Two lawmakers have called for the Drug Enforcement Administration to stop conducting covert surveillance on civilians as part of the government’s plan to confront widespread protests following the killing of George Floyd last week.
The Justice Department temporarily expanded the DEA’s power to collect information on protesters — and to share that intelligence with other law enforcement agencies and make arrests for non-drug-related crimes — last weekend. The measure, first reported by BuzzFeed News, followed remarks by Attorney General Bill Barr that blamed, without evidence, “anarchistic and far left extremist groups” for the unrest.
In a letter sent to Barr and Timothy Shea, the acting administrator of the DEA, Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler and Karen Bass on Friday called the expansion of the drug agency’s powers “antithetical to the American people’s right to peacefully assemble and to exercise their Constitutional rights without undue intrusion.”
Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee, of which Bass is also a member. The two lawmakers demanded Barr and Shea "immediately rescind" the sweeping new authority granted to the DEA and asked for “a briefing detailing the timeline and rationale for the expansion of authority."
As unrest about racial injustice spread across America over the past two weeks, at times spilling over into property destruction and looting, the Trump administration has taken an increasingly adversarial posture.
In recent days, the Justice Department has deployed agents from the FBI, DEA, US Marshals, Bureau of Prisons, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to back up local police. An email obtained by BuzzFeed News this week showed that the DEA on Tuesday was seeking to send 25 agents to assist with “security” in Washington as well as members of the DEA's Special Response Team, which among other activities conducts surveillance.
The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, sent officers to multiple cities and launched a Predator drone to circle above protesters in Minneapolis, where a police officer killed Floyd after kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes on May 25.
Because the DEA is normally restricted to enforcing drug-related federal crimes, the agency needed special permission to carry out operations against protesters. On Sunday, acting DEA administrator Shea, a former US attorney known to be close to Barr, received written approval to go beyond the normal mandate to perform functions that the attorney general may “deem appropriate.” This expanded authority is for two weeks.
News of the unusual expansion of powers raised concerns among critics, including the ACLU, that gathering intelligence on civilians could infringe on their First Amendment right to protest.
Nadler and Bass, in their letter, raised separate concerns about the DEA’s “history and practice of disproportionately targeting people of color.”
The lawmakers cited a 2009 government report that found Latinos made up 46% of DEA’s arrestees but only 16% of the US population, and pointed to statistics showing that more than a quarter of the DEA’s arrests of male suspects were for marijuana violations. Nadler and Bass called that track record “out of touch” with contemporary models of enforcing drug laws, and raised concerns that “wider deployment of the DEA may only continue the disproportionate arrest trends that, in part, motivate the expressions of outrage that we are witnessing.”
On Monday, Democratic Reps. Andy Levin, Jamie Raskin and Ilhan Omar, who represents Minnesota, sent their own letter to Barr demanding he rescind the expanded surveillance powers granted to the DEA and “ensure that DEA activities do not exceed the scope of authority granted to the agency by Congress.”
“The memo fails to describe or place any guardrails around such surveillance, thus opening the door to sweeping, warrantless surveillance activities inconsistent with the preservation of civil liberties,” the lawmakers wrote.
A spokesperson for the DEA said the agency will “respond appropriately.” The Justice Department did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The unusual deployment of the DEA and other agencies has also rankled top Senate Democrats who demanded answers by Monday about the use of "extraordinary authorities" to crack down on the protests.
Citing BuzzFeed News's reporting, minority leader Chuck Schumer, along with four other Democratic senators, sent a letter Friday to Barr, Department of Homeland Security acting administrator Chad Wolf, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt requesting detailed information about federal law enforcement personnel possibly being "inappropriately mobilized in response to protests over the death of George Floyd."
Noting that a “hybrid force” drawing from the Secret Service, US Park Police, and DC National Guard had aided police efforts to forcibly remove protesters from Lafayette Park in Washington using tear gas and rubber bullets, the letter demanded information about what authorities those agencies were exercising and how the Constitutional rights of civilians were being protected in a time of social unrest.
“We are deeply concerned that, in the wake of the horrific killing in Minnesota, there is a lack of transparency regarding the forces you have deployed and under what authorities you have deployed them,” read the letter, which was also signed by Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Gary Peters, the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “These actions only further undermine the American people’s faith in their law enforcement."
Requests for comment from the Department of Interior, Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon were not immediately returned.
The DEA's role in gathering intelligence on citizens dates back to the early 1990s, when Barr, serving as attorney general under then-president George H. W. Bush, approved a bulk surveillance program that scooped up billions of phone records without warrants or a legal review. Last December, Sens. Ron Wyden and Patrick Leahy called for a Justice Department ethics investigation into Barr's decision to authorize the DEA program.
Separately, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee sent a letter Friday to Chad Wolf, the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, about the agency’s use of a Predator drone, as well as immigration and border agents to “surveil and intimidate peaceful protesters.”
The committee requested a wide range of documents about the details and costs associated with the agency’s operations.
"The deployment of drones and officers to surveil protests is a gross abuse of authority and is particularly chilling when used against Americans who are protesting law enforcement brutality," wrote Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jamie Raskin, Stephen Lynch, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley.
This story was updated to include information about a letter top Senate Democrats sent to Barr and other agency heads Friday requesting details about their role in quelling the protests.
This story was updated to reflect that three additional lawmakers wrote to Attorney General Bill Barr demanding the DEA cease surveilling protestors.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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