Portrait of a drug czar

Gen. Barry McCaffrey drives his government office like a lockstep battalion, but some contend his ruthless schedule and egomaniacal ways are only hurting his effort to bring sanity to America's drug policy.

Published August 30, 2000 9:04AM (EDT)

It was 10 p.m. on a Friday that had started at 6 a.m. and drug czar Barry McCaffrey, two aides, two federal marshals and a D.C. cop were hurrying through Washington's National Airport to a lounge where McCaffrey could sit comfortably for a radio interview. As they swung around security to enter the lounge, rent-a-cops ordered McCaffrey's assistant, who was carrying the drug czar's briefing materials as well as his own bag, to go back through the metal detectors. At precisely that moment, "McCaffrey looks up," recalled one person present at the scene, "and says, 'Hey, how about some coffee?'"

As it turned out, McCaffrey may not even have been addressing the assistant with his request, but the many 70-hour weeks the assistant had put in at the drug czar's side had taken their toll. The assistant snapped. He dropped McCaffrey's bag, went back through security, down the escalator and caught a cab home. The following Monday, he told McCaffrey he wanted out.

Barry McCaffrey is the country's most-decorated general, its longest-serving drug czar and, now, an architect of a U.S.-backed counterinsurgency campaign that on Wednesday took him and President Clinton to Colombia. He's also a fiercely meticulous employer who has always taken it hard when subordinates leave his service.

"His attitude is, 'The cause is the ultimate. I am the cause. You have betrayed me; therefore, you're a traitor,'" says one former intimate. Nevertheless, subordinates do leave -- in droves. Since McCaffrey took over the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1996, two-thirds of his staff has quit, according to a June report from the General Accounting Office or GAO, Congress' investigative arm.

And the aide in the National Airport incident -- an active-duty lieutenant colonel who had been McCaffrey's Sancho Panza for four years -- did not escape what some former associates describe as McCaffrey's vengeful spirit. On the aide's next evaluation, McCaffrey mentioned the airport incident -- thereby insuring the man would never make full colonel and essentially ending his military career. An Army major who took the job next got similar treatment after making a personal decision that displeased McCaffrey. The major, who previously had taught political science at West Point, lost out on a Pentagon job when McCaffrey blackballed him, according to two sources. He now teaches ROTC cadets in Louisiana.

To be sure, some who have served under McCaffrey have gone on to bigger and better things with his blessing -- among them Chuck Blanchard, the former legal counsel, now general counsel for the U.S. Army. Some members of McCaffrey's staff attribute grousing about the general to the strains of working the long hours under high stress that a White House job demands.

But interviews with nine former drug office staffers yielded a persistent portrait of McCaffrey as an unnecessarily tough boss. "You're either with Barry or against him," says one former official in the office, who like most of the others spoke on the condition he not be identified. "Once he thinks you're against him, he writes you off. You're toast." Adds another: "As competent and smart and ambitious as he is, McCaffrey's really somewhat childish in the way that he can be personally insulted by other people's decisions." Adds a third: "I got tired of his egomaniacal, abusive style of leadership." Robert Housman, who is in charge of strategic planning, said McCaffrey was not available for comment.

The Colombia campaign brings McCaffrey full circle from 1996, when President Clinton, in need of political cover on the drug issue, brought the general up from Panama, where he'd led the hot war against drug smugglers as commander of the U.S. military's Southern Command. During dozens of trips to Colombia as a soldier, McCaffrey had seen firsthand that spraying crops and arresting hoodlums, however noble and even necessary, "has little impact on the heroin market in Baltimore," as he said at the time. Entering office, he delighted drug policy reformers by emphasizing treatment, condemning harsh sentencing guidelines that disproportionately hurt minorities and casting aside the term "drug war." He preferred to call drug abuse a "malignancy" whose cure would require a balanced and sustained attack.

