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How NSA Surveillance Was Birthed From The Pre 9/11 Drug War

Submitted by Mike Krieger via Liberty Blitzkrieg blog,

The now-discontinued operation, carried out by the DEA’s intelligence arm, was the government’s first known effort to gather data on Americans in bulk, sweeping up records of telephone calls made by millions of U.S. citizens regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. It was a model for the massive phone surveillance system the NSA launched to identify terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. That dragnet drew sharp criticism that the government had intruded too deeply into Americans’ privacy after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked it to the news media two years ago.

 

The similarities between the NSA program and the DEA operation established a decade earlier are striking – too much so to have been a coincidence, people familiar with the programs said. Former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker said, “It’s very hard to see (the DEA operation) as anything other than the precursor” to the NSA’s terrorist surveillance.

 

The extent of that surveillance alarmed privacy advocates, who questioned its legality. “This was aimed squarely at Americans,” said Mark Rumold, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “That’s very significant from a constitutional perspective.”

Holder halted the data collection in September 2013 amid the fallout from Snowden’s revelations about other surveillance programs.

 

– From today’s USA Today article: U.S. Secretly Tracked Billions of Calls for Decades

The drug war is something that wouldn’t even exist in a rational, mature and intelligent civilization. Not only is it ineffective, invasive and brutish, but we now know that the almost religious zealousness with which it has been pursued by its proponents has led directly to the current unconstitutional surveillance state. If not for our acquiescence to the “war on drugs,” would the authoritarian statists amongst us have been able to usher in the even more dangerous but similarly endless “war on terror?” Personally, I doubt it.

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of the DEA, let’s not forget the recent scandal: Government Report Finds DEA Agents Had “Sex Parties” With Prostitutes Hired By Drug Cartels

Moving along, today’s excellent article from USA Today is a must read. Here are some excerpts, but I strongly recommend reading the entire thing:

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government started keeping secret records of Americans’ international telephone calls nearly a decade before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, harvesting billions of calls in a program that provided a blueprint for the far broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed.

 

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.

 

The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to “designated foreign countries.” But the history and vast scale of that operation have not been disclosed until now.

 

The now-discontinued operation, carried out by the DEA’s intelligence arm, was the government’s first known effort to gather data on Americans in bulk, sweeping up records of telephone calls made by millions of U.S. citizens regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. It was a model for the massive phone surveillance system the NSA launched to identify terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. That dragnet drew sharp criticism that the government had intruded too deeply into Americans’ privacy after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked it to the news media two years ago.

 

That data collection was “one of the most important and effective Federal drug law enforcement initiatives,” the Justice Department said in a 1998 letter to Sprint asking the telecom giant to turn over its call records. The previously undisclosed letter was signed by the head of the department’s Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section, Mary Lee Warren, who wrote that the operation had “been approved at the highest levels of Federal law enforcement authority,” including then-Attorney General Janet Reno and her deputy, Eric Holder. 

No wonder Eric “Too Big to Jail” Holder later got the promotion.

The data collection began in 1992 during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, nine years before his son, President George W. Bush, authorized the NSA to gather its own logs of Americans’ phone calls in 2001. It was approved by top Justice Department officials in four presidential administrations and detailed in occasional briefings to members of Congress but otherwise had little independent oversight, according to officials involved with running it.

 

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.

 

The result was “a treasure trove of very important information on trafficking,” former DEA administrator Thomas Constantine said in an interview.

All that spying, and guess what? Still plenty of drugs around.

The extent of that surveillance alarmed privacy advocates, who questioned its legality. “This was aimed squarely at Americans,” said Mark Rumold, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “That’s very significant from a constitutional perspective.”

 

Holder halted the data collection in September 2013 amid the fallout from Snowden’s revelations about other surveillance programs. In its place, current and former officials said the drug agency sends telecom companies daily subpoenas for international calling records involving only phone numbers that agents suspect are linked to the drug trade or other crimes — sometimes a thousand or more numbers a day.

 

The military installed the supercomputers on the fifth floor of the DEA’s headquarters, across from a shopping mall in Arlington, Va.

 

Instead of simply asking phone companies for records about calls made by people suspected of drug crimes, the Justice Department began ordering telephone companies to turn over lists of all phone calls from the USA to countries where the government determined drug traffickers operated, current and former officials said.

