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Last Updated:3/20/02
Excerpt from transcript, Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee: "Nomination of Asa Hutchinson as DEA Administrator," July 17, 2001

SEN. DEWINE: I wonder if you could outline for me what you think DEA's role in the president's Andean region initiative is going to be and how you see that part of the world, that very, very important and troubling part of the world.

REP. HUTCHINSON: Well, as you have, Senator, I have traveled down there, looked at Colombia, but also the circumstances in Ecuador that are concerned about a pour-over effect into that country. And I believe that it's a risk that we have to take in order to support a very old democracy in South America and make sure that it survives. I think we should not delude ourselves, but our efforts there hopefully will have some good side benefit for the drug supply in America. But we have to realize the primary impact is to support that democracy.

In reference to the DEA's role, one of the probably not-so- greatly-emphasized portions of the initiative is the criminal-justice sector. And if we're going to have an impact on the supply of drugs coming in, we've got to put the major trafficking organizations in jail. That takes investigation. The DEA will be training, supporting better law enforcement efforts in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Peru, in the South American countries, in addition to making sure that they have quality prosecutors, law enforcement people that can get the job done. So we are backing them up. We're doing the training there. And that criminal-justice sector is probably as important as any portion of the Andean initiative.

SEN. DEWINE: Well, I'm delighted to hear you say that, because I think when we look at this whole battle of preserving democracies -- and certainly Colombia is not an emerging democracy, but it's true with some of the emerging democracies, but they certainly do need help as well, and that is the developing of that criminal-justice system that actually does work and that gets resolved. And the ability that we have as a country to train, the ability we have to share our ideas, our expertise, I think, is very, very valuable. And you have a lot of that expertise at the DEA, and so I'm delighted to see that you intend to do that.

Another area I would just mention -- and this is not directly under your portfolio at DEA -- but I just think that as you will become one of the senior counselors to the president on drugs, that I would just urge you to always keep the balance that you and I have talked about in the past with drug treatment, drug education, domestic law enforcement and international interdiction. I think it's important that every one of us who has any input into this from the point of view of Congress or, in your case, from the administration, weigh in heavily and make it clear to the country that this is what we have to do. It has to be a balanced approach.

REP. HUTCHINSON: I agree completely, Senator DeWine. And you can be assured that I will support the president's intention to have a very balanced approach to our anti-drug effort. I've been delighted to know of the success and energy of the demand-reduction section of the DEA.

I believe that if you're talking about a law enforcement initiative, there's probably nothing more important than educating folks to obey the law and what the law is. And the demand-reduction section has been very effective in the DEA, working with community coalitions, working to educate schools, administrators, teachers, about the new wave of drugs coming in. So I think that it's something I intend to make sure is alive and well at the DEA, as well as our enforcement efforts.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Congressman Hutchinson, I compliment you on your nomination. I know your record in the House of Representatives, and I think it is an exemplary one, and I appreciated the opportunity to talk with you when you came by for the informal visit and the extensive conversation we had at that time.

A couple of points that I would like to make this morning -- really more for the record -- involve some items we talked about. And it picks up on what Senator Biden has talked about on rehabilitation. I came in at the very end of his questioning. But I would renew my request formally to you at this time, when you have the position officially to make a study as to the cost effectiveness of the very substantial funds that the federal government is putting into the war against drugs. I'll use the term "war against drugs." We have to fight it at many, many levels. We are currently considering an appropriation for Colombia, close to $900 million, which would supplement the $1.3 billion from last year. And, as I said to you privately, and at a hearing of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, I have grave doubts about the value of that kind of a federal expenditure.

I am very much concerned about what happens to the government of Colombia and the people of Colombia. They have had a very, very tough time, including the attack by the drug war lords on the Supreme Court of Colombia. But when we make an analysis as to where we ought to put U.S. dollars, it seems to me that we do not get much for our money. And I would like your analysis as to the expenditure which we have made in Colombia before the 1.3 billion, and he efficacy of another large investment.

And then I would also like your analysis as to where we ought to be putting our money on the supply side versus the so-called demand side. Interdiction I think is important, but how effective is it? And when we put funding into limiting the growth of drugs in Colombia, what effect does it have beyond pushing drugs into Bolivia or Peru? I have made a number of trips into that area over the past two decades, and still wonder if there is any value to our putting a lot of money into discouraging people in one country from growing drugs, when it seems to move right into the next country. And then the issue comes up on the so-called demand side, where education I believe has worked, and rehabilitation has a prospect.

