DEA and TSA teamed up to trash the Fourth Amendment

  • 9 December 2016
  • NormanL
DEA and TSA teamed up to trash the Fourth Amendment

We know that fighting the illegal drug trade is tough, and often dangerous, work. Smugglers are crafty, and determined. But so is the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has a vast array of tools in its arsenal to fight the smugglers. But as this report shows, one tool the DEA used was paying other government agencies bounties for helping them search for drugs -- including the TSA, which opened and seached luggage in exchange for cash:

A committee of Congress heard remarkable testimony last week about a long-running programme by the Drug Enforcement Administration. For years, officials from the Department of Justice testified, the DEA has paid millions of dollars to a variety of confidential sources to provide tips on travellers who may be transporting drugs or large sums of money. Those sources include staff at airlines, Amtrak, parcel services and even the Transportation Safety Administration.

The testimony follows a report by the Justice Department that uncovered the DEA programme and detailed its many potential violations. According to that report, airline employees and other informers had an incentive to search more travellers’ bags, since they received payment whenever their actions resulted in DEA seizures of cash or contraband. The best-compensated of these appears to have been a parcel company employee who received more than $1m from the DEA over five years. One airline worker, meanwhile, received $617,676 from 2012 to 2015 for tips that led to confiscations. But the DEA itself profited much more from the programme. That well-paid informant got only about 12% of the amount the agency seized as a result of the his tips.

While the DEA and its informants may have profited nicely, travellers no doubt paid the price in increased searches. We have no idea as to the extent of the problem because the DEA did not keep records on tips and searches that did not lead to seizures. As Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz put it at the tribunal: “We don’t know, for example, whether they were batting 1.000 or batting .050.” For every successful seizure, there might have been 10 passengers inconvenienced by a search. Or 100. Or 1,000.

That is not merely an inconvenience. It is probably a violation of protocol and the law. According to the Justice Department report, paying TSA employees to spy on travellers was a clear violation of DEA policy: those working for law enforcement agencies in their official capacity can’t also be confidential sources. Likewise, encouraging TSA and other employees to search bags and parcels may have infringed people’s constitutional protection under the Fourth Amendment, against “unreasonable searches and seizures”.

The DEA says it has ended the program, and has promised it won't do it again.