$350 Million Effort Aimed at Drug War
By Mary Beth Sheridan, Spencer S. Hsu and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 25, 2009
The Pentagon and Homeland Security Department are developing
contingency plans to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican
border under a $350 million initiative that would expand the U.S.
military's role in the drug war, according to Obama administration officials.
The circumstances under which the troops could be deployed have not
been determined, the officials said. They said the proposal was
designed to give President Obama additional flexibility to respond to
drug-related violence that has threatened to spill into the United
States from Mexico and to curb southbound smuggling of cash and weapons.
The initiative, which was tucked into the supplemental budget request
sent to Congress this month, has raised concerns over what some U.S.
officials perceive as an effort by the Pentagon to increase its
counternarcotics profile through a large pot of money that comes with
few visible requirements.
The broadly worded proposal does not mention troop deployments,
stipulating only that the military is to receive up to $350 million
"for counter-narcotics and other activities . . . on the United
States' border with Mexico."
If the contingency plans go unused, the money would be retained for
military operations and maintenance after September 2010, an
administration official said.
The proposal is being closely monitored by the State Department,
which administers the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a three-year
aid package to fight drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America.
The new funding would be nearly as much as the 2009 budget for
Merida, and some observers said they fear that the military could use
the money to set up a parallel counternarcotics program with little oversight.
"The real question is what happens if this morphs into something
else," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity
because of the sensitivity of the issue.
House and Senate committees began receiving briefings from White
House budget staff this past week. Some lawmakers and aides said they
were unaware that the funds would be allocated to deploy troops.
"Frankly, I'm baffled that an additional $350 million has been
requested under the defense appropriation," Rep. Nita M. Lowey
(D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said
Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin
America, which promotes democracy and human rights in the region,
said the request lacks the accountability provisions included in the
Merida Initiative, which was passed after more than a year of debate
in both countries.
"They may say that this is for the National Guard, but the way it's
written, it is really a blank check for the Defense Department to do
whatever it wants on counter-drug issues at the border -- and it
doesn't say which side of the border," Olson said.
The administration did not seek additional funding under Merida
because the new assistance is targeted only on the U.S. side of the
border, said an administration official who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because the plan is still being formulated. A second
administration official said $250 million is for the deployment of
National Guard troops if they are needed, and the remaining $100
million would go to protect unaccompanied minors found crossing the border.
The funds are to be available until the end of September 2010. The
proposal also authorizes the secretary of defense to transfer up to
$100 million to other federal agencies.
"We wanted to make sure he [Obama] was in a position that, if the
facts on the ground warranted it, that he had resources at his
disposal to be able to enhance the capacity on the ground through the
use of National Guard troops," another administration official said.
The contingency plan to deploy National Guard troops appears to mark
a shift for Obama.
More than 10,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since
President Felipe Calderón took on the cartels after taking office in
December 2006. Amid indications that the violence could spill into
the United States, some officials have intensified calls for
Washington to beef up security along the border.
In early March, the president brushed off calls to deploy troops,
saying: "I'm not interested in militarizing the border." His comments
were echoed by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, who said last week while visiting the border region: "There
are [no plans] that I am aware of or that I would talk about" to
increase military activity.
On Wednesday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), Arizona Gov.
Jan Brewer (R), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and Texas Gov.
Rick Perry (R) sent a joint letter to the Senate and House leadership
requesting additional troops for the four southwestern border states
under the National Guard Counterdrug Program.
Expanding the program "provides a good opportunity to minimize
perceptions that anyone is militarizing the border by enabling
National Guard personnel already familiar with drug trafficking to
use their expertise and skills to support the direct services
underway by law enforcement," the governors wrote.
The issue is especially sensitive in Mexico, where any perceived
threat of military intervention is greeted warily. Mexican officials
said they have received assurances that Obama has no immediate plans
to send troops to the border.
A spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, Ricardo Alday,
said the Mexican government believes that other U.S. law enforcement
agencies "are a more effective tool than National Guardsmen in
shutting down transnational organized crime operating on both sides
of our common border."
The Bush administration spent more than $1 billion to deploy as many
as 6,000 Guard troops on the border in Operation Jump Start, which
began in 2006 and ended two years later. The focus was stemming the
tide of illegal immigration.
This time, the roles of Guard troops probably would be similar,
administration officials said.
As before, no U.S. troops will operate in Mexico, the officials said,
and any National Guard forces assigned would not engage in domestic
U.S. law enforcement, a role that is broadly constrained under a
federal law known as the Posse Comitatus Act, Obama aides said.
Guard troops would operate border detection systems, provide
communications, analyze intelligence, build roads, and provide air
and ground transport, freeing up law enforcement agents to perform
other duties, they said.
"It would be mobility. It would be the counternarcotics surveillance
work they already do, consistent with existing missions," one
official said. "They . . . would not be opening trunks and arresting people."
The official stressed that circumstances that would trigger
deployments are still to be determined, that the funding request was
intended to preserve the president's flexibility and that it should
"by no means be seen as presupposing the use of Department of Defense assets."
The U.S. military and Guard conduct ground and air surveillance along
the border, relay data to law enforcement agencies and aid
long-standing counternarcotics efforts.