Politics

DEA Paid Millions To Volunteers Searching Americans' Luggage, Mail

Investigators told Congress on Wednesday that agency paid out almost a quarter of a billion dollars over five years, but can't say exactly what it got back or how many people had their privacy breached.

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WASHINGTON — Americans may have faced widespread privacy violations as outsourced government spies rooted through their luggage or mail looking for evidence to give to the Drug Enforcement Administration in exchange for cash rewards, a House committee heard Wednesday.

For a federal agency to snoop through the belongings of private citizens could be a Fourth Amendment breach. But the Justice Department says that the DEA allowed for exactly that behavior by recruiting and paying millions of dollars to "voluntary" sources working at Amtrak, airlines and parcel companies.

"If you incentivize an Amtrak employee or an airplane employee or a cargo company employee [to seize shipments of money for a reward], how many boxes are they opening? How many passenger manifests are they providing? How many people are getting pulled out of line to find the person or persons where a seizure results in a reward?” Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Department of Justice investigators spent two and a half years investigating the DEA's confidential source program and released their findings in September. They uncovered a system rife with problems.

In one case, a DEA source working for a package company would rummage through private mail in the hopes of finding bundles of cash he could turn in for reward money.

In other cases, TSA employees working the X-ray machines at travel screening points would tip off the DEA about suspicious packages for cash, rather than report to their own superiors.

It was all part of a program of what the DEA terms "limited use" confidential sources. In theory, these were tipsters who voluntarily handed information over to the DEA.

But in practice, federal investigators found that these sources had become a de facto arm of the agency. The informants did repeat business, were well-compensated, and took direction from the DEA on what information to pass on.

In some cases they made more money from the DEA than they did from their day jobs. Investigators found that one airline employee made $600,000 in four years while a parcel company employee was paid over $1 million across five years.

And yet, the DEA did not keep full records of what they got from the program. While successes were logged, false searches and bad information was not.

The use of the program was widespread in the DEA. According to the federal investigation report, the DEA handed out $237 million to about 10,000 confidential sources over the five years, from 2011 to 2015. This includes $27 million to 477 "limited use" informants.

Yet, the DEA cannot conclusively say what it got in return.

“They did not keep records on what the overall success rate was. We don’t know, for example, whether they were batting 1.000 or batting .050. That’s a concern," Horowitz told the Oversight Committee.

In some cases, DEA agents extended health insurance benefits for federal employees to their sources. Investigators said they did not know whether the DEA was legally allowed to do so.

In response to grilling from members of Congress on Tuesday, DEA Chief of inspections Rob Patterson told the House Oversight Committee that the agency is enacting a long list of reforms to fix the system.

Patterson said one problem was that the essentially everyone in a position of leadership in the DEA's inspection division was working in temporary roles. He said those positions have since been staffed permanently.

The DEA no longer makes payments to government or quasi-government employees, Patterson said. He added they have enacted new reviews on the limited use informant program, and are working to improve their data recording system.

Horowitz said that under former DEA head Michele Leonhart's tenure the DEA was hostile to investigators and continually threw up roadblocks. (Leonhart resigned in 2015 in the wake of revelations that DEA agents were sleeping with their sources and providing them six-figure payments of taxpayer money).

Horowitz said that in the 18 months since her departure, however, there has been a complete turnaround and that the DEA has cooperated with their audits completely.

Members of Congress on Tuesday were frequently frustrated by the lack of information available.

“Are there any metrics on convictions, drug seizures? Like, what did we get for $237 million?” asked Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz.

But Patterson was only able to say that the DEA is working to be able to answer those questions in the future.

"We are working on properly staffing and reviewing a number of these issues at the headquarters level, making sure that the data getting into our system is proper," he said.

Paul McLeod is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Paul McLeod at paul.mcleod@buzzfeed.com.

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