The extent of government wireless wiretapping conducted over two decades, encompassing both Bush presidencies and continued unabated during the Obama administration, is exposed in a revealing article in USATODAY. It may be that we owe Edward Snowden and his revelations a debt of gratitude, because ending of the practice coincided with the appearance of his disclosures. Regardless, the exposé is especially egregious in this era where the battle over warrants and government surveillance is fully engaged.
Since 1992 and continuing for 21 years, the Justice Department (DOJ) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) pursued a practice of surveillance and collection of data on all telephone calls from the USA, to as many as 116 countries where drug trafficking was suspected . Another reason for the action was related to the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma and what was thought was possible foreign terrorist involvement.
As a result, the federal government, spearheaded by the DEA, “began ordering telephone companies to turn over lists of all phone calls from the USA to countries where the government determined drug traffickers operated.”
The government has repeatedly tried to justify its spying activities on national-security grounds, but it turns out it was doing much the same thing for years in aid of ordinary criminal investigations. During that time, the government hid its use of bulk collection from the public, from courts, and from criminal defendants. In doing so, 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. This pattern of extreme executive secrecy must come to an end.
During the period of four US presidencies, the DEA “gathered records without court approval, searched them more often in a day than the spy agency does in a year and automatically linked the numbers gathered to large electronic collections of investigative reports, domestic call records accumulated by its agents and intelligence data from overseas.”
This program might be considered illicit under present laws and guidelines if it was made public knowledge but, in fact it was carried on clandestinely, beyond the reach of the judiciary and congressional oversight. And while this program appears to be different than the NSA’s metadata program revealed by Snowden, it targeted similar materials.
Given this, one has to wonder what other entities in the government labyrinth of alphabet-soup agencies may have been conducting parallel, illegal investigations. It is not beyond the scope of imagination to think something else may have been going on. All the more reason for vigilance to be practiced, and pressure continued to be applied to the administration and congress to rein in abuses of freedom and privacy.