DEA's Special Operations Division in Media Crosshairs

I'm delighted to see the media get on the case of the DEA Special Operations division.

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 help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.

Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin - not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.


The Special Operations Division is hardly a secret. I've been writing about it for years, highly critical of the information sharing, the amount of funding they receive, and the blurring of the lines between national intelligence and crime-fighting. For example, in breaking down the 2011 budget for the War on Drugs, there was this provision:

Transfer from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI): $300,000 to support an ODNI initiative to improve infrastructure that supports information sharing within the Intelligence Community. There are no current services for this initiative. Additional details are classified.

I commented:

Classified...undoubtedly more electronic surveillance. And more end runs around the 4th Amendment where the intelligence agencies get leads under FISA without a probable cause showing of criminal activity and pass the info on to DEA who uses it to make a criminal case.

So if SOD, its offices in Chantilly, VA and information sharing are hardly a secret, what's new in the article? The use of "parallel construction" and the admission by former DEA agents to Reuters that DEA hides the true origin of investigations from prosecutors, which means prosecutors can't turn it over to the defense.

Reuters today:

A former federal agent in the northeastern United States who received such tips from SOD described the process. "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," the agent said.

After an arrest was made, agents then pretended that their investigation began with the traffic stop, not with the SOD tip, the former agent said. The training document reviewed by Reuters refers to this process as "parallel construction."

Reuters reports agents say they aren't worried about SOD's involvement becoming exposed:

As a practical matter, law enforcement agents said they usually don't worry that SOD's involvement will be exposed in court. That's because most drug-trafficking defendants plead guilty before trial and therefore never request to see the evidence against them. If cases did go to trial, current and former agents said, charges were sometimes dropped to avoid the risk of exposing SOD involvement.

That's ridiculous. Of course, Defendants get discovery before deciding to plead guilty. What lawyer would advise a client to plead guilty without first seeing the evidence, particularly in a wiretap case? In federal cases, discovery is mandated shortly after Indictment. There may be some defendants who agree to cooperate and plead upon arrest, or pre-indictment, without seeing the evidence, but the vast majority of defense lawyers don't plead people guilty without reviewing the discovery, including applications, affidavits and orders for wiretaps, and investigative reports, lab reports, surveillance reports, etc.

Is DEA telling Reuters that DEA hides the true origin of the investigation from prosecutors and omit it from their affidavits for electronic surveillance?

If prosecutors don't know about it, they can't turn it over to defense lawyers. If the affidavits for wiretaps and investigative reports make no mention of the real origin of the investigation, that means what the defense gets is a lie, and lawyers are advising people to plead guilty based on false information.

Affidavits are filed under oath. If an agent says in a sworn affidavit that the investigation began with a routine traffic stop when in reality, the DEA asked a local law enforcement agent to make the stop based upon information obtained from NSA intercepts, the affidavit is a lie. It means the prosecutors relied on the false affidavit to request authorization from DOJ for the wiretap. It means the federal judge who then received the application for the wiretap from prosecutors and issued the wiretap order based on probable cause from the affidavit, was lied to.

That is indeed inexcusable.

As many who have been writing about the Special Operations Division for years point out, SOD and its location in Chantilly Virginia are hardly a secret. Here's a news interview of SOD Chief Derek Maltz, taken inside the SOD "war room" on the day of a big bust:

More on the SOD:

  • The New Yorker on SOD and Monzer al-Kassar.
  • White House: 2011 Strategy to Combat Transnational Crime
    Established in 1994, the Special Operations Division (SOD) is a DEA-led multi-agency operations coordination center with participation from Federal law enforcement agencies, the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, and international law enforcement partners.

    SODís mission is to establish strategies and operations to dismantle national and international trafficking organizations by attacking their command and control communications. Special emphasis is placed on those major drug trafficking and narco-terrorism organizations that operate across jurisdictional boundaries on a regional, national, and international level.

    SOD provides foreign and domestic-based law enforcement agents with timely investigative information that enables them to fully exploit Federal law enforcementís investigative authority under Title III of the U.S. Code. SOD coordinates overlapping investigations, ensuring that tactical and operational intelligence is shared among law enforcement agencies.

