When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Michele Leonhart announced last week “the arrest of more than 750 individuals on narcotics-related charges and the seizure of more than 23 tons of narcotics as part of a 21-month multi-agency law enforcement investigation known as ‘Operation Xcellerator,’” credit for a key law enforcement asset was buried in one sentence of boilerplate deep down in the press release:
The investigative efforts in Operation Xcellerator were coordinated by the multi-agency Special Operations Division, comprised of agents and analysts from the DEA, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service, as well as attorneys from the Criminal Division’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.
The central role of the Special Operations Division (SOD) in Operation Xcellerator is graphically summed up in the logo of the sprawling investigation, which features the name “Special Operations Division” as its rocker. As I explain in my forthcoming book about Latino Street gangs — No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press: June 2009) — the SOD is one of those highly effective inter-agency government programs that everyone who needs to know about, knows about. Management would prefer that the rest of us know as little as necessary about SOD — just enough to ensure its steady funding and continued successful operation. When the Justice Department publicly describes SOD, which is administratively located in the DEA, it tends to use one or two boilerplate sentences like the one quoted above. These driblets could just as well describe a pizza delivery dispatch center or an air traffic control tower.
The physical location of the SOD is supposed to be a top secret (and isn’t everything, these days?). A few years ago Wolf Blitzer hyped a visit to the SOD by one of the newsbots for his signature show, The Situation Room, thusly:
WOLF BLITZER: Just like us, just like those officials over at the White House, the Drug Enforcement Administration has its own situation room.
Our Brian Todd got some exclusive access. He’s joining us now live from the DEA secret location in Northern Virginia. Brian, we can’t tell our viewers where you are.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That’s absolutely right, Wolf. All we can say is that we are at a top-secret location in Northern Virginia.
Now, this is not the government’s biggest situation room by any means, but it’s certainly one of its most important. Right now we are inside the DEA’s Special Operations Division Command Center. This, as we said, top-secret location in northern Virginia. No one has ever been allowed to film in here before. But this is where they coordinate and command some of the most sophisticated and dangerous operations in law enforcement.
In fact, it appears that this “secret location” may not be so secret after all. If the images from this website are accurate (and I have some reason to believe that they are based on my own interviews), thousands of tourists unknowingly drive by SOD’s careful anonymity every week on their way to the collection of vintage aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.
In any case, if one pokes around enough with Google’s search engine, it is possible to get a more detailed picture of what SOD does and why it does it. (The reader can draw his or her own more or less informed inferences about the specific details of the hows. You know, big antennae on remote tropical mountain sides — or was that James Bond?) For example, this paragraph from the DEA’s FY 2009 Performance Budget: Congressional Budget Submission provides a slightly more detailed picture of what SOD is all about:
DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD) supports domestic enforcement by providing vital information for investigative and enforcement activity directed against major national or international trafficking organizations. Specifically, SOD manages special operations and projects within DEA that target trafficker command and control communications. Additionally, SOD manages and develops programs and procedures which ensure discrete and timely distribution of sensitive and vital intelligence data to DEA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) field units. SOD provides guidance and technical assistance to all divisions that have domestic Title III operations involving drug trafficking. SOD also coordinates international conspiracy investigations for the importation of narcotics to ensure that these cases result in suitable evidence presentation in court. The staff at SOD specializes in areas such as electronic surveillance and international criminal conspiracy laws, while responding to specialized linguistic needs for international cases.
Several words and phrases leap out from this paragraph of bland budgetese: (1) “trafficker command and control communications,” (2) “Title III operations” (i.e., wiretaps), (3) “sensitive and vital intelligence data,” and (4) “international conspiracy investigations.” It seems from this description that one very important thing SOD does is get right into the knickers of major drug traffickers by breaking into one thing they cannot do without: communications. Transnational criminal organizations — especially those tightly-wound around common ethnicity, regional origins, or family ties, with operational security ruthlessly disciplined by bloody violence — can be difficult or impossible to penetrate by conventional means. But moving drugs, guns, money, human beings, stolen vehicles, and executing nefarious plots require communications to convey orders, settle accounts, monitor operations, and so forth.
This 2001 statement of former DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall before the House Crime Subcommittee tells more of the SOD story, translating the budget submission into plainer English, with a detectable pulse:
Electronic surveillance is critical to our success in combating the drug problem in the United States…Without this essential tool, we in drug law enforcement would be unable to prevent, investigate, and solve many of the crimes associated with the growing, manufacture, or distribution of illegal drugs. In order to meet the challenges presented by these sophisticated drug trafficking organizations, it is necessary for us to attack the command and control mechanisms of these organizations. Our center for targeting command and control is the Special Operations Division (SOD), a combined DEA, U.S. Customs, FBI, IRS/Criminal Investigations, and DOJ/Criminal Division effort that supports ongoing investigations by producing detailed and comprehensive analyses of data revealing the activities and organizational structures of major drug trafficking and drug-related money laundering organizations and identifying relationships among traffickers and their related enterprises.
Today’s international drug trafficking organizations are the wealthiest, most powerful, and most ruthless organized crime entities we have ever faced. We know from our investigations that they utilize their virtually unlimited wealth to purchase the most sophisticated electronic equipment available on the market to facilitate their illegal activities. The Special Operations Division has enabled us to build cases against the leaders of these powerful organizations by targeting their command and control communications with multi-jurisdictional criminal investigations based on state-of-the-art, court approved Title III electronic interceptions. We rely on the information and evidence gathered from these Title III interceptions of their communications to build a picture of the organizations, identify the individual members, and obtain evidence enabling us to make arrests and take apart whole sections of the criminal organizations at a time. The capability provided by SOD is at the core of our ability to make cases against the leadership and U.S.-based infrastructure of these powerful organizations that control the drug trade in our hemisphere.
There is another side to the SOD’s role: coordination. Here is an explanation of how SOD can apply its resources to the investigation and prosecution of transnational gangs — like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang — taken from a U.S. Attorneys’ Bulletin devoted to the federal role in attacking gangs:
SOD serves as the center point of the operation. The division is tasked to balance, coordinate, and manage investigative actions that are planned and executed by multiple special agents and prosecutors in the field. Coordinating the steps of special agents and prosecutors who are targeting the cell of the network operating in their respective districts enables SOD to ensure that one district does not take actions that will undermine operations in the other districts. This approach often results in coordinated multidistrict operations that maximize the disruptive impact law enforcement has on the entire targeted criminal organization, from command-and-control elements to mid-level managers to street-level criminals.
This approach can be equally effective in the prosecution of multidistrict gang cases where portions of the gang’s criminal activities are carried out by different cells in separate federal judicial districts. In a typical narcotics-distribution conspiracy, it is frequently the case that law enforcement authorities in District A will plan to take investigative steps against their gang targets without consultation or coordination with Districts B, C, D, and E. The efforts of other law enforcement authorities against their related gang targets in these secondary districts (Districts B through E) might be compromised or undermined by the actions planned in District A. Agents and prosecutors should coordinate cases through SOD in order to avoid conflicts and coordinate with related active cases in other districts. This will ensure that the collective efforts of agents and prosecutors in all districts have the maximum impact of disrupting and dismantling the targeted criminal gang.
There you have it: DOJ’s Special Operations Division typically gets a one sentence reference in a press release. But it is one of a handful of big and really important assets in our law enforcement’s fight against international organized crime.