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DEA’s Domestic Surveillance Mission Creep: Beyond Drugs, Beyond Protests

by Jo Ellen Nott

An ongoing investigation reveals that the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (“DEA”) involvement in domestic surveillance operations far exceeds its drug enforcement mandate.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Cato Institute in its litigation against the FBI and the Department of Justice show the DEA participated in nearly 30 such operations since 2005.

According to Patrick Eddington, senior fellow at Cato, “none of 27 specific episodes appear to have had any connection to the DEA’s stated mission of enforcing the nation’s drug laws.” Among those 27 episodes were security for four Super Bowls and 10 other high profile sporting events, five “unspecified assistance” after natural disasters, and several requiring “investigative assistance” after the murder of local police officers. 

The 2020 George Floyd protests triggered the public’s awareness of the DEA’s foray into domestic surveillance, but the Cato investigation suggests it is a much deeper, longer-running practice. The 27 episodes that are not connected to drug enforcement raise concerns about mission creep and potential civil liberties violations.

The expiration of FISA Section 702 at the end of last year presented an opportunity to tackle both domestic surveillance abuse and the DEA’s mission. While the passage of the FISA Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2023 on December 7, 2023, did address several concerns of surveillance reform, it did not directly address mission creep by the DEA. The FISA reform bill strengthens checks and balances for agencies under FISA, but it did not explicitly target the DEA’s practices.

Addressing DEA mission creep will require separate initiatives such as congressional investigations or hearings, legislation specifically targeting DEA practices, and transparency measures to mandate greater accountability for the DEA’s surveillance activities.   


Sources: House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Reason, The Washington Times

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