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Waste, Scandal and the Humiliation of the DEA

The forced resignation of DEA chief Michele Leonhart is a step in the right direction toward cleaning up one of the most wasteful and ethically questionable agencies of the federal government, the Drug Enforcement Administration. Now it’s time for Congress to take the next step — a full and facts-based review of the agency to eliminate the deep flaws that gave rise to the scandal.

Leonhart was already in hot water when she walked into the April 15 hearing of the House Oversight committee to respond to findings by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that DEA agents took part in cartel sex parties. By the time she walked out, she was sunk.

Congress members railed at Leonhart as she asserted she had no power to fire or discipline the agents involved. The DEA agents who participated and planned the parties, which took place between 2005 and 2008, were given two to ten-day suspensions.

The OIG report found that agents hosted the parties on government-leased property, consorted with prostitutes and drank liquor provided by the cartels, and accepted gifts from drug lords. At the hearing, Inspector General Horowitz accused Leonhart of undercharging the crimes, by placing them in categories with lower sanctions, and not sending serious accusations to higher justice officials.

The no-confidence joint statement, signed by both Democrats and Republicans, reads:

…Administrator Leonhart has been woefully unable to change or positively influence the pervasive good old boy culture that exists throughout the agency. From her testimony, it is clear that she lacks the authority and will to make the tough decisions required to hold those accountable who compromise national security and bring disgrace to their position.

Statements during the hearing were even harsher. Rep. Trey Gowdy asked in utter frustration,”What the hell do you get to do?”, regarding Leonhart’s repeated (and not entirely true) assertions that she has nothing to do with discipline procedures. Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah launched the grill, decrying the DEA’s lack of cooperation with the OIG investigation.

Leonhart has paid the price. Her attitude — like Jack Nicholson on A Few Good Men who basically argued, ‘we’re law enforcement, we can do whatever we want and you should thank us for it’ — didn’t fly on the Hill.

But there are still some important pieces missing. The OIG report did not mention the name of the country where the sex parties took place. It was later confirmed to be Colombia. It also did not examine the reason these parties took place.

Common sense — it’s either business or pleasure. If it was strictly for pleasure, what kind of a relationship does the DEA construct with criminals that would lead to the two hanging out together to drink (and there are allegations of drug use as well) and have sex with prostitutes on the cartels’ dime? This form of penetration of criminal hierarchy — in security complex lingo — clearly goes beyond the call of duty.

The other possibility is that both sides had some business in the encounters. The Colombian press reports an anonymous source stating that parties took place with members of paramilitary groups that traffic drugs during the process of “demobilization.” During this period, members of the organizations were offered clemency for giving themselves up. The criminals staged the parties “to loosen up” DEA agents and find out what kind of terms they could get, while the DEA agents, in addition to enjoying themselves, sought new informants. By all accounts, the agents were not undercover at the time — yet another security breach.

While we can’t give 100 percent credence to the Colombian source without further investigation, judging by international DEA modus operandi, which always includes close relations inside cartels either undercover or through informants, it sounds quite plausible.

This raises a series of even deeper questions regarding DEA activities. Who uses who? How do DEA priorities respond to political agendas beyond counternarcotics efforts? At what point does infiltrating criminal networks become collaboration? Who decides when a murderous cartel leader is given formal immunity to catch another murderous cartel leader? The list of murky ethical issues goes on and on — and all in the context of a zero success rate in stopping the flow of drugs overall to the United States.

None of this seemed to matter to Leonhart, as long as the high-profile busts continued. An inveterate drug warrior, Leonhart has gone so far as to publicly criticize the President she serves under for being soft on marijuana.

Following her announcement to step down, Reps. Chaffetz and Elijah Cummings of the committee welcomed Ms. Leonhart’s retirement, noting the DEA’s “bad behavior that was allowed to fester for more than a decade.”

The scandal and resignation should be taken as timely warning signals that the entire agency must be immediately reviewed and reorganized. Three factors beside the internal corruption of the agency indicate that it may be necessary to scrap it altogether and start over.

First, states throughout the country are enacting drug policy reform — 23 states have legalized medical marijuana, four states have legalized marijuana use for adults and hundreds of localities have declared marijuana a low-priority enforcement.

It could very well be that the Nixon-era agency with an exclusive mandate for counternarcotics enforcement at home and abroad has become obsolete. This is especially relevant taking into account that much of the impetus for reform is based on the failure of DEA strategies to reduce drug-related deaths and the racially biased enforcement, which has filled prisons with largely African-American and Latino youth.

Second, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have become transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that engage in a broad range of criminal activity, most of it far more life-threatening than the narcotics trade. This calls into question the DEA’s single mandate and has created inter-agency confusion, waste and overlap.

Third, nations throughout Latin America are balking at having to do the dirty work of enforcing the United States’ prohibition laws. And with reason — the US-led war on drugs has led to bloodshed and the militarization of countries throughout the hemisphere.

With our own communities facing severe lack of resources, is this the best way to spend more than $2 billion dollars a year?

The scandals are the glimpse behind the curtain of an agency that operates on the edge of legality in the name of law enforcement, on a crusade that has lost its divine right — if it ever had it. Congress must thoroughly review the tactics that place agents and contractors in cozy contact with the cartels they are supposed to be dismantling. It must also take this opportunity to consider whether the DEA is fulfilling its mandate — and to reassess that mandate.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

More articles by:

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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