USA Today has revealed that a huge DEA phone records programme – which tracked and stored data relating to international phone calls placed by US persons – was halted as a result of Edward Snowden’s revelations. The DEA database predated 9/11 by almost ten years and “provided a blueprint for the far broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed.”
The existence of the programme, which logged details relating to billions of phone calls, was publicly admitted in January when documents were filed in relation to a criminal case about an alleged breach of export restrictions. The Department of Justice stated then that the bulk collection programme had been “suspended” in September 2013; a decision that multiple officials, speaking anonymously to USA Today, have now confirmed was due to the actions of Edward Snowden.
Within the Department of Justice, the collection programme was known as USTO, because it focused on information “from the US to” other countries. While this is a different programme from the bulk domestic collection programme that was the subject of the first Snowden revelation, the DEA collection does seem to be mentioned in the Snowden documents. A data sharing system called CRISSCROSS/PROTON that was “launched in the 1990s” appears to match the profile quite closely.
In effect, USTO collection was halted because the DOJ determined that the justification for the NSA’s own bulk collection programme was its national security rationale, and that the continued existence of a law enforcement bulk collection programme could only undermine that.
The DEA programme was set up in 1992 and approved by Department of Justice officials in all subsequent US administrations. Intended to expose the operations of drug cartels bringing narcotics into the United States, the programme saw the phone numbers, dates, times and duration of calls plus billing records stored for international calls made from the US. USA Today says that “the targeted countries changed over time but included Canada, Mexico and most of Central and South America.” One of USA Today’s sources suggested that the number of countries targeted
could reach 116.
The DEA database relied on subpoenas of bulk information from phone companies and appears to have been searched much more frequently than its NSA counterpart. USA Today cites former officials who said that DEA analysts “routinely performed” 300 searches in a day. As with the NSA programme that this DEA database informed however, hard evidence about whether this bulk metadata programme was actually effective – in this case, critical to any prosecutions being brought – is lacking.
That’s due in part to the policy of “parallel construction” Reuters revealed back in August 2013, which appears to relate particularly to this DEA programme. “Parallel construction” relates to the practice of US law enforcement recreating an evidence trail to obscure instances where intelligence intercepts had provided the initial tip off. It is questionable whether a US court would find this practice constitutional, should they ever be asked to rule on it.