WASHINGTON -- A largely unknown peculiarity of the massive federal bureaucracy is the existence of an Air Wing in the State Department, with a primary mission of eradicating Colombia's drug cultivation. Last month, its director signed an internal memo that, in a remarkable self-indictment, said diplomats are ill-equipped for this operation. His recommendation: shift State's aircraft to a law enforcement agency.
John McLaughlin, the State Department's director of aviation in the Bureau of International Narcotics, in an Aug. 4 memo cited the department's "inherent inability to provide knowledgeable oversight and support for technical and operational programs." On Sept. 9, Chairman Henry Hyde of the House International Relations Committee asked his staff to open talks with the Justice and Homeland Security departments about taking over the Air Wing.
The broader question involves Plan Colombia's anti-drug program. In seeking to transfer the Air Wing, Hyde reiterated "deep concerns on the failure of the State Department to adequately eradicate opium in Colombia." On Aug. 18 in this column, I reported Hyde's contention that Plan Colombia had failed to prevent revival of Colombia's opium production.
Hyde's contention was contradicted by federal drug czar John Walters in a letter to the Washington Post published Aug. 25. Walters referred to Hyde only as my "congressional source" without mentioning his name. With Walters savvy enough not to pick a fight publicly with a veteran conservative committee chairman, he was trying to obscure their disagreement.
Walters is also at odds with officials in the business end of drug eradication. McLaughlin, who is next month retiring as aviation director stationed at Patrick (Fla.) Air Force Base, sent an e-mail to Hyde's committee that was first classified "confidential" but since has been declassified: "Mr. Novak's most recent article has the Chairman at the right place. Too bad his concern is not more widespread. The heroin problem can be fixed easily and fast given the right leadership and focus."
McLaughlin's Aug. 4 memo was sent to officials running the State Department's anti-drug program: Acting Assistant Secretary Paul Simons and Deputy Assistant Secretary Deborah McCarthy. It is unusually blunt for a bureaucratic document: "The Air Wing mission is . . . 'counter-culture' to the State Department's world of interagency policy coordination. Simply put: dodging trees and ground fire over jungle terrain at 200 mph is not diplomacy, and diplomats cannot be expected to fully comprehend the complexity of the task and the level of support required."