Trail of U.S. Criminal Investigations Altered to Cover up DEA Unit’s Role as Data Source
From a constitutional rights perspective, the latest revelation about the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is even more troubling than what’s been reported on National Security Agency (NSA) activities, according to legal experts.
An investigation by Reuters found a secretive DEA unit known as the Special Operations Division (SOD) has been helping state and local law enforcement with drug busts by providing information collected from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a “massive database of telephone records.”
That database, known as DICE, contains roughly a billion records and is accessed by about 10,000 law enforcement agents across the nation. SOD’s wiretap data usually comes from foreign governments, U.S. intelligence agencies or court-authorized domestic telephone surveillance.
But the disturbing part is the DEA requires police who receive the agency’s help to cover up the fact that they were given the tips—and not even tell defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges that their investigations began with the DEA.
Also, Reuters obtained DEA documents showing that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail in order to conceal the agency’s involvement in the arrests.
This tactic keeps a defendant from knowing how an investigation began, which opens the door to problems like entrapment and biased witnesses.
“I have never heard of anything like this at all,” Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011, told Reuters.
Gertner and other legal experts said the DEA program seems more disturbing than recent disclosures about the NSA collecting domestic phone records.
“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.”
Lawyers interviewed by Reuters described the operation as “alarming,” “outrageous,” “indefensible,” and “blatantly unconstitutional.” One former federal prosecutor called it “subterfuge,” adding, “If you don’t draw the line here, where do you draw it?”
When asked about SOD, two senior DEA officials defended the program, claiming the agency’s efforts to “recreate” investigations were both legal and performed almost daily. A former DEA agent, Finn Selander, compared the DEA’s work to money laundering –“you work it backwards to make it clean,” he told Reuters.
This cover-up element is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA.
Reuters’ investigation determined that SOD was created in 1994 for the purpose of combating Latin American drug cartels. Its original staff of several dozen employees has grown over the years to several hundred, and it now has the participation of two dozen partner agencies, including the NSA, CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, and IRS. Its work is classified and its exact location in Virginia is a closely held secret.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman
To Learn More:
U.S. Directs Agents to Cover Up Program Used to Investigate Americans (by John Shiffman and Kristina Cooke, Reuters)
U.S. to Review DEA Unit that Hides Use of Intel in Crime Cases (by John Shiffman and David Ingram, Reuters)
DEA Rejection of Freedom of Information Requests Doubles under Obama (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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