The DEA is Using NSA Surveillance and Covering It Up

On August 5, Reuters revealed that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is storing wiretaps and other intelligence intercepts, some of which it obtains from the NSA, in a massive database called DICE. The agency then uses DICE to launch investigations against drug and arms smugglers.

Although the DEA obtains its records from a wide variety of sources, including legal, conventional warrants, the fact that it obtains information from various U.S. intelligence agencies raises red flags because of the NSA's unconstitutional wiretapping and internet surveillance techniques, which allows it to go through the records of hundreds of thousands of Americans in any one national security investigation. It seems that at least some unethical intelligence gathering is at play here, particularly because the DEA orders its agents to cover up how DICE investigations begin, subjecting the defendants to unjust trials.

The information originates from the DEA's Special Operations Division (SOD), comprised of 24 partner agencies, including the FBI, CIA, NSA, IRS, and the Department of Homeland Security. The SOD is a highly classified, secretive department. It started in 1994 with a few dozen employees and now employs several hundred, operating out of an undisclosed location in Virginia.

Reuters reports that about 10,000 non-DEA federal, state, and local law enforcement agents also have access to DICE’s records. The SOD will tip off conventional law enforcement officers regarding organized crime operations, oftentimes obtained from NSA intelligence. Officers will then stop the suspect on trivial grounds, like a minor traffic violation, allowing the state police to search the suspect for drugs or weapons.

This allows the DEA to establish probable cause under a process called "parallel construction." Under parallel construction, the DEA maintains that the investigation began with local or state law enforcement making a routine check on something as innocuous as a traffic infringement. The DEA will then establish this, rather than its DICE records, as the cause of the investigation in court, thereby concealing key evidence from the defense.

The SOD is so secretive about its use of national security intelligence that the DEA's policy is to actively backtrack and lie about how the case was initiated. The SOD blatantly tells DEA agents that the division's involvement in cases cannot be revealed, ordering them to cover up the source of its investigations and use conventional investigative methods to retroactively create the evidence obtained from the SOD.

Even legal experts who maintain that parallel construction is a legitimate, legal tool to establish probable cause warn that covering up the source of the investigation violates pretrial regulations. Concealing crucial evidence that could be beneficial to the defendants ultimately calls into question the constitutionality and impartiality of the trial. Nonetheless, two senior DEA officials assert that covering up and recreating an investigative trail is legal, confessing to using the method daily.

The SOD rarely has to worry about revealing its existence or methods in court as most defendants opt not to go to trial and plead guilty without requesting to see the evidence against them. If the defendant does go to trial, the SOD will often drop the case rather than risk exposing its unscrupulous methods.

The mantra of many national security state apologists is I have nothing to hide so I have nothing to fear. If the SOD's methods are truly legal, they have nothing to hide and should have no problem maintaining a minimum degree of transparency, in regards to both their questionable NSA sources and their tampering of defendants' due process.

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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