Drug traffickers and law enforcement authorities are engaged in a headlong dash to discover and exploit new technology, and it's not at all that certain the good guys will win.

This is one of the conclusions reached by a panel of Pentagon analysts who recently studied the means used to detect and neutralize traffickers and terrorists. Their secret report states: "Without question, there is a dynamic . . . 'technology race' underway between the drug trafficker -- as well as other criminal elements -- and the law enforcement agencies. It is by no means clear which side is better funded or better equipped."

Increasingly, the report said, drug traffickers are resorting to such countermeasures as tape recorder detectors, metal and radar detectors and electronic alarm systems that "protect traffickers and their stash pads from court-ordered intercepts as well as from rival groups."

Radio monitoring devices are a particular problem. "Law enforcement tactical communications frequencies are being monitored through the use of scanners," the report says. "On a regular basis, scanners tuned to DEA {Drug Enforcement Administration}, FBI, Customs, Coast Guard as well as state and local law enforcement agencies' frequencies are seized . . . "

The traffickers are also employing cellular telephones and new, high-tech techniques to thwart interception of their conversations. They are using sophisticated paging and electronic mail systems; they are using personal computers for accounting, record keeping and the transmission of data.

And their level of expertise astounds the authorities. Discloses the report: "One electronic notebook, which sold for approximately $70, had such a complex method of encryption that it could not be broken by a number of federal agencies."

The traffickers' high-tech arsenal also includes "night vision equipment {which} has been utilized along the borders" and "remotely-piloted vessels {which} have been used along the coast of Florida." The latter "are controlled from a mother ship and are used to deliver shipments of marijuana."

Will the white hats ever gain the upper hand? The task force is not optimistic: "The use of technology by the traffickers will increase in the future and will tend to become more sophisticated as new technologies come on the market.

The experts expect the traffickers will concentrate on cellular telephone technology, for example. "The cellular industry is turning toward a worldwide market and looking at rural undeveloped areas in South America. These in turn will be linked by satellite to the U.S. telecommunications system." The traffickers will thus have an instantaneous communication network that extends from the coca plantations to the consumer.

The task force offered this bleak summary:

"Cost, regulation or legality are of no concern to the trafficker. The only restraint on his use of technology is therefore his imagination. There seems to be no question but that the current 'technology race' will continue."

Footnote: The task force's analysis of use of technology by terrorists will be the subject of a future column.