When Sen. John McCain spoke during an Armed Services Committee hearing last year on security issues in the Western Hemisphere, he relayed a stark warning about the spread of Mexican drug cartels in the United States.

“The cartels,” the Arizona Republican said, “now maintain a presence in over 1,000 cities.”

McCain based his remarks on a report by a now-defunct division of the Justice Department, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), which had concluded in 2011 that Mexican criminal organizations, including seven major drug cartels, were operating in more than 1,000 U.S. cities.

But the number, widely reported by news organizations across the country, is misleading at best, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and drug policy analysts interviewed by The Washington Post. They said the number is inflated because it relied heavily on self-reporting by law enforcement agencies, not on documented criminal cases involving Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and cartels.

The Post interviewed local police officials in more than a dozen cities who said they were surprised to learn that the federal government had documented cartel-related activity in their communities.

Attorney General Janet Reno cuts a ribbon during the dedication of the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa., in 1993. At right is Rep. John Murtha (R-Pa.), who secured an earmark to get the center built in his home town. (Todd Berkey/Johnstown, Pa., Tribune-Democrat)

“That’s news to me,” said Randy Sobel, chief of police in Middleton, N.H.

“I have no knowledge of that,” said David Lancaster, chief of police in Corinth, Miss.

NDIC’s headquarters in Pennsylvania was closed last year and its personnel folded into the Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA officials declined to release a list of the cities, calling it “law enforcement sensitive.”

Privately, DEA and Justice Department officials said they have no confidence in the accuracy of the list.

“It’s not a DEA number,” said a DEA official who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the report. “We don’t want to be attached to this number at all.”

The Post was able to identify more than a third of the cities using computer mapping techniques and government documents. The analysis located government claims of Mexican drug activity in numerous cities in unexpected places: 20 in Montana, 25 in Oregon, 25 in Idaho, 30 in Arkansas.

There is no disputing that Mexican cartels are operating in the United States. Drug policy analysts estimate that about 90 percent of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine on U.S. streets came here courtesy of the cartels and their distribution networks in Mexico and along the Southwestern border. DEA officials say they have documented numerous cases of cartel activity in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

Drug trafficking across the United States

But analysts who study drug trafficking scoffed at the contention that the violent cartels and other Mexican-based drug organizations are operating in more than 1,000 U.S. cities.

“They say there are Mexicans operating here and they must be part of a Mexican drug organization,” said Peter Reuter, who co-directed drug research for the nonprofit Rand think tank and now works as a professor at the University of Maryland. “These numbers are mythical, and they keep getting reinforced by the echo chamber.”

The former chief of NDIC defended the work of his former agency.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the DEA doesn’t support those numbers,” said Michael F. Walther, who ran the agency between 2005 and 2012. “They like to paint a more positive portrait of the world. I stand by the work that our analysts did at NDIC.”

Drug policy analysts said the wide dissemination of the number is part of a pattern in the decades-long “war on drugs” of promoting questionable statistics in an attempt to quantify the drug problem in the United States and justify budgets.

“Washington loves mythical numbers,” said John Carnevale, a former drug policy and budget official who served three presidents and four “drug czars” at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Once the number is out there and it comes from a source perceived to be credible, it becomes hard to disprove, almost impossible, even when it’s wrong.”

NDIC closed in June 2012 after 19 years of operation and more than $690 million in taxpayers’ money spent. But the NDIC number lives on, cited in congressional reports on security along the Southwest border and in testimony by high-ranking members of the military and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“The cartels now have a presence in more than 1,000 U. S. cities,” said a 2012 report by the House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee on violence and terrorism on the Southwest border.

“A terrorist insurgency is being waged along our Southern border,” then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said during a 2011 hearing on combating international criminal organizations. He cited “the operations across Mexico and Central America, as well as in over 1,000 U.S. cities.”

Drug policy analysts called NDIC’s definitions of what constitutes a Mexican drug organization murky and not particularly useful, paving the way for confusion and misinterpretation. In its 2010 report, the center used the phrase “Mexican drug trafficking organizations,” defining them as being based in Mexico or the United States, with Mexican nationals serving as their leaders. The report’s definition of “presence” in a U.S. city was met if at least one member of the organization was engaged in “some type of trafficking activity.”

In its 2011 report, the center used the phrase “transnational criminal organizations,” and said they included seven cartels based in Mexico, the well-known Sinaloa and Zetas syndicates among them. The report broadened the definition in a footnote to include traffickers who purchased drugs from cartel associates.

Under such definitions, the analysts said, anyone from Mexico caught selling a small amount of marijuana in a U.S. city could be counted as a Mexican drug organization or cartel presence.

“These definitions are interchangeable and indistinguishable,” said Peter Andreas, a drug policy analyst at Brown University who has written a book about the politics of drug policy called “Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide.” “This is a particularly egregious example of a pattern that unfortunately has not gotten a lot of scrutiny.”

