The Drug Enforcement Administration is supposed to be exactly what it sounds like—an agency tasked with combatting drug trafficking and distribution in the United States. Since the department was formed in 1973, enforcing federal drug laws has been its one job...until Sunday. Over the weekend, the DEA was grated temporary and unprecedented authority to surveil protesters participating in nationwide demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.
Buzzfeed reports that a memorandum seeking “Approval of Temporary Designation of Non-Title 21 Law Enforcement Authority” was signed off on by the Justice Department, giving the DEA the go-ahead to “conduct covert surveillance” amid “widespread protests across the nation, which, in some instances, have included violence and looting,” according to the memo.
The memo indicates that the DEA has been granted the authority to engage in the following activities:
If this request is granted, DEA Special Agents and Task Force Officers will, as necessary (1) conduct covert surveillance and protect against threats to public safety; (2) share intelligence with federal, state, local, and tribal counterparts; (3) if necessary, intervene as Federal law enforcement officers to protect both participants and spectators in the protests; and (4) if necessary, engage in investigative and enforcement activity including, but not limited to, conducting interviews, conducting searches and making arrests for violations of Federal law.
The powers granted to the department are set to expire after 14 days, but that does little to quell the concerns of some officials, such as ACLU Senior Attorney Hugh Handeyside.
“Drug enforcement agents should not be conducting covert surveillance of protests and First Amendment protected speech,” Handeyside told Buzzfeed. “That kind of monitoring and information sharing may well constitute unwarranted investigation of people exercising their constitutional rights to seek justice. The executive branch continues to run headlong in the wrong direction.”
According to Buzzfeed, three DEA agents who wish to remain anonymous also have issues with the new powers granted to the department and see it as “an example of the Justice Department potentially abusing its power in an attempt to smear the protests and crack down on protected First Amendment activity.”
On Saturday—the day before the DOJ request was officially approved—Attorney General William Barr issued a statement that begins, “The greatness of our nation comes from our commitment to the rule of law.”
In the statement, Barr goes on to say that much of the violence occurring during protests has been “planned, organized, and driven by anarchistic and far-left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics,” a claim that has been echoed by many conservatives and Republican officials— including y’all’s president—who conveniently neglect to offer any evidence to support it.
Barr ends his statement pledging that the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals and the ATF will be “deployed to support local efforts to enforce federal law.”