Leaked documents have revealed the existence of a Special Operations Division (SOD) within the Drug Enforcement Agency that receives and distributes tips gleaned by the NSA to arrange arrests, and then hides where that information came from.
"That's outrageous," Tampa attorney James Felman, a vice chairman of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association, told Reuters. "It strikes me as indefensible."
According to documents seen by Reuters, SOD was set up in 1994 to deal with drug cartels and organized trafficking of narcotics, and uses information provided by the NSA and other sources to inform agents of possible arrest possibilities.
A US federal agent who worked with the SOD squad told the news agency, "You'd be told only, ‘Be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle.' And so we'd alert the state police to find an excuse to stop that vehicle, and then have a drug dog search it."
But part of the deal for getting this data is that the DEA and others should cover up the information's source by setting up a fake investigation trail – a process known as "parallel construction". For example, the police could say the arrest was made during a routine traffic stop or on the word of an informant.
"It's just like laundering money – you work it backwards to make it clean," said Finn Selander, a DEA agent from 1991 to 2008.
One federal prosecutor told how he was dealing with a drug case in Florida when a DEA agent lied about the source of information that led to an arrest, saying it had come from an informant. When pressed, the agent admitted the data had come from SOD.
"I was pissed," the prosecutor said. "Lying about where the information came from is a bad start if you're trying to comply with the law because it can lead to all kinds of problems with discovery and candor to the court." He later dropped the case.
Law enforcement agents said that the practice was not uncommon in drug cases. Often a suspect will plead guilty and there's no need to examine evidence in court, but in some cases where the defendant has fought their corner, legal actions have been dropped rather than expose SOD to public scrutiny.
"It was an amazing tool," said one recently retired federal agent. "Our big fear was that it wouldn't stay secret."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the Department of Justice is "looking into" the report. ®