December 2009

What it Takes to Be a DEA Agent (Part 1)

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

Last spring it was my pleasure and privilege to interview former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, Larry McElynn, and share my account of those conversations, Larry McElynn’s Stories from the DEA, in CH2’s May issue. This past October, Larry introduced me to several of his former colleagues at the Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents (AFFNA) annual conference held at Hilton Head Island’s Westin Resort. This first part of a three-part series taken from my interviews with those outstanding people takes a historical survey of DEA’s origins and looks into the character of the people who put their lives on the line in the battle against drug traffickers. Many thanks to Larry, Jack Lawn, Richie Fiano, John Costanzo and Chuck Gutensohn for their contributions.

“In 1960, only four million Americans had ever tried drugs. Currently, that number has risen to over 74 million. Behind these statistics are the stories of countless families, communities, and individuals adversely affected by drug abuse and drug trafficking.

“Prior to the 1960s, Americans did not see drug use as acceptable behavior, nor did they believe that drug use was an inevitable fact of life. Indeed, tolerance of drug use resulted in terrible increases in crime between the 1960s and the early 1990s, and the landscape has been altered forever.

“By the early 1970s, drug use had not yet reached its all-time peak, but the problem was sufficiently serious to warrant a serious response.”

This passage, taken from Drug Enforcement Administration: A Tradition of Excellence 1973-2008, a book published by DEA in celebration of its 35th anniversary in 2008, speaks to the evolution of drug use in American culture. The serious response to which it refers is the creation of the present day DEA.

DEA was born out of the recognition that drug law enforcement was no longer a local jurisdictional issue. That is, busting street level dealers wasn’t going to get the job done. Drug trafficking had evolved into a worldwide, coordinated enterprise that needed to be attacked at its foundation. This required an equally well-coordinated, strategic approach.

Federal drug law enforcement traces its roots to 1914, when it was the responsibility of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, U.S Department of Treasury. In 1922 a Prohibition Unit was attached to the Bureau of Internal Revenue. By 1927, the Prohibition Unit had been promoted to bureau status, and it was called—appropriately enough—the Bureau of Prohibition (Remember Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables? If you wondered why a Treasury officer was running around Chicago trying to knock out Al Capone’s bootlegging business, now you know).

In 1930 the word “narcotics” finally appeared in the name of a federal drug law enforcement authority, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), but it still fell within the Treasury Department’s purview.

The big changes came about in the 1960s, when America’s drug culture came out of the dark shadows and into mainstream view, and drugs became a higher priority for law enforcement. In 1966 the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) was established within the Food and Drug Administration’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1968 drug enforcement was, at last, placed with the Department of Justice with the creation of the Bureau of narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and in 1972, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) and the Office of National Narcotics Intelligence (ONNI). This virtual alphabet soup of agencies worked almost entirely independently of one another, which proved to be a great disadvantage as the drug traffickers were becoming more organized and broadening their reach within the United States.

In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon described the situation: “Right now, the federal government is fighting a war on drug abuse under a distinct handicap, for its efforts are those of a loosely confederated alliance facing a resourceful, elusive, worldwide enemy. Certainly, the cold-blooded underworld networks that funnel narcotics from suppliers all over the world are no respecters of the bureaucratic dividing lines that now complicate our anti-drug efforts.” On July 6, 1973, Nixon signed an executive order implementing Reorganization Plan No. 2 and establishing the DEA as the single federal agency to “consolidate and coordinate the government’s drug control activities.”

Probably more than any single event, the famous French Connection illustrated the vast scope of worldwide drug trafficking, and triggered the recognition that a coordinated, cooperative effort was needed to strike back. In 1972, a U.S. Army sergeant tipped off the BNDD about a group of French traffickers attempting to smuggle 240 pounds of heroin into the U.S. The ensuing investigation resulted in the arrests of five men in New York City, two in Paris, and the confiscation of $50 million worth of heroin. This set off a chain of events that included the elimination of six major Marseilles heroin labs and an increase in French drug arrests from 57 in 1970 to 3,016 in 1972. It was all made possible thanks to the cooperative efforts of U.S., Canadian, French, and Italian drug enforcement agencies.

The success of the French Connection case made it clear: combating drug trafficking was a world war, and it would take a unified front to fight it. The problem was that here at home in the U.S., none existed. The BNDD had primary responsibility for drug enforcement, but ODALE, ONNI, and the U.S. Customs Service also had roles. At a time when drug use and availability were growing at an alarming rate, the Nixon Administration and the U.S. Congress grew very concerned about a lack of cooperation between the agencies.

When Reorganization Plan No. 2 became effective, the structure was now in place for an organized counterattack against the world’s drug traffickers. A single administrator, DEA, was put in charge of federal drug enforcement. A coordinating link between the DEA and the FBI gave the DEA access to the FBI’s expertise in fighting organized crime. And state and local as well as foreign law enforcement agencies now had a single point of contact with which to coordinate joint operations. This happened at a good time. It was 1973, and as we all know now, the rise of the Columbian cocaine cartels was on the horizon.

It’s one thing to have a plan in place. It’s quite another to execute it successfully. A plan is useless without the right people to put it into action. The early DEA agents were not new to the job, many having come from DEA’s predecessor agencies. These were the guys on the streets doing “three buys and a bust.” Go undercover, make a contact and build a relationship…earn the guy’s trust. Make a drug deal, then another. On the third buy, you bust the guy and get him to talk. Then you go after his supplier and repeat the process.

