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The drug and terror connection

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


Earlier this month, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration had disrupted two separate attempts to use drug sales to underwrite weapons for terror groups.

There is a "deadly nexus between terrorism and drug trafficking," Ashcroft said. He was joined by Asa Hutchinson, DEA chief, who said "we have learned, and we have demonstrated, that drug traffickers and terrorists work out of the same jungle; they plan in the same cave and they train in the same desert."

This nexus is no surprise. In this year alone:

-- A massive drug ring was busted that had sent millions of dollars in methamphetamine proceeds to the Hezbollah terrorist group.

-- In Colombia, a nation devastated by ongoing civil war, a number of rebel leaders of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC were indicted for drug trafficking as were members of the paramilitary groups they fight.

-- And two Pakistanis and an American were arrested for hatching a plan to trade tons of opium and hashish for Stinger missiles. They allegedly planned to sell the missiles to al-Qaida.

Can anyone truly doubt that drug money is destabilizing nations and enhancing the power of our enemies? (Al-Qaida doesn't appear to be using the drug trade to fund operations, but other Middle Eastern terror groups are.) Even the anti-drug advertising campaign put out by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy tells young people that using drugs helps terrorist.

In one ONDCP ad "Timmy's" decision to use drugs is said to help "kill mothers," by fueling brutal terrorist groups. While a bit hysterical, in some infinitesimal way the ad is right. But the real culprit, the elephant in the room, is our national drug policy and the way it makes the drug trade so very lucrative. This is why terrorists are interested.

After 30 years of overdrive prohibition -- putting millions of people behind bars and spending half a trillion dollars -- we know we can't eliminate drugs. Illegal drug usage numbers have changed little since the 1980s. Ninety-four million Americans over age 12 admit to having used them at least once in their lives.

What we can control, however, is the money in drugs. Due to prohibition, $1,000 worth of coca base from Colombia sells for $25,000 here. If this market were turned legit, the profit margin would drop like a stone, eventually driving out the criminal element. (Remember alcohol prohibition?)

But that is not going to happen. There is no political will to consider any form of decriminalization.

Here's what is happening instead.

The drug war and the war on terrorism is converging both practically and, more important, rhetorically. This will allow the Justice Department and the Defense Department to use all their new, extraordinary powers for both. Timmy the drug user, will go from being an exaggerated fictional ad to a basis for ignoring due process for street-level drug investigations and for involving the military in more domestic law enforcement.

On Monday, Ashcroft celebrated a decision by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review dismantling the wall between domestic intelligence gathering and criminal prosecution.

The wall had been there because our law makes it far easier to secure covert surveillance and wiretap authority if the purpose is to watch the activities of suspected spies than regular criminals. The danger is that prosecutors might be tempted to use these special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants as a way to get around the Constitution's probable cause requirements. But the three-member court, all handpicked by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, poo-poohed that concern. It gave Ashcroft a free hand to use FISA warrants in criminal investigations anywhere there is a tangential association with a suspected terrorist. Ashcroft already views looking for drugs and terrorists as one in the same. It is no surprise that he immediately announced a doubling of the number of attorneys assigned to move FISA warrant applications along.

In the name of fighting terrorism, the executive branch has instituted secret arrests, detained people for months without charge, and put Americans in military brigs without access to a lawyer. It has established a large detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold unlawful enemy combatants out of reach of U.S. courts and international law. And it is embarking on huge data mining programs in at least three federal agencies designed to examine everyone's personal business for clues into terrorist associations.

With a potential narco-terrorist connection looming behind every drug transaction, it won't be long before all these shortcuts, justified by exigent circumstances and national security, will become a regular part of law enforcement. This parallel legal system, where few of the traditional protections for the accused remain, will soon become the norm.

Suspected drug dealers at Guantanamo? It's closer than you think.

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