DEA Agent Proposed Spying On Cars At Gun Shows

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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An agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) proposed using license plate readers to track vehicles parked at gun shows in order to investigate gun trafficking, an internal email reveals.

The 2009 proposal was part of a trove of documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal detailing a massive effort undertaken by the federal agency to track millions of vehicles in the U.S. using license plate readers.

“DEA Phoenix Division office is working closely with [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] on attacking the guns going to [redacted] and the guns shows, to include programs/operation with [license-plate readers] at the gun shows,” the redacted email reads.

The American Civil Liberties Union obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared them with the Journal.

The proposal to track vehicles at gun shows never got off the ground, according to DEA’s top brass.

“The proposal in the email was only a suggestion,” DEA administrator Michele Leonhart told the WSJ. “It was never authorized by DEA, and the idea under discussion in the email was never launched.”

The National Rifle Association, the largest gun rights group in the U.S., declined to comment for the Journal as it sought more information about the proposal.

While license plate readers have been used by local law enforcement agencies for years, the Journal’s first report on their use, published Monday, provides greater insight into the scope and purpose of the program.

The readers have gleaned information from millions of vehicles traveling on major U.S. highways. The information, stored in a database, is also accessible to some local law enforcement agencies.

One internal email obtained by the Journal indicated that the purpose of the license plate surveillance was increasing asset forfeitures. Asset forfeiture is the vehicles, cash and other assets law enforcement agencies obtain — and often keep — during the course of criminal investigations.

As the Journal points out, the proposal to spy on vehicles parked outside of gun shows was made at around the same time as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was conducting Fast and Furious, a gun trafficking investigation operated out of Phoenix in which the agency allowed gun sales to smugglers in hopes of tying them to Mexican drug cartels.

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