By Anthony P. Placido, Chief of Intelligence, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
n a sleety, cold afternoon in mid-January, Mississippi Highway Patrol troopers stopped a freight truck on Interstate 10 in Jackson County for not displaying a U.S. Department of Transportation number. While the troopers were inspecting the vehicle, they became suspicious of the driver’s story that he was returning from New Jersey, where his cargo of rotting oranges—still in the trailer—was rejected. Officer Ricky Lott made a quick call to the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). Five minutes later, EPIC alerted Officer Lott that the driver was a known drug smuggler with prior arrests in Florida on charges of money laundering and smuggling 8,600 pounds of marijuana across the border a decade earlier.
Based on the information EPIC provided, Officer Lott immediately had a better understanding of his situation that afternoon. He and his colleagues obtained consent to search the truck. Hidden among the rotting oranges they found $1.2 million in U.S. currency. The money was seized and the suspect was arrested; as a result, that much less drug money was available to line the pockets of foreign drug cartels. The cost of getting the additional information needed to stop the suspect: one toll-free telephone call that lasted five minutes.
Half a world away from Mississippi, EPIC research was vital to one of England’s most critically important investigations. Shortly after the London subway bombings in July 2005, European Command contacted EPIC and requested that researchers there run the names of four of the bombing suspects through the EPIC databases. EPIC’s analysis showed that one suspect had visited the United States, entering with a British passport, and located his address in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as the address of the apartment complex in which his mother frequently stayed. At the apartment, investigators learned that another individual residing there had an international terrorist connection and was responsible for funding terrorist activities. EPIC research also identified 16 other people in the terrorist cell within the United States.
These investigations demonstrate what EPIC does best: collect, analyze, and share with law enforcement organizations sensitive information that turns suspicion into probable cause, contraband into evidence, and suspects into criminal defendants.
A Jewel in the Desert
Situated in the west Texas desert, a stone’s throw from the shallow Rio Grande and within view of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—home to one of Mexico’s most brutal drug cartels—sits EPIC. Its proximity to the Juarez cartel is an irony not lost on EPIC personnel, who provide real-time intelligence that helps law enforcement target the U.S. distribution networks of the Juarez and other drug cartels at every turn. Except for the palm trees out front, EPIC looks like any other government building. But a look inside reveals the extraordinary nerve center of the fight against transnational crime as well as a high-tech web of law enforcement databases. Led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), EPIC is staffed by 15 federal agencies from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation, and Defense, as well as state, county, and soon municipal law enforcement organizations.
Hundreds of special agents, intelligence analysts, computer and communications specialists, translators, technology experts, and support staff sift through complex, seemingly unrelated pieces of information. Fashioning useful intelligence by tying together the available data, the whole staff works to build probable cause for the apprehensions, asset seizures, indictments, and arrests of entire criminal organizations and their networks, thereby demolishing them. No other agency in the United States provides this kind of real-time tactical support to the law enforcement community with such a wide range of simultaneous database queries.
Beyond the Southwestern Border
IACP president Joseph Carter held an IACP Executive Committee meeting at EPIC in December 2006 at the invitation of DEA administrator Karen P. Tandy. In April of this year, EPIC hosted members of the IACP’s Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Committee. These visits gave IACP leadership the opportunity to observe the internal workings of EPIC and see firsthand the broad support that EPIC provides to law enforcement. As a result of its visit, the committee is considering a resolution making EPIC the site of a two-week rotation for IACP-sponsored law enforcement personnel.
Every police executive should know that EPIC is a tremendously valuable free resource for local officers. The benefits of working with EPIC have been relatively unknown until now, in part because officers thousands of miles from the southwestern U.S. border do not realize that EPIC’s intelligence is not limited to the actual border area itself. Karen Tandy hopes to change the perception that EPIC is helpful only to law enforcement in border states: “While EPIC always has had a southwest border address and focus, it also has a long history of information sharing that extends into the heartland of America and provides support to police in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam. This information sharing is vital to officer safety, interdiction efforts, and investigations everywhere—not just along the border.”
Last year, EPIC handled more than 75,000 queries from federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officers in all 50 states. With the expanding need for timely and accurate information, particularly since the tragedy of the September 11 terrorist attacks, EPIC not only provides a resource that the entire community—and most especially state and municipal departments—can rely on, but also intends soon to improve access to its resources for a wider range of customers.
Protection of Sensitive Information
Over the years, EPIC has quietly learned to strike the right balance between the desire to share information and the need to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods. This balance is achieved by carefully managing dissemination of information through a tiered-access system, where prospective users are carefully screened so that they can receive information from closed investigations or from nonsensitive sources immediately. When users request information related to an ongoing sensitive investigation or source, they are notified that information is available and are provided with contact information for the relevant personnel. This pointer mechanism allows users to negotiate access to sensitive information on a case-specific basis while maintaining immediate access to a much larger set of less sensitive information.
EPIC has vast data holdings that include information from many federal, state, and local agencies (see figure 1). As the center has grown, it also has taken on the role of information hub for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) investigative support centers as it continues to provide direct support to an ever-expanding list of participating agencies. Most of the information from this wide array of databases can be gathered instantly with a single query of EPIC’s confederated databases.
Three Ways EPIC Can Help
The heart and soul of the 33-year-old center is EPIC Watch, a communications center that takes inquiries from law enforcement by phone, facsimile, or e-mail 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. EPIC has unique access to information concerning aircraft, vessels, and firearms. Subject matter experts are available through the Watch to answer questions; trace weapons; or place lookouts for suspect vehicles, vessels, or aircraft.
