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April 24, 2004 - The Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Blinded By Drugs

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Last week, the U.S. commission examining the Sept. 11 attacks issued a statement of facts that helps explain why the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to stop the al-Qaeda plot. Counter-terrorism just wasn't a priority for the FBI, the commission said. Instead, the bureau was too busy fighting the never-ending war on drugs.

"As the terrorism danger grew, (FBI) Director (Louis) Freeh faced the choice of whether to lower the priority the FBI attached to work on general crime, including the war on drugs, and allocate those resources to terrorism," the commission noted. Formally, the FBI did make terrorism the priority, but "it did not shift its human resources accordingly."

In 2000, "there were twice as many agents devoted to drug-enforcement matters as to counter-terrorism" and even agents who were assigned to counter-terrorism were often moved temporarily to drugs and crime.

The 9/11 commission also noted that on May 9, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft testified at a hearing that the Justice Department had no higher priority than preventing terrorism. But a day later, "the department issues guidance for developing the fiscal year 2003 budget that made reducing the incidence of gun violence and reducing the trafficking of illegal drugs priority objectives." The directive didn't even mention counter-terrorism.

The FBI's misallocation was confirmed immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks when more than 400 agents were shifted to counter-terrorism -- almost all coming from drug investigations.

What the commission has confirmed is something this newspaper has argued for many years. One of the terrible costs of the war on drugs is the good that could be done if the money and manpower lavished on this futile fight were instead devoted to other priorities. Every officer doing buy-and-busts is an officer not going after thieves, rapists and murderers. Every investigator tracing cocaine profits is an investigator not looking for terrorists.

Certainly Canadian governments haven't figured this out, as demonstrated by the recent massive bust of a marijuana and ecstasy ring headquartered here in Ottawa. The police crowed even though the bust will have no substantial effect on the supply of drugs (they never do).

The American government hasn't learned its lesson, either. Not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, the DEA and FBI spent millions of dollars busting medical marijuana growers in California. And in 2003, federal officers conducted a nation-wide sweep of businesses selling "drug paraphernalia" -- bongs and pipes -- that netted 65-year-old Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame.

In 1996, Arnold Trebach, a legendary opponent of drug prohibition, gave a speech noting that "all of us would be infinitely safer if the courageous efforts of anti-drug agents in the U.S. ... and other countries were focused on terrorists aimed at blowing up airliners and skyscrapers (rather than) drug traffickers seeking to sell the passengers and office dwellers cocaine and marijuana."

We will never know what would have happened had the FBI taken Mr. Trebach's advice. But we do know what happened when the FBI continued to fight the futile war on drugs.

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