A Drug War Boondoggle
The White House wants to kill it, but a little government agency may manage to live on
It merits only the briefest of mentions in the president's new budget, but those few lines of type could represent the final chapter in a long and twisted Washington saga. Stashed away on Page 1,181 is a paragraph that would effectively kill the little-known National Drug Intelligence Center, located in Johnstown, Pa., the site of the famous flood of 1889. Bush's budget proposes that the center's $40 million annual budget be slashed to $17 million--just enough to facilitate "the shutdown of the center and transfer of its responsibilities . . . to other Department of Justice elements."
If President Bush has his way, the center would be one of 154 programs eliminated or cut as part of his promise to curb federal spending. But as any veteran of Washington's budget wars will tell you, closing even a single federal program can be a herculean task. Perhaps no example is more illuminating than the NDIC, which, in its 12 years, has cost taxpayers at least $350 million. The facility has run through six directors, been rocked by scandal, and been subjected to persistent criticisms that it should have never been created at all.
Pork? In the beginning, the Johnstown center did have some friends in the White House. With the blessing of President George Herbert Walker Bush, then drug czar William Bennett proposed the creation of the NDIC in 1990. Its mission: to collect and coordinate intelligence from often-feuding law enforcement agencies in order to provide a strategic look at the war on drugs. But the Drug Enforcement Administration, worried that its pre-eminent role in the drug war was slipping away, openly fought the idea. So did many on Capitol Hill, arguing that the new center would duplicate the efforts of existing intelligence centers, notably the El Paso Intelligence Center, operated by the DEA. With little support in the law enforcement community, the NDIC looked all but dead. Enter Congressman John Murtha. The Pennsylvania Democrat, who chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Defense, tucked the enabling legislation for the center into a Pentagon authorization bill, with the caveat that it would be placed in his district.
The center was troubled from the start. Murtha's new drug agency was funded by the Pentagon, but the Department of Justice was authorized to run it--an arrangement bound to cause problems. "All of us wanted the NDIC," says John Carnevale, a former official with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as the drug czar's office is known. "But none of us wanted it in Johnstown. We viewed it as a jobs program that Mr. Murtha wanted [for his district]."
Murtha bristles at implications that the Johnstown center is a boondoggle. "They say anything we do is pork barrel," he fumes. The congressman argues that the federal government should spread its facilities around the country, citing the security risk of a centralized government and cheaper operating costs elsewhere. But "obviously," he says, "I wanted it in my district. I make no apologies for that."
Headquartered in a renovated department store downtown, the center has brought nearly 400 federal jobs to Johnstown, a struggling former steel-mill town. Law enforcement agencies, ordered to send employees to the new center, had trouble finding skilled analysts or executives who would agree to live in Johnstown. Even the bosses didn't want to go. The first director, former FBI official Doug Ball, traveled back and forth from his home near Washington. His deputy, former DEA agent Jim Milford, did the same and made no bones about it. "I've never come to terms," Milford says, "with the justification for the NDIC."