White House Report Stings Drug Agency on Abilities
New York Times, February 4, 2003
Feb. 4 — In an unusually harsh critique of an agency with a strong global
reputation, the White House has questioned the
ability of the Drug Enforcement Administration to stem the flow of
narcotics and is threatening to give the agency its smallest budget
increase in 15 years.
The agency "is unable to demonstrate progress in
reducing the availability of illegal drugs in the United States,"
the Office of Management and Budget wrote in an assessment released this
week as part of the budget plan. The agency lacks clear long-term
strategies and goals, its managers are not held accountable for problems,
and its financial controls do not comply with federal standards, the
The findings raise uncertainties for the agency at a time when
Washington expects it to enlarge its antidrug role. That is because
the F.B.I. is moving 400 agents off drug cases to
terrorism, and the drug agency is being asked to pick up the slack.
Officials at the agency and its parent, the Justice Department, said
the agency was working to address many of the concerns in the report. They
said the report was more a reflection of the agency's failure to
communicate its successes than its ability to fight drug trafficking.
"It's not that we're doing things wrong or we've been ineffective," a
spokesman, Will Glaspy, said. "It's more that we just need to do a better
job of defining our accomplishments."
Officials at the agency pointed to a growing number of seizures for
some types of drugs along with the reduced purity of street drugs as
evidence of their success in squeezing suppliers out of business.
Critics say that drug purity has increased and that drugs have become
easier to buy than ever before. President Bush
acknowledged in his report on drug strategy for 2002 that use among young
people was at "unacceptably high levels" and that "in recent years we have
lost ground" in reducing illegal use.
The report on the agency was one of 234 that the Office of Management
and Budget completed for 20 percent of the programs and agencies as it
tries for the first time to assign standards and criteria to budget
Officials stressed that the criticisms were not uncommon. Like the
agency, half the programs reviewed received overall ratings of "results
Still, the severity of the report on the drug agency caught law
enforcement officials off guard because of the agency's prominence, size
and generally solid reputation in fighting trafficking. Unlike sister
agencies like the F.B.I. and the Immigration and Naturalization Service,
the drug agency has largely avoided major scandals and calls for reform
from members of Congress. It has enjoyed generally strong support on
Capitol Hill, and its former director, Asa Hutchinson, who left last week
to join the Homeland Security Department, was popular among conservatives
With that support, the agency has seen its budget
more than double since 1995, according to the Justice Department. But in
the White House budget released on Monday, the financing is to remain
essentially flat at $1.56 billion.
Its growth of less than 1 percent is dwarfed by
increases in financing at other law enforcement agencies of 10 percent or
more. Mr. Glaspy said it represented the smallest increase for the agency
The performance assessments for the drug agency and other bureaus "were
one factor, but clearly not the only factor in funding decisions," said
Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House on the budget.
The overarching concern in financing law
enforcement, officials said, is the need to
make counterterrorism the top priority. The Bush administration has sought
to link drug use to the threat of terrorism, and other Justice
Department drug enforcement programs received proposed increases of up to
10 percent in the budget. But the drug agency will be asked to scale back
spending in areas like community enforcement even as it seeks to add
agents on the street, officials said.
"When you're fighting a war against terrorism, there is not an infinite
amount of money to go around," an official at the Justice Department said.
"We are putting significant funds into the war against drugs. But we have
to be realistic as to what we can afford."
Critics said the critique of the agency was long
overdue and could start a debate about how the war on drugs is working.
"The emperor has no clothes," said Eric F.
Sterling, the president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in
Silver Spring, Md., and a specialist on drug enforcement. The White House
report "should really shake up our national revelry with drug enforcement
and generate a major re-evaluation of our antidrug efforts."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a
group in New York that promotes alternative policies, said he was
"pleasantly surprised" by the findings.
"Typically," Mr. Nadelmann said, "the D.E.A. has gotten a pretty free
ride. Nobody was really held to account for the issue of reducing overall
drug use. But this suggests some measure of seriousness about actually
putting in a set of real criteria."