Mary Beth Sheridan, Spencer S. Hsu and Steve Fainaru / Washington Post – 2009-04-27 22:48:08
$350 Million Effort Aimed at Drug War
WASHINGTON (April 25, 2009) — The Pentagon and Homeland Security Department are developing contingency plans to send National Guard troops to the US-Mexican border under a $350 million initiative that would expand the US 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 US 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 US 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 Thursday.
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 US 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 US 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 US troops will operate in Mexico, the officials said, and any National Guard forces assigned would not engage in domestic US 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 US military and Guard conduct ground and air surveillance along the border, relay data to law enforcement agencies and aid long-standing counternarcotics efforts.
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