While President Obama signed legislation this week aimed at halting the National Security Agency’s digital snooping, a new report surfaced regarding underhanded surveillance tactics used by the the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
An investigative report by USA Today recently uncovered evidence that shows the DEA has been employing the use of wiretaps and other eavesdropping maneuvers to spy on the average citizen at a rate over three times greater than what the agency used a decade ago.
Data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the nation’s drug war henchmen listened in to nearly 11,700 electronic transmissions in the 2014 fiscal year, which included the interception of phone calls and text messages. This is substantially more mechanical meddling than what the agency conducted in 2004, when only 3,400 receptions were recorded.
Although it is standard protocol for federal judges to review DEA surveillance requests, the report showed that the agency frequently bypassed this procedure. In order to get around it, agents simply presented their plea for wiretaps to local officials that were more likely to expedite the process. Sixty percent of the applications to spy on suspected drug offenders were handled in this manner, according to the report.
However, privacy rights and other constitutional protections dictate a certain chain of command before the DEA can go sniffing around in a citizen’s dirty digital laundry. First, permission must be obtained from a senior official with the Justice Department. Then, only after consent has been granted, can a federal court be petitioned to carry out these secret operations.
But as USA Today’s Brad Health discovered, the DEA has found a clever method for skating this burden by simply seeking permission from state courts, which do not carry the same restrictions.
Legal experts say that while petitions for wiretaps are supposed to be handled no differently in state court than they are on a federal level, problems arise because state prosecutors have many different interpretations of the law—50 to be exact.
Not surprisingly, the DEA has denied the allegations. Joseph Moses, a spokesperson for the agency, told USA Today that is has been necessary for the agency to increase the use of wiretaps to gain control of drug trafficking operations. Furthermore, he suggested the agency has made “no attempt to circumvent legal standards and protections by instead pursuing state wiretap authorizations.” But sometimes, Moses explained, federal courts “may be unable to support wire intercept investigations due to manpower and other resource considerations.” It is for this reason, and this reason alone, he suggested, that a DEA agent would petition a local prosecutor for wiretap approval.
It was not made clear in the report which states have authorized DEA spy tactics, so the assumption is that this practice is being employed all across the country. There is speculation, however, that these wiretaps approved by state judges must be prosecuted by the state to avoid having them ruled inadmissible in court.