How DEA program differs from recent NSA revelations

WASHINGTON Mon Aug 5, 2013 5:16am EDT

Related Topics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former spy-agency contractor Edward Snowden has caused a fierce debate over civil liberties and national-security needs by disclosing details of secret U.S. government surveillance programs.

Reuters has uncovered previously unreported details about a separate program, run by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, that extends well beyond intelligence gathering. Its use, legal experts say, raises fundamental questions about whether the government is concealing information used to investigate and help build criminal cases against American citizens.

The DEA program is run by a secretive unit called the Special Operations Division, or SOD. Here is how NSA efforts exposed by Snowden differ from the activities of the SOD:

Purpose of the programs

NSA: To use electronic surveillance to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation catch terrorists, the U.S. military fight wars, and the Central Intelligence Agency collect intelligence about foreign governments.

SOD: To help the DEA and other law enforcement agents launch criminal investigations of drug dealers, money launderers and other common criminals, including Americans. The unit also handles global narco-terrorism cases.

Gathering of evidence

NSA: Much of what the agency does remains classified, but Snowden's recent disclosures show that NSA not only eavesdrops on foreign communications but has also created a database of virtually every phone call made inside the United States.

SOD: The SOD forwards tips gleaned from NSA intercepts, wiretaps by foreign governments, court-approved domestic wiretaps and a database called DICE to federal agents and local law enforcement officers. The DICE database is different from the NSA phone-records database. DICE consists of about 1 billion records, and is primarily a compilation of phone log data that is legally gathered by the DEA through subpoenas or search warrants.

Disclosure to the accused

NSA: Collection of domestic data by the NSA and FBI for espionage and terrorism cases is regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. If prosecutors intend to use FISA or other classified evidence in court, they issue a public notice, and a judge determines whether the defense is entitled to review the evidence. In a court filing last week, prosecutors said they will now notify defendants whenever the NSA phone-records database is used during an investigation.

SOD: A document reviewed by Reuters shows that federal drug agents are trained to "recreate" the investigative trail to conceal the SOD's involvement. Defense attorneys, former prosecutors and judges say the practice prevents defendants from even knowing about evidence that might be exculpatory. They say it circumvents court procedures for weighing whether sensitive, classified or FISA evidence must be disclosed to a defendant.


NSA: Congressional leaders and intelligence committee members are briefed on the NSA's classified programs. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reviews and approves warrants for domestic eavesdropping.

SOD: DEA officials who oversee the unit say the information sent to law enforcement authorities was obtained through subpoena, court order and other legal means. A DEA spokesman said members of Congress "have been briefed over the years about SOD programs and successes." This includes a 2011 letter to the Senate describing the DICE database. But the spokesman said he didn't know whether lawmakers have been briefed on how tips are being used in domestic criminal cases.

(Edited by Blake Morrison)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see
Comments (8)
Aeropage wrote:
“The SOD forwards tips gleaned from NSA intercepts…”

Amazing how they try to whitewash this as “tips”. A “tip” is a piece of information from a private citizen. Calling the output from NSA blanket surveillance a “tip” is like calling the FBI breaking into your house without a warrant, then passing what they found to local police, a “tip”.

Aug 05, 2013 2:44pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
AppellateAtty wrote:
I am an appellate attorney and in my career I have seen So Many arrests that just screamed inside information. It was unbelievable how many of these “traffic stops” would end up with a police officer seeing drugs “in plain sight.” I knew it was bogus–but at least now I’ve had it verified. This is unconstitutional.

Aug 05, 2013 4:09pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
diluded0000 wrote:
It is interesting that there isn’t a peep about this on Foxnews, CNN, or Huffington Post. I guess they need to catch up with Reuters.

I don’t get how the NSA or SOD can do what they do without access to the content of domestic calls. They tip the State Police to a truckstop at a particular time. How can they figure that out just by looking at call records? I suspect this is going to be as much fun as Watergate. I’m not a huge fan of professional drug dealers, but if they were convicted with illegal evidence, they need turned loose. Mostly to teach the agencies involved the risk of doing things like this.

And on a side note, there used to be a metal band called Stormtroopers of Death (SOD), with less than smash hits like, “Speak English or Die”. I can’t help but wonder if that played into the Fed’s acronym choice.

Aug 05, 2013 4:09pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.