The common thinking is that the real surveillance started in the U.S. after, and as a response to, the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
But a new report from USA Today says that the systematic collection of phone call metadata by the U.S. government started years before, and was run by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA program began back in 1992, targeting calls between U.S. citizens and suspected bad actors in as many as 116 foreign countries, the report states. It was the first time the government has been known to gather call data on huge numbers of Americans who had not been accused of a crime.
The DEA says it used the data it collected to sniff out drug trafficking networks that were previously unknown. It also used the data to rule out the possibility that foreign entities were involved in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.
The USA Today reporters say they talked to “more than a dozen current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials,” who described the details of the Justice Department program on a condition of anonymity.
“The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to designated foreign countries,” writes Brad Heath in USA Today. “But the history and vast scale of that operation have not been disclosed until now.”
The Department of Justice received a small amount of pushback from U.S. phone carriers (like Sprint) that participated in the call tracking. But the feds assured the carriers that it was legal. It went much further, telling Sprint that the law dictated that it must cooperate.
USA Today uncovered a letter to Sprint from head of the department’s Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section, Mary Lee Warren, stating that the surveillance program was “one of the most important and effective Federal drug law enforcement initiatives.” She urged Sprint to turn over its call records in the letter. Warren 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.
The DEA program was discontinued by attorney general Eric Holder in 2013 after revelations from Edward Snowden that the government had been working with tech companies to track internet traffic.