Government Secretly Spied on Most US-Overseas Phone Calls For Decades
Nearly a decade before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration began collecting records of most international phone calls made by Americans.
USA Today reports the DOJ and DEA surveillance program collected billions of phone calls in a since discontinued program that laid the foundation for the far broader National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs of the 21st century.
The objective of the DOJ/DEA surveillance was combating drug trafficking, and the agencies spied on virtually every phone call from the United States to as many as 116 nations linked to the illegal narcotics trade. Targeted nations changed over time, but included Canada, Mexico and most of the rest of Latin America. Former officials associated with the program told USA Today that the content of calls was not recorded as part of the operation.
Federal investigators used the data gleaned from the surveillance program to monitor and track drug cartels’ distribution networks inside the United States, allowing agents to uncover previously unknown trafficking operations and financial support networks. Investigators also used the data to identify American suspects in a wide range of criminal cases.
On the anti-terrorism front, government officials used the calls to rule out foreign involvement in the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a home-grown attack that killed 168 people.
Although the Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data regarding calls to “designated foreign countries,” with the DEA admitting it secretly spied on Americans’ phone calls, the timeline and scale of the surveillance have not been disclosed until now.
The massive surveillance program marks the first known government effort at bulk data collection targeting Americans, whether or not they were suspected of any crime. In a 1998 letter to telecom giant Sprint requesting the company’s cooperation with the program, the DOJ called it “one of the most important and effective federal drug law enforcement initiatives.”
That letter, which was signed by Marry Lee Warren, head of the DOJ Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section and was previously undisclosed, stated the operation had “been approved at the highest levels of federal law enforcement authority,” including then-Attorney General Janet Reno and Eric Holder, who was then her deputy.
Holder says he ended the DEA data collection program in 2013 following bombshell revelations from former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that the US government was monitoring and had collected billions of phone and electronic communications in nearly every nation on earth.
Starting in 1992 under then-President George H.W. Bush, the DEA began collecting data in a manner which the NSA is now prohibited from doing. Agency operatives gathered records without warrants or court approval, searched them frequently and automatically linked phone numbers to call records gathered by agents.
Former DEA administrator Thomas Constantine told USA Today the program resulted in “a treasure trove of very important information on trafficking.”
But digital rights advocates slammed the program, questioning its legality.
San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has filed a new lawsuit against the DEA over the latest revelations, has been a leading voice against illegal government surveillance.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter if the agency doing the bulk collection is the DEA, the FBI, or the NSA; and it doesn’t matter if the information collected is the content of communications or metadata,” EFF said in a Wednesday blog post. “Bulk collection of Americans’ records is unconstitutional. And we hope this lawsuit will put an end to the practice, once and for all.”