Chuck Grassley

United States Senator from Iowa





Detention of Daniel Chong by the Drug Enforcement Administration

Jul 29, 2014

Prepared Floor Statement of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
Detention of Daniel Chong by the Drug Enforcement Administration
Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mr. President, today I want to speak about the unconscionable way in which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) treated Daniel Chong, a San Diego college student, back in 2012.

Unfortunately, the American people still do not know all the facts.  They do not know what lasting changes are being made to make sure something like this never happens again.  And they do not know what is being done to hold the DEA agents involved accountable.  

But here is what we do know.  It is a story that you might expect to hear set in a third-world country, but never in the United States of America.

Back in April 2012, Daniel Chong, a college student at the University of California at San Diego, was arrested by law enforcement conducting a sweep for drugs at a college party.

He was taken into custody by the DEA and transported to the local DEA field office.  He was questioned by the agents who had arrested him.  And the agents apparently concluded that there was no basis to charge him with a crime.  

The young man may well have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And so agents told him that he was going to be released.  But, Mr. President, Daniel Chong was not released.  Instead, he was taken back to a holding cell in handcuffs.  And he was left there for dead for five days.  Five days without food.  Five days without water.  Five days without sunlight.  Five days without any of the basic necessities of life – in a holding cell not much larger than a bathroom stall.

He cried out for help.  He kicked and banged on the door of the cell.  But to no avail.  He became so desperate and dehydrated that he even drank his own urine in an effort to survive.

Incredibly, the one thing that Daniel Chong found in his cell that he tried to live on turned out to be some methamephetamine.  That’s right – he found illegal drugs in the DEA’s own holding cell.  Apparently, it was never searched before he was tossed inside.

Mr. President, it got so bad that this young man tried to kill himself.  He tried to carve the words “sorry Mom” into his own skin.  He intended it to be a last message for anyone to pass on who might one day discover his lifeless body in that DEA holding cell.

After five days, someone finally responded to Daniel Chong’s calls for help.

He was taken immediately to the hospital.  He was found to be suffering from extreme dehydration, hyperthermia, kidney failure, and cuts and bruises on his wrists.

It took four days to nurse him back to health.

This occurred in April 2012.  Soon after I learned of it, I sent a letter to the DEA Administrator demanding to know what could have led to such a calamity.  I asked how, in our modern age of computers and surveillance cameras, it was possible that an innocent person could be left for dead in a DEA holding cell.  I asked about the DEA policies and procedures in place, to help prevent this from ever happening again.  And I asked whether those responsible for what happened to Mr. Chong were going to be held accountable.

Mr. President, it took the DEA more than a year to respond to my questions.  In June 2013, the DEA trotted out the familiar response that it could not comment on many aspects of the matter because the Department of Justice’s own Inspector General was conducting a review.  The DEA assured me that an “interim” policy had been adopted to make sure no other innocent people would be abandoned in a prison cell and left for dead.  But the American people would have to wait for a permanent policy change and a full accounting until after the Inspector General finished its investigation.

Just a month later, in July 2013, the DEA announced that it would be handing over $4.1 million to Daniel Chong to settle his lawsuit.  $4.1 million dollars of taxpayer money – almost a million dollars for each day that he spent forgotten and ignored in that dark and drug-infested DEA holding cell.

Now finally, just this month, and more than two years after this debacle, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General finally issued its report of investigation.  We still do not know the full truth about what happened to Daniel Chong.   In many ways, the report raises more questions than it answers.

But what the report does tell us is quite disturbing.  According to the report, Daniel Chong was not just forgotten by the agents who arrested him.  He was ignored by other DEA employees who knew he was there but assumed that he was someone else’s problem.  And the report suggests that the DEA may have tried to cover up the whole event.

According to the report, there were three DEA agents and a supervisor directly responsible for making sure that this young man was not abandoned in that holding cell.  So it’s obvious that these four agents failed miserably in their responsibilities.

But it gets worse.  According to the report, at least four other agents passed in and out of the holding cell area during the five days when Daniel Chong was imprisoned.  These four agents admitted that they had either seen or heard Chong in his cell.  But they simply assumed that someone else was going to take care of him.