Even the former staffers most furious at McCaffrey believe he has injected more intelligence, energy and justice into the drug issue than any predecessor. Despite his image as a hardcore drug buster, he has helped get addicts easier access to methadone, pushed for drug courts that sentence addicts to treatment instead of hard time and is seen as a friend by treatment programs. Bob Wiener, McCaffrey's press secretary, says that McCaffrey's advocacy of treatment has been "like Nixon going to China. Who would have expected it of a four-star general used to smashing up coke labs in the Andes?"

But like Nixon, these former staffers believe, McCaffrey has a tendency to let his personality get in the way of policy. They believe an overbearing arrogance has, to some extent, undermined the humane and effective vision for drug policy that McCaffrey intended to bring to the job.

For all McCaffrey's stated goals, the basic outlines of the drug war -- imprisonment, interdiction, zero tolerance and militarized counter-narcotics in the Andes and Mexico -- haven't fundamentally changed since 1996. Law enforcement still gets two-thirds of the anti-drug budget. And for his signature effort, McCaffrey chose a federally funded $1 billion media campaign, largely addressed to teenagers. Critics believe this hunk of cash -- some of it used essentially to insert anti-drug propaganda into TV and movie scripts -- could have been better put to use in treating the 5 million chronic drug users who cause the bulk of the crime and misery attributed to drugs, and many of whom still can't find effective treatment when they seek it. And in the end, McCaffrey will probably be most remembered for the $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia, which even supporters admit may just end up pushing the illicit drug industry's production and distribution to areas outside Colombia's borders.

It's true that McCaffrey can't take all the blame -- or praise -- for current drug policy. "He faced a Congress that was especially bad," acknowledges Kevin Zeese of Common Sense For Drug Policy, a leading McCaffrey critic. But the former staffers and outsiders who agreed with McCaffrey's assertion that treatment, not punishment, should be at the center of our drug policy believe that he failed his promise. As a hero of two wars, McCaffrey was the real thing in a city full of posers. He could not have entered the drug office with more prestige and clout. His inability to separate the mission from the needs of his own inflated ego, these former aides contend, weakened the mission.

"The number of things he got intellectually, his willingness to be challenged, to read, to understand, was remarkable," says Carol A. Bergman, who was McCaffrey's legislative aide for two years and now works the other side of the fence, for a George Soros-funded lobbying group that focuses on drugs and criminal justice. "But he has surrounded himself with yes men. He's remarkably thin-skinned. I look at Barry McCaffrey as a lost opportunity."

Barry McCaffrey was the military's youngest and most decorated four-star general when he left the Army to join the White House in 1996. The son of a famous general, he had shunned rear echelon positions to lead small units into battle in Vietnam, where he was wounded three times and nearly died. In the decade after the war ended, McCaffrey was among the rising mid-level officers who rebuilt the Army, creating a much cleaner, professional force that took care of its families, boosted racial and gender equality and protected its soldiers in battle. The Gulf War, with its ridiculously low allied casualty rates, reflected that commitment. McCaffrey was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's favorite division commander during the war.

"In peacetime McCaffrey was "hell on his staff," as James Kitfield wrote in the 1995 book "Prodigal Soldiers." But his messianic ways and withered left arm, nearly lost in a 1969 gun battle with North Vietnamese soldiers, were an inspiration to his troops in the desert during the Gulf War. The arm was a symbol of McCaffrey's sacrifice and will power -- but it also had a humanizing effect. In person, McCaffrey can appear almost vulnerable -- slim and diminutive, with his shy smile and panda-bear halo of eyebrows and white hair, his voice uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. Whatever one says about McCaffrey's ego, it's undeniable that he and his family are throwbacks to an earlier generation of public service. His wife, Jill, was for several years the unpaid chairwoman of the armed services branch of the Red Cross. His three children include an Army major, a schoolteacher and a nurse.

