The Drug Enforcement Administration failed to adequately monitor undercover agents who had infiltrated drug cartels and participated in illegal transactions to gather evidence, potentially increasing the flow of drugs into the United States, the Justice Department watchdog said in a scathing report Wednesday.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz and his team reviewed the DEA’s oversight of its income-generating undercover operations between 2015 and 2017. In some cases, Mr. Howoritz questioned whether the DEA was inadvertently assisting the drug cartels.
In one case, the DEA helped a drug trafficking organization, or DTO, purchase an aircraft. However, the DEA had no documentation that it took any action to mitigate the risk that the aircraft would be used by the DTO to perpetuate their crimes, the report said.
“While the ultimate goals of prosecuting drug traffickers and dismantling trafficking organizations supports the DEA’s mission, the collateral consequences of assisting the basic operation of a drug trafficking organization does not,” Mr. Horowitz wrote in the report.
These operations are largely referred to as Attorney General Exempted Operations, or AGEOs, which authorize the DEA to conduct undercover illegal drug trafficking and money laundering transactions to gather evidence.
The DEA has defended its AGEO program, saying the cases reviewed by the inspector general have contributed to more than 1,400 arrests in the United States and abroad and led to the seizure of $1.4 billion in cash and assets, 83 tons of cocaine and 782 kilograms of heroin and fentanyl.
But Mr. Horowitz concluded the DEA failed to comply with Justice Department regulations that would have reduced the risk of the undercover operations assisting drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and also did not properly account for the money generated through undercover transactions.
“Any contributions to these DTOs connects the DEA to potentially violent and corrupt transactional entities,” Mr. Horowitz wrote. “Although AGEOs can be an effective law enforcement tool, the DEA and DOJ must improve guidance, oversight and management of AGEOs to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risk of the DEA engaging in authorized illegal activities.”
The DEA also failed to follow statutory safeguards to reduce risk created by its undercover operations, Mr. Horowitz said. DEA officials are required to submit an annual report of proposed undercover operations to the attorney general and other top officials for review.
However, officials only sent an annual report to the attorney general addressing the number of AGEOs, which is inconsistent with requirements, the report said.
The DEA is also required to submit an annual report to Congress on undercover operations, but has not done so since 2006, Mr. Horowitz revealed.
“Because the DEA has not provided reports to Congress, there is limited congressional insight into the DEA’s use of this investigative technique involving certain authorized undercover illegal activities and the benefits it provides to the American taxpayer,” the report said.
Furthermore, the DEA failed to properly safeguard funds generated from undercover operations, opening it up to potential fraud, waste and abuse.
Although the money must either be forfeited to the assets forfeiture fund or used to offset some of the operation’s expenses, Mr. Horowitz found money was routinely transferred between operations, violating federal law.
Mr. Horowitz’s team found two examples where filed officers mistakenly spent the money acquired from one AGEO to pay the expenses of another AGEO. All told, the inspector general found more than $200,000 in unauthorized spending.
The DEA said it concurs with the inspector general’s recommendations, according to a response included in the report.
“While the report rightly identifies areas for improvement we believe that it is also important to highlight the positive progress the DEA has made in the last several years to improve its Attorney General Exempted Operations program to include enhanced oversight of this valuable law enforcement tool,” wrote Mary B. Schaefer, chief compliance officer at the DEA.
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