Takeaways from AP report on the DEA’s secret spying program in Venezuela

MIAMI (AP) — It was a plan the United States knew from the start would arguably violate international law.

The Associated Press obtained a secret 2018 memo detailing a covert operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that sent undercover operatives into Venezuela to surreptitiously record and build drug-trafficking cases against the country’s leadership.

The sting was part of a yearslong investigation that targeted dozens of people, including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“We don’t like to say it publicly but we are, in fact, the police of the world,” said Wes Tabor, a former DEA official who served as the agency’s country attaché in Venezuela well before the investigation described in the memo was launched.

Here are some of the takeaways from the AP’s exclusive report on the secret memo:

WHAT DOES THE MEMO REVEAL?

The 15-page memo spells out a secret DEA plan directing confidential informants to record Venezuelan officials suspected of converting the South American country into a narco state. The targets included the country’s electricity minister as well as Jose Vielma, an early acolyte of the late Hugo Chávez who held several top jobs, including trade minister and head of Venezuela’s IRS.

The DEA memo authorized three informants to secretly record undercover meetings with the targets, who ultimately were indicted on money laundering charges but remain in Venezuela today. Among those wearing a wire was a DEA informant accused of fleecing $800 million from Venezuela’s foreign currency system through a fraudulent import scheme.

“It is necessary to conduct this operation unilaterally and without notifying Venezuelan officials,” officials wrote in the memo.

The AP is not publishing the actual memo or identifying the informants to avoid putting them in danger.

“There is a special risk that the (confidential sources) would be in danger if their cooperation with the DEA is exposed to host country officials,” the memo states. “Potential penalties include imprisonment.”

WHERE DID THE MEMO COME FROM?

The U.S. never intended to make the memo public.

It was inadvertently uploaded among dozens of government exhibits to a file share website by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan during the bribery conspiracy trial late last year of two former DEA supervisors who helped spearhead the agency’s offensive against the Maduro government.

The document was then removed hours after an AP reporter started asking about it. A few days later, over the AP’s objections, the federal judge presiding over the bribery trial took the highly unusual step of sealing the courtroom while the document was discussed, saying that doing so in open court would have “serious diplomatic repercussions.”

Neither he nor prosecutors explained what those might be. Both the DEA and the Justice Department declined to answer questions about how frequently or where the U.S. conducts unilateral activities.

“Information like this should never leave government servers,” Michael Nadler, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who also helped coordinate the overseas sting, testified behind closed doors, according to a redacted transcript. “It contains information that provides identifying information regarding people who have agreed to cooperate with the United States in pretty dangerous situations.”

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR U.S. RELATIONS WITH VENEZUELA?

The revelation comes at a fraught moment in relations between the United States and Maduro’s socialist government and threatens to deepen resentment across Latin America over perceived U.S. meddling. It also offers a rare window into the lengths the DEA was willing to go to fight the drug war in a country that banned U.S. drug agents nearly two decades ago.

Some of Maduro’s closest allies were ensnared in the investigation, including Alex Saab, the businessman recently freed in a prisoner swap for 10 Americans and a fugitive defense contractor.

None of the indictments of Venezuelan officials before or after the 2018 memo made any mention of U.S. spying.

Venezuela’s communications ministry did not respond to requests for comment. But in recent days Maduro accused the DEA and the CIA – a regular target he uses to rally supporters — of undertaking efforts to destabilize the country. The CIA declined to comment.

“I don’t think President Biden is involved,” he said in a televised appearance this month. “But the CIA and the DEA operate independently as imperialist criminal organizations.”

Notably, legal experts say no international court or tribunal has jurisdiction to hold the United States or its agents accountable for covert law enforcement actions in other countries, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld arrests and evidence collected on such missions.

Evan Criddle, a law professor at William & Mary in Virginia, said international law forbids undercover operations such as those described in the memo that take place in another country’s territory without consent. He expects the release of the memo to “cause some embarrassment to the United States, prompt Venezuelan diplomats to register their objections and potentially inhibit future cooperation.”

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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