(RNN) - The National Security Agency is obtaining information via wiretaps and electronic surveillance about common crimes involving Americans, which it then feeds to the Drug Enforcement Agency and local law enforcement to make arrests.
The Department of Justice, which controls the DEA, has said it is investigating the drug agency's links to the NSA. The use of mass surveillance in drug crimes could help explain why the DEA doubled the value of assets seized since 2001.
According to a report by Reuters released Monday, information obtained by the NSA is fed to a little-known unit of the DEA, called the Special Operations Division. This unit is partnered with several other government agencies as well, including the FBI, CIA, IRS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Department of Homeland Security.
The NSA is supposed to use its surveillance powers to target terrorism. But through its vast network of wiretaps and email surveillance, it is able to acquire information about lesser crimes, including drugs. That information is then tipped off to the SOD arm of the DEA, and sometimes local law enforcement agencies, who then go after the suspect.
However, the techniques utilized by the NSA and DEA are potentially in violation of a defendant's Constitutional right to a fair trial. The people who get targeted through this process are unaware how the investigation began, which makes it difficult to "review potential sources of exculpatory evidence - information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses," Reuters said.
To avoid legal hassles, the agencies use a technique called "parallel construction," which can be described as burying how the information was obtained and constructing a new narrative about how the initial arrest was made.
An example of this practice is, after receiving a tip, the SOD alerts local police to be at a certain place at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle. If drugs were found in the vehicle, an arrest is made, and local police say it was simply the result of a routine traffic stop, rather than a mass domestic surveillance apparatus.
"Parallel construction is a law enforcement technique we use every day," an anonymous DEA official told Reuters. "It's decades old, a bedrock concept."
The DEA is a worldwide organization with 86 foreign offices in 67 countries. And most of the press its SOD has received had to do with international busts, such as the arrest of Viktor Bout, the convicted Russian arms trafficker who inspired the Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War.
Bout was arrested by SOD agents in Thailand and brought to the U.S., where he was convicted of selling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.
However, the SOD also has been active within the U.S., helping the DEA conduct hundreds of raids, arrest thousands of people and seize millions of dollars every year.
If the DEA is using NSA intelligence, the questionably legal technique hasn't necessarily led to more arrests. The number of domestic arrests by the DEA has remained steady since 2001, with an average of about 31,000 per year, according to the Department of Justice.
However, there has been a large increase in the value of seized assets from drug busts and raids. In 2001, the total value of seized assets by all federal agencies was less than $400 million, with the DEA accounting for about $200 million of that.
By 2010, the total value in assets was nearly $1.8 billion - the largest amount in U.S. history - with the DEA involved in nearly $800 million.
The current incarnation of the NSA surveillance program, in which phone records and emails have been stored, began in 2001, the Guardian reported. The program began less than a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
In 2007, the SOD arrested 30 people in Texas and confiscated $2.5 million in a 2-year investigation called "Operation Puma." In addition to the money, the DEA confiscated 900 pounds of marijuana and 277 kilograms of cocaine
In 2011, the SOD divisions for the DEA and ICE teamed up for nationwide raids from New Jersey to California after an ICE agent was shot and killed in Mexico. The busts resulted in more than 200 arrests, $8 million in confiscated cash and an undisclosed value of jewelry, property and drugs.
Under asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies can seize cash, cars, property and anything else believed to be connected to a crime, with drugs being the most common crime.
The value of these assets is split between various government agencies.
If NSA intelligence was used to find targets, the DEA's policy-mandated use of parallel construction could hide how it obtained its leads.
"Remember that the utilization of SOD cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function," said a document obtained by Reuters presented to agents.
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