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Obama lacks key leaders in drug cartel crackdown

world Updated: Jun 06, 2009 12:18 IST

AP
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The Obama administration has unveiled a broad new strategy to fight violent Mexican drug cartels on the border. It only lacks the presidential choices to run the top US agencies battling drugs, border smuggling and illegal guns.

The White House has yet to nominate anyone to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the Customs and Border Protection agency, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Those positions remain empty -- their duties performed by career officials acting in a temporary capacity -- even as the White House pledges an all-out attack on the drug cartels that threaten to destabilise Mexico and expand operations in the United States.

In any new administration, most government agencies go for a few weeks or months without a presidentially selected leader. What's different at DEA, CBP and ATF is the priority the Obama administration has put on cracking down on the cartels. And, still, there are no nominees to lead that crackdown.

To past chiefs of those agencies, the lack of leadership is worrisome.

Asa Hutchinson, who at different points led the DEA and border security efforts under the previous Republican administration, said the DEA must be the centerpiece of any push to take on the cartels. "Just as you would not want to go without a high-level Defense Department official during a time of war, you would not want to go without the lead DEA official being confirmed for the fight we have with the cartels," said Hutchinson.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the administration has confidence "in the professional staff who will implement the plan ... but we are also moving quickly to put leadership in place to ensure that it will succeed."

More than 10,800 people have been killed in Mexico by drug violence since December 2006. Mexico has deployed more than 45,000 soldiers across the country to fight the heavily armed cartels. The Obama administration on Friday laid out a long-term strategy for fighting the drug trade, centered around new, undeveloped technology and beefed-up inspections along the border. The dense strategy document drafted for Congress calls for building visual shields near border-crossing to stymie spotters, improving non-lethal technology to stop suspects, and using more intelligence analysts.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the plan also calls for a renewed focus on reducing the demand for drugs within the United States.

Asked about the present lack of permanent leadership in three key federal agencies, she said it won't hinder the anti-cartel effort because the acting leaders of all three agencies are career professionals "highly expert" in their fields.

For the ATF, the situation predates the Obama administration. The agency has not had a presidentially nominated, congressionally approved leader since 2006.

At the direction of Justice Department officials, the ATF has shifted more agents and resources to the Southwest border, but Democrats in Congress have been pressing the agency to do more to investigate and arrest gunrunners and illegal gun sellers.

Bradley Buckles, former head of the ATF under presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, said that running the agency without a confirmed leader "is a very difficult process." He said many of the agency's programs have been in place for a long time and don't need a director to oversee them, but that's not true when it comes to trying to reach bigger goals or launch new initiatives, he said.

"You can't do proper strategic planning and strategic thinking. It's very difficult to move the agency ahead on a broad front because you are reduced to just taking care of day to day activities," said Buckles, who added he hoped the administration will "get someone as a full-time director there as soon as they can."

Michael Braun, a former DEA official, said the lack of confirmed leaders also weakens the agencies in dealing with foreign countries, as well as other parts of the US government, who think the agency's temporary leadership does not speak with the full support of the White House.

"When you have a presidentially appointed administrator in place, with that position comes the power," said Braun. He argued the absence of that leadership may hurt the agency not just in Mexico but in Afghanistan, where it is ramping up efforts to cut down on the drug production that often funds the Taliban and terrorists.

"So much of it has to do with perception, but with what's going on around the world right now, perception is critically important," said Braun.