Campaigns/Elections

Drug Connections

Dennis Hastert steals a move from John Kerry

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When House Speaker Dennis Hastert insinuated that billionaire Bush basher George Soros is on the payroll of drug traffickers, Democrats cried foul. Yet their presidential candidate once perpetrated the same sort of smear against another prominent critic of the war on drugs. The ad hominem rhetorical strategy deployed by both Hastert and John Kerry illustrates the reluctance of drug prohibitionists to engage in reasoned debate with their opponents.

On the August 29 edition of Fox News Sunday, Hastert fretted about independent political groups funded by rich men like Soros, who has spent millions to defeat President Bush. "I don't know where George Soros gets his money," the Illinois Republican said. "I don't know…if it comes overseas, or from drug groups, or where it comes from."

"Excuse me?" said an astonished Chris Wallace.

"For a number of years," Hastert explained, "George Soros has been for legalizing drugs in this country, so, I mean, he'd got a lot of ancillary interests out there."

Still trying to understand what Hastert was suggesting, Wallace asked, "You think he might be getting money from the drug cartels?"

"I'm saying I don't know," Hastert replied. "It could be people who support this type of thing. We don't know. The fact is we don't know where the money comes from."

After Soros faxed him a letter demanding an apology, Hastert claimed the "drug groups" to which he referred were organizations such as the Drug Policy Foundation and the Lindesmith Center (now combined as the Drug Policy Alliance). "I never implied that you were a criminal and I never would," he insisted in a letter to Soros. "Chris Wallace said, 'drug cartels.' I did not."

But when Wallace said "drug cartels," Hastert did not say, "No, Chris, that's not what I mean." He said, "I'm saying I don't know"—a not-very-subtle way of letting a baseless charge circulate without taking responsibility for it.

Notice, too, that Hastert's explanation of what he meant makes no sense. How could anyone believe the real source of Soros' fortune is not the currency speculation for which he is famous but the nonprofit advocacy groups to which he donates money? That's like saying Bill Gates got rich from malaria research.

While Hastert denied linking Soros to drug traffickers, his spokesman said "the statement stands" because Soros "supports the legalization of drugs," which "is a character flaw." As the Drug War Chronicle noted, "if it is a character flaw to advocate or discuss drug legalization, then it is a character flaw shared by some of the nation's most prominent conservatives," including William F. Buckley and former Secretary of State George Shultz.

If anything, John Kerry's resort to ad hominem tactics was more shameful than Hastert's because he put more thought into it. In a 1994 Washington Post op-ed piece, Kerry said Colombian Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff's "positions are nearly identical with those of the [Cali] cartel itself. As such, they demonstrate the degree to which the Cali cartel has already gained influence in the very offices of Colombian law enforcement that are supposed to protect society against the cartel."

De Greiff, who had led a successful effort to shut down Pablo Escobar's murderous Medellin cartel, provoked this attack by daring to question the war on drugs. Despite his short-term victory, he had become a vocal opponent of prohibition because he realized that trying to stop criminals from supplying the drugs people want is both futile and tremendously damaging to the countries where those criminals operate.

In Kerry's mind, this position made de Greiff an ally of the drug traffickers. A 1994 Boston Phoenix story quoted the senator's reasoning: "Of course the cartels want [legalization]. Instead of Juan Valdez picking coffee, you'll have Juan Valdez promoting the best coca leaf."

The economic and historical ignorance reflected in that statement is impressive. As de Greiff has pointed out, legalization is the last thing drug traffickers want. It's the war on drugs that allows them to earn the huge "risk premium" received by criminals who deal in contraband; legalization would put them out of business. Just ask yourself: Did Al Capone want Prohibition repealed?

In other words, politicians who support the war on drugs serve the interests of the thugs who tend to take over a business when it's banned. I'm not saying Hastert and Kerry receive money from drug traffickers. I'm saying I don't know.