The War Within The DEA:
A new leader draws fire from the ranks
by Gordon Witkin
(Originally published, 05 June 1995)
Copyright © U.S. News and World Report
Over the course of its 22-year history, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has seen good times and bad -- but it may never have seen times quite as bad as these. The DEA is at war with itself, racked by suspicion, bitterness, a variety of conspiracy theories and, among some agents, a near-mutinous attitude toward Administrator Thomas Constantine. "He has no respect for the agency or the agents, and so they have no respect for him," says one recently departed executive. Adds Joe Toft, the agency's former chief in Colombia: "I don't know of a single man in upper management who's happy with what this guy's doing."
Since mid-1994, the DEA's special agents in charge in Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston have departed, along with the DEA Attache in Colombia, its chiefs of money laundering, planning and inspection and the former head of training. Some had been considering retirement for a while, but dissatisfaction with Constantine was at least a factor for many.
In May, Constantine warned his staff in a memo, obtained by U.S. News, that a continuation of racially tinged attacks and vicious rumor-mongering within the ranks would "jeopardize our future as a professional law-enforcement agency." One agent based in the MidWest, in a typical comment, says, "morale here isn't just low, it's underground." Adds a headquarters staffer: "We're at a point where we're eating our young."
Since taking over in March 1994, Constantine, a former New York State Police superintendent, has employed a no-nonsense, paramilitary management style that has proved a tough fit for a risk-taking agency that operates in a dark and grimy world. He has invested massive resources and manpower in internal discipline and self-inspection because, he says, he and career DEA managers felt tighter controls are needed to assure the agency's integrity. But some agents say the result has been hundreds of new internal-affairs cases that detract from DEA's primary mission and create and atmosphere of fear. "DEA used to be a place where people would take a chance to make a case, but not anymore. Everyone's paralyzed," says a former agency executive.
Last year, a Minnesota police commander complained that a Chicago-based DEA agent had used offensive language in a training seminar. Even salty-tongued DEA agents agree that some of the alleged comments were probably inappropriate. But the DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility launched a massive investigation into a series of training sessions conducted by five Chicago-based agents -- especially Associate Special Agent in Charge Francis White.
Three female police offices from Madison WI sued the DEA and the five-member training team in U.S. District Court in Chicago, alleging that the agents referred to women as "babe " and "bitch", showed them slides of scantily clad women, directed sexual comments at the women and opened seminars with a string of obscene references to sexual intercourse. The suit and the DEA's internal report also allege that White, a 27-year veterans, called Attorney General Janet Reno a crude term for a lesbian.
After the DEA told White it intended to fire him, he decided to retire rather than risk his pension. But sources say that he denies making the comments attributed to him and that the agents have denied much of the alleged harassment. And White also is firing back. when he became the focus of the DEA's internal investigation early this year, he responded by charging Constantine with drinking on duty at a conference last year. White's allegation, and a separate charge that Constantine had DEA personnel help him write a doctoral thesis, are being investigated by the Justice Department's inspector general. Constantine says the charges are nonsense.
White and the other four Chicago agents also have filed equal employment opportunity complaints with the DEA, charging that the probe of their conduct and the punishments, propose for them would not have been so severe if they were not white males. Some agents agree that White's proposed firing is unduly harsh given his mostly exemplary DEA career, and they suspect Reno, who clashed with White a decade ago in Miami, is using the case to settle old scores. Constantine and Justice Dept spokesman Carl Stern vehemently deny the charge.
The DEA is also suffering from dizzying changes in its marching orders. Constantine's predecessor, Robert Bonner, thought the agency could get the biggest band for its limited federal buck by focusing almost exclusively on the major drug cartels in a so-called "Kingpin Strategy." But DEA division heads without major cartel activity in their areas felt ignored and believe "Kingpin " slighted cooperative efforts with state and local cops.
As a former state cop, Constantine was sympathetic. He has re-focused the DEA on local drug-related violence, partly through Mobile Enforcement Teams that will assist financially strapped cities besieged by drug gangs. Although the administrator believes that is where the agency can have the biggest impact on ordinary lives, his new emphasis is drawing fire from staffers at both the DEA and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy: They think the big, international-cartel cases won't get done because only the DEA can do them.
Recent arrest and conviction sources say the special-operations division that handled major cased has lost 17 staffers and had millions of dollars cut from its budget; the money laundering section has been similarly slashed. Constantine "has made DEA irrelevant," says one former agency executive.
A shocking number of agents think Constantine "has been put there to destroy DEA," Says one former staffer. In this conspiracy theory, the villain is FBI Director Louis Freeh, who helped Constantine get the job and who, conspiracy buffs claim, plans an FBI takeover of DEA. Constantine calls the theory preposterous. Freeh praises Constantine as "one of the nation's most effective law enforcement leaders " and says "it is ludicrous for anonymous critics to suggest I would want to secretly run DEA or that Constantine would permit it."
Constantine and his supporters say the anger is wildly exaggerated, and they think some of it was inevitable. "When a good man comes in and wants change, he's going to rock boats, and some don't want their boats rocked," says Dan Rosenblatt of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "That's the nature of leadership," says Constantine. "Everybody isn't going to love you."
Reprinted by special, limited permission.
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