Daniel Chong was arrested on a Saturday.  One of these agents saw him in the cell on Sunday.   And one saw him there on Monday.  And another two agents either saw or heard him on Wednesday.  And nothing compelled these law enforcement officers to address his plight because they did not believe anything was amiss.   

Mr. President, that is difficult to believe.

In addition, Daniel Chong’s holding cell was near a workspace area used by dozens of DEA personnel.   According to the report, anyone in that workspace could have clearly heard banging and yelling from inside that cell.  But not a single one of the 25 DEA employees interviewed by the Inspector General who work there could recall hearing any “unusual noises” during the time Daniel Chong was imprisoned there.

Mr. President, that is very difficult to believe.

It defies all common sense.  It contradicts what Daniel Chong says he did, by crying out for help and banging on his holding cell door.  It contradicts what his injuries tell us he did.  And it contradicts what anyone left in a holding cell without the basic necessities of life for days would do.
Why did no one respond to Daniel Chong’s cries for help?  The report does not even attempt to answer this question.  At least eight DEA agents were in some way responsible for this young man’s wrongful captivity.   The report does not say what’s happened to these agents.  Are they still working for the DEA?  Have they been disciplined?  Or are they still arresting other people, tossing them behind bars, and leaving them for dead?

Mr. President, the problem does not stop here.  According to the report, the DEA may have tried to cover up this entire event.

The Inspector General learned about what happened to Daniel Chong from an anonymous whistleblower who called one of its field offices.   This is another example of the value of whistleblowers – heroes who stand up for what is right, sometimes at great personal risk.

According to the report, the whistleblower indicated that the DEA “was trying to contain this matter locally.”  That’s another way of saying, essentially, that a cover-up could be in the works.

Incredibly, as it turns out, the office in San Diego assigned the very agents who were responsible for Daniel Chong’s captivity to process the holding cell area where Chong was held for days.

That’s right.  The agents who left Chong behind bars for five days were assigned to investigate their own egregious mistake.

And DEA management also decided that it was going to conduct its own internal “management review” of the incident.  That is, it would conduct its own interviews and investigation before DEA notified anyone else.

DEA management justified this decision by telling the Inspector General that it assumed that the conduct “which resulted in Chong’s detention did not amount to misconduct and was not criminal.”  But of course, as the Inspector General found, it should have been “readily apparent” to DEA management that this was not true.

Of course, DEA management may have calculated that undertaking its own investigation could head off an independent, outside one.  Indeed, perhaps the investigation could even be “contained locally.”  How many other DEA misdeeds have been similarly contained?

This is outrageous.  We need to know more about why the Inspector General wasn’t called in immediately, as DEA policy requires.  We need to know if indeed this was a deliberate attempt to sweep this dereliction of duty under the rug.

Now, Mr. President, the DEA is entrusted with a lot of responsibility and authority.  We ask the DEA to enforce our drug laws and protect our communities.  They have a tough job.  And the Obama Administration isn’t making that job any easier.

It’s undermining the DEA by turning a blind eye to illegal marijuana trafficking.

It’s trying to release convicted drug dealers from our prisons.

And it’s trying to reduce the criminal penalties and mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers who are still on the streets peddling death in our communities.

So I understand that these are challenging times for the DEA.

But when the DEA or any law enforcement agency neglects their responsibilities, and then possibly even covers up wrongdoing, then those responsible must be held to account.

So I have to ask, if employees of the DEA are not held accountable here, what needs to happen in order for action to be taken?  Do we need to wait until someone dies?

Mr. President, the DEA’s conduct in this case is inexcusable.  After two years and more than $4 million of taxpayer money, the DEA owes the American people answers.

The American people deserve answers to the questions I posed in my letter to the DEA back in May 2012.  I will be writing to the DEA again this week to pose additional questions, including about the possibility of a cover-up.

Most importantly, the American people deserve to know that those responsible for the detention and mistreatment of Daniel Chong will be held accountable for this horrendous event.