Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Government Secretly Spied on Most US-Overseas Phone Calls For Decades

Justice Department headquarters; Washington, DC. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Justice Department headquarters; Washington, DC. (Photo: Wikipedia)

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.”

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  1. wildApril 10, 2015 at 5:44 pmReply

    I knew it was bad before GW Bush, and I knew it got worse, with the Patriot Act, but I didn’t realize just how over-reaching the government and their vendors have infringed upon everyone, with their pat excuse, it is the war on drugs, or the war on terror, or the war on…..whatever. Just to be clear the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, whether Federal, state, or local are all complicit.


    • Brett WilkinsApril 11, 2015 at 3:20 pmReplyAuthor

      I was completely unaware before Bush. I think some people like you probably tried to educate me, but I wasn’t hearing it.

  2. wildApril 12, 2015 at 9:58 pmReply

    It always struck me as ‘funny’ when you see some leadership official claiming some argument high ground similar to: “Oh, we are so careful {with constitutional rights} that we have received every FISA search warrant, except for maybe 2, in the past hundred years, bla, bla, bla and we already have the authority to search & seize with up to 3 days after-the-fact to actually request a FISA warrant”.

    And when the whole of law enforcement, is given care-blanc {unless there is a existing video proving otherwise}, required by more recent laws that covert & pervert anything to do with decency, or accuracy. To require secrecy of personnel and companies and even during & after the secret court processing is nothing but perversion of the right of the people to self govern and respond accordingly. And yet the US Congress, willingly re-adopted the Patriot Act and what it stands for.

    I think it is just plain sad that the US public must wait 70 yrs or longer to actually have the record revealed to them. Which gives the corrupt more than enough time to twist their story beyond all recognition.

    But in the recent example of local police murder of a US citizen, in less than 3 days from the murder, was the truth revealed with a video. This isn’t rocket science, even for those that aren’t listening 70 yrs to figure out what happened VS. 3 days.and the governor is clamoring for immediate, common sense action.

    Should the governor reserve his bias/comments until the overwhelming evidence has proven what happened? Of course, But the US public’s inherent right to decide for themselves was stolen a long time ago, thru corrupted law and corrupted precedence.

    And there is absolutely no sign of the leadership changing to something better. I would imagine the murderer and those like him, will seek a change of venue to something secret, because even with obvious evidence there are those that have already supported the murderer by previously enacting their secret laws and secret justice.


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