The Drug War, Not Terrorism, Brought Us Mass Surveillance

The DEA was collecting mass numbers of Americans' foreign calls prior to Sept. 11.


This logo needs to be arrested for obviously abuse of hallucinogens

Well, here's a corker: Federal officials from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are actually the source of our current domestic mass metadata collection madness, not the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA got the idea from them. It turns out the DEA had been engaged in mass metadata collection of all phone calls originating from the United States to many foreign countries all the way back in the 1990s, a decade before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Of course, the reason back then was to fight the unwinnable drug wars. The DEA needed to know about your call to your aunt who lives in Italy in order to track down international drug cartels, obviously.

The details come courtesy of USA Today's Brad Heath, who interviewed a host of anonymous government sources:

For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the USA to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking, current and former officials involved with the operation said. The targeted countries changed over time but included Canada, Mexico and most of Central and South America.

Federal investigators used the call records to track drug cartels' distribution networks in the USA, allowing agents to detect previously unknown trafficking rings and money handlers. They also used the records to help rule out foreign ties to the bombing in 1995 of a federal building in Oklahoma City and to identify U.S. suspects in a wide range of other investigations.

The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to "designated foreign countries." But the history and vast scale of that operation have not been disclosed until now.

The program was discontinued in 2013 after the outrage of Edward Snowden's revelations. According to Heath, the program was also "suffering from diminishing returns," as there were now so many different ways for drug smugglers to communicate outside of the telephone.

Heath's investigation also reveals that the concept of "parallel construction" also predates the NSA outrage. That's the method where government officials used information gained from this mass surveillance to secure arrests, but then deliberately concealed the source of this information from the court in order to keep it all secret (and incidentally to keep defendants from challenging the evidence):

To keep the program secret, the DEA sought not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions or in its justification for warrants or other searches. Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips to help them find new targets or focus existing investigations, a process approved by Justice Department lawyers. Many of those tips were classified because the DEA phone searches drew on other intelligence data.

That practice sparked a furor when the Reuters news agency reported in 2013 that the DEA trained agents to conceal the sources of those tips from judges and defense lawyers. Reuters said the tips were based on wiretaps, foreign intelligence and a DEA database of telephone calls gathered through routine subpoenas and search warrants.

As a result, "the government short-circuited any debate about the legality and wisdom of putting the call records of millions of innocent people in the hands of the DEA," American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Patrick Toomey said.

Is this a big deal or another "Let me put on my surprised face" moment? And as we all know, all those arrests they may credit to this program has done absolutely nothing to stop the flow, demand, or availability of illegal drugs in the United States.

Read the full story here. Jacob Sullum took note of the existence of the program back in January, but the full extent of the program was not revealed then.

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  1. So what did the DEA know about 9-11 and when did they know it?

  2. Either way it’s a great idea that has proven effective.


  3. It’s always the drug war’s fault, isn’t it, Reason?

    It had to be. The war on drug users is more powerful than the Bill of Rights could ever be.

    1. I’ve been to several legal presentations that suggest the sources of the worst laws on the fourth amendment and computers come from drug and child porn cases. Any law or precedent coming from a drug or child porn case is going to be absolutely terrible.
      After we end the drug war, my next pipe dream will probably be to reduce mere possession of child porn to a misdemeanor at most, just so we can try to undo some of the damage caused by pursuit of those cases.

  4. OK, so when will people stop telling me that the drug war isn’t one of the more important issues and greatest injustices of our times? It basically laid the groundwork for whatever kind of surveillance state anyone might want to implement.

    1. Whoever said that either hasn’t been paying attention, or they don’t care.

      1. IOW, a majority of Americans.

    2. a lot of people, many of whom drink readily and heartily, will tell you drugs are the scourge of the earth because that’s what they are spoon fed. It never dawns on them that alcoholics are not a joy, but that most people find a balance between that and prohibition. And that most people who use some drug or other are not addicts.

      1. Bullshit. Everybody knows about “gateway drugs”. If you “toke the reefer”, as the urban youth say, even once, hell, if you even see a picture of a pot leaf, you will immediately develop an overwhelming and uncontrollable urge to shoot heroine through a dirty needle.

        1. That’s why we have to stop those ‘needle exchanges’ that cities keep trying to set up. All they do is provide a forum for dirty heroin users to trade their dirty used needles.

    3. “(The drug war) It basically laid the groundwork for whatever kind of surveillance state anyone might want to implement.”

      But that totally wasn’t / isn’t still the plan.

  5. “[…]the reason back then was to fight the unwinnable drug wars.”

    A4 cannot prevent the prosecution of the war on those horrible chemicals!


    Sorry, I thought this post needed moar RAND PAUL.

    1. It is odd how there’s been no Rand Paul stories today. I heard he’s running for president.

      1. Rand should hire Mo Tucker as his drummer. She’s Tea Party.

      2. He’s never early, he’s always late
        First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait
        I’m waiting for my Rand.

        1. Not a haiku.


          1. Hey baby, don’t you holler, don’t you ball and shout

            1. Not a haiku either.

              Hell, it’s not any sort of poem, since it doesn’t rhyme.

