The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has, quietly, become a very effective counter-terror agency. The arrest of international arms dealers Victor Bout and Monzar al-Kasser (in operations worthy of movie scripts) were only one example. The agency had at least a peripheral role in the Betancourt rescue – a DEA operation inserted bugged satellite phones into the FARC, a crucial tactic that has made a tremendous contribution to the FARC’s overall breakdown. In general the agency seems to have adapted well overall to the counter-terror mission, among other things doing a competent job at building up its analytical capabilities.
Last Friday, the DEA’s chief of operations Michael Braun gave a presentation at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (hosted by co-CT Blogger and Washington Institute Fellow Michael Jacobson) that provided important insight into the DEA’s adaptation to the counter-terror mission.
While many pundits give lip-service to “changing organizational culture” it is an issue that is generally not given its due. Policy and political issues are “sexier.” But organizational issues are in fact central to any complex problem of governance. In their classic Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow argue that one conceptual model useful for understanding government behavior is:
…less as deliberate choices and more as outputs of large organizations functioning according to standard patterns of behavior…. To perform complex tasks, the behavior of large numbers of individuals must be coordinated. Coordination requires standard operating procedures: rules according to which things are done….
At any given time, a government consists of existing organizations, each with a fixed set of standard operating procedures and programs. The behavior of these organizations-and relevant to an issue in any particular instance is, therefore, determined primarily by routines established prior to that instance….
Chief Braun’s presentation hit many of these points. First, in the decades prior to 9/11 the DEA had gained extensive experience targeting complex, adaptive international organizations that were skilled in using technology and had extensive resources (i.e. drug cartels and – what Braun describes as the wave of the future – terrorist/drug cartel hybrids such as the FARC.) The DEA turned some of its weaknesses – its relatively small size and low profile and the limitations of being a law enforcement agency – into strengths. Because it was small and low-profile it could practice patience in its investigations and develop appropriate (and creative) techniques. The DEA didn’t have the budget to develop or access to the top intelligence systems (satellites etc.) and it learned that HUMINT (infiltration) was the best way to get into the drug cartels. Here, counter-intuitively, the DEA’s status as a law enforcement agency served it well. Informants (usually lower-level criminals who were given a choice between being charged or turning informant) were carefully vetted, because the DEA agents knew that the informant would eventually have to testify in a U.S. court.
Because of the international scope of drug trafficking, the DEA has the largest international law enforcement presence of any U.S. agency (87 foreign offices in 63 countries) and these offices are staffed by agents who are operationally active with their international partners. (Braun stated that there was one office where the DEA was not operationally active, but wouldn’t say which – I am guessing Venezuela.)
Braun explained the international world of illicit activity, which relies heavily on ungoverned spaces, where both organized crime and terrorists can flourish. Here the DEA had to adapt. All illicit activity is united by money. Previously agents followed the drug trail – Braun urged them to follow the money trail instead because it allowed them to peer into multiple sectors of illicit activity.
While the issues surrounding organizational adaptation were interesting, Braun had many other points to make. He discussed how the FARC is the case study for the evolution and (hopefully) dissolution of a hybrid terrorist-criminal organization that can be adapted to the Taliban. He mentioned the Madrid bombing as an example of low level drug dealing supporting terrorism, and the DEA’s efforts to take on this new threat.
When asked about legalization, Braun explained that this will lead to massive levels of addiction. After the Civil War opiates and cocaine were legal and about 1/200 Americans was an addict. But, like pretty much everyone who has looked at the issue, Braun stated that more treatment for drug users would be helpful.
Braun certainly did not say this, but there are reasons to be skeptical of whether law enforcement response to drug trafficking is effective at reducing the drug supply. But it is, in some regards, a moot argument. First, because drug cartels have a deleterious effect on lawful government and therefore are a serious problem in their own right and secondly, as a moral issue, because people engaged in illegal activity should be punished.
DEA as Diplomatic Back-Channel
Finally, Braun was asked about collaboration between the DEA and the Iranian counter-narcotics organizations. Iran shares a border with Afghanistan and has a growing epidemic of drug use. Because of the ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Iran direct cooperation is impossible, but Braun noted that they have third party interlocutors that can relay valuable information. This raises an interesting possibility of the DEA serving as an alternate channel to regimes with which the U.S. has estranged relations.
There is some talk in Washington of engaging Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez by trying to restore DEA operations there. Back in 2005 Chavez revoked diplomatic immunity for DEA agents in Venezuela (he accused them of spying, plus the U.S. had revoked the visas of Venezuelan officials in DC.) This effectively shut down the agency’s operations. Since then Venezuela has become a leading conduit for drugs to Europe. Chavez is beginning to take pressure from the Europeans about this and – on occasion – turned drug dealers over to other countries. Reinstating the DEA could be useful to everyone and create a pragmatic alternate channel to Caracas.