institutional failure in fighting illicit drugs abroad." Hyde further asked Sensenbrenner to join forces with him and incorporate the transfer authority when the Justice Department authorization bill comes to the House floor.

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