The US Department of Justice is reviewing a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) unit that passes tips culled from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a large telephone database to field agents, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Monday.
Reuters reported on Monday that agents who use such tips are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively conceal the DEA unit’s involvement from defense lawyers, prosecutors and even judges, a policy many lawyers said could violate a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Federal drug agents call the process of changing the true genesis of an arrest “parallel construction,” according to a training document.
Although the DEA program may use legal means to collect and distribute the tips, critics say that by hiding the origin of a case, defendants may not know about potentially exculpatory evidence.
“It’s my understanding that the Department of Justice is looking at some of the issues raised in the story,” Carney said during his daily briefing at the White House.
Carney referred reporters to a justice department spokesman, who confirmed that a review was under way, but declined further comment.
In an interview last month, two senior DEA officials defended the program, saying it has been in place since the late 1990s, has been reviewed by every US attorney general since then and is perfectly legal.
One DEA official said “parallel construction” is used every day by agents and police nationwide and is “a bedrock concept.”
The program, run by the DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD), differs in several respects from US National Security Agency (NSA) activities revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Among these is disclosure to the accused.
Collection of domestic data by the NSA and FBI for espionage and terrorism cases is regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
If prosecutors intend to use FISA or other classified evidence in court, they issue a public notice and a judge determines whether the defense is entitled to review the evidence.
In the DEA’s case, a document reviewed by Reuters shows that federal drug agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to conceal the SOD’s involvement.
Defense attorneys say the practice prevents defendants from even knowing about evidence that might help their cases.