Two former U.S. ambassadors and career diplomats wrote a super-interesting piece at Univision about how poorly Justice Department and Homeland Security Department operators—notably, DEA agents—fit within U.S. embassies overseas. They have a pronounced tendency to go rogue and defy ambassadors and presidents.
there are agencies that are historically good at recognizing and adhering to Chief of Mission authority. The State Department, USAID, Agriculture, Commerce, and CIA, generally color between the lines. Their career officers are bureaucratically and culturally raised within a foreign affairs milieu.
Then there are the other guys.
… Often, ambassadors witness them freelance out of a surfeit of exuberance, like the mission-driven Department of Defense. DoD types, however, have strict discipline ingrained in their culture, and when counseled as to the realities of a foreign, diplomatic “battlespace” compared to being in garrison or at war, most adapt well.
But there are also those who scoff at the notion of Chief of Mission authority and pursue their own agendas because, well, they have their own agendas which don’t necessarily include the President’s foreign policy. That would include the DEA, the Department of Justice, and certain elements of the multi-headed hydra that is the Department of Homeland Security.
Are the non-compliers disloyal; are they actively trying to sabotage the President and by extension, the Ambassador? We suggest not. But their actions are no less disruptive for being carried out by loyal and hard-working public servants.
The root of the problem lies in diametrically opposed bureaucratic cultures and operating environments. Most DEA agents have been US street cops. Most DoJ officials sent overseas have served as Assistant U.S. Attorneys, or are career DoJ staff – folks for whom judicial independence, the sanctity of an investigation, and the sacrosanct pursuit of a conviction in a US court trump all other considerations. This makes for an extremely bad fit when joining a diplomatic organization, where relationships and policy goals are measured in shades of frustrating gray, and where the ambassador is, by presidential order, the boss.
It will often appear that DEA, CBP, or similar oversight-challenged agencies are acting in an undisciplined or corrupt way overseas, or carry out activities that even seem to contradict U.S. policy. What was the deal, for instance, with the 2018 DEA sting operation that tried to ensnare demobilized FARC leaders when Colombia’s peace accord was in its early implementation phases? And let’s not forget DEA’s naked defiance of the U.S. ambassador and congressional oversight during en elite team’s 2012 operations that led to the killing of civilians in Honduras.
The analysis from the ex-ambassadors (John Feeley, Panama; James Nealon, Honduras) confirms that this is indeed happening, and is a problem.