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.
At this point, there are a lot more questions than answers about what Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury has dubbed the DEA’s “intelligence laundering” operation. Here are three big ones: How far does all this go? Where does it stop? And why doesn’t the general public seem to give a damn? That last question partly reflects the fact that the NSA has evidently been tracking everybody’s cell phone calls and emails, and that sounds scary. It’s easy for many middle-class Americans to convince themselves that they have nothing to fear from the DEA, even if it has morphed into a dark secret-police force we’re barely aware of. As revolutionary and noted hypocrite Thomas Jefferson once observed, the spread of tyranny only requires our silence.
Millions of people have been sent to prison on drug-war convictions over the last 20 years. Most of those people have been poor and black. We will never know how many of those cases resulted from secret evidence collected by spy agencies, but it might not be a small number. One of the Reuters articles that broke this story quotes DEA officials as saying that the “parallel construction” tactic had been used by the agency “virtually every day since the 1990s.” Legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of the recent bestseller “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” sent me an email from her family vacation to say that these revelations “certainly lead one reasonably to wonder how many people — especially poor people of color, who have been the primary targets in the drug war — have been spied on by the DEA in the name of national security.”