“There’s no uniformly accepted glossary of terms,” he said. “Some of the distinctions are too fine to be appreciated by people who are not engaged full time in the counterdrug world.”
The story behind the NDIC number dates to the days of the first drug czar, during the George H.W. Bush administration in 1989. With 19 federal agencies generating drug intelligence reports at the time, administration officials wanted to create a clearinghouse to coordinate the flood of information.
In theory, the National Drug Intelligence Center seemed to be a solution. Then-Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) got involved. Murtha chaired the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, and in 1992 he obtained a $40 million Defense Department earmark. The center was established in an abandoned department store in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa., 180 miles from Washington.
At its dedication ceremony in Johnstown in 1993, then-Attorney General Janet Reno called NDIC “a crucial turning point” in the Clinton administration’s efforts to combat drugs.
But some White House officials, such as Carnevale, saw NDIC as a Washington boondoggle.
“They were getting so much money,” he said. “They hired a lot of staff. But they were so far away, and a lot of us didn’t read their reports.”
In a recent interview, Murtha’s former chief of staff defended NDIC.
“They did a hell of a job. It wasn’t a pork-barrel type of thing,” said John Hugya, who worked for Murtha for 23 years. “They had a lot of professionals working there. I respected the whole damn group.”
On Feb. 8, 2010, Murtha died at age 77, and NDIC lost its protector.
Two months after Murtha’s death, NDIC issued a “Situation Report” titled: “Cities Where Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations Operate Within the United States.” With “high confidence,” the report said they were operating “in at least 1,286 cities.”
To arrive at that figure, the center used a methodology that federal law enforcement officials now say was questionable. NDIC field intelligence officers surveyed 1,200 law enforcement agencies across the nation and asked them if they had Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in their communities. Of those agencies, 1,039 said they did, according to the report. The center then added that total to a total based on case information kept by the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, which reported that Mexican drug organizations were operating in 247 U.S. cities.