Inspector General Report Shows DEA Covering Up Its Role In A Shooting That Left Four Foreign Citizens Dead
from the civilian-casualties-in-the-war-on-drugs dept
Here’s the latest on how we’re winning the Drug War, stripped of the DEA’s deceit and spin by the Office of the Inspector General. The report [PDF] takes a look at three incidents the DEA was involved with in Honduras during 2012. The DEA’s FAST (Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team) team was supposed to help Honduran drug warriors (TRT– Tactical Response Teams) fight the local drug war. It was only supposed to act in an advisory role, but it took a much more hands-on approach.
A seized boat loaded with cocaine lost power in the middle of a river on its way back to the nearest village. While drifting around awaiting rescue, a passenger boat “made contact” with the seized boat (called a “pipante”). All hell broke loose.
Video recorded by a CBP surveillance plane shows that, following contact, officers in the pipante fired at the passenger boat. The gunfire continued for about 26 seconds, including several seconds when officers in the pipante appear to be shooting at people in the water who had fallen or jumped from the passenger boat.
The spin machine began shortly after this. First, the DEA claimed it wasn’t a passenger boat, but rather drug dealers coming to reclaim their stash. Gunshots were fired by people on the boat, according to the joint task force, even though video of the incident showed otherwise. And the DEA apparently felt its advisory role included telling Honduran helicopter door gunners where to shoot.
At least one DEA FAST member observing the encounter from a helicopter directed a Honduran door gunner to fire his machine gun. The door gunner then fired multiple rounds at the passenger boat.
No evidence of narcotics was ever found on the passenger boat.
These are ugly facts, but the DEA — along with the Honduran task force — did everything they could to prevent these facts from being uncovered. As for the civilians caught in the literal crossfire? Sorry about that. Maybe try moving to a country without a drug war.
FAST and TRT did not conduct a search and rescue mission for individuals from the passenger boat who may have been injured, and instead focused solely on recovering the law enforcement officers stranded in the pipante. After the recovery of the officers and the cocaine from the pipante, the ground team loaded the helicopters and returned to base.
And the DEA might have gotten away with it if too, if it hadn’t been for pesky, frightened locals.
Embassy officials soon received reports from Ahuas that innocent civilians had been killed and injured and that there had been abusive police activity in a nearby village.
Not that this evidence (which the OIG report diplomatically refers to as “conflicting”) changed the DEA’s narrative. It continued to insist police were shot at by passengers on the boat and that it had no involvement in the hail of gunfire that left four dead and four injured. Only when local law enforcement backed up the civilians’ stories did the DEA slightly alter its version of the facts.
DEA changed its mind after a local Honduran police report asserted four people were killed (including two pregnant women) and four others were injured after a helicopter with DEA personnel confused cargo in a passenger boat for bales of drugs and opened fire.
It was all a big misunderstanding. Which left innocent people dead. The mere existence of drugs shouldn’t be a reason to open fire on other humans. I mean, Honduras isn’t the Philippines. And the DEA should be on hand to prevent this sort of thing from happening, not telling door gunmen how much to lead civilian targets in a moving boat.
The DEA’s continued lies led to even more obfuscation.
U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske authorized State’s Diplomatic Security (DS) to investigate the three incidents after she became frustrated by her inability to obtain information from DEA and concerned the Honduran investigation would not satisfy those interested in the May 11 incident. DEA refused to share information with DS or provide access to relevant personnel.
The DEA then claimed it had already investigated itself and found nothing that said one way or the other that firing on unarmed civilians was against the Drug War rules. But as the OIG points out, the DEA’s definition of “investigation” meant handing over a stack of forms to someone unwilling and uninterested in performing an internal investigation.
