Privacy Law

Under AG Barr, phone surveillance program began in '92 without legal review, IG finds

  • Print.

surveillance eye

There is no evidence that the U.S. Department of Justice ever fully addressed legal questions surrounding the bulk collection of phone records in 1992 by the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector General released Thursday.

The program was launched in 1992 with the approval of the attorney general at the time—William Barr, who is also the current attorney general. USA Today, Politico and Tech Crunch have stories on the report by the DOJ’s inspector general.

The program was carried out partly by the DOJ’s criminal division, which was run by former special counsel Robert Mueller, USA Today points out.

The DEA obtained the phone records (which did not include the content of the calls) by using administrative subpoenas. A judge’s authorization wasn’t required for the subpoenas, which allow the collection of records “relevant or material” to investigations.

The inspector general said the DOJ did not consider whether the records could be gathered, even though they weren’t related to a specific investigation.

Over time, other incoming DOJ officials, including most attorneys general, were notified of the program. But the inspector general found no evidence that there was a discussion of legal issues.

The DEA used the records to look for connections between Americans and drug trafficking groups overseas. The agency also allowed other agencies to access the records for different types of investigations.

The program eventually collected records of nearly all phone calls from the United States to 116 countries, according to USA Today. The program was a precursor to the broader surveillance program instituted after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The data collection program was halted after revelations by Edward Snowden. Now, telecoms rather than the government hold phone data that can be searched by the government.

DEA spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff told USA Today in a statement that the agency is taking steps to improve its use of administrative subpoenas to gather data, and agency policies “continue to be vetted through a rigorous legal review.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.