The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has, since 2001, doubled the amount of assets it confiscates from people via civil asset forfeiture, according to Ray Downs of WSFA. The reason for this dramatic expansion is not that the agency became twice as savvy at violating the 5th amendment. It is due to the fact that since 2001, the War on Terror has ushered in a new era of domestic spying programs in the United States; programs like the National Security Agency’s (NSA) ability to read innocent people’s emails, text messages, and phone conversations without a warrant. With the power to spy on Americans and seize money at will, the Feds have developed an efficient system of 21st century highway robbery.
Civil Asset Forfeiture is the practice of seizing cash, bank accounts, vehicles, electronics, buildings, land — any piece of property that is suspected of being tied to the drug trade. Federal law does not even require that the suspect is charged with a crime in order to perform a seizure. Property is simply forfeited — stolen — and the owner must wage a costly and lengthy legal battle in court just to get it back. The seized assets go towards the budgets of the offending agencies, when the robbed owner doesn’t have enough cash reserves to fight in court to prove his innocence.
The DEA has a financial interest in maximizing their seizures. A top-secret unit in the DEA, called the Special Operations Division (SOD), helps the agency bring home the loot it seeks by working with domestic spying agencies to procure tips about where cash and property might be that would be an easy target for the taking. The SOD is partnered with the NSA, CIA, IRS, FBI, and DHS and maintains databases filled with crime tips that would not hold up in a court of law.
The SOD’s alliance with the NSA is particularly worrying because of the troves of data that the NSA stores on every American. As exposed by Glenn Greenwald, the NSA collects nearly every piece of data it possibly can on innocent internet users in the United States. The agency “sweeps up emails, social media activity and browsing history” Greenwald wrote on the Guardian.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden explained the unchecked, unethical power held by the NSA. “I, sitting at my desk,” said Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”
The SOD compiles the data fed to them by the NSA spying program, including wiretaps, intelligence intercepts, search warrants, and informant tips, and uses them to secretly launch investigations. The only problem is the fact that the tips are all top-secret and unusable in court. Law enforcement agencies are not even allowed to acknowledge the existence of SOD, which was only recently been publicly exposed by Reuters.
Enforcers are trained to lie and recreate a “parallel construction” of the investigation. Not even the judges and prosecutors know about the secret investigations of the defendants. The process is apparently legal and happens on a daily basis.
A former federal agent in the northeastern United States who received such tips from SOD described the process. “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,” the agent said to Reuters.
“It’s just like laundering money – you work it backwards to make it clean,” said Finn Selander, a former DEA agent who now advocates ending the Drug War.
“While the techniques described are universally bad, they carry special concern in forfeiture cases–where intelligence tips of a driver carrying cash (for legitimate or illegitimate reasons) compels officers to create parallel constructions to obfuscate from the courts and the public the real reasons why drivers are pulled over: so the department can score forfeiture proceeds,” said Scott Meiner of Americans for Forfeiture Reform. “Informed police departments can use SOD tips to pull over cars that they know have cash (whether it is legitimate or illegitimate) and then apply a K9 sniff (with seeming random innocuity) and find the cash that they knew existed. A positive sniff (which is an inevitably positive sniff given what we know of cuing errors) validates the purported connection to drugs and thus justifies the forfeiture to the courts.”
“You can’t game the system,” said former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., criticizing the SOD secret investigations in Reuters. “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?”
Seizing assets is a multi-billion dollar racket for the federal government. The DEA alone confiscated $0.8 billion in 2010, wrote WSFA. It will take a monumental effort to unravel the corruption embedded in the system with regards to the Feds’ unchecked spying capabilities and their unchecked piracy capabilities.