Thursday, November 05, 2020

Military And Law Enforcement Collaboration To Violate Rights And Grift Taxpayer Dollars

newyorker  |  Before dawn on January 23, 2019, Mark McConnell arrived at the Key West headquarters of the military and civilian task force that monitors drugs headed to the United States from the Southern Hemisphere. McConnell, a prosecutor at the Department of Justice and a former marine, left his phone in a box designed to block electronic transmissions, and passed through a metal detector and a key-card-protected air lock to enter the building. On the second floor, he punched in the code for his office door, then locked it behind him. On a computer approved for the handling of classified information, he loaded a series of screenshots he had taken, showing entries in a database called Helios, which federal law enforcement uses to track drug smugglers. McConnell e-mailed the images to a classified government hotline for whistle-blowers. Then he printed backup copies and, following government procedures for handling classified information, sealed them in an envelope that he placed in another envelope, marked “SECRET.” He hid the material behind a piece of furniture.

McConnell had uncovered what he described as a “criminal conspiracy” perpetrated by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. Every year, entries in the Helios database lead to hundreds of drug busts, which lead to prosecutions in American courts. The entries are typically submitted to Helios by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the F.B.I., and a division of the Department of Homeland Security. But McConnell had learned that more than a hundred entries in the database that were labelled as originating from F.B.I. investigations were actually from a secret C.I.A. surveillance program. He realized that C.I.A. officers and F.B.I. agents, in violation of federal law and Department of Justice guidelines, had concealed the information’s origins from federal prosecutors, leaving judges and defense lawyers in the dark. Critics call such concealment “intelligence laundering.” In the nineteen-seventies, after C.I.A. agents were found to have performed experiments with LSD on unwitting Americans and investigated Vietnam War protesters, restrictions were imposed that bar the agency from being involved in domestic law-enforcement activities. Since the country’s founding, judges, jurors, and defendants have generally had the right to know how evidence used in a trial was gathered. “This was undisclosed information, from an agency working internationally with different rules and standards,” Nancy Gertner, a retired federal district judge and a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, told me. “This should worry Trump voters who talk about a ‘deep state.’ This is the quintessential deep state. This is activities beyond your view, fundamentally affecting what happens in American courts.”

But the scheme benefitted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.: the former received information obtained during operations, and the latter reported increased arrests and was able to secure additional federal funding as a result. The scope of the scheme was corroborated in hundreds of pages of e-mails, transcripts, and other documents obtained by The New Yorker.

For weeks, C.I.A. officials had been trying to stop McConnell from revealing the agency’s activities. They sent a lawyer to Key West with nondisclosure agreements, but McConnell refused to sign. A day before his early arrival at the office, McConnell had learned of an order to delete the screenshots on his computer. “I knew that I had to get the electronic evidence to outside investigators,” he told me. “There was no doubt about what I needed to do, and there was no doubt retaliation against me would follow.” He worked quickly, not knowing when security officers would arrive. Later that day, they came to McConnell’s office and deleted the images.

A little more than a month later, after C.I.A. officials accused McConnell of “spilling” classified information, the director of the task force suspended him. Soon, the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, visited the task force and was briefed on the matter. According to a sworn affidavit that McConnell filed with the Senate Intelligence Committee, and to a source with knowledge of the meeting, Haspel said that there needed to be repercussions for McConnell. (A C.I.A. spokesperson, Timothy Barrett, called the allegation “inaccurate and a gross mischaracterization.”) The military leadership of the task force ignored McConnell’s appeal of his suspension, and discussions about future assignments came to an abrupt halt. Six officials said that they believed the C.I.A. had retaliated against McConnell, leaving him nominally employed but unable to find a new post after decades of public service.