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Inside the Shocking DEA Scandal -- Global Surveillance Tools Used to Help Arrest Americans for Small Crimes

"We are talking about ordinary crime" says the reporter who broke the story, not "national security crimes."
 
 
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The following content originally appeared on Democracy Now!

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."

The following is a transcript from a Democracy Now! interview. 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.