The Wikileaks stories keep on coming.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has been transformed into a global intelligence organization with a reach that extends far beyond narcotics, and an eavesdropping operation so expansive it has to fend off foreign politicians who want to use it against their political enemies, according to secret diplomatic cables.
In far greater detail than previously seen, the cables, from the cache obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to some news organizations, offer glimpses of drug agents balancing diplomacy and law enforcement in places where it can be hard to tell the politicians from the traffickers, and where drug rings are themselves mini-states whose wealth and violence permit them to run roughshod over struggling governments.
Diplomats recorded unforgettable vignettes from the largely unseen war on drugs:
¶In Panama, an urgent BlackBerry message from the president to the American ambassador demanded that the D.E.A. go after his political enemies: “I need help with tapping phones.”
¶In Sierra Leone, a major cocaine-trafficking prosecution was almost upended by the attorney general’s attempt to solicit $2.5 million in bribes.
¶In Guinea, the country’s biggest narcotics kingpin turned out to be the president’s son, and diplomats discovered that before the police destroyed a huge narcotics seizure, the drugs had been replaced by flour.
¶Leaders of Mexico’s beleaguered military issued private pleas for closer collaboration with the drug agency, confessing that they had little faith in their own country’s police forces.
¶Cables from Myanmar, the target of strict United States sanctions, describe the drug agency informants’ reporting both on how the military junta enriches itself with drug money and on the political activities of the junta’s opponents.
Officials of the D.E.A. and the State Department declined to discuss what they said was information that should never have been made public.
Like many of the cables made public in recent weeks, those describing the drug war do not offer large disclosures. Rather, it is the details that add up to a clearer picture of the corrupting influence of big traffickers, the tricky game of figuring out which foreign officials are actually controlled by drug lords, and the story of how an entrepreneurial agency operating in the shadows of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has become something more than a drug agency. The D.E.A. now has 87 offices in 63 countries and close partnerships with governments that keep the Central Intelligence Agency at arm’s length.
Because of the ubiquity of the drug scourge, today’s D.E.A. has access to foreign governments, including those, like Nicaragua’s and Venezuela’s, that have strained diplomatic relations with the United States. Many are eager to take advantage of the agency’s drug detection and wiretapping technologies.
In some countries, the collaboration appears to work well, with the drug agency providing intelligence that has helped bring down traffickers, and even entire cartels. But the victories can come at a high price, according to the cables, which describe scores of D.E.A. informants and a handful of agents who have been killed in Mexico and Afghanistan.
In Venezuela, the local intelligence service turned the tables on the D.E.A., infiltrating its operations, sabotaging equipment and hiring a computer hacker to intercept American Embassy e-mails, the cables report.
And as the drug agency has expanded its eavesdropping operations to keep up with cartels, it has faced repeated pressure to redirect its counternarcotics surveillance to local concerns, provoking tensions with some of Washington’s closest allies.
It was three months into Barack Obama’s presidency, and the administration — under pressure to do something about alleged abuses in Bush-era interrogation policies — turned to a Florida senator to deliver a sensitive message to Spain:
Don’t indict former President George W. Bush’s legal brain trust for alleged torture in the treatment of war on terror detainees, warned Mel Martinez on one of his frequent trips to Madrid. Doing so would chill U.S.-Spanish relations.
Rather than a resolution, though, a senior Spanish diplomat gave the former GOP chairman and housing secretary a lesson in Spain’s separation of powers. “The independence of the judiciary and the process must be respected,” then-acting Foreign Minister Angel Lossada replied on April 15, 2009. Then for emphasis, “Lossada reiterated to Martinez that the executive branch of government could not close any judicial investigation and urged that this case not affect the overall relationship.”
The case is still open, on the desk of a Spanish magistrate, awaiting a reply from the Obama administration on whether it will pursue a probe of its own.