Conservatives have always been surprised that McCaffrey, an admirer of former President George Bush, has stayed so long with Clinton. But the two jogging partners each got something from the relationship. McCaffrey, obviously, bolstered Clinton's credibility on the subject of drugs. As for Clinton: "He's good on the policy. He's a kind person, a smart person, a good dad and he doesn't like these drugs," McCaffrey told the National Review last year. That said, McCaffrey didn't stand in the way when a senior aide, James McDonough, decided to publish an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 1998 that trashed Clinton for dallying with Monica while talking on the phone to congressmen about Bosnia. McDonough subsequently left to become Florida's drug czar, under Gov. Jeb Bush.

McCaffrey always said the drug issue was nonpartisan, and he put his nonpartisan, military skills to use when he took over the drug office. He quickly ramped up the staff from 40 to 150 -- including 30 commissioned and noncommissioned military detailees whose services he demanded as a condition of taking the job. McCaffrey's troops had experience in planning and were accustomed to working the insane hours McCaffrey demanded. "They gave a very different tempo and discipline to what was essentially a dispirited, undermanned, confused group of civilians," McCaffrey said in an interview published in June in Retired Officer magazine. The 14 drug policy goals set by McCaffrey's predecessor, former New York police chief Lee Brown, were narrowed to five, then broken into 31 subsidiary objectives. Performance measures were set up.

But while the military officers "entered the office thrilled at the chance to be used and abused by a four-star general," as one longtime staffer said, many of them left just as unhappy as their civilian counterparts. McCaffrey had them over a barrel. Being detailed to his office meant a pause in their careers. If McCaffrey gave them bad marks, their careers were shot. And while they were highly skilled, few had experience in drug policy, and that rubbed their civilian office mates the wrong way.

"They'd just show up and I had to find something for them to do," one former drug official said. "If they'd spent the previous year in a missile silo, they weren't necessarily that good at human engineering."

What most irked the officers and their civilian counterparts was the enormous resources that went into the planning and delivery of the office's main weapon: McCaffrey himself.

McCaffrey's operation generated blizzards of paperwork, an onslaught of memos, schedules and logistical planning, the bureaucratic equivalent of a mechanized assault. A lot of the busyness had to do with McCaffrey's personal schedule and, on occasion, McCaffrey's personal beefs. The resources dedicated to McCaffrey's schedule were enormous. "We had trip planning meetings, trip tracking meetings, media meetings, meetings about meetings," says one former staffer. Each event McCaffrey attended was planned down to the minute. "There would be 20 people at these meetings talking about when he was going to the bathroom, when they'd hand him what, where he'd be seated to make sure he wasn't a potted palm," says one former staffer. "These were all senior people, Ph.D.'s, GS-15s earning $75,000 a year. The amount of time and money spent to set up these staged events was incredible."

According to the GAO report, which was carried out by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 17 full-time staffers are engaged in planning and executing McCaffrey's personal schedule -- more than the number of staff working on drug treatment and prevention. The GAO report was ordered by Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., whose appropriations subcommittee oversees the drug czar's office and has frequently clashed with McCaffrey. Their conflicts have ranged from substantive issues such as his media campaign and management style, to more personal issues involving McCaffrey's high-handedness. The audit found that while the drug office "has a clearly defined external mission," the difficulty of working for McCaffrey had led to a brain drain that threatened the continuity of the effort after McCaffrey's departure.

McCaffrey argued in his response to the GAO that his schedule was key to making the drug office a "bully pulpit" in the fight against drug abuse. But some aides said McCaffrey became so obsessed with his image that he lost sight of long-term objectives. McCaffrey's job has never been easy. Larger, more powerful bureaucracies -- Pentagon, Justice, Health and Human Services -- control most of the money for the drug fight. Gradually, some of his aides say, he gave up the battles that might really have transformed drug policy -- and grew increasingly obsessed with watching his political flanks.

