DEA Running Massive Wiretap Program Almost Entirely Through A Single California County Courthouse

from the behold,-the-Machine! dept

The DOJ has been instrumental in curbing abuse and misconduct by local law enforcement agencies around the nation. Its own backyard, however, remains a complete mess.

The FBI and DEA have been obstructing investigations by the DOJ’s Inspector General for several years now. The DOJ only just recently got around to addressing the widespread warrantless use of Stingray devices by both of these agencies. DEA agents are hooking up with prostitutes at “sex parties” while on the clock and receiving bonuses rather than suspensions or pink slips. The US Marshals Service has been acting as a law unto itself, confiscating cell site simulator records to keep them out of the hands of FOIA requesters, flying its own airborne cell tower spoofers and blowing asset forfeiture funds on $10,000 conference room tables.

Now this, as uncovered by Brad Heath and Brett Kelman of USA Today:

Federal drug agents have built a massive wiretapping operation in the Los Angeles suburbs, secretly intercepting tens of thousands of Americans’ phone calls and text messages to monitor drug traffickers across the United States despite objections from Justice Department lawyers who fear the practice may not be legal.

The chain of command for the DEA runs UP to the DOJ, not vice versa, as would be suggested from this paragraph. The DEA apparently isn’t too concerned its parent agency’s own lawyers find its actions potentially illegal. It’s going to do what it’s going to do because drug wars don’t fight themselves.

The DEA is getting away with it because it has its own “connect” in Riverside County. There’s no telling how much venue shopping resulted in this bit of serendipity. All that matters are the results.

Nearly all of that surveillance was authorized by a single state court judge in Riverside County, who last year signed off on almost five times as many wiretaps as any other judge in the United States. The judge’s orders allowed investigators — usually from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — to intercept more than 2 million conversations involving 44,000 people, federal court records show.

This massive amount of surveillance — stemming almost entirely from a single judge and his presumably overactive wrist/writs — is problematic. More so are the numerous explanations offered up by officials for this gaping surveillance portal d/b/a Judge Helios Hernandez’s courtroom. Hernandez’s enthusiasm for issuing wiretap warrants to the DEA may have something to do with his history as a narcotics prosecutor. But for the record, he’s offering the following justification for his actions.

Hernandez declined to comment through a spokesman.

The DEA offered this clarification.

Hernandez approved 20 times as many wiretaps as his counterparts in San Bernardino County. DEA officials said they could not explain that difference.

More details were provided by Deena Bennett, who heads the DEA’s wiretap unit.

Bennett, a one-time contestant on the reality show Survivor, rebuffed attempts to contact her, telling a reporter that “the fact that you have my cellphone number is really harassment, and I’m going to report it.”

The DOJ’s lawyers, however, have more to say on the issue. For one, the DOJ believes these warrant requests should be routed through federal courts, rather than state courts, considering they cover violations of federal law and, more importantly, the standards the DEA needs to meet to obtain warrants are higher.

The DEA has used warrants issued by a California county judge to chase down suspects as far away as Virginia and New York. It’s also engaged in parallel construction to cover its tracks, something the DOJ is now investigating. What little the DEA had to say in its defense was that it preferred to seek warrants in areas where it feels more intercession is needed and, most tellingly, where it can perform “most effectively.”

Because it has cut federal courts out of the warrant process, the DEA is likely not showing it has exhausted other investigatory options before asking for intrusive wiretaps. The DOJ’s displeasure with the DEA’s actions means the resulting prosecutions will almost never make their way into federal courts.

“It was made very clear to the agents that if you’re going to go the state route, then best wishes, good luck and all that, but that case isn’t coming to federal court,” a former Justice Department lawyer said.

Or more succinctly:

“They’d want to bring these cases into the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the feds would tell them no (expletive) way,” a former Justice Department official said.

The troubling implication of these statements is that while the DOJ’s legal counsel may have expressed its displeasure at the DEA’s surveillance overreach, it apparently never stepped in to fix the issue. It simply told the DEA to take its tainted cases elsewhere.

On top of that, the DEA seemed far more interested in simply taking stuff from suspects rather than locking them up.

[D]EA agents and local detectives in South Gate, Calif., near Los Angeles, used a state-court wiretap to target a man named Omar Salazar, who the DEA suspected was tied to a Mexican drug trafficking group. Between searches of Salazar’s car and his house, officers seized $76,869.94, a gun and a cache of illegal drugs, including 36 pounds of methamphetamine and 5 pounds of heroin. Investigators found some of the drugs in a safe in Salazar’s garage, along with a box of ammunition and probation paperwork from one of his previous arrests.

