By Andrew O’Hehir
So the paranoid hippie pot dealer you knew in college was right all along: The feds really were after him. In the latest post-Snowden bombshell about the extent and consequences of government spying, we learned from Reuters reporters this week that a secret branch of the DEA called the Special Operations Division – so secret that nearly everything about it is classified, including the size of its budget and the location of its office — has been using the immense pools of data collected by the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies to go after American citizens for ordinary drug crimes. Law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, have been coached to conceal the existence of the program and the source of the information by creating what’s called a “parallel construction,” a fake or misleading trail of evidence. So no one in the court system – not the defendant or the defense attorney, not even the prosecutor or the judge – can ever trace the case back to its true origins.
On one hand, we all knew more revelations were coming, and the idea that the government would go after drug suspects with the same dubious extrajudicial methods used to pursue terrorism suspects is a classic and not terribly surprising example of mission creep. Both groups have been held up as bogeymen for years, in order to scare the public into accepting ever nastier and more repressive laws. This gives government officials another chance to talk to us in their stern grown-up voices about how this isn’t civics class, and sometimes they have to bend the rules to catch Really Bad People.
On the other hand, this is a genuinely sinister turn of events with a whiff of science-fiction nightmare, one that has sounded loud alarm bells for many people in the mainstream legal world. Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law professor who spent 18 years as a federal judge and cannot be accused of being a radical, told Reuters she finds the DEA story more troubling than anything in Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. It’s the first clear evidence that the “special rules” and disregard for constitutional law that have characterized the hunt for so-called terrorists have crept into the domestic criminal justice system on a significant scale. “It sounds like they are phonying up investigations,” she said. Maybe this is how a police state comes to America: Not with a bang, but with a parallel construction.