Drugs: a military matter?

THE Reagan administration's moves to include the military in the enforcement of drug laws are an understandable response to what seems an overwhelming problem. But having the military help play policeman could open the door to abuses; those schooled for combat are not exactly trained to concern themselves with civil liberties.

It would be easier to argue against this expanded military role in drug-law enforcement, however, if there were more-obvious alternatives.

The prohibition against military involvement in civilian law enforcement, the so-called posse comitatus law, goes back to the post-Civil War period, when the soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic often made arrests of civilians. Such police powers as exercised by the military were seen to be the source of considerable abuses, and over the years the posse comitatus law has come to be regarded by civil libertarians almost as part of the Bill of Rights.

Now times have changed; there have been two revisions of the law already during the Reagan years, allowing the military to provide logistical and other support to civilian police agencies. Most recently, Vice-President George Bush has revealed that President Reagan has identified drug trafficking as a national-security issue and has authorized an even higher level of support for drug agents from the military than up to now.

The new executive order basically means that the armed services will be able to undertake drug enforcement missions for their own sake, without having to work them into existing military missions.

It is not quite clear what effect this will have, though. Navy ships are already carrying Coast Guard sailors to make arrests, should a suspected drug-running ship be spotted in US waters. And Air Force Reserve units, whose exercises consist of reconnaissance and patrol flights, have been making those flights over the Caribbean while in contact with the Coast Guard, instead of just flying over, say, northern Georgia.

In other words, the armed forces' role in drug-law enforcement has hitherto been mainly a matter of doing what they would do anyway, with some modifications to support civilian authorities. When a civilian agency has borrowed a helicopter or other equipment for a mission that couldn't simply be fitted into a scheduled military exercise, the service involved would send the civilian agency a bill for fuel and other obvious costs. Under the new order, that will presumably change.

All in all, the US military received 10,000 requests for help from civilian drug agencies in 1984, and it met all but 29 of them.

Historically, however, the armed services have not been eager to take on this kind of role. There seems no interest in having military people do the actual snapping on of handcuffs -- the most sensitive aspect of posse comitatus. There is also within the United States a strong tradition of having the military be clearly subordinate to civilian authorities, and there has been no discussion of having the military enforce drug laws in the interior of the country.

All that said, and granting the severity of the drug traffic problem, we must still urge caution as the armed services move into new responsibilities for the enforcement of drug laws. Third in a series

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