An embryonic Justice Department plan to put the FBI in charge of the federal war against illicit drugs has triggered a crossfire of mounting opposition from police, congressional and diplomatic circles.
Under orders from Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, an FBI task force is studying the feasibility of transforming the Drug Enforcement Administration, which now has charge of fighting the narcotics traffic, into a division of the FBI. The task force is scheduled to give Bell its findings by the end of this month.
The idea already has come under fire from so many quarters that one congressional source predicts: "Bell's going to find himself in the middle of one hell of a controversy if he tries to go ahead with it."
Critics of the proposal range from the National Association of State Boards of Pharmacy to the Major Cities Police Administrators, whose members are the chiefs of 27 of the country's diggest metropolitan police forces.
Other reservations about the wisdom of the idea have come from such diverse sources as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that keeps tabs on drug problems: Mathea Falco, the State Department's coordinator for intertional narcotics matters, and James Q. Wilson, the Harvard government professor who is generally regarded as the dean of academic experts on police work.
They all agree that DEA, despite a record of controversy and ineffective making some effective inroads on the drug problem. According to this reasoning, sudjugating it to the FBI at this point would be what Nunn calls "a dreadful mistake" that would ser back the entire narcotics control program.
They also believe that the FBI, plagued with internal problems about past abuses of its powers, should concentrate on setting its house in order before taking on major new responsibilities in an area where it has no special expertise.
Behind the controversy is Bell's feeling that narcotics represent "the biggest crime problem in America . . . more crime comes from drugs - the drug market or the drug habit - than any other thing." In his Senate confirmation hearings last January, he expressed the conviction that the drug war might be managed more effectively by the FBI.
Bell later conceded to reporters that this was an idea "just off the top of my head" and added: "This may not be a good idea. We're going to look at it though, because you never make any progress unless you think about something new occasionally."
What led Bell to the conclusion that DEA needed a hard examination was its repution as a sort of rogue elephant among federal law enforcement agencies. It had been put together by the Nixon administration in 1973 through a merger of the old Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs with elements of the Customs Service, and it was supposed to be the largest, best equipped and most technically proficient drug-fighting unit in the world.
Instead, DEA quickly got bogged down in charges that it was ineffectively dissipating its resources on "street busts" that did nothing to inhibit major narcotics networks, that it was plagued with internal dissension and conspiracies and that its agents had a "Gestapo mentality " that caused them to trample over the civil rights of suspects.
DEA's first administrator, John R. Bartel Jr., admitted that the public seemed to regard its agents "as corrupt Nazis who don't know how to open the door except with the heel of their right foot." In time, Bartel's inability to get DEA under control led to his dismissal.
However, among big-city police chiefs and students of the narcotics problem like Wilson, the predominant feeling seems to be that DEA has made a promising new start and should be allowed to continue on its current path rather than be subjected to a sudden change of leadership and direction.
cotics traffic. However, among big-city police chiefs and students of the narcotics problem like Wilson, the predominant feeling seems to be that DEA has made a promising new start and should be allowed to continue on its current path rather than be subjected to a sudden change
To subjugate DEA to the FBI, the agency's would put the narcotics program under an organization that already has responsibility for a wide range of other federal crime problems and has no expertise in combating the drug traffic.
That was what led Wilson, in a recent letter to Bell, to conclude that "we think the FBI adds little in the way of resources or procedures to DEA's ability to make narcotics conspiracy cases . . ." It also led the police administrators grup to pass a reslution warning that "any merger of drug enforcement efforts would represent a de-emphasis of illicit drug trafficking enforcement on the part of the federal government."
From the diplomatic side, the State Department's Falco notes that injection of the FBI into the drug program would "raise the risk of jeopardizing the good relations that DEA agents have develop with foreign counterparts."