The FBI's dangerous drug-war obsession

Before Sept. 11, the FBI was too focused on busting pot smokers to see the warning signs of a looming terrorist attack.


Arianna Huffington
June 6, 2002 2:34AM (UTC)

The Phoenix memo. The Rowley letter. The Oklahoma red flag. All elements in this true and tragic story of fumbling feds that has more smoking guns than a Quentin Tarantino movie.

So why did the FBI, whose job it is find smoking guns, fail to see the smoking guns popping up all around it?

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In announcing his big reorganization plans, FBI director Robert Mueller seemed to consider the bureau's tragedy of errors a question of flawed management flow charts, nothing that a rejiggered PowerPoint presentation couldn't fix. But there was a much more fundamental problem plaguing the bureau before Sept. 11, and it wasn't one of office politics. It was a problem of officewide priorities, namely, the agency's crippling addiction to America's war on drugs.

While Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida minions were diligently preparing for their murderous mission, the FBI was looking the other way with equal determination. More than twice as many FBI agents were assigned to fighting drugs (2,500) than fighting terrorism (1,151). And a far greater amount of the FBI's financial resources was dedicated to the war on drugs.

This pathological prioritization of the drug war extended well beyond the allocation of money and manpower. It was ingrained in the culture. Counterterrorism units were treated like the bureau's ugly stepchildren, looked down upon by FBI management because they weren't making the kind of high-profile arrests that spruce up a supervisor's résumé and make the evening news. Let's face it, canvassing flight schools in search of suspicious students is nowhere near as sexy as one of those big drug busts with the bags of coke or bales of pot piled high for the cameras.

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It's now painfully clear that there were terror warning signs aplenty but that they were disregarded by distracted FBI officials who had their eyes on a very different prize.

In Phoenix, where the now infamous Ken Williams memo originated, counterterrorism agents complained bitterly about their efforts being given "the lowest investigative priority" by a supervisor who preferred glamorous drug-fighting investigations. Even though the anti-terror squad was understaffed, having been assigned only eight of the division's 200 agents, it had managed to infiltrate groups of suspected terrorists through the use of paid informants, including a man who was being trained to be a suicide bomber. They had also uncovered local men with ties to World Trade Center bomber Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and to a virulently anti-American Muslim organization linked to al-Qaida.

So what was their reward for all this? Regular head-butting sessions with higher-ups who balked at having to allocate resources for information that didn't lead to immediate arrests. I'll bet doubloons to donuts that the Phoenix agents doling out cash to drug case snitches very rarely ran up against the same sort of resistance -- what one veteran terrorism squad member described as "micromanaging, constant indecision, and stonewalling."

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Meanwhile, across the country in Boston, Raed Hijazi, an admitted al-Qaida member who had become an informant in exchange for avoiding jail, tried to warn FBI agents about Arab terrorists and sympathizers, particularly Nabil al-Marabh, a member of an al-Qaida terrorist cell who was arrested in the wake of 9/11. But the FBI wasn't interested in Hijazi's terror leads -- they only wanted to hear what he knew about heroin being smuggled into America from Afghanistan.

And it wasn't just the FBI. This "Drug War Über-Alles" mind-set infected the entire law enforcement community, starting at the top. "I want to escalate the war on drugs," said Attorney General John Ashcroft in his first interview after being nominated for the post. "I want to renew it. I want to refresh it." And he was true to his word. Witness the $43 million the Bush administration gave to the Taliban just four months before Sept. 11. Sure, there was the small detail of harboring a guy named bin Laden, but the Taliban had agreed to ban the production of opium poppies. And so the drug war trumped the terror war once again.

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So is this kind of thinking finally a thing of the past? I'm not so sure. Even after last week's highly touted reorganization, which included the reassignment of 400 narcotics agents to counterterrorism, there will still be 2,100 agents spending their invaluable time and energy fighting a fruitless drug war. This despite the fact that combating drugs didn't even make director Mueller's official Top Ten list of priorities.

Which raises the question: If the drug war is suddenly lower on the FBI pecking order than combating white-collar crime (No. 7), protecting civil rights (No. 5) and taking on public corruption at all levels (No. 4 with a bullet!), then how come one out of six agents will still be working that beat? The numbers just don't add up.

According to high-ranking FBI officials, Mueller originally intended to pull the plug on his agency's involvement in the drug war, shifting every one of his counternarcotics agents to counterterrorism activities, but was talked out of it by drug war generals who can't admit defeat. Not only should the White House follow though on Mueller's instinct and choose the war on terror over the war against drugs, they should insist that the FBI hire new kinds of people to fight this new kind of war.

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"Merely reassigning traditional FBI agents to fight terrorism isn't enough," former Sen. Gary Hart, who co-chaired the U.S. Commission on National Security, told me. "The new counterterror team should be more like the Delta Force. Not standard-issue agents in dark suits and ties, but young, imaginative 21st century investigators recruited from outside the bureau."

At the same time, we should make sure that the administration doesn't just transfer the drug war and its attendant lavish funding from the FBI to the DEA, which will no doubt show up on the Hill any day now, looking for more money to take up the drug-fighting slack.

As the soaring budget deficit reminds us, federal coffers are not a bottomless well.

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Everything comes with a price. Sadly, it's looking more and more like the price of the drug war may have included the 3,056 lives lost on Sept. 11.


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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