- What Are DEA Numbers? What Are They Used For?
- The Creation of the DEA
- Why DEA numbers are important
- Do all providers need a DEA number?
- Differences between DEA and NPI numbers
- How Verisys identifies fraud and abuse of controlled substances to protect patients
- It’s Time to Dismantle the DEA
- By Every Measure the DEA and its Drug War Have Failed
- WASTING TAXPAYER FUNDS
- FUELING MASS INCARCERATION AND RACIAL DISPARITIES
- ABUSING ITS AUTHORITY
- LACK OF RESULTS
- A New Approach: Defund and Reinvest
- What is Drug Enforcement
- What is the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Primary Responsibilities?
- What is a DEA Agent? DEA Agent Careers
- Employment Requirements and Qualifications for DEA Agent Jobs
- DEA Training Requirements
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Overview
- DEA Overview: Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Responsibilities
- DEA Overview: Intelligence Program
- DEA Overview: Office of Diversion Control
- DEA Overview: Demand Reduction Program
- Trouble with the Drug Enforcement Administration? Get Legal Help
- Exclusive: U.S. directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans
- THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS DIVISION
- A QUESTION OF CONSTITUTIONALITY
- CONCEALING A TIP
- SOD’S BIG SUCCESSES
What Are DEA Numbers? What Are They Used For?
February 19, 2020
A DEA number is assigned by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to any health care provider, including physicians, optometrists, dentists, veterinarians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. This number allows these providers to write prescriptions for controlled substances; it is also a way for the DEA to track who is prescribing what.
In October 2019, a Savannah, Georgia, physician was found guilty by a jury of the unlawful dispensation of controlled substances and three counts of health care fraud. As a result, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and is understood to be one of the worst offenders in the opioid epidemic in Savannah.
The opioid epidemic is raging in many communities across the United States, and health care providers are a key component to reducing the number of overdoses, deaths, and addictions that have resulted from overprescribing controlled substances.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) maintains the Controlled Substance Act Database as part of an ongoing effort to carefully regulate and monitor controlled substance prescriptions. Here’s more about the history of the DEA, the importance of the DEA number, and how Verisys uses this data to protect patients and health care organizations from fraud and abuse.
The Creation of the DEA
The DEA was founded in 1973 as a part of President Nixon’s War on Drugs initiative. Before the DEA, various enforcement and intelligence agencies were primarily responsible for discovering and prosecuting drug-related crimes. The DEA was created in an effort to consolidate their work and have one primary source for investigation and prosecution.
Today, the primary mission of the DEA is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the US. Under the DEA, several campaigns such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the Red Ribbon Week campaign were championed by the DEA.
After Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 2001, all existing regulated drugs were categorized into five different categories called schedules. The CSA also provided frameworks for new drugs to be added and created the registration system for practitioners that is in use today.
Why DEA numbers are important
DEA numbers allow providers to write prescriptions for controlled substances including opioids, morphine, and steroids. This number allows the DEA to track who is prescribing controlled substances and in what quantities to carefully regulate and monitor them.
DEA numbers are not random and follow a very specific format — 2 letters, 6 numbers, and 1 check digit — that can tell you who is prescribing medication, and it acts as a verification of the validity of the number. Here’s the formula:
- The first letter is a code identifying the type of registrant. This includes hospitals, physicians or practitioners, researchers, manufacturers, and others.
- The second letter is the first letter of the prescriber’s last name.
- Six digits follow the two letters.
- The seventh digit is the last digit in a formula that is as follows:
- Add digits 1, 3, 5
- Add digits 2, 4, 6, then multiply by 2
- Add the numbers from step 1 and 2
- The last digit in this formula is the check digit number
These days a computer does most of the work in verifying the DEA number when a prescription goes to a pharmacy. However, understanding the makeup of a DEA number is important since it is unique and an important part of combating opioid abuse.
