DEA Phone Tracking Program Would Have Continued If Not For Snowden

from the thank-you-snowden dept

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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Comments on “DEA Phone Tracking Program Would Have Continued If Not For Snowden”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Parallel Construction

Since we already know that the DEA has been coached to never bring up that programs like this existed and were used to catch thousands if not tens of thousands of people currently in jail, every single conviction needs to be overturned as suspect. This is not some third world country ignoring the rights of their people, it is supposed to be the land of the free. Corrupt from top to bottom.

Anonymous Coward says:

"some have argued"???

What’s the hedging in last sentence? It’s a fact that Snowden “revelations” have NOT even slightly slowed NSA. You even put a parenthetical in it!

Maybe this sheds light on Masnicking, the inability to communicate concisely (he claims to be an Ivy League “economist”, you know):

Wally’s Hobby Is Economic Babble Talk

Here’s some actual numbers that put Snowden in perspective:

nasch (profile) says:

Re: "some have argued"???

It’s a fact that Snowden “revelations” have NOT even slightly slowed NSA.

Why the scare quotes? And do you have a reference for that fact?

(he claims to be an Ivy League “economist”, you know)

When did he claim that? I remember mentioning that he had an economics degree and he corrected me and said, IIRC, his degree is in business.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What? You don’t believe the DEA would destroy the evidence of their parallel construction? Without that database, we have know way of knowing who is in prison because the DEA spied on them for “tips” to pass along for law enforcement.

It’s not like they’d be losing anything valuable anyways. They can’t use any of the information in court, it can only be used against them in court. What little there is that’s actually valuable would be backed up elsewhere in the “official” investigations.

Peter (profile) says:

Edward Snowden and the NSA..

Are locked in horns, so to speak, and it’s ONLY because the NSA has 80,000 people and is conducting a literal war against Edward Snowden that’s it’s even close… It’s incredibly comical that Edward Snowden is a genuine hero, and many people are fully apprised of that fact, but the vast unwashed population couldn’t care less — which is a great misfortune.

David says:

Re: Edward Snowden and the NSA..

The vast unwashed population believes that Snowden should get back to the U.S.A. and stand before court if he did nothing wrong.

Never mind that he’ll be accused under the Espionage Act and not even be permitted to argue to the jury that what he did was right. Never mind that the U.S. has a history of throwing whistleblowers like Kiriakou and Manning into jail and using torture on them for fun. Never mind that the U.S. does not bother prosecuting Holder, Clapper, and other cronies even for perjury before Congress, and the hoi polloi are apparently fine with that. Never mind that the Constitutional violations continue unabatedly. Never mind that Snowden continues raising political awareness actively, something he won’t be doing once he is locked up for life by a kangaroo court after a Soviet style show trial.

The hoi polloi still believe that they should not listen to Snowden as long as he does not come into a hostile U.S.A. not interested in its Constitution or due process. And once he does come, he will be shut up, so there will be no more opportunity for the hoi polloi to listen.

No need to ever start thinking either way.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Edward Snowden and the NSA..

“The vast unwashed population believes that Snowden should get back to the U.S.A. and stand before court if he did nothing wrong.”

Maybe things have changed, but the last set of polls I saw about this indicated that about half of the unwashed population believes that Snowden should return.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Edward Snowden and the NSA..

Correct me if I’m wrong, but due to voter-apathy (which includes simple things like even making your opinion known, much less bothering to actually vote) isn’t 50% of the country expressing a sentiment on something enough to swing anything these days?

Disproportional power and all that?

Anonymous Coward says:

the even bigger thing being that the ‘crimes’ that had been solved because of all the data collecting the law enforcement had done amounted to the proverbial ‘needle in the haystack’! and the reason they started to do it and insist on carrying on doing it is nothing to do with crimes being solved but governments that are so worried that the people are going to find out the dirty little secrets, the way politicians accept ‘bribes’ from industries to bring in laws that benefit certain industries, the way information on wrong doing by those who are supposed to be the pillars of society, whether in politics or public positions and the speed that information goes global! no one gives a flyin’ toss about crimes being solved, if that were the case, why does the FBI keep staging it’s own terrorist plots, just to lock someone up and continue to get the funding? and dont forget, it’s one hell of an easier job to spy on those who are doing nothing wrong and dont try to hide their activities away than those who want to remain in the shadows and conduct dastardly crimes!

fairuse (profile) says:

How convenient for DEA

From the USA Today article
The bad guys are not stupid, they keep up on tech:

By then, agents said USTO was suffering from diminishing returns. More criminals — especially the sophisticated cartel operatives the agency targeted — were communicating on Internet messaging systems that are harder for law enforcement to track.

Management hates looking bad:

Still, the shutdown took a toll, officials said. “It has had a major impact on investigations,” one former DEA official said.
The DEA asked the Justice Department to restart the surveillance program in December 2013. It withdrew that request when agents came up with a new solution. Every day, the agency assembles a list of the telephone numbers its agents suspect may be tied to drug trafficking. Each day, it sends electronic subpoenas — sometimes listing more than a thousand numbers — to telephone companies seeking logs of international telephone calls linked to those numbers, two official familiar with the program said.

The data collection that results is more targeted but slower and more expensive. Agents said it takes a day or more to pull together communication profiles that used to take minutes.

Not sure what changed. Oh, the minor change is the DEA gets to focus on its job, not play 007.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t really believe the DEA’s access to mass surveillance databases has been totally shut down. The government never shuts down a mass surveillance database without having another mass surveillance database ready to take it’s place under a different name or being administered by another agency. I believe the DEA is now using someone else’s mass surveillance database to run their search queries. Most likely through the NSA’s database.

So the DEA used to have their own copy of a mass surveillance database, but now they have to use the NSA’s copy instead. I’m 99.8% sure that is what’s happening.

GEMont (profile) says:


“… it seems pretty clear that he was directly responsible for this DEA program being shut down completely and the data purged.”

Well, methinks we should not be jumping to unproved conclusions here just yet, or doing a happy dance “cuz the good guys won one”.

Normal procedure in these cases is to simply start up the exact same process under a new agency name with more secrecy and less over-sight and transfer the held data to the new site before purging the old machines.

Standard Operational Procedure actually.

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