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Lawmakers Terry, Smith train at DEA facility

QUANTICO, Va. — The two men donned gas masks, helmets and bullet-proof vests with the letters DEA stamped in gold across the front.

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., at a DEA training facility in Virginia. Smith and Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., learned firsthand about the agency's efforts to fight clandestine labs and stop international drug trafficking. Guns drawn, they charged into the drug house.

"Police! Search warrant!"

Firing again and again, they blasted several armed criminals hiding inside.

OK, the "bad guys" were made of styrofoam, the guns fired paint pellets and the whole thing was a training exercise.

Still, the experience provided enough heart-pumping adrenaline to give Nebraska congressmen Lee Terry and Adrian Smith a taste of what it's like on the front lines of the battle against secret drug labs.

The Drug Enforcement Administration's training facility in Virginia has hosted federal drug agents as well as state and local law officials. That includes 111 law enforcement officers from Nebraska and 412 from Iowa.

The congressmen received a compressed version of what is normally a high-intensity training session. The goal is to get firsthand knowledge about how drug labs operate and the efforts to shut them down.

Terry and Smith started the day absorbing background information on clandestine methamphetamine labs, or "clan labs."

DEA chemist Lyn Griffin explained a few of the processes used to produce meth.

Using dummy "labs" as visual aids, Griffin described how criminals gather chemicals they need from over-the-counter medications, matchbooks, drain cleaners and other everyday items.

Both lawmakers marveled at how easily most of the materials used in the labs can be obtained. The dummy lab apparatus included gas cans, duct tape and coffee filters.

"Are we going to have to (regulate) coffee filters?" Smith asked.

One of the ways to make meth involves chemicals that can be obtained from certain types of fertilizer.

"I've got several bags of that in my garage right now," Terry said.

There were 17,170 meth "clan labs" nationwide in 2004, according to the DEA, with 1,335 in Iowa and 205 in Nebraska. Those numbers include seized labs as well as dump sites.

The numbers have fallen steadily. There were a total of 5,080 labs and dump sites in 2007. Of those, 138 were in Iowa and only 16 in Nebraska.

Still, even one lab can cause serious environmental and social damage, DEA officials said.

Agency officials attributed the decline to a variety of factors ? federal legislation has clamped down on the availability of some meth ingredients and more of the drugs are coming from foreign countries, where so-called super labs can operate more openly.

Eric Akers, a DEA congressional liaison, made a pitch to Terry and Smith to back funding for an initiative aimed at combating international drug trafficking.

Akers said more and more of the meth is coming in from other countries through Mexico. Just trying to stop it at the border isn't going to work, he said.

The training sessions moved beyond the classroom as the day wore on. The Republican lawmakers suited up in full tactical gear and adopted the role of federal drug agents.

They took turns bashing in a door with a 35-pound concrete battering ram and walked through a dark "smoke house" that simulates what police officers experience if they have to operate inside a "meth lab gone bad."

DEA Special Agent Jerry Craig handed the congressmen guns loaded with paint ammunition and had them pretend to take down a drug house.

The congressmen did their best SWAT-team impressions, covering one another as they moved through the house bagging criminals.

After they had cleared the house, Craig pointed out that when real police officers go through the course, instructors with their own paint guns often take the place of mannequins.

If the officers don't neutralize the instructors quickly, they get shot themselves. Even with the protective gear, the paint pellets can find a soft spot and sting.

"It is a very educating event," Craig said.

He offered to let the two go through the course again but with live armed instructors in place of the mannequins.

With the hour growing late, Terry and Smith both passed on the opportunity.

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