DEA numbers and the CSA database are used to credential practitioners as well as to certify a practitioner’s CSA status. They are extremely useful to HMOs, clinics, health insurance, pharmaceutical and medical services firms, and others who must verify that a practitioner is registered to handle controlled substances.
Do all providers need a DEA number?
Without a DEA number, a provider cannot prescribe controlled substances to patients; however, not all prescriptions are controlled substances. DEA numbers are unique to each provider, as described above, and they are only given to providers that have undergone the proper certification and testing, as specified by state and federal law.
While a provider could still practice without a DEA number when they’re not prescribing controlled substances, working without it is difficult. Many insurance companies and pharmacies use a DEA number as provider identification, and it has become standard. But a DEA number is not the only identifier for providers.
Differences between DEA and NPI numbers
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), “The National Provider Identifier (NPI) was adopted and became effective May 23, 2007, as the standard unique health identifier for health care providers to carry out a requirement in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for the adoption of such a standard.”
One of the obvious differences between an NPI and a DEA number is the agency from which they are issued: the CMS for NPI, and the DEA for a DEA number.
NPIs are significantly different from DEA numbers and do not act as a replacement. An NPI is an identifier for a provider performing any number of transactions beyond just prescribing controlled substances. So, while not all providers with an NPI will qualify for a DEA number, all providers with a DEA number will have an NPI.
How Verisys identifies fraud and abuse of controlled substances to protect patients
When it comes to identifying fraud and abuse of controlled substances, Verisys’ data platform goes beyond binary results on search queries. Searches query a sophisticated data platform containing hundreds of millions of records dating back to the 1990s.
This historical and real-time aggregated database matches records to existing data such as aliases, addresses, work history, license history and status, NPI, DEA, OFAC, and thousands more primary sources nationwide in order to pull up a complete and longitudinal view of a provider or entity.
Initial searches and continual monitoring are one way that we work with our partners to prevent controlled substance fraud and abuse that put patients in danger as well as risk to reputation and liability.
In today’s world, the competitive advantage comes from going above and beyond the minimum requirements of regulatory requirements.
Download Verisys’ free white paper to help you understand how data protects patients, your organization, and the health care industry.
It’s Time to Dismantle the DEA
For nearly 50 years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has fueled mass incarceration, wasted taxpayer money, abused its authority and blocked scientific research.
It’s time for change.
By Every Measure the DEA and its Drug War Have Failed
The DEA was established in 1973 ostensibly to consolidate drug enforcement activities into a “superagency” that would bring together federal drug enforcement resources. In the last 50 years, it’s been a tremendous waste of resources and left a wake of devastation in the United States and abroad.
DEA personnel have repeatedly engaged in unlawful operations, spent lavishly, ignored civil rights, packed federal prisons, and still failed to make a significant impact on drug supply. Meanwhile, Congress has engaged in little scrutiny of the agency, its actions or its budget.
WASTING TAXPAYER FUNDS
The DEA is the central player in the failed war on drugs. When the DEA was created in 1973, it started with less than $75 million. In fiscal year 2020 U.S. taxpayers spent more than $3.1 billion on the DEA. President Trump asked for even more for fiscal year 2021 – a staggering $3.5 billion, with more than $520 million specifically for its international programs.
What has it done with all that money?
It has facilitated the growth of paramilitary forces on U.S. soil, expanded surveillance, and embedded itself in communities throughout the U.S. and abroad. It has directly participated in domestic enforcement at the local level and even conducted its own research and public propaganda campaigns.
Ten percent of its Special Agent and Intelligence Analysts are permanently stationed overseas conducting drug interdiction, including undercover operations, surveillance, money laundering, paying informants, and facilitating arrests. Internationally, the DEA-led drug war has contributed to increased violence in many countries, as well as political and economic instability.