Let me give you a chance to respond as to your approach philosophically to the allocation of federal funds on supply versus demand.

REP. HUTCHINSON: Thank you, Senator Specter. And I did enjoy our discussion on that issue. I think in reference to Colombia and the investment in that region I have supported it. I believe that it's important that we do support that democracy and their struggle there. I think it's certainly appropriate that Congress continues to look at the effectiveness of the money that we invest there: Are we getting a good return? Are we having proper accountability? I feel confident that the DEA role in the criminal justice sector is -- will work well. I think that's a good investment.

In reference to the supply versus demand side debate, I think we have to be careful about the debate itself. I think the question should be: Are we investing what we should be in the supply side, the law enforcement side? Are we taking care of folks there, protecting them against the dangers of going up against a methamphetamine group and a search warrant. On the demand side, are we investing enough in education? In both of them we could probably invest as much as you could write a check for out of Congress, because of great need there. But the balance we always should be looking at. But I think they work together.

I've been impressed with the letters that I've gotten in my initial phase of confirmation --
SEN. SESSIONS: Will it be important for you to evaluate how well your agents are doing -- but as you know, more and more we're involved in task forces, and there can be a 40-person task force and one DEA agent assigned, and one FBI agent assigned, and one Customs agent assigned, and they arrest ten people, and all three of them claim credit for arresting ten people. That's not good information to make decision making on, and I hope that you will see if you can go pierce through all of this, because we want to encourage task forces and investigative forces, and I hope you'll work on that.

Another matter that I think -- I hope you will wrestle with and will not be afraid to discuss is your budget as compared to other expenditures of money for drug interdiction and resistance. For example, your budget runs about a billion dollars, DEA's budget is about a billion. We're talking about spending 1.6 billion in Colombia, over a year, two years, to somehow reduce our drug problem. In my view, there is probably no more effective agency in the country in reducing drugs than DEA, and I hope that in the inner circles you will evaluate DEA's contribution and question some of the other monies that are out there. Do you have any thoughts about that?

REP. HUTCHINSON: Thank you, Senator. And I do. I think that the DEA, as you mentioned, is our most effective weapon in this effort from a law enforcement standpoint, that it's a single-focus agency. They are extraordinarily professional, talented, dedicated men and women of the DEA, and I think that needs to be recognized. Whenever you look at the problem that they face, it's enormous. And whenever we look at the budget, I know that in a number of arenas there hasn't been an increase, and I will be advocating looking at it carefully as to what is effective, what works, and where your best investment will be, and I will certainly share that when I come to those conclusions.

SEN. SESSIONS: Well, I do think, from nearly 15 years working as a federal prosecutor with DEA agents and other drug agents, that there's no more effective agency fighting drugs that the Drug Enforcement Administration. I do believe that sometimes leaders in Washington want to tell them they can only work some huge, big, big, big case, and as a result of that, they don't start with mid-size or smaller cases that work their way up into bigger cases, because with regard to drugs, somebody got it ultimately from Colombia if it's cocaine. It always goes up to a higher and bigger organization. And to say you're not going to start at mid-level dealers and work your way up is really short-sighted and typical of a Washington view.

You were the United States attorney in a middle America district. Do you have any insight into that mentality of Washington?

REP. HUTCHINSON: I think the goal to be, Senator, that we disrupt the major trafficking organizations. I mean, that should be the focus. But you're exactly right that the -- those cases begin at a lower level. One instance that you would identify with -- I prosecuted a case out of Hot Springs. It was small quantities of cocaine, relatively speaking. They got that cocaine from New York City. The person in New York City got it from Colombia. I mean, it was a two-step process to bring that cocaine to Arkansas, and you're able to trace that. We have to go after that, but many times it starts at the lower level of the drug culture.
SEN. DURBIN: Let me ask you one other question and then I'll stop -- and that's on Plan Colombia. I supported it. A number of people on the Democratic side were kind of surprised that I did. But I went to Colombia, met with President Pastrana. And they took us out on a helicopter trip with his army in Colombia to a southern province known as Putamayo. And as we flew in that helicopter over these lush green fields, the army officers pointed out all of the coca under cultivation, destined to become cocaine, destined to come to the United States. I made a rough estimate that in the province that I visited -- you're familiar, being from Arkansas, of St. Louis, and the distance between St. Louis and Chicago, which is about 300 miles -- I had estimated that what I saw under coca cultivation that day, on that trip, was the equivalent of one-mile ribbon of coca production from St. Louis to Chicago -- 300 miles long, one mile wide -- under cultivation, headed for the United States.

