Of Drones & Drugs

So I lobbed two posts on Twitter yesterday morning, pertaining first to drones and then to drugs, that probably weren’t a good fit for the 140-character format. In short, I implied that using UAVs for counternarcotics implied the GWOT had entered a “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase, and that the DEA was doing a better job collecting HUMINT than some other alphabet agencies. I figured I’d try to draw out the logic (or lack thereof) underpinning them.

As Spencer Ackerman rightly pointed out, UAVs are in no way new to the drug war. The Department of Homeland Security employs Global Hawks, Predators and Reapers over our land borders, and the Navy is slowly deploying Fire Scouts for drug interdiction at sea. Closer to shore, the Coast Guard and Customs & Border Protection jointly operate a Reaper variant called the MQ-9 Guardian, and testing out the smaller Scan Eagle. Police in Miami (a city boasting at least a passing acquaintance with drug trafficking) continue to field-test Honeywell’s RQ-16 T-Hawk drone.

What we have not seen- yet- is the employment of armed UAS against drug traffickers, solely vis-à-vis their being drug traffickers. But I think that line got a little blurrier last week, when the U.S Treasury Department designated Taliban leader and Helmand province “shadow governor” Mullah Naim Barich as a drug kingpin. Not that it’s not already a fuzzy distinction to begin with. We’re spending billions both on a “war on drugs” and a “war on terror,” although both activities are necessarily a criminal matter as well.

Looking at the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and NSPD-9, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our covert operations in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and other garden spots, it’s fair to say we came down pretty hard on the “war” side of the argument with terrorism. So designating a major Taliban fighter as a drug kingpin seems, at first blush, to be icing on the cake; the thought process being that while we earnestly endeavor to shuffle him off the mortal coil, we might also be able to slow down his IRGC-assisted drug pipeline into Iran. 

The Taliban aren’t the only terror organization linked with drug trafficking. Hezbollah has worked closely to launder money and move narcotics with criminal organizations in Colombia and Venezuela, not to mention the notorious Zetas in Mexico. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) even got caught trying to move cocaine through the Sahara into western Europe. I’m not really surprising anybody by saying that when you hunt terrorists, you stand a good chance of disrupting narcotics trafficking.

But since we’re now hunting Taliban who wear the dual hats of drug kingpin and military/intelligence target,  I think the day may not be far off when civilian law enforcement agencies like the DEA find themselves consistently closer to the kill/capture missions traditionally associated with JSOC and drones. It’d already be tough to tell a DEA Foreign-deployed Assistance & Support Team (FAST) agent from a JSOC operator. So I think we will be entering the “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase when the blurry line between terrorists and drug traffickers is used to blur the authorities by which we pursue them. Specifically, it would be tempting to play up a drug lord’s terrorist bonafides as a way of justifying a Title 50 Griffin through his car door, instead of risking lives on a mission to haul his ass in for a costly and uncertain federal trial.

The DEA says that’s not the case, and insisted to TIME last year that their priority is drugs, not terrorists. But as the legacy GWOT footprint lightens, it’s the DEA who’s out building FOBs and shooting people in unpleasant corners of the world. Its Special Operations Division quietly runs a Terrorism Investigations Unit, or the 960a Group, dedicated to chasing narcoterrorist bad guys across the globe. And sure, it’s still primarily a domestic law enforcement agency, but the DEA, through its Office of National Security Intelligence, is a also a full-fledged member of the IC, right alongside Air Force Intelligence and the CIA.

My point in all this is that by also designating a Taliban chief a “drug kingpin,” the already-close nexus between overseas American civilian law enforcement and some particularly pointy military/IC/contractor entities just got a little closer. And- as seen in that TIME story above- there’s some real doubts about the efficacy of prosecuting some of these international bad guys. So over the next year or so, I would not be surprised to see more mentions of DEA in the same breath as some of the more imaginative interpretations of “traditional military activity,” or flat-out Title 50 hijinks.*

*This will all be highly classified, but we’ll hear about a DEA success story, which will inevitably piss off someone at the CIA, who will leak everything to David Ignatius.


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