Missouri's multi-jurisdictional drug task forces embody the very
worst of the war on drugs. They're
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
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
NITRO OFFICER: No.
AARON MALIN: Is this the NITRO Drug Task
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
AARON MALIN: Is this the sheriff's department,
NITRO OFFICER: No, no no, this is
just a...its a government building, but...
AARON MALIN: Okay...um...do you mind my asking
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,
AARON MALIN: Eric McAllester, or somebody with
the NITRO Drug Task Force. You really won't tell me what building
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
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
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
NITRO OFFICER #2: We got your request, and we
forwarded it on to the ATF office per our policy, and that's what
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
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
NITRO OFFICER #2: No, it is not a state
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
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