Ground the flying diplomats

Posted: Sep 25, 2003 12:00 AM

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."

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.