A LEADING expert on America's drug crisis charges that President Bush has failed to put the White House on a war footing against illegal narcotics. ``It's not a war. It's [just another] government program with a lot of hot rhetoric,'' charges Rep. Glenn English (D) of Oklahoma.
Mr. English, recognized as a congressional leader on narcotics issues, says the president must act, not just talk.
``If you really want to fight the war on drugs, we don't need any more legislation. We have every darn law we need on the books right now,'' English insists.
``It's a question of commitment ... The president's just got to come down cold bore on it and say, `This is it - this is what we're going to do.' But You can't just kind of skim over it and make a speech everyone wants to hear - and hope.''
One of English's major complaints: Mr. Bush has refused to give William Bennett, the drug policy director, sufficient power to deal with the crisis.
The so-called drug czar has become ``the drug figurehead,'' English says. ``He's the man the news media is supposed to go see when they want to talk to somebody about the war on drugs.''
English, who has worked on the drug problem for eight years and been involved in 45 drug hearings, says the public needs to demand results. Mr. Bush's words far outrun his actions, he says.
``The drug war is still moving along at the same normal pace as the procurement process of the United States government,'' he charges.
If Bush were really serious about fighting drugs, he would be ``pulling people in day after day, hammering away. It's a war. If you're going to fight it, you've got to fight it like a war. And that means you put the White House on a war footing. And you put the rest of the federal government on a war footing.
``It means you cut through red tape. It means you have everyone pulling in the same direction ... And that's not the case today,'' he says.
``I'd love to see the action match the rhetoric. Golly, if we ever get the level of action up to the level of the rhetoric, we're going to have the darnedest war you've ever seen.''
The congressman, interviewed recently in his Washington office, says stamping out the illegal drug trade will be an enormous task that can ultimately be won only through education and rehabilitation. That means it's a long-term struggle - something Washington has no stomach for, he observes.
Meanwhile, the White House skims off the political credit, then goes on with business as usual, he charges. English says the attitude in the White House is: ``It would be nice to win this war as long as we don't upset anybody.''
But English argues: ``I don't think you can win this kind of a war unless you have a lot of people upset. And maybe it's going to be the American people that are going to be most upset'' if the war isn't won.
The congressman is particularly concerned about the lack of authority for Dr. Bennett.
Without more clout, Bennett will be unable to deal with turf battles between the various agencies, such as the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
For years, the agencies have been failing to share intelligence information, failing to coordinate their efforts, and squabbling with one another. An example:
``The law placed all the intelligence gathering responsibility for the drug war under the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]. Then the DEA is supposed to pass this intelligence information on to Customs,'' English says.
``[But] DEA and Customs don't get along ... Their priorities are far different ... I don't think we've run across a single Customs air operation that ever received a call from DEA. Not a one.''
The president could have allowed Bennett to knock heads and resolve such infighting. But Bush ducked the issue.
``Bennett's the man to call the shots,'' English says. Instead, Bush gave Bennett even less power than Congress recommended by refusing to make him a member of his Cabinet.
``That sent a message to anybody [fighting drugs] throughout the federal government.''
The people with the real authority are still the various Cabinet members - Secretary of Transportation for the Coast Guard, Secretary of the Treasury for Customs, and so forth. Each secretary protects his own turf.
``There's nothing Bill Bennett can do about it,'' English laments.
English contends the war on drugs must be fought on several fronts at once - from education to interdiction, both at home and abroad.
The interdiction effort should involve ``defense in depth,'' English says. US forces, including the military, should start heading off drug shipments at the source. Military detection, using satellites and airborne radar, should begin the moment drug flights lift off runways in Colombia.
Interdiction can't stop all the drugs. But it can make smugglers' lives difficult. It can reduce supplies of cocaine. And it can drive up prices - putting cocaine beyond the reach of many users.
While clamping down on smugglers, English says the US also should be exploring ways to help Peru, Bolivia, and other South American nations that are hooked on cocaine economies.
The congressman also suggests that a get-tough policy might include wiping out coca crops through aerial spraying.
``There's a lot of [environmental] concern with regard to ... spraying,'' he concedes. ``But when you think about the impact [cocaine has] on the environment down there - with clear cutting [to grow coca] and dumping chemicals in the rivers from drug laboratories, I sincerely doubt that [spraying] will compare with it.''
At the end of the interview, English turns again to the lack of determination at the White House. He says the attitude there resembles the last political campaign of Mr. Bush:
``If there is credit to take, run in and take the credit ... From a PR [public relations] standpoint - great. But anything that goes much beyond that, I haven't seen much commitment.''
One in a series of articles about US border problems.