WikiLeaks Highlights Drug War Mission Creep

If you want to see what mission creep looks like, in all of its Kevlar-vested, helicopter-flying, door-kicking glory, there’s no need to look further than the recent WikiLeaks revelations about the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as it operates throughout the globe.

According to The New York Times, which has access to a cache of DEA-related State Department cables, the DEA now has 87 offices in 63 countries – pretty much double the number of countries from 20 years ago, before 9/11. Today, the Global War on Terror has infused the drug interdiction agency with an expanded mission as a paramilitary and intelligence-gathering agency on par with the CIA and U.S. Special Forces overseas.

In fact, recent photographs and video coverage of DEA FAST (Foreign-Deployed Assistance and Support Teams) in Afghanistan indicate there is little difference between U.S. military soldiers and the drug agents deployed on the ground, save for the insignia patch on the sleeves of their fatigues. Both have their limitations – the DEA can’t directly arrest people on foreign soil, and the military is always in need of better “human intelligence,” so they work hand-in-glove, as this report last year from Pat Robertson’s CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) gushingly conveys (any real surprise why CBN gets A-list treatment from the military?).

Welcome to Drug Hunters International, which, for all of the $2.1 billion in taxpayer funding the agency gets in a year, has accomplished very little by way of the metrics: the illegal drug industry is considered as lucrative and even more dangerous than ever, particularly in neighboring Mexico, while the situation in Afghanistan – counter-terror and counter-narcotic alike – is on a widely accepted downward trajectory.

But the doors keep on opening to the DEA despite their guns and helicopters and intrusive practices. To avoid violating federal law that precludes overall the DEA from arresting and apprehending foreign suspects, agents work directly alongside local authorities in foreign countries, sharing their methods, weapons and surveillance technology – a big boon to poor countries, and, as the WikiLeaks cables suggest, to corrupt, morally indistinguishable leaders and actors who want to use the DEA against their political enemies.

According to the NYT on Dec. 25: 

“In far greater detail than previously seen, the cables … offer glimpses of drug agents balancing diplomacy and law enforcement in places where it can be hard to tell the politicians from the traffickers, and where drug rings are themselves mini-states whose wealth and violence permit them to run roughshod over struggling governments. …

“Like many of the cables made public in recent weeks, those describing the drug war do not offer large disclosures. Rather, it is the details that add up to a clearer picture of the corrupting influence of big traffickers, the tricky game of figuring out which foreign officials are actually controlled by drug lords, and the story of how an entrepreneurial agency operating in the shadows of the F.B.I. has become something more than a drug agency….

“In Venezuela, the local intelligence service turned the tables on the D.E.A., infiltrating its operations, sabotaging equipment and hiring a computer hacker to intercept American Embassy e-mails, the cables report.

“And as the drug agency has expanded its eavesdropping operations to keep up with cartels, it has faced repeated pressure to redirect its counternarcotics surveillance to local concerns, provoking tensions with some of Washington’s closest allies.”

Interestingly, back in 1999, the DEA told the Government Accountability Office [.pdf] that in addition to the limitations proscribed in the Mansfield Amendment, agents were also precluded from conducting electronic surveillance in “any foreign country, nor can they be present during foreign police operations without a letter from the ambassador.”

How quaint it all sounds today, especially when the DEA in Afghanistan practically brags that it is helping to target, raid and even kill suspects on foreign soil, not to mention its wiretapping all over the world.

It seems quite easy to get permission to override the old safeguards, and in fact, foreign leaders appear thrilled to participate, like the interior minister of Paraguay, who wanted to use the DEA’s spy program – which, according to the leaked cables, was deployed through Paraguay’s phone network – to spy on his leftist opposition. The DEA and the ambassador’s office reportedly refused, but eventually cut a deal allowing the interior ministry more access to their technology while turning a blind eye to the minister’s use of other spy technology to achieve its political goals.

“The Ambassador made clear that the U.S. had no interest in involving itself in the intercept program if the potential existed for it to be abused for political gain, but confirmed U.S. interest in cooperating on an intercept program with safeguards, as long as it included counternarcotics,” read the cable, published by WikiLeaks before Christmas.

Of course, that the U.S. has set up secret wiretapping programs with the aid of foreign governments all over the world, particularly in South America, where it has been operating heavily for years, is no surprise. The New York Times was perfectly right when it said the cables “do not offer large disclosures.” But they paint an interesting portrait of classic mission creep, of a bureaucracy constantly reinventing and recalibrating itself to maintain its significance in the annual budget; and most importantly, how the war on terror has been used to advance those goals for the DEA. By no means is it the only agency doing it, but it is certainly the most obvious.

