Agents say DEA is forcing them illegally to work in Afghanistan

As the Obama administration ramps up the Drug Enforcement Administration’s presence in Afghanistan, some special-agent pilots contend that they’re being illegally forced to go to a combat zone, while others who’ve volunteered say they’re not being properly equipped.

In interviews with McClatchy, more than a dozen DEA agents describe a badly managed system in which some pilots have been sent to Afghanistan under duress or as punishment for bucking their superiors.

Such complaints, so far mostly arising from the DEA’s Aviation Division, could complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to send dozens of additional DEA agents to Afghanistan as part of a civilian and military personnel “surge” that aims to stabilize the country.

Veteran DEA pilot Daniel Offield has alleged in an employment discrimination complaint he was told if he refuses to go to Afghanistan in July he’ll be demoted. The Stockton, Calif., agent asked for a reprieve because he was in the process of adopting two special needs children and offered to serve his required temporary duty in other countries.

Another agent, David Beavers, told McClatchy that he was ordered in July 2007 to prepare to go to Afghanistan in two weeks while he was on bereavement leave after his mother-in-law died. To avoid going, the Orlando, Fla., pilot decided to retire early.

Both men have flown for the DEA in Latin American countries wracked by drug violence, but they say service in a combat zone should be treated as voluntary because they’re not military personnel.

“You could say that the war on drugs is dangerous,” said Beavers, a DEA pilot for more than 20 years. “But it’s not quite like Afghanistan, where you can get your legs blown off by an (improvised explosive device).”

Agents said supervisors told them that working in dangerous countries is part of their job requirements, but Offield’s Sacramento-based lawyer said such compulsory duty violates a 2008 federal law that requires civilian personnel to serve voluntarily.

“The DEA is not only violating the law,” said attorney Richard Margarita, a former DEA agent and county prosecutor. “They could very well be sending Dan Offield to his death.”

The Obama administration has said it doesn’t expect problems with finding volunteers for Afghanistan missions, despite an ambitious strategy that calls for sending hundreds of additional civilian personnel. The plan already faces long odds in a country of resurgent Islamic militants, endemic corruption and widespread opium trafficking.

At least one other agency has faced similar complaints about compulsory duty.

Two years ago, the State Department told U.S. diplomats that they might be forced to serve in Iraq in the largest call-up since Vietnam. The announcement triggered an outcry, but the department eventually found enough volunteers to fill the jobs.

DEA officials with the Aviation Division referred questions about the Afghanistan assignments to agency headquarters. Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman who responded to written questions, said that agents aren’t being demoted, because even if they lose their pilot position, the salary is the same.

Courtney said pilots “are expected to support DEA’s global mission,” and that the Aviation Division “does not have the luxury” of allowing them to pick where they fly on temporary duty because many of the more than 100 pilots don’t have the experience to fly in Afghanistan.

He said if pilots don’t want to go, they have “the option to transfer back to an enforcement division and conduct domestic drug enforcement investigations.”

Courtney noted that DEA missions in Peru and Colombia “pose similar challenges” as Afghanistan because of the countries’ mountainous terrain.

More than a dozen agents told McClatchy that the experiences of the two pilots aren’t isolated and have continued over the past several years. The other agents asked to remain anonymous, saying they fear retaliation from the DEA.

“There are number of guys who say ‘I don’t want to go,’ but they suck it up and go,” one agent said. “What’s going to happen is somebody at some point is going to get killed.”

One official e-mail sent in 2007 demonstrates the pressure placed on agents to accept their assignments, warning agents that “it is not if, but when” that they’ll go to Afghanistan. The e-mail noted: “it is cold and miserable in the winter” in Afghanistan and added that pilots who volunteer might be able to choose what time of year they’ll go.

DEA agents said the decision to force some their peers to go to Afghanistan doesn’t appear related to a lack of qualified volunteers. One agent said he’d volunteered to go to Afghanistan and went through the required training. His superiors, however, denied his request without explanation. The agent said he knows plenty of others who are willing to go.

“With some people, if you want to go, they won’t send you,” the agent said. “They use Afghanistan as punishment for agents they don’t like.”

Offield, a 25-year DEA veteran who oversees marijuana eradication in California’s national forests, alleges in his complaint the agency’s decision to send him to Afghanistan is part of a larger pattern of harassment based on his age and sexual orientation. He responded to McClatchy’s questions through his attorney out of concern that he’d be punished for going outside the chain of command.

Offield, 47, alleges the harassment began soon after he told a colleague that he’s gay, although he said he’s generally chosen not to discuss his sexual orientation with his colleagues.

The retaliation, he said, became worse after he appeared on an MSNBC news program, where he told reporters that he didn’t think the DEA was winning the battle against California’s marijuana cultivators. Although he got clearance to appear on the show, Offield said his comments hardened the resolve of his superiors to punish him.

About a month later, he was told he was going to Afghanistan although he’d requested to go elsewhere.

Courtney said the DEA didn’t discriminate against Offield and said officials have offered to transfer him back to a street agent job that would allow him to work closer to his home.

He said Offield was punished – his government car was taken away for a week – but only because he didn’t respond to his supervisors’ e-mails. Margarita, however, said his client couldn’t respond immediately to a handful of e-mails because he was on duty and his inbox was full.

John Adler, the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said that each federal agency has its own set of policies for overseas duty ,and an agency’s ability to send an employee depends on the position description. FBI agents, for example, can be sent on compulsory duty, he said.

“We understand and accept that in national emergencies we have to go,” he said. “But an agency crosses the line when they target certain employees and they try to punish them by forcing into an undesirable assignment.”

Agents say the duty is made even more difficult because once they arrive in Afghanistan, they’re given inadequate equipment.

Pilots said they generally go on two-month tours and are given a machine gun, a semi-automatic pistol and bulletproof vest. Although pilots are required to file flight plans electronically, they aren’t given laptop computers.

Courtney said DEA pilots in Afghanistan can use computers in a common work area and that all agents are also given boots, flight suits, survival radios, helmets and other essential equipment.

However, after one agent asked in an August 2007 memo about getting additional equipment, including boots, for a two-month tour, then-Assistant Special Agent in Charge William F. Dionne dismissed the request, saying the agent would only get more equipment if he volunteered for a longer tour, agents familiar with the memo said. Dionne is now the acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s Aviation Division.

Yet when four supervisors, including Dionne, traveled on brief trip to Afghanistan in 2005, they spent more than $700 on boots and uniforms for themselves, according to DEA records.

On longer tours, agents complain that they’re not issued ammunition or magazines and are forced to borrow them from fellow agents. Ballistic vests aren’t fitted for specific agents. Rifles are issued without laser sights and optics like the military has, and personal locator beacons and GPS systems are hard to come by. Some agents said they end up buying thousands of dollars of equipment themselves.

“The DEA does not have enough resources or equipment to get the job done in Afghanistan,” one agent said.

The allegations come after McClatchy reported earlier this year on several other management problems within the aviation division. William Brown, the former special agent in charge of the division, stepped down soon after McClatchy revealed that he’d chartered a private plane for the DEA’s acting administrator at a cost of $123,000 and had invested in untested planes that agents feared were unsafe.

A permanent replacement for Brown hasn’t been named, but DEA agents said that current supervisors continue the practice of forcing some unwilling agents to go to Afghanistan.

By Marisa Taylor