              EPIC FAIL!

              1. I thought quoting lyrics was acceptable here.

                *Runs away, sobbing, cradling a banana and a can of Campbell’s soup.*

                1. L’O’O’U’U R’E’E’E’D!

      3. “It is odd how there’s been no Rand Paul stories today. I heard he’s running for president.”

        Where did you hear that?! Why hasn’t anyone told me?!

    2. At what point does Rand Paul join Mexicans, Pot ,and Ass-sex, to form the holy quadrumvirate of the blessed H&R, does he have to bypass millennials first or just bigoted pizza shoppes?

      1. Are the bigoted pizza shoppes the ones that don’t think deep-dish is a pizza? Have we polled millennials on the issue? And what about the artisanal mayo?

  7. Both are responsible. Even if the WOD was the initial cause.

    The NSA got the idea from them

    And, oh boy, did they run like a mofo with it.

  8. I just heard Lou Reed died? Next, you’re going to tell me Ran Paul is running for President!

    1. Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?

    2. Ran is Running? Boy, talk about tense confusion for the other candidates.

  9. I’ll just leave this here:

    For example, you can do what a friend of mine does and first ask permission to comment on someone’s appearance before actually commenting. (“Hey, can I comment on your sweater?” “Um?yes?” “I love your sweater!”)

    This was awkward at first, but I’ve grown to appreciate my friend’s willingness to respect other people’s boundaries and make an effort to give others full autonomy over messages received about their appearance.

    1. “Hey, can I comment on your sweater?” “Um?yes?”

      *** writes “Fist!!” on sweater ***

      1. “Hey, can I comment on your sweater?”

        Is that what kids are calling it these days?

    2. “Hey, can I comment on your….”

      Hell no.

      *begins ignoring that person*

  10. The program was discontinued in 2013 after the outrage of Edward Snowden’s revelations.

    So it was Snowden being outrageous by revealing the top-secret national security operation? I kinda thought the existence of the operation was the outrageous part. But I guess my being in the minority on this would explain why not a goddamn thing has been done to rein in the snoops, much less the public-execution-with-heads-displayed-on-pikes sort of treatment I think they deserve.

    1. I am more than a little bit skeptical that it stopped at all. What, did they lay off the thousands of unionized govt slugs that were doing that, or are they all just sitting around with nothing to do?

      1. Fuck, its the government – #2 isn’t that unlikely.

      2. What are they doing? They’re letting people on the Internet know, about how their best friends sisters step-uncle, is making crazy money on the computer, for Google! That’s what.

  11. OT: What if Paul Krugman were to tell you that there are no libertarians?

    Yes, that’s right, none of you people, and this magazine, exist.

    1. Why is American politics essentially one-dimensional, so that supporters of gay marriage are also supporters of guaranteed health insurance and vice versa?

      “You don’t know nothin’.”

    2. People pay attention to Paul Krugman?

      1. Who?

        1. You know – “Pauly Krugnuts’ – the brain damaged mafioso on ‘The Sopranos’, kept around out of pity after the Russians shot him in the head.

    3. I don’t exist? I’m strangely relieved.

  12. all those arrests they may credit to this program has done absolutely nothing to stop the flow, demand, or availability of illegal drugs in the United States.

    It couldn’t be that stopping illegal drugs is not the *real* purpose of the program, could it?

    Nah, that’s crazy.

    1. Ask the upper echelon of cops about drug price/availability and you will get two minutes of rehearsed talking points, obfuscation, grumbling. Arms will be crossed on their chest or hands held at ease with a military pose.

      Ask the upper echelon of cops about asset forfeiture and you get an hour of excited recitations of statistics, lists, numerous anecdotes and glowing praise. Arms will be waiving and smiles will be flashing.

  13. . . . as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking.

    Considering that there are only around 192 countries, the DEA is basically saying *everyone* in the whole world is trafficking drugs.

    Good job on keeping us safe from drugs DEA.

  14. Stop deplorably fucking with hundreds of thousands of lives over drugs and the female demo will simply not vote for you.

  15. I say it’s all worth it if it stops one kid from smoking a joint.

  16. How about we legalize all the drugs that won’t spy on us or shoot our kids in the back?

  17. You guys have the research skills of a comatose 2 year old.

    * Cell phones have had GPS location for a long time. Did you get any 4th/5th Amendment process on this, or was it foisted on you? Has nothing to do with “drug wars,” unless you think wiretaps are used only for “drug” matters.

    * If you think the only thing piggly wiggly cares about is “drugs,” you have a bizarre conception of personal liberty, justice, and what a clear-thinking person should be concerned about, where the police power of the state is concerned. You think J Edgar Hoover spied on everyone because he was afraid of “drugs”? Jesus hockey-goalie Christ.

    When is going to get someone who actually knows legal matters? The staff here trumpet their own journo chops as if they’re experts, not a single one knows anything of substance. What the reason writers do know is how to confine discussions to hot-button issues that get millennial trustafarians worked up.

    The Nickster: “Hey, millennials are hot for legal MJ, so let’s frame everything that way when we’re not framing it for gay marriage or sci-fi futurism.”

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