Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are pressing Attorney General William Barr and his former aide, the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, to end its spying on people protesting against institutional racism in policing.
Not only do Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chair Karen Bass (D-CA) say the DEA’s apparent surveillance is unwarranted, they point out that the DEA has a record of racially unequal enforcement.
“The DEA’s narcotics interdiction tactics are not appropriate measures to address the limited violence that has taken place over the past few days or to monitor peaceful protests,” Nadler and Bass wrote in a Friday letter shared with The Daily Beast. “[W]e ask that you immediately rescind the expanded authorities… granted to the DEA.”
Citing an internal DEA document, Buzzfeed News reported earlier this week that the DEA received approval on Sunday from a senior Justice Department official to surpass its legal mandates to conduct domestic surveillance only in matters of drug-related crimes. It made DEA the latest adjunct of Barr’s expansive crackdown on the nationwide protests under the guise of curbing violence—the majority of which has been committed by police.
The document permits the DEA to conduct “covert surveillance” as well as to “intervene” if necessary “as Federal law enforcement officers,” to include “conducting interviews, conducting searches, and making arrests for violations of federal law.” Its mandate, according to the document, lasts 14 days and began on May 31, the day Trump declared antifa “terrorists.”
The powers extend “on a nationwide basis,” the document states.
DEA’s current acting director is Timothy Shea, a former senior aide to Barr. Before heading to DEA, Shea was acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, where he overruled career prosecutors to grant sentencing leniency to Trump ally Roger Stone and filed a motion to drop the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn.
DEA’s surveillance powers are substantial. They prefigured the bulk warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international calls performed after 9/11 by the National Security Agency. The Sunday memo did not mention any legal or constitutional bounds the current DEA surveillance must observe. “[T]he attorney general is authorized to designate DEA to perform other law enforcement duties as he may deem appropriate,” it reads.
“The expansion of the DEA’s law enforcement authority, including the use of ‘covert surveillance’ and collection of intelligence, is unwarranted and antithetical to the American people’s right to peacefully assemble and to exercise their Constitutional rights without undue intrusion,” Nadler and Bass wrote.
In the past week, Barr has marshaled an extraordinary and largely unexplained effort to crack down on the protests, especially in the nation’s capital. A host of masked officers without visible insignia have taken positions around D.C., many of them from the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Homeland Security. Yahoo News reported on Friday that their presence in the district totals 1,300. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Friday requested Trump withdraw the “unidentified federal personnel” whose unaccountable presence “pose both safety and national security risks.”
Nadler and Bass cited a 2009 federal study finding DEA disproportionately targeted Latino suspects. They warned that the addition of DEA surveillance “may only continue the disproportionate arrest trends that, in part, motivate the expressions of outrage that we are witnessing.”
Representatives for the DEA and Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.