by Ginger Thompson, ProPublica
The DEA warns that drugs are funding terror. An examination of cases raises questions about whether the agency is stopping threats or staging them.
ON SEPT. 11, 2001, when
American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, DEA agents were among the ﬁrst to respond, racing from their headquarters, less than half a mile away. A former special agent named Edward Follis, in his memoir, “The Dark Art,” recalls how he and dozens of his colleagues “rushed over … to pull out bodies, but there were no bodies to pull out.” The agency had outposts in more than 60 countries around the world, the most of any federal law-enforcement agency. And it had some 5,000 informants and conﬁdential sources. Michael Vigil, who was the DEA’s head of international operations at the time, told me, “We called in every source we could ﬁnd, looking for information about what had happened, who was responsible, and whether there were plans for an imminent attack.” He added, “Since the end of the Cold War, we had seen signs that terrorist groups had started relying on drug traﬃcking for funding. After 9/11, we were sure that trend was going to spread.”
But other intelligence agencies saw the DEA’s sources as drug traﬃckers — and drug traﬃckers didn’t know anything about terrorism. A former senior money-laundering investigator at the Justice Department told me that there wasn’t any substantive proof to support the DEA’s assertions.
“What is going on after 9/11 is that a lot of resources move out of drug enforcement and into terrorism,” he said. “The DEA doesn’t want to be the stepchild that is last in line.” Narco-terrorism, the former investigator said, became an “expedient way for the agency to justify its existence.”