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An LEN interview with
Thomas A. Constantine
Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration

By Marie Simonetti Rosen

Back in April 1987 one of Tom Constantine’s concerns was the increasing popularity of cocaine and the growing encroachment of Medellin “cocaine cowboys” in the State of New York. Constantine, then the Superintendent of the New York State Police, had good reason to be worried. Just a year and a half earlier, the largest drug manufacturing lab in North America had been discovered in one of the state’s most rural counties.

Now fast-forward one decade. Drug enforcement is no longer one of his responsibilities it is his primary responsibility. Appointed by President Clinton in March 1994 to head the Drug Enforcement Administration, Constantine became one of a relative handful who have gone from leading a state or local law enforcement agency to running a Federal one.

One of the biggest changes he had to face was the politics of the “Beltway.” Constantine says he has always believed that law enforcement officials and their agencies should be apolitical  a stance difficult to maintain on the Federal level. But now, he says, “It’s much more complex in a city where the legislative body is equally as powerful as the executive body.” The perspective is also different. In Washington, he observes, the focus is usually on the international side of things rather than on domestic problems. “If there was one thing I brought to the agency,” he says of the DEA, “it was a concern for the victims in communities in the United States.”

But that’s not all he brought to the nation’s top drug-fighting agency. He decentralized decision-making authority and streamlined headquarters operations to allow more special agents to be placed in the field. He implemented polygraphs and psychological testing for recruits. Background investigations are handled in-house rather than being contracted out. He created the Office of Professional Responsibility  an internal-affairs unit  and made assignment to that unit part of the standard career path. His background is clearly in evidence in the emphasis he puts on providing communities with drug enforcement assistance. Whenever the DEA gets extra resources, he says, he tries to deploy them in ways that assist local law enforcement.

Constantine believes that a heightened sense of cooperation now exists among the grab-bag of Federal agencies that have a hand in drug enforcement. He authorized anti-narcotics authority for 1,000 Customs inspectors, and the DEA and FBI now have joint investigative efforts at the Southwest border and in the Caribbean. This kind of cooperation among once- competitive entities is not without a personal touch. Constantine is one of a triumvirate that includes FBI Director Louis Freeh and Raymond Kelly, the Treasury Undersecretary for Enforcement). The three go way back, having forged working relationships while in New York (Constantine with the State Police, Kelly with the New York City Police Department and Freeh as an FBI agent, Federal prosecutor and District Court Judge) and it is this relationship that has helped to keep turf wars in check.

Constantine, who hold a master’s degree from the State University of New York at Albany, began his law enforcement career in 1960 as a deputy with the Erie County Sheriff’s Department. Two years later he entered the New York State Police as a uniformed trooper and served in just about every rank of the organization on his way to becoming its Superintendent in 1986  the first in 30 years to rise through the ranks. It’s the kind of career-building that can’t help but steel an individual for the crucible of Federal law enforcement.

LAW ENFORCEMENT NEWS: The war on drugs has been called America’s longest war. From the DEA’s point of view, what’s the status of the conflict?

CONSTANTINE: I’ve always been uncomfortable with the metaphor “war on,” and I’ll tell you why. If a nation commits itself to war, that means the entire nation commits to winning and surviving the war. As a young boy growing up in World War II, what I saw were, one, enormous sacrifices in the fight for freedom, both in the cost of human life, usually young military people killed in the line of duty; and also people in the United States who were willing to forego a number of personal pleasures and comforts so that in many ways this thing could continue in a kind of unified commitment. People in the country who would speak out or enter into any type of relationship with what was then seen as the enemy would be considered treasonous. If you take all of those examples, it certainly would not apply to the strategies that exist with respect to doing something about the narcotics problem in the United States, both in the relationship to sacrifice and the relationship to unification, and in many ways speaking out in one voice. So for that reason I always thought that the war metaphor was inappropriate.

LEN: Some would say that America has a kind of economic dependency on drug money. Localities are dependent on it; banks sometimes have become been dependent on it, police agencies, in their way, have become dependent on it….

