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DEA Surveillance Program Harvested Americans’ Call Records—And It Took Snowden’s Disclosures to End It

The United States government harvested the records of billions of Americans’ international phone calls for over two decades. It was ended by the Justice Department in September 2013 after disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden brought widespread attention to massive government surveillance.

The surveillance program was made public by the Justice Department in January. The vast scope of the program, however, remained concealed.

According to USA Today investigative reporter Brad Heath, the Justice Department and DEA “amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the US to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking.”

It was called USTO, because the program tracked calls to and from the United States.

“To keep the program secret, the DEA sought not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions or in its justifications for warrants or other searches,” Heath reports. “Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips to help them find new targets or focus investigators, a process approved by Justice Department lawyers.”

This involved the a process known as parallel construction. DEA agents were able to fabricate pretexts for the beginning of investigations, for example, by making traffic stops of suspects. They could conceal the source of the information that led the DEA to consider an individual a suspect in the first place.

Four presidential administrations approved of the program. Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Sprint executives in 1998 after Sprint expressed some reservations about the program. However, the program was never reviewed by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

By operating this program, the government entirely circumvented the judiciary process and kept Americans in the dark about how intelligence data was being used for ordinary criminal investigations.

Heath notes the DEA surveillance program had very many similarities to the NSA program under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. But, unlike the NSA surveillance program used to sweep up call records in bulk, the DEA surveillance program had no formal body, such as a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to review the legality of the surveillance. That probably is why it enabled the DEA to make far more “queries” of data on a daily basis than the NSA.

Few telephone companies expressed any concerns with the DEA surveillance program and no company fought any of the administrative subpoenas the government issued for data.

Government officials claim the surveillance program was useful in identifying drug trafficking rings and “money handlers.” It made it easier to figure out that no foreign organizations were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995. Yet, troublingly, it also enabled numerous other investigations into US suspects, which appears to mean it allowed authorities to pursue certain people without having to bother with getting a warrant.

Ultimately, Snowden deserves credit for the termination of the DEA surveillance program in September 2013. His disclosures forced the Justice Department into a position where it privately confronted having to defend two massive surveillance programs that were similar. Both were valuable to the agencies. Holder chose to scrap the DEA program so it could save the NSA program and continue to argue that this program was legal because it was not serving the needs of ordinary policing.

While the DEA surveillance program may have been discontinued and made public by the Justice Department, it still remains a closely guarded secret of the global security state. The public is only finding out these little bits because Snowden put the government in a position where it had to officially confirm the program’s existence.

No current or former official involved in the program was willing to attribute his or her name to any comments about the program that were provided for the story. The Justice Department has refused to identify the countries that were involved in order to “protect against any disruption to prospective law enforcement cooperation.”

The FBI is currently engaged in a similar practice, where it is using innovative Stingray surveillance technology and hiding it from the courts.

Local law enforcement agencies sign secrecy agreements with the FBI and agree to dismiss criminal cases if there is any threat that the public may find out how law enforcement used the surveillance.

The secrecy surrounding Stingray surveillance has led police to think they may use the technology without obtaining a warrant. For example, the Sheriff’s Office in Erie County in New York used Stingray surveillance 47 times and only once did authorities get a warrant.

Like the DEA program that collected records of Americans’ international phone calls, police departments—with the consent of the Justice Department and FBI—are collecting location data from numerous Americans without a warrant and doing so with very minimal concern for privacy.

Finally, what this DEA surveillance program shows is why it is so important for their to be legislative limits on surveillance powers imposed if Americans want law enforcement to have to respect some sort of constitutional or legal boundaries.

Terrorism has been a powerful excuse for propagandizing the public into accepting unchecked authority to do all sorts of tracking of Americans, but the government is more than capable of finding other excuses, like international drug trafficking, to justify expanding the surveillance apparatus.

History suggests that the United States government will allow forms of dragnet surveillance to metastasize as it is able to conduct programs in total secrecy and without much oversight. In this case, there was no transparency. There was no oversight. Even the body that was supposed to oversee the DEA did not apparently know the program was operating.

That made it possible for the government to lie about the evidence being used to arrest people, and those lies continue in a similar manner today, as prosecutors and law enforcement conspire to conceal Stingray surveillance against individuals charged with crimes.

Image is from DEA’s own government website and is government work in the public domain. 

