The Drug Enforcement Administration has one in El Paso. The Central Intelligence Agency has another at its headquarters in Langley. Even the Treasury Department recently established one in Arlington.
Each of these agencies has created in recent years drug or money-laundering "intelligence" centers -- secretive computerized operations designed to collect storehouses of information about the drug trafficking organziations that are nation's main enemies in the drug war.
But according to the Justice Department, another is needed. Yesterday, department officials unveiled plans for a new "National Drug Intelligence Center" (NDIC) that will be located in Washington and will spend more than $50 million the next three years, "filling the gap" left by the other intelligence centers.
Congressional skeptics are already complaining that NDIC, conceived last year by national drug control policy director William J. Bennett's office, is simply another bureaucratic layer in the drug war and could lead to further confusion and turf wars. "Why do we need this?" asked one staffer on the House Armed Service Committee, which recently released a report that criticized the center.
But Bush administration officials strongly defended the new center yesterday. Each of the agency intelligence centers serves only limited purposes, they noted, and often does not share information. The CIA's Counter Narcotics Center, for example, will not pass much of its intelligence to Justice Department agencies for fear of compromising classified "sources and methods."
The DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) is primarily interested in "tactical" intelligence that will aid specific investigations and does not draw broad "strategic" portraits of major trafficking organizations such as the Colombian drug cartels, which would be of vital use to policymakers trying to decide how to allocate resources.
"We have very little effective strategic information on which to design a drug war," said Stanley Morris, deputy drug control policy director. "We still don't know how we're getting our brains beat out on the Southwest border."
As an example, Morris cited the recent discovery of a tunnel along the Southwest border that was being used by drug smugglers. How many more such tunnels there are and whether they are likely to become more common might be answered by piecing together the intelligence being collected throughout the government, he said.
With a staff of 30 and a start-up budget of $8 million, the NDIC is expected to begin operations Oct. 1, Justice Department spokeswoman Harri Kramer said. But the department wants it to grow to a staff of 150 and a budget of $46 million the following year, she said.