Bye-bye, Barry McCaffrey

Another drug czar leaves a failed tenure in office, declaring victory with a mess of skewed statistics.

By Arianna Huffington

Published October 20, 2000 6:30PM (EDT)

Gen. Barry McCaffrey: He came. He failed. He quit.

But not without taking an unearned victory lap. What is it about the job of drug czar that causes its occupants to heed Sen. George Aiken's advice regarding the Vietnam War -- "Declare victory and withdraw"?

That's what McCaffrey did this week when he announced that he would resign his post on Jan. 6. "I'm enormously proud of what we've done," crowed the general. "We had exploding rates of adolescent drug use, and we've reduced it." This ludicrous assessment echoed Bill Bennett's upbeat tenor as he ended his stint as drug czar in 1990, when he predicted that drug use would be cut in half "in five years."

The truth is, in the decade since Bennett whistled past the drug war graveyard, things have gone from bad to abysmal. Despite McCaffrey's repeated claims that we are winning the fight, the use of illegal drugs by junior high kids has increased by 300 percent, it's easier than ever for high school students to get drugs, drug prices are at an all-time low and drug purity is climbing.

This is an impressive litany of failures. But still more damning is McCaffrey's unequivocal success in convincing both President Clinton and Congress to approve $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia, dragging the United States into a three-way civil war.

McCaffrey's "triumph" is already looking like a disaster. According to the General Accounting Office, in a report to Congress last week, "the Colombian government has not demonstrated it has the detailed plans, management structure and funding necessary" to implement the U.S. aid.

McCaffrey's other major claim to shame during his tenure has been the massive escalation of our government's billion-dollar anti-drug media campaign. Despite the saturation of our airwaves with ads designed to promote the horrors of illegal drug use, research indicates that a rising number of young people see less harm in using drugs.

Yet President Clinton responded to McCaffrey's resignation by singling out as a sign of the "significant progress" made under the drug czar the fact that "we have dramatically increased our counter-drug spending and launched a $1 billion public-private media campaign to educate young people about the dangers of drug use." As if the mere act of throwing good money after bad represents sound drug policy.

As Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, put it: "Gen. McCaffrey clearly preferred funding TV commercials to investing in America's youth. We are spending nearly twice as much on the ad campaign, the glittering jewel in his drug-war crown, than the federal government spends on after-school programs for kids -- even though research shows alternative activity programs to be the most effective way to prevent adolescent drug abuse." This is more like a war on common sense -- which we're definitely winning.

Making misguided matters worse, McCaffrey was asleep at the wheel this spring when fraud investigators uncovered evidence that Ogilvy & Mather, the ad agency handling the anti-drug account, may have seriously overbilled the government for its services -- pumping up its labor charges and doctoring time sheets.

Instead of ordering an audit, the good general tried to cover his rear flank, denying that he knew anything about the problem until investigators produced a memo proving McCaffrey had, in fact, been told of the irregularities. As McCaffrey moves on to the requisite book and speaking tour, the matter remains under criminal investigation.

A fast-and-loose way with the truth has been a hallmark of the drug czar's office -- with fraudulent claims and blatant manipulation of statistics a standard operating procedure.

Take the statistical sleight of hand McCaffrey's office recently used to turn an unambiguous failure into an apparent success: In 1996, the general set a goal of having 80 percent of young people -- based on the perception of 12th-graders -- consider drugs harmful. But despite his ad blitz, the percent of 12th-graders who look unfavorably on drugs actually dropped for three straight years, falling to 57.4 percent by 1999 -- a far cry from the promised 80 percent.

But this year, the drug czar magically pulled a vastly improved 74 percent drug-disapproval rating out of his hat. How did he do it? Simple. He just changed the rules.

He based his latest figures not on the perceptions of 12th-graders but on the opinions of eighth-graders. I'm only surprised that McCaffrey didn't make sure he hit his goal by switching to kindergartners. I have a feeling that well over 80 percent of them would agree that drugs are "icky."

And like all good illusionists, McCaffrey never revealed how the trick was done -- the switch in criteria wasn't noted anywhere in the drug office's published report. Not only is this misleading, it may also be illegal, since Public Law No. 105-277 requires that when a government agency changes its measuring standards, it must inform Congress.

In announcing his resignation, McCaffrey declared that the fight against drugs "is not a war; it's a cancer affecting American communities."

After steering a billion dollars into the hands of the Colombian army and spearheading the use of paramilitary tactics here at home -- with more armed drug agents, drug raids and drug arrests -- has McCaffrey suddenly seen the light, at long last realizing that drugs are actually a public health issue? Or is he merely trying to rewrite his failed history before anyone else gets to?

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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