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

DEA Surveillance Program Harvested Americans’ Call Records—And It Took Snowden’s Disclosures to End It

The United States government harvested the records of billions of Americans’ international phone calls for over two decades. It was ended by the Justice Department in September 2013 after disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden brought widespread attention to massive government surveillance.

The surveillance program was made public by the Justice Department in January. The vast scope of the program, however, remained concealed.

According to USA Today investigative reporter Brad Heath, the Justice Department and DEA “amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the US to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking.”

It was called USTO, because the program tracked calls to and from the United States.

“To keep the program secret, the DEA sought not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions or in its justifications for warrants or other searches,” Heath reports. “Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips to help them find new targets or focus investigators, a process approved by Justice Department lawyers.”

This involved the a process known as parallel construction. DEA agents were able to fabricate pretexts for the beginning of investigations, for example, by making traffic stops of suspects. They could conceal the source of the information that led the DEA to consider an individual a suspect in the first place.

Four presidential administrations approved of the program. Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Sprint executives in 1998 after Sprint expressed some reservations about the program. However, the program was never reviewed by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

By operating this program, the government entirely circumvented the judiciary process and kept Americans in the dark about how intelligence data was being used for ordinary criminal investigations.

Heath notes the DEA surveillance program had very many similarities to the NSA program under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. But, unlike the NSA surveillance program used to sweep up call records in bulk, the DEA surveillance program had no formal body, such as a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to review the legality of the surveillance. That probably is why it enabled the DEA to make far more “queries” of data on a daily basis than the NSA.

Few telephone companies expressed any concerns with the DEA surveillance program and no company fought any of the administrative subpoenas the government issued for data.

Government officials claim the surveillance program was useful in identifying drug trafficking rings and “money handlers.” It made it easier to figure out that no foreign organizations were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995. Yet, troublingly, it also enabled numerous other investigations into US suspects, which appears to mean it allowed authorities to pursue certain people without having to bother with getting a warrant.

Ultimately, Snowden deserves credit for the termination of the DEA surveillance program in September 2013. His disclosures forced the Justice Department into a position where it privately confronted having to defend two massive surveillance programs that were similar. Both were valuable to the agencies. Holder chose to scrap the DEA program so it could save the NSA program and continue to argue that this program was legal because it was not serving the needs of ordinary policing.

While the DEA surveillance program may have been discontinued and made public by the Justice Department, it still remains a closely guarded secret of the global security state. The public is only finding out these little bits because Snowden put the government in a position where it had to officially confirm the program’s existence.

No current or former official involved in the program was willing to attribute his or her name to any comments about the program that were provided for the story. The Justice Department has refused to identify the countries that were involved in order to “protect against any disruption to prospective law enforcement cooperation.”

The FBI is currently engaged in a similar practice, where it is using innovative Stingray surveillance technology and hiding it from the courts.

Local law enforcement agencies sign secrecy agreements with the FBI and agree to dismiss criminal cases if there is any threat that the public may find out how law enforcement used the surveillance.

The secrecy surrounding Stingray surveillance has led police to think they may use the technology without obtaining a warrant. For example, the Sheriff’s Office in Erie County in New York used Stingray surveillance 47 times and only once did authorities get a warrant.

Like the DEA program that collected records of Americans’ international phone calls, police departments—with the consent of the Justice Department and FBI—are collecting location data from numerous Americans without a warrant and doing so with very minimal concern for privacy.

Finally, what this DEA surveillance program shows is why it is so important for their to be legislative limits on surveillance powers imposed if Americans want law enforcement to have to respect some sort of constitutional or legal boundaries.

Terrorism has been a powerful excuse for propagandizing the public into accepting unchecked authority to do all sorts of tracking of Americans, but the government is more than capable of finding other excuses, like international drug trafficking, to justify expanding the surveillance apparatus.

History suggests that the United States government will allow forms of dragnet surveillance to metastasize as it is able to conduct programs in total secrecy and without much oversight. In this case, there was no transparency. There was no oversight. Even the body that was supposed to oversee the DEA did not apparently know the program was operating.

That made it possible for the government to lie about the evidence being used to arrest people, and those lies continue in a similar manner today, as prosecutors and law enforcement conspire to conceal Stingray surveillance against individuals charged with crimes.

Image is from DEA’s own government website and is government work in the public domain. 

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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