The DEA now has:
- Over 10,000 employees in 23 “field divisions”
- 47 district offices
- 111 “resident offices”
- 58 “posts of duty”
- 90 foreign offices in 67 countries
Its functions, however, are also performed by other federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (I), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), United States Postal Inspection Service, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation unit, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
FUELING MASS INCARCERATION AND RACIAL DISPARITIES
More than 20,000 individuals were convicted of federal drug offenses in 2019. Most of those sentences included imprisonment for many years. The average sentence for those convicted of trafficking marijuana was 31 months in a federal prison. Sentences for methamphetamine trafficking average nearly 8 years, but many extend for decades.
Half of those in federal prisons are serving sentences for drug crimes. Over 75% of those convicted of federal drug offenses in 2019 were non-white people. While people of all races use and sell drugs at equivalent rates, the DEA and the drug war have targeted communities of color, producing profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups.
And the DEA’s influence does not end at the gates of federal prisons. Its support for local drug-war policing has helped grow the number of people in state prisons and jails from around 36,000 people in 1980 to nearly 375,000 in 2017.
This is costing taxpayers billions for incarceration and far more in devastating consequences to individuals who face barriers to housing, employment, education, and public assistance.
All of this is causing further harm to the broader economy.
ABUSING ITS AUTHORITY
At its inception the DEA was tasked with classifying drugs and establishing controls on them. Instead, it has ignored scientific evidence and blocked research into the medical benefits of certain drugs, including marijuana. It has also fostered a culture of sidestepping the Constitution and failing to protect human rights.
Repeatedly the DEA has been found to have abused its authority. The agency has a history of human rights abuses, lavish payments to confidential informants, and surveillance of Americans with no suspected connection to illegal drug activities.
Over the years the DEA has rarely been held accountable for its scandals and the misconduct of its agents. Some of those scandals in the past decade have included:
Exorbitant Payments to Confidential Informants
A 2016 audit revealed the DEA paid 18,000 informants $237 million over five years. The informants operated with little oversight or review of the reliability of their information.
Bulk Collection of Phone Records
The DEA secretly and without explicit authority tracked billions of international phone calls made by U.S. residents for decades. The Justice Department Inspector General in 2019 raised numerous concerns about the DEA’s suspicionless surveillance of American’s phone records.
Tapping Phone Calls and Text Messages with Little Scrutiny
DEA agents went around federal courts and prosecutors to routinely get wiretap authorization from one local court. At one point this was the source of one-fifth of all U.S. wiretaps.
Lack of Supervision and Accountability of Agents
DEA agents reportedly received money, gifts and weapons from Colombian drug trade organizations. This included participating in parties with sex workers hired by these organizations. Most concerning is that DEA officials were not fully compliant with the Inspector General investigating the allegations.
Gross Neglect in the Handling of an Improperly Detained Person
DEA agents detained 23-year-old student Daniel Chong, but then left him locked in a windowless cell with no food or water for five days. He drank his own urine to survive. The DEA eventually paid $4.1 million to settle a lawsuit. The most significant sanction for the personnel involved included a 7-day suspension.
Other incidents over the years have raised similar questions about the DEA’s practices, including:
For too long the DEA fostered a culture of ignoring the law and tolerated abuses of power. It has rarely been forced to account for the misconduct.
LACK OF RESULTS
The DEA’s rogue practices have not only undermined the rule of law, they have also failed to deliver their intended result, cutting off the supply of drugs.
Even as its operating budget has swelled and it sent a steady stream of people to prison, increasing violence and instability at home and abroad, the supply of drugs entering the United States has never significantly declined.
According to the DEA’s own “2019 National Drug Threat Assessment” the “opioid threat (controlled prescription drugs, synthetic opioids, and heroin) continues at ever-increasing epidemic levels, affecting large portions of the United States” and “The stimulant threat (methamphetamine and cocaine) is worsening and becoming more widespread.”
After billions of dollars spent on their futile drug war, drugs remain cheap, potent and widely available.
A New Approach: Defund and Reinvest
For too long the DEA has abused its powers, misspent taxpayer funds, fueled mass incarceration and ignored civil rights.
It’s time to dismantle and abolish the DEA. We need to pivot to a health-based approach to address addiction and improve social conditions that contribute to problematic drug use.
