Whether it’s a government secret or outright cover-up, a secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to provide solid evidence launching criminal investigations against American citizens.
Rarely do these cases involve national security, as investigated by Reuters show. Documents uncovered provide proof that law enforcement agents, under orders, have concealed how investigations begin.
That means hiding those facts from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.
Documents are merely recreated by federal agents which some experts feel violate a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial.
The DEA unit assigned to distribute the information is called the Special Operations Division. SOD and two dozen other partnered agencies comprise the unit. This includes the FBI, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. Its origination dates back to 1994 and the urgency to fight to Central American drug cartels.
The entire operation has grown from several dozen employees over the years to an estimated several hundred.
But two senior DEA officials defended the program and said trying to “recreate” an investigative trail is not only legal but a technique that is used almost daily.
Their methods standard have agents pretending their “investigation” began with something as minor as a traffic stop, not with the SOD tip. The training document reviewed by Reuters refers to this process as “parallel construction.”
Reuters confirmed this practice of parallel construction was used by dozens of agents they interviewed for their story.
As Finn Selander, a DEA agent from 1991 to 2008, and now a member of a group called Law Enforcement against Prohibition said, “It’s just like laundering money, you work it backwards to make it clean.”
There are some attorneys that claim it is cause for legitimate reasons not to reveal its sources. Robert Spelke, a former prosecutor who spent seven years as a senior DEA lawyer, said some sources are classified. He said, “It’s a balancing act, and they’ve doing it this way for years. Do I think it’s a good way to do it? No, because now that I’m a defense lawyer, I see how difficult it is to challenge.”
The SOD’s primary role of providing information to agents isn’t a secret at all. In fact, it is briefly mentioned by the DEA in budget documents, but without any reference to how that information is used or represented when cases go to court.
And there is the dig.
The DEA long insisted that SOD’s primary role within mufti-jurisdictional and international investigations was bringing agents in separate cities together so they would not accidentally try to arrest each other.
SOD’s mandate has expanded over the years to include narco-terrorism, organized crime and gangs.
Today, SOD offers at least three services to federal, state and local law enforcement agents. That would include coordinating international investigations, distributing tips from overseas NSA intercepts, informants, foreign law enforcement partners and domestic wiretaps.
“We use it to connect the dots,” one official said.
Wiretap tips forwarded by the SOD usually come from foreign governments, U.S. intelligence agencies or court-authorized domestic phone recordings. Because warrant-less eavesdropping on Americans is illegal, tips from intelligence agencies are generally not forwarded to the SOD until a caller’s citizenship can be verified, according to one senior law enforcement official and one former U.S. military intelligence analyst.
SOD tips aren’t always helpful. The estimated accuracy is estimated at 60 percent.
DEA officials said that the SOD process has been reviewed internally. They declined to provide Reuters with a copy of their most recent review.
However it’s described, that’s a whole lot more information than the president can provide to Jay Leno.
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