Is The US Really Tough On Drugs?


Burma has long been taken to task for failing to crack down on the cultivation and production of illegal drugs within its borders, with the United States in particular a vocal critic.

The US President is required to notify Congress annually of those countries he determines to be major producers of illicit drugs or major transit points. When this advice was issued in September 2009, Burma was deemed to have "failed demonstrably to adhere to international counter-narcotic agreements and to take counter-narcotic measures set forth in US law".

In an interview with the Myanmar Times soon afterward, Larry Dinger, the US chargé d’affaires to Burma, said that while "all is not negative … huge amounts of methamphetamines are going across the border and there are still parts of the country where traffickers seem to operate with relative impunity".

But a long-running court case has once again raised questions about how committed the US is to eradicating the scourge of illicit drug production in Burma.

Last week, US District Judge Royce Lamberth approved a US$3 million settlement in a civil suit filed by a former US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official stationed in Burma in the early 1990s.

Former DEA official Richard Horn accused Franklin Huddle, the former US chargé d’affaires to Burma, and Arthur Brown, CIA station chief, of wiretapping his Rangoon home in 1993 in an attempt to discredit him and to sabotage his counter-narcotics work in Burma.

Horn alleged that Huddle and Brown wanted to downplay the Burmese government’s co-operation on counter-narcotics for political reasons.

When Horn was stationed in Burma in the early 1990s, the country was the largest opium producer in the world. Since then, poppy cultivation has dropped significantly and has largely been replaced by methamphetamine production.

Horn’s suit has been running for nearly 16 years but was cloaked in secrecy for most of that time as the US government invoked the controversial State Secrets Privilege because Brown was working undercover. CIA attorneys failed to notify the court, however, when his undercover status was lifted in 2002.

When the judge, Royce Lamberth, was notified last year, he ordered the court record unsealed and filed a motion of wrongdoing against government attorneys for not notifying the court sooner. As he approved the payout last month, Lamberth noted with disapproval that "this court is called upon to approve a $3,000,000 payment to an individual plaintiff by the United States, and again it does not appear that any government officials have been held accountable for this loss to the taxpayer." Cue awkward media coverage, like this piece on CNN.

Significantly, Lamberth also ordered that attorneys for both sides be given access to privileged documents relevant to the case. It has been argued that this prospect prompted the Justice Department to propose the $3 million settlement.

In court documents filed on 3 November last year, lawyers for the defence said the settlement should not be "construed as an admission by the Defendants nor the United States … of any allegation or the validity of any claim asserted" in the lawsuit.

But, as Lamberth pointed out last week in his ruling, "while the government makes no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement, the court is persuaded that the government must have at least found them credible to pay the plaintiff $3 million to settle the case".

The defence asked Lamberth to terminate several motions of wrongdoing that had arisen in the case but instead he has put them in "abeyance"; their termination is contingent on the US Attorney General agreeing to refer the allegations of wrongdoing to the Inspector General’s office and notify the appropriate Congress oversight committee.

The full background to the case, including the legal documents filed, can be found on The Narcosphere, an online news site that focuses on drug control issues.

For now, however, it seems unlikely the public will discover precisely what, if anything, the US government was trying to hide by finally agreeing to the settlement. Horn’s lawyer, Brian Leighton, told reporters last week the pair had "mixed emotions" about the settlement.

Horn said he wanted "the truth [about Burma’s]drug enforcement efforts, which were substantial, to be told to the US Congress and the executive branch; whereas the [State Department] and CIA … desired to deny [Burma] any credit for its drug enforcement efforts."

When emailed him after the settlement, Horn said the legal battle had been "hard-fought and protracted".

"The issues central to the case were and still are very important to the Department of Justice and the intelligence agencies. In many ways I wish we had continued our legal quest here in the US," he said. "But 15 years is a mighty long time to wage a war for justice. It really was time to move on."

For the record, the accused deny bugging Horn’s apartment. Arthur Brown’s lawyer said in a statement last year: "Art Brown did not do whatever Horn imagines happened back in 1993, and the settlement agreement does not contain any admissions or otherwise validate Horn’s bizarre allegations."

What the Burmese government makes of all this — if they are aware of the Horn case at all — is not clear.

In an October 8 editorial in the state-run New Light of Myanmar, the government claimed the US had turned "a blind eye and deaf ear to Myanmar’s anti-narcotic campaigns". The editorial proposed instead that the US "should render as much assistance as it can to Myanmar … to wipe out the dangers of narcotic drugs".

The New Light of Myanmar is essentially a junta mouthpiece but nevertheless the editorial made one highly salient point. Co-operation is crucial to stemming the flow of drugs from Burma’s borders. And it seems that while the US has been all too ready to criticise other states for their lapses in counter-narcotics programs,  it is also ready to put its own political priorities ahead of drug control efforts.

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