The U.S. military's planned involvement in a massive drug raid this week in Bolivia is the latest in a series of such operations stretching from the Bahamas to Colombia, which foreshadow an even larger escalation being considered in President Reagan's war against drug trafficking, government officials said yesterday.
A $400 million plan under consideration at the Justice Department would continue to finance the U.S. military's transport of foreign security forces on drug raids abroad, and buy a broad array of hardware ranging from dirigible-like radar to specialized aircraft to intercept smugglers en route to the United States.
Even as administration officials vowed to undertake even more ambitious antidrug operations, there was behind-the-scenes finger-pointing among U.S. agencies over responsibility for the premature public disclosure Tuesday of U.S. Air Force and Army involvement in the Bolivian raids and for several embarrassing snafus in the operation.
For example, an Air Force C5A transport plane used to carry Army helicopters and military equipment was judged too heavy to take off from a runway in Bolivia after it had been loaded with fuel. And Bolivian newspapers were headlining the upcoming raid before U.S. troops had time to train Bolivian soldiers in the demolition tactics planned for about three dozen cocaine processing laboratories and clandestine airstrips.
However, U.S. officials said earlier drug raids involving the U.S. military have been more successful, notably one last February in Colombia, where sophisticated American detection tactics located a cocaine and heroin factory hidden under jungle canopy. U.S. Air Force helicopters ferried Colombian police to a ridge near the factory in a surprise strike that uncovered a huge lode of drugs after a fire fight in which about 20 people were killed, sources said.
Operators of the factory had been counting on sufficient warning time before any such raid, officials said, because the only access to the site was by roads and trails. The Colombian police, even with the surprise provided by Air Force helicopters, encountered an arsenal of small arms fire at the factory, sources said, from Soviet AK47 assault rifles, American M16s and Israeli Uzi submachine guns.
Part of the U.S. military effort is focused in the Bahamas, where the Air Force First Special Operations Wing is assisting local authorities, U.S. officials said.
Under an operation code-named BAT -- for Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands -- Air Force helicopters 1983 have been on call since May 1983 at a Bahamian airfield, usually in Freeport, to transport Bahamian law enforcement officials. An elaborate code has been worked out, officials said, to prevent smugglers from eavesdropping on communication networks.
Currently, two UH1N helicopters crammed with detection and navigation gear are operating in the Bahamas, with personnel staging through Homestead Air Force Base near Miami.
This week's Bolivian raids, which officials said may still be carried out, were first conceived in Buenos Aires during the International Drug Enforcement Conference in April chaired by John C. Lawn, chief of the Justice Department's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to Justice officials. After the formal meeting, these officials said, drug enforcement officials from Bolivia, Peru and Belize asked Lawn for U.S. help. Bolivia, officials said, made an urgent plea for helicopters to reach isolated areas where traffickers process drugs.
Lawn later conferred with Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who ordered a study of the legal issues involved and then presented a plan for the Bolivian operation at a Cabinet meeting. Vice President Bush was enthusiastic at the outset, sources said, while Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger was at first reluctant.
Weinberger said yesterday on this point that "not only do we have no opposition to it, it was our idea. It was something we wanted to do for a long time."
Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims said Weinberger "has opposed crossing the line by putting the military in the position of enforcing the civil laws but has looked for ways to support agencies charged with civil law enforcement in combatting drugs."
Meanwhile, at Bush's urging, Reagan approved a secret directive last April 8 expanding the allowable use of U.S. military forces in the international fight against illegal narcotics trafficking.
The Bolivian operation called for the huge Air Force C5A to land at a military air field near Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in the middle of last week, carrying its cargo of six Black Hawk helicopters and accompanied by 160 military support personnel and about 15 DEA agents.
The plan was to spend two days training Bolivian troops in demolition tactics and to begin the raids last Sunday.
But the mission was postponed because of a brief wildcat strike by gasoline workers, which would have prevented the immediate refueling of the C5A. U.S. sources say the Defense Department wanted the plane out of Bolivia before the raids started because it would be an attractive target for angry drug traffickers. The military was unwilling to send the plane until refueling could be guaranteed.
The C5A landed in Bolivia Monday with plans for the troops to be deployed on Tuesday to begin the series of raids. But the pilots quickly discovered that although they could land at the airport with near-empty fuel tanks, the runway was too short for takeoff once the C5A had been loaded with 20,000 gallons of fuel.
The mission was again postponed -- this time until Friday. But on Tuesday news of the raids led newspapers and television broadcasts throughout the Western Hemisphere, and yesterday the Defense, State and Justice departments were blaming one another for the leaks.
Federal officials conceded yesterday that most drug traffickers probably have heard about the enforcement effort and moved their personnel, cocaine and processing supplies. But the sources said the raids -- scheduled to go on over a two-month period -- would be carried out anyway, although probably not until the end of the week in order to complete the training of Bolivian troops.
One source said the C5A was being moved yesterday from Bolivia to a nearby American military facility on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, although it was not clear how the plane had taken off.
The Bolivian raid, the first big one to be launched since Reagan signed the directive calling for wider U.S. military participation in drug wars at home and abroad, will be followed by others using more sophisticated surveillance gear if the $400 million proposal before Meese is adopted.
Officials said it calls for buying up to seven Aerostat balloons with surveillance radar, which would be kept aloft at stations between the Florida panhandle and San Diego; four E2C Hawkeye surveillance and command planes equipped with sophisticated radar; 10 C130 transport planes with radar gear that can detect ships and aircraft at night by the heat they emit.
Most of the money would come out of the Pentagon budget at a time when it is being cut by Congress, setting the stage for an interagency battle over who should finance the stepped-up war against drugs.