DOJ OIG found that the resulting investigation was little more than a paper exercise. DEA assigned the matter to a FAST Supervisor who did not conduct any interviews and merely collected written statements from FAST agents – statements we found in a few instances were improperly prepared or omitted material facts, such as the direction given by a FAST member to the Honduran door gunner to fire his machine gun at the passenger boat. The FAST Supervisor did not determine whether weapons checks, as required by DEA procedures, were conducted after the shooting (they were not). He also did not seek to interview or obtain witness statements and reports from FAST’s U.S. and Honduran partners who participated in the operation. We also did not find evidence that he gave any consideration to the accounts of survivors from the passenger boat or local residents of the village.
It then took these alternative facts to its Congressional overseers, hoping to head off any additional scrutiny.
DOJ OIG found that DEA’s misplaced confidence in its assumptions of the events that took place on May 11, and its failure to conduct a thorough post-incident investigation, resulted in DEA making several factual representations to DOJ leadership and to Congress that were inaccurate, incomplete, or based upon unreliable and insufficient information. This included representations regarding the central premises of DEA’s narrative regarding the May 11 incident, namely that individuals in the passenger boat had fired first and Honduran officers returned fire, and that no DEA agents discharged their weapons.
The evidence presented by the DEA to Congress did not include recordings that called into question its depiction of a gunfight (rather than the one-sided bullet hell it actually was). Instead, its narrative before Congress utilized a highly-questionable “Sources of Information” (SOIs).
As we describe in Chapter Five, SOI #2 provided inconsistent accounts of the May 11 incident to DEA over the course of three interviews and admitted to lying to DEA during his/her first interview. Yet, DEA failed to adequately question SOI #2 about his/her multiple versions of events or confront him/her with the inconsistencies between his/her various stories and the May 11 video footage. Further, even after SOI #2 admitted to lying to DEA and providing conflicting accounts, we found no evidence that DEA officials clarified or modified their prior representations to DOJ leadership and Congress.
The tales that began in Honduras grew larger in the telling. With the DEA controlling the investigation and the evidence, Congress heard a story that bore almost no resemblance to the actual incident.
[D]EA officials described information favorable to DEA’s positions while omitting unfavorable information, such as video evidence of TRT officers shooting at people who had fallen or jumped into the water, the inconsistent TRT reporting and TRT gun-planting incident, and the results of a preliminary report from the Honduran National Police that made findings critical of law enforcement actions on May 11. DEA officials also did not disclose the existence or results of the video enhancement and analysis by the DS video analyst who found no evidence indicative of gunfire from the passenger boat. Moreover, DEA continued to inaccurately and incompletely characterize its role in Operation Anvil as being supportive and advisory only.
With one level of oversight thwarted, the DEA started fending off the Inspector General’s office.
DEA failed to timely produce numerous responsive e-mails of certain senior DEA officials connected to Operation Anvil, without justification. While DEA promptly produced responsive e-mails of non-Senior Executive Service (SES) employees, it initially refused to produce to the DOJ OIG responsive e-mails of SES employees despite the fact that the OIG was entitled to access the material pursuant to the Inspector General Act. Only after lengthy discussions over a 4- month period were some of those e-mails of SES employees finally produced to the OIG. Others were not produced until as much as 11 months after we asked for them.
Second, while DEA produced a large number of documents in response to our requests, it omitted certain highly relevant reports and statements related to the specific issues of our review. For example, none of the eight document productions provided us with the initial witness statement of the only percipient DEA witness in the boat during the May 11 drug interdiction that resulted in the deaths of four individuals, even though this statement was clearly within the scope of our requests.
This is how we fight the Drug War. With lies and cover-ups and press releases touting the number of kilograms seized while making no mention of the collateral damage. And this is why Congressional oversight is mostly useless. It can’t compel the DEA to tell the truth. All it can do is wait for the truth to come out, which is years after the fact and often the result of other entities: whistleblowers, Inspector General investigations, FOIA requesters, etc. As long as the fight is viewed as a “good” one, agency sins will be forgiven and politicians will continue to believe internal policy changes are anywhere near as substantial as internal culture changes.