A drug agent stands in a marijuana field near Redding. The 2010 raid led to federal charges against 27 people. (photo: Michael Montgomery/California Watch)“We don’t know what they’re doing with the money, where the money goes, whose bank account it ends up in,” he said of foreign drug traffickers who operate on public land.
“They’re here ruining our national resources, and they’re putting our citizens at risk. Hikers can’t go into the field for fear they’ll be harmed. Wildlife doesn’t have a chance.”
U.S. law enforcement believes that hundreds of millions of dollars generated from public-land gardens flows to Mexico, said David Prince, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Francisco.
While federal officials suspect that Mexican organized crime bosses might be involved, authorities say they have not proven a direct link between marijuana gardens on U.S. public lands and the major Mexico-based drug cartels.
"The amount of money being generated by this activity can't possibly be happening without Mexican cartels wanting to get their hands on it," Prince said. “My presumption is money can’t be made without cartels knowing and taxing at a minimum.”
The intelligence world previously has tried to help with domestic eradication efforts. In the 1980s, state and federal law enforcement in California used the high-altitude U-2 spy plane to help spot pot gardens, with limited success.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department, which includes the national parks, already work with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight marijuana growing. The Interior Department also has representatives at the National Counterterrorism Center and a major drug intelligence-sharing hub. Other spy agencies, such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, have been assigned in individual cases.
This broader involvement, however, would be a new development in the battle against marijuana growers who have exploited remote public lands and a dearth of law enforcement to reap billions of dollars in profits, according to federal law enforcement officials.
A spokesman for James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, declined to comment on pending legislation, as did Interior Department and Forest Service spokesmen.
Tommy LaNier, who directs the White House-funded National Marijuana Initiative, said land managers need assistance to take on a bigger role in addressing the problem, as 65 to 70 percent of pot eradicated nationwide – and as much as 80 percent in California – comes off federal land.
“Bringing in the (intelligence community) to help public land managers have a better understanding of the threats is an essential part of managing the problem of marijuana cultivation on public lands,” LaNier said.
Others, however, question involving the director of national intelligence. They say there are greater security threats that require the office’s attention. Other agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the White House drug czar’s office, already know the issue. There also are civil liberties and transparency concerns about having the intelligence community involved in domestic issues.
The provision comes as more federal attention has turned in recent months toward curbing marijuana production in general and on public lands specifically. As law enforcement has stepped up raids, some growers have moved their operations to vast tracts of private farms and timberland. Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown cut funding in the 2012 budget for the nearly 30-year-old marijuana eradication program known as the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.
The four U.S. attorneys in California last month announced a coordinated effort to attack the state’s pot industry – including operators who claim to be in compliance with local medical marijuana laws. The top federal prosecutors set a statewide enforcement strategy that lists distributors with ties to international drug cartels as one of their priority targets, according to a February 2011 internal memo.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called a Senate drug caucus hearing next month on marijuana cultivation on federal public and tribal lands. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which Feinstein leads, is expected to take up the authorization bill – and support Rep. Thompson’s provision – in the coming weeks.
Among the intelligence agencies that could be tapped if the bill becomes law are the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for its unclassified satellite imagery of public lands and the Treasury Department’s intelligence office to track illicit money, LaNier said. The National Security Agency could be assigned, on a limited basis, to intercept public two-way radio communications. The CIA would not be involved.
While the provision targets a specific problem rather than a nebulous issue, such as terrorism, it’s another example of the blending of intelligence and law enforcement in the decade after 9/11, said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“The barriers between federal intelligence and domestic security that existed in the past have all but disappeared,” he said in an e-mail. “We have a right to ask for greater transparency.”
Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow with The National Security Archive, said there is a difference between an occasional task for spy agencies and direct consultation through a full-scale program.
“The question is, what specific constraints are there on the use of imagery – pictures of individuals and their activities?” he said. “Inevitably, it gets you into the area of domestic spying by using overhead surveillance for law enforcement purposes. It always raises questions of what’s the next step? Where does it go next?”
Ronald Brooks, who leads the federally funded Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, acknowledged concerns raised by civil liberties groups, but said the threat of foreign drug traffickers warrants the use of spy equipment focused on federal public land, where there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy. Domestic marijuana eradication, however, is not a traditional intelligence community role, he said.
Brooks said the DEA or White House drug czar may be a better fit to tackle the issue than the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, said another report isn’t necessary, as other agencies already are doing threat assessments.
“I would tell you everything they need to know, they already have,” Gorman said. “If the executive branch doesn’t pay attention (to the report), they just wasted a bunch of time.”
An earlier version of the bill passed by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence also required the spy chief to develop a strategic plan to address the issue. The House stripped out that language because Congress didn’t want the intelligence community to overreach into domestic jurisdictions, Thompson said.
“We’re calling on them (the intelligence community) to provide us with some expertise in dealing with this issue so we can all be working from the same sheet of music,” Thompson said. “It only seems reasonable that we collaborate and we work together at every level.”
Thompson pointed to an anti-marijuana growing operation in and around Northern California's Mendocino National Forest as an example of the growing threat of foreign drug traffickers. Dubbed Operation Full Court Press, the crackdown caught 131 suspects, all but 11 of whom were foreign nationals, according to ICE records. Most were men from the western Mexican state of Michoacán. Less than a third of those arrested were charged with marijuana-related crimes.
Another recent operation in California’s Central Valley netted 86 defendants, almost all of whom were in the country illegally, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento.
In a separate case that began last year in Shasta County, a sheriff’s office and DEA investigation has led to indictments of 27 people involved in growing marijuana on both public and private lands. Defendants include U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, a third of them in the country illegally or with an undetermined immigration status, according to court documents.
ICE officials anticipate their agency will focus more on domestic marijuana production, a crime that in the past was not a priority for investigators. That's changed in the last two years, as ICE agents have seen more undocumented growers and other crimes, like weapons possession and smuggling of bulk cash and humans.
This story was reported in collaboration with KQED Public Radio.