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Organized crime today is not your father’s godfather

The Godfather of literary and movie fame wanted to avoid trafficking in illegal drugs. The reality of organized crime in modern times is much different. Organized crime is the source of nearly unimaginable quantities of illegal drugs. The Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, established by President Ronald Reagan, late last year marked 40 years of operation. For more details, Federal Drive with Tom Temin  talked, in studio, with Adam Cohen, the task force director.

Tom Temin
And it is called Task Forces. So maybe give us a description of the apparatus here and where it fits in the panoply of justice agencies and throughout the government?

Adam Cohen
Well, as we celebrate our 40th year, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces program is the largest Law Enforcement Task Force in the United States. We are about 570 federal prosecutors, 1,200 federal agents, 4,000 state and local police officers, operating over 5,300 virtual task forces across the United States. Plus 19 colocated strike forces in the United States.

Tom Temin
Yeah, so how many people altogether do you encompass?

Adam Cohen
Well, we’re accountable for somewhere north of 5,000, that are part of the task force concept.

Tom Temin
All right, and let’s go back into the history a little bit. What was the stimulus that got it started early in the Reagan administration in 1982?

Adam Cohen
Well, at the time was the explosion really of crack cocaine and the violence associated with crack cocaine in the inner cities. And President Reagan’s idea was to bring together all of the federal law enforcement agencies under the leadership of federal prosecutors to begin to coordinate efforts and do priority targeting, make sure that everybody was on the same page that we were targeting the biggest threats across the United States. That really exploded into the 80s. And then we’ve been going strong ever since then.

Tom Temin
Sure, people that were in Washington at that time, remember the crack cocaine, it seemed like almost an intractable problem. And really killing people daily.

Adam Cohen
Very much so and cocaine remains a huge problem. But of course, throughout time, we’ve seen other threats. In the counter narcotics arena, where we’ve seen issues with heroin, we now are tackling methamphetamine and synthetic opioids. Last year, we lost 107,000 Americans to drug overdose. So as the problem set has changed, we have morphed to try to attack that problem set as best we can over the last four decades of the OCDETF program.

Tom Temin
And the organizations that you go after have changed to. I mean, that traditional mafia in those 40 years is not so much of a force as it was back then and prior years, and now it seems like it has a more international component.

Adam Cohen
Very much so. When this was begun in 1982, you would think of traditional LCN La Cosa Nostra organized crime. Today, we are looking at criminal networks that are extraordinarily sophisticated. Everything from drug cartels to Eastern European organized crime, and even cyber criminals. OCDETF has actually changed quite a bit since 1982. When we were solely built as a counter narcotics entity, 2009 we expanded to a broader transnational organized crime mission. And in fact, in 2017, a presidential executive order was drafted, which called on OCDETF, specifically, to look at the transnational organized crime problem. And Congress actually changed our appropriations language, to allow us to make sure that we had the flexibility to tackle broader transnational organized crime problems, the kinds of things that look like human trafficking or weapons trafficking, or sophisticated cybercrime.

Tom Temin
And how did that change the way you operate? I mean, because some of the sources are overseas. And then you’ve got the issue of cooperation from foreign law enforcement, extradition and all of these other sticky issues.

Adam Cohen
Absolutely. And most of the sticky legal issues are addressed by the forward warriors of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s community. And then, of course, the resilience of federal law enforcement and that as we see changes and challenges in this problem set, they are keeping us ahead of the curve with new and innovative investigative methods. Communications is the hub of what criminals do. Those communications methods have changed quite a bit over the last 40 years in the life of the program. We began with landline communications. Landline communications, moved to beepers, and beepers to cell phones and cell phones to satellite phones, and satellite phones to the internet and the internet to now smartphones and apps and encryption. And throughout those 40 years, as criminal organizations have gotten more and more sophisticated in the way in which they communicate, law enforcement had to meet those challenges and get more and more sophisticated in the way in which they tackle those challenges.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Adam Cohen, he is executive director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, part of the Justice Department and I wanted to ask you about that, because do you find that the government has often been a step behind technologically? I mean, that issue goes back to the original days of the FBI when their revolvers were not as powerful as the ones used by the people Eliot Ness was tracking down and all of this. And by the way, he was never an FBI agent, contrary to popular belief, but you know what I’m saying. So the criminals use pagers, and these modern communications subsequent to that sometimes before the government could even buy them.