Learn More – DPA reports
The Scandal-Ridden DEA: Everything You Need to Know (PDF)
The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding And Rejecting Science (PDF)
What is Drug Enforcement
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a federal law enforcement agency responsible for enforcing controlled substance regulations in the United States. DEA agents are tasked with reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances by thwarting organizations and the people who grow, manufacture and distribution them.
There are 222 domestic offices and 21 divisions within the DEA. The DEA also has 86 foreign offices throughout 67 countries. Today’s DEA is a major federal law enforcement agency, with more than 5,000 special agents and a budget of more than $2 billion. This agency is organized into a number of units, including:
- Asset forfeiture
- Forensic sciences
- Money laundering
- State and local task forces
- Foreign cooperative investigations
- Cannabis eradication
- High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA)
What is the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Primary Responsibilities?
The primary responsibilities of the DEA include:
- Investigating and preparing for the prosecution of those who violate controlled substance laws
- Investigating and preparing for the prosecution of criminals and drug gangs who perpetrate violence
- Seizing and forfeiting assets associated with illicit drug trafficking
- Enforcing the Controlled Substances Act provisions that deal with the manufacture, dispensing and distribution of controlled substances
- Coordinating with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies on mutual drug enforcements efforts and interstate/international investigations that may extend beyond limited or local jurisdictions and resources
- Developing programs with local, state and federal agencies that are designed to reduce the availability of illicit drugs in the U.S. market
- Serving as a liaison between the United Nations, Interpol, and similar organizations related to international drug control
What is a DEA Agent? DEA Agent Careers
DEA Agents may be DEA special agents or diversion investigators:
DEA Special Agents
DEA special agents are investigative professionals responsible for:
- Conducting criminal investigations
- Conducting surveillance of criminals
- Identifying and infiltrating drug channels
- Identifying and apprehending drug traffickers
- Preparing evidence for prosecution individuals
Diversion investigators are responsible for conducting investigations involving the distribution, illicit sale, and abuse of controlled substances. Diversion investigators perform investigative work, gather data, research and analyze data, identify the significance of the data, and develop solutions.
Employment Requirements and Qualifications for DEA Agent Jobs
The employment process for DEA special agents includes:
- Written assessment
- Panel interview
- Urinalysis (drug screening)
- Medical examination
- Physical task test
- Polygraph examination
- Psychological assessment
- Comprehensive background investigation
DEA agents must:
- Be at least 21 years old
- Be a United States citizen
- Possess a valid driver’s license
- Be in top physical condition
- Have excellent vision and hearing
Candidates for DEA agent jobs must possess a bachelor’s (with a GPA of 2.9 or better), master’s, LLB, or JD degree. Typical degrees for DEA agents include: criminal justice, criminology, forensic psychology, sociology, and emergency management.
If candidates do not possess a degree from an accredited college or university, they may qualify for DEA agent jobs if they possess specialized experience conducting investigations related to narcotics or drugs, conducting surveillance or undercover work, or apprehending and arresting individuals, OR if they possess at least 3 years of experience in areas such as telecommunications, foreign language fluency, technical/mechanical information systems, military, or pilot/maritime.
Most DEA agents are hired at the GL-7 or GL-9 federal level, which has a salary range of between $38,511 and $55,413, as of 2012. DEA agents, in addition to a base salary, may also receive locality pay and Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP). LEAP pay includes 25 percent above the base salary.
DEA Training Requirements
All new DEA agents must complete a standard and mandatory course of training through the DEA Training Academy. The DEA Training Academy, which is located in Quantico, Virginia, includes training rooms, computer classrooms, management classrooms, and a 250-bed dormitory.
DEA Basic Agent Training Program
New hires attend the DEA’s Basic Agent Training program, an 18-week training program that includes academic instruction in areas such as report writing, law, drug recognition, and automated information systems, as well as leadership and ethics courses.
