DEA Administrator Karen Tandy became the latest Bush Administration official to head for the private sector during the Administration’s final months. Tandy left the DEA last month to take a job as vice president for Motorola’s government relations division.
Tandy’s departure has garnered little notice in the mainstream media, and, evidently, in the White House. To date, no nominee has been announced to lead the nation’s foremost drug-fighting agency.
While homeland security and terrorism have taken center stage in the nation’s security policies, the effort to combat the violence and addiction associated with drug trafficking cannot fade into the background. Moreover, money laundering and border security are critical components of any homeland security strategy. The DEA battles these two homeland security components every day in its targeting of narcotraffickers who smuggle massive amounts of illicit drugs (and lord knows what else) and in tracking the money that changes hands during these operations.
Given the critical role of the DEA in the nation’s federal law enforcement constellation, it’s disappointing that the White House has not announced a successor to Tandy, who has already left the agency. There are a number of qualified candidates – qualified from an operational perspective as well as a political perspective. (The DEA Administrator must be confirmed by the Senate.)
Top among such candidates is the current Deputy Administrator and Acting head of the agency: Michele Leonhart.
Politically, Leonhart has already been confirmed by the Senate (when she assumed the role of Deputy Administrator) and should therefore have no trouble being confirmed again for this position. She is articulate and credible as a public representative of the agency, and is well liked within the DEA.
Operationally, Leonhart is also the complete package. She brings unimpeachable experience and street credibility, having begun her career in law enforcement with the Baltimore Police Department (the drug-ridden streets made famous by the HBO series “The Wire.”) before becoming a DEA special agent. She rose through the ranks of the agency, serving in various undercover operations during the tough years of the Eighties and going on to gain management and drug intelligence experience. Before reluctantly coming to DEA Headquarters in Pentagon City as the agency’s No. 2 (most agents are reluctant to leave the field; after all they joined the DEA to go after drug dealers, not sit at desks), Leonhart was the Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Division and, later, the Los Angeles Field Division – one of the most challenging and prestigious leadership positions within the agency.
As both a DEA insider and acting head of the agency, Leonhart would be able to assume leadership without interrupting the flow of operations. (Congress is doing a good enough job of that on its own by failing to pass the appropriations bills that fund the DEA and other agencies.) Being an agent herself, Leonhart would not be viewed with skepticism by the DEA rank and file and need to waste precious time acclimating and winning over the troops.