The raft of San Diego drug-trade snitches used by the Drug Enforcement Agency may not be up to snuff, and that could be bad news for the public's safety and the policing of the region’s burgeoning narcotics business, not to mention taxpayers.
So says a July 21 report by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, entitled "Audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Confidential Source Policies and Oversight of Higher-Risk Confidential Sources," that has unearthed a plethora of bad policies involving the tracking, recruiting, and paying of informants who rat out those in drug cases.
The attorney general's office "uses the term 'confidential informant,' while the DEA uses the term 'confidential source,'" the audit explains.
"Both terms refer to any individual who provides useful and credible information regarding criminal activities, and from whom the [Department of Justice] law enforcement agent expects or intends to obtain additional useful and credible information regarding such activities in the future."
The report continues, "we judgmentally selected the Chicago and San Diego Field Divisions as locations for preliminary site visits to perform a limited review of confidential source files.”
According to the document, “During the visits, we requested and reviewed various queries from the DEA’s electronic source management system and subsequently selected and reviewed 17 confidential source files for more detailed analysis. We also reviewed three closed investigative case files that were referred to in two of the confidential source files."
What they found wasn't pretty, even for the murky netherworld of government stoolies.
But first, the auditors say, they had to cope with some bad acting by the agency itself.
"Our audit work thus far has been seriously delayed by numerous instances of uncooperativeness from the DEA, including attempts to prohibit the [Office of Inspector General's] observation of confidential source file reviews and delays, for months at a time, in providing the OIG with requested confidential source information and documentation," according to the document.
"In each instance, the matters were resolved only after the Inspector General elevated them to the DEA Administrator."
Adds the report, "As a result, over 1 year after we initiated this review, the OIG only has been able to conduct a limited review of the DEA’s Confidential Source Program….
"Nevertheless, we have uncovered several significant issues related to the DEA’s management of its Confidential Source Program that we believe require the prompt attention of DOJ and DEA leadership, as identified in this report. We will continue to audit the DEA’s Confidential Source Program to more fully assess the DEA’s management and oversight of its confidential sources.
According to what the auditors did turn up, the DEA has allowed its agents to "use high-risk individuals as confidential sources" without adequate review.
"These categories include individuals who are part of drug trafficking organization leadership, as well as individuals who are lawyers, doctors, or journalists."
Says the document, "During our limited review of confidential source files, we identified two DEA confidential sources who were attorneys. Despite these individuals’ privileged status, the confidential source files did not contain any documentation indicating that the DEA’s legal staff had reviewed the establishment of the confidential source or that the confidential sources were ever categorized as Protected Name confidential sources because they were parties to protected communications."
The audit also found that the DEA hasn't been giving proper guidance regarding "reviewing, approving, and revoking confidential sources’ authorization to conduct Otherwise Illegal Activity….
"For instance, confidential sources may engage in illegal activity that has not been adequately considered, or may overstep their boundaries with a mistaken belief that the DEA sanctions any illegal activities in which they participate."
Adding to the problem, the report says, is a chronic failure to adequately review so-called long-term sources.
"This created a significant risk that improper relationships between government handlers and sources could be allowed to continue over many years, potentially resulting in the divulging of sensitive information or other adverse consequences for the government."
The auditors found that "in some cases, the DEA continued to use, for up to 6 years without any DOJ intervention, individuals who were involved in unauthorized illegal activities and who were under investigation by federal entities."
The DEA also needs to pay more attention to informants who hold federal licenses to deal in controlled substances "to ensure that no licensee is led to believe that the continued validity of their license is in any way predicated on their status as a source."
Notes the audit, "This was an issue we highlighted in our report on the Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Operation Fast and Furious, where ATF was obtaining information in connection with its criminal investigations from individuals who were also Federal Firearm Licensees."
Perhaps most painful to taxpayers is the audit's finding that in just one year, from July 2013 through July 2014, "the DEA paid 17 confidential sources or their dependents [Federal Employees’ Compensation Act] benefits totaling approximately $1.034 million."
The agency lacked an adequate process for “thoroughly reviewing the claims for confidential sources or determining eligibility for these benefits," says the document.
"In addition, the DEA did not oversee and ensure that the established pay rate for these sources was proper and inappropriately continued using and paying confidential sources who were also receiving full disability payments through [the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act].”
According to the report, costs have been adding up.
“In one particular case we reviewed, the confidential source was killed in July 1989 and his surviving family, which included a widow and dependents, began receiving FECA payments of $4,287 every 4 weeks.”
Says the document, “At the time of her death in 2012, the widow’s 4-week payment amount had increased to $6,311. Therefore, this family alone received over $1.3 million in FECA benefits since 1989. Although the exact amount of DEA confidential source FECA payments is unknown, it is clear that significant taxpayer dollars have been expended.”
Adds the report, “We also found that the DEA had not adequately considered the implications of awarding such benefits on the disclosure obligations of federal prosecutors, and had not consulted the Department about the issue."
The current investigation is just the beginning, according to the audit.
"As we continue assessing the DEA’s Confidential Source Program and get access to more information from the DEA, we expect to conduct in-depth analyses of the types of, payments to, controls over, and use of confidential sources."
Meanwhile, "we believe prompt action by the Department and DEA is required to address the issues summarized in this report that directly impact oversight of a highly sensitive and important DEA program."
A June 30 response from the Justice Department concurred with the auditors' findings and outlined a series of steps for improvement, including revision of the DEA Special Agents' Manual.
"While we believe that DEA's goal through this process has been to cooperate with the [Office of Inspector General’s] review consistent with their obligations to protect the agency's [Confidential Source] Program, we regret any delays to [the inspector general's] work.”