Human Rights Watch sues over secret DEA surveillance program

Human Rights Watch sues over secret DEA surveillance program
© Getty Images

Human Rights Watch filed a lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Agency Tuesday night, after a report detailing a secret surveillance program that collected Americans’ international call records for decades. 

In the court filing, the nonprofit said the DEA program substantially burdened its “ability to engage in its mission of defending and promoting global human rights.”

The group said it often works with people in other countries linked to drug trafficking, where speaking out can make them a target. 


“Who we communicate with and when we communicate with them is often extraordinarily sensitive, and it’s information that we would never turn over to the government lightly,” said Dinah PoKempner, the group’s general counsel. 

The surveillance program ended in 2013, but the lawsuit seeks to make sure it is never revived. The suit asks courts to declare it unconstitutional, under the First and Fourth Amendments and insure that all past records are destroyed. 

The program, which started in 1992, collected phone metadata on calls made from the United States to 116 other countries at its peak, according to a report in USA Today. It only ended after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of other surveillance programs carried out by the NSA.

The DEA used administrative subpoenas, which do not require court approval, to force phone companies to hand over the bulk records. Sprint and AT&T were specifically cited in the report. Other telecom companies were also subject to the orders, the report found. 

Human Rights Watch is represented in the case by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has represented clients in a number of other cases against the NSA’s own metadata collection program. 

“We are asking the court to require the government to destroy the records it illegally collected no matter where they are held, and to declare once and for all that bulk collection of Americans’ records is unconstitutional,” said EFF attorney Mark Rumold.