Adam Cohen
Well, I wouldn’t categorize it is our being behind. I think we are in the same place, the technology develops, whether it’s developed for criminals that were criminals use that technology, or where law enforcement use that technology. So we’re equal on the level of technology usage. We are by nature reactive, we react to the crime occurring. So we are always working to try to stay on the curve, and anticipate the next moves of criminal activity. But I wouldn’t suggest that we’re necessarily behind, I would suggest that we are meeting those challenges where they come.

Tom Temin
And when you think of drug enforcement, in popular culture once again, the feeling is that it was a kinetic type of undercover activity, physical danger. Is that still part of it? Or is it mostly cyber and surveillance and evidence gathering, and then you pounce, and it’s all over?

Adam Cohen
I think if you would talk with our law enforcement partners from the FBI, the [Drug Enforcement Administration], [Homeland Secrity Investigations], the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] the U.S. Marshal Service, they would say they’re still very kinetic. They are still dealing with meeting people in person, because as much as there was a lot of reliance and communication with new technology, things like apps and encryption, everything, at a certain point, everybody’s got to touch. So they would suggest that we are really very much still in the in the realm of using human sources, and having human interaction, which is by nature dangerous.

Tom Temin
Sure. So there is still undercover type of work infiltration and role playing and getting close to people that are often violent.

Adam Cohen
Yes, no question.

Tom Temin
So in some sense, you are a vertically integrated operation. That is to say you have the evidence gathering and the almost gum shoe type of work going on the surveillance, but then the prosecutorial element, they’re all in one team.

Adam Cohen
Absolutely. In fact, OCDETF’s goal is to drive collaboration. Our job is to leverage the strengths of the law enforcement community under the guidance of federal prosecutors, to do priority targeting, and then to target command and control elements of these criminal organizations. For the most part, OCDETF is not doing street level narcotics enforcement, what we’re trying to do is disrupt and dismantle entire criminal organizations. The way in which you do that is you target nodes, nodes of communication, nodes of security nodes of money trafficking and movement of the dollars that are generated through illegal narcotics trafficking, illegal human trafficking, or human smuggling, or other criminal activity. So the OCDETF idea is sort of advanced law enforcement, our job is to bring together all of the strengths of the federal law enforcement agencies, under the umbrella of federal prosecutors, as we drive prosecutions forward with that goal of disruption, and ultimately dismantlement.

Tom Temin
And getting back to one technological detail, the dark web has really emerged as a place where criminals operate of all stripes. And so have you had to build up kind of expertise in knowing where to go on the dark web and using Tor browsers and this kind of thing? I mean, it’s just there on the web, but it’s encrypted, I guess, is the best way to describe it.

Adam Cohen
Without going into specifics I can tell you that, yes, we have built up capabilities quite a bit. Our federal law enforcement partners at the FBI and HSI are really forward leaning here. DEA, of course, is in this space. And you’d be surprised at the amount of activity that’s occurring on the open web, not to mention everything that’s happening in the dark web. It’s really daunting. And these issues of encryption and communication are very, very challenging.

Tom Temin
And let’s begin this part with the inter governmental aspect of the work because there are lots of federal law enforcement components. You have Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. You’ve got the Drug Enforcement Administration, how does the task force’s interoperate with all of those pieces?

