DEA regularly mines Americans' travel records to seize millions in cash

Posted: Tuesday August 23, 2016, 2:20 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Federal drug agents regularly mine Americans’ travel information to profile people who might be ferrying money for narcotics traffickers — though they almost never use what they learn to make arrests or build criminal cases.

Instead, that targeting has helped the Drug Enforcement Administration seize a small fortune in cash.

DEA agents have profiled passengers on Amtrak trains and nearly every major U.S. airline, drawing on reports from a network of travel-industry informants that extends from ticket counters to back offices, a USA TODAY investigation has found. Agents assigned to airports and train stations singled out passengers for questioning or searches for reasons as seemingly benign as traveling one-way to California or having paid for a ticket in cash.

The DEA surveillance is separate from the vast and widely-known anti-terrorism apparatus that now surrounds air travel, which is rarely used for routine law enforcement. It has been carried out largely without the airlines’ knowledge.

It is a lucrative endeavor, and one that remains largely unknown outside the drug agency. DEA units assigned to patrol 15 of the nation’s busiest airports seized more than $209 million in cash from at least 5,200 people over the past decade after concluding the money was linked to drug trafficking, according to Justice Department records. Most of the money was passed on to local police departments that lend officers to assist the drug agency.

“They count on this as part of the budget,” said Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

DEA changes wiretap procedure after questionable eavesdropping cases

Posted: Tuesday August 23, 2016, 2:19 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration has ordered its agents to seek input from federal prosecutors before tapping Americans’ phone calls or text messages, months after it came under fire for a vast and legally questionable eavesdropping program in the Los Angeles suburbs.

The rules are a significant change for the drug agency, which had dramatically increased its use of wiretaps over the past decade by seeking authorization from state judges and prosecutors who were willing to approve the surveillance more quickly and with less scrutiny. By 2014, the DEA sent more than 60% of its wiretap applications to state courts, largely bypassing Justice Department lawyers.

The change was part of a wide-ranging review DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg ordered after he took office last year. A spokesman for the drug agency, Russ Baer, said the review identified “deficiencies” in how some agents sought approval for wiretaps.

“This is one of several areas the acting administrator looked at and said we can do better,” Baer said.

An investigation last year by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun found that the DEA and prosecutors in Riverside County, Calif., outside Los Angeles, had built a wiretapping program that secretly intercepted millions of calls and text messages based on the approval of a single state-court judge. Justice Department lawyers had warned agents that the surveillance — which at its peak accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps — likely violated a federal law.

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FBI warned agents not to share tech secrets with prosecutors

Posted: Monday April 25, 2016, 1:35 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The FBI guards its high-tech secrets so carefully that officials once warned agents not to share details even with federal prosecutors for fear they might eventually go on to work as defense attorneys, newly disclosed records show.

A supervisor also cautioned the bureau’s “technically trained agents” in a 2003 memo not to reveal techniques for secretly entering and bugging a suspect’s home to other agents who might be forced to reveal them in court. “We need to protect how our equipment is concealed,” the unnamed supervisor wrote.

The records, released this year as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, offer a rare view of the extent to which the FBI has sought to keep its most sensitive surveillance capabilities secret, even from others within federal law enforcement. That secrecy remains a common feature of the FBI’s most sophisticated investigations, including recent cases in which it cracked the encrypted iPhone of one of the gunmen in last year’s San Bernardino terror attacks and breached the anonymous Tor computer network.

But it has also alarmed some lawyers and privacy advocates, who worry that the secrecy makes it difficult for courts to scrutinize the agency’s tactics.

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200 imprisoned based on illegal cellphone tracking, review finds

Posted: Monday April 25, 2016, 1:32 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

Lawyers in Baltimore have identified as many as 200 people who were sent to prison based on evidence police gathered with the help of a powerful cellphone tracking tool that a state court has now ruled was used illegally.

The ruling, issued Wednesday by Maryland’s second-highest court, said Baltimore police violated the Constitution when they used one of the tracking devices to catch a shooting suspect without first obtaining a search warrant. It was the first time an appeals court had weighed in directly on the legality of phone-trackers that have been widely — and mostly secretly — used by police agencies for nearly a decade.

