President Donald Trump’s pick to serve as his next attorney general, William Barr, pushed repeatedly to expand the role of the military to strike drug traffickers during his last stint at the Justice Department, while serving in President George H.W. Bush’s administration.
“Oh, yes, using the military in drugs was always under discussion. I personally was of the view it was a national security problem. I personally likened it to terrorism,” Barr recalled during an oral history interview conducted in 2001 with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
During the interview, Barr called the failure to ramp up the drug war the “biggest frustration” he faced. He credited the Bush administration for “putting in place the building blocks for intelligence building and international cooperation” to counter the flow of drugs from Latin America. “But,” he said, “we never tightened the noose.”
Barr said he faced structural hurdles to make his vision a reality. “The Army wanted to militarize the drug war,” said Barr, but the Pentagon’s attitude shifted after Desert Storm. Barr wanted to deploy Blackhawk helicopters and more advanced equipment to destroy cocaine production and trafficking in Peru, for instance.
But the idea faced resistance from the State Department, Barr said. His few allies in the administration included then-Director of Central Intelligence Bob Gates, who Barr called “supportive.”
The little-noticed interview provides a wide-ranging perspective of Barr’s views on terrorism, immigration, drugs, and law enforcement. Barr was appointed to serve in the Office of Legal Counsel in 1989, followed by a post as deputy attorney general from 1991 to 1993. His tenure in government was marked by frequent public demands for a tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice.
Michael Collins, director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, condemned the militarization comments.
“Barr’s beliefs are incredibly dangerous,” Collins wrote in a comment to The Intercept. “Rather than recycling policy ideas from the early 1990s that have been thoroughly discredited, Barr should use his return to the limelight to apologize for his role in promoting the system of mass incarceration that has decimated communities of color in this country.”
Barr has made no effort to conceal his views of aggressive law enforcement. In 1992, Barr signed off on a book titled “The Case for More Incarceration,” writing that the nation must “identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets.”
In the interview, Barr also recalled his experience mobilizing federal military resources to respond to the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and the riots in St. Croix following a hurricane in 1989. In both cases, Barr fondly recalled “quickly looking at the legal books” to establish procedures for deploying the military in a domestic context.
In several instances, the interview shows a startling intersection with the interests of the Trump administration. “One of the biggest problems we have with immigration — or had, I think it’s still a problem — is the abuse of the asylum laws,” Barr claimed during the oral history.
Many of Barr’s more recent interviews are even more in line with the Trump agenda. He has sharply criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence and has called for a new criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a uranium deal as secretary of state.
There is one portion of the Barr’s interview with the Miller Center, however, that may be the most compelling to Trump and his team. In his remarks, Barr explained that he strongly supported Bush’s controversial decision to pardon figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal.