The DEA is Listening to Us (Illegally) Too

The DEA is the latest agency whos overreaching has been tossed into the public spotlight. In January of this year during a case about a man accused of violating export restrictions on goods to Iran, the DEA disclosed that they had been collecting metadata on phone calls. However, it took several more months until the full scale was realized.

Another Day Another (Illegal) Surveillance Program

The initial case involved a phone number from southern California to Iran and the exportation of “technological goods” into Iran. However, by the time of the discover in January of this year the DEA claimed that: “[The] database is no longer being queried for investigatory purposes, and information is no longer being collected in bulk.” Adding that the program was stopped in 2013 and all data deleted (yeah, right).

Then in April the full scope of the data collected was revealed.

The program began over twenty years ago when Bush Sr. was president. In a letter back in 1998 to Sprint the Justice Department called this illegal collection of phone records, “one of the most important and effective Federal drug law enforcement initiatives.”

During its run the program, known as USTO (a play on words from ‘US to Other Countries’), was approved by top justice officials like Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Director Eric Holder as well as other top Justice Department officials under four presidential administrations. The program was also occasionally briefed to members of Congress but otherwise had no oversight.

In 1992 the DEA gained a broader go ahead for the collection of data. With it, they began asking domestic telecoms not only for individual suspect records, but for all calls made to certain countries. To obtain the legal standing to do this the DEA used administrative subpoenas. Meaning they did not need any kind of judicial approval. One former official involved with the process said “We knew we were stretching the definition.”

When companies, like Sprint in 1998, expressed reservations about providing so much information they received letters (like the one mentioned above) urging them to comply.

The list of countries under surveillance with USTO changed with time, but at its peak the DEA was receiving records on calls from Americans to 116 countries. In April, USA Today reported:

To keep the program secret, the DEA sought not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions or in its justification for warrants or other searches. Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips to help them find new targets or focus existing investigations… the DEA trained agents to conceal the sources of those tips from judges and defense lawyers.

In some cases, like after the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, the DEA allowed the FBI, NSA, and other agencies to query their collection of phone records.

USA Today also reported that the DEA got clean in 2013 right around the time of the Snowden revelations:

Holder halted the data collection in September 2013 amid the fallout from Snowden’s revelations about other surveillance programs. In its place, current and former officials said the drug agency sends telecom companies daily subpoenas for international calling records involving only phone numbers that agents suspect are linked to the drug trade or other crimes — sometimes a thousand or more numbers a day.

A New Dawn

In response to the new information about the DEA’s unwarranted surveillance the Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched a lawsuit against the DEA with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in tow. The main goal as Dinah PoKemper of the Human Rights Watch puts it, is to; “[Ask] the court to require the government to destroy the records it illegally collected no matter where they are held, and to declare—once and for all—that bulk collection of Americans’ records is unconstitutional.’’ Furthermore, the EFF “seeks to ensure that the program is permanently stopped rather than merely suspended as claimed by DEA.”

Last week the EFF and HRW won their lawsuit against the DEA. The court granted them ‘discovery’- the first of its kind ever. Discovery will give HRW the ability to ask DEA officials questions, under oath, about the program. In the questioning EFF hopes to “… provide some much needed insight into the government’s surveillance program and whether or not the government continues to retain and use those illegally collected records. And we’ll keep fighting for more information about the program and to ensure that the program is stopped, once and for all.”


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