Well, this sure makes the Patriot Act seem quaint.
On Monday, the New York Times revealed that since 2007 the DEA and other drug law enforcement officials have had routine access to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of most Americans' phone calls. The secretive, previously-undisclosed "Hemisphere Project" covers a much longer time -- 26 years! -- than even the National Security Agency's recently disclosed collection of phone call logs, which store data on nearly all Americans' phone calls for "just" five years. And unlike the NSA, the Hemisphere Project records data about the location of callers, rather than just phone numbers and time and duration of calls.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of President Nixon's establishment of the DEA. With an annual budget of more than $2.4 billion -- not to mention 227 field offices and 86 foreign offices in 62 countries -- the DEA certainly merits a top-to-bottom review of its operations, expenditures and discretionary actions.
According to the Times:
The project comes to light at a time of vigorous public debate over the proper limits on government surveillance and on the relationship between government agencies and communications companies. It offers the most significant look to date at the use of such large-scale data for law enforcement, rather than for national security.
The scale and longevity of the data storage appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the N.S.A.'s gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act.
These revelations come on the heels of an incredible series of investigative reports last month by Reuters reporter John Shiffman, detailing extensive and systemic illegal behavior by DEA agents who have been collaborating with the NSA, CIA and other agencies to spy on American citizens in the name of the war on drugs. He also found that DEA agents are actively creating fake investigative trails to disguise where the information originated -- a scheme that prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and others are arguing has robbed defendants of their right to a fair trial in thousands of cases across the country.
It's remarkable how little scrutiny the DEA faces from Congress or other federal overseers. Over the last 40 years Congress has rarely held hearings on the DEA, its actions, or its efficacy. Three presidential administrations -- Carter, Reagan, and Clinton -- have conducted reviews of whether it would be more efficient and better for public safety to merge the DEA with the FBI, but Congress has never seriously explored the issue.
I hope this is a wake-up call for members of Congress to say now is the time -- finally, after 40 years -- for this agency to get a close examination.
The DEA increasingly qualifies as a rogue agency -- one that Congress needs to immediately investigate.
Jag Davies is publications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.