On Monday, Reuters revealed that a government agency has been collecting vast swaths of information of U.S. citizens' communications through “intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records.” This time, it's not the National Security Agency and there's no guise of counterterror efforts. According to this latest investigation, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has a secret division -- the Special Operations Division, or SOD -- dedicated to covertly collecting and disseminating information from surveilled communications in order to help law enforcement agencies "launch criminal investigations of Americans.”
The most troubling aspect revealed by the documents obtained by Reuters is that the SOD is expressly directed to cover up the surveillance programs used in these investigations. As Reuters reported:
The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to "recreate" the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant's Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don't know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence - information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.
Government and law enforcement agencies euphemistically dub this coverup practice the creation of a "parallel construction."
Purpose of the programs:
NSA: To use electronic surveillance to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation catch terrorists, the U.S. military fight wars, and the Central Intelligence Agency collect intelligence about foreign governments.
SOD: To help the DEA and other law enforcement agents launch criminal investigations of drug dealers, money launderers and other common criminals, including Americans. The unit also handles global narco-terrorism cases.
Gathering of evidence:
NSA: Much of what the agency does remains classified, but Snowden's recent disclosures show that NSA not only eavesdrops on foreign communications but has also created a database of virtually every phone call made inside the United States.
SOD: The SOD forwards tips gleaned from NSA intercepts, wiretaps by foreign governments, court-approved domestic wiretaps and a database called DICE to federal agents and local law enforcement officers. The DICE database is different from the NSA phone-records database. DICE consists of about 1 billion records, and is primarily a compilation of phone log data that is legally gathered by the DEA through subpoenas or search warrants.
Disclosure to the accused:
NSA: Collection of domestic data by the NSA and FBI for espionage and terrorism cases is regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. If prosecutors intend to use FISA or other classified evidence in court, they issue a public notice, and a judge determines whether the defense is entitled to review the evidence. In a court filing last week, prosecutors said they will now notify defendants whenever the NSA phone-records database is used during an investigation.
SOD: A document reviewed by Reuters shows that federal drug agents are trained to "recreate" the investigative trail to conceal the SOD's involvement. Defense attorneys, former prosecutors and judges say the practice prevents defendants from even knowing about evidence that might be exculpatory. They say it circumvents court procedures for weighing whether sensitive, classified or FISA evidence must be disclosed to a defendant.
NSA: Congressional leaders and intelligence committee members are briefed on the NSA's classified programs. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reviews and approves warrants for domestic eavesdropping.
SOD: DEA officials who oversee the unit say the information sent to law enforcement authorities was obtained through subpoena, court order and other legal means. A DEA spokesman said members of Congress "have been briefed over the years about SOD programs and successes." This includes a 2011 letter to the Senate describing the DICE database. But the spokesman said he didn't know whether lawmakers have been briefed on how tips are being used in domestic criminal cases.