Indiscriminate spying was the DEA’s blunt force weapon of choice in its “War on Drugs.” The Drug Enforcement Agency and the Justice Department tracked billions of Americans’ phone calls, even people not suspected of crimes, for decades—and it looks like collateral damage wasn’t much of a concern.
New details from a USA Today investigation made it very clear that the scope of the DEA’s surveillance program, which it admitted to in January, was huge. Catch up with a friend in Montreal between the 1992 and 2013? Call home from a trip to Rome? There’s a good chance the government was keeping track.
For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the USA to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking, current and former officials involved with the operation said. The targeted countries changed over time but included Canada, Mexico and most of Central and South America.
Surveillance wasn’t limited to people suspected of, you know, drug trafficking or even associating with people in the drug trafficking community or even smoking the occasional doob. Instead, the DEA scooped up almost everyone’s international calls on its sketchy country list, just in case. So basically, anyone who had foreign friends or liked to use their passport to travel was now suspect enough for government surveillance.
The DEA did not record the content of the calls, but kept meticulous records and queried the database on a daily basis to root up potential drug connections, looking at the logs and where people where when they made calls.
The DEA used its data collection extensively and in ways that the NSA is now prohibited from doing. Agents gathered the records without court approval, searched them more often in a day than the spy agency does in a year and automatically linked the numbers the agency gathered to large electronic collections of investigative reports, domestic call records accumulated by its agents and intelligence data from overseas.
In most cases, it appears the foreign governments were OK with the dragnet. Obviously, so were George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, since the program continued over the course of their presidencies. And phone companies’ cooperation was integral to the plan:
The DEA did not have a real-time connection to phone companies’ data; instead, the companies regularly provided copies of their call logs, first on computer disks and later over a private network. Agents who used the system said the numbers they saw were seldom more than a few days old.
Again, this went on for decades. Decades! It only stopped in September 2013, after Edward Snowden went public with his knowledge of the NSA’s similar surveillance program. The DEA program is a clear precursor to the NSA program.
As news of the details of this intrusive program gets out, it’s already facing backlash. Human Rights Watch is filing a lawsuit to stop all continuing DEA bulk data collection.
Oh, and the reason this program got shut down? Well, it was getting less useful as the drug community started using the internet to talk, which is why the DEA hates how hard it is to spy on iMessages.
But it mostly got shut down to make the government look like its employees weren’t lying through their bureaucratic teeth. Government officials realized they would be flagrantly lying saying they only conducted bulk surveillance to stop terrorists, not to nab weed suppliers.
Officials said the Justice Department told the DEA that it had determined it could not continue both surveillance programs, particularly because part of its justification for sweeping NSA surveillance was that it served national security interests, not ordinary policing.
The mere existence of this DEA program quadruple underlines, in flaming red permanent marker, that the government’s surveillance programs are, as a matter of historical record, notsolely guided by national security interests.