Inside the DEA

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By Tony Gerber

In December 2009, I sat down in a conference room with DEA special agent Jim Soiles and three of the agents responsible for the high profile arrest of international arms trafficker Monzer al-Kassar. One couldn’t imagine a more disparate group. If you asked someone on the street to guess what these 4 men did for a living, I guarantee each answer would be different.

The Special Operations Division which is home to the elite, bilateral group of the Drug Enforcement Administration sits in a Virginia suburb and looks like an anonymous, pre-fabricated office park. The windows are tinted. There are no signs announcing it. My public affairs escort informs me that we are the only film crew to have been granted such extensive access. Wolf Blitzer had two hours to shoot inside this building. We have requested 2 days. I’m informed, there will be computer screens, maps and entire wings of the building that are off limits to our cameras but he can wrangle the access if we play by the rules and respect one condition: do not shoot the exterior of the building. It’s a liability to give away its location. There are too many bad guys who’d like to see the place wiped off the face of the earth. (Perhaps this is why my GPS went haywire when we approached the parking lot.)

Getting through security at the Special Operations Division meant leaving my digital audio recorder and cell phone with a security officer at the front. (It was my hope to record the pre-interview but this didn’t seem like the place to hide a recording device in my sock.)

I sit down in a conference room with agents Jim Soiles, John Archer, Wim Brown and Brian Dodd and pull out my notepad. I ask them to take me through the time-line of events that led to the remarkable Kassar takedown. (There’s going to be a lot of dates and a lot of details… I wish I had my audio recorder.)

They take turns, starting with Soiles who began investigating Kassar in the ‘80s. Agent Archer eggs Soiles on— “tell him about your file.” Soiles, the most senior agent is also the most reserved and modest. He tells the story of a file case full of reports, bank statements, photos documenting the life and work of the arms trafficker Monzer al-Kassar. It is the original case file from the infamous Achille Lauro hijacking trial and Soiles carried it with him for years, long after Kassar’s acquittal…somehow never bringing himself to shred it, long after it ceased to be useful. Was it out of a sense of responsibility? A collector’s compulsion? His foreign counterparts would periodically send him new intel on Kassar and he’d add it to the collection…so the file grew and took on a life of its own. It was a treasure trove of intel but in some ways it was also an unpleasant reminder of a failed operation…a bad guy that got away. After years, Soiles finally decided to get rid of the file, when fate stepped in. On the verge of throwing the file out, his phone rang…

The story is right out of a Hollywood blockbuster…but in this case it’s better because it is real. The DEA’s takedown of Monzer al-Kassar has all the twists and turns of a Bourne Supremacy plot…but as the team of agents responsible for the operation stressed to me, their work looks nothing like a Hollywood movie. For one thing, they have none of the hi-tech law enforcement gadgets you see in movies. They cannot rely on technology to do the work for them. They must rely on good old-fashioned police work and their mother wits. Soiles had done years of undercover work in the Heroin choked streets of 1980s New York. He knew the risks of an undercover assignment. How it can get you killed. So when out of the blue in 2004 he called up a confidential source named Samir (a former member of Black September and a heroine trafficker turned undercover operative) he knew full well what he was about to ask him to do…

Video Preview: “Making an Illegal Arms Deal” — The DEA is moving ever-closer to catching one of the world’s most dangerous arms smugglers — but will the deal fall through?

In Soiles’ re-telling, the agents cut each other off…bust each other’s chops and provoke one another into sharing wonderful details (the type that don’t usually make print). Soiles stressed that the DEA is an agency that has traditionally preferred to operate outside of the spotlight. (Making the fact that I somehow convinced them to play themselves in the re-enactments of the Kassar takedown, extraordinary.) The fact that the DEA’s operations aren’t reported with the same frequency as the work of other governmental agencies makes these guys hungrier to explain. “Folks don’t understand what we do,” Soiles tells me. Now, here’s their chance to witness a case of exceptional scope and circumstance.

Looking at my pad as I scribbled notes, agent Wim Brown asks why I don’t have a tape recorder? I tell him I was ordered to leave it up front. He chuckles, the guy from the New Yorker managed to sneak his in. What kind of a journalist are you? Now these guys are busting my chops!  Welcome to the world of shadows. (I should’ve put it in my sock!) In the words of an undercover operative….I’m in.

It’s true. Most people don’t understand what the DEA does and how they operate. Our film is truly, the anatomy of a DEA takedown. The greater organizational truths are illuminated in the context of one specific operation. The story is told from the point of view of the agents. I make no apologies for that. (We approached Monzer al-Kassar for an interview. Our request was declined.) Here we have done justice to the dedication, persistence and creativity the DEA puts into every operation, not just the Kassar takedown. We have given the audience a front row seat to on the inner workings of a very private governmental agency that historically has preferred to operate in the shadows (and next time, I’ll put my audio recorder in my sock.)

Don’t miss Inside the DEA premiering August 10th at 10P et/pt.