Nearly 200 pages of Drug Enforcement Administration contracts with producers were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They show for the first time how the agency interacts with television and film productions.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is quite active in the entertainment industry. It exercises stringent control over how the agency is represented in documentaries, reality shows, and dramas.
With several projects, the DEA carefully reviews their own files to pick out select cases that made them look good, which then form the basis for either fictional or factual productions.
The contracts [PDF] cover 2011 to 2017. Over that time period, DEA supported dozens of projects, including “Cops and Coyotes” and multiple episodes of “Drugs Inc.” and “Gangsters: America’s Most Evil.” They support the fictional drugs drama “Pure,” too.
Other supported projects were “Lethal Cargo,” “The Notorious Mr. Bout,” and “Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies.” They even worked with the U.S. government-funded Middle East Broadcasting Network for a program that featured the DEA museum.
Strangely absent from the contracts are “Narcos” and “Breaking Bad,” despite various reports that both shows employed DEA employees as consultants.
In response to a separate FOIA request asking about their input on “Breaking Bad,” the DEA claimed they couldn’t find any records whatsoever. The released documents also do not include “Finding Escobar’s Millions” and “Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario,” even though the DEA was credited on both documentaries.
The contracts show the near-total control the DEA wields over productions they assist.
Some producers are given permission to embed film crews within DEA Enforcement Groups but only under the provision that “DEA supervisors on the scene shall have the final say in approving any filming during real-time law enforcement operations.”
The production support offered by the DEA is completely free. It costs the producers nothing and ranges from granting permission to use the DEA name and logo to filming at DEA installations and interviewing their agents.
Some of the DEA’s restrictions apply to certain projects. The producers of “Canada: Drug Kingpin” were told they weren’t allowed to “accompany DEA employees to Canadian-U.S. border ‘hot spots’ known for the transit of illicit substances.”
The makers of “Lethal Cargo” were only permitted to interview one DEA employee, and the contract specifies several topics that he was not allowed to talk about. The forbidden topics included, “Information relating to the production and consumption status of a country and that country’s law enforcement approach to drug trafficking,” “the port of Valencia as an ingress point for cocaine,” and “the Nigerian mafia as couriers.”
In more recent years, with marijuana legalization a growing issue and reality, the DEA began including a clause saying that any interviews with “DEA personnel regarding marijuana operations or related issues” had to be approved in advance by the agency’s chief of congressional and public affairs.
On all supported projects, the producers must grant a “senior DEA official” control over the final edit, to ensure a project doesn’t compromise an “ongoing investigation or prosecution, investigative practices or techniques, or the identities of confidential sources or DEA special agent or task force officers.”
The official “may make that determination at any time during the editing and production process,” and the “producer agrees to abide by DEA requests to modify, delete or otherwise change” anything that is deemed objectionable.
While some of these restrictions are reasonable and protect the rights of those accused of crimes, the DEA-imposed limits also ensure they are depicted in a positive light.
Shadowproof spoke with author Doug Valentine, who has written extensively on the DEA’s culture and corruption. “Positive P.R. is more important [to the DEA] than accurate portrayal,” he said.
The contracts list several specific scenarios that cannot be shown under any circumstances. They include, “Recording of any shooting incident, regardless of who fires,” “filming of suspect interrogations,” “filming where an individual’s communications are being monitored in any fashion,” and “footage that exposes DEA’s confidential or sensitive investigative techniques.”
As a consequence of these restrictions, the productions all maintain the same basic message—that the DEA are heroes, who are fighting evil people who threaten American society.
“It’s propaganda B.S. pure and simple,” Valentine said. “I talk a lot about the myth of the hero. They want to portray themselves as heroes on a noble cause. They demand total control over the narrative.”
Asked whether these shows were inaccurate representations of the real relationships between DEA agents and drug dealers, Valentine replied, “Depends on the agent and the trafficker, but the trafficker can never arrest the agent. So agents have the power of the law. Where it gets sticky is with informants and special hires and undercover ops. CIA stuff.”
In addition to asserting control over the final edit of a production, the documents have clauses saying the DEA “reserves the right to perform background checks and, if necessary, deny access to those individuals who DEA believes may compromise DEA operations. DEA also reserves the right to limit the number of representatives who may have access to DEA.”
Like the FBI, the DEA is not just concerned with the content of the productions they support but also with the backgrounds of the people producing them.
“It’s another way of assuring control. DEA is obsessed with control and being the superior force,” Valentine added.
Further demonstrating the DEA’s obsession with control, the contracts require the producers to destroy any materials provided by the DEA (photos, documents, statistics, b-roll footage and so on) as soon as the production is released or broadcast.
The producers must provide the DEA with a DVD copy and a non-exclusive license to use the resulting film or TV show for the purposes of “recruiting, training, professional development, community relations, or demand reduction efforts.”