• DEA Secretly Tracked Billions of Americans’ Calls a Decade Before 9/11

    April 9, 2015 // 9 Comments »

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    While the Snowden-NSA revelations continue to shock Americans on a daily basis, and illustrate how intrusive the government is in our lives, and how casually it violates our Fourth Amendment right against unwarranted searches, it just got worse.

    It turns out the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was spying on Americans, gathering metadata on our phone calls, almost a decade before 9/11, and right up to 2013. With help from the U.S. military.



    Decades of Metadata Spying

    In an exclusive report, USA Today learned the U.S. government started keeping secret records of Americans’ international telephone calls nearly a decade before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, harvesting billions of calls in a program that provided a blueprint for the far broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed. The DEA spying only stopped, supposedly, in 2013, no longer needed due to the NSA.

    For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the DEA amassed databases of virtually all telephone calls from the U.S. to as many as 116 countries “linked to drug trafficking.” The State Department officially says there are 195 countries out there, so the DEA was monitoring most of them. The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to “designated foreign countries.” But the comprehensive scale of the operation has not been disclosed until now.

    Federal investigators claim they used the call records — metadata — to track drug cartels’ distribution networks. They say 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 other investigations.

    Still believing metadata is not intrusive? Read this.



    Telecoms Roll Over

    America’s telecommunications and phone companies apparently turned over their records voluntarily and without asking for warrants. Officials said a few telephone companies were reluctant to provide so much information, but none ever challenged the issue in court. Those that hesitated received letters from the Justice Department urging them to comply.

    The data collection was “one of the most important and effective Federal drug law enforcement initiatives,” the Justice Department said in a 1998 letter to Sprint. The previously undisclosed letter noted the operation had “been approved at the highest levels of Federal law enforcement authority,” including then-Attorney General Janet Reno and her deputy and later Attorney General during the NSA-spying era, Eric Holder.

    The data collection began in 1992 during the administration of George H.W. Bush, nine years before his son, George W., authorized the NSA to gather its own logs of Americans’ phone calls in 2001. The program was re-approved by top Justice Department officials in the Clinton and Obama administrations. There was no oversight or court approval.



    U.S. Military Involvement

    The DEA program also employed U.S. military assets. When the volume of data threatened to overwhelm DEA, the military responded with a pair of supercomputers and intelligence analysts who had experience tracking the communication patterns of Soviet military units. The supercomputers were installed in DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

    To keep the whole program secret and thus outside of any legal challenge, the DEA did not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions per se. Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips, a process approved by Justice Department lawyers.

    That process is know as “parallel construction,” and has a sordid history. Read this.



    The Template

    They just did it. The template for the NSA’s later spying on America was set long before 9/11. All the elements were already in place: no-questions-asked cooperation from the telcoms, no warrants or oversight, near-perfect secrecy, near-perfect pointless, dragnet security on American citizens in their homes. Multiple administrations, and multiple corporate executives of publicly-traded companies, kept silent.

    One notes that despite all this spying, drugs are still quite available in the U.S. and while it is nice that there was no foreign connection to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the DEA spying did miss a whopper of a terror attack some years later. At least 9/11 was not drug-related.

    And for those criminal defense attorneys who might want to reopen some old cases and challenge guilty verdicts based on the unconstitutionality of these searches, sorry. The DEA has destroyed the databases.


    BONUS: The DEA is still mass-targeting Americans, only now via large-scale subpoenas.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Military, NSA

    Parallel Construction: Unconstitutional NSA Searches Deny Due Process

    July 24, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    The NSA sits at the nexus of violations of both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments with a legal dodge called Parallel Construction.

    Parallel Construction is a technique used by law enforcement to hide the fact that evidence in a criminal case originated with the NSA. In its simplest form, the NSA collects information showing say a Mr. Anderson committed a crime. This happens most commonly in drug cases. The conclusive information is passed to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who then works backwards from the conclusion to create an independent, “legal” body of evidence to use against Mr. Anderson.

