WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has halted a secret, nearly 15-year program that collected virtually all data on international calls between the United States and certain countries, according to documents and officials familiar with the matter.
The sweeping bulk DEA database program was stopped in September 2013, shortly after elements were revealed by Reuters and then The New York Times, according to a redacted court filing made public on Thursday and U.S. officials.
The program, run by DEA’s Special Operations Division, collected international U.S. phone records to create a database primarily used for domestic criminal cases – not national security investigations, according to records and sources involved.
DEA shared this information with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, IRS, Homeland Security, and intelligence agencies, according to records reviewed by Reuters.
“The American people deserve to know that the DEA engaged in the bulk collection of their international phone records in routine criminal investigations without judicial review,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who had urged the DEA to end the program. ”We must continue to make progress in restoring the privacy rights of all Americans while keeping our country safe.”
A Justice Department spokesman said on Friday that the DEA no longer collects the data and that “all of the information has been deleted.”
The DEA program is separate from the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection efforts, which were exposed by former contractor Edward Snowden and which officials said are aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks.
Two people briefed on the DEA program said that it began in the late 1990s. Records show it involved the use of administrative subpoenas, which can be issued by federal agents – rather than grand jury subpoenas, which must be approved by prosecutors, or search warrants, which must be approved by a federal judge.
The court document made public on Thursday was an affidavit by a DEA official in an export violations case against Shantia Hassanshani, arrested in Los Angeles in 2013. In that case, DEA officials linked a phone number in Iran to a Google Voice number assigned to Hassanshani. His lawyer was not available for comment.
It is not clear what other countries fell under the DEA’s bulk phone data program.
The 2013 Reuters report disclosed that federal agents were trained to conceal the role of Special Operations Division and its techniques in certain cases. This deceptive process, the agents said, is commonly called “parallel construction.”
Agents had been directed to obscure how such investigations truly began - not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.
The documents showed that federal agents were trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up the fact that the information originated from collecting phone records. That practice, some experts said, violated a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Christian Plumb