“This is true of all bureaucracy,” said Chuck Pena, author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism and a regular contributor to “They have to have a mission. If the mission that they had before, if it isn’t successful, if it goes away, then they’ve got to reinvent themselves, find a new mission, that’s how bureaucracy reinvents itself.”

It certainly happened after 9/11 when the Bush Administration first turned the counter-narcotics mission into a “counter-terror” mission in Colombia, and then started invoking an unholy nexus between illegal drug cartels south of the border, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. This convenient scenario has been peddled by members of Congress like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and spread by a willing corporate (and right wing) press, for years. And it’s been a boon for the DEA.

“This is what government bureaucracies do, they link their mission to someone else’s mission, a more special mission that is seen as bigger and more important. They conflate the two and make it hard for their money to go away,” said Pena.

That poppy production and the illicit drug trade is funding insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan is no secret. No one really knows how much, but given that the industry is booming, fueled by user demands in Russia, Europe, China, Africa and North America (globally, a $55 billion annual market for heroin alone), there is no reason to believe it is not happening on a tremendous scale. According to the U.N.’s own annual drug report in early 2010, global opium production might be down slightly since a peak in 2007, but it’s still way higher than any year up to that point. Afghanistan still provides 85 percent of the planet’s morphine and heroin supply. It’s not difficult to imagine where the money is going.

Jerome Starkey, writing for the UK Independent two years ago, went as far as to say, “the heroin flooding Britain’s streets is threatening the lives of UK troops in Afghanistan.” NATO officials have estimated that profits from drugs fund 40 to 60 percent of the Taliban’s operations. But how is the DEA stopping it? A closer look reveals that it is no more effective in combating drugs there, than it has been here in the U.S. for the last 30 years.

“These days you hear multiple reports of Taliban commanders running their own drug labs, running processing centers that process the raw opium into morphine base, into heroin and in fact exporting those shipments and profiting at much higher levels than they were before,” says Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, in a recent interview with NPR. “That would indicate that the Taliban is turning something much more along the lines of a drug cartel than a political movement.”

Ironically, the poppy production was cut significantly in Afghanistan in 2010, according to the United Nations this fall. But it was because of an infection in the plants, not anything the DEA or NATO did (NATO denies charges from farmers that the crops had been deliberately sprayed with a plant-devouring fungus). But this has only caused prices to skyrocket, yielding more profit for the corrupt tribal leaders, government officials, the Taliban and whoever else moving the product out of the country.

The official line, as usual, is much different. According to then-acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, whose visit last April was afforded the deference of a colonial proconsul (with taxpayers footing the $125,000 chartered flight), there are now about 100 FAST agents there working with the (notoriously corrupt) local police in Afghanistan, and together they conducted some 82 operations in the preceding year, built a network of local informants (some of them the worst offenders in the country), and increased “opium seizures by 924 percent.” ABC reported back in May that the DEA finds the night raids “are working” and that the DEA are operating “hand in hand with the U.S. military to arrest and sometimes even kill traffickers responsible.”

So why are we still losing this war?

No need to look further than over the border in Mexico, or to Plan Colombia, which saw $5.6 billion in U.S. counter-narcotics aid, including all manner of State Department, DEA and military resources, flow into Colombia since 1996, to combat the cocaine, cartel and crime crisis there. But according to Adam Isacson at Just the Facts in October:

“None of these problems has been vanquished. The guerrillas are not defeated, and won’t be beaten on the battlefield for at least several more bloody years. The ‘new’ paramilitaries are growing, and responsible for an alarming spike in urban crime. Colombia is still the world’s largest cocaine producer, and drug mafias continue to enjoy great political and economic power. Meanwhile it is extremely rare to see a human rights abuse punished or stolen land returned to victims.”

Full chart of all U.S. counter-narcotics aid to Latin America here (total: $10.7 billion).

According to Isacson, then-President Bush used 9/11 to escalate aid to Colombia in the new spirit of “counterterrorism.” The failures of this approach portend an even greater catastrophe in Afghanistan, where the war is bleeding the U.S. – literally and figuratively – dry.

As far as the rest of the expanding DEA boot-print goes, it seems fairly clear from the leaked cables that this constantly feeding, ever-expanding and sustaining bureaucracy comes with a price – playing footsies with contemptible, petty foreign leaders, fan dancing with drug-trafficking officials and informants, and putting the eradication of drugs before all else, even the lives of innocent people, as we have seen in Colombia and Afghanistan.

Things are likely to get much worse with right-wing hawks like Ros-Lehtinen at the helm. She already has axes to grind with Cuba and Venezuela, and is all too happy to conflate the War on Terror with the War on Drugs. She certainly does not see that in places like Afghanistan, that conflation is getting us nowhere – that two wrong wars will never make a right, in fact, it will probably make things a lot worse.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.