Adam Cohen
It’s a really interesting question, Tom. The issue here is OCDETF is really a synchronizer. We’re a coordinator. So I bring together pieces of all of these federal law enforcement agencies, DOJ law enforcement agencies, DHS law enforcement agencies, Treasury law enforcement agencies. My job is to enhance collaboration and coordination among those agencies. So while I don’t own those assets, those assets are owned by the federal agency, the DEA agent or the FBI agent or the HSI agent. I go to those federal law enforcement components and say, I need the following to enhance this mission. And I will agree to reimburse you for the costs of those bodies. And we end up having a negotiation such that they contribute to the task force. That’s been going on successfully now for 40 years. And we do that with sort of a float of where are our priorities and if the priority is going one direction, we enhance our muscle in that direction, and we move some resources around. I hope that’s helpful.

Tom Temin
So a given ATF or a given DEA agent or Homeland Security Investigations agent could find him or herself working on any of several assignments for a year or so depending on the priorities that you all agree to.

Adam Cohen
Absolutely. And there’s a built in governance system that’s developed over the four decades of the program, where all of this starts at the ground level, at each of the 93 U.S. Attorney’s Offices. There is a lead taskforce attorney for the OCDETF program in every one of the 93 U.S. Attorney’s offices. That person chairs, a district coordination committee, made up of the law enforcement components. They talk about what are the threats in that particular area, they nest under a regional director, they look at regional problems. We acknowledge the fact that the problems whether they look like counternarcotics, or they look like human smuggling or cyber crime are different in New England than they are on the southwest border, or that they are in the upper Midwest. So we allow there to be some flexibility at the district level. And then at the regional level, all of which nests under this national program, where we look at the priorities and challenges given to us by the Attorney General and the President.

Tom Temin
And so the caseload then is generated by those locals that see what’s going on in their areas, those local prosecutors, and then it feeds up into what you said is the agenda for the agency, the task force, I should say.

Adam Cohen
That’s a perfect encapsulation of what’s happening. They’re looking at how to meet national priorities based on their local problems, so that they fit into those prioritization, sort of racking and stacking of what the priorities are. Today, synthetic opioids and methamphetamine, huge problems. But those may not be the problems along some of the border states, they may not be the problems, for example, in Puerto Rico, where they’re seeing an influx of maritime driven, interdictions driven by cocaine smugglers. So the task force is a national task force that allows for us to target local, regional and national parties.

Tom Temin
Because the fentanyl and the synthetic opioid seems to be an almost overwhelming problem right now, they discover at the border bags of millions and millions and millions of pills enough to kill everybody in the United States seems to come across every two days. So is that a issue for Arizona and Texas? Or is it Maine also? I mean, how do you prioritize what is the caseload consists of?

Adam Cohen
Yeah, well, there is no question that nationally we have a synthetic opioid crisis. And there’s no question that synthetic opioids, especially the fentanyl and the fentanyl class of drugs, are killing Americans every single day. And there is not a state that’s not impacted by that. But we do have to acknowledge that in Maine or Vermont, that may not be their problem of the day or of the month. So we give a lot of flexibility to that. The idea that we target the synthetics, whether it’s methamphetamine or the fentanyl class of drugs, is really quite scary right now, given the overdoses. And given the horrible impact that’s having on communities. Just yesterday, the Justice Department announced to take down in the Southern District of Georgia, in a huge case where the federal government brought down 75 defendants in a OCDETF investigation that was targeting the command and control trying to take out a hub. And then we did it in partnership with state and locals where they arrested 35. So there’s a huge interaction going on between federal effort and state and local effort. And OCDETF pushes very hard on trying to make sure that we can bridge those communications, those information sharing challenges, those intelligence sharing gaps, so that we are really as close to the curve as we can possibly be in what is this terrible synthetic opioid crisis.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Adam Cohen, Executive Director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces at the Justice Department. Do you ever feel like you’re shoveling against the ocean because, the War on Drugs has been extant as long as I can remember, and yet the demand people want these things, because of whatever it does, you know, it makes them feel or whatever. But the drug demand in the United States never seems to wane. And as you arrest and put away more people and break up more cartels and networks, new ones emerge because the demand creates great incentives. I mean, is there ever an end to all of this? Do you wonder about that?

