U.S.: DEA Phone Call Surveillance Database Bigger Than NSA's
Did Anybody Ever Really Believe They'd Only Spy On Terrorists?
By Steve Elliott
The United States federal government has access to a massive database containing 25 years of AT&T phone call data, as part of a secret program in which telephone company employees work beside federal and local law enforcement agents to track the phone calls of "suspected drug dealers."
The revelations completely confirm the biggest fears of civil libertarians and drug policy reformers in the United States: that the government uses large-scale surveillance programs for drug law enforcement, rather than for national security (which, of course, was the original excuse for the wholesale, warrantless spying on American citizens).
As first reported by Scott Shane and Colin Moynihan of The New York Times, the operation, known as the Hemisphere Project, has been ongoing for at least six years. It has access to every single call coming through any AT&T switchboard since 1987, reports Richard Esposito at NBC News.
The vast database grows by billions of calls every day, and is even larger than the controversial database maintained by the National Security Administration (NSA), which only goes back five years.
The federal government is currently paying AT&T to "embed" phone company employees with DEA agents and local police drug task forces as part of the Hemisphere Project in Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles. These phone company employees sit alongside DEA agents and local cops, supplying them with the phone data.
Government officials claimed that the database is maintained by AT&T, and that all law enforcement access to the records is controlled by valid subpoenas. They claimed the project does not involve listening to phone calls, but instead allows them to quickly "connect the dots."
Officials told NBC News that the database lets them establish "call patterns" by finding links between anonymous "burner phones," prepaid cellphones often used by drug dealers, and the networks of other phone numbers. Having the AT&T employees on hand to receive the subpoenas, they claimed, makes for "quicker turnaround."
Most of the subpoenas are "administrative subpoenas," usually meaning they are issued by the DEA (how convenient!), instead of by a grand jury or a judge.
"We, like all other companies, must respond to valid subpoenas issued by law enforcement," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel.
One slide in a PowerPoint presentation describing the program -- obtained by The New York Times from Drew Hendricks, a Washington state activist, who'd received the non-classified slide show through public information requests -- says, "All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document."
The PowerPoint slides have the logo of the White House National Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the federal agency headed by Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, and are marked "Law enforcement sensitive."
The slides list several instances in which the spy program helped find drug suspects or drug shipments, highlighting the usefulness of the Hemisphere program in tracking "burner" phones.
Are other phone companies involved? Representatives refused to comment when asked whether they participated in Hemisphere or any similar U.S. government program to spy on citizens.