A fascinating bit of drug war history

Here’s an interesting comment left in response to my last post on the drug war:

I have a personal anecdote about the drug war and how it had its start.

All statistics in the early 1980s were showing drug use on the decline, and drug convictions likewise declining. I was an appointed official in the Department of Justice and part of my area of responsibility involved the production of statistical reports on Federal criminal activity for the United States Marshal Service. After the election of 1980 I lateraled into a civil service post but retained my duties, which included the completion of a quarterly comprehensive report and delivering it to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Strom Thurmond became chairman of following that election. I got to dress up in a suit and go downtown from the USMS offices in the Tyson’s Corner shopping center and raise my right hand and, under oath, state that the material was true and accurate to the best of my abilities, and spend the rest of the day seeing the exhibits in the Smithsonian and art galleries looking sharp in my suit.

When Reagan took office and appointed his divorce attorney, William French Smith, as AG, everything changed. Where Civiletti and ol’ Griffin Bell wanted everything straight and accurate, my first report, which had to go through the new, ambitious Associate AG before delivery to congress, came back to my desk with the notation, “Not good enough.” When I asked for guidance, I was told that they wanted to show that more than 50% of cases under USMS jurisdiction had drug related offenses as their original offense. This was just not true — most were wire and mail fraud — drug laws are mostly state matters. I was ordered to make it 55%, with the admonition that “Nobody can check.” Noting that “Well, YOU can check,” and understanding that I would forever be under his control ever afterward under the threat of a perjury charge if I swore to a knowing lie, I was given the choice upon my refusal to be demoted for insubordination to GS6 or resign. I chose to resign.

If you’ve read Dan Baum’s excellent drug war history Smoke and Mirrors (or, for that matter, my book!), this won’t surprise you. In Reagan’s first cabinet meeting, Smith told his new colleagues, “The Justice Department is not a domestic agency. It is the internal arm of the national defense.”

If you really believe you’re in charge of defending America from a threat that could destroy it, it’s probably pretty easy to justify to yourself a little statistical manipulation and intimidation of subordinates.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

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Radley Balko · February 26, 2014