Enforcement agencies boost cooperation on drug investigations

ICE's John Morton and DEA's Michele Leonhart announce interagency agreement. ICE's John Morton and DEA's Michele Leonhart announce interagency agreement. Barbara L. Salisbury/Landov
Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement leaders signed an interagency agreement on Thursday to increase the number of ICE agents authorized to conduct drug-related investigations and to improve intelligence and information sharing between the two agencies.

Under the agreement, the Homeland Security assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be able to select an unlimited number of ICE agents to investigate drug-trafficking cases, whether those agents are operating at the border or not, as long as the cases are tied to cross-border smuggling. In the past, DEA has limited such authorization to ICE agents stationed at the U.S. borders.

In addition, ICE agents for the first time will fully participate in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Fusion Center. The center allows participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including DEA and the FBI, to share information and analytical resources to enhance their overall investigative capacity.

DEA has principal responsibility for enforcing narcotics laws embodied in Title 21 of the U.S. Code. The agency cross-designates ICE agents to enforce those laws. Currently, DEA has cross-designated nearly 1,500 ICE agents to investigate drug crimes, but that number will expand under the agreement.

The arrangement will allow federal agents to "conduct more sweeping operations and connect the dots" linking drug crimes with smuggling organizations, said Michele Leonhart, acting DEA administrator. "I would say the biggest change is ICE joining the fusion center and agreeing to share information," she said.

The new setup will not affect DEA's relationships with other agencies such as the Border Patrol, which operates under a long-standing agreement to turn seized drugs over to DEA, something that has sometimes aggravated ICE officials. (ICE and the Border Patrol are part of the Homeland Security Department, while DEA is part of the Justice Department.)

But Leonhart said DEA is reviewing its existing agreements with other agencies, including the Border Patrol, and those relationships could change.

Turf battles have hampered drug enforcement efforts at the border for years. In March, the Government Accountability Office issued a report highly critical of both DEA and ICE. Jurisdictional disputes between the agencies and their failure to coordinate operations and share information have hampered drug investigations, jeopardized agents' lives in some cases, and even hurt relationships with foreign partners, GAO reported.

Escalating violence along the Southwest border spawned by Mexican drug cartel activity has given the issue greater urgency. This spring, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder began meeting regularly to improve coordination between their departments.

"Giving ICE agents the authority to investigate drug-trafficking cases, enhancing information sharing capabilities between ICE and the DEA, and ensuring full participation in intelligence centers will strengthen our efforts to combat international narcotics smuggling, streamline operations and bring better intelligence to our front line personnel," Holder and Napolitano said in a joint statement.

The interagency agreement signals "a new era of cooperation between ICE and DEA," said John Morton, ICE assistant secretary. At his confirmation hearing in March, Morton said one of his top priorities was resolving long-standing problems between ICE and DEA.

The agreement goes into effect immediately and will be reviewed in one year.

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