But the episode, revealed in a raft of WikiLeaks cables, was part of a secret concerted U.S. effort to stop a crusading Spanish judge from investigating a torture complaint against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five other senior Bush lawyers.
The cause for alarm at the U.S. Embassy was what a U.S. diplomat called a “well documented” 12-inch-tall dossier compiled by a Spanish human rights group. In the name of five Guantánamo captives with ties to Spain, it accused the Bush legal insiders of laying the foundation for abuse of detainees in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Of particular concern was that a swashbuckling Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, might get the probe under Spain’s system, which gave judges extraordinary investigative powers.
Garzón had earlier made headlines by swearing out arrest warrants for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet while he was getting medical attention in London, and Osama bin Laden. U.S. ambassador Eduardo Aguirre Jr. cast him as a publicity hound with an “anti-American streak” in one confidential cable.
If those efforts are any guide, a Spanish prosecution of the so-called Bush Six seems unlikely. Britain never turned Pinochet over to Spain for a war crimes trial, and bin Laden is still at large.
Rather, indictments would undermine U.S. diplomatic credibility on human rights and likely ground the six Bush lawyers in the United States, for fear of arrest overseas.
Another, April 1, 2009, cable shows the U.S. Embassy’s political officer and legal advisor discussing Garzón with his boss, chief prosecutor Javier Zaragoza, who expresses his displeasure with the case. Separately, a third U.S. diplomat told a senior Spanish Justice Ministry official “for international judicial cooperation” that the U.S. government considered the potential for a prosecution “a very serious matter.”
Civil rights attorney Michael Ratner, whose Center for Constitutional Rights has championed Guantánamo detainee rights, called the cables taken together “quite dramatic.”
“The U.S. prides itself on our own independent judiciary,” Ratner said. “But here you have the hypocrisy of the U.S. government trying to influence an independent judicial system to bend its laws and own rules.”
“And it’s the Obama administration doing it to protect Bush people,” he said.
The Christmas Day New York Times editorial takes a strong stand against any moves to silence publications that may reveal embarrassing or critical information about major financial institutions:
The whistle-blowing Web site WikiLeaks has not been convicted of a crime. The Justice Department has not even pressed charges over its disclosure of confidential State Department communications. Nonetheless, the financial industry is trying to shut it down.
Visa, MasterCard and PayPal announced in the past few weeks that they would not process any transaction intended for WikiLeaks. Earlier this month, Bank of America decided to join the group, arguing that WikiLeaks may be doing things that are “inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments.”
The Federal Reserve, the banking regulator, allows this. Like other companies, banks can choose whom they do business with. Refusing to open an account for some undesirable entity is seen as reasonable risk management. The government even requires banks to keep an eye out for some shady businesses — like drug dealing and money laundering — and refuse to do business with those who engage in them.
But a bank’s ability to block payments to a legal entity raises a troubling prospect. A handful of big banks could potentially bar any organization they disliked from the payments system, essentially cutting them off from the world economy.
The fact of the matter is that banks are not like any other business. They run the payments system. That is one of the main reasons that governments protect them from failure with explicit and implicit guarantees. This makes them look not too unlike other public utilities. A telecommunications company, for example, may not refuse phone or broadband service to an organization it dislikes, arguing that it amounts to risky business.
Our concern is not specifically about payments to WikiLeaks. This isn’t the first time a bank shunned a business on similar risk-management grounds. Banks in Colorado, for instance, have refused to open bank accounts for legal dispensaries of medical marijuana.
Still, there are troubling questions. The decisions to bar the organization came after its founder, Julian Assange, said that next year it will release data revealing corruption in the financial industry. In 2009, Mr. Assange said that WikiLeaks had the hard drive of a Bank of America executive.
What would happen if a clutch of big banks decided that a particularly irksome blogger or other organization was “too risky”? What if they decided — one by one — to shut down financial access to a newspaper that was about to reveal irksome truths about their operations? This decision should not be left solely up to business-as-usual among the banks.