Adam Cohen
Those kinds of questions are the challenging questions that we wrestle with. It would be too hard for me to get my hands around all of that question. I would respond this way. I’ve been in this fight for 33 years. I’ve spent my entire career as a public servant, and as a prosecutor, working in the counter narcotics, counter transnational organized crime space, and I still haven’t lost hope. I can tell you my team hasn’t lost it. I can tell you the 5,000 members of the OCDETF task forces across the United States haven’t. Our area of expertise is not in prevention and treatment. Sure our area of expertise is in supply reduction, we are trying to drive down the piston of supply to give breathing room to prevention and treatment professionals so that they can get their hands around the issues of demand. And we work closely frankly with Rahul Gupta, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who tries to balance all of these issues. They’re incredibly important issues for us. But the idea of have we lost hope? Do we feel like we’re continuing to push that rock up the hill? Every day is a new challenge. But every day we find some window, where we think we’re making progress moving forward. And we’re going to continue to do that.

Tom Temin
And when you look at Mexico, for example, there was an arrest of the drug lord Escobar’s son the other day. And when you see him arrested in film, the first thought people have is well, whose side is that guy grabbing his left and right arm really on? And will he be sprung in three hours, because they’ve been paid off? And when he appears before a judge in Mexico, well, whose side is that judge really on? Whose payroll is he really respecting? And if he’s respecting the federal payroll, is he going to be shot dead tomorrow? These questions. It’s really bad. What mechanisms do you have in place for the long term sense that the United States folks in this whole chain of investigation, of surveillance, of prosecution and of judgment are, for the most part, non-corrupt? I mean, that’s one of the beauties of our system. Not that things don’t ever go wrong, you still have people that are bad from time to time, but fundamentally, it’s still clean. How do you work to ensure that?

Adam Cohen
Well, corruption is something that everybody’s always watching. I have great faith in our federal law enforcement partners and our federal prosecutors in our federal judiciary. And I know that level of faith is based on a whole series of checks and balances, frankly, built into our system over decades and decades and decades. And I have no doubt that what we’re seeing is extraordinarily tight, and is extraordinarily rule bound. And I’m not the least bit concerned about what we see here. We have great partners, we have great partners in a number of foreign countries. And we have a lot of reliance on those partners downstream. Because we know that coca is not produced the United States, heroin poppy is not grown in the United States. The vast majority of synthetics are not produced in the United States. So we have to have really strong partnerships with a number of foreign governments and our partners at the DEA and at the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations primarily have really strong relationships in country so that they have a level of faith in the people that they’re working with, so that we can have the kind of success that you’re talking about with Chapo’s son from a week or so ago.

Tom Temin
Sure. And what are your plans for the next 12 months, the next fiscal, finally the money will be coming through from the Treasury accounts to the agencies that actually need it?

Adam Cohen
Yeah, well, OCDETF as a synchronizer, and collaborator, a big part of what we do is we resource our partners. So the budget cycle is important to us. So we watch things like the CR, and we watch things like the budget cycle, we’re trying to wrestle now with what ’23 looks like, we are waiting for the ’24 pass back to come, we’re planning our ’25. So we’re very in tune with all of those cycles. And what we’re trying to do is use what our limited resources, they always are, try to be good stewards of the public dollar, and put our limited resources where we’re going to find the greatest return on investment. That’s really what OCDETF is. Our job is to try to make sure we get the best of the best from each of our law enforcement agencies and we direct it towards the targets that will have the most positive impact on the American public.

Tom Temin
So it’s still the case, then maybe the small fry can be the catalyst for who you really want to get. And that classic technique still works?

Adam Cohen
Very much so. There’s a sign outside my office time that says making little cases bigger. And that’s what it is that we try to do.

 




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