  • Outrageous amounts to informants. Carlos Sagustume, who worked the Viktor Bout and Monzer al-Kassar case, testified in the Bout trial:
    Carlos Sagastume. Sagastume is a one-time Guatemalan military member who turned to drug trafficking, then to undercover work for US agencies. He revealed he had taken part in 150 US operations and been paid lavishly, including $7 million for a single previous case. So far, for his work with Bout, he had received $250,000 from the Drug Enforcement Administration, he said. Dayan suggested he was in for much more if Bout was found guilty. “You have a financial stake in the outcome,” Dayan said. “I hope they will pay, but whether they pay, I do not know,” Sagastume said.
  • U.S. to Expand Drug War Along Northern Border. Here's the full strategy, outlining the information sharing among intelligence and law enforcement and DEA
  • 2012 State Department, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report on the DEA
  • Breakdown of 2011 Budget:
    Intelligence Sharing: $4.9 million for additional storage and processing capabilities for the Special Operations Division (SOD) Speedway Program and infrastructure upgrades that will help DEA to better share information with the Intelligence Community. DEA’s Speedway program provides intelligence on the communications of major national and international drug trafficking organizations. The requested enhancement to Speedway, which funds additional servers, processing capability, and storage infrastructure, will allow DEA to exploit more intelligence data than it currently can. FY 2011 current services for this initiative are 13 positions and $31 million.
  • 2007 Inspector General Report:
    The DEA’s SOD is integral in the coordination of major DEA cases. According to DEA executive management, the most effective means of ascertaining the breadth of a drug trafficking operation is to track the communication between the parties involved. The SOD is a repository for phone numbers used or called by persons who are part of a DEA investigation. The SOD uses a database to collect these phone numbers and can connect cases with hits on the same phone numbers.51 This allows the DEA to link cases investigated by different offices across the country and throughout the world. Routinely, the SOD will host coordination meetings on a case, either at its facility in Chantilly, Virginia, or other domestic and international locations.

The SOD is still headed up by Derek Maltz. Maltz, you may recall, was the DEA agent back in 1988 who first busted Daood Gilani, aka David Coleman Headley, for 2 kilos of heroin in Frankfurt. Headley, then a heroin addict, began working for the DEA two days after his arrest. Now serving a 30 year sentence for his role in the Mumbai bombings, it's never been exactly clear how the DEA missed his turnabout from informant to terrorist.

Some of SOD's cases involve Americans. A recent example is Project Synergy:

The SOD also recently coordinated Project Synergy, a crackdown against manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of synthetic designer drugs that spanned 35 states and resulted in 227 arrests.

Here is the DEA's press release on Project Synergy.

Project Synergy was coordinated by DEA’s Special Operations Division, working with the DEA Office of Diversion Control, and included cases led by DEA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), FBI, and IRS. In addition, law enforcement in Australia, Barbados, Panama, and Canada participated, as well as countless state and local law enforcement members.

Operation Xcellerator was another SOD operation. A good primer on how it worked is here.

And, of course, there are the DEA's Most Excellent African Adventures cases I've written about continuously, which were part of Operation Relentless.

The Reuters article also talks about the "Dice Database" which is accessible to 10,000 law enforcement agents:

Today, the SOD offers at least three services to federal, state and local law enforcement agents: coordinating international investigations such as the Bout case; distributing tips from overseas NSA intercepts, informants, foreign law enforcement partners and domestic wiretaps; and circulating tips from a massive database known as DICE.

The DICE database contains about 1 billion records, the senior DEA officials said. The majority of the records consist of phone log and Internet data gathered legally by the DEA through subpoenas, arrests and search warrants nationwide. Records are kept for about a year and then purged, the DEA officials said.

So while much of the Reuters article about the Special Operations Division and intelligence sharing is not new and has been written about for years, the disclosure of intentional material omissions in reports provided to prosecutors and/or sworn affidavits as to the origin of a criminal investigation, including those used to obtain wiretaps, is very troubling.

BMaz and Marcy separately weigh in at Empty Wheel.

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  • Display: Sort:
    How did Reuters get the documents? (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by shoephone on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 03:01:25 PM EST
    Will the U.S. now be going after the Reuters reporters?

