The House, whose budget resolutions have cut drug enforcement programs throughout the government, yesterday voted to allow the military to make narcotics arrests and seizures off U.S. shores.
Opponents said the vote would create "a military police force," but Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) exulted that with his amendment "at long last we can fight the war on drugs with our own army," adding that "this is the strongest legislation aimed at stopping illegal drug trafficking ever passed by this body."
Florida congressmen are particularly concerned about drugs flowing into their state through the Caribbean. Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D.Fla.), whose eldest son died four years ago of a drug overdose, had persuaded the House Armed Services Committee to adopt an even broader provision allowing drug enforcement by the military within and outside U.S. borders.
However, the final language adopted by the House as an amendment to a defense authorization bill would limit seizures and arrests by the military to areas outside the U.S. land base, while permitting military equipment -- and presumably the soldiers to help operate it -- to be used for narcotics surveillance and enforcement on the mainland.
The involvement of the military in civilian law enforcement was bitterly debated for two days on the House floor. Rep. Dante B. Fascell (d-Fla.) pointed out that the House has slashed funds for the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, while the military is expected to spend more than a trillion dollars over the next five years. Therefore he concluded with frustration, "We might as well let [the military] do everything."
Opponents also cited Defense Department opposition to the expanded authority, adding that soldiers are untrained in civil law enforcement rules, such as warning suspects of their rights to remain silent and to an attorney. "The military mission is national defense," said Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.). "They're not policemen and we don't want them to be policemen."
The Senate voted in May to allow military equipment -- such as helicopters and radar -- to be used for drug enforcement but added that no military personnel could be involved in narcotics searches, seizures or arrests.
The prohibition against military involvement in civil dates from Reconstruction and was designed to prevent abuses by Union soldiers in the occupied South. However, the military has been called upon several times since then to enforce civil law, notably in escorting black children to school during desegregation and to control urban and campus riots during the '60s and '70s.
House members, who have spent most of the last six months talking about budget cuts, devoted little time to debating the money involved in the fiscal year 1982 defense bill, which would authorize $136 billion for weapons, research, operations and maintenance, civililan salaries and civil defense -- $26.4 billion more than in fiscal 1981.
Amendments sponsored by Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), chairman of the Government Operations Committee, to restrict the Defense Department's ability to offer multiyear procurement contracts and to require competitive bidding for computer purchases were defeated.
Brooks said strict congressional oversight of weapons contracts would save billions of dollars. House Armed Service Committee members, however, said it would make weapons more costly by delaying contract approvals. h