Report: DEA unit hid use of intelligence database in criminal investigations

A unit of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been hiding its use of a massive database of wiretaps, telephone records, and intelligence intercepts in criminal investigations of Americans, Reuters reported Monday.

According to the wire service, the DEA's Special Operations Division (SOD) — originally created to target Latin drug cartels — partners with agencies like the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security to distribute information culled from those sources about potential criminal targets.

The agency though is also instructed to independently recreate an investigative trail to hide from defendants, judges and attorneys how and why individuals were targeted for investigation in the first place. Documents obtained by Reuters show that agents are specifically instructed never to reveal the involvement of the Special Operations Division in affidavits, investigative reports, and courtroom testimony.

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"Remember that the utilization of SOD cannot be revealed or discussed in any investigative function," one document said.

According to the report, wiretap tips forwarded to the DEA typically come from U.S. intelligence agencies, court-authorized taps, or tips from foreign governments. The SOD also keeps a database — called DICE — which contains some 1 billion legally obtained Internet and phone records.

Some 10,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agents have access to the database.

The revelation of the program comes just months after top-secret NSA surveillance programs were revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden. The Obama administration has insisted that such programs are lawful, overseen by both Congress and the courts, and strike the right balance between privacy and security.

Officials insisted to Reuters that the DEA unit also functions within the law. In the case of domestic warrantless wiretaps, tips from intelligence agencies are generally not forwarded to the agency unless it can be determined that the target is a foreign national. Records in the DICE database are also purged after roughly a year.