    But not to worry, the SOD is (5.00 / 3) (#4)
    by Anne on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 03:17:57 PM EST
    reviewed internally...or so they say.  We'll just have to take their word for that, since they don't want to actually provide a copy of the most recent review.  Jesus.  All this head-patting is giving me a headache.

    Seems like all this secret, cyber spy stuff is all on a Mobius strip of internal accountability, and the people whose information is being collected are locked out of it.

    That's because they are (none / 0) (#8)
    by Edger on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 03:43:09 PM EST

    Which is also why no one has any idea that they are spying on everyone.


    Speaking of faux traffic stops, (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by Mr Natural on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 03:41:00 PM EST
    I can't help wondering about that 2011 bust of the 87 year old cocaine mule, stopped for little apparent reason by a Michigan State Cop on I-94 just outside Ann Arbor.  Over ninety kilos of cocaine were found in the back of his pickup truck.  Just a fantastic coincidence, I suppose.

    You know something ain't right (none / 0) (#10)
    by Payaso on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 05:04:38 PM EST
    when you see special task force cops making routine traffic stops.

    Right... (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 12:47:57 PM EST
    The only objection here is that the DEA is successfully doing their job.

    I mean seriously, drugs are just as available, if not more than alcohol.  How, in any sense of the word, could the DEA ever be considered a success.

    The only criteria I can possibly see as something the DEA could tout as success is incarcerating a lots of non-violent folks for long periods of time and spending insane amounts of money to do it.

    Here's their brilliant leader, who doesn't know if crack and heroin are worse than marijuana to one's health.

    If you used the same metric for the TSA, like 10 planes a day would get blown up.

    And lastly, what bmaz said.

    I've heard enough. (none / 0) (#1)
    by redwolf on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 02:33:49 PM EST
    The NSA is a bigger threat to this nation than Al Qaeda is.  This is only going to go on for so long before they start using the information for blackmail, subversion, and totalitarian control.  They've clearly violated the 6th amendment and should be shut down immediately.

    Blackmail, subversion, totalitarian control (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by shoephone on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 03:03:57 PM EST
    I would have to assume that, at least in the area of blackmail, the NSA has already provided info on members of congress that could be/has been used as blackmail.

    I've wondered about that for years (none / 0) (#5)
    by sj on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 03:20:07 PM EST
    Every time something happened like the Amash Amendment defeat. I don't like being suspicious. I'm really not suspicious by nature and constantly being on my guard like this is quite emotionally exhausting.

    Oops (none / 0) (#6)
    by sj on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 03:21:58 PM EST
    How did I manage to do that? I meant the Amash-Conyers Amendment.

    There is not much daylight (none / 0) (#9)
    by Semanticleo on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 04:33:09 PM EST
    between DEA and NSA.  They use the same methodology.

    "Become an confidential informant, or else'

    Entrapment is not a crime, but it is a defense.  The problem is; they have a perp by the short-hairs and threaten with long prison sentences unless you can 'snitch', often by suggesting to someone who has not solicited a role in drug-trade, that a debt or favor could be performed and voila--James Settembrino.........or Undie Bomber...same smell.

    John Delorean fell into one of those traps. (none / 0) (#11)
    by Visteo1 on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 08:12:39 PM EST
    I felt bad for him.  His reputation will be forever tarnished.  The Undie Bomber or Boston Bomber may have had a weakness to exploit.  

    Umar Farouk wrote, "As i get lonely, the natural sexual drive awakens and i struggle to control it, sometimes leading to minor sinful activities like not lowering the gaze [in the presence of unveiled women]. And this problem makes me want to get married to avoid getting aroused."

    Jahar tweeted,"Karim and Jahar Perverts" with the following video linked...

    I would be forcing them to look at foot nuts for hours on end, as a form of torture.


    This is hilarious (none / 0) (#13)
    by bmaz on Tue Aug 06, 2013 at 12:25:52 PM EST
    Coming on the heels of a story where DEA officials flat out admit to doing exactly what you say they are not. Further, the DEA has been illegally up on Americans' communications abroad for decades, whether through their own equipment of tasking local communication and/or law enforcement entities to do so on their behalf. I even once caught them using Mexican entities to tap purely domestic communications. So, sorry, what you relate is a nice happy tale, but obscures fact severely.