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A Pollster Takes Me to the Cyber-Woodshed on Colombia and the Drug War: I Respond

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Writing in The Hill, pollster Mark Mellman took me to the cyber-woodshed yesterday, claiming that my post referencing his work on a 1999 poll commissioned by defense contractor Lockheed Martin provided an "inaccurate rendition of it" and reveals my "schizophrenic" relationship with polls.

I beg to differ.

To get the whole story, read my original April 2000 column on the commissioned poll -- but, in short, I wrote about how Lockheed Martin had hired Mellman to conduct a poll that, lo and behold, just happened to find that 56 percent of Americans (or at least the 800 Mellman was able to keep from hanging up on him when he called) would support a $2 billion increase in funding for "tracking planes to be flown in drug producing areas" -- a finding that helped provide cover for the Clinton White House's proposal to send $1.3 billion in drug war money to the human-rights-challenged government of Colombia.

According to Mellman, that wasn't the case. At all. Mellman claims that Lockheed didn't hire him to further its economic interests and get a chunk of drug war cash. No, it hired him to produce "a serious study on the underexplored subject of drug policy." Very noble of Lockheed.

He castigates me for assuming "the question was tailor-made to serve the client's interest. In fact, the opposite was true -- I insisted on including the item, fearing that whatever support people might express for interdiction in general might evaporate at the thought of vast spending on airplanes." Yes, I'm sure that's exactly what happened. Lockheed, the maker of P-3 radar planes used to track drug smugglers, and a company that had been lobbying hard for more money for drug interdiction efforts, was actually all about that "serious study" and it was Mellman who "insisted" on asking voters about coughing up $2 billion for planes, lest their support for interdiction evaporate upon seeing the ten-figure price tag.

But earlier in his piece, Mellman says that he was "personally chagrined" that people favored interdiction efforts over policies that favored treatment. So since he personally favored treatment why did he "fear" that voters might turn off to interdiction (cutting off supply) when they discovered that it is a far, far less cost-effective approach than treatment (lowering demand)? Did someone say "schizophrenic"? Or would it be fair to suggest that he "feared" his deep-pocketed client might not like getting such a response?

Towards the end of his piece, Mellman delivers what he thinks is his "Gotcha!" knockout punch, claiming "the airplanes weren't for Colombia" at all. "They were for the U.S. -- a fact clearly stated in the question... And what of the tie between the poll and the lurid tale of billions for drug wars in Colombia's jungles? Oops. There was none. The poll was all about U.S. interdiction efforts."

Really? Let's review the finding of Mellman's study: 56 percent of his polling sample would support $2 billion being spent on "tracking planes to be flown in drug-producing areas." [emphasis mine]. "Drug-producing areas." Where exactly were the "drug producing areas" in America the tracking planes were to be flown in, Mark -- Nebraska and Wyoming?

And I was not the only one who made the Colombia connection. Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Gregory Vistica (along with Steven Ambrus in Bogota), who first uncovered that Mellman's drug poll had been commissioned by Lockheed Martin, connected the same dots, reporting that the Lockheed-funded poll "prodded Clinton into action" on his Colombian drug war aid package, after Mellman warned that drugs were "an Achilles heel" for Democrats in the upcoming election. Oops.

Mellman wraps up his piece with this zippy zinger: "I don't expect a correction from Arianna, though. As we've learned in our word-of-mouth studies, exciting stories are much more fun than simple truths."

Especially when the "exciting stories" are spun by someone trying to rewrite history -- and the "simple truths" are both embarrassing and a tad sleazy, and leave one feeling more than a little personally chagrined.


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