“Cellphone users have an objectively reasonable expectation that their cellphones will not be used as real-time tracking devices, through the direct and active interference of law enforcement,” a panel of three judges on Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals wrote. The judges also accused Baltimore authorities of misleading the lower-court judge who had approved their use of the device, commonly known as a stingray.

That decision could imperil hundreds of criminal convictions in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland, where police have used stingrays prolifically. An investigation last year by USA TODAY identified nearly 2,000 cases in Baltimore alone in which the police had secretly used stingrays to make arrests for everything from murder to petty thefts, typically without obtaining a search warrant.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Justice Department defends legality of vast DEA wiretap program

Posted: Monday April 25, 2016, 1:30 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

The Justice Department offered its first defense this week of a once-vast eavesdropping program carried out by federal drug agents in the Los Angeles suburbs over the objection of government lawyers who feared it was illegal.

The Justice Department urged a judge not to throw out a series of wiretaps agents used to arrest an accused marijuana trafficker, saying the surveillance was “authorized in accordance with state and federal law.” That defense came in a filing Monday in federal court in Louisville.

The Kentucky case is the first major challenge to a surveillance program by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors in Riverside County, Calif., so large that it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps. Monday’s filing was the first time the Justice Department expressed an opinion publicly on whether it was legal.

In it, prosecutors offered a narrow defense of the halted wiretap program, arguing mainly that the accused trafficker's lawyers had not offered up enough evidence that the particular taps used in that case violated federal law. But they attached evidence that could help the defense make that case.

The challenge follows an investigation last year by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun that found the DEA and prosecutors in Riverside County, outside Los Angeles, had constructed a vast and legally questionable wiretapping operation that secretly intercepted millions of calls and text messages with the approval of a single state court judge. Justice Department lawyers refused to use the results in federal court because they did not think the surveillance could withstand a legal challenge.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Prosecutors halt vast, likely illegal DEA wiretap operation

Posted: Thursday March 3, 2016, 4:47 AM>

By Brad Heath and Brett Kelman / USA TODAY

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Prosecutors in a Los Angeles suburb say they have dramatically scaled back a vast and legally questionable eavesdropping operation, built by federal drug agents, that once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps.

The wiretapping, authorized by prosecutors and a single state-court judge in Riverside County, alarmed privacy advocates and even some U.S. Justice Department lawyers, who warned that it was likely illegal. An investigation last year by The Desert Sun and USA TODAY found that the operation almost certainly violated federal wiretapping laws while using millions of secretly intercepted calls and texts to make hundreds of arrests nationwide.

Riverside’s district attorney, Mike Hestrin, acknowledged being concerned by the scope of that surveillance, and said he enacted “significant” reforms last summer to rein it in. Wiretap figures his office released this week offer the first evidence that the enormous eavesdropping program has wound down to more routine levels.

“I definitely don’t apologize for using this tool to hit the cartels in Riverside County,” said Hestrin, who took office last year. “I think the reforms I put in place were necessary, but this is still a tool that I believe in. It needs to be used cautiously, but it should be available when necessary.”

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

U.S. Marshals secretly tracked 6,000 cellphones

Posted: Thursday March 3, 2016, 4:44 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Federal marshals have secretly used powerful cellphone surveillance tools to hunt nearly 6,000 suspects throughout the United States, according to newly-disclosed records in which the agency inadvertently identified itself as the nation’s most prolific known user of phone-tracking devices.

The fact that the U.S. Marshals Service uses cellphone trackers, commonly known as stingrays, has long been among law enforcement’s worst-kept secrets, though the agency still refuses to acknowledge it. The Marshals Service confirmed its use of the devices to USA TODAY only in the process of trying to keep it secret, rejecting a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of its log of cases in which agents had used stingrays.

The Marshals Service’s response to that request included an almost totally censored spreadsheet listing its stingray cases, with information about the cases stripped out line by line, which made it possible to count the number of entries the agency had made on its log of stingray uses. The agency described the log in a letter as “a listing of IMSI catcher use,” using another name for the technology that intercepts cellphone signals.

Stingrays are suitcase-sized devices that can pinpoint a cellphone’s location within a few yards by posing as a cell tower. In the process, they also intercept information about other cellphones that happen to be nearby, a fact that has raised concerns among privacy advocates and some lawmakers. Dozens of police departments use the devices, often concealing that fact from suspects and their lawyers.

