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Global Sting, Lead By The FBI, Targets Transnational Criminal Groups

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The FBI called it Operation Trojan Shield, a global sting conducted by the bureau and its international partners targeting transnational criminal groups. Authorities arrested hundreds of people around the world in connection with the investigation. And the key to the whole thing was a trick the FBI pulled on the international criminals. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here with more. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So this was a massive operation, a global operation that went on for over three years. And it all ties into how criminal groups were communicating, right?

LUCAS: Right. This all revolves around something called hardened encrypted devices. And these things look like a cellphone, but you can't make calls on them. You can't surf the internet. You can only send and receive messages. Now, officials say they cost about $1,700 for a six-month subscription in the U.S., but neither you nor I could walk down to our local cellphone store and pick one up. You have to know a seller. The upside to these things is that they are encrypted and it's a closed loop, which makes them secure from surveillance by law enforcement. And officials say that that - essentially these devices are really, in essence, tailor made for criminals.

FADEL: So is that the reason why the FBI got into the encrypted device business?

LUCAS: Well, the FBI started working a couple of years ago with a confidential source who was developing a new encrypted platform. That source agreed to work with the FBI and get these new devices called ANOM out to distributors who then quietly sold them to criminal organizations. Now, officials say more than 12,000 ANOM devices were sold to around 300 criminal organizations around the world. Of course, what the distributors and criminals didn't know was that the encrypted system was, in fact, being run by the FBI and that every message the criminals were sending was being read almost in real time by investigators. Now, here is the acting U.S. attorney in the southern district of California, Randy Grossman.

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RANDY GROSSMAN: The criminals using these devices believe they were secretly planning crimes far beneath the radar of law enforcement. But in reality, the criminals were not underneath the radar. They were on it.

FADEL: So the FBI was able to read millions of these messages in about 45 language almost as soon as they're sent. What type of window did that give investigators into what the criminal groups were up to?

LUCAS: We're talking a floor-to-ceiling glass window with as good a view as you could ask for. Investigators could read the back-and-forth discussions about planning a crime. Here's Suzanne Turner. She's the special agent in charge of the FBI field office in San Diego, which led this investigation.

SUZANNE TURNER: I think what surprised us or sort of reinforced how important these encrypted communications are is how open they were about planning.

LUCAS: Turner said the detail reached a granular level. We're talking what specific car or boat would be at a specific location for a shipment. For example, one criminal group organized a cocaine shipment from Costa Rica to Spain and talked about hiding the drugs in hollowed-out pineapples.

FADEL: Wow.

LUCAS: The FBI and Spanish police reviewed these messages, and Spanish authorities intercepted the shipment and seized around 1,500 kilos of cocaine. In another instance, the drugs were concealed in cans of tuna and another in boxes of bananas, all of which the suspects were discussing in these chats that were being monitored.

FADEL: That is so wild. And this all produced results, right? Authorities arrested some 800 people around the world.

LUCAS: That's right. They also seized around 30 tons of drugs. And this was truly a global operation. The top five countries where these devices were used were Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia. There were also indictments here in the U.S. against 17 people for their alleged roles in distributing these platforms. Eight of those individuals are in custody; the rest are fugitives.

FADEL: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.