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Secret US spying program targeted top Venezuelan officials

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro holds a small copy of his nation's constitution during ceremony marking the start of the judicial year at the Supreme Court in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 31, 2024. A secret memo obtained by The Associated Press details a covert operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that sent undercover operatives into Venezuela to record and build drug-trafficking cases against the country’s leadership including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. AP PHOTO / ARIANA CUBILLOS

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JOSHUA GOODMAN AND JIM MUSTIAN

Joshua Goodman and Jim Mustian exclusively obtained a secret memo detailing a yearslong covert operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that sent undercover operatives into Venezuela to record and build drug-trafficking cases against the country’s leadership — a plan the U.S. acknowledged was arguably a violation of international law.

Late last year, as part of their continuing reporting into corruption in the DEA, they were paying close attention to the New York federal bribery trial of two longtime DEA supervisors. That involved going through often-mundane papers filed nightly to the trial’s documents website.

Late on a Friday, one document stood out, appearing to detail a secret operation requiring the approval of something called the Sensitive Activity Review Committee. Goodman and Mustian initially didn’t know what they had … but the reaction of court officials was telling. As soon as they inquired about the document, they were told it never should have been made public and was taken down. And when the document came up in the trial, the judge took the unusual step of sealing the courtroom, saying failing to do so could have “serious diplomatic repercussions.”

After more than a month of high-level reporting, Goodman and Mustian were able to tell the world what officials were trying to keep secret: A yearslong, covert DEA operation that sent undercover operatives into Venezuela to record and build drug-trafficking cases against the country’s leadership.

The story was on the front page of newspapers throughout the region and got full-page treatment in The Miami Herald. Goodman was interviewed about the story by Colombia’s biggest cable news network, NTN24, and by popular Venezuelan radio host Cesar Miguel Rondon. The story was also widely tweeted by journalists in the region. Read one: “Stunning reporting … this is the kind of reality that would be mocked as a conspiracy theory except Josh got the original documents. Pulitzer Finalist right here.”

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