    Example: an NSA email intercept shows our Mr. Anderson received a Fedex package with drugs, which he hid under his bed. The DEA takes this info, and gets a search warrant for the Fedex data, which leads them to Mr. Anderson’s apartment. A new legal warrant authorizes a search, and agents “find” the drugs under the bed right where the NSA said they were in the first place.

    Some may call this little more than illegal evidence laundering.

    Some Constitutional Background

    The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans against unreasonable and unwarranted searches. The Supreme Court has generally held that searches of, for example, someone’s home, require a warrant. That warrant can be issued only after law enforcement shows they have “probable cause.” That in turn has been defined by the Court to require a high standard of proof, “a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” The NSA pulling information out of the cyberspace ether bypasses and thus violates the Fourth Amendment.

    The NSA violations of the Fourth Amendment enable further DEA and other law enforcement violations of the Fifth Amendment, specifically the critical due process clause. The concept of due process dates back to the 13th century Magna Carta.

    Specifically, the use of information obtained illegally and whose ultimate source is concealed from the accused violates procedural due process. This is the requirement that before any government actions to take away life, liberty or possessions, the persons affected have the right to defend themselves, to understand the evidence against them, and to question and call witnesses in rebuttal, one’s “day in court.” In short, procedural due process aims to protect individuals from the coercive power of government by ensuring that adjudication processes are fair and open.

    DEA is blunt in a document released via FOIA as to how conveniently parallel construction violates these rights:

    Our friends in the military and intelligence community never have to prove anything to the general public. They can act upon classified information without ever divulging their sources or methods to anyway [sic] outside their community.


    Why Do This to Americans?

    With exceptions, courts have held that evidence obtained illegally cannot be used in trial. So why bother to fight for an exception when, using NSA data surreptitiously, evidence can subsequently be obtained cleanly under a warrant, albeit a warrant issued by a court kept ignorant of the source of the underlying information. Another reason to use parallel construction is to hide the NSA’s role. Apart from the broader goal of not disclosing to the American people what their government is doing, blurring the trail back to the NSA gets around any courtroom attempts that require such data to be shared with the defense. And of course the defense can’t ask for something it does not know exists. Lastly, if defendants do not know the ultimate source of the information used to convict them, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence– information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.

    Needless to say, using information obtained already pre-packaged from the NSA makes DEA’s and other law enforcement agencies’ jobs much easier. They have to do little work on their own to gather the data needed to track down Americans they seek to prosecute. It’s all in the bag.

    DEA as the Nexus

    DEA seems to be the center of the NSA distribution network, as the program originally started as a way to bust foreign drug dealers before it metastasized into the currrent tool for broadly evading the Bill of Rights.

    How widespread domestically is the practice of parallel construction? No one knows. It is known that the unit of the DEA that distributes the NSA information is called the Special Operations Division (SOD.) It partners with two dozen other agencies, including the FBI, CIA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. Once laundered of any NSA fingerprints, what those multiple agencies do with the data, and how far they themselves spread it to even more agencies, or to local law enforcement, is unknown.

    Why it Matters

    There have been complex questions raised about the hiding of NSA-obtained information used to convict Americans, leading to the Solictor General of the United States lying to the Supreme Court about how the Justice Department was not notifying defendants in situations when warrantless surveillance had led in turn to a wiretap order that produced evidence used in court. The Justice Department has taken to notifying some defendents that information obtained via warrantless survellience is being used against them, allowing for a likely Supreme Court challenge. The Justice Department has previously blocked Supreme Court challenges by hiding how information was obtained, thus denying the accused of “standing” in the Court’s eyes.

    As part of the response to such government actions, organizations such as the Los Angeles County Bar Association are now offering for-continuing-education-credit tutorials to defense attorneys under titles such as “Criminal Prosecutions and Classified Information.”

    A lot of attention Post-Snowden has been paid to what the NSA does– vacuum up emails, listen in on Skype chats and so forth. Too little attention has been devoted to what is done with the information NSA collects. The appetites of law enforcement agencies in Post-Constitutional America are bottomless, and the NSA holds terabytes of data to fill them.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Military, NSA