It has been a pretty good week for Edward Snowden.
The polarizing leaker of government secrets rocketed back into public awareness, thanks to an interview with viral-hit-maker and comedian-with-a-conscience John Oliver. Then Snowden enthusiasts installed a bust of him in a Brooklyn park—which was later replaced with a hologram of his likeness. And actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is traipsing around Washington, D.C., filming scenes as Snowden for the Oliver Stone movie about the fugitive slated for release later this year.
But likely nothing will bring the former National Security Agency contractor as much satisfaction as finding out this week that his 2013 disclosures appear to have prompted the Justice Department to pull the plug on a secret mass-surveillance program—one he isn’t even responsible for exposing.
USA Today reported on Tuesday that a Justice Department program had, from 1992 to 2013, collected records of Americans’ international phone calls. Described as a “blueprint” for the NSA’s controversial dragnet, the program, housed within the Drug Enforcement Administration, “amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the USA to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking,” according to the paper. Those countries included U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico, as well as parts of Europe and nearly all of central and South America.
The DEA surveillance net was remarkably similar to the NSA program. It collected in bulk the phone metadata—that is, the numbers, time-stamps, and duration of a call but not its content—of all U.S. calls placed to targeted foreign countries. Unlike the NSA, the DEA dragnet did not include wholly domestic calls, but it did appear to lack a number of internal safeguards or judicial oversight.
The blockbuster story exposes several new details about the size, history, and rationale of the DEA operation, which the Justice Department acknowledged in general terms existed in court documents submitted in January. But perhaps most surprising is that the pressure applied to NSA phone-spying—which is still ongoing—from the Snowden disclosures unknowingly brought about the downfall of the DEA program.
“It was made abundantly clear that they couldn’t defend both programs,” a former Justice Department official told USA Today.
It is generally understood that mass surveillance of Americans’ communications records was a system adopted in the name of national security in the months and years following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Though at one time exclusively linked to the George W. Bush administration’s aggressive security policies, the Snowden disclosures revealed that indiscriminate snooping is bipartisan, as President Obama has maintained, and in some cases expanded, surveillance programs.
But the DEA program presented the Obama administration with a problem: In the face of withering criticism prompted by the Snowden leaks, how could it defend the NSA’s spying as necessary to protect national security when the DEA was running a similar program to track drug deals?
Attorney General Eric Holder decided it couldn’t, and he ordered the program terminated in September 2013—just three months after Snowden’s waterfall of leaks began.
“The Justice Department was going into court and saying, in part, ‘What we’re doing in this intelligence-surveillance program is OK, because it serves national security interests and it’s not done for routine law enforcement,’” journalist Brad Heath, who broke the story, explained in a video interview posted on USA Today‘s site. “And then they sort of had the problem of, ‘Well, we’re doing something like this for routine law enforcement.’ And at the end of the day they had to make a choice between the two programs.”
So Holder chose to kill the DEA program. And he refused when DEA officials asked to revive it three months later.
Snowden sympathizers have been frustrated at the lack of meaningful spy reforms adopted in the two years since his revelations began. Even Snowden himself has said he worries about so-called “NSA fatigue,” as he told Wired magazine last summer.
But the USA Today article offers the most concrete demonstration yet of the impact his leaks have had on changing the government’s surveillance protocol. The DEA’s bulk phone-collection has been replaced by a far narrower program that “sends telecom companies daily subpoenas for international calling records involving only phone numbers that agents suspect are linked to the drug trade or other crimes—sometimes a thousand or more numbers a day.”
Moreover, certain elements of the DEA program would have likely offended Snowden even more than the NSA that he found so galling. Its reliance on administrative subpoenas, which do not need court approval, marked a lower oversight threshold than the NSA program that requires approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when an analyst wants to conduct a data search.
It was also used far more frequently. While the NSA claims its analysts only searched its database 300 times in 2012, “DEA analysts routinely performed that many searches in a day, former officials said,” according to USA Today.
Surveillance critics were crushed last November when a bill to reform the NSA narrowly died in the lame-duck Senate, as it failed to overcome GOP opposition. The defeat stung more because Republicans have taken control of the Senate and have shown little interest in reform measures.
But Snowden has already helped end a sweeping mass-surveillance program. He just didn’t know it.
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