By Jenni Hesterman
It is estimated that organized crime costs the UK in excess of $40B per year. In response to this significant national security and economic threat, the government established SOCA (Serious Organised Crime Agency) in 2006. This unique organization is an intelligence-led agency with law enforcement powers. In short, SOCA serves as a link between strategic efforts to fight organized crime and the work of law enforcement at the tactical level.
SOCA resulted from a merger of the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), the investigative and intelligence sections of HM Revenue & Customs on serious drug trafficking, and the Immigration Service’s responsibilities for organized immigration crime. The overarching intent was for SOCA to devote a higher proportion of its resources and activity to intelligence work than the agencies that it replaced. SOCA’s budget was just shy of $1B in its inaugural year, with more than 4,000 employees—roughly half of which are criminal investigators, with the other half performing intelligence work.
The status and governance of SOCA is also of particular interest. Although often dubbed the British equivalent of the FBI, SOCA is an Executive Non-Departmental Public Body, and as such, it has full operational independence from the government. The Home Secretary sets the agency’s priorities, appoints its leadership and provides funding. The Agency then determines how to best execute the mission.
SOCA is led by a Board appointed by the Home Secretary. The current Board has representatives from the business community, telecommunications industry, the nonprofit sector and the legal profession–in addition to subject matter experts. The Board is responsible for ensuring that SOCA discharges its statutory responsibilities and meets the priorities set by the Home Secretary. There is also a Board Chair, which is responsible for the agency’s dealings with other departments, and a Director General that serves as general manager for the agency–both selected by the Home Secretary.
SOCA’s general goals are to build knowledge and understanding of the organized crime issue; increase the amount of criminal assets recovered and cases prosecuted; increase risk to criminals through use of current and new investigation capabilities; to collaborate with UK and international agencies; and to provide support to SOCA’s operational partners.
A very interesting and distinctive characteristic of SOCA’s operation: the Agency focuses their mission by apportioning resources against goals administered by the SOCA Board. The stated priorities are to fight drug trafficking (40%); organized immigration crime (25%); individual & private sector fraud (10%) and other organized crime such as high tech crime, counterfeiting, the use of firearms and serious robbery (15%). Although SOCA does not have a stated counterterrorism or counterintelligence role, its mission certainly contributes to related efforts, particularly through its Proceeds of Crime Department. SOCA is the focal point for collection and analysis of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) related to money laundering, and it is believed that one third of SARs are related to terrorist activity.
SOCA was designed with built-in flexibility to use and assign assets within the agency as dictated by requirements. The Director can impart the authorities needed for an agent to perform duties as a constable, immigrations or customs officer. SOCA is also exempt from Freedom of Information reporting, to guard sensitive data, safeguard operations and protect their agents. A Former National Crime Squad detective summarized that SOCA “needs to be elite. It needs to be secretive to a certain degree. To catch people in the highest echelon of organized crime needs a lot of dedication, a lot of expertise, a lot of officers who are multi-skilled, and devotion to the task.”
After a difficult first year dealing with issues similar to the stand up of DHS – IT, HR, infrastructure and training – the recently released 2007/2008 annual report indicates that SOCA has firmly established its operational identity and is accomplishing many goals. Over 100 tons of Class A drugs and cannabis were seized, as well as 60 tons of precursor chemicals in Columbia and Afghanistan that would have been used in drug production. Over $90M in criminal assets were seized, as well as 400 illicit firearms. Over $2M in counterfeit notes are now off of the streets, and a major illegal minting operation closed. The report is replete with successful operations such as Hornblower, which identified a major operation to smuggle illegal immigrants into the UK from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
SOCA also produces 2 critical new products related to the organized crime challenge–the United Kingdom Threat Assessment, which analyzes emerging issues, and the National Intelligence Requirement, which includes a detailed matrix of crimes with corresponding information sought via the intelligence gathering process.
There are many challenges facing this cutting-edge organization. The scope of organized crime in the UK is daunting and expanding, reaching far beyond its borders. Therefore, the agency’s mission will no doubt grow, with operational needs potentially outrunning resources. This growth must be tempered, or the agency will face “mission creep” and will stray from the original objectives. The legitimacy of SOCA is established, however the agency will continue to compete with government agencies for precious resources, particularly those engaged in counterterrorism issues. As with law enforcement organizations in the US, cooperation and information sharing cross-agency will remain a challenge and possibly hinder progress.
Criminals and terrorists operate asymmetrically—and perhaps the innovative structure and tactics employed by SOCA is an idea whose time has come.
About the Author
Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism specialist. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at American Military University, teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies. You may contact the author at JLHBlog@aol.com.