By Esther Kersley for Open Democracy. In April 2015, USA TODAY broke a story with the headline: “US secretly tracked billions of calls for decades”. At first glance, it appeared to be yet another Edward Snowden revelation implicating the National Security Agency (NSA), mass surveillance and the ‘war on terror’. But it actually concerned a mass surveillance operation that had taken place a decade earlier, not by the NSA, but by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It was not aimed at identifying terrorists, but rather the detection of drug traffickers.
“It’s very hard to see [the DEA operation] as anything other than the precursor to the NSA’s terrorist surveillance”, former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker said of the similarities between the two operations. The now-discontinued DEA operation that began in 1992, was the government’s first known effort to gather data on Americans in bulk, sweeping up records of telephone calls made by millions of US citizens, regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. For over two decades, the Justice Department and the DEA amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the USA to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking in order to track drug cartels’ distribution networks in the US.