Human Rights

How the War on Drugs and the War on Terror Merged Into One Disastrous War on All Americans

The consequences are measured in lives, limbs and cash.

It was 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one in the United States.” With those words, Nixon ushered in the “war on drugs,” the attempt to use law enforcement to jail drug users and halt the flow of illegal substances like marijuana and cocaine.

Thirty years later, another president, George W. Bush, declared war on another word: terrorism. But the war on drugs hadn’t ended yet.  Instead of one failed war replacing another soon-to-be-failed war, both drugs and terrorism remain targets for law enforcement and military action that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and have cost billions of dollars.

In fact, the war on terror and the war on drugs have merged to form a hydra-headed monster that rapaciously targets Americans, particularly communities of color. Tactics and legislation used to fight terrorism in the U.S. have been turned on drug users, with disastrous consequences measured in lives, limbs and cash. And money initially used to combat drugs has been spent on the war on terror. From the Patriot Act to the use of informants to surveillance, the wars on drugs and terror have melted into one another.

On Oct. 26, 2001, after remarkably little debate, President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) into law. Some elected officials admitted they hadn't read the entire legislation before voting on it. The Patriot Act was renewed in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

The purpose of the legislationwas “to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world [and] to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools.” Buried in the act is a hint that the wars on terror and drugs were being paired. The Patriot Act appropriated $5 million to the Drug Enforcement Administration to train Turkish forces in anti-drug measures and to increase the apprehension of drugs in South and Central Asia.

Even more significant was Section 213 of the act, which legitimizes what are known as “sneak and peek warrants.” These warrants, approved by a judge, allow the police to enter into a home without notifying the suspect in that home for at least 30 days—90 days if a judge is convinced the police need it. The 90-day extensions can be repeatedly re-authorized. Authorities are able to enter a home or office, rifle through private property and take photographs all without the suspect knowing, which is contrary to how normal warrants work.  While “sneak and peek” authority was allowed in limited cases before the 2001 legislation, the Patriot Act has dramatically expanded its use. And the vast majority of cases where it's used had nothing to do with terrorism, despite the FBI's claim that the warrants are an “invaluable tool to fight terrorism.”

From October 2009 to September 2010, law enforcement agents executed sneak and peek warrants 3,970 times, according to numbers obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. Less than one percent of those cases had to do with terrorism. But 76 percent had to do with drugs. It was much the same story from 2006-2009, according to data compiled by New York magazine. In that time period, 1,618 such warrants were issued for drugs. Only 15 were issued for terrorism-related cases, with 122 being issued for fraud.  

In November 2009, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), questioned Department of Justice official David Kris about the Patriot Act being used to execute the war on drugs. The assistant attorney general’s response was telling: “This authority here on the sneak-and-peek side, on the criminal side, is not meant for intelligence. It's for criminal cases. So I guess it's not surprising to me that it applies in drug cases.”  Feingold responded by pointing out that the Patriot Act was sold as needed to fight terrorism, not “regular, run-of-the-mill criminal cases.”

In addition to the sneak and peek warrants that so concerned Feingold, the full-scale militarization of police in the U.S., accelerated by the war on terror has brought weapons used in war to the homes of suspected drug dealers as well as and innocent people. The ACLU’s recent report on police militarization has shined a big spotlight on how the intersection of the wars on terror and drugs have brought destruction to many Americans.

The militarization of law enforcement began during President Reagan’s term in office. As journalist Radley Balko, who has tracked police militarization for years, pointed out last fall, “the election of Ronald Reagan brought new funding, equipment, and a more active drug policing role for the paramilitary SWAT units popping up across the country.” But the war on terror has fueled the process.  

As Balko notes, in 1994, the Pentagon authorized the transfer of military equipment to police departments. Also that year, Congress passed a law to facilitate that type of transfer. Every year since then, with almost no debate, the Pentagon budget passed by Congress has included that provision.  

Today, the same type of weapons being used in Iraq and Afghanistan to battle militants are being used in the streets of America. These weapons include machine guns, armored personnel carriers, aircraft, drones, night-vision equipment and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles. And in the vast majority of cases, these military weapons are being turned on drug suspects. Furthering the militarization of police are Department of Homeland Security grants given to local police agencies, which use the cash to buy military-style equipment. At least $34 billion in such grants, given by an agency created because of 9/11, have been handed out to local police, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

This infusion of cash, the ACLU’s report on militarization notes, has “led to even more police militarization and even greater military-law enforcement contact, and DHS grants have allowed police departments to stockpile specialized equipment in the name of anti-terror readiness.”

One facet of the ever-growing trend toward militarized police forces is the use of informants to figure out which houses to raid. The informants used in the vast majority of drug cases are typically people involved in the drug trade who have escaped a jail sentence—or had a sentence reduced—at the price of helping the police. But informants are not the most reliable of people. They have an incentive to tell the police about alleged crimes, even if their information is not accurate. Nevertheless, the use of informants has not let up in recent decades, even when the information has led to botched raids and the deaths of innocents. This reliance on informants, honed in the war on drugs, is now a major weapon in the war on terror.

Many of the domestic terrorism cases in the U.S. start with plots first egged on by informants, who are typically low-income Muslims who have their own legal troubles. Critics of the use of informants say that the cases these sting operations produce are entrapment of Muslims.

Take the case of Shamiur Rahman. In 2012, the 19-year-old Rahman, a Muslim,spoke out about his informant activities for the New York Police Department, whose Intelligence Division has created a massive spying apparatus targeting Muslims across the Northeast of the U.S. Rahman quit his job and said his activities as an informant were unconstitutional. His activities involved trying to bait Muslims into saying inflammatory things and taking pictures inside of mosques while collecting the names of innocent people who went to study groups on Islam. He sent that information to the NYPD. Rahman got involved with the police after being arrested repeatedly for minor marijuana charges. In exchange for cash and goodwill from the police, he informed on his community. 

That’s not the only way the NYPD’s war on terror has been fueled by the war on drugs. In February 2012, Associated Press reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo revealed that the White House was funding part of the NYPD’s spy program.

The millions of dollars funneled to the NYPD from the White House came from a grant program called High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Administered by White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, it was created for the war on drugs to give money to law enforcement to fight drug gangs. But since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, at least $135 million flowed to the NYPD for its spying on Muslims.

As the NYPD’s funding and informant model shows, it’s getting increasingly hard to differentiate the war on drugs from the war on terror. From the federal government to local law enforcement, money earmarked to fight terrorism is being turned on drug users, while cash that started out to combat drugs is being turned on Muslims. And both wars are eating away at Americans’ civil liberties.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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