The crisis atmosphere that frequently enveloped the drug office was never more evident than when McCaffrey learned earlier this year that Seymour Hersh was writing a piece critical of McCaffrey for the New Yorker. McCaffrey and his staff sent three separate letters to scores of former McCaffrey associates, warning them that Hersh wasn't reliable. The campaign doesn't seem to have succeeded, considering the number of three-star generals and active-duty soldiers quoted by name in the May 22 article, in which Hersh presented strong evidence that McCaffrey had provoked unnecessary carnage in the Gulf War by picking a fight with a large column of retreating Iraqis.

In a seemingly desperate move to clean his image, McCaffrey's office even wrote to human rights groups like Amnesty International, asking them to help discredit Hersh's portrayal. To his credit, McCaffrey had frequently sought input from these activists on rights abuses in Colombia and Peru. But now, to their chagrin, he was asking them to publicly portray him as an all-around humanitarian. They respectfully declined. "There's no way I can comment on what happened during the Gulf War," said George Vicker of the Washington Office on Latin America. This week, Newsweek reported that McCaffrey sometimes taped conversations with journalists without telling them. (For the record, McCaffrey's office has crossed swords with Salon over Salon stories detailing the drug office's campaign to offer financial incentives to TV networks and print publications to spread anti-drug messages.)

McCaffrey's political wariness was also reflected in a growing intolerance for dissent or input from his staff, former aides said. In the beginning of his tenure, McCaffrey met with hundreds of drug policy experts, and he remains a prolific reader and debriefer. But once he decided on policies, debate was shut off, these aides said. At meetings, suggestions from experienced staff members were met with a look of scorn.

"He had this way of totally annihilating you with two or three words," one staffer says. Expressions like "chewed his head off" and "chewing on people" come up in discussions of McCaffrey, as if he were a character from a Goya painting. "They teach you at West Point to be out front leading the troops," says a former public affairs official who was generally happy working for McCaffrey, "but I was also taught to get people more involved. He'd be more effective if he didn't try to control everything."

Nor, as time went on, did McCaffrey encourage input from activists who he happened to disagree with. In part, this was just politics. Conservatives in Congress might have killed him if, for example, he attended the meeting with George Soros that Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., once attempted to arrange. But critics of U.S. drug policy were bothered by the verbal and bureaucratic firepower McCaffrey unleashed on those who opposed his viewpoints.

For instance, McCaffrey has hawkishly opposed the medicinal marijuana initiatives passed around the country, seeing them as a stalking horse for legalization of cannabis. After California passed a compassionate use initiative in 1996, McCaffrey warned doctors in the state that their privileges to prescribe narcotics would be stripped by the DEA if they prescribed or recommended marijuana use. In July 1998, as part of the anti-pot campaign, the drug czar claimed that Holland, a country with liberal drug laws, had a murder rate double that of the United States. In fact, although robberies have increased in the Netherlands since pot was made widely available in the late 1980s, the country's murder rate is scarcely a quarter of the U.S. rate. McCaffrey never corrected himself. When Gary Johnson, New Mexico's maverick Republican governor, spoke in favor of decriminalization, McCaffrey flew out to the state and claimed that Johnson had said "heroin is good."

"He had a mantra -- 'Frequently wrong, but never in doubt'" Bergman recalls. "He said that all the time."

Although McCaffrey was cordial toward outside critics, he wasn't willing to openly debate them in a forum that might have encouraged broader thinking about drug issues. "The guy does not debate. He's pulled out of TV programs when he heard I would be there," says Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center, a Soros-funded policy institute that favors drug decriminalization. "He'll never get himself into a situation where he's debating anyone who knows anything about the subject."

McCaffrey showed a general reluctance to share podiums with other opinions. Cabinet members typically invite members of Congress to events they are holding in the member's home district. Not so McCaffrey, according to a former legislative aide. If the drug czar was planning a speech in Massachusetts, for example, "I'd say, Senator Kennedy is going to want to speak at this event, and he'd say, 'I don't care, it's my event.' So then we'd notify the congressman [or senator] about the event, but we wouldn't invite them. Occasionally we'd have the heartburn of someone saying, 'I'd like to be part of the event,' and we'd say, 'Sorry, it's all set up already -- but the general can meet you for coffee at the airport.'"

