DEA’s Domestic Surveillance ‘Mission Creep’
Normally, when Americans see a story mentioning the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), they expect it to deal with the nation’s endless (and futile) war on drugs. And most of the time, the news about or coming from the DEA concerns illicit drug trafficking, arrests, and prosecutions. But during the 2020 national protests against the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the DEA got publicity for another mission its leadership generally doesn’t want to discuss: domestic surveillance.
On June 2, 2020, BuzzFeed News reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier broke the story that the Justice Department (DOJ) had authorized the DEA to go outside of its normal legal boundaries of drug enforcement. The DEA was authorized “to enforce any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd.” The mission included “covert surveillance,” according to the DEA memo obtained by BuzzFeed.
That authority was supposed to expire after two weeks, but after pursuing litigation using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), an investigation by the Cato Institute has thus far failed to confirm that the DEA’s covert surveillance operations were, in fact, terminated by mid-June 2020. Moreover, DOJ documents obtained by Cato in the litigation show that the DEA has engaged in such non-drug enforcement operations nearly 30 times since February 2005.
Of the 27 specific episodes listed in the documents, four involved providing security at Super Bowls and 10 other sporting events; five involved unspecified “assistance” after natural disasters, including after Hurricane Matthew in Haiti in 2016; three others involved “investigative assistance” after the murder of local police officers in Dallas, San Antonio, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. None of the 27 episodes appear to have had any connection to the DEA’s stated mission of enforcing the nation’s drug laws.
To date, no explanation as to why state and local law enforcement agencies were somehow inadequate at providing security or appropriate investiga
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