Why Did It Take a Sex Scandal to Topple the DEA Chief?

The federal drug cops have been caught up in scandal, failure, and abuse for years.

Michele Leonhart testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on April 14. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters)

In April 2012, Daniel Chong was arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration officers on suspicion of being involved in an ecstasy ring. While Chong readily admitted to smoking pot, agents determined he wasn't involved in ecstasy trafficking. They told him he'd be released. Instead, the agents forgot about him, leaving him for four and a half days in a cell without food or water or a toilet, after which he had to be rushed to a hospital. Multiple agents saw him or heard his cries, but they all thought it was someone else's problem.

In May 2012, in a drug sting coordinated by the DEA, four people were shot dead in a boat in Honduras. Honduran authorities said they were drug traffickers, but witnesses said the victims—including two women and a 14-year-old child—were innocent. Fifty-eight members of Congress wrote to request more information and received an answer from DEA that Mattathias Schwartz's reporting in the New Yorker suggests was, charitably, misleading.

In June 2013, the Arizona Republic reported that a DEA informant who had received almost $4 million but was fired amid accusations of serial perjury was back working the DEA on undercover cases.

In August 2013, Reuters revealed that the DEA was funneling information from massive surveillance, wiretaps, and undercover agents to local police to help make arrests. In some cases, the DEA was coaching police to hide the source of the information not only from defense lawyers, but also from prosecutors and judges. A Harvard Law professor and former federal judge said she found such practices even more disturbing than the NSA surveillance program. "It is one thing to create special rules for national security," Nancy Gertner told Reuters. "Ordinary crime is entirely different. It sounds like they are phonying up investigations." This month, USA Today reported that "for more than two decades, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the USA to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking."

In January 2015, a Justice Department inspector general's report criticized the use of "cold consent encounters"—basically, stops by DEA agents without probable cause—in which cash was seized. The report noted that such stops are often associated with racial profiling. The report also noted that the cash seizures, similar to the asset forfeitures that have been widely criticized, raise serious concerns, and that many seizures had been challenged, with DEA having to return money.

That same month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the DEA was tracking cars traveling all over the U.S., with the effect that almost anyone driving in a populated area was probably swept up in the dragnet.

In March 2015, the Justice Department said that Carl Force, the lead undercover DEA officer investigating Silk Road, the online drug market, had extorted bitcoins from the exchange's founder, who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts. "Using a series of private, fictitious accounts, Force allegedly told Roberts he would bury evidence related to the case if Roberts paid him $250,000," The Washington Post reported. "In another instance, Roberts allegedly paid Force $100,000 in bitcoins after Force, using one of his anonymous accounts, offered up information related to the federal investigation."

This is a more or less arbitrarily chosen list of offenses over the last three years. There are plenty of other disturbing statistics—for example, the Justice Department's inspector general expressed concerns about weapons losses at the DEA in 2002, but when it checked in again in 2008, the rate of loss had more than doubled.

Meanwhile, there seems to be more consensus than ever that the War on Drugs has failed. Despite the $1 trillion price tag, then-drug czar Gil Kerklikowske said in 2010, "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified." Two-thirds of Americans want the government to focus more on treatment and less on prosecution for drug use, and 84 percent agree with Kerlikowske that the U.S. is losing the War on Drugs. Critics also blame the drug war for years of violence and thousands of deaths in Mexico.

Against this backdrop, it might seem logical that DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart is stepping down. She's been at the agency for 35 years, and her tenure since taking over in 2007 has been marked by a series of abuses, failures and missteps. In fact, the proximate cause for Leonhart's exit is the eminently more headline-ready case of DEA agents having sex parties with prostitutes.

That's not to say that the story isn't disturbing:

The report described accusations from foreign police officers that D.E.A. agents had attended “loud” parties with prostitutes over several years, paid for by local drug cartels. The parties reportedly took place in locations leased by the government where agents’ laptops and other electronic devices were present. The foreign officers also said they had watched over the agents’ weapons and other property during the parties.

The punishment doled out by the DEA? Suspensions of seven to 10 days.

Lawmakers lashed out at Leonhart during a hearing last week. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined repeated invitations from reporters to express confidence in her leadership of DEA. (She has clashed with the Obama administration over marijuana, which the president's team said was less harmful than other drugs and was willing to treat more leniently.)

Now, one could view Leonhart's forced resignation as a sign of progress—there's plenty of evidence to suggest that her leadership of the agency wasn't working, and the sex parties were simply a turning point. But the contour of the story gives the nagging impression that despite years of issues, the salacious, sexy headline is what pushed Leonhart out, whereas the systemic failures over the last decade received even less sanction than those agents' seven-to-10-day suspensions. It's not that the outrage in this case is misplaced—it's that it's a day late and a trillion dollars short.