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) .

March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It