THERE are many reasons why you might have been stopped at an American transport hub and your bag searched by officials. You might have be chosen at random. Perhaps you matched a profile. Or you could have been flagged by an airline, railroad or security employee who was being secretly paid by the government as a confidential informant to uncover evidence of drug smuggling.
A committee of Congress heard remarkable testimony last week about a long-running programme by the Drug Enforcement Administration. For years, officials from the Department of Justice testified, the DEA has paid millions of dollars to a variety of confidential sources to provide tips on travellers who may be transporting drugs or large sums of money. Those sources include staff at airlines, Amtrak, parcel services and even the Transportation Safety Administration.
The testimony follows a report by the Justice Department that uncovered the DEA programme and detailed its many potential violations. According to that report, airline employees and other informers had an incentive to search more travellers’ bags, since they received payment whenever their actions resulted in DEA seizures of cash or contraband. The best-compensated of these appears to have been a parcel company employee who received more than $1m from the DEA over five years. One airline worker, meanwhile, received $617,676 from 2012 to 2015 for tips that led to confiscations. But the DEA itself profited much more from the programme. That well-paid informant got only about 12% of the amount the agency seized as a result of the his tips.