Chicago -- FEDERAL OFFICIALS say the indictments last week of three former Justice Department lawyers on charges of helping the Cali cocaine cartel reflect the high level of drug-related corruption in Colombia and the United States. Yet whether any former officials broke the law is not the only issue.
Equally troubling is that they are only a few of the many former federal prosecutors who defend or give legal advice to the suspected drug kingpins they once tried to send to prison.
In all, 62 people were indicted, including the three former officials and three other lawyers.
According to the indictments, the lawyers helped launder money, obstructed prosecutions and fabricated evidence. The government says this resulted in the murder of an informant and in the intimidation of witnesses.
One indicted lawyer, Michael Abbell, was chief of the Justice Department's division that dealt with international narcotics in the early 1980s.
Six months after leaving the government in 1984, he helped a reputed founder of the Cali cartel successfully fight extradition.
In 1988, he lobbied staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to create amendments that would have made it harder to extradite drug kingpins.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was justifiably upset, saying that Mr. Abbell was "providing expertise to major cocaine traffickers that he obtained while he was working for the U.S. Justice Department."
I agree. Mr. Abbell's attorney says his client is innocent; the courts will decide.
But Mr. Abbell has done something ethically indefensible. Battling drugs, a dangerous task, is fraught with corruption and temptation.
I saw how closely our agents worked with federal prosecutors during long conspiracy investigations. These assignments take cooperation and complete trust.
Drug Enforcement Agency agents fill the Justice Department in on every aspect of their investigations: their targets, informants, witnesses, contacts.
To use this knowledge later to defend people accused of drug trafficking puts every federal agent and police officer who ever worked on a narcotics case at risk.
How is it possible for lawyers who once fought the drug trade to join the other side? Is it the money? The life style?
Why would people put themselves in a position to betray the federal agents who lay their lives on the line every day while working under cover for the Justice Department?
Whatever the motives, we can do something about it. For starters, the Justice Department should prohibit its prosecutors from defending targets of federal investigations for at least four years after they leave government service.
This moratorium is necessary because many cases take several years to develop. It would be no more onerous than similar bans on federal employees who become lobbyists.
Lawyers for the drug cartels already deal from a position of strength. Washington has allowed the extradition treaty with Colombia to be so weakened that there is no hope of seeing the suspects in an American court.
The Colombian government has shown little interest in using evidence gathered by our agents, or even in bringing traffickers to trial.
The Cali cartel has turned many neighborhoods in the United States into war zones. It is responsible not only for dozens of deaths every day by overdoses and drug-related crime but also for thousands of cocaine-addicted babies born every year.
It is unthinkable that some of the men who once prosecuted international drug cases are now in the hire of the reputed cartel leaders.
Peter Bensinger was administrator of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration from 1976 to 1981.