By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006
A photograph of President Bush waving a flag after the Sept. 11 attacks is juxtaposed against a black-and-white image of an African American mother smoking crack cocaine in bed next to her baby. Larger-than-life portraits of Osama bin Laden and Pablo Escobar line the walls. The central message of a traveling Drug Enforcement Administration exhibit unveiled at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry yesterday is that terrorism and drugs are inextricably linked.
But advocates of legalization who are leafleting outside the exhibit say the DEA is leaving out an important part of the story. Critics agree that drug trafficking provides a potentially lucrative revenue stream for terrorist organizations. But they say the profit is actually fueled by the government's war on drugs, which creates a situation akin to prohibition of alcohol.
"If we taxed and regulated drugs, terrorists wouldn't have drugs as a source of profit," said Tom Angell of the nonprofit Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which focuses on restoring financial aid for college students with drug convictions.
"With the connection to Prohibition in Chicago we should know better," said Pete Guither, a professor of theater management at Illinois State University and founder of the blog DrugWarRant.com.
DEA spokesman Steve Robertson responded: "We're a law enforcement agency -- we enforce the laws as they are written. Congress makes the laws. People say if we didn't have [drug] laws there wouldn't be a problem, but there was a problem before and that's why laws were established."
Jeanne Barr, a history teacher at a private Chicago high school, plans to distribute fliers and bring her students to study the exhibit, titled "Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause."
"We'll look for possible omissions and oversimplifications," she said. "They don't pin any blame on the prohibition of drugs. But from my understanding of history, the major source of the black market is prohibition. I don't think there's any difference between alcohol prohibition and what we're looking at today."
Critics of the DEA exhibit also question its linking of drugs to al-Qaeda. Another Web site with which Guither is affiliated, http://www.deatargetsamerica.com/ , quotes the Sept. 11 commission report as finding that "there is no reliable evidence that Bin Ladin was involved in or made his money through drug trafficking."
The 2001 attacks are clearly the centerpiece of the exhibit, with a display of rubble and artifacts from Ground Zero under a banner reading "Traffickers, Terrorists and You."
"For al-Qaeda it's hard" to prove a link, said DEA public affairs chief Garrison Courtney. "I don't think we're saying 9/11 was caused by drug financing. But we're saying there is a link between drugs and terror, and September 11 is a poignant example of terrorism. Terrorists don't hold bake sales to raise money."
The exhibit includes a list of organizations designated as terrorist by the State Department, with the explanation that "nearly 50 percent" of them get funds through drug trafficking. There is a replica of a heroin-processing lab in Afghanistan and references to heroin production funding the Taliban.
But it does not mention that the Taliban publicly opposed heroin production, though federal prosecutors allege that Baz Mohammed, a recently convicted Afghan drug kingpin, had ties to al-Qaeda; that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2003 that production of opium poppies in Afghanistan rose dramatically after the Taliban was overthrown; or that a top U.S. anti-drug official recently acknowledged allies' doubts about the effectiveness of poppy eradication in Afghanistan, where poor farmers have few options on crops.
"The Taliban said they had a moratorium on the production of opium poppies, but they were taxing the farmers who were doing it anyway," said DEA agent David Lorino, who was in Afghanistan.
The exhibit says the 2004 Madrid train bombing involved a hashish-for-explosives swap, and that in 2002 federal agents foiled two plans to trade heroin and hashish for Stinger antiaircraft missiles that suspects planned to sell to al-Qaeda and a Colombian paramilitary organization. The exhibit features Colombian and Peruvian guerrilla forces financed by cocaine.
The exhibit opened in Dallas on Sept. 11, 2003, and has been shown in New York, Omaha and Detroit. It was brought to Chicago at the request of Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), who blamed drugs for "80 percent of the crime factor in our city" in his remarks when the exhibit opened.
The Chicago component of the exhibit highlights terror caused by local gangs involved with drugs. DEA spokesman Robertson also took a broader view of terrorism and drugs.
"Terrorists' goal is to tear down current societies and governments and offer something else," he said. "Drug abuse degrades societies from within because of the effect on society, on users and on health services. Drug trafficking is a way to degrade societies, which helps terrorists in their goal."