Understanding this calls for some “inside baseball” about how the Justice Department works. In particular, you’ll want to introduce yourself to “OCDETF,” a term near and dear to the DOJ heart, though one unknown to the public — and boy, does the administration ever want to keep it that way.
OCDETF stands for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. It was created during the Reagan administration to throw the coordinated muscle of Justice’s component investigative agencies — especially the FBI and the DEA — at domestic and international organized crime, a scourge that had been dramatically exacerbated by unprecedented drug-trafficking millions.
I was working at the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan at the dawn of OCDETF — which at DOJ is referred to as if it were a word, “Osedef.” In those days, with New York City both the notorious capital of La Cosa Nostra and the target market of Colombian drug cartels, I was fortunate to be assigned to some of the original “Osedef cases.”
Very soon, everybody wanted to work on them, and investigative agencies jabbed their sharpest elbows in the competition to have their prize investigations designated OCDETF. The reason was straightforward: OCDETF cases were the cases the Justice Department cared about, meaning: They were the cases that got bottomless funding and extensive resources.
OCDETF cases are Justice’s crown jewels: the investigations that go on for months (sometimes more than a year) and result in vast arrest sweeps, bells-and-whistles press conferences, high-profile trials, and epic convictions and sentences. To carry such cases off demands mega manpower. Besides developing and exploiting informants, the agencies infiltrate criminal conspiracies with undercover agents, use the information gathered as the basis for wiretaps, and coordinate this eavesdropping with physical surveillance. It takes scores of agents to monitor bugs, conduct sometimes 24/7 spying on multiple subjects, and manage informants, who tend to be very high-maintenance. This costs money, lots of money.
OCDETF money pours out, but not without one very big string attached: the involvement of Justice Department headquarters in Washington — known as “Main Justice” in DOJ circles.
The vast majority of federal criminal investigations have virtually nothing to do with Main Justice. They are run exclusively by the local district U.S. attorney’s offices (of which there are 94 throughout the country), working in each case with the field offices of a federal investigative agency: FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service, postal inspectors, etc. Almost never do these mundane cases involve wiretaps or multiple agencies conducting extensive surveillance. When they end successfully, the investigative agency and the U.S. attorney may put out a press release to the local media, but no one in Washington ever hears about them.
OCDETF cases are very different. They get to the front of the line when it comes to resources, particularly wiretapping — one of the only investigative techniques for which federal law requires approval by the attorney general or his designee (a top DOJ official) before the investigating agency and the district U.S. attorney may seek court approval. (For example, no Main Justice green-light is needed to seek a search warrant, make an arrest, flip an informant, convene a grand jury, issue a subpoena, or collect evidence in sundry other ways.)