DRUG POLICY CHIEF IS FACING SOME NEW FOES
McCaffrey's 'Tactics' on Needle Exchange Program Prompt Anger Among Advocates
National drug policy chief Barry R. McCaffrey staked out his position on needle exchange programs, made his point to President Clinton and won his battle last month. But the retired general may have made new enemies.
While Clinton did endorse needle exchanges as a means of curbing the spread of AIDS, supporters were dismayed that he took McCaffrey's advice to leave in place a ban on federal funds to finance the programs. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who announced the president's decision, and others had argued that the programs can slow the spread of disease without increasing drug abuse.
Some in the administration were outraged when they learned McCaffrey had enlisted Republicans in his effort. Five members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for his resignation.
On a recent afternoon, McCaffrey, who believes that needle exchange programs send the wrong message to children and encourage drug abuse, was not ready to give an inch.
"I feel very comfortable with Secretary Shalala's decision, because I think it took the culture war out of the issue," he said, playing down his own influence over Clinton's decision as well as Shalala's difference of opinion. "And by the way, money was never at the heart of the debate."
When asked why needle exchange supporters were angry if funding was not an issue, McCaffrey persisted: "It wasn't. What was really the debate was whether the government gave legitimacy to this approach."
It was a curious answer that reflected what some detractors say is his worst personality trait: unwillingness to acknowledge differences of opinion.
In calling on McCaffrey to resign, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton ( D-D.C.) used battlefield terminology to accuse McCaffrey of using "brutal tactics within the administration to subvert a decision to fund needle exchange programs that he must have learned in wars with real enemies. We put him on notice that he has now made a new enemy. He started a new war with us, and we intend to fight back."
Countered McCaffrey: "Drug policy is more than a function of the narrowest possible analytical view of an event. That drug policy has ramifications that are not only tactical but operational and strategic."
That was McCaffrey's way of explaining that it is his job to fight illegal drug activity and his duty to weigh the implications of all policy decisions related to drugs.
McCaffrey's words and actions during his two-year tenure as drug policy chief have proved him to be one of the more enigmatic and unpredictable members of the Clinton administration.
His critics charge that he is often intractable and self-righteous. Yet many of them also say he has raised the profile of the position and brought credibility to the administration's anti-drug efforts.
Two years ago, Clinton tapped him for the civilian job as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. A hero of the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm -- he was the most highly decorated and youngest four-star general, having been awarded three Purple Hearts for being wounded in action -- McCaffrey was an ideal choice for at least two reasons: "Because I was confirmable by the Senate and . . I would take the job," he chuckled.
McCaffrey said his decision to take the job was extremely difficult. "My wife and I both couldn't sleep for two weeks," he said. "Both of us are Army brats. I've been in uniform since I was 17." But he said he has adjusted well to civilian life.
One of the most commonly told stories about McCaffrey is his 1969 wounding in Vietnam, where he commanded a rifle company. A heavy-caliber bullet shattered bone and left his right arm dangling by the flesh. Refusing to be evacuated, he insisted on fighting through the day until the next morning, when he finally passed out.
McCaffrey also led the famed "left hook" operation that trapped the Iraqi army's Republican Guard in Operation Desert Storm.
Further, he had bipartisan political experience, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George Bush and Clinton. McCaffrey headed the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, which, among other things, led drug interdiction efforts in Latin America, when Clinton nominated him for the drug policy post.
Few anticipated then that McCaffrey would be so politically canny and exhibit such an independent streak.
McCaffrey began using his leverage even before he took the job, exacting a promise from Clinton to restore the office to its previous staff size of about 150. A victim of early 1990s budget cuts, the office was down to fewer than 40 employees under its previous director, Lee P. Brown.
Then McCaffrey bucked the tough-guy military stereotype by declaring the term "war on drugs" a misnomer and vociferously promoting prevention and treatment programs as a crucial element of the nation's anti-drug effort.
