DEA scandal reveals the failure of American hole-patching

Outgoing DEA Administrator, Michele Leonhart, speaks at a conference.

Outgoing DEA Administrator, Michele Leonhart, speaks at a conference.

In May, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart, will resign from her post amid allegations that agents participated in sex parties with prostitutes paid for by Colombian drug cartels. This is only the latest and raunchiest in a litany of alleged offenses committed by the agency during Leonhart’s reign, including bribery, prisoner abuse, withholding information in trials, excessive surveillance, and the shooting of children. As David Graham, who catalogued several such offenses in a recent Atlantic piece, put it, “It’s not that the outrage in this case is misplaced – it’s that it’s a day late and a trillion dollars short.”

With all these crimes – and the admission by almost everyone who isn’t a politician, bureaucrat or cop that the War on Drugs is a failure and that new, more compassionate tactics are necessary to combat drug abuse – it’s a wonder anyone thinks the DEA can save face simply by switching out the person in charge. Imagine an agency that walks around flicking people in the ears, kicking them in the back of the knee, and blocking their path when they’re late for a bus. What difference does it make who’s the head of such an agency? And what difference does it make whether the agent doing the pestering is good or bad?

This idea of patching up a fundamentally faulty institution by replacing some employees is common, and seems especially pronounced in law enforcement. Earlier this month, a South Carolina police officer, Michael Slager, was filmed killing an unarmed man by shooting him five times in the back. In a departure from other recent, high-profile, extrajudicial police executions, Slager was fired and charged with murder. While it was encouraging to see him get what he deserved, it’s little consolation to know that his replacement will be given the same training, issued the same instructions, and armed with the same weaponry.

DEA agents raid a suspected marijuana dealer. Best hope your neighbor isn't on the dope or growing it; your neighborhood might look like this someday.

DEA agents raid a suspected marijuana dealer. Best hope your neighbor isn’t on the dope or growing it; your neighborhood might look like this someday.

So, too, will it be more of the same after Leonhart leaves office. If you replace the queen bee in a colony, the new queen will still lay eggs, and the drone bees will still produce honey. The DEA’s mission is dictated by bureaucrats, statute and code. Different leaders may have the power to tweak little things – allowing agents to wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays, say – but they can’t decide to take the agency into a different line of work altogether.

Success at the DEA means catching drug dealers and seizing drugs and cash. The more of that they do, the more pats on the back and funding they’ll receive from the political establishment that props them up. Any administrator who doesn’t do enough of it will be ousted. This necessarily puts them in compromising, unethical positions to score as many of these kinds of victories as possible, including working with informants, taking or making bribes and acting with extraordinary violence. Perhaps most importantly, they must sustain the costly and unpopular War on Drugs, which endangers the whole globe and creates a black market of drug and arms dealers. Perversely, it’s the only thing keeping the DEA in business; winning the War on Drugs, if it were even possible, would send agents to the unemployment line.

Holding officials accountable for their actions isn’t worth much in organizations whose very existence is predicated on something the public opposes. Not only is the DEA unaccountable to the public, Leonhart actively lobbied against the public will – and the president’s – when she campaigned against the decriminalization of marijuana. Because attacking marijuana growers and distributors can be big business, it’s likely that any head of the DEA will take the same line. Similarly, when the public becomes outraged at police departments for killing citizens, ticketing excessively or acting in some other cruel way, police protest right back. Leonhart charged the public with being “duped” into pro-pot legislation; police departments insist their excessive violence is in their own and the public’s best interest, despite the public clearly demonstrating their disagreement in case after case. These groups have positioned themselves as far as possible from public scrutiny, perhaps with the knowledge that they couldn’t hold up long under it.

American law enforcement is out of control. The War on Drugs is costly and destructive and the prison-industrial complex is among our nation’s greatest shames. It isn’t sensationalist to note that we incarcerate more Americans both in raw numbers and per capita than any other country, including Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The given reasons for incarceration differ, but the purpose is the same – terrorize the population. That American intelligentsia is so much swifter to criticize Putin just goes to show how we’re trained to think the person in charge matters. It doesn’t. What needs changing is not just the people, but the positions and the institutions themselves. With or without the corruption and incompetence that defined Leonhart’s reign, the DEA is rotten in its very existence and would be no more or less legitimate an institution than if Putin himself came to America to head it up.

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