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How Feds Nabbed Hundreds Of Transnational Criminals With 1 Trap

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It sounds like an investigator's dream - being able to covertly read, almost in real time, text messages between criminals. That is exactly what the FBI and its international partners were able to do in a massive global sting operation announced today against transnational organized crime. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering this and joins us now with the details.

Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: This sounds fascinating. So how did the sting work exactly?

LUCAS: So beginning a few years ago, the FBI worked with a confidential source who was developing a communication platform that's known as a hardened encrypted device. It's like a cell phone, but it can only be used to send and receive encrypted messages - so no phone calls, no internet. And you can't buy these things in stores. You have to know someone who sells them. And because of how these devices work, transnational criminal organizations, particularly drug traffickers, often use them.

Now, what the FBI was able to do was get its confidential source to hand out their new hardened device, called Anom, to the source's network of distributors, who then sold them to criminal organizations. But what those distributors and criminal organizations, of course, didn't know was that the messaging app was, in fact, being run by the FBI and that all of the encrypted messages the criminals were sending were being copied, decrypted and sent to the FBI at almost the same time. Here's the acting U.S. attorney in the southern district of California, Randy Grossman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANDY GROSSMAN: The very devices that the criminals used to hide their crimes were actually a beacon for law enforcement.

CHANG: Wow. So what sort of information was law enforcement seeing in these messages?

LUCAS: Pretty much everything. The FBI collected more than 27 million messages from Anom users around the world, and officials say every user was engaged in some sort of criminal activity. Officials say that the users talked openly about drug deals they were conducting and about how they were going to hide the drugs. In one example, court papers say a criminal organization made a cocaine shipment from Costa Rica to Spain and hid the drugs in hollowed out pineapples. Spanish police intercepted that shipment and seized 1,500 kilos of cocaine. In another instance, the drugs were concealed in cans of tuna fish. Suzanne Turner heads the FBI's San Diego Field Office, which led this investigation. She said investigators were surprised just how openly these criminals were talking about their planning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUZANNE TURNER: It was exactly what car was coming to what location, what maybe vessel or ship. And they were very explicit in their detail because they believed it was secure communications.

LUCAS: And the details really emerge in the court papers. They say users talked about bulk cash smuggling, sent pictures of GPS locations of drug shipments, all sorts of things. And this criminal activity spanned the entire globe.

CHANG: Wow. OK, so law enforcement had this incredibly detailed view of everything that was going down. What were they able to do about it ultimately? Like, how many arrests were made out of all this?

LUCAS: Well, the FBI was working closely with its international partners, particularly the Australian Federal Police. In just the last 48 hours, more than 500 people have been arrested around the world in connection with this operation. Over the course of the entire investigation, officials say more than 800 people have been arrested. And a lot of drugs have been seized - more than eight tons of cocaine, more than 22 tons of marijuana, money, too, worth more than $48 million. Authorities also raided dozens of clandestine drug labs around the world.

Now, as for here in the U.S., the Justice Department indicted 17 foreign nationals for their alleged roles in knowingly distributing these encrypted devices to criminal groups in more than 90 countries. Eight of those defendants have been arrested. The rest are fugitives. And officials say that while this Anom platform has been taken down, criminals will likely be left wondering in the future about how secure their communications are.

CHANG: I'm sure they will. That is NPR's Ryan Lucas.

Thank you so much, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTICE'S "VALENTINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.