The Scandal of the DEA

On Tuesday, it was widely reported that the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is projected to resign in the wake up an agency sex scandal. Michele Leonhart herself was not involved in the hiring of Colombian prostitutes, but as is tradition, someone has to go down for a scandal. Usually it’s an underdog, but there’s a logic to top dog Leonhart losing a job instead of a few no-name agents.

Regardless of fault, this is official misconduct which has also prompted investigations into the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the US Marshals. Leonhart is out, and maybe a few others will be. The former is certainly a positive turn of events, regardless of the motivation. Leonhart is a hard-ass drug warrior who served as deputy administrator under George W. Bush. She has made news during the last few years for fighting tooth and nail against legalization efforts and anti-drug war backlash. She will ask you to think of the puppies who might eat marijuana by accident, but she will not worry too much about the child casualties of drug war violence. 

In short, Leonhart is an old guard true believer in the worst US domestic policy since Jim Crow. So it will be nice to see her go. But feigning surprise that the head of the DEA is mulish on marijuana has always seemed strange. Her job is to keep the drug war going, and to keep her thousands of agents employed. She is the status quo of the past 40 years, and it’s not surprising that she has failed to keep up with the only recently changing times. For decades, nobody questioned the war on drugs except for libertarians, and a handful of sensible folks on the left and right. Only in the last five years or so has it become acceptable for electable politicians to notice that the policy was a might bit excessive in terms of casualties both literal and constitutional.

Truly, the rot within the DEA runs a lot deeper than Leonhart. The DEA does not only exist so that the war on drugs can fill prisons, and so that (initially) Richard Nixon could look as if he was succeeding at something. As bad as the war on drugs was, and is still, the DEA’s additional surveillance powers and reach is only now being revealed. During the past 40 years, while the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and later the National Security Agency (NSA) were spooky boogey men behind real and imagined conspiracies, the DEA was more quietly becoming another head of that monster.

During the first George Bush’s presidency, the DEA expanded its reach into Latin America like never before, with the US eventually spending a trillion dollars fighting narcotics there. Nothing about the DEA is domestic when they currently have offices in 67 countries.

There are horrors stories of innocent bystanders killed by commando squads of agents in Honduras, or the drug war being especially literal as planes supposedly containing drug dealers were shot down. Billions have been wasted fighting poppies in Afghanistan. There are far too many dubious, dangerous, and downright immoral decisions made by drug warriors playing soldier abroad to mention in a short column.

But the playing spy part isn’t just something to do in countries far away. In 2013, Reuters first broke the story that the DEA was using something called parallel construction, which means investigators would work backwards to build a case against a defendant in order to hide that the source of a tip was covert, illegal spying. A secret phone record database under joint DEA-AT&T charge was also revealed that year. In January, Reuters reported that that program was over and done with, but you should never assume something in government hasn’t just been moved to another department or agency down the hall.

As an Atlantic piece reports, there are countless more horrors committed by the DEA. Young Daniel Chong was nearly killed in 2012 after the DEA left him alone in a locked cell for four days. The DEA has been tracking not just phone calls, but cars. They’ve had their own version of civil asset forfeiture which has lined the pockets of many a local police department in the US in recent decades. An agent committed extortion for bitcoins during the investigation of the secret Silk Road website. And on and on.

Oh, and one of Edward Snowden’s many information gifts was the report that thanks to ICREACH, the DEA (and a dozen other federal agencies) has access to the NSA’s massive hauls of data. (All of this, plus the new sex scandal is starting to sound like the agency needs its own version of the ATF’s Operation Showtime. The Waco raid, after all, was a pure PR move to distract the public from a burgeoning ATF scandal about sexual harassment of female agents. That bad press got worse after the Davidian raid went south, but it never got as bad as it should have. Blame that on an obsequious press.)

Let me stress that all of this is in addition to the DEA’s fundamentally nasty purpose, which is to perpetuate the life-destroying, prison-filling policy known as the war on drugs.

And yet, as terrifying as the DEA is, there is a small case for optimism here. Besides a few Colombian sex parties,  Leonhart has been a good drug warrior for her entire career. But Congress, the president, and the public have less and less tolerance for the true believer in this battle. After four decades of hysteria over narcotics in this country, finally people are rubbing their eyes and wondering “what the hell happened?” Leonhart is not ready to wake up from the nightmare of the war on drugs, but she will at least be out of a job. The DEA should be next on the list.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.