(Reuters) – Details of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration program that feeds tips to federal agents and then instructs them to alter the investigative trail were published in a manual used by agents of the Internal Revenue Service for two years.
The practice of recreating the investigative trail, highly criticized by former prosecutors and defense lawyers after Reuters reported it this week, is now under review by the Justice Department. Two high-profile Republicans have also raised questions about the procedure.
A 350-word entry in the Internal Revenue Manual instructed agents of the U.S. tax agency to omit any reference to tips supplied by the DEA’s Special Operations Division, especially from affidavits, court proceedings or investigative files. The entry was published and posted online in 2005 and 2006, and was removed in early 2007. The IRS is among two dozen arms of the government working with the Special Operations Division, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.
An IRS spokesman had no comment on the entry or on why it was removed from the manual. Reuters recovered the previous editions from the archives of the Westlaw legal database, which is owned by Thomson Reuters Corp, the parent of this news agency.
As Reuters reported Monday, the Special Operations Division of the DEA funnels information from overseas NSA intercepts, domestic wiretaps, informants and a large DEA database of telephone records to authorities nationwide to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans. The DEA phone database is distinct from a NSA database disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Monday’s Reuters report cited internal government documents that show that law enforcement agents have been trained to conceal how such investigations truly begin – to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up the original source of the information.
DEA officials said the practice is legal and has been in near-daily use since the 1990s. They have said that its purpose is to protect sources and methods, not to withhold evidence.
Defense attorneys and some former judges and prosecutors say that systematically hiding potential evidence from defendants violates the U.S. Constitution. According to documents and interviews, agents use a procedure they call “parallel construction” to recreate the investigative trail, stating in affidavits or in court, for example, that an investigation began with a traffic infraction rather than an SOD tip.
The IRS document offers further detail on the parallel construction program.
“Special Operations Division has the ability to collect, collate, analyze, evaluate, and disseminate information and intelligence derived from worldwide multi-agency sources, including classified projects,” the IRS document says. “SOD converts extremely sensitive information into usable leads and tips which are then passed to the field offices for real-time enforcement activity against major international drug trafficking organizations.”
The 2005 IRS document focuses on SOD tips that are classified and notes that the Justice Department “closely guards the information provided by SOD with strict oversight.” While the IRS document says that SOD information may only be used for drug investigations, DEA officials said the SOD role has recently expanded to organized crime and money laundering.
According to the document, IRS agents are directed to use the tips to find new, “independent” evidence: “Usable information regarding these leads must be developed from such independent sources as investigative files, subscriber and toll requests, physical surveillance, wire intercepts, and confidential source information. Information obtained from SOD in response to a search or query request cannot be used directly in any investigation (i.e. cannot be used in affidavits, court proceedings or maintained in investigative files).”
The IRS document makes no reference to SOD’s sources of information, which include a large DEA telephone and Internet database.
CONCERN IN CONGRESS
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, expressed concern with the concept of parallel construction as a method to hide the origin of an investigation. His comments came on the Mike Huckabee Show radio program.
“If they’re recreating a trail, that’s wrong and we’re going to have to do something about it,” said Rogers, a former FBI agent. “We’re working with the DEA and intelligence organizations to try to find out exactly what that story is.”
Spokespeople for the DEA and the Department of Justice declined to comment.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said he was troubled that DEA agents have been “trying to cover up a program that investigates Americans.”
“National security is one of government’s most important functions. So is protecting individual liberty,” Paul said. “If the Constitution still has any sway, a government that is constantly overreaching on security while completely neglecting liberty is in grave violation of our founding doctrine.”
Officials have stressed that the NSA and DEA telephone databases are distinct. The NSA database, disclosed by Snowden, includes data about every telephone call placed inside the United States. An NSA official said that database is not used for domestic criminal law enforcement.
The DEA database, called DICE, consists largely of phone log and Internet data gathered legally by the DEA through subpoenas, arrests and search warrants nationwide. DICE includes about 1 billion records, and they are kept for about a year and then purged, DEA officials said.
(Research by Hilary Shroyer of West, a Thomson Reuters business. Additional reporting by David Lawder. Edited by Michael Williams)