CONSTANTINE: There really is not a dependency on that money. In fact, if you could eliminate drug use in this country, which would be utopia, the amount of money that you would save in health-care costs, in hospital emergency admissions, in domestic violence, in tragic accidents would be  well, I’ve seen figures up in the area of $60 billion a year. I don’t know who puts those price tags on them, but I know it would be substantial, so I don’t think this country is dependent on it. Rather, I think this country suffers a great deal from drug use and drug trafficking.

LEN: In the 1996 election, two states, California and Arizona, voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana. How do you feel about such legislation, and what impact has it had, if any?

CONSTANTINE: I think the biggest impact it has had on society, and I guess my concern about it, is that it gives a rationalization for the use of marijuana  which, as more and more medical studies are coming in, is a significant problem for people, both in the use of the drug itself and their lifestyle under its influence. A leaning to marijuana is now medically determined to be a gateway drug to other drugs. When you have a teen-age population, which increasingly since 1992 has perceived less of a risk in the use of drugs generally, and marijuana specifically, the message that was sent was that this is not a drug, this is a medicine that has great properties for people who are sick. That then takes away some of the concerns. I always thought that the biggest damage was not the pragmatic  who was going to use marijuana now that this law is in place  but who will be induced, or seduced, into using marijuana in the future because society sent a mixed message. So for that reason I thought both of those pieces of legislation were a major mistake for society at large, but more specifically, for young people in both California and in Arizona.

LEN: The United States annually certifies foreign nations for their cooperation in anti-drug efforts, and over the years there has always been a bit of politics that enters into considerations as to whether the State Department gives a country the OK. Do you think that this kind of a policy is effective, given that its so often mingled with political considerations?

CONSTANTINE: Well, as you know, we don’t make the decision on the certification or the decertification. What we do is we provide information to the policy-makers as to what the law enforcement institutions are in that country and how responsive they are. This whole criteria for whether you’re effective or not, by the way, is built on a 1988 United Nations treaty. So the standard is not unreasonable, and I think, properly used, in the instances I’ve seen, the certification process was extremely effective. Colombia is the primary example. Up until the point that the certification/decertification issue became critical in our dealings with Colombia, there was virtually no positive initiative made against the group from Cali, Colombia, which was the dominant organized-crime group. Within months after the decertification decision was made, honest policemen, placed there by the government, were able to be very effective. I don’t think that would have worked absent some kind of strategy of certification and decertification. It’s not that it’s necessarily a negative, it’s just that we say as the country, “Look, if you’re going to have organized criminals in your nation who are going to direct massive criminal activity in the United States, unless you cooperate fully, you will not be one of our closest friends”  which is not an unreasonable feeling. And I think that’s pretty much what the taxpayers and citizens wanted when that certification process was put in place.

LEN: Over the years law enforcement agencies around the country have experienced problems with drug-related corruption among their officers. Given the nature of a DEA agent’s job, what internal policies do you have in place that are aimed at preventing and investigating drug corruption?

CONSTANTINE: It’s a major concern for any police organization, and I think it becomes exacerbated when your whole law enforcement commitment is in a proactive fashion. You’re like the world’s organized-crime control bureau. I could tell you what I put in place since I’ve been here. We did not have polygraphs or psychological testing for entry previously. We implemented those. We didn’t do our own background investigation; they were done by a contract service. We put that in. There was no Office of Professional Responsibility, a central receiving point for complaints. That’s the IAD of  our agency. We had to put all of those things in place. We made assignment to the OPR something that our best and our brightest would go through, and we established very rigorous reporting standards. Now, obviously, I think, when you have human beings in a system where there’s so much money in play, from time to time weak people are going to fall. The secret is to find them out and to make sure it does not become a systemic problem amongst a major number of individuals, with the supervisors either not taking a role of accountability and responsibility, or maybe getting involved in the criminal wrongdoing. That’s about the best you can do as a chief executive in that you have 7,500 employees in 50 countries in 50 states. You can’t watch everything every day. You have to rely on the fact that these people are honest, they’re committed, they want to do the right thing. Then what you do is you take care of whoever gets involved in a deviant activity in a very strong fashion.

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Excerpted from Law Enforcement News
Oct 10, 1997. 
© 1997, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]