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FBI ran website sharing thousands of child porn images

Posted: Friday January 22, 2016, 11:53 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — For nearly two weeks last year, the FBI operated what it described as one of the Internet’s largest child pornography websites, allowing users to download thousands of illicit images and videos from a government site in the Washington suburbs.

The operation — whose details remain largely secret — was at least the third time in recent years that FBI agents took control of a child pornography site but left it online in an attempt to catch users who officials said would otherwise remain hidden behind an encrypted and anonymous computer network. In each case, the FBI infected the sites with software that punctured that security, allowing agents to identify hundreds of users.

The Justice Department acknowledged in court filings that the FBI operated the site, known as Playpen, from Feb. 20 to March 4, 2015. At the time, the site had more than 215,000 registered users and included links to more than 23,000 sexually explicit images and videos of children, including more than 9,000 files that users could download directly from the FBI. Some of the images described in court filings involved children barely old enough for kindergarten.

That approach is a significant departure from the government’s past tactics for battling online child porn, in which agents were instructed that they should not allow images of children being sexually assaulted to become public. The Justice Department has said that children depicted in such images are harmed each time they are viewed, and once those images leave the government’s control, agents have no way to prevent them from being copied and re-copied to other parts of the internet.

Officials acknowledged those risks, but said they had no other way to identify the people accessing the sites.

“We had a window of opportunity to get into one of the darkest places on Earth, and not a lot of other options except to not do it,” said Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official who was involved in planning one of the agency’s first efforts to take over a child porn site. “There was no other way we could identify as many players.”

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

After illegal wiretap, suspects go free and want a refund

Posted: Monday December 28, 2015, 4:01 PM>

By Brad Heath and Brett Kelman / USA TODAY

Federal drug agents spent months watching a tiny California jewelry store sandwiched between an auto parts shop and an apartment house with bars on its windows. They secretly recorded its owner’s phone calls and intercepted couriers carrying away boxes full of cash, sometimes stuffed with $100,000 or more. For more than a year, they gathered evidence that the store was laundering millions of dollars for drug traffickers.

Then, in the space of a few minutes in October, their whole case fell apart.

Prosecutors determined that wiretaps the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used as the core of its investigation were illegal and couldn’t be used in court. Four suspects went free, and they want the government to give back nearly $800,000 drug agents seized.

“These people were dealing in drugs, and they are guilty, and because of a procedural issue and a suppression motion, they got away with it,” said Mike Ramos, the district attorney in San Bernardino, Calif., whose office prosecuted the case.

The wiretaps prosecutors concluded were illegal had been approved by officials in Riverside County, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb responsible for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps last year. An investigation last month by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun found that prosecutors there almost certainly violated a federal law that requires the district attorney to personally sign off on wiretap applications. Those tainted wires were used to make arrests and seizures throughout the USA.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Police used apparently illegal wiretaps to make hundreds of arrests

Posted: Monday November 23, 2015, 7:05 PM>

By Brad Heath and Brett Kelman / USA TODAY

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Prosecutors in the Los Angeles suburb responsible for a huge share of the nation’s wiretaps almost certainly violated federal law when they authorized widespread eavesdropping that police used to make more than 300 arrests and seize millions of dollars in cash and drugs throughout the USA.

The violations could undermine the legality of as many as 738 wiretaps approved in Riverside County, Calif., since the middle of 2013, an investigation by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun, based on interviews and court records, has found. Prosecutors reported that those taps, often conducted by federal drug investigators, intercepted phone calls and text messages by more than 52,000 people.

Federal law bars the government from seeking court approval for a wiretap unless a top prosecutor has personally authorized the request. Congress added that restriction in the 1960s, when the FBI had secretly monitored civil rights leaders, to ensure that such intrusive surveillance would not be conducted lightly.

In Riverside County — a Los Angeles suburb whose court and prosecutors approved almost one of every five U.S. wiretaps last year — the district attorney turned the job of reviewing the applications over to lower-level lawyers, interviews and court records show. That practice almost certainly violated the federal wiretapping law and could jeopardize prosecutors’ ability to use the surveillance in court.

“A district attorney is playing with gunpowder if he ignores the potential implications of letting somebody else handle the entire process. That’s potentially catastrophic,” said Clifford Fishman, a Catholic University of America law professor who studies wiretapping.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.