The DEA Chief’s $123,000 Flight

Never since it was spawned by Richard Nixon in 1973 had the Drug Enforcement Administration been ridiculed by an influential TV news anchor… until Tuesday, Feb. 17 when Rachel Maddow introduced a “holy mackerel” story over a collage consisting of the DEA logo (which looks like a giant eagle penetrating the globe); the smiling face of Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart;  and a sleek corporate jet.

Here’s what Maddow told her millions of viewers on MSNBC:

“Getting really, really, really mad at corporate executives who took tons of taxpayer money for their businesses and still tried to get away with using corporate jets has been a very therapeutic exercise for us as a country. Remember when the car company executives were ridiculed for flying to Washington in corporate jets to ask for public money? (The screen shows a Chevy hybrid in city traffic over a caption that reads, “Private Jet Outrage Spreads to Gov’t Agency.”) It was Indignation-palooza on Capitol Hill.

“On their next trip to Washington, the chief executives of Ford, GM and Chrysler drove hybrid cars. And after Citigroup ordered a $42 million corporate jet even as they took billions in bailout funds, the entire country blew its collective stack and the unflappable President Obama sort of flapped himself. (Still of a corporate jet.) Last week the CEOs said ordering that jet was a mistake and delivery has been canceled.”

(Cut to the DEA logo and a caption with the nub of the story: “DEA spent $123K on charter jet to fly chief to Colombia.” This cuts to Leonhart’s official photo with the American flag in BG. She’s a plain, 40-something woman, grinning inappropriately, given the agency’s mission.

Rachel continued:

“But you know who so far has been spared the populist wrath? The Drug Enforcement Agency — the DEA. The DEA has an Aviation Division, they have  106 planes of their own. But that did not stop them last fall. When we were all collectively outraged that bailout money would finance corporate travel, they paid $123,000 of our money to charter a private jet to fly their acting director Michele Leonhart to Colombia. Did I mention that the DEA has 106 planes of their own?

“William Brown, who runs the DEA Aviation Division said (reading his quote from a sheet of paper): ‘Was it excessive? I guess you could look at it that way…’  (Rachel looks back at the camera, her audience, we, the people.) I spent 45 seconds online today and I found a round-trip from New York to Bogota for $410. You spent $123,000 for the same trip. Our dollars. Yeah -‘excessive.’ I guess I do look at it that way.”

Michele Leonhart’s $123,000 flight to Colombia exemplifies the scandalous episode -the catastrophe, the newsworthy happening- that is actually the norm made visible. For example, a wall breaks on a mined hillside and a vast sludge of toxic tailings slides down into the valley, poisoning everything in its wake. This makes headlines because it’s the exceptional event; but it’s also the rule revealed, i.e., mining companies disregard the well-being of their employees and neighbors. Had the wall held, the same toxins would seep into the soil and into the water table over the years, contributing to immeasurable illness, deformation and death among the local populace. That pattern would not be news unless some epidemiologist or attorney noticed it in retrospect.

Leonhart’s $123K charter flight was an inexcusable waste of public funds, and she certainly deserved the scorn Rachel directed her way. But let the record show that the DEA (annual budget $2.4 billion) wastes our money every day of its useless existence. The DEA mission in Colombia has cost us billions without reducing the availability of cocaine in our cities and towns. The mission is mainly a front for counterinsurgency and has been all along.

If the name Michele Leonhart rings a bell, she made PotShots recentlyfor rejecting the application of Lyle Craker, the UMass botanist who applied for a DEA license to grow cannabis for medical research… Legal maneuvers by Team Craker may keep the case alive until Attorney General Eric Holder replaces Leonhart, who is a Bush appointee. He should have done it yesterday. Let’s hope Rachel Maddow’s expose speeds Holder’s hand.

On Feb. 11 DEA agents took part in a raid on the MendoHealing Co-operative farm in Fort Bragg, California. Among the five people arrested was co-op president Jean Marie Todd, 50, formerly a reporter with Bloomberg News who left her job last year to help MendoHealing. “I researched it carefully,” Todd says, “and I was convinced that I would be legally helping people get medicine they need.”  Todd, who is not a medical-marijuana user, was released on $25,000 bail after a night in jail. Three others also made bail, but  co-op advisor David Moore was held on a probation-violation charge and faces the specter of prison. One of the DEA officers at the bust told Moore that the case would be federally prosecuted (in flat contradiction of an Obama campaign statement).

Prison. For growing an herb that alleviates pain… On her way to jail Jean Marie Todd said to her captors, “I thought President Obama was going to call off these raids.” A Mendocino County Sheriff’s Deputy replied, “We haven’t gotten the message.”

What’s needed is more than a decent DEA Administrator. The whole federal bureaucracy needs to be restructured. The DRUG Enforcement Agency, the Food and DRUG Administration and the Department of Agriculture have obviously overlapping roles. The number of FDA agents responsible for food safety has been reduced by 78 per cent since the 1970s – resulting in thousands sickened by salmonella-laced peanut butter, etc. etc. Why not replenish their ranks with some of the 5,500 “special agents” employed by DEA at 227 offices stateside and 86 offices overseas? A few of these men and women might even prefer meaningful work to eradicating useful plants and taking down useful people.

FRED GARDNER can be reached at plebesite.com

 

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

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