For this and more mundane reasons, McCaffrey tinkered endlessly with his schedule. "It's a joke," another former staffer said. "His trip itineraries were redone a dozen times a day. Reprinted each time. Six times a day he'd change his 10-month personal calendar. Each time it was photocopied and handed out. The minor point here is the amount of trees butchered. The bigger point is the inordinate time, talent, energy and resources that went to making him comfortable." Sometimes staffers would be called in Saturdays to do logistics for one of the innumerable military events McCaffrey attended, annual reunions of retired 82nd Airborne officers and the like. Although McCaffrey's staff passed out drug office literature at these events, they really had nothing to do with drug policy, and much to do with promoting McCaffrey's image.

"It's all for the mission but not for McCaffrey of course," one former military man said with a shrug. "It happens that McCaffrey is the messiah, carrying the banner forward. And he believes that. He could take a lie detector test on it. And he may be right -- at least some of the time."

Over the past years the drug office, at taxpayer expense, has distributed thousands of copies of a letter exchange between McCaffrey and Daniel Garcia, who served as a platoon leader under McCaffrey in Vietnam and went on to become a Warner Bros. executive. The letters, which originally ran in Army magazine, contain raw and terrifying accounts of battles the two men fought together. But they have nothing to do with drugs. Rob Housman, one of McCaffrey's senior aides, says such handouts help create "a branding effect -- creating name recognition for the anti-drug effort." The letters "establish McCaffrey as a role model. Kids these days are looking for heroes, and when they see what this man has done in his life, their eyes light up. He's not a manufactured hero, he's someone who really stands for something. And that has impact on the substance of the message he's trying to get across."

But the letters seem equally important in allowing McCaffrey to extol himself. Garcia's letter is a paean to McCaffrey's bravery and determination, his skill and devotion to human life amid a sea of slaughter. When he refused McCaffrey's offer of promotion to lieutenant, "You said you understood," Garcia writes. "I remember seeing your pain, your isolation, the humanity in your eyes and in the expression on your face ... From you I learned that leadership, particularly in times of great crisis, is a demanding and isolating experience."

It may be this sense of duty and isolation, at once paternal and charismatic, that has allowed McCaffrey to connect solidly with one his most weighty political constituencies -- former drug addicts and the people who minister to them. In writing this story I spoke with six drug treatment activists. While some grumbled about inadequate funding, and McCaffrey's opposition to federal needle exchange programs, they were nearly unanimous in their appreciation of McCaffrey himself.

"I think he's a great guy," says Peter Kerr, a former New York Times reporter who works for Phoenix House, the country's largest residential drug treatment operator. "I've taken him to our facilities when there are no reporters around and he watches and listens and asks questions. He talks straight here."

McCaffrey has spoken cogently and movingly on the need to treat addiction as an illness rather than a moral failing. And he seems to understand that "treatment," as former Nixon administration drug aide Jerome Jaffe said, "is the lubrication that keeps the wheels of justice from grinding so excessively on the citizenry."

Under McCaffrey, treatment money -- including research -- grew by $733 million from 1996 through fiscal year 2001, an average of $197 million per year. It was significant growth, though slower than under the Bush administration -- when it increased $305 million per year. In the meantime, the number of drug addicts has stayed about the same, as has the gap between those who want and can get treatment. Some of McCaffrey's decisions sit uneasily with his stress on the public health aspects of drug abuse. In 1997, as President Clinton, under the urging of Donna Shalala, was about to approve federal support for needle exchanges, McCaffrey squashed the idea. Although dirty needles are responsible for half the new AIDS cases in America each year, McCaffrey was not convinced needle exchanges were an effective way to stop AIDS, Housman says, though he "supports funding for needle exchanges if local communities want to fund them."