And so I supported Plan Colombia. I was disappointed that more South American nations did not. And I'm curious as to whether or not, in reflection, it was the right vote, and whether we should be continuing along this line. I think it is foolish for us to ignore production. It is, I think, foolhardy of us to ignore an administration like President Pastrana, democratically elected, putting his life and the lives of all of his cabinet on the line, trying to fight the narco-terrorists on the right and on the left. But I wonder if we've taken the right approach. If it comes up again, I'm going to have to look hard at it and see whether or not it's worked. What's your impression?

REP. HUTCHINSON: Well, like you, Senator Durbin, I supported Plan Colombia when it came through Congress. And I also believe that when you see President Pastrana taking some very heroic steps to preserve democracy there, when you see so many that are putting their lives on the line, that we need to help them. And so I think that was the heart attitude of Congress when we supported that plan. I think it's important to look at the results that come in, that one-mile stretch: What progress will we make in reducing the coca cultivation there and what impact does that have on the rebel forces?

What I have emphasized is the small part of the Plan Colombia, the criminal-justice sector, very important training the Colombian national police not only to obey human rights but also to properly investigate a case, to help the court system. And I think that's an important part of it as well.
SEN. LEAHY: Thank you. I thank the senator from Alabama. Obviously, whether it's (drug ?) Colombia or anything else if we can reduce the demand in this country, we're far ahead of the game. We sometimes make a mistake, I believe, in blaming Colombia or any other country for all our ills. We're a nation of over a quarter of a billion people, the wealthiest nation history has ever known. And there seems to be an almost insatiable demand for drugs.

If the money is there, the production is going to show up somewhere. And we have got to do a far better job in decreasing demand here through a whole combination of things, whether it's law enforcement, it's education, it's rehabilitation, and a pretty positive example of reinforcement by parents in this country, too.

I want to submit, because we are coming close to the time for our vote -- and I want Senator Biden to have time -- I'm going to submit my questions for the record. But I do want to raise one issue. I am concerned about the way our asset-forfeiture laws are working in this country. I'm concerned that sometimes we have asset forfeiture laws that law enforcement is more interested in what the asset is that might be forfeited than what the crime that might be stopped. Somebody with drugs, with an expensive car of their own, looks a little bit different than somebody who's using a rented, beat-up -- or a rent-a-wreck.

A number of states have reformed asset forfeiture laws that really were becoming scandalous. They found that their police can get around the reforms by turning their seizures over to the federal law enforcement agencies, agencies who keep 20 percent and give 80 percent back. So even though the state felt that there was a problem in their own state with the way the asset forfeiture laws were working and reformed them, police get around it by getting 80 percent of it anyway back from the federal agencies. Now, they then avoid the state restrictions that earmark the forfeiture proceeds to education and treatment instead of going to the police department. They get around the more stringent proof requirements.

I would hope that as head of the DEA, your voice will be the strongest voice possible on this, that you will work to develop policies that would make sure federal agencies are aware of what the states feel and aware there have been state abuses, so that we're not using the forfeiture laws in a way that is really abusive, because if they are, you know the way the pendulum goes. The states will get rid of them and the federal government will get rid of them. And something that could be a real law enforcement tool will be gone. So will you please assure us -- I don't expect you to have all the answers today, but assure us that this is an issue, the forfeiture issue is one you will look into?

REP. HUTCHINSON: Absolutely. And I believe that asset forfeiture is a very important tool for fighting the major drug traffickers. I mean, it hits them where they don't want to be hurt. But we're going to lose that tool, as you pointed out, Senator, if we do not abide by the constitutional protections and by the law in taking that asset and proving the case on it.

