A BORDER PATROL AGENT stops an eastbound tractor trailer at a checkpoint west of Van Horn on Interstate 10. The patrolman types some pertinent information about the vehicle into a computer terminal. Two minutes later, he receives a response. The same model of truck that he has stopped has an extensive history of smuggling cocaine from Arizona to the East Coast. The patrolman asks the driver where he’s coming from. The reply is Phoenix. The patrolman decides to search the truck and discovers contraband.
Credit the bust to the El Paso Intelligence Center, which supplied the information. EPIC, as it is known, serves as the U.S. governments information-gathering nerve center in the war on drugs. Housed in an anonymous-looking 57,000-square-foot brick building at Fort Bliss in northeast El Paso, EPIC is packed with more computer power than existed in the en-tire United States in 1970.
A comprehensive clearinghouse of tactical intelligence, EPIC was established by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1974, but few El Pasoans knew the top secret project existed. After EPIC moved into its $8 million facility in 1989, it gained some local visibility, but outsiders seldom gained entrance. Recently word leaked out about its high-tech operations room festooned with electronic maps on which satellites tracked aircraft and ships, while technicians scanned computers to identify possible drug movements. After weeks of attempts to coordinate schedules, an interview with the director and a tour were finally arranged.
It is the only center of its kind in the world in that it brings together intelligence from different local, state, federal, and international levels and fuses it into one intelligence center, explains Edward Heath, the DEA special agent who serves as the director of EPIC. Sitting in his well-appointed executive office, Heath says that for all the complexity of the operation, its real significance is in bringing together twelve other federal agencies, as well as the DEA, via a common data base. This bureaucratic breakthrough puts to rest inadvertent competition between agencies and reduces duplication of effort.
Heath oversees more than three hundred personnel, representing the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, and the Coast Guard, among other agencies, tracking the movement of drugs across international borders, as well as keeping tabs on illegal aliens, fugitives, rearms, aircraft, boats, motor vehicles, and currency. Armed with such massive intelligence, EPIC fielded a record 750,000 inquiries from law enforcement agencies worldwide in 1991. But does this signal success in the war on drugs?
Stats can be skewed any way you want, Heath admits. Are we doing a better job because we seized more drugs this year than last? If no one was calling us, that could suggest we’ve won. All I can tell you is were still fighting. Law enforcement cant do it alone. How can we be winning when ten tons of coke move into an area?
After some initial candor from the director, I begin to detect a reticence bred by thirty years of undercover work. We do like to explain to people that this center is playing an important role, but Im not going to tell you how we collect the data, says Heath. Thats classified.
The veil of secrecy remains drawn. The amount of annual funding and the specifics of what goes on at EPIC are also classied. And although a tour of the operations room was planned, Heath declined to play Monty Hall on Lets Make a Deal and show me what was behind the door. He was too busy running his own show, one called Lets Make a Dealer.