After nearly two years and at least $1.4 million spent, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration released an external review of its overseas operations on Friday that barely mentioned recent corruption scandals and offered recommendations which critics dismissed as too vague.
A large part of the 50 page report describes the DEA’s sprawling “foreign footprint” in 69 countries, while praising its efforts to close gaping gaps in the oversight of undercover money laundering operations and foreign-controlled special units.
“This report is incredibly vague in its actual assessment of known problems at the DEA and solutions to address them,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This speaks to the agency’s broader efforts to evade surveillance. The agency tried to dodge my requests for surveillance, but I intend to go ahead.
The external probe was announced in 2021 following Associated Press report on the crimes of José Irizarry, a disgraced former DEA agent who is currently serving a 12-year federal prison sentence after confessing to laundering money for Colombian drug cartels and embezzling millions from seizures and informants to finance an international trip of gastronomy, parties and prostitutes.
Irizarry told the AP last year that DEA agents have come to accept that there is nothing they can do to reduce the flow of cocaine and illegal opioids into the United States, which has resulted in more than 100,000 overdose deaths per year.
“The War on Drugs is a game,” Irizarry said. “It was a really fun game that we were playing.”
Irizarry’s case obtained a paragraph in the external review. An ongoing federal grand jury investigation into some of his former jet-set DEA colleagues was mentioned in a footnote. Additionally, Irizarry’s attorney told AP that he offered to make his client available for an interview for the review, but was never contacted.
“Interviews and documents demonstrated that the DEA has already largely implemented DOJ OIG recommendations to improve oversight of compliance risks arising from the agency’s overseas operations,” the review concluded, noting reference to the Office of Inspector General of the United States Department of Justice.
The survey criticized bureaucracy which it said hampers the assignment of officers to foreign divisions and recommended putting in place incentives to attract “best talent to hard-to-fill offices”. He also blamed the “corrupting influence” of the cartels for the cases of “individual misconduct by DEA personnel.”
“The DEA could also do more to ensure that supervisors are effectively assessed and ultimately held accountable for compliance issues,” the review found.
Other recommendations included more regular audits of foreign offices and police units audited, and tighter spending controls.
The external review was conducted by former DEA Administrator Jack Lawn and Boyd Johnson, a former federal prosecutor who handled international drug cases. Public records show the untendered contract was awarded to the law firm WilmerHale, where Johnson works, at a cost of $1.4 million. Johnson did not respond to emails seeking comment.
The report makes little mention of the turmoil that rocked DEA operations in Mexico, where law enforcement cooperation collapsed amid the tenure of a regional director who was quietly ousted from his post for having had inappropriate contact with the drug traffickers’ lawyers.
AP reported earlier this year that Nicholas Palmeri had served just 14 months in that role and retired before a report from the Office of Inspector General revealed he had asked the government for a refund to pay his own birthday party.
“For a report that cost the government more than $1.4 million, it doesn’t appear to recommend the kinds of changes that would actually prevent another Irizarry or other misconduct,” said Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor at New York. York. “While the report very carefully defines the role and responsibilities of the DEA, it cites very few examples of misconduct and its recommendations do not go far enough.”
Palmeri arrived in Mexico following one of the biggest setbacks in recent years in the US-led war on drugs: the botched arrest of former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos. The retired general was arrested on a sealed US anti-drug warrant when he arrived at Los Angeles airport in 2020 only to be released weeks later under pressure from Mexico’s leftist president, who retaliated by disbanding a elite police unit that was a key DEA ally.
Neither the Cienfuegos incident nor the arrest of another top US ally in Mexico – former security chief Genaro Garcia Luna – is mentioned in the report.
“The report’s key point about improving information sharing and breaking down internal silos couldn’t be more laudable,” said John Feeley, a retired US diplomat who has worked alongside the DEA in numerous posts abroad. “But the biggest silo that needs to be broken down from an operations perspective is the DEA’s inability to communicate with front offices and ambassadors when investigating senior host country officials.”
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, who declined repeated interview requests, said in a statement that the agency would implement the report’s 17 recommendations.
“The DEA is committed to addressing the challenges posed by current global drug threats and ensuring that our work is carried out at the highest possible level,” she said.
Goodman reported from Miami. Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.