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Secret US spying program targeted top Venezuelan officials, flouting international law

A secret memo obtained by The Associated Press details a yearslong covert operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that sent undercover operatives into Venezuela to surreptitiously record and build drug-trafficking cases against the country’s leadership – a plan the U.S. acknowledged from the start was arguably a violation of international law.

“It is necessary to conduct this operation unilaterally and without notifying Venezuelan officials,” reads the 15-page 2018 memo expanding “Operation Money Badger,” an investigation that authorities say targeted dozens of people, including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

While there’s no clear mechanism to hold the United States accountable legally, the revelation threatens to roil already fraught relations with Maduro’s socialist government and could deepen resentment of the U.S. across Latin America over perceived meddling.

It also offers a rare window into the lengths the DEA was willing to go to fight the drug war in a country that banned U.S. drug agents nearly two decades ago.

Some of Maduro’s closest allies were ensnared in the investigation, including Alex Saab, the businessman recently freed in a prisoner swap for 10 Americans and a fugitive defense contractor. But until now, it was not clear that U.S. probes targeting Venezuela involved legally questionable tactics.

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