A new document reveals that the U.S. Department of Justice secretly kept track of Americans’ calls to foreign countries for more than a decade to track drug trafficking and other criminal activities.
The new database of stored calls was described in a filing Thursday in the case of a man accused of conspiring to unlawfully export goods to Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
A Drug Enforcement Administration official said in the filing that the agency, which operates under the Justice Department, has long used administrative subpoenas — not federal court orders — to collect the metadata of U.S. calls to foreign countries “that were determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities,” the Journal reported.
Although the court document only refers to outgoing calls, sources familiar with the program say it also collected data on incoming calls.
However, the program did not monitor the content of the conversations. The document did not identify the countries called or say how many countries were involved, but did mention Iran as one of the countries reached.
The program operated from 1990 until 2013, sources told The Journal, and the Justice Department said the database was deleted and has not been searched since 2013.
The database controlled by the DEA is reminiscent of one kept by the National Security Agency, but the NSA gathers both foreign and domestic calls and is authorized and overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as opposed to the DEA program which merely issued administrative subpoenas that weren’t reviewed by a judge.
The latest discovery shows the government has “extended its use of bulk collection far beyond” terror and national security cases to ordinary criminal investigations, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Patrick Toomey told The Journal.
Civil Liberties groups and lawmakers have called for an end to the program, saying it violates Americans’ privacy rights and courts are now weighing legal challenges to the program.
Saied Kashani, the lawyer in this case, has sought to have the phone evidence thrown out and said the government has “converted the war on drugs into a war on privacy,” The Journal reported.