Large components of this training program include the physical fitness and defensive tactics program, which concentrates on both compliant and non-compliant arrest scenarios, and the 122-hour firearms training program.
Students must receive at least 80 percent on all academic exams and pass the firearms qualification exam and physical task tests to graduate.
Other training programs conducted at the DEA Training Academy include:
- Practical applications training
- Tactical training
- Firearms training
- Legal training
- Intelligence training
Basic Diversion Investigator Training Program
DEA Diversion investigators also receive training at the DEA Training Academy. The Basic Diversion Investigator (BDI) training program is a 12-week program that is divided into 3 segments:
- Compliance Investigations
- Scheduled Investigations
The curriculum emphasizes legal instruction, case studies, and modern software tools and a number of key areas, including pharmaceutical and chemical control, drug scheduling, and drug identification. Work in the BDI is focused on distribution operations, auditing techniques, report writing, security issues, and legal considerations.
Back to Top
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Overview
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created in 1973 by President Nixon after the government noticed an alarming rise in recreational drug use and drug-related crime.
A division of the Department of Justice, the DEA is tasked with enforcing the controlled substances (illegal drug) laws by apprehending offenders to be prosecuted for criminal and civil crimes.
The DEA is the largest and most effective anti-drug organization in the world, with 222 domestic locations and 86 foreign offices in 67 countries.
DEA Overview: Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Responsibilities
Besides bringing criminal drug offenders and members of drug gangs to justice, the DEA:
- Manages a drug intelligence program in cooperation with state, local, and foreign officials.
- Enforces anti-drug laws such as international treaties, the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005.
- Creates programs to reduce the availability of illegal drugs in the U.S. (e.g. crop eradication and substitution).
- Works with the United Nations, Interpol, foreign countries, and other international organizations to create and enforce international drug control programs.
- Creates educational programs to prevent drug abuse in the U.S. under the Demand Reduction Program.
- Monitors legitimately manufactured pharmaceuticals to prevent their diversion to illegal markets.
- Maintains a Most Wanted Fugitives list of international drug offenders.
- Assists victims and witnesses of drug crimes through the Victim-Witness Assistance Program (VWAP).
DEA Overview: Intelligence Program
Under the Drug Enforcement Administration's Intelligence Program, federal, state, and local agencies collect and exchange information about illegal drug trafficking activities, enabling them to make more arrests.
In 1992, the DEA developed the National Drug Pointer Index (NDPIX), a “switchboard” where law enforcement agencies can input information about a current drug investigative target and immediately be alerted if another authority has that target under active investigation.
The DEA collects three types of drug intelligence – tactical, investigative, and strategic. Tactical information is used for arrests, seizures, and interdictions. Investigative data is collected for use during prosecutions.
Strategic intelligence enables agents to create effective policies and distribute resources in accordance with worldwide drug trafficking trends and the locations of distribution networks.
The DEA has more than 680 Intelligence Analysts in multiple locations around the world, in the Intelligence Division at DEA Headquarters, and in the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), which targets international drug smuggling and terrorist activities.
DEA Overview: Office of Diversion Control
The DEA Office of Diversion Control carefully monitors the manufacture and sale of all pharmaceuticals to ensure drugs aren’t diverted to illegal uses. Under federal law, all businesses and workers handling controlled substances must register with the DEA, follow drug security rules, and keep strict records.
The Office of Diversion Control also enforces international drug import-export treaties and the following federal statutes – Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act of 1988, Domestic Chemical Diversion Control Act of 1993, Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996, Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, and Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005.
DEA Overview: Demand Reduction Program
The Demand Reduction Program (DRP) takes a three-tiered approach to combat the demand for drugs: law enforcement, prevention, and treatment.
DRP staff compile educational information and distribute it through conferences, school forums, and websites. The program’s JustThinkTwice.com is written for a teen audience, while GetSmartAboutDrugs.
com is geared toward educating parents and caregivers.
Trouble with the Drug Enforcement Administration? Get Legal Help
If you find yourself the subject of a DEA investigation or if you're facing drug charges, you'll want to make sure that you have a skilled attorney assisting you.
