How America Lost the War on Drugs

Page 9 of 12

The White House advisers weren't the only officials in Washington concerned about Colombia. Earlier that day, two men who attended the briefing — Rand Beers of the State Department and Charlie Wilhelm of the Defense Department — had gotten a call from the Republican caucus on the Hill. Dennis Hastert, who had been elevated to Speaker of the House six months earlier, wanted to see them right away. "It was kind of unusual," Beers recalls — but when Hastert called, you came.

When Beers and Wilhelm arrived, Rep. Porter Goss, then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, handed them a piece of paper. It was a copy of a supplemental spending authorization that the Republicans planned to offer immediately. Crafted by Bobby Charles, Hastert's longtime aide, the bill would have more than doubled military aid to Colombia to take on the rebels and narcotraffickers — to a staggering $1.2 billion a year. But it was the politics of the situation that worried Beers as much as the money. "It occurred to me that if the administration was going to do anything on Colombia, it better do it soon," he says now, "or the Republicans would once again outflank what they perceived as the I-never-inhaled Clinton administration." Beers told the Republicans he would take a look, and then hurried to Berger's meeting.

Throughout much of the Clinton administration, the hope had been that the United States would be able to reduce its military aid to the Andes as the cocaine epidemic waned. Now, as Berger's group heard from intelligence agents, that hope seemed to be fading. Narcotraffickers were paying off the FARC so they could grow coca in the jungles of Colombia. The FARC were then turning around and using the money to buy weapons to stage attacks on the Colombian government.

Berger decided to act. Rather than oppose the Republican plan, he agreed to negotiate on an assistance package to bail out the Colombian government. The result was Plan Colombia — nearly $1.6 billion to escalate the War on Drugs in the Andes. The new program would arm the military and police in their fight against the FARC, launch an ambitious effort to spray herbicide on coca crops from the air and provide economic assistance to poor farmers in rural villages. The initial aid, officials decided, would be heavily concentrated in Putumayo, a rebel-run province in the jungle.

No one is sure what convinced President Clinton to approve such an ambitious escalation in the War on Drugs. But some observers at the time speculated that the critical factor was a conversation with Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, whose state is home to the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft. In early 2000, Clinton unveiled Plan Colombia — and Sikorksy promptly received an order for eighteen of its Blackhawk helicopters at a cost of $15 million each. "Much has been made of the notion that this was Dodd looking to sell Blackhawks to Colombia," Beers tells me. He pauses before adding, "I am not in a position to tell you it didn't happen."

Plan Colombia would be the Clinton administration's primary and most costly contribution to the War on Drugs, the major counternarcotics program it bequeathed to the Bush administration. But as with so many other aspects of American drug policy, the plan had an unintended consequence: As it evolved, the emphasis on supplying arms to the Colombian government ended up having less to do with drugs and more to do with helping Bogotá fight its enemies. Colombia used the military aid to target the left-wing FARC — even though many believed that right-wing paramilitaries, who were allies of the government, were more directly involved in narcotrafficking. "It wasn't really first and foremost a counternarcotics program at all," says a senior Pentagon official involved in the creation of Plan Colombia. "It was mostly a political stabilization program."


9. The Temple of Hope

In July of 1999, gov. George W. Bush of Texas traveled to Cincinnati to visit Hope Temple, a former crack house that had been turned into a church. It was an almost unbearably hot day. Bush was on a tour through the Midwest during which he was testing out his philosophy of compassionate conservatism, trying to see if its rhetoric and principles could sustain a winning presidential run. "The American dream is vivid," Bush told audiences, "but too many feel, 'This dream is not meant for me.'" John Bridgeland, the congres­sional aide who had helped steer federal funding to Hope Temple, says Bush was "overwhelmed" by his visit to the church that day, and stayed the whole afternoon. That evening, Bush spoke about the fervent religiosity of the place and the rough joys of the addict's redemptions. "These," he said, "are the armies of compassion."

This was a strange moment in the politics of the drug war: Just as the Clinton administration was toughening its rhetoric, influential Republicans were going all soft and gentle. John DiIulio, a political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania who would become a key Bush adviser, was disgusted by the "perverse consequences" of harsh sentencing laws that had put millions of young Americans in prison, disbelieved the "sweeping scientific claims" made about the dangers of medical marijuana and wanted to expand "meaningful drug-treatment opportunities in urban areas." DiIulio and his contemporaries were troubled, too, by the racial imbalances of the War on Drugs: Blacks, who comprised only fourteen percent of drug users, made up seventy-four percent of those in prison for drug possession. It was not as if the Republican Party had suddenly taken up a position on the far left of the drug war. But it did seem, for a moment during the 2000 campaign, as if some moderation were possible.

Three months later, when the Bush campaign released its drug policy, even the most experienced drug warriors were impressed. The platform balanced spending between demand- and supply-side programs, stressed treatment and doubled the number of community anti-drug coalitions. When Bush won the White House and DiIulio became the director of the Office of Faith-Based Programs, they raided the team of compassionate conservatives surrounding Hastert: Bridgeland became director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Charles became assistant secretary of state for narcotics control. The new administration, DiIulio believed, would take the lead in "reforming drug-related sentencing policies that research had shown were having perverse consequences."

"If you look back at that campaign document, it really is pretty impressive," says Carnevale, who ended up heading the drug office's transition team for the Bush administration. "Which is kind of remarkable, given what happened next. They've appointed a drug czar who ran like hell from a very sensible policy."

It took Bush nearly a year to pick his drug czar, and almost no one felt encouraged by his choice: John Walters, a laconic Midwesterner who had served as Bill Bennett's chief of staff during the administration of George H.W. Bush. "We all knew who Walters was," one longtime drug warrior tells me, "but he wasn't what you would call an inspiring figure, even to conservatives." When Walters submitted his first National Drug Control Strategy to Bush in February 2002, it became clear that the administration's focus had narrowed: Walters was devoted to Plan Colombia and to a prevention campaign that would keep kids from trying drugs for the first time, aimed particularly at marijuana — even though the number of first-time pot smokers had been flat for half a decade. Longtime drug warriors like Carnevale were stunned. "We were going back to an Eighties-style drug policy," he says — one that emphasized the kind of military and law-and-order programs that had been proven not to work, while ignoring programs, particularly treatment, that did.

Walters also had a complaint with the ads that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America had created for the drug czar's office under McCaffrey. They were, he said, too soft. He had a point. The ads, which ran under the slogan "The Anti-Drug," had been designed by a committee of academics who apparently believed that kids needed to be shown that not doing drugs could be fun too. In one characteristic spot, a pen draws an animated landscape, with a cartoon boy avoiding the advances of cartoon dealers before driving off into the distance with a cartoon dragon on a cartoon motorcycle. "My name is Brandon, and drawing is my anti-drug," the narrator says sweetly. The commercials made abstinence seem so lame they could have been designed by the cartels. "A lot of the ads that were produced were really boring," admits Philip Palmgreen, a University of Kentucky communications professor who served on the ad committee. Walters not only wanted harder-hitting messages — he also wanted the focus "to narrow around marijuana," according to one staffer at the Partnership who asked not to be identified. "Very candidly, the Partnership pushed back against that because the problems associated with marijuana are not very dire." But Walters disagreed, the staffer adds, "and we lost."

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