Delusions of the Drug Cops

Swordfish: A True Story of Ambition, Savagery, and Betrayal

by David McClintick
Pantheon, 606 pp., $25.00

The “war on drugs” of the 1980s was good for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 1981, the agency’s annual budget was not quite $200 million; by 1992, it had grown to more than $800 million. Having outgrown its longtime headquarters in a weatherbeaten office building in downtown Washington, the DEA in 1989 moved into a sleek tower in Arlington, Virginia, across from the Pentagon. By 1992 it had working for it 2,832 drug agents, 428 intelligence specialists, 421 investigators, 214 chemists, and 2,313 clerical workers. Across the country, DEA agents are staking out airports, patrolling highways, tapping phones, and prying into bank accounts. Abroad, the agency is active in fifty countries on five continents. It conducts paramilitary raids, spies on government officials, destroys crops, and gathers intelligence—missions every bit as secretive and sensitive as those of the CIA.

Yet despite its size and power, the DEA has largely escaped outside scrutiny. Unlike the CIA and the National Security Council, which were investigated in connection with the Irancontra affair and other scandals, the DEA came through the 1980s with its reputation largely unscathed. The national consensus about the evils of drugs, and of those who trafficked in them, provided the agency with a sort of protective shield. Newspaper reporters—who rely on DEA agents for information about drug operations—rarely looked beneath the agency’s surface, and even the best books on the drug trade, like Desperados, by Elaine Shannon, and Kings of Cocaine, by Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, had only good things to say about the organization.

By contrast Swordfish, by David McClintick, looks closely into a DEA undercover money-laundering operation, and the results are disturbing. Bitter personal feuds, fierce battles over bureaucratic turf, tensions among agents from different ethnic groups, corruption, laziness, and stunning incompetence—in McClintick’s account the DEA appears to be almost completely out of control. The agents in it seem to despise one another more than they do the narcos, and to spend as much time plotting against the FBI and IRS as they do against the traffickers. Agents are sent to the wrong address, financial documents are misplaced, money vanishes.

McClintick’s portrayal of the DEA seems all the more damning for the thoroughness of his research. A wellknown reporter whose last book, Indecent Exposure, uncovered scandals in Hollywood, McClintick spent ten years on Swordfish. The book, which is six hundred pages long, ends with a postscript on “Sources and Methods” which journalism schools might consider passing out to students. While working on the book, McClintick rented an apartment in Miami Beach, where, for months, he spent eighthour days with his chief source, a DEA informant named Robert Darias. During the money-laundering operation, Darias had secretly recorded hundreds of conversations with his handlers at the agency, as well as with the traffickers, and he and McClintick went over them sentence by sentence.

Darias would arrive at my building each morning, give an assumed name to the security …

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