The Reuters news agency has discovered that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has been receiving “tips” from the NSA, a revelation that has conspiracy theorists and pragmatists alike shaking their heads. The most disturbing part of this disclosure is how the DEA’s use of “parallel construction” enables law enforcement to skirt pretrial discovery rules and hide the source of evidence.
The DEA has set up a secret office it calls the “Special Operations Division” where it processes the NSA’s intelligence intercepts from wiretaps and informants. The SOD is made up of two dozen partner agencies, including the FBI, CIA, NSA, IRS and the Department of Homeland Security. But because the SOD’s work is classified, DEA cases that originated from an NSA lead can’t be traced back to the source. The DEA uses a process known as “parallel construction” to essentially fabricate the source of the evidence, concealing it from defense attorneys and even from prosecutors and judges. The practice has been compared by some to money laundering, since the agents are working backward from the evidence to clean up the source.
According to the report from Reuters, “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”. Agents are told to omit the SOD’s involvement from investigative reports, affidavits, discussions with prosecutors and courtroom testimony.
Law enforcement agents told Reuters that they usually don’t worry about the SOD’s exposure in court, since 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.