|English | Español||December 1, 2015 | Issue #34|
Using the Government to Investigate the Drug War
Jeremy Bigwood on the Freedom of Information Act
Photo: Noah Friedsky D.R. 2004
FOIA can be used by anyone, (including journalists from any county) to get information from U.S. government agencies. Because the FOIA process involves writing letters, waiting for responses and sometimes following up with clarifications and appeals, it can be a time-consuming process and may seem daunting to beginners.
“A journalist making requests under the Freedom of Information Act needs to identify himself as a representative of the news media and that entitles him to free searches,” explained Bigwood. “But he will probably be responsible for paying copying fees above 100 pages.”
“U.S government is not monolithic, and it’s important to know where you need to direct your request, ” he said.
Some of the U.S. government agencies involved in drug control are: the US Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (DoS/INL), the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the U.S. Customs Service (USCS), the US Coast Guard (USCG), and the Department of Defense (DoD) and various entities within it, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
Some of these agencies have their own forms for people making requests under FOIA, but Bigwood prefers to use his own letter, because he feels it gives a personal touch to what is otherwise a very impersonal process.
Journalists should be prepared to provide copies of published articles to justify their standing as “representatives of the news media”. To save on copying costs and for greater efficiency, in his FOIA letters Bigwood cites the Paperwork Reduction Act and points the FOIA officer to his website. Those who publish on the internet should also be recognized as journalists (thanks to Narco News, which established this in the case of Banco National de Mexico, S.A. v. Mario Renato Menendez Rodriguez, Al Giordano, and The Narco News Bulletin).
Since 1994 Bigwood (who lives in Washington D.C. and is able to personally follow-up on his requests) has filed FOIA requests with 57 distinct government entities. He estimates that he only receives about 20% of the documents he requests.
By working with the information provided by diverse agencies, he explained, it becomes possible to tell complex and critical stories. One example would be how the U.S. drug war conflicts with other policy goals like opposing left-wing insurgencies and maintaining security at the U.S.-Mexican border.
Bigwood showed a series of FOIA obtained documents that point to drug war policy conflicts. One 1990 document from the State Department describes how marijuana growers in Columbia were switching to coca as a result of success in the U.S. marijuana eradication effort. Increadibly, this was characterized as a positive development.
A stunningly frank memo from the DIA about Peru reads, “Army protects narcotics traffickers/Navy debates similar strategy.”
Another illuminating brief from the DIA regarding Peru discusses how to distinguish between narco-traffickers who are interested in making money, and not a threat to national security; the Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru insurgents, who are a serious threat to national security; and appears to sympathize with “the financially hard-pressed military …using some of the funds to purchase basic military necessities to fight the insurgency”.
The wealth of drug war information obtained by Bigwood through FOIA (and archived on his website) has barely been tapped by journalists for stories. But information gleaned through FOIA has resulted in some drug war stories with impact.
For example, in 1999 and 2000, Bigwood, along with co-investigator Sharon Stevenson, used FOIA to get information from the State Department, the USDA, DEA and the DOE about a secret U.S. plan to use mycoherbicide to destroy coca in Columbia. The team learned that the mycoherbicide, Fusarium oxysporum, was nonspecific and potentially lethal to humans—spraying it over coca fields would be tantamount to biological warfare. In May 2000 they published a story in Mother Jones on the dangers of the mycoherbicide use, public discussion ensued, and in August 2000 President Clinton struck plans to use mycoherbicide as part of Plan Columbia.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism