DEA Phone Tracking Program Would Have Continued If Not For Snowden

We already covered the fact that the DEA had a phone tracking program similar to the NSA’s that we’ve been debating. As we noted in our post, that DEA phone tracking program was actually revealed years ago in a NY Times report, though it didn’t get that much attention at the time. Yesterday, USA Today’s Brad Heath did a much more detailed report on the details of the program — including how massive it was, how little oversight there was (basically none) and how widely it was used (all the time). But there was one element that seemed important enough to call out separately: this program has been ended and it’s entirely because of Ed Snowden. While there’s still a fight going on over whether or not the NSA program will continue after June 1st (when Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act expires), Heath’s reporting notes that the DOJ realized the DEA program could not continue — once it realized how similar it was to the NSA program:

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. Reuters and The New York Times raised questions about the drug agency’s own access to phone records.

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. Eight months after USTO was halted, for example, department lawyers defended the spy agency’s phone dragnet in court partly on the grounds that it “serves special governmental needs above and beyond normal law enforcement.”

Three months after USTO was shut down, a review panel commissioned by President Obama urged Congress to bar the NSA from gathering telephone data on Americans in bulk. Not long after that, Obama instructed the NSA to get permission from the surveillance court before querying its phone data collection, a step the drug agency never was required to take.

The DEA stopped searching USTO in September 2013. Not long after that, it purged the database.

“It was made abundantly clear that they couldn’t defend both programs,” a former Justice Department official said. Others said Holder’s message was more direct. “He said he didn’t think we should have that information,” a former DEA official said.

Think about this, though: the program lasted for more than two decades before anyone bothered to even consider this idea. And it was only once the other database (which actually had a lot more strict access controls) started getting negative press that Justice Department officials realized they had no real legal basis for the DEA program.

Who, again, is watching the watchers? While some have argued that Snowden’s revelations have not (yet) resulted in the NSA’s surveillance programs being stopped, it seems pretty clear that he was directly responsible for this DEA program being shut down completely and the data purged.

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