Documents obtained by Reuters have revealed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has a secretive unit assigned to conducting unconstitutional surveillance techniques and transmitting the information to agencies across the country to aid in criminal investigations.
Here's what you need to know about the DEA's Special Operations Division, also known as SOD.
1. The Unit Has Existed Since 1994
The unit's actions have been on-going since 1994 under the Clinton administration. It was originally purposed to fight Latin American drug cartels, according to the Reuters report. It has now expanded to combat domestic and even international criminal investigations of drug dealers, money launderers and other common criminals. Some of the people being investigated include American citizens. It's hard to say what SOD is working towards now, as much of their documents are classified.
2. The Unit Is Called SOD
The unit, referred to as the Special Operations Division (SOD), is built with agents from two dozen partner agencies, including FBI, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. SOD has grown from several dozen employees to several hundred across the country since its initiation. The unit works out of a secret location in Virginia, according to the Reuters report.
3. Agents Reverse-Engineer Investigations
The documents show that these federal agents are trained to "re-create" investigations to cover up where the information originated. They basically reverse engineer investigations after unconstitutionally obtaining evidence. This a truly disturbing piece of information, which shows that the government is instructing agents to lie in court about their findings and violate constitutional rights, which are awarded to Americans regardless of their alleged crimes, in order to get a conviction.
According to the Reuters report, this information is often kept from defense lawyers, and even sometimes from the prosecution or presiding judge. This has been received by experts as being a clear violation of a defendant's Constitutional right to a fair trial. This has the potential to be far more damming than the NSA snooping scandal.
4. SOD's Actions & Operations Are Secret
The leaked documents obtained by Reuters remind the intended reader that "the utilization of SOD cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function," and specifically instructs agents to omit the unite's involvement in investigations. The unit itself isn't technically a secret, as it appears in DEA in budget documents, but its operations seem to be veiled, especially in its involvement in criminal court cases.
5. SOD Provides Intel for DEA
The SOD forwards tips obtained from NSA intercepts, wiretaps by foreign governments, court-approved domestic wiretaps to domestic agencies, mainly the DEA in its government mandated War On Drugs. The question raised by many at this point is whether the NSA-sourced tips are obtained through PRISM or PRISM-like programs.
6. SOD Tells Agents When & Where to Find Evidence
An unnamed former federal agent described the process of working with SOD.
"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 arresting agents then claim that traffic stop as the incitement for their investigation. The document calls this process "parallel construction." A anonymous senior DEA official told Reuters that this is a "bedrock concept" for their law enforcement techniques.
7. Even Prosecutors Have a Problem With SOD Information
Reuters spoke with a current federal prosecutor who discovered that his case was not based on a tip, but from information obtained through SOD and NSA surveillance techniques after being misled by an agent.
"I was pissed," he 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."
The prosecutor ended up dropping that case.
8. SOD's Legal Implications Are Alarming
Although the information is new, it has already raised concern in the legal community on whether the US government is lying about spying on its citizens to grow investigations leading to criminal convictions.
"You can't game the system," former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. told Reuters. "You can't create this subterfuge. These are drug crimes, not national security cases. If you don't draw the line here, where do you draw it?"
"It is one thing to create special rules for national security," said Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011. "Ordinary crime is entirely different. It sounds like they are phonying up investigations."
9. SOD Has DEA Oversight
SOD has oversight from the DEA, who claim that the information that the unit passes on to law enforcement agencies was obtained through legal means, like subpoena, court order, and so on. A DEA spokesperson told Reuters that members of Congress "have been briefed over the years about SOD programs and successes." What the spokesperson did not know is whether lawmakers have been briefed on how the information is being used in domestic criminal cases against American citizens.
The DEA is an arm of the Department of Justice.
10. It Is Possible Other Agencies Do the Same
Rick Ungar of Forbes.com has questioned whether it's too much of a stretch to assume that other U.S. government agencies have adopted these practices, since it has been on-going since 1994.
"At this point, it seems unrealistic not to presume that other agencies have not joined the party and gone into the business of using unconstitutional surveillance data to make their lives easier when it comes to doing their respective jobs, despite the fact that the United States has always placed constitutional protections above the comfort and success rates of various government agencies when it comes to busting bad guys.
It is now up to us to insure that these critical protections continue to exist."