Feds paid ‘volunteers’ to search luggage, mail for drug evidence

Feds paid ‘volunteers’ to search luggage, mail for drug evidence
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Federal investigators testified to Congress that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) doled out millions of dollars to “volunteers” to snoop through people’s luggage and mail in search of potential evidence, according to BuzzFeed News.

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The DEA spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over five years paying airline, rail and cargo employees to turn over evidence – like suspicious travel itineraries or wads of cash – in exchange for money.

Agents often used Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Amtrak employees as “confidential sources.” One airline employee received more than $600,000 in less than four years, while one parcel employee received more than $1 million in five years.

The watchdog group for the Department of Justice (DOJ), which probed the practice for over two years, released a report in September that found a litany of problems with the DEA’s confidential source program.

“If you incentivize an Amtrak employee or an airplane employee or a cargo company employee [to seize shipments of money for a reward], how many boxes are they opening? How many passenger manifests are they providing? How many people are getting pulled out of line to find the person or persons where a seizure results in a reward?” Michael Horowitz, DOJ’s Inspector General, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday.

The DEA considers the program critical to tracking down illegal narcotics trafficking, according to the report. But the DOJ raised concern that confidential sources are motivated by financial gain over combating crime and found that the DEA’s policies are not in compliance with the Attorney General’s guidelines.

The program is only supposed to use certain tipsters on a “limited use” basis and without giving them any specific directions. But the audit found that agents relied heavily on employees in the travel and parcel industries and often gave them explicit requests and instructions.

The DEA used at least 33 Amtrak workers and eight TSA workers as sources, paying the Amtrak employees more than $1.5 million and the TSA employees more than $94,000.

“We believe that DEA agents directed the actions of these sources extensively enough that they could not reasonably be understood to have acted ‘without direction’ and therefore do not fit the definition or purpose of ‘Limited Use,’” the report said.

The DOJ also found that the DEA did not properly oversee the payments or maintain metrics to measure the overall success rate of the program.

“They did not keep records on what the overall success rate was,” Horowitz said. “We don’t know, for example, whether they were batting 1.000 or batting .050. That’s a concern.”

Rob Patterson, the DEA’s chief inspector, testified that the agency is overhauling the program, and plans to keep better metrics to track exactly what the DEA is getting in return for the cash rewards.

“We are working on properly staffing and reviewing a number of these issues at the headquarters level, making sure that the data getting into our system is proper,” Patterson said.