When I worked at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart was one of the top Special Agents in Charge (SAC). SACs were the heads of our field divisions. Leonhart was SAC for our Los Angeles office.
Then Administrator Asa Hutchinson tried several times to recruit Leonhart to come to DEA Headquarters to join the executive leadership, but as an agent’s agent, she resisted as best she could (without offending the boss) so that she could stay in the field, leading operations to go after the drug gangs peddling drugs on the street and the cartels running massive quantities of drugs through Mexico into California.
A star like Leonhart, however, is always a target for recruitment, and when Hutchinon’s successor, Karen Tandy, came on board, she too went after Leonhart. Eventually, she gave in and came to Washington to serve as the Deputy Administrator under Tandy.
After Tandy abruptly resigned to go into the private sector, Leonhart was put into the top spot as Acting Administrator. She remained in that position, as the acting chief, for a long time while the Obama Administration dithered on making an official nomination to lead the agency. Considering that we had no nominee for ATF or DEA, and the nominee for Customs and Border Protection at DHS sat in the wings for months and months without confirmation, one had to come to the conclusion that border security and drug enforcement were not exactly high on the president’s agenda – despite the unprecedented level of drug violence on the Mexican border. (I joined a State Department delegation to review the violence and seek ways to give voice to Mexican citizens who live in fear in the northern border states of Mexico. On the first day there, I awoke to the news that four people had been beheaded.)
Earlier this year, Obama finally nominated Leonhart to move from acting administrator to the permanent position. Why is this so important? The DEA is filled with dedicated and experienced special agents who continue to go after the bad guys, but in any government agency – and especially a law enforcement agency with its strict chain of command and adherence to rules – it is difficult for anyone in an acting role to implement bold innovative action that might not ultimately be in line with the new incoming boss.
Nobody wants to stick their neck out and have the new boss come in and cut it off. Moreover, in the acting role, there is an unspoken rule that nothing is permanent, leading the rank and file to be wary about the direction of the agency. They need to know that when they themselves take action, they won’t face any backlash should new leadership come into place and look for some potential heads to roll.
What’s the result? Ongoing professional work, executed by dedicated public servants, but a kind of hold-the-line and don’t-rock-the-boat mentality.
This is why President Obama finally giving the nod to Leonhart to become his choice to officially lead the agency is so important. She can begin to consider new strategies and reforms that may be necessary. I say “consider” because while she has been nominated she has not been confirmed by the Senate. Which means there is still the potential, for whatever reason, that she may not make it through the confirmation process. I suspect she will have no problems. She’s a stellar agent. But Washington is Washington, and Congress is Congress. We saw Obama’s nominee for the Transportation Security Administration get held up for months by senators who demanded that he publicly state he would not unionize TSA workers. Of course, that’s not the TSA chief’s call to make. Something as politically charged as that rises all the way to the White House, especially with this president who has shown a strong allegiance to unions.
So there is still some unknown factors that cloud Leonhart’s ability to lead the DEA the way it deserves to be led. It is unfortunate that Obama did not include Leonhart as one of his 15 recess appointments, as he did with Customs and Border Protection nominee Alan Bersin.
It’s curious as to why he did not. After all, if he was going to infuriate congressional Republicans by making an end run around the Senate’s role to confirm political appointees, why not go ahead and include the head of one of the most important federal law enforcement agencies.
It is equally curious why the White House selected Leonhart practically under the cover of night. There was no news release or public action to speak of. If you search Google News, you’ll find very little – if anything – about the announcement in the mainstream media. One has to suspect that the nomination was made so quietly because of the embarrassment that such a prominent federal agency had gone so long without a nominee.
Indeed, one suspects that drug enforcement simply isn’t something that interests this White House. After all, the Department of Justice issued new rules under Obama announcing that it would no longer pursue marijuana cases. This of course sent ripples of excitement through the Drug Legalization Lobby whose strategy is to start with legalizing marijuana (excuse me, “medical marijuana”) and then, with that precedent in place, move on to other drugs.
Whatever the President’s motives, he needs to push for Leonhart’s confirmation. She needs that if she is going to be able to push her agenda and implement a strategy for taking on the drug cartels. We’ve seen the horrific violence taking place in northern Mexico, especially Juarez City, which literally is a bridge away from the U.S. town of El Paso. We’ve seen the recent murders of American citizens there. We’ve seen the gun running, and we’ve seen the flow of drugs into the United States.
It’s time for this Administration to step up and act. The DEA needs official, Senate-confirmed leadership. Leonhart is the right choice. So let’s just do it.