What is the DEAs Special Operations Division

Special Operations Division of the DEA: Big data in the fight against drugs

In an exclusive report, the Reuters news agency reported today on the 'special' use of intelligence information by the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). SOD employees are made up of two dozen different agencies, including NSA, FBI, CIA and Homeland Security. The SOD provides DEA employees with information from NSA wiretapping activities abroad, information from foreign informants and tips from the in-house DICE database, which contains metadata on Internet and mobile phone communication from old DEA investigative procedures - around 1 billion data records.

In everyday life it works like this that a police officer or DEA agent receives a tip from the SOD to search a truck for drugs at a certain time in a certain place.

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.

However, if something was found in the truck and an investigation is initiated, the DEA is not allowed to mention that the truck was only checked because of a tip from the SOD. The SOD is only briefly mentioned in the DEA's budget plan - an estimated US $ 127 million with hundreds of employees. This effectively means that the investigators have to "reconstruct" the course of the investigation so that it looks plausible in court. And this is exactly where the critical point has been reached: The DEA receives secret tips from the SOD, which in turn cooperates with all authorities. In court and against the criminal defense, however, nothing of this is mentioned, but a course of the investigation is shown that does not contain the SOD.

"Remember that the utilization of SOD cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function," a document presented to agents reads. The document specifically directs agents to omit the SOD’s involvement from investigative reports, affidavits, discussions with prosecutors and courtroom testimony. Agents are instructed to then use "normal investigative techniques to recreate the information provided by SOD.“

The biggest point of contention is whether this procedure - to "reconstruct" investigative procedures based on secret tips from the SOD - is unconstitutional or not. The opinions presented in the Reuters Report are very diverse here. Some say that "reconstructing" evidence is an ancient police tool and others compare it to money laundering.

It's just like laundering money - you work it backwards to make it clean. (Finn Selander, former DEA agent)

Parallel construction is a law enforcement technique we use every day. It's decades old, a bedrock concept. (DEA employee)

You can't game the system. 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? (Former US Attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr.)

It's a balancing act, and they're 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. (former US Attorney Robert Spelke)

Although the DEA's Special Operations Division is made up of employees from various agencies, including the CIA, FBI and NSA, it represents a completely separate program or unit. The NSA is therefore responsible for interception and investigation activities using Prism, XKeyscore or Boundless Informant ( at least in theory) supervision by the FISA Court - but this does not apply to the SOD investigations. Apparently the members of the congress were informed about the “activities and successes” of the SOD, but it is unclear to what extent they know about the procedure and especially the “tips” of the SOD.

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.

TIME reported about two years ago on the controversial procedures and investigations of the SOD and DEA. According to TIME, everything is based on the belief that terrorists and drug or arms dealers work together for their mutual benefit and that it is therefore important that the secret service and the DEA can work together.

The DEA’s focus is drug trafficking and we are not going looking for terrorists, that’s not our job. Our job is to make sure that we are recognizing the connections between drugs and terrorism, and we're going to do the best that we can. (Derek Maltz, SOD Special Agent)

The SOD and DEA investigators are of course enthusiastic about DICE (its own database) and the possibilities.

About 10,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agents have access to the DICE database, records show. They can query it to try to link otherwise disparate clues. Recently, one of the DEA officials said, DICE linked a man who tried to smuggle $ 100,000 over the U.S. southwest border to a major drug case on the East Coast.

Ultimately, the SOD and DEA also seem to be about weighing up: How much leeway are given to the authorities to take effective action against drug and arms trafficking. And when does one, as a free constitutional state, have to admit that one does not collect or even use information because this would restrict the freedom of citizens too much? In the case of SOD, an extremely large amount of freedoms are apparently granted - all for the benefit of the honorable goal of the fight against drugs !?

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About the author


Business IT specialist and sociologist. 2013 intern at netzpolitik.org. With the new responsibility foundation since 2014. Interested in a lot. Works primarily on intelligence control, protection of privacy, transparency, net neutrality and frequency policy. Tweets far too seldom. (@JPKleinhans)
Published 08/05/2013 at 6:58 pm