US drug agency spent $237mn paying sources for free-to-obtain data – DOJ

© Mike Blake
The US Drug Enforcement Agency paid its sources, from couriers to TSA agents, nearly $250 million over five years, a recent review revealed. However, the secrecy surrounding the internal data makes it impossible to say whether the money was even worth it.

According to a Department of Justice audit released this week, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had a network of 18,726 informants between 2010 and 2015, who the agency praised as the “bread and butter” of the organization. The DEA paid its sources awards of up to $500,000 for “original information.”

During the period examined, the DEA doled out more than $237 million to 9,540 of its paid confidential sources, which on average comes up to just under $25,000 per person.

“We found that the DEA did not adequately oversee payments to its sources, which exposes the DEA to an unacceptably increased potential for fraud, waste, and abuse, particularly given the frequency with which DEA offices utilize and pay confidential sources,” the DOJ wrote.

In the agency’s hierarchy, the sources were categorized by “source type” – from regular use informants to “protected name” and even one “special payment.”

There are also those the DEA calls “limited-use informants,” or people who have access to records and databases, and would check databases, access packages shipped through private companies or provide traveler and package information to the agency.

According to the audit, the DEA had 477 of such “limited use” confidential sources, to whom the agency paid over $26.8 million ‒ or an average of more than $56,000 per source ‒ which made it one of the most lucrative categories in the network.

Among informants, there were at least 33 Amtrak workers, such as train attendants and ticket agents, who could sneak into passengers’ private data for the DEA. They would identify passengers and their luggage or provide details of passenger travel reservations, including names, origins and destinations as well as when and how they purchased tickets, all that data that could be retrieved from a passenger name records (PNR) system.

“Special Agents told us that confidential sources sometimes also provide passenger dates of birth,” the DOJ said.

This PNR information is provided to the DEA on a daily basis via email, text, or telephone call; the agency paid more than $1.5 million for it over four years ‒ a sum the Justice Department established the DEA had no need to spend.

“The investigation found that the information reported by Amtrak employees who were established as confidential sources could have been obtained by DEA at no cost through a joint task force with the Amtrak Police Department (APD),” the DOJ concluded.

The DEA also worked with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, violating its own policies, which prohibit registering as a confidential source “employees of US law enforcement agencies who are working solely in their official capacity with DEA.”

In other words, the agency was paying TSA screeners for what they were already obliged to do – reporting on suspicions findings. Moreover, paying TSA agents for providing information about of suspicious activity violated the DEA’s Interdiction Manual.

Just like with Amtrak, the commercial airline industry also provided the DEA with informants “because they had access to corporate airline databases containing detailed passenger information.”

With all the money the DEA poured into its network of informants, it is, however, impossible to say whether or not it was justified.

“Because DEA’s files do not detail the universe of information provided by its sources, it is unable to examine their reliability and whether they frequently or rarely provide useful information, or whether the information DEA agents acted upon resulted in identifying individuals involved in illegal activity or instead caused DEA to regularly approach innocent civilians for questioning,” the audit noted.

In one case, for example, a parcel company employee who was “helping” the DEA for 12 years earned more than $1 million over five years. He intercepted 184 parcels, but no drugs were ever found.

“Of note, we did not identify any drug-related cases or seizures associated with this confidential source and found that the confidential source only provided “tips” to the DEA for packages containing currency,” the DOJ said.

In another case, a confidential source – a canine handler working for a parcel company – reported on suspicious packages, from which the DEA seized over $100,000. The source received an award payment of $19,600 for the “tip” that led to the seizure.
There was an airline employee whom the DEA paid more than $600,000 over less than four years.

“We found that the DEA’s reliance on Limited Use confidential sources to accomplish interdiction operations, the DEA’s direction and guidance to these sources, and the DEA’s long-term and lucrative relationships with these sources calls into question whether the source is truly providing information independently or is acting as DEA’s agent,” the DOJ concluded, hinting that the practice “could have implications relating to compliance with the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.”