- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) needs to better use its fleet of more than 90 airplanes and helicopters, 100 pilots and $47.6 million aviation budget to ensure that priority cases within the agency receive the support they need, a Justice Department audit said Wednesday.

But the DEA, in its response, described the audit as “excessive,” considering budget constraints in the “current environment of budgetary uncertainty.” The DEA said the inspector’s general’s office lacked an understanding of how aviation resources are properly used in law enforcement operations.

Acting Inspector General Cynthia A. Schnedar said the audit concluded that during fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010, the DEA categorized 20 percent of its investigations as priority cases and received over 60 percent of the agency’s aviation support during that time frame.

But, Ms. Schnedar said, the DEA was “at risk” of not always using its aviation resources to support its highest-priority operations because of a request-and-approval process that gives pilots the discretion to approve or deny requests and the lack of a prioritization process for assigning resources. She said in two of the five DEA field locations visited, non-priority target operations received more aviation support than priority operations.

Ms. Schnedar said the audit found the DEA was unable to fulfill many of the requests for aviation support because the necessary aircraft, pilots or observers were unavailable.

The audit also identified DEA practices Ms. Schnedar said could jeopardize the safety and security of agency aviation personnel and assets. She said DEA aircraft, for example, are maintained and operated in covert locations across the U.S. but are stored in hangar spaces shared with commercial organizations or private persons.

Ms. Schnedar said while DEA said its pilots perform a thorough preflight procedure that incorporates a risk assessment, the agency does not require them to document the assessment and, as a result, the DEA has no way to ensure assessments are being conducted consistently and on a regular basis.

Kevin M. Foley, deputy chief inspector at the DEA’s Office of lnspections, said the audit did not identify any fraud, waste or abuse, nor did it find any deficiencies in the DEA’s internal controls significant enough to affect the agency’s ability to effectively and efficiently operate the aviation program.

Mr. Foley said the audit also showed a “lack of understanding of drug law enforcement operations and the benefit that aviation support provides. He said rather than striving to ensure that DEA aviation resources are used to support “the highest priority enforcement operations” as suggested by the audit, the program seeks to provide support to cases that have “the greatest need.”

The DEA disagreed with eight of 11 recommendations made in the audit to assist the agency in the management of its aviation operations.

The DEA fleet includes 92 single and multi-engine propeller airplanes, multi-engine jet aircraft and single and multi-engine helicopters - which operate in the U.S., Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.

The agency’s 108 pilots logged more than 24,000 flights and 63,000 flight hours - 50,000 of which, about 80 percent, were in support of DEA operational activities.