Anniversary of a Phony Drug Sting

As I exited the bus this morning in front of Lafayette Park, across the street from a well-barricaded Pennsylvania Avenue and White House, I entertained memories of George H.W. Bush, the one-term president who brought us endearing terms like voodoo economics and a thousand points of light, and who famously asked us to read his lips but ignore his actions. (Today we call this "flip-flopping.")

Bush I rarely occupies my thoughts, but today I harkened back 15 years to September 1989 and his first national television address, in which he famously warned the nation about a growing menace to our cities: crack.


This is crack cocaine seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House. It could easily have been heroin or PCP. It's as innocent-looking as candy, but it's turning our cities into battle zones, and it's murdering our children. Let there be no mistake: This stuff is poison. Some used to call drugs harmless recreation; they're not. Drugs are a real and terribly dangerous threat to our neighborhoods, our friends, and our families.
Bush's warning scared the beejeezus out of every middle-class mom and pop in America. "If you can buy crack across the street from the White House," the refrain echoed, "then you can buy it anywhere."

That the president's address was built on a lie – the cocaine was not seized across the street from the White House in a random drug buy but in a carefully engineered DEA sting – was revealed two weeks later by the Washington Post's Michael Isikoff:

    [O]btaining the crack was no easy feat. To match the words crafted by the speech-writers, Drug Enforcement Administration agents lured a suspected District drug dealer to Lafayette Park four days before the speech so they could make what appears to have been the agency's first undercover crack buy in a park better known for its location across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House than for illegal drug activity, according to officials familiar with the case.


    In fact, when first contacted by an undercover DEA agent posing as a drug buyer, the teenage suspect seemed baffled by the agent's request.


    "Where the {expletive} is the White House?" he replied in a conversation that was secretly tape-recorded by the DEA.


    "We had to manipulate him to get him down there," said William McMullan, assistant special agent in charge of DEA's Washington field office. "It wasn't easy."


Despite this revelation, Isikoff's good reporting didn't do much to harm Bush. Politicians on the side of the drug war are rarely tarred and feathered – even under the worst of circumstances – as long as the public views them to be fighting the evil scourge of drugs on behalf of the children. In fact, more was made of Bush's later attack on broccoli than on his bogus Lafayette Park claim.

With the sting-that-wasn't quickly behind him, the president, perhaps spurred by disgust over past (and possibly ongoing) cocaine use by his son George, soon elevated the "war on drugs" to new heights, invoking the "drugs" excuse to invade Panama. Looking back, this operation was little more than a large-scale re-creation of the misguided DEA set-up in Lafayette Park.

Equally harmful, police departments across the U.S. adopted the empty Bush mantra, which goes something like, "Even if we're not doing anything but arresting low-level drug sellers and users, drug stings make for a great photo op. They show people that we're doing something to push back against the drug problem."

Thus the ruse of the sting – prohibition-era theater masquerading as crime fighting – was reborn. Well-photographed border seizures soon became the norm. Police departments large and small tipped off eager but ethically barren journalists, inviting them to photograph "big busts" (drug busts, that is) that netted little in the way of drugs but tons of publicity, increased funding, fuel for asset seizures, and the approval of an obedient nation of scared parents.

Fortunately, the dog-and-pony show that is the drug sting is coming under increased scrutiny for its waste, violation of civil liberties, and ineffectiveness. Just yesterday, the editorial board of the Macon Telegraph offered this assessment of the sting:

    The harsh reality is that successful drug interdiction will continue to be limited as long as there are massive quantities of illegal drugs available and a flourishing market eager to buy and consume them.


    Considering this, it is only logical that the most effective approach to cutting into this criminal endeavor involves blocking the steady flow of drugs coming into the country and arresting and prosecuting those who are major distributors and manufacturers of illicit drugs.


    This is far easier said than done, as U.S. Customs and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency can testify. Unfortunately, it's not unusual for police agencies to take the easy way out, which involves devising a procedure to arrest a large number of drug users and low-level sellers. Once this is accomplished, then police can point to newspaper stories and TV reports that seem to suggest that police are taking a bite out of drug crime.


And for this, we must wish an unhappy birthday to the George H.W. Bush speech that got the ball rolling, 15 years ago this month.

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