Before retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales even stepped up to the podium, it was clear he was in a combative mood. Scales was in Austin in early November as an invited speaker for a security summit at the University of Texas at Austin’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. “Get ready, y’all are going to get it,” a law enforcement official warned me and another reporter in the auditorium. He looked supremely amused.
Scales, who has the pugnacious face of a retired boxer, didn’t disappoint. “The media has utterly failed in covering the border,” the general said, though, oddly, he excepted Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren from his indictment. Scales also excoriated the federal government and “all those three-letter agencies that are cooking the books and hiding the truth” for their failure to secure the southern border.
It turned out Scales was still smarting from criticism he received last year from both Texas congressmen and the media after releasing his report “Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment,” which he’d co-written with retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, drug czar under President Bill Clinton.
“We wrote a report last year and had our coming-out party at the [Texas] Capitol, but the media chose to eviscerate us,” he said. “I wish they’d read the report.”
Many of us had read the report—all 59 pages of it. It struck many as heavy on inflammatory rhetoric and light on evidence. It argued that “narco-terrorists” are turning Texas border counties into “sanitized tactical zones,” and that living on the border is “tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”
The report was commissioned by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw. They’re among the many Texas Republican officials who increasingly equate the war on drugs with the war on terror, a conflation that helps trigger not only more federal spending but more military intervention along the border.
Many border residents, including congressmen Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, didn’t like having their hometowns characterized as war zones. In a heated congressional committee meeting last year, the congressmen strongly criticized the generals’ report as based on anecdotal evidence and as politically motivated. They grilled the generals about how much they’d been paid ($80,000) and where they’d gotten their information.
A year later at the security summit in Austin, Scales was still upset. The worst thing, he said, was that he had invited his wife to the congressional hearing, telling her it would be a low-key affair. “It was an ambush,” he said. “In all my years of military service I had never been so humiliated. My wife wanted to kill Cuellar.”
Scales said he stands by the report, in which he linked Mexican cartels to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. “If you think it’s just crime and not terrorism, you’re just fooling yourself,” he said. Asked to describe specific incidences of the cartel-terrorism nexus he said, “It’s an existential ideology … the flow of narco money tied together by criminal enterprise, kidnapping, white slavery and other horrible criminal acts.”
The bottom line is this, he said: “The people guarding the border have been poorly chosen and poorly trained, and they have ridiculous rules of engagement. The FBI are notorious for cooking the books. The [crime] numbers are probably half of what it is. The terrorists have gone retail and are in our major cities—it will take generations to root them out.”
With that, General Scales sat down, a sour expression on his face. Next up was Greg Thrash from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “I hope we’re not one of those three-letter agencies you were referring to,” he chuckled. Scales stood up with his briefcase and headed toward the exit. “I hope it’s not something I said,” Thrash quipped.
“Gotta catch a plane,” Scales shrugged, walking out.
After the general had left, Thrash said his agency hadn’t seen any of the border-violence spillover mentioned in Scales’ report. “From our offices along the border, we don’t see any evidence of any massive spillover,” he said. “Our cases don’t support that.”