With a single call to EPIC, an officer who has pulled over a subject can determine if the individual has a record of being armed or dangerous; if the vehicle has recently crossed the border from Mexico; or if any of the individuals in the vehicle are currently or previously have been the subject of any investigations. In short, this single point of contact and the rapid access to the broadest possible array of information provides law enforcement officers with three principal benefits: enabling officers to make better-informed judgments, protecting their safety, and increasing their likelihood of success.
The first benefit EPIC can provide is to give state and local police officers the kind of information they need to make better decisions. For example, when one Ohio state highway patrolman stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation, the officer noticed that the car had a fraudulent temporary registration, making him suspicious of the driver and passenger. He called EPIC Watch and asked for a full records check. EPIC responded with the information that the passenger had numerous drug-related offenses dating back to 1995 and that the suspect was known to conceal contraband in certain locations. After having obtained consent to search the car, the trooper discovered 90 kilograms of cocaine hidden in false compartments.
In addition, EPIC’s information can protect officers. Art Doty, director of EPIC, notes that the center’s typical customer is “alone officer or deputy sheriff who has a suspicious vehicle pulled over on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of the night.” Many times a search of EPIC’s databases have alerted officers that the individual they have pulled over on a traffic stop is known to be armed and dangerous, a violent felon, or a fugitive from the law. Certainly it’s the kind of information any officer wants to know—the kind of information that saves officers’ lives.
Finally, intelligence obtained from EPIC can increase the likelihood of case success—and even increase the investigative impact of some cases. Consider the following example. Texas Department of Public Safety officers seized $785,000 from a freight truck in December 2005. Fingerprints on the seized money wrappers were identified as belonging to a fugitive who is a member of Los Zetas, the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel. The DEA’s Houston office asked EPIC to help identify the fugitive’s assets. EPIC discovered 14 businesses, 22 real property assets, and 79 conveyances, with a total value of $3.3 million. So far, the DEA has seized two of the fugitive’s houses, with seizures on the other assets pending.
Free and Easy
The best part about EPIC may be its cost: nothing. It’s completely free to join and easy to do so. Figure 2 provides information on how to apply for participation. After receiving an application, EPIC personnel process it, vet the applying department’s officers, and grant access in a short time—anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks, depending on the size of the department. Once officers have access, it’s as easy as dialing, toll-free, 1-888-USE-EPIC.
The DEA is making access to EPIC even easier and better than ever. The center’s new open connectivity project is about to make EPIC’s vast pool of information more readily available to federal, state, and local police officials via an inexpensive, secure Internet connection. The first phase of this effort, already under way, allows participating agencies to both provide and retrieve information from the National Seizure System and the Clandestine Laboratory Seizure System. These systems provide a comprehensive picture (using geospatial information system technology) of drug, currency, weapon, and laboratory seizures—literally mapping out such seizures to assist law enforcement in tactical and strategic planning efforts. Ultimately, this secure Web portal will allow authorized users to gain access via the Internet to the same sensitive law enforcement and investigative data that are currently available by contacting EPIC Watch.
In addition to housing data from participating agencies, the center has its own unique internal database that contains a 33-year history of the law enforcement agencies and officers who have made inquiries about particular suspects, vehicles, vessels, or aircraft. The center keeps this critical information because the concealed compartment that was empty during one traffic stop may not be on the next encounter. EPIC’s internal database and the use of pointer information overcome one of the major obstacles to information sharing: promoting “cop-to-cop” discussions and facilitating the sharing of critical information that was never put in writing and does not appear in any automated database.
Research and Analysis: There for the Asking
EPIC augments its critical Watch function by performing analyses of drug movement events, trends, and patterns, as well as research and analysis of criminal organizations. The resulting bulletins and reports are routinely sent to participating state and local departments, alerting them to the latest drug trafficking information. For example, in December 2006, EPIC distributed a bulletin that included an analysis of 261 drug seizure incidents along highways in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina that showed drug smuggling patterns in the last year.
EPIC reports can also notify recipients of dangers that officers could encounter, such as new developments in hidden weapons or explosives.
Since the implementation of the Operation Pipeline drug interdiction program, EPIC has hosted Operation Pipeline schools throughout the United States. Pipeline training is one of the most practical training sessions available in law enforcement. Instructors for these three-day schools include fellow officers with years of experience in highway interdiction and local prosecutors and assistant U.S. attorneys who instruct officers on the laws and policies governing highway stops. All Pipeline schools include general core instruction on such topics as development of probable cause; asset forfeiture and asset sharing; concealment detection and hidden compartments; violator indicators; interview techniques; record checks and information sharing; and intelligence exchange among federal, state, and local agencies, as well as a practical exercise at a highway interdiction site.
Officers attending Pipeline schools are instructed to identify and articulate, both in spoken and written form, “specific indicators” that, when viewed collectively, give the officer reasonable suspicion that a motorist has violated the law. EPIC conducts between 20 and 25 Pipeline schools each year at no charge to the police departments.
Under the Operation Jetway program, EPIC also offers a more limited schedule of similar on-site instruction for officers involved in interdiction at airports, bus stations, train terminals, and commercial package services. The instruction program is similar to that of the Pipeline schools, with expanded emphasis on methods of concealment unique to packages and luggage.
To further enhance training opportunities for state and local agencies, EPIC allows free access to and use of its 140-seat conference center as a venue for training or other functions for the law enforcement community. The conference center has state-of-the-art audiovisual and computer capabilities and can accommodate sensitive and classified-subject presentations.
Standard Operating Procedure
EPIC has taken to heart the timeless adage that “all the information in the world is useless unless you get it to someone that can use it.” Getting the right information to the right person at the right time is standard operating procedure. The kind of information that the center can provide to police departments leads to important seizures and arrests that ultimately prevent drugs from getting into the hands of Americans and drug money from getting into the hands of traffickers. From Maine to Miami, San Diego to Seattle, and anywhere in between, EPIC is a resource that no department can afford to ignore.■