That should have been enough to build a significant federal case with a long mandatory prison sentence, but that was not what happened. Court records show the Justice Department prosecuted the $76,869.94 in a civil asset seizure case. But it did not prosecute Salazar.

The DOJ and local prosecutors probably had nearly 77,000 reasons for abandoning Salazar’s prosecution. Here are none of them.

Neither the DEA nor prosecutors would explain why.

Sounds about right. They probably weren’t expecting to ever answer questions about their actions… at least not questions posed by journalists. As for the DOJ, it make be making angry noises about its troublesome drug enforcement child but it has not shown any willingness to rein the agency in. The problem isn’t going to fix itself and it appears the DEA’s perfectly fine with running its prosecutions through state courts and using warrants from local courts to pursue suspects all over the nation. The DOJ needs to flex a bigger muscle than its tongue if anything’s going to change.

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Comments on “DEA Running Massive Wiretap Program Almost Entirely Through A Single California County Courthouse”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…if it’s a single state judge…

This brings up the question of jurisdiction. So long as a subject of an investigation can be established to be present in a specific area – Riverside County, California in this case – no problem. Otherwise the DEA (or any Federal LEA) would have to ask a federal district judge for any warrant. Asking a county or state level district judge is asking for problems later: a legitimate case can get tossed on the basis of lack of jurisdiction.

That’s likely why DOJ has stated such cases won’t go anywhere with them: even if they get a conviction it will likely be overturned on appeal due to the jurisdictional issue(s).

Anonymous Coward says:

“As for the DOJ, it make[might] be making angry noises…”

I read the story on Drudge yesterday I my first thought was this is a asset forfeiture cash cow. I believe the original article said the cost of these wiretaps was $18 million. I would be expecting a big return on my investment.

It’s probably time to look into the judges expense accounts or dare I say…his sources of income?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

The state of things

Isn’t it great that the FBI can tell us that they are our servants while the DEA does things ‘In The Name of The Law’ whereby their own actions they have no intent to arrest someone (so that someone may continue their nefarious activities) but to arrest some ‘thing’ (often cash) so they may achieve a higher plain of existence. It’s not for personal gain, oh no, attending sex/drug parties is not personal (it’s research) they get no benefit from that. It is so that the money/assets might be recycled into law enforcement so that we can WIN the war on drugs. And…they (a Federal Agency) got a (State) judge to agree!!!

And the bitter pill is that no matter who is elected: Federal, State, Municipal; nothing will change.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Defense Attorneys Dream

The Judge in your cases just says it’s not relevant and you don’t get to make the argument at all. Then unless your client has mega-bucks to appeal all the way to the supreme court, nothing happens. If your client has the mega-bucks, he probably just calls his Senator buddy and gets everything taken care of for a small donation.

Personanongrata says:

DEA the "Gift" That Keeps on Giving

Any person reporting upon the dubious actions committed by DEA agents must read this well sourced/researched primer: Creating a Crime: How the CIA Commandeered the DEA by Douglas Valentine.

Link to primer:

The paragraphs below are excerpts from Creating a Crime: How the CIA Commandeered the DEA

Institutionalized corruption began at headquarters, where FBN executives provided cover for CIA assets engaged in drug trafficking. In 1966, Agent John Evans was assigned as an assistant to enforcement chief John Enright.

“And that’s when I got to see what the CIA was doing,” Evans said. “I saw a report on the Kuomintang saying they were the biggest drug dealers in the world, and that the CIA was underwriting them. Air America was transporting tons of Kuomintang opium.” Evans bristled. “I took the report to Enright. He said, ‘Leave it here. Forget about it.’

“Other things came to my attention,” Evans added, “that proved that the CIA contributed to drug use in America. We were in constant conflict with the CIA because it was hiding its budget in ours, and because CIA people were smuggling drugs into the US. We weren’t allowed to tell, and that fostered corruption in the Bureau.”

FYI the acronym FBN found in the above excerpted paragraphs refers to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics which was merged with the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) in 1968 in creating the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). BNDD later became the predecessor of todays DEA in 1973 (another gift from the Nixon administration).

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: DEA the "Gift" That Keeps on Giving

The real story begins long before the turn of the last century. Drugs (opium) were a commodity, a semi-illegal substance that helped to create certain economic systems, ie. Hong Kong. They were illegal in the sense that import/export of them was not allowed, but the usage was OK. How many fortunes were created out of that trade? How much did the British and US turn their heads to ignore that? And this was before the CIA or its predecessors exited.

