Before The NSA, The DEA Used Phone Records To Track Drug Cartels NPR's Arun Rath speaks with USA Today reporter Brad Heath about how the Drug Enforcement Administration collected the records of billions of American telephone calls.
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Before The NSA, The DEA Used Phone Records To Track Drug Cartels

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Before The NSA, The DEA Used Phone Records To Track Drug Cartels

Before The NSA, The DEA Used Phone Records To Track Drug Cartels

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Since Edward Snowden first went public in 2013, we've learned a lot about the NSA's bulk collection of American phone records since September 11. But this past week, USA Today revealed that the U.S. government had actually been collecting the records of millions of Americans' international phone calls for almost a decade before 9-11, and it wasn't the NSA, the FBI or the CIA. It was the Drug Enforcement Administration vacuuming up all those phone records. Brad Heath of USA Today wrote the report. He says the DEA built the surveillance program in 1992 as a tool to investigate international drug cartels.

BRAD HEATH: So what they were getting was basically an electronic log of all the calls from the United States to certain countries. By the time it was done, it was 116 countries. When they started, it was a handful. And that would let them - if they found a cartel-connected number in Columbia, they could run that through their database, and say, OK, who else in the United States is in touch with that person?

RATH: How many calls were we talking about? How big is this?

HEATH: We know that it was billions of calls - that the debate database probably included more than 2 billion calls at any given time. And that's just stuff that they had picked up within the past year or so. It was constantly churning as new information came in and old stuff when out.

RATH: So does it feel fair to use the same term we've used for the NSA - that this is a bulk collection of records, a net that vast?

HEATH: It is actually a bulk collection of records. It was a subpoena that they sent to the telecoms that didn't say, give us Brad Heath's telephone information. We're interested in him. It said, give us all the calls, and we will figure out later what we want. And as far as I've been able to tell, it is the first bulk collection, at least of communication records involving Americans.

RATH: So if you or I or any American made a call to Mexico or Canada or Colombia or any of these countries the last 20 years or so, was that record most likely in that database?

HEATH: Almost certainly. I think they had almost all of the telecoms or enough of the telecoms that they were able to get almost all of the calls.

RATH: Leaving aside the question of whether it's legal or appropriate, did it work? Did the DEA, you know, bust any big drug rings or anything like that from this practice?

HEATH: The agents and officials I've talked to say that it was very effective and came up in a lot of cases, but they really didn't point us to any. And there is apparently, floating around DEA, a proposal from 2013 to restart this that includes a lot of case studies, but they've been very shy about giving that out.

RATH: Now, we've been talking about this program in the past tense. Can you explain how this program came to an end?

HEATH: In September of 2013, the Attorney General basically instructed the DEA to stop collecting this stuff. And the problem they were having was that Edward Snowden had just revealed a lot of stuff about much broader surveillance activities by the NSA, and they were starting to have to defend these things in court. And one of the things they said in the process of defending them in court was the NSA program is OK because it serves the very highest interest of the U.S. government, which is national security. This is not a thing we are doing for routine law enforcement. And they really would have a hard time making that argument if on the other hand, they were doing something very similar for routine law enforcement.

RATH: Which they were doing with the DEA.

HEATH: Which they were doing with the DEA.

RATH: Where are these records now?

HEATH: In September of 2013, the Attorney General told them to stop searching this. And then very shortly thereafter, they destroyed all the records, destroyed all the source code, and now it's gone.

RATH: There is this striking similarity between this DEA program and the NSA programs exposed by Ed Snowden. What do you make of the similarities, or is this just coincidence?

HEATH: It's clearly not a coincidence. The DEA started this in 1992, so nine and a half years before the September 11 attacks. And if you look at the similarities, even just the mechanical similarities - you know, what does the menu look like when you conduct a search of the DEA data versus the NSA data? And what do the results look like when they come back? They're just too striking for this to have been anything other than a template on which the NSA built some of its practices.

RATH: Brad Heath is an investigative reporter with USA Today. He joined us from our studios in Washington. Brad, thanks very much.

HEATH: Oh, it was my pleasure.

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