Your Tax Dollars at Work: The DEA Renovates Its Propaganda Museum

A federal agency can be many things. A credible purveyor of its own history is not one.
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DEA

Starting Saturday, the Drug Enforcement Agency is temporarily closing the two main exhibit galleries in its Washington, D.C., museum -- yes, it runs an actual museum -- for a "major renovation and update." Its website details what we can expect: "new interactive content, an expanded history timeline, iPad stations with even more facts and information on the history of drug abuse and drug law enforcement, and an all-new Junior Special Agent program for our younger visitors!" *

Is telling "the story of drugs in the United States" really a good use of taxpayer money? If so, is the DEA the branch of the federal government likely to tell the story with accuracy and objectivity?

I say no on both counts. Readers inclined to disagree might take a gander at the museum's web page before they decide whether its material is adding anything useful to America's educational landscape, and ponder the fact that this project, ostensibly dedicated to telling "the story" of drugs in America, neglects to dedicate any time or attention to the costs of drug prohibition.

Ponder too the material for student visitors that the museum provides. Here's an excerpt from the teacher's guide:

In 1970, President Richard Nixon combined 50 separate pieces of drug legislation with the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. In 1973 he combined several antidrug agencies into one super agency, The Drug Enforcement Administration. What impact do you think this consolidation had on enforcing drug laws?

By concentrating all of the enforcement efforts under one command, resources could be more efficiently allocated to fight the war on drugs. Reducing the competition among the existing agencies would have a positive effect on the end result.

So that's why we started winning the War on Drugs in 1970. In seriousness, who can take this seriously as museum material? A federal agency cannot be a good judge of whether it ought to exist in its present form.

The museum seems to have begun innocently enough if we can trust the plausible-sounding official history:

In 1976, during America's bicentennial celebrations, the federal government encouraged all of its agencies to develop exhibits that highlighted the history of that particular agency. A Special Agent with DEA's Office of Training began collecting law enforcement badges worn by early narcotics agents. These badges spanned the entire period of time since federal drug law enforcement began in 1914. The seed of the DEA Museum had been planted.

Over the course of the next twenty years, that seed would slowly grow as agents and other employees continued to collect objects, photographs, documents and oral histories from individuals involved in battling drugs and drug trafficking. In 1989 space was set aside in Arlington, Virginia for the construction of a museum that would tell the story of drug law enforcement in America. It was quickly realized, however, that you can not tell the story of DEA without telling the story of drugs and drug addiction in the United States. What began as an opportunity to commemorate the lives and accomplishments of federal agents evolved into a broader mission to present the history of substance abuse in this country and the ongoing role that government has played in addressing that problem.

What no one seemed to realize along the way is that if taxpayers are going to fund a history of drugs in America, funneling the money through the Smithsonian, a public university, or public broadcasting would achieve the stated mission more credibly, by the effort of people less propaganda-driven. On Saturday, when the main collection is temporarily closed, its materials should be shipped off to an institution that doesn't have an inescapable, pernicious incentive to spin them.

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For the curious, here's what Reason magazine's Kennedy found on a visit:
 

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*That is the least resonant exclamation point I've ever seen.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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