Robert Novak

State's own air force is "now at its lowest state of readiness," according to the official who runs it: pilot training curtailed, safety impaired by reduced staffing, worsening structural fatigue and failure to adequately protect air crews from ground fire. All these and more problems, McLaughlin charged, have been brought to the attention of State Department leaders "but have not elicited effective support for Air Wing personnel that are flying the mission and supporting the aircraft."

That's just the beginning. McLaughlin asserts State's planning "did not include adequate provisions for training O&M (operations and maintenance) costs, (and) staffing." Planners, he said, were either under qualified or "not qualified at all." He urges that the "large aviation program" be removed from "an agency that should be focused on the conventional conduct of diplomacy." He recommends reassignment of the Air Wing to "a law enforcement agency," probably the Justice Department.

Such criticism within the State Department is new, but calls to ground the diplomats have been sounded for many years. William Barr, who during the first Bush administration was the attorney general most committed to drug eradication, long has wanted to remove the Air Wing from the State Department. But Barr fears that "State wants to keep its potential leverage" provided by its planes in practicing diplomacy. "Why would the State Department have its own air force?" asks retired Marine Maj. Gil Macklin, a former U.S. adviser in Colombia and House investigator.

That question is unanswerable after McLaughlin's candid self-indictment. "The memorandum from such an experienced" State Department official, said Henry Hyde, "raises numerous and troubling questions. It reflects my own view about the inadequate performance of the Department in the fight against drugs abroad." The most pertinent question is whether the Republican Congress and the Republican administration will continue to ignore this failure.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

©Creators Syndicate