Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

DEA Admits it Secretly Spied on Americans’ Phone Calls

Se. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says Americans have a right to know when the DEA has been spying on their phone calls. (Photo: Chuck Hagel)

Se. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says Americans have a right to know when the DEA has been spying on their phone calls. (Photo: Chuck Hagel)

The US Drug Enforcement Administration has acknowledged and halted a secret program that collected nearly all data on phone calls between the United States and selected foreign countries.

The DEA formally admitted to maintaining the secret and sweeping database for nearly 15 years, Reuters reports. According to the Department of Justice, the program, parts of which were first reported in 2013, has been halted and “all of the information has been deleted.”

The DEA revealed the program, which was run by the Special Operations Division, in a court filing in the case of a man accused of conspiring to illegally export technology to Iran, the Associated Press reports.

The program was separate from the National Security Agency’s massive bulk collection of billions of phone and electronic communications data, which was revealed by exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden starting in 2013.

A DEA official wrote in the filing that the data collection relied upon administrative subpoenas permitting agency operatives to spy on phone calls from the US to countries, including Iran, that were “determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities.”

The phone records collected were primarily used in support of domestic criminal cases, not national security investigations, the agency said. The DEA also admitted it shared information gleaned from the surveillance with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, IRS, Department of Homeland Security and other intelligence services.

DEA assistant special agent in charge Robert Patterson said the database could be accessed to investigate a specific phone number if law enforcement “had a reasonable articulable suspicion that the telephone number was related to an ongoing federal criminal investigation.”

Liberal lawmakers expressed serious concerns and reservations about the defunct program.

“The American people deserve to know that the DEA engaged in the bulk collection of their international phone records in routine criminal investigations without judicial review,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had previously called upon the DEA to end the program. “We must continue to make progress in restoring the privacy rights of all Americans while keeping our country safe.”

In 2013, Reuters reported that federal agents were trained to deceive the public about the involvement and tactics of the Special Operations Division in the program. This deception is known within the agency as “parallel construction.”

DEA documents also revealed that agents were trained to cover their tracks to conceal that information used in investigations was obtained by collecting phone records. Some experts say this practice violated defendants’ constitutional right to a fair trial.

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