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Drug War Trumps Port Safety

Opinion Editorial
March 12, 2006

Author: Mike Krause

The top objective of the U.S. Coast Guard’s anti-terrorism strategy is to protect what’s called the “U.S. Maritime Domain,” including American ports.

But it is hard to take seriously the idea that ports are being effectively protected when the Coast Guard spent more tax dollars last year fighting the war on drugs than has been spent in total on port security since Sept. 11, 2001.

Since becoming part of the Department of Homeland Security in early 2003, the Coast Guard reports interdicting at sea some 340 tons of cocaine bound for the United States.

For 2005 alone, it was 150 tons, shattering all previous annual seizure records.

This record-breaking drug interdiction takes place mostly in the “transit zone,” 6 million square miles of water that includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern Pacific Ocean, as well as the territorial waters of cooperating nations.

Monitoring all that ocean keeps valuable Coast Guard assets busy far away from any American port.

The Coast Guard’s budget was increased 9 percent to $6.3 billion by the Department of Homeland Security Act of 2005. A 13 percent request for drug interdiction pushed the agency’s drug-war spending to $650 million in 2005, an increase of more than $100 million in the last couple of years.

That same Homeland Security Act also provided a little over $100 million for implementation of the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA), enacted by Congress in 2002 to establish a counterterrorism program for America’s 361 ports, and for which the Coast Guard is the lead agency.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that while the United States has spent billions on other security measures since Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “it has spent just $630 million to improve security at the nation’s ports.”

Of course, coastal security does not just mean ports. Recent news reports described the Coast Guard intercepting a suspect ship bound for the United States some 200 miles off the East Coast.

This is an excellent example of combining intelligence with long- range assets to “push out the border” and meet potential threats before they get to America’s shores.

The 2006 National Drug Control Strategy, which federal drug czar John Walters recently introduced in Denver, brags about how the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton and its embarked MH-68 helicopter “dominated” parts of the eastern Pacific on drug patrol in 2005. Hamilton, among other things, busted a go-fast boat “some 300 miles west of Ecuador,” and “searched for a trafficker speedboat in the remote areas north of the Galapagos Islands.”

Needless to say, Coast Guard ships chasing dopers around the Galapagos Islands are obviously unavailable to meet a potential threat approaching the American coast.

The National Drug Control Strategy claims that thanks to “successes in our overseas market-disruption strategy,” the U.S. retail price of cocaine rose 19 percent to $170 per gram in 2005.

This is part of the rationale for expanding Coast Guard transit zone drug patrols, at the expense of port and coastal security, in 2006 and beyond.

But even a casual look shows that allowing the drug war to trump counterterror can hardly be called a “success.”

Writing on the recent spike in cocaine prices, Ted Galen Carpenter from the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute notes: “For the past 12 years, street prices of cocaine have fluctuated between $120 and $190 per gram. Clearly, a price of $170 is well within that ‘normal’ range.”

What the seizure statistics and the massive range of cocaine flow estimates (between 325 and 675 metric tons of cocaine a year in the transit zone) – along with price and availability of cocaine in the U.S. – suggest is that more cocaine is getting through than ever before.

So not only does cocaine interdiction distract the Coast Guard from its port security mission, cocaine interdiction itself is failing.

Most disturbing is that Congress, the Coast Guard and the drug czar all seem fine with this – and, in fact, want even more of the same.

Mike Krause is a veteran of the Coast Guard, and participated in numerous joint-agency drug patrols in the Caribbean Sea. He directs the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden.

Originally Published in the Denver Post