Here are six ways the CIA can help turn back the overdose epidemic, including here at ‘ground zero’ in Western Pennsylvania
CIA Director Gina Haspel recently told an audience at the University of Louisville that the CIA plans to increase its investment in counternarcotics efforts. This is a welcome announcement.
Ms. Haspel said, “No foreign challenge has had a more direct and devastating impact on American families and communities…than the flow of opioids and other drugs into our country.” She noted that “this terrible threat has killed far more Americans than any terrorist group.”
According to the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, more than 3,600 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide from 1995 to 2016 — 3,277 in the United States, including 2,902 on 9/11.
In 2017 alone, 72,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States, 49,000 as the result of opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pennsylvania saw 4,642 overdose deaths in 2016, up from 3,377 in 2015 and 2,741 in 2014. In August, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Scott Brady, called Western Pennsylvania “ground zero” for the opioid crisis.
Poppy cultivation in Mexico, where most of the heroin available in the U.S. is produced, rose 38 percent last year, reaching a record high. In fact, drug cultivation and production are rising globally.According to the Director of National Intelligence Worldwide Threat Assessment,“Worldwide production of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is at record levels … and synthetic opioids have become a key cause of U.S. drug deaths.”
What should the CIA and the intelligence community do?
Ms. Haspel has taken the first step:recognizing that the threat is a national-security problem that requires more than law-enforcement action. Here are six additional steps the CIA should consider:
Work with the entire federal apparatus to develop a comprehensive “whole-of-government” approach and strengthen information-sharing. Following 9/11, the intelligence and law enforcement communities coalesced to combat terrorist threats through improved information-sharing through the National Counterterrorism Center. Similarly,enhanced information-sharing on drug threats through a formal center, task force or existing mechanisms would aid decision-makers in understanding the scope and scale of the threat and how to deploy strategies and resources to combat it.
Surge resources and efforts
Take a page from the federal law enforcement community’s response to the threat: The Department of Justice created Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (S.O.S.) in 10 districts across the U.S. to reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids and to identify distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers. One of the 10 districts is the Western District of Pennsylvania, where I now reside. The intelligence community similarly should surge resources as it did after 9/11, in particular to help identify transnational criminal networks in order to disrupt them. The CIA is clearly positioned to play this role.
Gather more intelligence
Increase resources for intelligence collection and analysis. Good work is ongoing but much more needs to be done. The director of national intelligence (DNI) earlier this year cited outdated 2016 statistics, the most recent available, in his Worldwide Threat Assessment. The CIA should be able to provide both a real-time picture of the threat and its trajectory so policymakers can anticipate what’s coming and communities can get ahead of the curve.
Invest in internet monitoring
Invest in internet intelligence collection and monitoring, including the “darknet.” The president’s Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce the Drug Supply and Demand includes scaling up internet-enforcement efforts under the Justice Department’s new Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) team in Pittsburgh, tasked with disrupting and prosecuting darknet marketplaces and opioid sales.
The DNI’s threat assessment noted that terrorists and transnational criminals conduct cyber-enabled crimes but did not address the large scaling up of drug trafficking by international networks in the cyber domain. Just as the agency collects information about foreign terrorist organizations, it is the purview of the CIA to collect information about other foreign adversaries seeking to harm U.S. citizens. This includes transnational criminal organizations.
One successful model is the collaboration and information-sharing led by the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance in Pittsburgh, which brings together U.S., Australian, British and Canadian law enforcement agencies and other entities to combat cyber-vendors and manufacturers of fentanyl, opioids and psychoactive substances by identifying and monitoring their activities. The CIA also can help fill in the dearth of intelligence on these criminal’ use of the internet to help dismantle their networks. As the Justice Department’s S.O.S. focuses on the “worst counties for opioid deaths in the United States,” the CIA can focus on the worst transnational criminal networks — enabled by the internet — in countries that supply these deadly drugs into the U.S.
Coordinate with foreign agencies
Engage foreign intelligence agencies more robustly. Much of the cultivation, production, transport and distribution o fillicit drugs originates in foreign countries. Precursor chemicals and the devastating fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, is primarily coming into the U.S. from China. The majority of heroin available in the U.S. is from Mexico.
Intelligence-sharing with China has reportedly improved, but a senior official with China’s National Narcotics Control Commission recently stated that U.S. officials had provided China with only a limited number of leads since 2017. While the majority of this intelligence-sharing is between law enforcement agencies, the CIA could increase sharing to help China disrupt criminal networks, particularly those that pose a threat to the welfare and security of China’s citizens as well as Americans.
Follow the money
Drugs are the highest-value illicit commodity trafficked internationally by a wide margin, according to a 2010 U.N. report.Billions of dollars are generated by drug trafficking organizations each year.The CIA could do more to help the joint Law Enforcement-Intelligence Community Committees on Countering Organized Crime and Counternarcotics track illicit money flows. The CIA also could do more to help the Treasury Department identify the relationship to transnational organized crime of foreign banks involved in money laundering. In addition, the CIA should work with other federal agencies to master understanding of cryptocurrency technologies, the mechanics of bitcoin and blockchain technology, which are being utilized by the new generation of transnational criminals. The criminals patronize unregistered overseas platforms and exchanges that do not adhere to U.S. anti-money laundering and “Know Your Customer” requirements.
Bonnie E. Mitchell, a longtime CIA officer who most recently served as principal deputy national intelligence manager for transnational organized crime, Western Hemisphere and the homeland, in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She presently serves with the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance in Pittsburgh.