An intensely troubling report proves the DEA pilfers millions in cash from travelers with little, if any, evidence they committed even minor crimes — and virtually never return any of the money, even if charges are never levied.
Worse, simply purchasing a one-way ticket — or even flying to California — constitutes sufficient reason for the DEA to target someone for a potential cash seizure.
“We want the cash,” George Hood, a now-retired agent who supervised a drug task force assigned to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, arrogantly boasted of supposed attempts to bring down cartels via their wallets. “Good agents chase cash.”
USA Today studied the DEA’s airport operations, and though information was difficult to obtain — due, in large part, to the rarity cash seizures led to arrests or even detainments by agents — it’s clear the agency has reaped an astonishing profit by regularly mining the travel records of millions of people.
As USA Today wrote of the cash-grabbing operation:
“It is a lucrative endeavor, and one that remains largely unknown outside the drug agency. DEA agents 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 onto local police departments that lend officers to assist the drug agency.”
Those departments and the agency “count on this as part of the budget,” explained Louis Weiss, a former agent supervising the group assigned to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
Agents frequently receive tips about putatively suspicious itineraries or travel patterns — paying in cash, purchasing a one-way ticket, or even having checked luggage — but cannot use such tips alone to detain passengers or search their belongings. After being alerted, agents use the information to question travelers and ask to search their bags.
Most often, agents seize large sums of cash — “sometimes totaling $50,000 or more, stuffed into suitcases or socks” — leaving a receipt in its place without ever arresting, detaining, or charging individuals with any crime.
Totals seized by the DEA vary widely by location: in Los Angeles, the total through mid-2015 topped $52.1 million; in Cincinnati, $18,047 — but that isn’t accidental. Destinations in California were flagged for connections to marijuana and narcotics trafficking.
Exactly how the DEA procures Americans’ travel records remains uncertain, as is the scope of the agency’s snooping — but USA Today spoke with several agents on condition of anonymity who made clear the cash-filching operation is extensive.
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However unethical it might be to plunder money from wholly innocent people, under federal asset forfeiture law, the practice is perfectly legal. Any law enforcement agency has broad powers to seize cash and property from anyone if those items are suspected to be somehow related to a crime — but the hotly contentious program does not require any proof a crime has been committed or that the subject has been involved in criminal activity.
“Going after someone’s property has nothing to do with protecting them and it has everything to do with going after the money,” Renée Flaherty, attorney with the asset forfeiture-specializing Institute for Justice, aptly noted for USA Today.
Asset forfeiture has spurred so much controversy, the Department of Justice halted the program in late December 2015 — but the respite for the American public didn’t last long. Just three months later, the DOJ reinstated its highly lucrative property plundering, because revenue — from the government’s standpoint, what better way exists to rob the public blind with veritable impunity.
“To put it simply,”USA Todayobserved in 2013, law enforcement is “developing an addiction to drug money.”
Besides suspect travel plans, agents also use drug-sniffing K-9s to detect drugs in travelers bags as a pretext for searches, which could then lead to a lucrative seizure — a distressing fact, given a study seven years ago found cocaine residue on 90 percent of U.S. dollars. Thus, nearly anyone traveling with cash in their luggage — particularly in large amounts — could easily tip off a canine investigator.
According to five current and former agents who spoke with USA Today, the DEA has been able to cultivate a sweeping network of informants trained to scrutinize itineraries and tip off the agency — and most receive what amounts to kickbacks for their efforts in the form of a percentage of the haul. Indeed the web of informants is so extensive, “agents have been able to profile passengers traveling on most major airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United and others.”
Those airlines, however — acting with ethical integrity clearly devoid in government agencies — for the most part, remain reluctant to cooperate with the DEA’s efforts and would not hand over passenger information.
“They really did not want to be associated with subjecting their passengers to government scrutiny because of privacy issues,” Weiss explained. “They discouraged their employees from assisting us.”
Agents also told the news outlet in many cases, grounds even to arrest supposed couriers were hazy at best, and upon release would use the incident to sniff out more extensive trafficking involvement. But almost none of the encounters ever led to arrests or charges directly stemming from the DEA’s search and seizure operations.
“Of 87 cases USA Today identified in which the DEA seized cash after flagging a suspicious itinerary, only two resulted in the alleged courier being charged with a crime,” the outlet reported. “One involved a woman who was already a target of a federal money-laundering investigation; another alleged courier was arrested a month later on an apparently unrelated drug charge.”
Without arrests or charges — without crime — attached to almost any of the DEA’s cash grabs, how the program remains legal is anyone’s guess. Agents admitted that despite fairly significant busts of actual drugs, the DEA’s mission primarily rests in seizing cash.
And as the horribly failed and altogether farcically-premised drug war labors forward — reaffirmed by today’s announcement from the DEA it has no intent to reschedule cannabis from its position alongside cocaine and heroin as a dangerous substance with no medical value — Americans can expect the government’s legalized robbery scam to continue unabated.