A Classified Critique

THE WAR ON DRUGS IS one of Bob Dole's favorite issues, and one he brought up frequently on Sunday night. One of his biggest attack points is a secret internal memo criticizing the Clinton administration's performance in the drug war. The memo, by FBI Director Louis Freeh and DEA chief Thomas Constantine, is officially stamped SECRET, and the White House, trying to avoid embarrassment in the campaign season, recently claimed executive privilege to bar its public release. ""Mr. President, it's time to release the memo so the American people will really understand how bad your drug policy's been the last 44 months,'' Dole said last week. Dole's message was crystal clear: Clinton had booted the problem and is now covering up.

But the memo is hardly secret. NEWSWEEK, which exclusively obtained a copy four months ago, has reported its substance in two different stories since June 17. Freeh and Constantine use dramatic language in urging Clinton to escalate the drug war, but the basic facts come from government reports: that 11.2 million Americans have used illegal drugs and that 2.7 million are ""hard-core'' users. The memo says cocaine and heroin are cheap and plentiful in the United States and that Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan and Peru are primary ""source countries.''

Freeh and Constantine also warn that illicit drugs ""flow into America like an invading, all-conquering army,'' and claim that the U.S. anti-drug campaign is ""lacking any true leadership.'' That's not all. ""If firm new action isn't taken soon,'' they add, the country will face ""a national nightmare that will kill and maim and terrorize our people in perpetuity.'' Strong stuff--and, coupled to the rise in teenage drug use, the critique could be damaging to Clinton. But the memo also says the failure dates back ""decades''--which would include the Bush and Reagan administrations. At bottom, the document is a plug for the FBI and a proposal to restrict the role of the drug czar and raid $2.8 billion from U.S. intelligence budgets--a power grab, one senior official said. Freeh hand-delivered the memo to Clinton. CIA Director John Deutch was outraged and demanded to see a copy; Freeh, according to a source, refused. The then czar Lee Brown said he was ""upset'' with Freeh, and complained to Al Gore.

At the time nothing happened. Brown left his post and Clinton appointed Gen. Barry McCaffrey to take Brown's place; last week Clinton said one of McCaffrey's main jobs is to provide better coordination in U.S. drug strategy. The White House, meanwhile, is arguing that it has a right to protect confidential memos from senior appointees and does not intend to release this one.