by Tim Johnson
Knight Ridder Newspaper
WASHINGTON -- The war against terrorism is diverting federal agents, patrol boats and other resources from the war on drugs, the nation's chief narcotics officer says.
"It's a battle of resources right now," Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief Asa Hutchinson said. It's particularly an issue for the Coast Guard and the FBI, he said. "When the dust settles, there will be discussions."
The FBI has yanked agents off narcotics cases for counterterrorism duty, Hutchinson said, and Coast Guard cutters that once were dedicated to patrolling for narcotics shipments now watch over vulnerable seaports.
"We've tried to make up the slack," said Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas who became the DEA's administrator three months ago.
A "formal reworking of the jurisdiction lines" may be needed, he said, if the FBI, a major ally in the drug war, withdraws permanently from drug investigations.
Since the suicide airliner attacks Sept. 11, the FBI has shifted 7,000 of its personnel, or about one in four employees, to new missions involving terrorism, FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a speech Oct. 24.
A former assistant attorney general, Stuart Gerson, said he thinks the FBI eventually may hand off counternarcotics and some other functions to other federal agencies or to state and local law-enforcement authorities.
"The driver of this is the need for the FBI to transform itself almost overnight from a criminal-investigations agency to a counterterrorism function," Gerson said.
Consolidating counternarcotics authority under the DEA, he added, might be a good idea.
"The last time I looked, there were more than 30 federal agencies with positive federal-enforcement functions on narcotics," Gerson said.
Hutchinson noted the Coast Guard had pulled as much as 75 percent of its cutter and aircraft fleet from the Caribbean to handle security for seaports.
"That has an impact," he said. "I don't want Miami and the Caribbean to go back to the way it was in the 1980s."
Hutchinson lauded federal counterterrorism efforts but noted there is "growing evidence" that cash from the narcotics trade finances organizations that sponsor terrorism, including the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"We recognize that we have to fight a war on two fronts: counterterrorism as well as counterdrug. And you can't neglect one," he said.
Hutchinson said drug smuggling diminished right after the Sept. 11 attacks, then increased.
"The smugglers were saying, 'Hey, this is a bad time. There's just too much heat along the border.' So they slowed it down. Then they got desperate. ... They said, 'Well, we got to move it.' They've got a payroll to make. So they started moving it," Hutchinson said.
On another matter, Hutchinson said U.S. authorities have yet to see a positive impact in Colombia, the world's main source of cocaine, since that South American nation received a $1.3 billion package of U.S. aid last year.
"We cannot say that there's been a reduction of the supply of cocaine coming into the United States from our efforts at this point," he said. "We do not anticipate that impact for a number of years."