Walther, the former NDIC chief, said it is difficult to determine what constitutes a Mexican cartel presence because there are varying degrees of separation between street dealers, distribution networks and operations south of the border. But he said that his agency did the best it could under the circumstances and that NDIC was frequently attacked because it became the bearer of bad news.

“It’s in the nature of government that agencies don’t like to be told they are not entirely successful,” said Walther, who now works as a criminal defense lawyer in Pennsylvania and recently authored a study for the Army War College titled “Insanity: Four Decades of U.S. Counterdrug Strategy.”

“There’s no uniformly accepted glossary of terms,” he said. “Some of the distinctions are too fine to be appreciated by people who are not engaged full time in the counterdrug world.”

The story behind the NDIC number dates to the days of the first drug czar, during the George H.W. Bush administration in 1989. With 19 federal agencies generating drug intelligence reports at the time, administration officials wanted to create a clearinghouse to coordinate the flood of information.

In theory, the National Drug Intelligence Center seemed to be a solution. Then-Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) got involved. Murtha chaired the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, and in 1992 he obtained a $40 million Defense Department earmark. The center was established in an abandoned department store in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa., 180 miles from Washington.

At its dedication ceremony in Johnstown in 1993, then-Attorney General Janet Reno called NDIC “a crucial turning point” in the Clinton administration’s efforts to combat drugs.

But some White House officials, such as Carnevale, saw NDIC as a Washington boondoggle.

“They were getting so much money,” he said. “They hired a lot of staff. But they were so far away, and a lot of us didn’t read their reports.”

In a recent interview, Murtha’s former chief of staff defended NDIC.

“They did a hell of a job. It wasn’t a pork-barrel type of thing,” said John Hugya, who worked for Murtha for 23 years. “They had a lot of professionals working there. I respected the whole damn group.”

On Feb. 8, 2010, Murtha died at age 77, and NDIC lost its protector.

Two months after Murtha’s death, NDIC issued a “Situation Report” titled: “Cities Where Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations Operate Within the United States.” With “high confidence,” the report said they were operating “in at least 1,286 cities.”

To arrive at that figure, the center used a methodology that federal law enforcement officials now say was questionable. NDIC field intelligence officers surveyed 1,200 law enforcement agencies across the nation and asked them if they had Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in their communities. Of those agencies, 1,039 said they did, according to the report. The center then added that total to a total based on case information kept by the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, which reported that Mexican drug organizations were operating in 247 U.S. cities.

NDIC added the two numbers to come up with 1,286 cities.

“The methodology was flawed from the start,” said one Justice Department official who was familiar with the report and also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I heard that they just cold-called people in different towns, as many as they could, and said, ‘Do you have any Mexicans involved in drugs?’ And they would say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ”

Drug policy analysts say self-reported surveys are subject to exaggeration, particularly when local and state law enforcement agencies are looking for federal grant money to bolster their budgets.

“At a time when agency budgets are being cut, you want to demonstrate that you are protecting the public from a menace,” said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a drug- and policing-policy reform group. “If you say there are Mexican henchmen in 1,000 cities, you don’t want to cut their budget.”

More than a year after Murtha’s death, NDIC issued its second report in August 2011, titled “National Drug Threat Assessment.” In it, the center modified the 1,286 number by saying Mexican “transnational criminal organizations” were “operating in more than a thousand U.S. cities during 2009 and 2010.”

Drug policy analysts said the NDIC number and other questionable claims have important consequences.

“We have no idea how many Mexican drug cartel operatives are out there and where they are, and these kinds of claims are a really big problem for public policy,” said David A. Shirk, a political science professor at the University of San Diego who examines Southwest border issues. “Citizens have a right to know if federal agencies are doing their jobs, and without verifiable information it calls a lot of this work into question.”

Although the DEA declined to release the list of cities, The Post was able to pinpoint the locations of hundreds of them by analyzing a map included with an early version of an NDIC report.

The Post contacted police officials in 24 cities. While a few said they found possible connections to the cartels, officials in 18 cities said they were unaware of cartel-related activity in their communities.

NDIC reported a Juárez Cartel connection in the former mining town of Ladd, Ill., in the north-central part of the state. Ladd Police Chief William Gaefcke said he can think of only one reason why his city of 1,300 residents was listed in the report. A few years back, his department, along with two federal agents, investigated a claim that the cartel was smuggling assault weapons in the region.

The investigation went nowhere.

“The case was dismissed as unfounded,” Gaefcke said.

NDIC reported that the Juárez Cartel was tied to a drug operation in Garden City, Kan., made famous as the site of the murder trial depicted in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

“We have drugs in our community,” said Capt. Michael Utz of the Garden City Police Department. “But as far as the Juárez Cartel operating in this city, I don’t have any information on that.”

NDIC reported Tijuana Cartel activity in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

“I haven’t seen a link to the Tijuana Cartel,” Police Chief Brian T. Uhler said. “That’s surprising to me. There are gangs here that have a statewide connection, and there may be linkages to the cartels. I guess an affiliation can mean a lot of different things in law enforcement.”