Politicians Exploiting Drug-Terror Link

Undaunted by a paucity of evidence, politicians and pundits eager to smash terrorism are drawing a polemical link between the Osama bin Laden network and illicit drug profits -- and taking a few swipes at the drug culture while they're at it. Not that dopers should feel special. Opportunistic politicos have used the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington to rail against all their favorite bogeymen, from pacifism to "nihilistic modernism," from abortion and the ACLU to the failure to invade Baghdad in 1991.

But the rhetoric is beginning to take on an ugly new turn as some politicians take to implicitly blaming domestic drug consumers for the attacks. Reviving unpleasant memories of William Bennett and Darryl Gates, who went as far as suggesting all drug users should be taken out and shot (this would have included Gates' own son), US congressmen and British prime ministers alike are pointing the finger at drug consumers.

One hotbed of finger-pointing is Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) 48-member Task Force for a Drug Free America. In remarks last week, Rep. Rob Portman (R-OH), who will co-chair the panel along with fellow drug warriors Rep. John Mica (R-FL) and Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), came close to accusing drug consumers of being unpatriotic.

"By Americans spending money on their drug habits, we are helping to support the Taliban government, which protects terrorism," Portman said. "By stopping these drug traffickers, we are stopping the flow of cash used to fuel these terrorist cells," he added. "The role that we have to play here is to be sure that US money, through people using illegal drugs in the United States, is not being used to subsidize terrorism," Portman said.

Portman, however, did not address a number of relevant facts. For example, Americans who use drugs other than opiates are clearly not putting money in Kabul's coffers, since Afghanistan's primary drug crop is opium. US marijuana smokers, for example, may be enriching Mexican syndicates and the farmers of British Columbia, not to mention their fellow countrymen, who produce about half of the marijuana consumed in this country, but they are not enriching the Taliban. Likewise for cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and the whole panoply of uppers, downers, laughers and screamers which constitute the drug consumer pharmacopeia.

As for Afghan heroin, little of it shows up on American shores. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, "Most of the heroin seized by the DEA now comes from Colombia and Mexico. Previously, Southeast and Southwest Asian heroin dominated the US market, but these types are no longer available in sizeable quantities in cities along the East Coast, where, historically, there had been the greatest demand for heroin. In 1998, the DEA Heroin Signature Program indicated that 65 percent of the heroin seized in the United States originated in South America and another 17 percent came from Mexico. Further evidence of increasing amounts of Mexican heroin was substantiated in a 1998 independent study that indicated that 29 percent of the heroin used in the United States comes from Mexico."

Last but not least, legally used drugs made from opium, such as morphine, codeine or other opiates prescribed for pain -- or used as anesthesia in operations -- are not believed to enrich Afghani terror-mongers.

Portman's wide-of-the-bow shot at drug users, however, comes as no surprise. The Cincinnati Republican has made drug fighting a major part of his public image for years. He authored the Drug-Free Communities Act, which helps sustain federally-funded "grassroots" anti-drug groups, which have been actively fighting illegal drugs on the domestic front for several years. He is also a founder and current president of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati.

In his address to Congress this week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the "blame the users" chorus. "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets," Blair emoted. "Ninety percent of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan," he said.

That figure is probably close to the mark, but like Portman, Blair has morphed the bin Laden-drug connection into a Taliban-drug connection. Lacking evidence to tie bin Laden directly to drug trafficking, DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson was forced to resort to similar rhetoric to argue the drug-terror connection.

"Although DEA has no direct evidence to confirm that bin Laden is involved in the drug trade, the sanctuary enjoyed by bin Laden is based on the Taliban's support for the drug trade, which is a primary source of income in Afghanistan," Hutchinson told Congress this week.

While he had to stretch to turn bid Laden into a drug threat, Hutchinson was eager to offer his agency as a crucial part of the "war against terror."

"As the tragic events in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, so horrifyingly demonstrate, terrorist violence is indeed a threat to the very national security of the United States," said Hutchinson. "Accordingly, the degree to which profits from the drug trade are directed to finance terrorist activities, as well as the extent to which both types of organizations rely upon the same money-laundering and smuggling facilitators or systems, is of paramount concern to the DEA."

Further blurring the distinctions between illicit drug markets and terrorism, Hutchinson added that, "We see in [international drug trafficking] groups a merger of international organized crime, drugs, and terror."

Hutchinson's comments before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, were as interesting for what they did not mention as for what they did. Although Hutchinson noted that "Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, the year the Soviet Union invaded" and "due to the warfare-induced decimation of the country's infrastructure, narcotics are the primary source of income in Afghanistan," he spoke not a word about the US role in Afghanistan's disintegration or the making of Osama bin Laden.

In its largest covert operation ever, the CIA funneled $3 billion dollars through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency to Islamic radicals from around the Moslem world, including bin Laden's organization. This CIA effort resulted in the decade-long war to throw out the Russians, during which US policy-makers turned a blind eye to opium production among their allies. Those same warlords, creatures of US largesse, then drove the country so much further into the ground with their civil wars in the 1990s that the Taliban looked like a good option to Afghans. (Those same warlords, by the way, now constitute the Northern Alliance, which hankers for a new round of US financing to drive the Taliban from power and reseat itself in Kabul.)

The drug warriors are on the march, with "terrorism" as their new mantra. If they would rather blame drugs than the past errors of US foreign poliascy, that is understandable. But there is little evidence to suggest that it will lead to more effective drug policy or anti-terrorism policy.

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