Taking charge in a press vacuum

Posted: Aug 24, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Former federal prosecutor, three-term Arkansas congressman, and Clinton nemesis, Asa Hutchinson, took over the beleaguered Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) this week. The so-called mainstream media was there. But you wouldn't know it from their coverage. Instead of focusing on the new administrator's recognition of the challenges his 4,561 special agents face in stemming the tide of illegal drugs flowing through America's cities, the potentates of the press decided the "big story" was Mr. Hutchinson's intent to enforce federal laws against the use of "medical marijuana." "DEA Head Backs Medical Marijuana Ban," screamed the Associated Press headline. The Washington Post trumpeted, "DEA Chief Tough on Medical Marijuana," as though the man who had presented the case against William Jefferson Clinton was a heartless dog kicker. Mr. Hutchinson acknowledged that, despite ordinances permitting marijuana to be grown and dispensed as medicine in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Washington, it's still "a violation of federal law" that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld and made a federal-enforcement responsibility. Responding to reporters' questions, he emphasized his support of local drug courts, treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarceration for first-time offenders. But that was lost in the clucking of the press who were more concerned with whether or not grandma could still get a toke to treat her Alzheimer's. Instead of taking "pot shots" at the new DEA chief over "healthful hash," the paragons of the press should have probed him on how he intends to staunch the flow of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the United States from south of our border. Strangely, the same editors, producers and news directors, who couldn't get enough Latin American footage in the 1980s, have now forgotten the region's existence. Back then, in the salad days of Marxist revolutionaries running rampant through the capitals of our southern neighbors, the press was fascinated by the Reagan administration's efforts to prevent communism from establishing a toehold on the mainland of this hemisphere. With great glee, newspapers and TV networks dispatched hoards of reporters to cover our efforts to stem, what CIA Director Bill Casey called, "the red tide." But now -- when the threat to U.S. citizens comes from well-financed, highly armed narco-terrorists who threaten the stability of whole countries -- no one is asking questions of the man who has to lead the fight. He faces a formidable challenge. With a $1.5 billion budget, and only 9,132 employees, the DEA administrator is responsible for building alliances in what the media describes as "a war we are losing." Hobbled by the Clinton administration's refusal to negotiate with Panama for surveillance and intelligence-collection sites in 1999, Mr. Hutchinson must now contend with highly sophisticated Colombian drug traffickers and what outnumbered, outgunned DEA agents call "a labyrinth of smuggling routes throughout the Caribbean, the Bahaman Island chain and South Florida." At his swearing-in ceremony, the press asked Mr. Hutchinson to respond to past DEA gaffes -- like the failure to adequately supervise paid informants. But in the great scheme of things, that's the least in a long legacy of past policy catastrophes that he inherits. Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, was whipsawed for years by Clinton officials who urged him, on the one hand, to fight back against the narco-guerrillas who ravaged his country, and to appease them with a Mideast-like "land for peace" deal, on the other hand. As a result, the second oldest democracy in this hemisphere is in pieces -- with tens of thousands of square miles ceded to the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) and right-wing paramilitaries who are a law unto themselves. With more than 40,000 Colombians dead in drug-related violence, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- a big fan of Fidel Castro and Nicaragua's drug-dealing Daniel Ortega -- complains that counter-narcotics operations by U.S.-trained Colombian Army and National Police units -- supported by $1.3 billion in U.S. aid -- are "driving traffickers across the border." Apparently, Mr. Chavez and his champions in the U.S. media have forgotten that for more than two years, he has been offering sanctuary to FARC and ELN terrorists he describes as lawful "belligerents." Meanwhile, on the eve of Mr. Hutchinson's swearing-in, the Colombian Army announced that it apprehended three Irish Republican Army terrorists en route to Paris after spending five weeks in Colombia training FARC guerrillas to build car bombs "and other unconventional weapons." According to Cuba's foreign ministry, one of the men, Niall Connolly, lived in Fidel's island paradise as the Latin American representative for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA. Apparently, none of the reporters questioning Mr. Hutchinson thought to query the new DEA head about the IRA-FARC-Cuba connection. Maybe the members of our Fourth Estate just don't get it. But one who does is General Rosso Jose Serrano, the now-retired Colombian cop who destroyed the Medellin and Cali drug cartels. Just before he returned to Colombia last week, I asked General Serrano what he thought of Asa Hutchinson's appointment as the head of DEA. "I know him, and I trust him. With his help, we can win. He's a strong man," the General said. But unfortunately, that strong man isn't a part of the State Department's delegation to Colombia this week to hold three days of talks on combating the FARC, ELN and the drug traffickers. He should be. And the press should ask why he isn't.