By ANDREW BECKER and MICHAEL MONTGOMERY
If North Coast Rep. Mike Thompson gets his way, the nation’s spymaster will join the fight against Mexican drug traffickers and others who use federal land in California and elsewhere to grow marijuana.
Thompson, D-St. Helena, authored a provision of the 2012 intelligence authorization bill that calls on Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to report on how intelligence agencies can help park rangers, fish and wildlife wardens and other U.S. land managers weed out pot gardens operated by foreign drug traffickers.
The bill, now before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also directs Clapper to consult with public land managers to identify intelligence and information-sharing gaps related to drug trafficking. The House passed the bill, HR 1892, in September.
Thompson said the nation’s intelligence apparatus needs to address marijuana grown on public land because of the presence of foreign drug traffickers and the accompanying threat of violence.
Thompson’s sprawling 1st Congressional District extends across the heartland of California’s marijuana country, encompassing Mendocino and Humboldt counties and reaching across swaths of national forest land to the Oregon border.
“We don’t know what they’re doing with the money, where the money goes, whose bank account it ends up in,” he said of the drug traffickers who operate on public land. “They’re here ruining our national resources, and they’re putting our citizens at risk. Hikers can’t go into the field for fear they’ll be harmed. Wildlife doesn’t have a chance.”
U.S. officials believe hundreds of millions of dollars generated from public-land gardens flow to Mexico, said David Prince, assistant special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Francisco.
“The amount of money being generated by this activity can’t possibly be happening without Mexican cartels wanting to get their hands on it,” Prince said. “My presumption is money can’t be made without cartels knowing and taxing at a minimum.”
Intelligence agencies have tried to help with eradication efforts. In the 1980s, state and federal officials in California used a U-2 spy plane to help spot pot gardens, with limited success.
The Forest Service and the Interior Department already work with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight marijuana growing. The department also has representatives at the National Counterterrorism Center and a major drug intelligence-sharing hub. Other spy agencies, such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, have joined individual cases.
A spokesman for Clapper declined to comment on Thompson’s provision, as did the Interior Department and Forest Service.
Tommy LaNier, head of the White House-funded National Marijuana Initiative, said land managers need help to take on a bigger role in addressing the problem because 65 to 70 percent of pot eradicated nationwide — and as much as 80 percent in California — comes off federal land.
“Bringing in the (intelligence community) to help public land managers have a better understanding of the threats is an essential part of managing the problem of marijuana cultivation on public lands,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called a Senate drug caucus hearing next month on marijuana cultivation on federal public and tribal lands. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which Feinstein leads, is expected to take up the intelligence authorization bill — and support Thompson’s provision — in coming weeks.
Among agencies that could be tapped if the bill becomes law are the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for its unclassified satellite imagery of public lands and the Treasury Department’s intelligence office to track illicit money, La-Nier said.
The National Security Agency could be assigned, on a limited basis, to intercept public two-way radio communications. The CIA would not be involved.
While Thompson’s provision targets a specific problem rather than a nebulous issue, such as terrorism, it’s another example of the blending of intelligence and law enforcement in the decade after 9/11, said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“The barriers between federal intelligence and domestic security that existed in the past have all but disappeared,” he said. “We have a right to ask for greater transparency.”
Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow with the National Security Archive, said there is a difference between an occasional task for spy agencies and direct consultation in a full-scale program.
“The question is, what specific constraints are there on the use of imagery — pictures of individuals and their activities?” he said.
“Inevitably, it gets you into the area of domestic spying by using overhead surveillance for law enforcement purposes. It always raises questions of what’s the next step? Where does it go next?”
Ronald Brooks, who leads the federally funded Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, acknowledged concerns by civil liberties groups but said the threat of foreign drug traffickers warrants the use of spy equipment focused on federal public land, where there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy.
Domestic pot eradication, however, is not a traditional intelligence community role, he said.
Brooks said the Drug Enforcement Administration or White House drug czar may be a better fit to tackle the issue than the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“We’re calling on them (the intelligence community) to provide us with some expertise in dealing with this issue so we can all be working from the same sheet of music,” Thompson said. “It only seems reasonable that we collaborate and we work together at every level.”
He pointed to an anti-marijuana growing operation in and around Northern California’s Mendocino National Forest as an example of the growing threat of foreign drug traffickers.
The crackdown caught 131 suspects, all but 11 of whom were foreign nationals. Less than a third of those arrested were charged with marijuana-related crimes.