Lawmakers nudge spy agencies into anti-drug fight on U.S. public land

The nation’s spy agencies are drawn deeper into the fight against illegal-drug production on U.S. public land under an intelligence bill that the House of Representatives approved Thursday.

Pushed by lawmakers from California, where Mexico-based gangs use parks and national forests for nefarious purposes, the bill makes permanent a one-time study initiated last year. Now the overseer of the nation’s sprawling intelligence community will have to report annually on actions against “international drug-trafficking organizations” that exploit public land.

“The local folks need all the help they can get,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview. “Every day, there’s a new reason for concern.”

The bill still must go through the Senate and be signed by the president; no obstacles are apparent.

The potentially affected public lands include more than 444 million acres managed by the Interior Department and 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service across the country.

Western states, in particular, have become notorious for marijuana and methamphetamine production in national forests and on other public land. More than 77,000 acres in California are used to grow marijuana, according to a 2010 estimate from the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. Nationwide, 2.3 million marijuana plants were reported destroyed on Forest Service land in fiscal 2011, a decrease from previous years.

Many of the workers, moreover, are foreign-born and undocumented, reflecting what U.S. officials say is the dominant role played by Mexico-based gangsters. Of 2,334 marijuana sites seized in national forests in California from 2005 to 2010, 1,437 were being tended by illegal immigrants, according to the Forest Service.

During one extended sweep through forests in Northern California last July, dubbed Operation Full Court Press, 95 percent of the 159 individuals arrested were in the United States illegally, the Forest Service reported last year.

Thompson, whose Northern California district is home to several national forests, authored last year’s study requirement as well as this year’s extension. Although it isn’t a direct order for anything beyond an annual report, the congressional mandate may be a nudge to National Security Agency eavesdroppers, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency map-makers and 14 other federal agencies that make up the intelligence community.

“These types of reporting requirements are unlikely to alter agency behavior in significant ways . . . but they can lead to subtle changes of emphasis, and they can signal to the executive branch that the subject is a focus of some congressional concern,” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said Thursday in an email interview.

And this is where perspectives can diverge.

Thompson called the studies a straightforward way to “help coordinate” anti-drug efforts, and the underlying intelligence bill passed the House without major dispute on a 386-28 vote. Aftergood, on the other hand, called the study provision “a troubling one” that could blur the distinction between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence-gathering.

“The implication is that Congress thinks the intelligence community should be collecting intelligence on anyone ‘involved in drug trafficking,’ ” Aftergood said. “But within the United States, that’s a job for law enforcement.”

Some rules that govern spy operations within the United States are cloaked in secrecy, including potentially key wiretap rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. A Congressional Research Service report last year added that “little public information is available concerning current policies for the use of satellite information for domestic purposes.”

“They have some constraints in what they can do,” Thompson noted.

The provision in the intelligence authorization bill instructs the director of national intelligence to consult with federal land-management agencies “on the appropriate action the intelligence community can take” to fight public-land drugs. The report is supposed to describe current efforts as well as “any collection gaps or inefficiencies.”

The original bill, which passed last December and President Barack Obama signed in early January, gave the director of national intelligence 180 days to complete the report. The report hasn’t yet been turned in to Congress.

While that bill ordered just one report, this year’s measure makes the reporting an annual requirement, while giving the intelligence director some flexibility in how to present the information.

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