Civilian Asset Forfeiture and the War on Drugs are both cash cows for the domestic police state.
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.”
In most cases, records show the agents gave the suspected couriers a receipt for the cash — sometimes totaling $50,000 or more, stuffed into suitcases or socks — and sent them on their way without ever charging them with a crime.
The DEA would not comment on how it obtains records of Americans’ domestic travel, or on what scale. But court records and interviews with agents, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to discuss DEA operations, make clear that it is extensive. In one 2009 court filing, for example, Justice Department lawyers said agents took $44,010 from two people traveling on a train to Denver after picking them out during “a routine review of the computerized travel manifest for Amtrak.”
USA TODAY identified 87 cases in recent years in which the Justice Department went to federal court to seize cash from travelers after agents said they had been tipped off to a suspicious itinerary. Those cases likely represent only a small fraction of the instances in which agents have stopped travelers or seized cash based on their travel patterns, because few such encounters ever make it to court.
Those cases nonetheless offer evidence of the program’s sweep. Filings show agents were able to profile passengers on Amtrak and nearly every major U.S. airline, often without the companies’ consent. “We won’t release that information without a subpoena,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.
By itself, a suspicious itinerary amounts to little more than a tip; it’s not enough evidence to permit agents to detain passengers, search their bags or seize their cash. Instead, agents use it to approach travelers and ask if they would be willing to answer a few questions, a process that often ends with them either asking for permission to search the person’s bags or having a dog sniff them for drugs.