WASHINGTON – A new drug sheriff with a hawkish reputation is coming to town, and an unlikely assortment of Washington policy watchers want some guarantees that he's not going to get carried away.
Some 65 groups as far apart on the political scale as the right-ish Eagle Forum and the left-ish American Civil Liberties Union have joined hands in an effort to ensure that George W. Bush's new drug czar-designate, John Walters, keeps civil liberties high on his list of priorities.
They want to make sure innocent Americans aren't caught up in the sometimes heavy-handed tactics used by police and federal agents to trap drug users and traffickers.
"This has become a very large government policy that intervenes in the aspects of lives and it's unsuccessful," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.
If progress was being made in the war on drugs, "we could at least make the claim that the policy is effective," he said. "But good results don't merit unconstitutional measures," he said.
The coalition, organized under the auspices of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Technology Policy and calling itself the Coalition for Constitutional Liberties, made public their concerns Monday, on the eve of a Senate hearing to consider the nomination of Walters as head the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Walters was a lieutenant under Bill Bennett, drug czar during the elder Bush's administration. He is said to favor strong law enforcement, and advocates severe prison sentences for marijuana smugglers and repeat offenders.
Members of the coalition said they are not taking a position on supporting or rejecting Walters' confirmation, but want to make sure he answers questions about police invading people's privacy through wiretaps and e-mail surveillance, racial profiling and abuse of asset forfeiture laws.
"We expect Walters to be confirmed and we wish him luck because he is going to need it," said Robert Fike, the federal affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform.
Most striking about the group's solidarity is that it is formed from such a broad array of advocates.
Free Congress Foundation is a politically and culturally conservative think tank that wants to turn the United States back toward more traditional Western and Judeo-Christian values. Signing on to the coalition were also Americans for Tax Reform, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and the Libertarian Party, among others.
"The one aspect that unites [Eagle Forum head] Phyllis Schlafley and the ACLU and most of us in between is that we're concerned about the excesses in the war on drugs and how they concern our privacies and civil liberties," said Bradley Jansen, deputy director of the Center for Technology Policy.
Privacy and constitutional advocates say they want to make sure Walters insists on stricter rules for law enforcement, and have asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to probe Walters' views during the hearing.
"Mr. Walters does not have a record on most of the issues that we are concerned about, and as best as I can understand from his writings, he doesn't have a strong interest in that aspect of it, so we're strongly urging everyone to make sure that he understands the importance of these issues within the context of his office," Jansen said.
Leahy press secretary Mimi Devlin said the senator is going into the hearing with an open mind but already has concerns about Walters' approach to the drug war, specifically his support for severe sentencing of drug offenders.
They may agree on other things, but what they don't agree on is the drug war itself.
The Libertarian Party supports an end to it. Free Congress does not take a position on the decriminalization of drugs. Fike said Americans for Tax Reform is "agnostic" about the drug war, but thinks that "if you're going to fight, fight right."