Pubdate: Sun, 24 Oct 1999
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Matthew Campbell, Washington 
Cited: General McCaffrey:
Another view:


Colombia's drug lords may think twice before messing with General Barry
McCaffrey, America's "drug tsar". He is one of the few government officials
who can claim to have captured bunkers in the Vietnam war by charging
forward and shooting enemy soldiers with his pistol.

The adversary today is different - yet McCaffrey has displayed the same
fearless tenacity in the bureaucratic trenches since he exchanged his
medal-encrusted military uniform for a suit in 1996 to lead President Bill
Clinton's war on drugs. McCaffrey, 56, who visits Britain this week to
discuss international co-operation in combating drugs, can claim some
success, not least in boosting his department's budget to the size of
Luxembourg's gross domestic product. Yet although illegal drug use by
teenagers fell by 13% in 1998 and the number of drug users has fallen by
50% since 1979, he is not about to declare victory.

Drug abuse, says McCaffrey, kills 52,000 people in America each year,
roughly the number of casualties suffered in Vietnam. Despite his efforts,
cocaine still floods into the country and prisons overflow with offenders.

"It's still a huge problem," he said last week. "There's 4.1m Americans
chronically addicted to illegal drugs. That's a small percentage of the
population - but a lot of people."

A wiry, energetic figure, trailed everywhere by bodyguards after he
received death threats from drug barons, McCaffrey dreams of halving the
use and availability of narcotics in America by 2007. Like the military
planner of old, he pulls out charts and maps to plot his moves and can reel
off statistics as fast as his office computer. He has assembled a
formidable arsenal to pursue his campaign.

Since he took over, the Office of National Drug Control Policy near the
White House has expanded from one to four floors. The staff has grown from
two dozen to more than 100, many of them former military officers.

They refer to McCaffrey, the former head of Southern Command in Panama, as
"the General" and have to restrain themselves from saluting whenever he
passes. "He's the real thing," said an assistant. "A genuine American hero."

Even Clinton may be somewhat in awe of him - for while the president
famously avoided duty in Vietnam, McCaffrey won medals there and was
wounded three times. One citation describes how he charged forward under
"intense hostile fire" to kill "two adversaries with his pistol".

He later helped win the Gulf war by leading the 24th Infantry Division
manoeuvre that cornered Saddam Hussein's army in the Euphrates Valley. A
picture of one of his tanks hangs in his office.

On the bureaucratic battlefield, where government agencies compete for
funds, McCaffrey's clout with the commander-in-chief has paid dividends.
"Each year, I've appealed directly to the president," he said. "We've gone
up from $13.5 billion to $17.8 billion."

Even so, while praising Clinton as "a good dad" who is "opposed to drug use
in our society", McCaffrey must have winced when the president joked on a
rock music network that the next time he smoked marijuana he would inhale.
"That," says McCaffrey, "was a terrible mistake."

Under McCaffrey's civilian predecessor, the drug effort had faltered badly.

"Nobody in their right mind would want this job," he said. Yet life in the
military had made him acutely aware of the dangers of drugs. "When I
graduated in 1964 there were hardly any drugs in America, and none in the
armed forces," he said. "By 1968 we were undergoing a drug revolution that
almost wrecked us. We were almost on our knees."

Since he stepped in, McCaffrey has become a favourite punchbag of liberals.
He was denounced by one Democrat congressman last year as a "skunk" for
persuading Clinton not to allocate federal money to needle-exchange
programmes for heroin addicts. Supporters of the system claim that clean
needles could save 30 people a day from contracting HIV - but McCaffrey
declared that such programmes would send the "wrong message".

Unbending also in the debate about drug legalisation - he opposes even the
medical use of marijuana advocated by some American states - McCaffrey
nevertheless surprised critics with his willingness to emphasise the need
for education about drugs.

Between trips to Colombia to witness the burning of coca leaves, and to
Capitol Hill to brief congressmen about his campaign, McCaffrey has reached
out to the advertising gurus of Madison Avenue.

The result, on which Keith Hellawell, the British anti-drugs co-ordinator,
will be briefed tomorrow, is a bold departure from the "Just say no" slogan
made popular by Nancy Reagan.

In a $1 billion media campaign targeting children, anti-drug advertisements
are for the first time being placed in prime-time slots. One of them
features a young woman smashing an egg with a frying pan, saying: "This is
your brain on heroin."

Broadcasters are encouraged to match paid commercials with free ones of
their own. Bill Cosby, the black comedian, has been enlisted to speak out
against the lure of drugs. Even Spiderman has been drafted in, with a
series of cartoons in which the oval-eyed hero reveals the perils of drug use.

Some critics see McCaffrey's campaign as an expensive shot in the dark. He
is optimistic: "There's no question. Wait two or three years from now. It's
gonna work."

If not, there will be no shortage of other jobs for him. In a country that
worships its war heroes, he could easily run for office. But on this point
McCaffrey defers to his wife: "She is adamantly opposed."

So there will be little peace just yet for the drug lords.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake