Report says communications, poor intelligence hamper drug fight

Friday, March 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.S. drug fighting agents still use radios that can be intercepted by traffickers, suffer from outdated information on drug movements and are further hampered because the military gives interdiction low priority, a Customs Service review says.

The report by George Joulwan, the retired four-star Army general and former NATO commander, recommends shifting more counterdrug operations from the military to Customs, which is part of the Treasury Department.

Joulwan's report, prepared with Organizational Strategies Inc., a Washington-based management firm, was dated January and has been circulating in recent weeks among counterdrug agencies and in Congress. A copy was obtained by The Associated Press.

The report said the Customs Service needs better communications systems that can shut out eavesdropping traffickers.

``Secure, reliable communication equipment is not installed on most of the (Customs Service) aircraft and vessels. Resources to intercept and decode these signals, at some level of sophistication, are certainly available to drug traffickers,'' it said.

The lack of timely, accurate intelligence was described as ``a major shortcoming'' and that without improvements, U.S. counterdrug efforts will be ``piecemeal, late and ineffective.'' The report said little progress has been made since a presidential directive in October 1993 called for better coordination.

The report also recommended more money for Customs for better surveillance planes and other equipment, as well to recruit and retain experienced pilots.

It said $100 million a year should be spent to replace and refurbish Customs aircraft and $8.3 million for marine equipment. Agency figures show that an average of $38 million a year has been spent over the past 11 years on aircraft and a little more than $10 million total on marine equipment.

Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which covers most of Latin America, said he had not seen the report. But he did say, ``I don't think you'd find too many people in our command who would disagree that we could use more resources and we are constantly seeking better ways to improve cooperation.''

The White House drug policy office received the report Wednesday and is reviewing it, spokesman Bob Weiner said.

U.S. officials long have acknowledged that they stop just a small fraction of drugs from entering the country from Latin America and the Caribbean _ a figure estimated at about 20 percent in recent congressional testimony by Gen. Peter Pace, Southern Command's head.

Though the study's focus was on Customs, the report looked at overall U.S. counterdrug efforts, especially the military's role.

While the military plays ``an important supporting role to U.S. law enforcement,'' it has often been ``stretched and stressed'' with other commitments, the report said.

``No matter where the DoD (Defense Department) commitment or threat was in the world, the lowest priority of DoD assets was the drug fight,'' it said.

It said the Defense Department's role in fighting drugs ``has diminished with shrinking budgets'' and noted that a reconnaissance plane intended for Latin America has been diverted to Korea.

A former Pentagon counternarcotics official, Ana Maria Salazar, disputed Joulwan's view that drug fighting was the military's lowest priority, but said ``it's not the highest.''

``And you can't make it the highest when your options are to use (equipment) to protect American soldiers or to try to protect counterdrug flights,'' Salazar, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said in a telephone interview from Mexico City.

The report suggests that the Defense Department can make its best contribution not by providing a lot of troops and equipment, but by coordinating _ though not commanding _ the work of the various military and civilian agencies involved in the drug fight.

The report recommended that the head of Southern Command _ a position Joulwan held from 1990-1993 _ would be the logical choice for ``operational coordinator.''