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Drug Enforcement Administration tracked phone calls years before the NSA did (+video)

Americans making phone calls abroad may have had that information tracked by a government agency long before the National Security Agency launched its covert surveillance program.

Americans making phone calls abroad may have had that information tracked by a government agency long before the National Security Agency launched its covert surveillance program in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The US Drug Enforcement Administration not only preempted the NSA, but it may have provided the blueprint for its controversial program, USA Today reported on Wednesday.

For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the DEA collected logs of every phone call from the United States to about 116 countries linked to drug trafficking. The records were used for narcotics investigations until the program was discontinued in 2013. But while some government officials say the program made Americans safer by cracking down on drug smuggling and other criminal activity, others say it invaded the privacy of citizens and may have been illegal.

"I am deeply concerned about this kind of suspicionless intrusion into Americans' privacy in any context, but it is particularly troubling when done for routine criminal investigations,'' Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont wrote in a March 2014 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Senator Leahy also said that the program was never reviewed in court and that no limits were placed on how and when the database was searched.

Meanwhile, the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch filed suit against the DEA on Tuesday, saying the agency collected information about calls it made to certain foreign sources who the organization says could have been in life-threatening situations. The organization’s legal counsel stated that the DEA’s data collection was illegal.

“Both the First and Fourth Amendment protect Americans from this kind of overreaching surveillance. This lawsuit aims to vindicate HRW’s rights, and the rights of all Americans, to make calls overseas without being subject to government surveillance,” said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the organization representing Human Rights Watch.

But government officials have defended the program, saying it successfully put an end to the activities of drug cartels operating within the US and across its borders.

The program yielded "a treasure-trove of very important information on trafficking," former DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine told USA Today. It "produced major international investigations that allowed us to take some big people.”

The DEA's surveillance program was first brought to public light in January after a federal judge ordered that the government reveal more information about the program. A DEA agent connected with the program originally disclosed information about it during a criminal case against a man in California accused of violating export restrictions on technological goods to Iran. The agent’s declaration revealed that the DEA used administrative subpoenas to amass an extensive database of phone records.

In the court filing, the official revealed that the agency had long used administrative subpoenas, instead of federal court order, to collect the metadata of calls to foreign countries “that were determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities.”

Similar to the NSA program, the DEA database recorded the telephone numbers, dates, times, duration of calls, and billing information. No subscriber or personal identification information was recorded, however, and the contents of the calls were also left off the record.

However, the DEA used its data collection in ways that even the NSA is prohibited from doing, USA Today wrote in its report detailing the history of the program. Agents searched records more in one day than the NSA does in a year. They also automatically linked the phone numbers gathered to large collections of investigative reports, domestic call records, and intelligence data from overseas. 

The extent of the surveillance program and the lack of judicial oversight have critics alarmed.

“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 told USA Today.

Mr. Holder put an end to the program in September 2013 after whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of NSA surveillance.

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