How Edward Snowden Unwittingly Killed a Mass-Surveillance Program

By exposing the NSA’s spying regime, Snowden forced the Justice Department to shut down a separate phone-surveillance operation.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
April 8, 2015, 5:15 a.m.

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.

(RE­LATED: Watch John Oliv­er In­ter­view Ed­ward Snowden About the NSA Spy­ing on Your Nude Pho­tos)

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.

(RE­LATED: Court: NSA Spy­ing May Con­tin­ue Even If Con­gress Lets Au­thor­ity Ex­pire)

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.

(RE­LATED: Snowden: France’s “In­trus­ive” Sur­veil­lance Laws Faild to Stop Par­is At­tacks)

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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