A Domestic Surveillance Scandal at the DEA? Agents Urged to Cover Up Use of NSA Intel in Drug Probes

August 06, 2013


John Shiffman

correspondent for Reuters, which published his exclusive story Monday: "U.S. Directs Agents to Cover Up Program Used to Investigate Americans."

Ethan Nadelmann

executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The U.S. Department of Justice has begun reviewing a controversial unit inside the Drug Enforcement Administration that uses secret domestic surveillance tactics — including intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency — to target Americans for drug offenses. According to a series of articles published by Reuters, agents are instructed to recreate the investigative trail in order to conceal the origins of the evidence, not only from defense lawyers, but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges. "We are talking about ordinary crime: drug dealing, organized crime, money laundering. We are not talking about national security crimes," says Reuters reporter John Shiffman. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says this is just the latest scandal at the DEA. "I hope it is a sort of wake-up call for people in Congress to say now is the time, finally, after 40 years, to say this agency really needs a close examination."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Justice Department has begun reviewing a controversial unit inside the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that uses secret domestic surveillance tactics, including intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency, to target Americans for drug offenses. According to a series of articles published by the Reuters news agency, agents are instructed to recreate the investigative trail in order to conceal the origins of the evidence—not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges. DEA training documents instruct agents to even make up alternative versions of how such investigations truly begin, a process known as "parallel construction."

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about the Reuters investigation.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: It’s my understanding, our understanding, that the Department of Justice is looking at some of the issues raised in the story. But for more, I would refer you to the Department of Justice.

AMY GOODMAN: The unit of the DEA that distributes the secret intelligence to agents 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. The unit was first created two decades ago, but it’s coming under increased scrutiny following the recent revelations about the NSA maintaining a database of all phone calls made in the United States. One former federal judge, Nancy Gertner, said the DEA program sounds more troubling than recent disclosures that the NSA has been collecting domestic phone records. She said, quote, "It is one thing to create special rules for national security. Ordinary crime is entirely different. It sounds like they are phonying up investigations."

For more, we’re joined by the reporter who broke this story, John Shiffman, correspondent for Reuters, which published his exclusive story Monday, "U.S. Tells Agents to Cover Up Use of Wiretap Program."

Welcome to Democracy Now!, John. Why don’t you start off by just laying it out and what exactly this cover-up is.

JOHN SHIFFMAN: Thanks very much for having me.

Well, my colleague Kristina Cooke and I spoke with about a dozen or two dozen agents and obtained some internal documents that showed that what federal agents, not just DEA agents but other agents who work with the DEA and do drug investigations—what they’re doing is, is they are starting—they are claiming that their investigations start, say, at step two. They are withholding step one from the investigations. And, I should say, it’s not just NSA intercepts. It’s informant information, information obtained from court-ordered wiretaps in one case, and using those for information in a second case. They also have a large database of phone records. Whenever the DEA subpoenas or does a search warrant and gets phone records for someone suspected of involvement in drugs or gang involvement, they put all those numbers into one giant database they call DICE, and they use that information to compare different cases. All of the collection is—seems perfectly legitimate, in terms of being court-ordered. What troubles some critics is the fact that they are hiding that information from drug defendants who face trial. The problem with that is that—is that these defendants won’t know about some potentially exculpatory information that may affect their case and their right to a fair trial.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain exactly how this information is being hidden from judges, prosecutors and sometimes defense attorneys, as well.

JOHN SHIFFMAN: Sure. Well, just to give an example, through any of these four different ways, including the NSA intercepts, the DEA’s Special Operations Division will send the information to a DEA agent in the field or a FBI agent or an ICE agent or state policeman, and they’ll give him the information. Then they’ll say, "Look, you know, we understand that there will be a truck going to a certain park in Texas at a certain time. It’s a red truck. It’ll be two people involved." And the state trooper or the DEA will find you reason to pull the truck over, say for a broken tail light or for speeding, that sort of thing. And, lo and behold, inside the trunk they’ll find, you know, a kilo of cocaine. The people who have been arrested will never know that—why the police or the DEA pulled them over. They’ll think it’s just luck. And that’s important because if those people try to go to trial, there are pieces of information about how that evidence was obtained and what it shows and what other pieces of it show—might affect their trial.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, I spoke with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald just after your story broke about how the DEA is using material gathered in part by the NSA in its surveillance of Americans. Glenn Greenwald has, of course, broken several major stories about the NSA’s domestic activity. This was his response.