 

The DEA obtained those records using administrative subpoenas that allow the agency to collect records “relevant or material to” federal drug investigations. Officials acknowledged it was an expansive interpretation of that authority but one that was not likely to be challenged because unlike search warrants, DEA subpoenas do not require a judge’s approval. “We knew we were stretching the definition,” a former official involved in the process said.

One word comes to mind: Criminals.

Officials said a few telephone companies were reluctant to provide so much information, but none challenged the subpoenas in court. Those that hesitated received letters from the Justice Department urging them to comply.

 

At its peak, the operation gathered data on calls to 116 countries, an official involved in reviewing the list said. Two other officials said they did not recall the precise number of countries, but it was more than 100. That gave the collection a considerable sweep; the U.S. government recognizes a total of 195 countries.

 

At one time or another, officials said, the data collection covered most of the countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as others in western Africa, Europe and Asia. It included Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Italy, Mexico and Canada.

 

To keep the program secret, the DEA sought not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions or in its justification for warrants or other searches. Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips to help them find new targets or focus existing investigations, a process approved by Justice Department lawyers. Many of those tips were classified because the DEA phone searches drew on other intelligence data.

 

That practice sparked a furor when the Reuters news agency reported in 2013 that the DEA trained agents to conceal the sources of those tips from judges and defense lawyers. Reuters said the tips were based on wiretaps, foreign intelligence and a DEA database of telephone calls gathered through routine subpoenas and search warrants.

 

As a result, “the government short-circuited any debate about the legality and wisdom of putting the call records of millions of innocent people in the hands of the DEA,” American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Patrick Toomey said.

Why am I am not surprised in the least.

The similarities between the NSA program and the DEA operation established a decade earlier are striking – too much so to have been a coincidence, people familiar with the programs said. Former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker said, “It’s very hard to see (the DEA operation) as anything other than the precursor” to the NSA’s terrorist surveillance.

 

Officials said the DEA’s database was disclosed to judges only occasionally, in classified hearings.

 

For two decades, it was never reviewed by the Justice Department’s own inspector general, which told Congress it is now looking into the DEA’s bulk data collections.

Thanks for nothing DOJ, as usual.

Holder pulled the plug on the phone data collection in September 2013.

 

That summer, Snowden leaked a remarkable series of classified documents detailing some of the government’s most prized surveillance secrets, including the NSA’s logging of domestic phone calls and Internet traffic.

 

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.

Notice that the DOJ knew what they were doing was shady, but kept doing it anyway until the very last moment when Snowden leaked NSA information to the public.TechDirt  poignantly weighed in about this story and current implications to freedom:

One of the big arguments trotted out repeatedly by surveillance state defenders concerning the NSA’s Section 215 program to collect records on all phone calls is that such a thing “would have prevented 9/11″ if it had been in place at the time. Here’s former FBI boss Robert Mueller making just that argument right after the initial Snowden leaks. Here’s Dianne Feinstein making the argument that if we had that phone tracking program before September 11th, we could have stopped the attacks. And here’s former NSA top lawyer and still top NSA supporter Stewart Baker arguing that the program is necessary because the lack of such a program failed to stop 9/11.

 

Except, it turns out, the feds did have just such a program prior to 9/11 — run by the DEA. As you may recall, back in January it was revealed that the DEA had its own database of phone call metadata of nearly all calls from inside the US to foreign countries. Brad Heath at USA Today came out with a report yesterday that goes into much more detail on the program, showing that it dates back to at least 1992 — meaning that the feds almost certainly had the calls that Feinstein and Mueller pretended the government didn’t have prior to 9/11.

 

And, also, as we are less than two months away from the big fight over renewing Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, you can be sure that some surveillance state defender is going to cite 9/11 as a reason why we need to keep the program. Hopefully, people can remind them that it appears we had just such a program (which was even more widely used) at the time, and it did not stop 9/11. 

It is also important to be aware of the fact that the NSA metadata collection programs hasn’t stopped much of anything in the way of terrorist attacks since its implementation, as noted in the post: NSA Chief Admits “Only One or Perhaps Two” Terror Plots Stopped by Spy Program.

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For related articles, see:

Meet the “Surveillance State Repeal Act” – A Bipartisan Bill to Fully Repeal the Patriot Act

Congress Guts Anti-NSA Spying Bill Beyond Recognition; Original Cosponsor Justin Amash Votes No

Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak Discusses The Constitution, NSA Spying and Torture

It’s Not Just Spying – How the NSA Has Turned Into a Giant Profit Center for Corrupt Insiders