After all, a good attorney knows how to challenge the process and the evidence being used against you, and can even help to establish favorable evidence in the record.
Get started today by contacting a local drug crime lawyer to discuss your specific situation and find out about your rights and options moving forward.
Exclusive: U.S. directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans
By John Shiffman, Kristina Cooke
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.
Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.
The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.
“I have never heard of anything this at all,” said Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011.
Gertner and other legal experts said the program sounds more troubling than recent disclosures that the National Security Agency has been collecting domestic phone records.
The NSA effort is geared toward stopping terrorists; the DEA program targets common criminals, primarily drug dealers.
“It is one thing to create special rules for national security,” Gertner said. “Ordinary crime is entirely different. It sounds they are phonying up investigations.”
THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS DIVISION
The unit of the DEA that distributes the information is called the Special Operations Division, or SOD. Two dozen partner agencies comprise the unit, including the I, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. It was created in 1994 to combat Latin American drug cartels and has grown from several dozen employees to several hundred.
Today, much of the SOD’s work is classified, and officials asked that its precise location in Virginia not be revealed. The documents reviewed by Reuters are marked “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” a government categorization that is meant to keep them confidential.
“Remember that the utilization of SOD cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function,” a document presented to agents reads.
The document specifically directs agents to omit the SOD’s involvement from investigative reports, affidavits, discussions with prosecutors and courtroom testimony.
Agents are instructed to then use “normal investigative techniques to recreate the information provided by SOD.”
A spokesman with the Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA, declined to comment.
But two senior DEA officials defended the program, and said trying to “recreate” an investigative trail is not only legal but a technique that is used almost daily.
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.
After an arrest was made, agents then pretended that their investigation began with the traffic stop, not with the SOD tip, the former agent said. The training document reviewed by Reuters refers to this process as “parallel construction.”
The two senior DEA officials, who spoke on behalf of the agency but only on condition of anonymity, said the process is kept secret to protect sources and investigative methods. “Parallel construction is a law enforcement technique we use every day,” one official said. “It’s decades old, a bedrock concept.”
A dozen current or former federal agents interviewed by Reuters confirmed they had used parallel construction during their careers. Most defended the practice; some said they understood why those outside law enforcement might be concerned.
“It’s just laundering money – you work it backwards to make it clean,” said Finn Selander, a DEA agent from 1991 to 2008 and now a member of a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates legalizing and regulating narcotics.
Some defense lawyers and former prosecutors said that using “parallel construction” may be legal to establish probable cause for an arrest. But they said employing the practice as a means of disguising how an investigation began may violate pretrial discovery rules by burying evidence that could prove useful to criminal defendants.
A QUESTION OF CONSTITUTIONALITY
“That’s outrageous,” said Tampa attorney James Felman, a vice chairman of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association. “It strikes me as indefensible.”
Lawrence Lustberg, a New Jersey defense lawyer, said any systematic government effort to conceal the circumstances under which cases begin “would not only be alarming but pretty blatantly unconstitutional.”
Lustberg and others said the government’s use of the SOD program skirts established court procedures by which judges privately examine sensitive information, such as an informant’s identity or classified evidence, to determine whether the information is relevant to the defense.
“You can’t game the system,” said former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. “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?”
Some lawyers say there can be legitimate reasons for not revealing sources. Robert Spelke, a former prosecutor who spent seven years as a senior DEA lawyer, said some sources are classified. But he also said there are few reasons why unclassified evidence should be concealed at trial.
“It’s a balancing act, and they’ve doing it this way for years,” Spelke said. “Do I think it’s a good way to do it? No, because now that I’m a defense lawyer, I see how difficult it is to challenge.”
A slide from a presentation about a secretive information-sharing program run by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Special Operations Division (SOD) is seen in this undated photo. REUTERS/John Shiffman
CONCEALING A TIP
One current federal prosecutor learned how agents were using SOD tips after a drug agent misled him, the prosecutor told Reuters.