I think Congress did the right thing by reforming the asset forfeiture laws, making sure the burden of proof is on the government and not on the citizen that has that asset to be taken. That was an appropriate reform, but it still allows this very effective tool to be used in the right cases. So I'll certainly watch that to make sure that it's used appropriately and not abused.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you. Plan Colombia; again, sometimes when you get too close to things, you lose your perspective. But I received a call, I guess, about 10, 12 days ago from President Pastrana, who periodically, about every three weeks, calls and gives me his view of what's going on. And as the record will show -- I'll not take the time now -- his government is actually doing the hard stuff now, taking on the paramilitaries, and taking on the paramilitaries up in the northeast, where the ELN is operating. They've made some real progress. The coca production level is down. But as you know, it has to get way down for it to have any real impact.

And so, again, I'd be reluctant for us to -- I'm not suggesting you're doing it -- write off Plan Colombia as not having worked. I mean, he's doing about everything we're asking him to do. And now the third battalion is about to be fully trained and in the field. And so I hope you will do an analysis. But I suspect, I predict you'll find it's more positive than your critics say it is.

On the drug court issue, put this in perspective. And the reason why you're going to have to fight for these drug courts is that when that legislation was written, what finally prompted my colleagues to support it was my pointing that there were 600,000 people arrested every year out there who got nothing. Nothing happened to them. They didn't get probation. They didn't get parole. They didn't get convicted. I mean, they got convicted, but that was it. They were just released; nothing.

And so this is a lot tougher, a lot tougher than the idea -- it was originally characterized, you'll recall, as sort of some soft method as going about this. But as the senator from Alabama points out, as you pointed out in California, it requires people to show up all the time, twice a week, et cetera.

One of the reasons I raise it is in my state, we have now initiated juvenile drug courts, and we have them in all of our -- we only have three counties; it's easy to say all of our counties. But we have them in our counties now, and they're really working. I'd like to invite you at some point -- I mean this sincerely -- to come up and take a look at our drug courts and the juvenile drug courts to give you a sense, because I think I can say, without equivocation, the most extensive drug court system in the nation is in my state. And it's gotten very positive results.

In prison, as you well know, every study shows that somewhere about close to 80 to 85 percent of the prisoners in prison have some substance abuse problem and that very, very, very few get any treatment when they're in prison. And again, in terms of cost, it costs $12,500 a year for residential treatment for cocaine addiction. That's a lot of money. It costs $40,000 a year for incarceration. It costs $17,000 a year for an extensive probation program.

So the irony is, the cheapest of the treatments is residential treatment in these areas. I mean, there are the numbers. And so I hope that you will be able to -- again, as it relates to the prison side of it, the National Center for Addiction & Substance Abuse at Columbia University said 70 to 85 percent of the inmates in state prisons need some level of treatment. You know what percent gets them? Thirteen percent -- 13 percent.

And so we let out, on the state prisons, roughly 250,000 people a year, walk out of a state prison, get their $10 and their bus ticket, while addicted to drugs, as they walk out, because they've gotten the drugs in the prison, while they walk out, as they walk out the door of state prisons. And I don't know what you can do federally on that except your voice will be listened to. So I hope you weigh in in the fight to persuade our governors as well that there's a need for in- treatment facilities.

My one question is this. Do you think that there is a necessity, based on your experience in Arkansas, like the senator's experience in Vermont and mine in Delaware, where we have rural states, do you think there's a necessity for you to take a look at the distribution of manpower in DEA and think about according more support to rural areas, where the problem is growing faster than urban areas?

REP. HUTCHINSON: Well, I do believe that it's a great need, that with the growth of the Internet, crime could be committed in a rural area just as easily as going to an urban center. And so, coming from a rural state, I believe you have to make an investment of resources. Whenever I was United States attorney in the '80s, we had zero DEA agents in my district. They were out of Little Rock, stationed there. We now have a DEA office in Fort Smith and Fayetteville. It's a high- growth area, but it's still a rural area, but it's made a huge difference.

I've always had the view that we ought to be able to fight the drug problems in rural areas as well as the urban centers. Now, I don't think you can necessarily just deplete the urban areas, because there are huge problems there we've got to make an investment in. But I would certainly agree that we need to review that, to make sure that -- I want our agents, our DEA folks, out there making the cases where the crime is.

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