Trump's drug war power grab was sadly predictable
"We are. We are. We're thinking about doing it very seriously," President Trump told Breitbart News in an interview published Tuesday. The "it" in question is designating drug cartels as terrorist organizations, a move Trump said his administration has "been thinking about ... for a long time." The shift would be "psychological, but it's also economic," Trump rambled on. "As terrorists — as terrorist organizations, the answer is yes. They are."
Except legally, they aren't. Our government defines terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents," and though the State Department's criteria for designating Foreign Terrorist Organizations is slightly broader, it still involves that element of political coercion. Drug cartels do terrible things, and terrorists sometimes sell drugs, but a drug cartel is not committing terrorism if it is acting for profit rather than politics.
That detail is unlikely to deter Trump from moving forward with the terrorist designation if he so chooses — and really, why would it? This sort of mission creep, in which law enforcement programs originally justified on national security grounds are repurposed for the drug war, is nothing new. Our government made a habit of finding all sorts of unexpected uses for powers and privileges it insisted were strictly to keep us safe from terror.
The Patriot Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, made this transition quite quickly. By 2003, The New York Times reported the Bush administration had "begun using the law with increasing frequency in many criminal investigations that have little or no connection to terrorism," including "suspected drug traffickers." Federal officials told the Times they were "simply using all the tools now available to them to pursue criminals," hastening to note they sometimes also used them for, you know, actual terrorists.
A decade later, an analysis from the Electronic Frontier Foundation showed that was only technically true. The "sneak-and-peek" searches the Patriot Act authorized — which don't require investigators to inform their target they are under scrutiny — rapidly changed from an option for exceptional circumstances to a routine investigative procedure. The searches were also overwhelmingly unconnected to the war on terror: In 2013, for example, 9,401 of 11,129 sneak-and-peak requests dealt with drug cases. Just 51 — less than 1 percent of the total — concerned suspected terrorism.
"Assume that any power you grant to the federal government to fight terrorism will inevitably be used in other contexts," The Washington Post’s Radley Balko wrote at the time. "Assume that the primary 'other context' will be to fight the war on drugs."
The same can often be said of measures to fight violent crime more broadly. SWAT teams, initially designed to deal with dangerous hostage and barricade situations, are now regularly used for more mundane purposes. Today, only 7 percent of SWAT raids are used to address the dangers they were created to combat. About two-thirds are used to fight the war on drugs.
This drug war mission creep also moves in the opposite direction. USA Today broke the news in 2015 that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) secretly tracked the metadata for billions of Americans' international phone calls beginning under the first Bush administration about a decade before the 9/11 attacks. The program operated without court approval — in fact, DEA agents actively concealed their surveillance activity to keep it out of public record — and "provided a blueprint for the far broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed." Predictably, drug warriors would later be among the federal agencies asking the NSA for access to its spy data.
Likewise, the Trump administration has repeatedly cited drug trafficking among its reasons for border wall construction. In his State of the Union address this year, the president pitched funding the wall as an opportunity for "Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers out of business." On the campaign trail, Trump said the wall would "stop the drugs" and help him "get all of the drug lords, all of the bad ones." In reality, it will do no such thing. If anything, the wall could make the illegal drug trade more lucrative than it already is.
The war on drugs has a convenient malleability that allows it to both leech off other expansions of the security state and be used to justify them. Its consistent ineffectiveness offers unscrupulous politicians a perpetual bugbear, always ready to dance to the tune of whatever new policing technology or authority is desired. It is ripe for abuse.
The ideal solution here would be to end the drug war entirely, but failing that, narrow and more explicitly restrictive national security and law enforcement legislation would be a good start. "Always assume that when a law grants new powers to the government, that law will be interpreted in the vaguest, most expansive, most pro-government manner imaginable," as Balko advises, and try to head off any drug war mission creep before it begins to ooze.