In a Florida drug case he was handling, the prosecutor said, a DEA agent told him the investigation of a U.S. citizen began with a tip from an informant.
When the prosecutor pressed for more information, he said, a DEA supervisor intervened and revealed that the tip had actually come through the SOD and from an NSA intercept.
“I was pissed,” the prosecutor said. “Lying about where the information came from is a bad start if you’re trying to comply with the law because it can lead to all kinds of problems with discovery and candor to the court.” The prosecutor never filed charges in the case because he lost confidence in the investigation, he said.
A senior DEA official said he was not aware of the case but said the agent should not have misled the prosecutor. How often such misdirection occurs is unknown, even to the government; the DEA official said the agency does not track what happens with tips after the SOD sends them to agents in the field.
The SOD’s role providing information to agents isn’t itself a secret. It is briefly mentioned by the DEA in budget documents, albeit without any reference to how that information is used or represented when cases go to court.
The DEA has long publicly touted the SOD’s role in multi-jurisdictional and international investigations, connecting agents in separate cities who may be unwittingly investigating the same target and making sure undercover agents don’t accidentally try to arrest each other.
SOD’S BIG SUCCESSES
The unit also played a major role in a 2008 DEA sting in Thailand against Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout; he was sentenced in 2011 to 25 years in prison on charges of conspiring to sell weapons to the Colombian rebel group FARC. The SOD also recently coordinated Project Synergy, a crackdown against manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of synthetic designer drugs that spanned 35 states and resulted in 227 arrests.
Since its inception, the SOD’s mandate has expanded to include narco-terrorism, organized crime and gangs. A DEA spokesman declined to comment on the unit’s annual budget. A recent LinkedIn posting on the personal page of a senior SOD official estimated it to be $125 million.
Today, the SOD offers at least three services to federal, state and local law enforcement agents: coordinating international investigations such as the Bout case; distributing tips from overseas NSA intercepts, informants, foreign law enforcement partners and domestic wiretaps; and circulating tips from a massive database known as DICE.
The DICE database contains about 1 billion records, the senior DEA officials said. The majority of the records consist of phone log and Internet data gathered legally by the DEA through subpoenas, arrests and search warrants nationwide. Records are kept for about a year and then purged, the DEA officials said.
About 10,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agents have access to the DICE database, records show. They can query it to try to link otherwise disparate clues. Recently, one of the DEA officials said, DICE linked a man who tried to smuggle $100,000 over the U.S. southwest border to a major drug case on the East Coast.
“We use it to connect the dots,” the official said.
“AN AMAZING TOOL”
Wiretap tips forwarded by the SOD usually come from foreign governments, U.S. intelligence agencies or court-authorized domestic phone recordings.
Because warrantless eavesdropping on Americans is illegal, tips from intelligence agencies are generally not forwarded to the SOD until a caller’s citizenship can be verified, according to one senior law enforcement official and one former U.S. military intelligence analyst.
“They do a pretty good job of screening, but it can be a struggle to know for sure whether the person on a wiretap is American,” the senior law enforcement official said.
Tips from domestic wiretaps typically occur when agents use information gleaned from a court-ordered wiretap in one case to start a second investigation.
As a practical matter, law enforcement agents said they usually don’t worry that SOD’s involvement will be exposed in court.
That’s because most drug-trafficking defendants plead guilty before trial and therefore never request to see the evidence against them.
If cases did go to trial, current and former agents said, charges were sometimes dropped to avoid the risk of exposing SOD involvement.
Current and former federal agents said SOD tips aren’t always helpful – one estimated their accuracy at 60 percent. But current and former agents said tips have enabled them to catch drug smugglers who might have gotten away.
“It was an amazing tool,” said one recently retired federal agent. “Our big fear was that it wouldn’t stay secret.”
DEA officials said that the SOD process has been reviewed internally. They declined to provide Reuters with a copy of their most recent review.
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