After 9/11, the Drug Enforcement Administration reframed its mission, warning the country that terrorists had gotten into the illegal drug trade to finance their attacks. This claim gave rise to a little-known statute in the Patriot Act, which authorizes the DEA to pursue people accused of narco-terrorism anywhere in the world, even when none of the alleged activities took place on American soil.
A recent investigation by ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson, in partnership with the New Yorker, closely examines some 37 narco-terrorism cases, raising questions about whether the DEA is actually stopping threats or staging them. One of these cases involves three men accused of trafficking drugs in Mali to support a North African branch of Al Qaeda and the Colombian guerilla army FARC. But the evidence entered in the case was dubious – all provided by the DEA, using informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narco-terrorism conspiracies.
On this week’s podcast, Thompson speaks with Julia Gatto, a federal public defender who represented one of the Malian men (who was convicted and imprisoned in New York for five years), about the sting operation that entrapped her client, the heightened political climate that led to the passage of narco-terrorism laws, and whether links between drugs and terrorism exist at all.
Highlights from their conversation:
- The case presented against Oumar Issa, Gattos’ client, was based on a paid government informant.
Gatto: The way he earned his living was working in the ports of Togo. When used car parts or cars would come in, he would buy them and broker their sale. Hanging out in the ports, a paid government informant approached him and offered to make him loads of money, more money than Issa could have ever imagined, if he agreed to help him transport drugs across the north of Africa to Spain. This individual – following a script provided to him by the government – told Issa he worked with members of the FARC. … What Issa heard was all the money in the world being promised for him. So Issa agreed to help.
- Despite the lack of hard evidence offered, it was a tough case to win.
Gatto: The conspiracy law in the United States is a very easy burden for the government. All you need is an agreement [to help an informant]. This case was very scary to take to trial. If these individuals lost, there was a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. … It’s particularly scary when you have allegations of terrorism, which are so explosively prejudicial, with a jury sitting footsteps from the World Trade Center listening to the government bandy about on Al Qaeda.
- Narco-terrorism laws are well-intentioned, but practiced in questionable ways.
Gatto: This is [the DEA] preying on very, very poor individuals and turning it into some sort of narco-terrorism case. … There’s obviously great value in the laws, and there’s nobody who doesn’t understand the ultimate goal of them, which is to cut off the funding for terrorist organizations. But this case was about fake drugs and fake terrorism. What value is there in these men being brought over here, and detained for as significant a period of time as they were? I think there’s very little.