Missouri's multi-jurisdictional drug task forces embody the very worst of the war on drugs. They're misguided, reckless, and they operate with basically no oversight. The state currently has 25 of these task forces, and over the past year I've succeeded in obtaining basic operational records from all but one of them as part of routine research using Missouri's Sunshine Law. The Northwest Missouri Interagency Team Response Operation (NITRO) has gone to extreme lengths to avoid disclosing any information about their operations.
Like all of the drug task forces in Missouri, NITRO receives funding through the state's Department of Public Safety, which in turn makes them legally subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law.
They disagree, and seem to feel they have the right to maintain absolute secrecy over every aspect of their task force. When I called NITRO's listed number to file a basic open records request, they outright lied to me and claimed to be someone else [listen to the recording here]:
AARON MALIN: Hi, is this Eric McAllester?
NITRO OFFICER: No.
AARON MALIN: Is this the NITRO Drug Task Force?
NITRO OFFICER: …Who is this?
AARON MALIN: My name is Aaron Malin.
NITRO OFFICER: Uh…who are you with?
AARON MALIN: I'm not with anybody. I was trying to call a listed number for the NITRO Drug Task Force.
NITRO OFFICER: Uh…nope, this isn't it…[chuckles]
AARON MALIN: Is this the sheriff's department, or…?
NITRO OFFICER: No, no no, this is just a…its a government building, but…
AARON MALIN: Okay…um…do you mind my asking which one?
NITRO OFFICER: Uh….this is- this is a government building…uh…who…who is this again?
AARON MALIN: Aaron Malin
NITRO OFFICER: Who do you need to speak with, Eric McAllester?
AARON MALIN: Eric McAllester, or somebody with the NITRO Drug Task Force. You really won't tell me what building you're in?
NITRO OFFICER: Well who are you wi-?
AARON MALIN: I'm not with anybody. I'm just trying- I am an individual citizen trying to file an open records request.
NITRO OFFICER: Ok, well you're going to have to contact the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives Public Information Officer.
AARON MALIN: This is- man, this is literally the number they gave me to call. This exact number.
NITRO OFFICER: Well, I'm going to have to forward that request to that individual. I can give you the phone number and the person to contact.
AARON MALIN: That would be great, but can you tell me who I am talking to please, so I can tell them who forwarded me?
NITRO OFFICER: Uh…this is…this is…this is the task force…
The NITRO Task Force blatantly lies to folks who call their listed number and attempt to file open records request. This troubling lack of transparency is almost certainly a violation of Missouri's Sunshine Law, as it becomes impossible to file a request when NITRO pretends your calls (to a number listed on the Missouri State Highway Patrol website) are to the wrong number.
After my call with NITRO, I immediately double-checked the phone number. Upon confirming that I had indeed called the listed number for the NITRO Task Force, I gave them a call back, at which point they claimed to be exempt from state open records laws [listen to the recording here]:
NITRO OFFICER #2: We got your request, and we forwarded it on to the ATF office per our policy, and that's what was happenin'.
AARON MALIN: Are you not a state agency? Are you not under the highway patrol?
NITRO OFFICER #2: No. No…no. [chuckles].
AARON MALIN: Because they list you on their website.
NITRO OFFICER #2: Well I'm sorry. We're not- we don't have nothin' to do with the highway patrol.
AARON MALIN: Ok so, I'm just trying to get a little bit of background on—on what exactly—on who exactly oversees NITRO, I guess.
AARON MALIN: Is it [NITRO]—it's not a state agency?
NITRO OFFICER #2: No, it is not a state agency.
AARON MALIN: It's not a federal agency?
NITRO OFFICER #2: No, its not a federal agency either. We are a task force, that its basically under ATF I guess I would say. We are under them. We go under their guidelines. We go by their policies. We're all commissioned federally. So we basically work for ATF, even though we're not paid by them.
AARON MALIN: Ok. So who pays you then? The state?
NITRO OFFICER #2: It's a grant situation.
He's right- it is a grant situation. The narcotics grants come from the Missouri Department of Public Safety (DPS). The federal government does provide some additional funding for these state task force grants to DPS, but a Missouri department directly controls task force funding.
Because they are funded through the state, specifically through the Missouri Department of Public Safety, agencies like the NITRO Task Force are subject to Missouri's Sunshine Law, despite their claims to the contrary.
Missouri's Sunshine Law [RSMo 610.010] is very clear on the matter.
NITRO has a solution to that pesky Sunshine Law: They claim to be exempt from state laws because they are actually a federal agency. (This sounds a lot like a recent case in Florida where US Marshalls claimed local police records belonged to the feds to exempt them from state open records laws, except more specious.)
Given my firm belief that NITRO is required to comply with Missouri's open records law, I next contacted the Sunshine Complaint Unit within the Office of the Attorney General of Missouri. They recommended trying to file the request with the listed Project Director of NITRO, who is listed as the Grundy County sheriff. Upon doing so, the sheriff's office claimed they were unable to access the basic records I requested about the finances and operation of NITRO, and maintained ATF is responsible for maintaining the task force's records.
Despite my firm belief that the NITRO Task Force is required to respond to Sunshine Law requests, I did submit two FOIA requests through ATF, the first on April 30th, 2014 and another on June 21st, 2014 after being repeatedly told they would not comply with the Sunshine Law. Both were ignored, and a year after my research began, I have not received a single document from NITRO; they continue to operate in the dark. [The documents of interest are the disproportionately high number of search warrants NITRO is denied each year.]
Given NITRO's claim they are overseen by the ATF, I reached out to the Public Information Officer, John Ham, in the nearby Kansas City ATF Office. I gave him advance notice of my findings, along with an opportunity to comment. He too was apparently unable to get a straight answer from the NITRO Task Force (I wonder whom they pretended to be when he called). After attempting contact for two full business days, he was unable to provide me with comment because he was "still attempting to gather information relevant to [my] research." I emailed him six weeks later (and left multiple voicemails) to see what kind of progress he had made in obtaining information about NITRO, and I never heard from him again. If ATF can't even get a straight answer out of NITRO, what hope do the rest of us have?
The lack of transparency displayed by the NITRO Task Force is shocking and disturbing. This is an organization that is empowered to execute no-knock search warrants and make arrests. This agency possesses broad powers and seems to operate with little to no transparency or accountability, and that makes for a dangerous combination.