DEA Exec Intervened to Reinstate Security Clearance of Agent Involved in Sex Scandal

DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart, shown testifying on Capitol Hill in 2013, failed to stop a subordinate from intervening to reinstate an agent's clearance. DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart, shown testifying on Capitol Hill in 2013, failed to stop a subordinate from intervening to reinstate an agent's clearance. AP file photo

The Drug Enforcement Agency needs to tighten up its disciplinary procedures, the agency’s watchdog said, after it found that DEA leaders inappropriately reinstated the suspended security clearance of a special agent involved in serious security violations and sexual misconduct.

Former DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart and former DEA Acting Chief Inspector Herman “Chuck” Whaley in 2015 restored the clearance of Special Agent Grant Stentsen despite an alarming investigation beginning in 2013 by the DEA Office of Professional Responsibility. The special agent had admitted to having an extramarital affair with a convicted criminal, to whom he gave after-hours access to a DEA office, including a drug evidence room. He also allowed her to listen to recorded telephone calls of individuals targeted in DEA investigations; and had sex with her in the office and his government vehicle, according to the report released Thursday by  Justice Department Office of Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

The Office of Professional Responsibility failed to advise the agency’s Office of Security Programs, which determines security clearance eligibility, of the agent’s behavior. Instead, the security office learned of the activity during a routine periodic re-investigation of the agent’s security clearance, the IG found. “After assessing the special agent’s conduct in accordance with the applicable security adjudication guidelines, on March 24, 2015, the DEA security programs manager suspended the special agent’s clearance, rendering him ineligible for access to classified and other sensitive information.”

However, within three days—and a day after the Justice Department released staff guidance on sexual harassment—DEA Acting Chief Inspector Whaley instructed the security office to reinstate Stentsen, who was later fired. Whaley said “he did not believe that the special agent’s misconduct raised national security issues because it did not involve a lack of candor, foreign nationals, or a foreign country,” the IG wrote. “However, Whaley had never received training on the application of the security clearance guidelines, he did not determine the full basis of the [security programs manager's] suspension decision before overruling it, and he did not have the authority to adjudicate a security clearance or to overrule a security clearance adjudication.”

Agency head Leonhart “did not directly intervene to reinstate the security clearance, neither did she object when Whaley told her that he opposed the suspension of the special agent’s security clearance and intended to intervene to resolve the matter in a different manner,” the IG wrote. “We concluded that because Leonhart acquiesced in Whaley’s flawed decision to intervene in the security clearance process, she shared responsibility for it.”

Both Leonhart and Whaley had been engaged in discussions and recommendations in the months before the OIG released the 2015 report on handling of agency sexual misconduct. Leonhart was later called to a congressional hearing on the handling of security clearances at DEA, in which she said she was not designated by agency policies and procedures to suspend or revoke a security clearance, and that it would violate civil service laws for her to have intervened. “I don't recommend the sanction,” she told Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I can't fire. I can't recommend a penalty. There’s a guide that the deciding officials abide by, and they have a penalty guide that they look at, and the penalty guide for this kind of activity is anything from reprimand to removal.”

In the new report, the IG concluded that Leonhart’s testimony to Congress “was not untruthful.”  The IG said DEA and DOJ policies were unclear regarding the delegation of authority with respect to security clearance adjudications.

The watchdog made two recommendations in the report, and made related ones in a Sept. 6 memorandum to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. One is for DEA to specify that the Office of Security Programs will have the final say about whether employee misconduct merits revoking an employee’s security clearance. The other was that Justice specify that “for the purpose of security adjudications, [security program managers] report solely to the Department Security Officer, and not to other senior officials, who may have appropriate input in but not overrule the component SPM.”

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