DEA deal shares power; immigration agents can make drug busts
By Josh Meyer
WASHINGTON — In an attempt to plug a hole in the U.S.-Mexico drug-trafficking enforcement effort, the U.S. Justice and Homeland Security Departments entered a new interagency agreement Thursday that they hope will allow them to better target and apprehend cross-border drug smugglers.
But at least one influential senator said the agreement did not go nearly far enough to address long-standing turf battles between the two departments, which he says are undermining the campaign to counter increasingly violent Mexican drug cartels.
The agreement between Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement is designed to end years of friction, primarily by cross-designating an "unlimited" number of ICE agents as DEA agents. That would give them the authority to investigate suspected drug smugglers at the border and internationally -- a prerogative that has been jealously guarded by the DEA.
Under the agreement, both departments pledged greater sharing of information and intelligence, and also better coordination of activities.
"Moving past old disputes and ensuring cooperation between all levels of our Departments has been one of our top priorities since taking office," Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement. They said the agreement "will strengthen our efforts to combat international narcotics smuggling, streamline operations and bring better intelligence to our front line personnel."
But the announcement did not satisfy Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has complained about turf battles and failure to cooperate between the two agencies for years. Grassley, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said the two departments did not go far enough to address the problems
"[I]nstead they've kicked the can down the road, which could lead to more of the same squabbles we're trying to get rid of," he said in a statement.
Officials refused to release the actual agreement, saying that doing so could give the cartels confidential information about government operations and resources. It will be in force for one year, and then reviewed, DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton told reporters.
Bradley Schreiber, a senior adviser at the Department of Homeland Security from 2007 until earlier this year, hailed the agreement.
Schreiber said the DEA has been trying to protect its role as the nation's primary drug enforcement agency in battles with the U.S. Customs Service and, later, with Homeland Security.
ICE has also been sharply criticized, by Grassley and federal watchdog auditors, for not sharing information with DEA and not participating in its special counternarcotics fusion center.