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Johnstown drug intelligence center to close in summer

| Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012

The U.S. Department of Justice has announced the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, championed by the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha, will close this summer.

While supporters lauded it as an important weapon in the war on drugs, critics charged it was only kept alive through Murtha's political clout.

The center, which began operations in 1993, duplicates tasks performed by other law-enforcement agencies, the Justice Department said.

Dr. Dennis Giever, a criminology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has collaborated on NDIC projects, said its work was impressive, but the center owed its survival to Murtha.

"It (the closing) leaves a hole, but it's a hole that is easily filled," he said. "His power was the reason it stood up. Once he passed, most of us realized that Murtha projects would slowly disappear."

Employees were informed Thursday of the shutdown.

The center's peak employment of 300 has slowly been reduced. Some of the remaining 87 employees will be offered work in Washington.

"I'm disheartened by this decision, and I hope that going forward the Department of Justice realizes that keeping critical counterdrug and intelligence functions in Johnstown will save money and minimize disruptions," said U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, the Johnstown Democrat who replaced Murtha.

Sen. Robert Casey, a Scranton Democrat, called the shutdown "a critical mistake."

"NDIC plays a crucial role in fighting drug trafficking and gang violence in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation," Casey said.

Sen Pat Toomey, a Republican from Zionsville, said it "makes sense for the taxpayer that its work remains in Johnstown rather than move it somewhere else."

John Skiavo, executive director of the Economic Growth Connection in Greensburg who worked for more than eight years as head of Johnstown Area Regional Industries, said closing the center would cause "an unfortunate loss."

"They did very important work," said Skiavo. "It's a shame. .. There's no question because of John Murtha that the facility was there. It wasn't pork barrel. They operated very efficiently and very effectively."

The NDIC issued annual threat-assessment reports detailing the effects of various illegal drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

It published studies on gang violence and money laundering and analyzed documents and other information for law enforcement agencies.

Politicians from both parties have tried to close the drug center.

President George W. Bush wanted to cut its funding, according to his 2005 budget proposal.

Last February, the Obama administration proposed cutting its budget from $44 million to $25 million. Since it opened, the center has spent more than $500 million.

Before he died in 2010, Murtha announced the center would take over control of the government's secret no-fly list -- a claim quickly denied by the Justice Department and House Intelligence Committee member Mike Rogers, R-Michigan.

In 2006, Murtha fought off attempts by the House Government Reform Committee to close the facility and shift operations to the El Paso Intelligence Center.

In 2007 and 2009, he threatened to block funding for two GOP congressmen who voted to cut the center's funding.

In 2009, Murtha landed a $23 million earmark to keep the center operating.

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