"Is there a general in charge? Will we achieve total victory? Who is the enemy? How will we focus violence and surprise in a lightning campaign? None of these aspects of the metaphor are useful to organized thinking on what is a very complex social, legal, international and health policy issue," McCaffrey, 55, said.
A more useful metaphor, he said, is to compare the problem to cancer. Most people have "seen it in their families. Thank God, they haven't seen war."
In the job, McCaffrey has successfully pushed for budget and staff increases, and championed tougher border control efforts. He led the push for congressional approval last year of $195 million for the first year of a five-year national anti-drug media campaign.
"Without [McCaffrey], and without the bipartisan support of Congress, this wouldn't have happened," said Steve Dnistrian, senior vice president of the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which worked with McCaffrey on the media plan.
Dnistrian admits there was skepticism about appointing a general as head of the drug policy office, but said, "We were so pleasantly surprised when we got to know the man, his experience and his intellect."
But others remain angry about his efforts to block federal funding for needle exchange programs.
"It's one thing to have a view on a policy decision and argue for it internally. It's quite another to go to the Hill and Republican members and get them to do something while it's still being discussed internally," said an HHS official who asked not to be identified. "That was not particularly loyal or useful."
McCaffrey defended his actions: "Let me be absolutely blunt now. By law, I am a nonpolitical officer of government. And the president of the United States told me to work these issues with a bipartisan approach."
His opposition to the funding also caused a rift with an important ally of his office, the Congressional Black Caucus. In one recent conversation, Rep. Maxine Waters ( D-Calif.) said, McCaffrey repeatedly interjected comments about his membership in the NAACP as she explained the importance of needle exchange funding in urban black communities.
A letter he wrote to Waters in March said that in previous conversations, she had "derided my membership in the NAACP" and "belittled my leadership experience in the Armed Forces."
Officials in his office said last week that he is working to mend any rifts with the caucus.
Some caucus members have praised McCaffrey while complaining that the Clinton White House has not given him the support he needs to do the job.
"I'm not happy with the job the administration is doing. But I don't blame him for that," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel ( D-N.Y.).
Clinton senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said McCaffrey didn't do anything unusual in the needle exchange debate. "He made it clear that he would support whatever position the president made," Emanuel said.
The needle exchange issue wasn't McCaffrey's first clash with administration officials.
In November, McCaffrey challenged his former employer, the Pentagon, when he refused to certify its proposed fiscal 1999 budget. He sought $141 million more for fighting illegal drugs and drug abuse than the $809 million Defense Secretary William S. Cohen had proposed.
McCaffrey enlisted key Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who called Cohen's budget "inadequate." Eventually, the two sides compromised, with the Pentagon adding about $73 million.
McCaffrey has been criticized and praised for efforts to build coalitions with South and Central American governments. In one case, McCaffrey was host to Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, then director of Mexico's anti-drug effort, at the White House; soon after, the Mexican government acknowledged that Gutierrez Rebollo had ties to Mexico's premier drug cartel.
"These are the people who are out there," a Pentagon official said in his defense. "You can't embrace them, but on the other hand you can't shun them. That's just how the world works."
Gen. Colin L. Powell, who promoted McCaffrey to be his top assistant when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called him "one of the smartest officers I've known" and said he wasn't surprised that McCaffrey has emerged as a forceful personality in his current job.
Said Powell: "He will do what he thinks is right and take the consequences for it."
Barry R. McCaffrey
Title: Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Education: Bachelor's degree in engineering, U.S. Military Academy; master's in civil engineering, American University.
Family: Married, with three grown children.
Previous jobs: General, Army; commander-in-chief of U.S. Army Southern Command; director of long-range planning, Joint Chiefs of Staff; commanding officer, 24th Infantry Division.
Hobbies: Running, reading.
On the fight against drug abuse: "That metaphor, 'War on Drugs,' I thought was unhelpful to conceptually organizing an effort on the drug issue. I tell people, I know all about war. I've been studying it or involved in it since I was 17. ... The last thing it is is a war.
"All metaphors break down under intensive analysis. But a more useful one is looking at cancer."
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