DEA Given Broad New Powers to Target and Surveil American Protestors
The federal narcotics agency was given approval to temporarily divert money and manpower to surveil and collect intelligence on American protestors — despite the fact that spying on dissenters has nothing to do with drugs.
Published on June 4, 2020

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The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was given a sweeping new set of authority by the federal government late last week, specifically allowing the law enforcement division to temporarily divert money and manpower to surveil and collect intelligence on American protestors.

According to a two-page memo first obtained by Buzzfeed News, acting DEA administrator Timothy Shea requested and was awarded the power to surveil and investigate Americans participating in the continued protests that were sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The new powers do not appear to pertain to the agency’s stated goal of combating narcotics crime. 

“In order for DEA to assist to the maximum extent possible in the federal law enforcement response to protests which devolve into violations of federal law, DEA requests that it be designated to enforce any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd,” Shea wrote in the memo. “DEA requests this authority on a nationwide basis for a period of fourteen days.”

The memo also suggests that the DEA would be allowed to share any information the agency collects with local and state law enforcement authorities, to “protect both participants and spectators in the protests,” as well as persecute protestors who may have violated federal laws. 

Protests have erupted in all 50 states and continue daily as thousands upon thousands of people take to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, though responding police have engaged in violent confrontations with many citizens. This past week, President Trump and Attorney General William Barr expanded the law enforcement presence and “counter surveillance” of protests to include the FBI, DEA, US Marshals, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

As the world’s technology continues to advance at breakneck speeds, American law enforcement has used tools like facial recognition, contact tracing, cell phone logs, location tracking, and more to oppress dissenters. In a new piece for Fast Company, members of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) note how quickly our cell phones have become dual tools of both freedom and government surveillance. 

“Thousands of unredacted photos and videos from protesters in recent days give the government an arsenal of surveillance beyond even what its own systems provide,” Albert Fox Cahn and Zachary Silver of S.T.O.P. wrote in the Fast Company article. “For many, these videos and images are a way of magnifying the power of protest, but they can also amplify the power of the police.”

It is not yet clear exactly what kind of surveillance and policing duties the DEA and other law enforcement agencies will be performing. It is also unknown if the FBI, ATF, or other law enforcement groups have received the same expansion in power as the DEA. 

But as the cops bolster their response to the protests, protesters, in turn, have fortified their defenses against accelerated policing, with tech-skilled supporters recently releasing phone applications that scrub metadata from recorded media and obscure subjects’ faces. If you are outside in the streets expressing your first amendment rights, please be aware of your surroundings. And for further resources on how to support the protest movement, visit our guide here.

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Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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