That said, I do not condone any government agency participating in drug trade (or sex parties) even if it brings other culprits to justice. At the same time I abhor the ‘war on drugs’ and would much prefer a system of regulation and taxation, even those would not be just.

Personanongrata says:

Re: Re: DEA the "Gift" That Keeps on Giving

The First Opium War 1839 – 1842 ended with the Treaty of Nanking where the Chinese we forced to cede Honk Kong to the British.

The Second Opium War 1856 – 1860 occurred when the British Crown attempted to force the legalization of the opium trade in china (amongst other ignoble British acts).

It is safe to say the British Crown supported the opium trade as official policy.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: DEA the "Gift" That Keeps on Giving

Clavel’s novels give a taste of some of that era. Though all historical fiction needs to be taken with a large grain of salt, they are not entirely wrong.

Romanticizing things that are morally repugnant depends upon who is doing the moralizing. Don’t trust your government to do it for you.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not hardly, the DEA’s actions are just more immediately visible. The NSA’s actions are less visible, but affect much more people.

The DEA steals from one person, that’s bad, but the immediate result of their action is centered around one person.

The NSA cripples a security system in order to make their job easier, that’s worse, as it affects everyone that uses a that security system, putting thousands if not more at risk.

Justme says:

There was a time. . .

There was a time when even the President was expected to obey the law, but now i wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a clerk at the DMV shot someone and it was justifiable because they tried to cut in line!

When elected officials and government employee’s aren’t held accountable for there actions, they cease to serve anybody but themselves.

But we should stop harassing them…

That One Guy (profile) says:

"And we should care why again?"

“They’d want to bring these cases into the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the feds would tell them no (expletive) way,” a former Justice Department official said.

They don’t need to take the cases to court, and in fact they almost certain don’t want to.

That should have been enough to build a significant federal case with a long mandatory prison sentence, but that was not what happened. Court records show the Justice Department prosecuted the $76,869.94 in a civil asset seizure case. But it did not prosecute Salazar.

They’re in it for the chance to steal anything not nailed down or on fire, any actual convictions against people are purely incidental. They can’t take the resulting cases to court? So what, that’s not the plan anyway, so it’s hardly surprising that the ‘warning’ from the DOJ was ignored, as it doesn’t impact their actions in the slightest.

Anonymous Blow Hard says:

DEA Has Blood on its Hands

The DEA has priorities and interests and all of them revolve aroud the DEA. At this point they are almost indistinguishable from an organized crime syndicate and only when their agents haven’t turned otherwise they’re worse. The DEA is a government agency that needs to be dissolved. They do immense harm and no good whatsoever.

malcolm kyle (profile) says:

Nothing changes

“Prohibition was introduced as a fraud; it has been nursed as a fraud. It is wrapped in the livery of Heaven, but it comes to serve the devil. It comes to regulate by law our appetites and our daily lives. It comes to tear down liberty and build up fanaticism, hypocrisy, and intolerance. It comes to confiscate by legislative decree the property of many of our fellow citizens. It comes to send spies, detectives, and informers into our homes; to have us arrested and carried before courts and condemned to fines and imprisonments. It comes to dissipate the sunlight of happiness, peace, and prosperity in which we are now living and to fill our land with alienations, estrangements, and bitterness. It comes to bring us evil – only evil – and that continually. Let us rise in our might as one and overwhelm it with such indignation that we shall never hear of it again as long as grass grows and water runs.”

— Roger Q. Mills of Texas, 1887, quoted repeatedly during a December 1914 debate in Congress over alcohol Prohibition

GEMont (profile) says:

The Untouchables V1.2b

Maybe its just me, but that sounded like a multi-million dollar a year extortion racket, where the DEA gets a single judge-on-the-take to OK its activities and make them appear to be somewhat legal so it can chase down drug dealers and others and steal their possibly ill-gotten gains via asset forfeiture legislation.

I have to wonder just how much the judge receives in kick-backs for his co-operation. He should be really close to sealing the deal for that retirement chalet in Spain by now.

American Justice, fascism style.

You really gotta love the way the so-called “good guys” use tax payer’s money to compete with the so called “bad guys” for all that untraceable drug cash, made possible by the “good guys” War on Drugs contraband inflation of what would otherwise be dirt cheap substances.

Its pure political poetry.

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