About Bout & the DEA

The recently unsealed indictment of arms-trafficker extraordinaire Victor Bout is an interesting read. Perhaps the most notable line is on page 10, when Bout told the DEA operatives (who he believed represented the FARC) that America was also his enemy and their fight was his fight. Another international arms dealer, Monzar al-Kasser, who was arrested in a DEA sting, promised the informants to raise an army for the FARC in order to fight the Americans. Are these heartfelt sentiments, or just salesmen trying to ingratiate themselves to a wealthy client and close a lucrative deal?

The truth is probably a combination of both. Many criminals seek to justify their actions as somehow contributing to a greater good by empowering the powerless. But intentions aside, Bout’s capabilities are the real cause for worry. He promised to airlift hundreds of Igla portable surface-to-air missiles (known as MANPADS – man portable self-defense systems) along with UAVs, ultra-light planes, explosives, and millions of rounds of ammunition to the FARC. Bout wasn’t just a dealer, he also could provide training (nothing like good customer service to bring in repeat business.) He also mentioned that he could sell the FARC airplanes if they were interested. Regardless of intent, individuals with the connections and capabilities to acquire and transport large quantities of deadly weapons like MANPADS outside of regulated channels are as dangerous to international security as terrorists.

(As a side-note, the FARC keeps appearing in the headlines on Bout’s capture, but in fact had nothing to do with it – DEA operatives were portraying themselves as FARC representatives. The FARC, which has a terribly long list of vicious misdeeds of its own, does not apparently need Bout, as the latest documents from the captured FARC computers indicate that FARC believed that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would supply them with everything they might need.)

About the DEA

Bout’s capture, besides being good news in and of itself, highlights the Drug Enforcement Agency as a competent law enforcement/intelligence agency capable of carrying out a complex international operation. On a related note, a recent Justice Department Inspector-General report, the Drug Enforcement Agency has been fairly successful at building its analytical capabilities. Most analysts are satisfied with their work and analyst turnover is much lower than at the FBI. Although the report was mostly positive, it also highlighted the many challenges to building an effective analytical capability. To often analysts are also given administrative tasks and hiring is complicated by the long clearance process (many prime candidates find other jobs while waiting to be cleared.) The DEA’s reports are well regarded by other intelligence agencies, but they apparently are slow to share information. The DEA response to this complaint was particularly interesting – they noted that information was quickly shared through informal channels. But, there is a demanding review process for formal reports and the DEA wants to make sure its analyses are high quality.

The report gives a sense of the nuts and bolts issues of building an intelligence analysis component and is food for thought as the FBI is criticized, yet again, for not building its analytical capabilities. In fairness, the DEA is a much smaller agency with a specific focus and is not being called on to re-invent itself on the fly. Too often these detailed issues regarding organizational capabilities and culture are ignored in favor of grand pronouncements and declarations.

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