These were also the guys who recognized that it wasn’t working. When you take out one street-level dealer, another one pops up in his place. The agents on the streets wanted to escalate the war and target the drug kingpins to bring down entire trafficking operations. As Larry McElynn put it, “We kept cutting off the toes, but we never cut off the head.” DEA was established to make some heads roll, and the game was on.

Think about that for a minute. Here were a bunch of people whose job was already thankless, grueling, and not exactly high paying…not to mention life threatening…and they wanted to make it harder. Unless you’ve been a cop or served in the military, it’s difficult to imagine doing—or wanting to do—the kind of work done by the men and women of DEA.

John C. (Jack) Lawn served as DEA administrator from 1985 through 1990. The former U.S. Marine and 15-year FBI veteran swore in every class of new agents that came through during his tenure as administrator. So he has a pretty good idea of the kind of person it takes to be a DEA agent.

As you might expect, the military services provide a good pool of candidates for DEA. “We would put notices in the Army Times and the Navy Times to attract officers preparing to leave military service,” said Lawn, which seems to make good sense, but the military personnel who come over to DEA are not always quite what you would expect. “We had a former Catholic chaplain from the 82nd Airborne Division who left his ministry to become a DEA agent.”

One thing that struck Lawn during his time with DEA was the number of new agents who would, after being sworn in, tell him that it was the happiest day of their life. “Of course, their wives would then give them an elbow to the rib,” joked Lawn, “but it really speaks to their commitment and dedication to service. In talking about the commitment of the men and women of DEA, it is truly unique.”

That level of commitment is evident in the willingness among DEA agents to uproot their personal lives and go to faraway places to do the job. “We’re in 87 countries, perhaps more, now,” Lawn said. “The people in those countries are all volunteers. DEA has operations currently in Afghanistan and a host of agents have volunteered for that service. This is at a time when less than one percent of families in the United States have a personal involvement (have a son or a daughter) who is serving in the military in Afghanistan. Yet, as soon as the vacancies were announced, DEA personnel, some of whom served in the Gulf War or the Iraq War, volunteered to go over again to have an impact. You talk about moving your family from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina to Kabul. That takes quite a bit of commitment on the part of an agent.”

The job also asks a lot of an agent’s family. “I will say that our spouses had to be very understanding, and they put up with a lot,” said former agent Chuck Gutensohn. “When you went to work in the morning, you didn’t know if you were coming home that night or if you were going to be on an airplane to New York following a suspect. I don’t know how many times I’d call and say, ‘I know we had plans tonight, but I’m not going to be there.’”

“When I was an executive manager I would tell the guys who worked for me that if your kids have something important like a first communion or a ball game, you be there. But don’t commit to coaching Little League or anything like that. It is, in effect, like being in the military.”

Sometimes it’s worse than that. Gutensohn tells of a colleague whose wife was killed by traffickers while stationed in Thailand. “He had three little kids. It was very difficult,” said Gutensohn. “I respect a great deal what the spouses go through every day. Yet you see the same kind of commitment—the same aggressive approach.”

That many of them have military backgrounds, and taking into account the dangers involved, one might be led to believe that a DEA agent is some kind of an adrenalin junkie with a death wish. Not true. Agents are all college degreed, and many come to DEA after successful careers in fields other than military service and then go on to successful careers in business after retiring from DEA. As a matter of fact, Jack Lawn was vice president and chief of operations for the New York Yankees following his time with DEA, and he wears a World Series ring as proof.

“When I was director of training, I also had recruiting,” said Gutensohn. “I would look at 15,000 qualified applicants a year. By qualified, I mean a four-year college degree, 3.0 grade point average, language skills, and usually either military or police background. Of the 15,000, we’d hire 400. We took the cream of the crop.”

Gutensohn used these words to succinctly describe a DEA agent: high-quality, smart, athletic and strong.

“These are Type-A personalities who want to be part of affecting change in our society. They come in underpaid, but totally committed to what we do,” said Lawn.

Accurate? Yes. Complete? No. Why? Because being in the presence of people like Larry McElynn, Jack Lawn, Chuck Gutensohn, and others whom you will meet in upcoming issues, is a unique experience. You don’t just observe, you feel their depth of character, their sense of focus, sense of self, and an aura of calm confidence and strength.

If you wonder how DEA agents can do the job they do, there’s your answer.

  1. I am a retired DEA Agent of 29 years and enjoyed my time in Hilton Head at the AFFNA Conference. Your article only begins to address the uniqness and committment of DEA Agents. A special breed of people to address one of the most difficut social problems of out times.

    — michael yanniello    Dec 3, 09:37 am   

  2. Although I was unable to attend the Hilton Head gathering, I have been active in AFFNA since my retirement in 1989 (following nearly 25 years with DEA and its’ predecessor agencies.)

    While I served in a different era, I still maintain a fierce pride in my participation and when I speak about today’s DEA personnel and their activities, I still say “we.”

    DEA has had its’ share of problems over the years but it is still (pound for pound) the best US federal law enforcement agency in existence.


    Dick Johnson

    — Dick Johnson    Dec 3, 10:56 am   

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