San Diego Union-Tribune

October 14, 2001

War on terrorism has slowed war on drugs
    DEA fights cartels, though resources diminished


ARLINGTON, Va. -- As administrator of the Drug Enforcement
Administration, Asa Hutchinson stands at an unusual intersection: between America's long-running war on drugs and its new war against terrorism.

For now, it means Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the terrorist attacks, is on the front-burner.

And the quest to topple the Arellano Felix drug cartel in Tijuana is still on, though now pushed into the background.

Like other federal law-enforcement agencies, the DEA has been pulled in different directions since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and it is slowing ongoing probes, such as those into the drug cartels, officials said.

Since President Bush announced a war against terrorism, more than 1,000 DEA staff members -- including hundreds of agents -- have volunteered for other assignments, including serving as sky marshals.

Dozens of other veteran agents have been called for military reserve

It's "all hands on deck," said Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman and prosecutor from Arkansas named DEA administrator earlier this year.

It doesn't take much for Hutchinson to remind himself of the dramatic changes in his job since Sept. 11.

All he has to do is look out his office window at the scorched Pentagon, struck by a hijacked jetliner.

The DEA maintains a key presence in San Diego County, where federal
agents are "much involved" with the terrorist investigation, including providing intelligence to other agencies, said Jack Hook, special agent in charge of the DEA's office in San Diego.

Reduced staff "does hurt us. We have to be careful, pick and choose where we deploy our federal narcotics resources," said Hook.

That means some wrinkles in the DEA's agenda.

In the weeks since the attacks, some undercover operations have been
interrupted, officials said.

Hutchinson acknowledged in a recent interview that the Bush administration's effort to help Mexico root out drug cartels is affected by the national demands to capture bin Laden and other terrorists.

"It's a setback in terms of energy level," Hutchinson said when asked about the investigation into the Arellano Felix drug cartel in Tijuana. The notorious organization is a major cocaine trafficker also linked to dozens of slayings and kidnappings.

"But I don't think it's a setback in terms of policy, a spirit of cooperation that has developed (with Mexican officials) and continues to move forward," Hutchinson said.

"Obviously, we are energized in fighting the new war we have, but the
initiatives that we have created (with Mexico) and the open door policy we still have is there and we will develop that."

A San Diego task force investigating the Arellano Felix cartel is diligently continuing its probe, federal officials in California said.

"We are conducting investigations, we're still moving forward with that
high-level energy; the only thing that has slowed us down are the numbers (of agents) are reduced a little bit," said a senior DEA official familiar with the San Diego investigation, who declined to be identified.

The war on drugs and the war on terrorism tend to overlap in a "symbiotic relationship" -- and that's where the DEA plays a crucial role, Hutchinson said. "They almost feed off each other, you can hardly separate the violent activity of the terrorists and what benefits they get from drug production."

One major example: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, playing host to prime terrorist suspect bin Laden, and supported by a multimillion dollar opium production industry, Hutchinson told Congress on Wednesday.

Bin Laden's organization itself appears to rely mostly on outside financial support, and evidence is lacking about its involvement in the drug trade, DEA officials said.

Hutchinson said U.S. officials will monitor whatever role major narcotics traffickers play in terrorism.

"I think it's something that bears watching, there is sufficient concern,"
Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson told a House criminal justice subcommittee last week that he wants to expand DEA operations overseas to thwart terrorist threats. The 2002 budget proposal, however, shows no additional funding for more agents in foreign countries.

The DEA now has 400 agents based overseas, including offices in Pakistan. The agency pulled out of Afghanistan 20 years ago.

Hutchinson told Congress that the DEA "will continue to aggressively identify and build cases against drug trafficking organizations contributing to global terrorism."

"You don't want this climate of lawlessness of the drug trade to continue," Hutchinson said. "That will foster and perhaps feed the next wave of terrorists down the road."