The biggest increase in treatment under McCaffrey has been carried out through the justice system. Federal prisons currently provide more than 10,000 inmates with residential drug treatment -- compared to 1,135 treated behind bars in 1992. Attorney General Janet Reno, with McCaffrey's support, has funded more than 500 drug courts, which have successfully lowered recidivism by giving arrested addicts the choice of treatment or jail. Still, only a fraction of the estimated 1.2 million people behind bars with drug problems are offered treatment. And while treatment advocates believe the drug courts are a good way of breaking the cycle of arrest, prison time and drug abuse, some consider it odd that for a poor addict seeking treatment today, committing a crime may be the quickest way to get into a clinic.

"There aren't nearly enough beds on the outside, especially for adolescents or women with children. Once you get into the system, people care about doing something because you're a 'threat to society' who will 'cost society money,'" says Linda Wolf Jones of Therapeutic Communities of America. "They don't stop to think that if you can stop someone before they enter prison, it will cost society even less."

One can hardly blame McCaffrey for all of this. From the start, aides say, he could see that shifting the drug war's focus to treatment was a non-starter in the Gingrich-Hatch-Delay Congress. Instead, he decided to focus hardest on prevention -- the other prong of the "demand" side of drugs. That's what led to the youth media campaign, with its offers of lucrative ad space and time to media companies that run politically correct drug abuse images. Unlike the other parts of the drug war, the media campaign is run directly out of McCaffrey's office.

Many of McCaffrey's anti-drug messages are awfully similar to the ones broadcast under GOP administrations. Instead of, "This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs," with eggs sizzling in a skillet, there's a self-referential replacement that depicts a young woman taking a skillet -- representing heroin -- to a raw egg, representing the brain, and a room full of dishes -- representing your family, job, future, etc. Other ads reinforce the idea that parents worried about drug use need to spend time with their kids -- a wholesome and truthful enough concept, but not one that a drug czar can back up with funding.

Last year, in a front-page USA Today headline and elsewhere, McCaffrey trumpeted a 13 percent reduction in teenage drug use in 1998. Statistics to be released Thursday are expected to show a continued decline in drug use. But it takes a real optimist -- or an opportunist -- to attribute all of this to McCaffrey's media campaign.

Although youth drug use did fall from 1997 to 1998, according to federal surveys, it was still higher than it had been in 1996. According to data in the most recent strategy report put out by McCaffrey's office, in 1996 7.1 percent of teenagers had smoked dope in the past 30 days. In 1998, the figure jumped to 8.3 percent. In cocaine use the rise was even more dramatic, with the percentage rising from .6 in 1996 to .8 in 1998. Meanwhile, attitude surveys showed that while more eighth graders than four years ago regarded drug-taking as risky, fewer 12th graders believed that.

Does this mean that the media campaign's targeting of middle-schoolers has been effective, as McCaffrey argues -- or that 12th graders are more sophisticated consumers of media? Or that drug abuse, which has always had cyclical trends, has simply leveled off? In some drug categories, the leveling off of use began even before McCaffrey took office. In others, such as methedrine and ecstasy, use is still increasing.

Once, McCaffrey hoped that the drug office would be a steppingstone for him to become someone's vice presidential candidate. More recently, he looked into running for Senate from Virginia, but was turned off by the fundraising, according to one former intimate. This same person believes McCaffrey would stay in the drug office if Al Gore offered him the job. The two are said to get along OK, although Gore, notably, did not mention progress against drug abuse in his acceptance speech last week.

"Life without sergeants," McCaffrey told Retired Officer magazine, "is brutish and mean. That's my strongest impression of being a civilian."

Jerome Jaffe, whose federal treatment program was chronicled in Michael Massing's recent book "The Fix," was running a small methadone program in Illinois when President Nixon made him the country's first drug czar in 1971. Jaffe, recently retired, has a good impression of McCaffrey. But he recalls with a laugh that when he was the czar, "I use to make my own schedules. But then again, I was an assistant professor from Chicago, not a four-star general. My expectations were somewhat lower. I carried my own bag."

Perhaps the next drug czar won't have as much baggage.

By Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.

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