DEA Tried Hiding That Confidential Sources Aren’t Vetted

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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Drug traffickers cooperating with federal investigators often aren’t vetted before getting a free pass to buy and sell narcotics, a government watchdog revealed today, even though Drug Enforcement Agency officials illegally tried hiding the information.

“Despite various instances of DEA resistance to our audit, which have impeded the IG’s ability to perform the comprehensive audit as planned, the IG has identified certain deficiencies that we believe are indicative of inadequate oversight and management by the DEA of its Confidential Source Program,” the Department of Justice Inspector General said in a report made public Tuesday.

The DEA’s policies allow it to forgo screening high-risk confidential sources, ranging from drug traffickers to journalists – sometimes allowing them to commit crimes, the IG said. The same watchdog issued a report with similar findings a decade ago.

DEA officials delayed completion of the IG’s report by blocking investigators from relevant information, contrary to the Inspector General Act.

That opposition was so serious that DOJIG Michael Horowitz said in a podcast released with the report that whenever his investigators were blocked, “the matters were resolved only after I personally elevated them to the level of the DEA Administrator.”

A DEA spokesman declined to comment on the IG report.

“The DEA has seriously impeded the IG’s audit process, which has affected our ability to conduct a timely, full, and effective review of the DEA’s Confidential Source Program,” the report said. “As a result, over one year after initiating this audit, the IG has been unable to completely address our original audit objective.”

Horowitz said the DEA obstacles “are just unacceptable. Without unfettered access to information, we simply can’t do the work that the department, the Congress, and the American taxpayers expect and require of us, and problems such as the ones described in today’s report are more likely to continue unfixed for lengthy periods of time – if we even discover them at all, without that kind of access to information.”

DEA officials tried to prohibit IG investigators from observing how files for confidential sources were reviewed. Also, document requests were delayed, “sometimes for months at a time,” Horowitz said.

Associate Deputy Attorney General Daniel Grooms wrote in his response to the IG that “while we believe that DEA’s goal throughout the process has been to cooperate with the IG review, consistent with their obligations to protect the agency’s [confidential sources] program, we regret any delays to OIG’s work.”

The IG is continuing its investigation.

Even with the internal obstacles erected by DEA, Horowitz’s investigators uncovered evidence that raises “significant concerns for one of the DEA’s most significant and sensitive programs,” Horowitz said in a video that was also released in conjunction with the report.

“We found that from 2003 to 2012, the DEA committee charged with reviewing these long-term sources considered each source for an average of just one minute each,” Horowitz said. “And that’s when there was any review at all.”

“These reviews are important because of the significant risk that an improper relationship between government handlers and sources could be allowed to continue over many years,” he continued.

DEA officials often didn’t vet individuals that posed “an increased risk to the public,” like drug traffickers, before accepting them as confidential sources, the report said.

The Sensitive Activity Review Committee was supposedly responsible for the vetting process, according to the DEA. The agency’s policy, however, doesn’t actually require the panel to review how confidential sources are initially registered or used.

Consequently, the committee “does not actually do these reviews,” Horowitz said. “That’s obviously the problem.”

Additionally, the DEA doesn’t thoroughly review, approve and revoke confidential sources’ ability to break the law with the government’s permission.

The DEA, for example, may allow a potentially unscreened confidential source to buy and sell illegal drugs in an effort to catch the leader of the operation.

“Inadequate oversight in this area could prove detrimental to DEA: It could jeopardize the success of its operations and expose DEA to unnecessary liability,” Horowitz said.

“Further, an ill-considered or unclear decision to authorize a confidential source to engage in [illegal activities] may create significant difficulties in prosecuting the source or co-conspirators on charges related to the source’s activities,” the report said.

Other Justice Department agencies must conform to stricter policies for confidential sources, according to the report.

Many confidential sources for the DEA also received federal employee and disability benefits.

But “it’s unclear if confidential sources qualify as federal employees, and in turn whether they qualify for any” of the associated benefits, Horowitz said. “And, we found that DEA was in some cases inappropriately continuing to use and pay confidential sources, who were at the same time receiving full disability benefits.”

The DEA paid around $1 million in benefits to 17 investigated confidential sources or their dependents from July 2013 to June 2014, the IG estimated.

“In December 2014, the Deputy Attorney General directed DEA and the Criminal Division to conduct a comprehensive process to review and revise” policies so they conform with the department’s guidelines, Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said in a statement.

Rodenbush said DEA put a moratorium on federal “benefits for confidential sources and is reviewing their polices and procedures for handling current recipients.”

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