GLENN GREENWALD: So this should be a huge scandal for the following reason. The essence of the Constitution is that the government cannot obtain evidence or information about you unless it has probable cause to believe that you’ve engaged in a crime and then goes to a court and gets a warrant. And only then is that evidence usable in a prosecution against you. What this secret agency is doing, according to Reuters, it is circumventing that process by gathering all kinds of information without any court supervision, without any oversight at all, using surveillance technologies and other forms of domestic spying. And then, when it gets this information that it believes it can be used in a criminal prosecution, it knows that that information can’t be used in a criminal prosecution because it’s been acquired outside of the legal and constitutional process, so they cover up how they really got it, and they pretend—they make it seem as though they really got it through legal and normal means, by then going back and retracing the investigation, once they already have it, and re-acquiring it so that it looks to defense counsel and even to judges and prosecutors like it really was done in the constitutionally permissible way. So they’re prosecuting people and putting people in prison for using evidence that they’ve acquired illegally, which they’re then covering up and lying about and deceiving courts into believing was actually acquired constitutionally. It’s a full-frontal assault on the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments and on the integrity of the judicial process, because they’re deceiving everyone involved in criminal prosecutions about how this information has been obtained.

AMY GOODMAN: John Shiffman, if you could elaborate on that and also talk about the differences between what the DEA is doing and what Glenn Greenwald exposed around the NSA?

JOHN SHIFFMAN: Sure. These are two very—I think they’re different topics, for one main reason, which is that the NSA revelations by Mr. Greenwald and Mr. Snowden are related to terrorism—or at least that’s what we’re told by the government. And the DEA, what the DEA is doing is only—very rarely do they get involved in terrorism. I mean, they do some narcoterrorism, but inside the United States we’re talking about ordinary crime. We’re talking about drug dealing, organized crime, money laundering. We’re not talking about national security crimes.

The one thing I would say is that the defense analysts I’ve spoken with, meaning defense attorney analysts, they emphasize less the probable cause aspect of it than they find—they don’t find that as troubling. What they find really troubling is the pretrial discovery aspects of this and a prosecutor’s, you know, obligation to turn over any exculpatory evidence. What they really have a problem with is that this program systematically excludes or appears to systematically exclude all evidence obtained, you know, that’s hidden from view, so the defense doesn’t know to request it. They find that a lot more troubling than the probable cause aspects of it. The Supreme Court has given a pretty wide pro-police interpretation of when probable cause can be obtained, and there are a variety of exceptions. But it’s really the pretrial discovery part of it that seems to trouble a lot of the former judges and defense attorneys and prosecutors.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the two slides Reuters obtained that were used to train agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency instructs them in the use of parallel construction. According to the slide, this is, quote, "the use of normal investigative techniques to recreate the information provided by the [Special Operations Division]," such as subpoenaed domestic telephone calls. A second slide instructs agents that such evidence, quote, "cannot be revealed or discussed." The slide is titled "Special Operations Division Rules." Describe what you uncovered about those rules and this concept of parallel construction, which until now had not been publicly discussed in writing.

JOHN SHIFFMAN: Well, what really surprised me was talking to agents, current and former agents, who said, "Sure, we do that." They—half of them said, "Yeah, you know, I could see how people might have a problem with that." The other half said, "You know, look, this is a hard job that we do, and we’re going after criminals and drug dealers." The people that got the most offended, I think, were the lawyers, the prosecutors and the—you know, and the judges and the former judges. One current prosecutor told me that he had a case where—in Florida, where a DEA agent came to him with a case and said that it began with an informant. So they were proceeding with the case, and the prosecutor asked the DEA agent more information. He said, you know, "I need to know more about your informant." Turns out, ultimately, that he found out that there was no informant. It was an NSA wiretap. And what—overseas. And that really upset the prosecutor, because he said that it really offended his sense of fair play and honesty. And he said, "It’s just a bad way of starting an investigation, if you’re going to start with a lie."

