Pubdate: Sat, 30 Jun 2007
Source: Bucks County Courier Times (PA)
Copyright: 2007 Calkins Newspapers. Inc.
Author: Daniel Lovering, The Associated Press
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)


JOHNSTOWN, Pa. - For years, the National Drug Intelligence Center has
operated quietly on the upper floors of a former department store,
with scores of employees authorized at the highest levels of
government security.

But the Justice Department facility, which blends into the landscape
of this once-thriving mill town 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, has long
caught the attention of critics in Washington.

Watchdog groups and lawmakers have blasted it as a pet project of U.S.
Rep. John Murtha, whose special funding requests , or earmarks , have
sustained the center since it opened in his home district in the early

It has been derided as a product of pork barrel spending and an
unnecessary outgrowth of the war on drugs that duplicates work done
elsewhere. The Bush administration has tried to close it, requesting
millions to cover shutdown costs.

The latest salvo came last month, when Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.,
tried to remove an earmark for the center, drawing Murtha's ire.

But the NDIC has persisted, despite lingering questions about its
effectiveness in coordinating the efforts of federal authorities to
collect and analyze intelligence on the domestic trafficking of
cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.

Acting director Irene S. Hernandez insists the center plays a critical
and unique role in the nation's anti-drug effort, and that its mission
has evolved from an initial focus on trafficking syndicates to its
current emphasis on broad trends.

"We can do an independent assessment of the drug trafficking
situation, and we can say this is what's happening," Hernandez told
The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. "There's nobody else
positioned to do what we do."

She said the center differs from other agencies, which may be
preoccupied with tactical operations, and informs policy makers.

Over the years, directors have come and gone, in one case under a
cloud of scandal. The current director, Michael F. Walther, an army
reservist and former federal prosecutor, is currently serving in Iraq.

The center's funding has been precarious , a factor that has impeded
hiring efforts, officials say. With a budget of $39 million annually,
the center's survival again appears uncertain as a spending bill moves
through Congress.

The NDIC conducts what it calls strategic assessments of illicit drug
trends. It analyzes evidence for federal investigators and
prosecutors, gathers intelligence, trains law enforcement officers and
produces a raft of reports. Some of its work is classified.

Its 268 employees have top secret security clearance and include 121
intelligence analysts with backgrounds as diverse as real estate,
chemistry, banking and law. It also uses contractors, some of whom are
retired federal agents.

In their midst are a small number of analysts from the Drug
Enforcement Administration and other agencies.

Hernandez, who joined the agency in 2004 after a 27-year DEA career,
points to the center's ability to cull information from seized
evidence , including ledgers, phone and real estate records, computers
and cell phones , and funnel that data to investigators and
prosecutors, helping them build cases against suspects.

The center has developed its own software, including a program
currently used by U.S. military investigators in Iraq.

It works with a broad range of law enforcement agencies, from the
Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Internal Revenue Service, and
supports the National Counterterrorism Center's efforts to sever ties
between drug traffickers and terrorists.

The NDIC assisted in an operation that led to the arrest of one of the
world's most hunted drug traffickers, Pablo Rayo Montano, and helped
detect growing abuse of the painkiller OxyContin, officials said.

Its marquee report, the National Drug Threat Assessment, charts
patterns of drug production, availability and demand. Some law
enforcement officials and academics praise the report, but former drug
officials question its value as a policy instrument.

Gary L. Fisher, a professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, called
the report objective and independent.

"It really accurately reflects how futile the (drug) supply control
efforts have been," he said. "You'll find the DEA reports are much
more biased to fit their agenda."

Another professor, Matthew B. Robinson of North Carolina's Appalachian
State University, said he and a colleague used the report to challenge
assertions by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the White
House agency responsible for the drug war.

The data showed illicit drugs are cheaper and purer
today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s, said
Robinson, co-author of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War
Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the
Office of National Drug Control Policy."

Some local law enforcement officials lauded the reports, saying they
circulated them among their analysts.

But John Carnevale, a former ONDCP official who worked under three
administrations and four drug czars, said the center's work was of no
value to him when he was in government, though he has since used its

"I had access to the data well before they did," said Carnevale, now a
Maryland-based consultant. "So I pretty much ignored them."

Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, an
advocacy group based in Maryland, said: "In many respects it seems
that their stuff is out of date. ... I would describe it as a tool of
limited value."

Critics have also questioned the center's location 140 miles from
Washington, citing political maneuvering by Murtha.

"I know what their capabilities are, I know what they can do, but that
didn't need to go to Johnstown, Pennsylvania," said James Mavromatis,
a former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, a Texas-based
DEA agency.

He said the center could have been housed at the El Paso facility,
closer to the U.S. border with Mexico, where most illicit drugs enter
the country. The NDIC had considered moving a team there, he said.

The NDIC's document analysis differs completely from EPIC's work, he
added, despite criticism they overlap completely.

NDIC officials and others contend that the center's Johnstown address
is hardly a hindrance. It may be an asset, they say, as its low cost
of living appeals to job candidates.

Asa Hutchinson, a former DEA head and a former Republican congressman,
said he was "a fan of folks performing important government services,
and not necessarily in Washington." But he conceded the center may
need adjustments.

"I think it is underutilized," he said. "I think they can expand their
mission, and I think that should be examined."

An activist group, Citizens Against Government Waste, recently chided
Murtha for threatening fellow congressman Rogers with legislative
reprisals after Rogers tried to strike a $23 million earmark for the

"We're not saying there shouldn't be an NDIC," said David Williams,
the group's vice president for policy. "What we're saying is, why
should one member of Congress be able to set up a field office like

Rogers said he believed the El Paso center was supposed to be the main
drug intelligence agency.

"I strongly believe it is not a good use of very valuable intelligence
resources," he told The Associated Press, adding that $23 million
amounted to the salaries of hundreds of DEA agents.

The Bush administration evidently agrees. Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman
for the Office of Management and Budget, said the center has "been
slow to delineate a unique or useful role within the drug intelligence

For that reason, the OMB's 2008 budget request "fully funds all
shutdown costs" of about $16 million, he said.


Associated Press Writer Kimberly Hefling in Washington contributed to
this report.
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