DEA maintained secret database of Americans’ phone calls

The Drug Enforcement Administration formerly maintained a secret database of Americans’ telephone calls to some foreign countries, the Justice Department revealed this week.

A document filed by the department in a criminal case on Thursday revealed that the agency collected details about Americans’ calls to certain countries believed to be closely linked to drug trafficking networks.  

{mosads}The program is different from a more well-known database maintained by the National Security Agency (NSA), though it appears similar in some respects.

According to the government’s brief, the DEA tracked information about phone calls from the United States to other “designated” countries that were “determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities.” The government did not specify how broad the program was and only noted one of targeted countries, Iran.

The document, about a specific court case, said the records contained information about the two phone numbers on the call in question, when it occurred and how the call was billed, but no details about call’s conversation.

A Justice Department spokesman claimed that the program at the DEA — which is under the Justice Department — has been dead for more than a year.

“The program was suspended in September 2013 and ultimately terminated,” the spokesman said in a statement. “It has not been active nor searchable since September 2013, and all of the information has been deleted.”

“The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.”

Unlike the NSA’s use of a phone records database designed to track suspected terrorist targets — which is overseen by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the DEA database appears to have no such judicial oversight.  The existence of the phone records database was revealed as part of a case about a man accused of violating sanctions against Iran.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has pressed the DEA and Attorney General Eric Holder to reveal the existence of the program and not reinstate it over the last nine months, and said that the program would not have been disclosed without pressure from Congress and the courts.

“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,” he said in a statement on Friday. “The bulk collection was suspended over a year ago and it should never be reinstated.”

“We must continue to make progress in restoring the privacy rights of all Americans while keeping our country safe.”

This post was updated at 7:06 p.m.


Tags Drug Enforcement Administration Eric Holder Metadata Patrick Leahy
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