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Ethan Nadelmann into this discussion, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Ethan, why is—are the revelations by Reuters, John Shiffman’s investigation, so significant for your work?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I think what it plays into, Amy, is that there’s been this remarkable lack of oversight of DEA by Congress, by other federal oversight agencies, for decades now. I mean, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the DEA, which Nixon created as a merger of police agencies, of drug enforcement agencies, back during the—one of the earlier drug wars. And what you see is an organization with a budget of over $2 billion. You see an organization getting involved in all sorts of shenanigans, hiring informants who land up to be tied up with murderers, you know, locking up some poor drug—you know, I don’t think even drug dealer, drug—low-level offender, and forgetting about him in a prison cell in this case of Daniel Chong, who was left in a prison cell for five days and forgotten. But beyond that, you have the agency serving as a propaganda agency, with no—with none of its statements being compared or held to any sort of scientific standards. You have an administrator who testifies before Congress and is almost a laughing stock when it comes to talking about drugs. So I think that this report by Reuters and by John Shiffman—I hope it’s a sort of wake-up call for people in Congress to say, "Now is the time, finally, after really 40 years, to say this agency really needs a close examination."

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan, the Drug Enforcement Administration has agreed to pay $4.1 million in a settlement to a San Diego college student who nearly lost his life after being left handcuffed in his cell for more than four days without food or water. He ultimately drank his urine as he lay there, yelling out to agents right outside. His name was Daniel Chong. He was arrested for a 420 celebration of marijuana culture. He was never charged with any crime, and ultimately he was released.

ETHAN NADELMANN: You know, I think—I mean, that’s the case I was mentioning before. I mean, part of—you know, one can say, "Oh, this is just an accident, and accidents happen." But, of course, accidents like that should never happen when you’re talking about a police agency, much less a federal police agency, being allowed to just sort of forget about somebody. And in the end, what happens? The taxpayers bail out the DEA for almost killing somebody for no cause whatsoever. So, you know, each year the DEA goes through its own little, you know, appropriations hearings in Congress. Each year it gets approved. And each year they just sort of get a ride. I think these things are piling up in a way that can no longer be sustained—should no longer be sustained.

AMY GOODMAN: So what has been, John Shiffman, the response to your investigation by the DEA, by the NSA, by the FBI and others?

JOHN SHIFFMAN: Well, they say it’s perfectly legal, what they do. And they say that—one DEA official told us that, you know, "This is a bedrock principle, parallel construction. We use it every day." They’re pretty unabashed about it and said that—you know, that they’ve been doing this since the late '90s, and there's really nothing wrong with it. Yesterday the Justice Department said they are going to review it. But DEA has said, you know, there’s no problem with this.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people does this impact?

JOHN SHIFFMAN: Well, it would impact—I would think it would impact everyone, because, you know, it’s—we’re talking about a principle of law here. Not to get too legal, but, I mean, if you’re arrested, one of the fundamental rights that you have is to see the evidence against you. You know, when I was at the DEA and doing the interview, they cited the Ted Stevens case, which involved prosecutorial misconduct, which had—in which the senator’s charges were thrown out, because evidence was concealed. They said that after that there had been a review of all of the discovery procedures throughout the Justice Department, including at Special Operations Division. But they said that—and so I asked, I said, "Great, can I see a copy of the review?" And they said, "No."

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ethan Nadelmann, it’s all legal.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, you know, that’s what happens when any agency gets to just do what it wants to do for years and years and years without anybody looking over its shoulder. You know, I mean, Amy, this agency has also done things in the areas of medical marijuana, scientific research, the scheduling process of drugs, whereby they will go through an entirely legal process, through their own administrative law process hearings. It will have an internal judge, an administrative law judge, come down with recommendations that are scientifically based, that are credible, and then they will have the politically appointed head of this agency overrule those recommendations for no purpose whatsoever.

Once again, Congress is not asking any questions. It’s their job to look at the—I mean, obviously, it’s the Obama administration’s job, as well, and Eric Holder’s job, as well, but it’s ultimately Congress, as well, that has to care about these things. And I’m hoping that it’s not just Democrats in the Senate, but also Republicans in the House, who will say, "This agency has gone too far." Republicans have never been great friends of overextensions of federal police power, and I hope they can find some common cause with Democrats, saying, "Wait a second. Let’s call the DEA in here. Let’s look at what—you know, what John Shiffman has found with his investigative report. Let’s look at all these other patterns of abuse and misbehavior."

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, John Shiffman, for your reporting at Reuters, and Ethan Nadelmann. Thanks so much for joining us. We’ll link to the story at democracynow.org.


AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. When we come back, we’re going to Richmond, California, to speak with the mayor. Stay with us.

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