Tens of millions of Americans were outraged recently after news broke that the National Security Agency, under provisions of the Patriot Act, has been tracking their private electronic communications, all in the name of combating terrorism.
Now comes news that the Drug Enforcement Agency, which is charged with enforcing the nation’s drug laws, has also been intercepting Americans’ e-communications and building a “massive database” of phone records that it has been making available to authorities “across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations,” Reuters reported exclusively Aug. 5.
In addition, the DEA has also been “funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, [and] informants” to authorities investigating cases, though few of them involve national security issues.
In a review of cases, Reuters said they indicate that law enforcement officials “have also been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.”
‘Ordinary crime is entirely different’
More from Reuters:
The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.
The DEA’s outrageous actions are unprecedented, say legal scholars and former federal officials made familiar with Reuters‘ findings.
“I have never heard of anything like this at all,” said Nancy Gertner, who is currently a Harvard Law School professor who has also served as a federal judge.
She and other scholars and experts said that, actually, what the DEA has been doing is worse than the NSA’s blatant Fourth Amendment violations, because the NSA’s actions are purportedly aimed at stopping terrorists (at least, that’s the excuse). The DEA’s program targets domestic criminals, but if the agency is hiding evidence or simply not providing it, that’s a major problem.
“It is one thing to create special rules for national security,” Gertner said. “Ordinary crime is entirely different. It sounds like they are phonying up investigations.”
According to Reuters:
The unit of the DEA that distributes the information is called the Special Operations Division, or SOD. Two dozen partner agencies comprise the unit, including the FBI, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. It was created in 1994 to combat Latin American drug cartels and has grown from several dozen employees to several hundred.
And of course, no one at the ‘Justice Dept.’ wanted to talk
But these days, a lot of the SOD’s work is classified. In fact, SOD officials don’t even want the public to know where the division’s precise location in Virginia is.
What is clear, however, is the SOD’s sinister intent to keep its work shielded, unless or until the division wants it revealed.
“Remember that the utilization of SOD cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function,” says a document presented to agents. Reuters reports that the document directly requires agents to omit SOD’s involvement from investigative reports.
Not surprisingly, Reuters said no one from Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA, wanted to talk. But two senior DEA officials who were not named actually defended the unconstitutional program, saying efforts to “recreate” an investigative trail is not just legal but something that is done almost daily.
‘I was pissed’
A former federal agent in the northeastern United States who received such tips from SOD described the process. “You’d be told only, ‘Be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle.’ And so we’d alert the state police to find an excuse to stop that vehicle, and then have a drug dog search it,” the agent said.
Prosecutors who have learned about the DEA program and have had to deal with its secrecy were upset.
“I was pissed,” said one. “Lying about where the information came from is a bad start if you’re trying to comply with the law because it can lead to all kinds of problems with discovery and candor to the court.”
The DEA has long publicly touted the SOD’s role in multi-jurisdictional and international investigations, connecting agents in separate cities who may be unwittingly investigating the same target and making sure undercover agents don’t accidentally try to arrest each other.