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Long standing government spy program has potential far beyond combating drug trafficking.

Gerry Bello

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a lawsuit against the United States Drug Enforcement Agency on April 8 after the latter was revealed to have been spying on Americans since 1992. The suit was filed on behalf of Human Rights Watch, which claims the safety and privacy of it's workers and activists abroad were violated by the program. Further analysis of the program suggests that there is more to the program the combating drug traffic. Based on the scant details on the data sharing that are public, the potential exists to facilitate retaliation against human rights activists in other countries and the mass arrest and detention of immigrants domestically.

The program bulk collects metadata (source and destination numbers, time and duration of the call) from calls made in the United States to targeted countries that the DEA considers hotbeds of drug smuggling. Mexico is included in that list along with Iran, which has no trade relations with the United States. There are no boats or aircraft that travel from Iran to the United States and thus no way to smuggle drugs from the former to the latter. Considering that Iran's drug laws are far from lax and that nation would serve as a poor choice for transshipping narcotics, one wonders what actual law enforcement purpose monitoring calls to and from Iran would serve.

The program was begun administratively without Congressional oversight in 1992. Telephone service providers were required to hand over the data by subpoena on a monthly basis. The legality of the program has not been tested in court and relies on and opinion of it's legality issued by the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.

There is almost no transparency on who the collected metadata has been shared with as well as who has and has not provided it. One provider, whose identity is unknown to EFF, has simply ignored the requirements. When asked who has gotten the metadata from the DEA Cardozo replied “At least with the FBI and DHS. One of the things we will be seeking in the lawsuit is an accounting of where the data went, and everyone it shared with.”

The program is seen by some to have been the model for the NSA's more recent bulk collection programs. “The NSA had some access to the database but not carte blanche.” according to EFF's counsel Nate Cardozo. When queried further about military access to the information he said that the “military got access through the NSA.”

Cardozo did not know to what extent or if that information was shared with foreign military personnel in targeted countries known for human rights abuses. The United States military trains with and shares intelligence with many of the countries targeted for collection by the program. One key counter-insurgency training program, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the School of the Americas, has so many human rights abuses attributed to it's graduates that the activists groups have been specifically formed to counter it. All of the nations that send troops to train at WHINSEC have had calls to them from the United States collected under the program and have DEA offices located on their soil.

The metadata has been shared with an unknown number of DHS agencies including Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) which is part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The date, time, source, destination and duration of every call made from the United States to Mexico is neatly cataloged in an ICE database. This database can be used to pinpoint the location of everyone who regularly contacts family in Mexico and could serve as roster for a mass round up. The internment of every single Japanese American Citizen during World War II has already provided the corresponding blueprint and was done by executive order while a Democrat was in the White House.

The DEA has backpedaled since the revelations claim the program has been suspended. Subpoenas under the program are allegedly issued to each provider on a monthly basis so it is not clear if suspended means that subpoenas have not been issued since the revelation. When asked about the allgeded suspension of the program Cardozo replied that the reports of suspension are based on a single “ unnamed DEA spokesmen claiming this program has been terminated. If that's true we would like to see that under oath and on the record in front of a judge.”