Military forces commanded by federal narcotics agents could be thrown into the war against drug smugglers under legislation that is moving through Congress.
The secretary of defense would be authorized to provide personnel specifically for federal drug law enforcement activities under an amendment approved by the House Armed Services Committee.
Other, broader amendments would authorize the secretary to supply intelligence information, equipment, base facilities and training personnel to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
The use of military personnel would have to be important to the success of the drug enforcement operation, says a committee report, and "such assignment shall not occur in any location or circumstance not previously approved by the secretary of state."
All the amendments are to the century-old Posse Comitatus Act, which generally forbids U.S. troops from enforcing civilian criminal laws.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has ratified some similar changes, except that its version expressly forbids members of the armed forces from being directly involved in searches, seizures or arrests.
The Defense Department and the Justice Department support the Senate version.
Some critics of the plans, which still must be voted on by the full House and Senate, contend they would jeopardize the traditional apolitical nature of the U.S. armed forces, subjecting them to political pressures endemic to criminal law enforcement.
They also fear that military personnel data banks would be opened up to fishing expeditions, and there would be pressure for domestic surveillance of civilians by military intelligence units.
The critics also believe that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration wants AWACS, the sophisticated radar plane, and military intelligence satellites specifically used to track ships and aircraft suspected of smuggling drugs from South American and the Caribbean.
High-flying U2 spy planes would be deployed to spot the large marijuana farms that dot rural areas of northern California, they contend.
"If the bill was just limited to that, that would be one thing," says Kevin Zeese, legal director for NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But the [House] bill allows the military to make drug arrests and seizues."
The Senate Armed Services Committee maintains in a report on its version of the legislation: "The committee's recommendations would neither enhance nor increase the authority of the military to gather or obtain intelligence information."