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by Peter Moskos

October 23, 2009

The Curious Case of Barry McCaffrey

General Barry McCaffrey was the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the "Drug Czar") from 1996 to 2001.

I can't say much about his military career (1964-1996). I think it was just and honorable. He commanded a division in Operation Desert Storm and later the U.S. Southern Command. Wikipedia also says he created "the first Human Rights Council and Human Rights Code of Conduct for U.S. Military Joint Command." Seems damned decent.

But the Barry McCaffrey I know, the Clinton Drug Czar McCaffrey, is either a bald-faced liar or delusional. Until last night, I assumed the former. But when you talk to a man who steadfastly denies the truth with vigor, I wonder.

Exhibit A:
The "Unmitigated Disaster"

In 1998, McCaffrey told CNN's "Talkback Live" that the murder rate in Holland was twice that in the US. "The overall crime rate in Holland is probably 40 percent higher than the United States," said McCaffrey. That's drugs." He called Dutch drug policy, "an unmitigated disaster."
The Dutch government's Central Planning Bureau poured scorn on McCaffrey's figures. Official data put the Dutch murder rate at 1.8 per 100,000 people in 1996, up from 1.5 at the start of the decade. The Dutch say the U.S. rate is 9.3 per 100,000.

"The figure (McCaffrey is using) is not right. He is adding in attempted murders," a planning bureau spokesman said.
Confronted with reality, McCaffrey denied it.
Instead of apologizing for the error, McCaffrey's deputy, Jim McDonough, responded, "Let's say she's right. What you are left with is that they are a much more violent society and more inept [at murder], and that's not much to brag about."
A month later, McCaffrey defended himself:
There was a huge uproar (in Holland) over murder rates and crime stats, and was I right or wrong?... For an American to suggest that their crime rates were higher than the U.S. absolutely blew their mind
Actually, what blows their mind is that a man of such importance could lie. Though McCaffrey did finally admit that Dutch drug policy may just be a "mitigated disaster."

That whole bit is classic good ammo for the anti-drug-war cause. But it's 11 years ago now. And I don't like to hold grudges. So imagine my surprise last night.

Exhibit B: Conant v. McCaffrey

After being kind enough to tell me good things about my father (before we were on the air), McCaffrey whole-hoggedly denies what happened when he was Drug Czar. "Nonsense!" McCaffrey says. The Cato Institute's Tim Lynch sets him straight.

You can read more of Lynch's excellent take on McCaffrey here:
Whatever one’s view happens to be on drug policy, the historical record is there for any fair-minded person to see — and yet McCaffrey looked right into the camera and denied past actions by himself and other federal agents. And he didn’t say, “I think that’s wrong” or “I don’t remember it that way.” He baldly asserted that my recounting of the facts was “nonsense.” Now I suppose some will say that falsehoods are spoken on TV fairly often--maybe, I’m not sure--but it is distressing that this character held the posts that he did and that he continues to instruct cadets at West Point!
The court case, Conant v. McCaffrey was in McCaffrey's name, for crying out loud! [though the decision was renamed Conant v. Walters by the time it became law of the land in 2002.]

Does McCaffrey not remember it? Does he believe it never happened? I'm tempted to believe the general at his word. Which means... well... I'll leave you to decide. Here's what the court ruled in 2000:
On December 30, 1996, less than two months after the Compassionate Use Act [Medicinal Marijuana] took effect, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy [that's McCaffrey] ... stated “that a practitioner’s action of recommending or prescribing Schedule I controlled substances [that's marijuana] is not consistent with the ‘public interest’ ... and will lead to administrative action by the Drug Enforcement Administration to revoke the practitioner’s registration.”
The Administration’s Response stated that the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services would send a letter to national, state, and local practitioner associations and licensing boards, stating unequivocally that the DEA would seek to revoke the registrations of physicians who recommended or prescribed Schedule I controlled substances.
Now over time, the administration backed down a bit from the hard line. But that doesn't mean it never happened. The court ruled unequivocally against the government.


IrishPirate said...

Don't underestimate the ability of SOME military officers to hold on to beliefs counter to reality. My experience was that the higher the rank the more likely that was to be true.

It's seems to go along with the "we can do it" mindset of military life. Of course that is not a problem limited to the military.

Personally, I thought the idea of a former military officer as "drug czar" was silliness. Calling it the "drug war" doesn't mean it should be viewed as a "war" and led by a highly decorated combat veteran.

I like the idea of a former Police chief holding the position as it is today. Perhaps a public health professional. Hell, Kurt Schmoke and George Schultz could split the job.

Just give me someone who is willing to tell the truth regarding the costs of the "drug war" and lead the way to treating drug abuse as a public health issue and not a law enforcement issue.

I'm not holding my breath.

PCM said...

That's interesting. Especially the part about the "can do" attitude of the military. It's great if it's something that actually can be done. But if not...the word "quagmire" comes to mind.

IrishPirate said...

I can't recall where I read it, but a Military Counterinsurgency(COIN) expert had an insightful anecdote about who understood COIN doctrine.

Now this was a few years back so it likely is not as true today.

The expert would deliver lectures to groups of mid-level military officers in formal advanced training classes. Generally, the officers had a very difficult time understanding the concepts. They understood organization and "taking the hill", but the idea of long term operations was largely foreign to their experience and outlooks. Where's the objective? How do we take and hold it?

He'd give the same identical lecture to groups of mid level cops and they largely intuitively understood what he was talking about.

That anecdote can sum up the two prevailing perspectives on the "drug war".

1. Fight,interdict,inprison. Burn the field. Win the war. Declare victory every time a major arrest is made.

2. Human nature being what it is we're never going to "win the drug war". Better to accept it and deal with the reality because this war can't be "won".

McCaffrey is clearly looking for that pyrrhic series of never ending victories in the never ending war. It's likely he is just incapable of understanding that the costs of winning the "drug war" is worse than the negative effects of drugs.

Wow, statistics show that weed use among 15-17 year old teenagers is down for the second half of September 2009. It's a victory! We found a drug tunnel underneath the Mexican/USA border. It's a victory!

Sometimes there is no victory. There is no defeat. There is just the reality of life and a world filled with flawed humans.