The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has seized at least $209 million from 5,200 Americans at airports and Amtrak train stations over the past decade, USA Today reported on Wednesday.
The DEA has used an extensive network of travel-industry informants to monitor US travelers — then they pull passengers aside, seize cash and rarely makes arrests, according to the report, citing interviews with current and former DEA agents and court records.
Read USA Today’s full report, including some stories of people who got some of their money back here»
Drug agents have singled out passengers at nearly every major US airline at the 15 busiest airports in the US and Amtrak trains, based on the reports from employees of airlines and Amtrak who get paid by the DEA, according to the USA Today investigation.
The DEA’s seizures appears to fall under the common legal practices of “civil forfeiture,” which gives the government the ability to seize cash or property that they suspect is tied to a crime even if the owner isn’t charged with one. The practice has been under fire in recent years due to investigations questioning police motives for seizures and purchases made with those seizures.
The DEA surveillance is separated from the established anti-terrorism protocols in effect at US airports now and the operation has been carried out largely without the airlines’ knowledge. In 2014, Amtrak’s inspector general revealed that drug agents paid a secretary $854,460 over nearly two decades in exchange for passenger information.
In most cases, agents and informants stopped travelers for questioning based on whether they were traveling one-way to California, buying tickets with cash, or carrying checked luggage, according to the report.
Thousands of profiled people were rarely formally detained, arrested, or charged, according to the report. Instead, the agents gave the suspected drug couriers a receipt for the cash and let them go without ever charging them with a crime. Of the 87 cases USA Today identified, only two people were suspects charged with a drug-trafficking related crime.
Most of the seized cash was reportedly passed on to local police departments that lend officers in the operations.
“They count on this as part of the budget,” Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Atlanta’s airport, told USA Today. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
DEA teams used to focus on seizing drugs from traffickers at airports, but when airport security overhauls after 9/11 made airline drug smuggling more difficult, agents started targeting cash.