from the trolling-for-dollars dept
The DEA -- along with several other law enforcement agencies -- has shown, over the years, that civil asset forfeiture is the tail wagging the dog. It may have been put in place to separate criminals from their cash, but is now used mainly to pad agency budgets and increase discretionary spending.
This attitude is summed up by the former DEA supervisor quoted in Brad Heath's (USA Today) investigation into the agency's forfeiture activities.
“They count on this as part of the budget,” said Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
The monster is insatiable. The DEA loves taking cash from travelers so much it has hired TSA screeners as informants, asking them to look for cash when scanning luggage. It routinely stops and questions rail passengers in hopes of stumbling across money it can take from them.
But it goes further than just hassling random travelers and paying government employees to be government informants. As the USA Today's article points out, the DEA is datamining traveler info to streamline its forfeiture efforts.
DEA agents have profiled passengers on Amtrak trains and nearly every major U.S. airline, drawing on reports from a network of travel-industry informants that extends from ticket counters to back offices, a USA TODAY investigation has found. Agents assigned to airports and train stations singled out passengers for questioning or searches for reasons as seemingly benign as traveling one-way to California or having paid for a ticket in cash.
The DEA's cash-seizing efforts add another layer of surveillance to the traveling experience. It's not just multiple agencies looking for terrorists. It's also at least one agency looking for nothing more than cash. And it works. Heath notes that the DEA's surveillance apparatus has resulted in at least $209 million seized from over 5,000 passengers over the last decade.
This is wonderful news if you believe the DEA's job is to take cash off the streets. Not so much if you believe it should be taking criminals off the street.
In most cases, records show the agents gave the suspected couriers a receipt for the cash — sometimes totaling $50,000 or more, stuffed into suitcases or socks — and sent them on their way without ever charging them with a crime.
Case in point: the DEA seized $25,000 from a traveler after profiling her as a suspected drug courier, based on her itinerary and a past conviction for smuggling. But even though the DEA suspected her of being part of a trafficking operation, it seemed entirely uninterested in doing anything more than taking the cash.
Agents seized the money, and let Tillerson go. Her lawyer, Cyril Hall, said she was never arrested, or even questioned about whether she could give agents information about traffickers.
A year later, Tillerson produced paperwork showing the cash the DEA seized was lawfully obtained. The government agreed to give it back -- minus $4,000 prosecutors decided to keep just because.
The DEA, of course, claims that seizing cash (without pursuing indictments) is an essential part of its efforts to cripple drug trafficking operations. But after several decades of interdiction and forfeitures, most drug cartels seem to be every bit as financially healthy as the DEA is.
The perverse incentives of asset forfeiture don't just corrupt the DEA. They infect everyone involved in the process.
Five current and former agents said the DEA has cultivated a wide network of such informants, who are taught to be on the lookout for suspicious itineraries and behavior. Some are paid a percentage if their tips lead to a significant seizure.
[A]mtrak’s inspector general revealed that agents had paid a secretary $854,460 over nearly two decades in exchange for passenger information. A later investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the secretary initially looked up reservations only at agents’ request, but quickly “began making queries on his own initiative, looking for indicators that a person might be planning to transport illegal drugs or money on a train,” according to a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Airlines refuse to work directly with the DEA, but that hasn't stopped the agency from finding airline employees willing to peruse itineraries -- or pass them on to the DEA -- for a cut of the cash. The DEA can't use info from terrorist databases, so it has created an ad hoc network of informants to create a cash-focused surveillance network. Cash is king. Everything else about the drug war -- indictments, convictions, etc. -- is just a sideline.
“We want the cash. Good agents chase cash,” said George Hood, who supervised a drug task force assigned to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago before he retired in 2007. “It was just easier to get the asset, and that’s where you make a dent in the criminal organization.”
Welcome to the Drug War, where whatever's "easiest" is the government's focus.