Secret federal program paid TSA and Amtrak employees extra money to spy on passengers

BOSTON (WHDH) - TSA screeners – their mission is to be on the lookout for anything or anyone that could put you in danger. But it seems when some of them are searching through your luggage they may be looking for a way to make money too!

It’s all part of a program run by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Federal documents show over the past several years, the agency handed TSA, airline and Amtrak employees more than $237 million for finding illegal drugs and cash in suitcases and packages.

“It’s a bribe and it’s wasteful if that employee is under an obligation to report criminal activity and they’re being paid extra money for the same thing,” said U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch. “It’s mind boggling the amount of money we’re wasting here and also the nefarious way we’re spying on our own citizens.”

The DEA said it doesn’t even know how many people were arrested or convicted with the information it paid for.

All of this coming to light in a recently released Justice Department report. It has some concerned that the draw to make added cash could distract TSA workers from what should be their main focus.

“They’re serving another master,” said Carl Williams from the ACLU of Massachusetts. “And what they’re not doing, probably, is their job; which is looking for bombs.”

The DEA wouldn’t disclose the airports or train stations where they are using confidential informants. But Congressman Lynch says he’s sure Boston was on the list.

“I’m sure it is Boston,” he said. “It’s a major hub, we’re part of the Northeast corridor.”

The two-year investigation into the DEA’s program found there was very little oversight on how the money was paid out. In one case, the report shows the DEA paid an Amtrak employee over $850,000 for information the agency could have gotten for free. And the ACLU says this kind of program could be illegal.

“Having people rummage through luggage where there’s no warrant sounds like a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights,” said Williams.

During a recent congressional hearing, the DEA told lawmakers it has already made major changes to the program. But Congressman Lynch said that’s not enough and is demanding a security briefing from the agency.

“You know I think they do need some of the informant activity but it needs to be very closely monitored,” he added.

The DEA said it is now no longer using TSA and Amtrak employees as informants. Congressman Lynch said he is expecting a full briefing from the agency within the next few weeks.

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